Zeruda by ElectricWhite
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It was hard for Keyop to keep from fidgeting as he waited for the ambassadors from the planet Shui. He’d lost track of how long he, the rest of G-Force, and Chief Anderson had been sitting in the spacious common room of the house especially made to accommodate the dominant species of Shui, the Zeruda. Actually, this place wasn’t too different than what he’d seen in a human’s home, except most of the furniture was fastened to the floor, the two sofas (positioned in an “L” shape) were twice the average length, and there was a “sand room” next to the human-styled bathroom.

Keyop glanced around at his teammates and found the others seemed to be taking the wait in stride. Although Jason didn’t seem to be quite comfortable with sitting like the rest – he had gone to lean against the wall by a doorway, but then Chief Anderson ordered him to sit so that the ambassadors wouldn’t misinterpret the body language. The chief, meanwhile, casually strode around the room from time to time, or stood near a corner, or acted as though he was looking out a window.

Keyop squirmed once again.

“The more you do that, the longer it will be for the ambassadors to come out.” Mark warned.

“How much longer?”

“You have to be patient, Keyop.” Princess replied, “The Zeruda are very shy. If you keep acting so uptight, they might not come out.”

“So they’re kinda like the cavies of Porcellus?” Tiny chimed in.

“More so.” the chief replied as he sat in a bay window seat. “The ambassadors required a couple of days to inspect and grow accustomed to the living quarters here before I was introduced to them. And then I couldn’t even think of letting any of you meet them until I’d gained their trust.”

“I wonder how much of an adjustment it was for them.” Princess mused, “Going from a desert climate to the one here must have been downright traumatic.”

“Here” was the planetoid Bandari. It was often called Riga’s legacy, though Riga’s involvement in Bendari’s creation didn’t go beyond contributing some of the technology used. Until 30 years ago, it was just another asteroid. But now it was a galactic wonder – the first artificially created environment that didn’t require being enclosed in a dome. It was the first successful complete terraforming. While it has been used as a kind of retreat for assorted diplomatic tasks – such as deciding how to handle the Zeruda question (as well as deciding what, exactly, that question is) – the Galactic Federation also hoped to one day expand the technology to help planets recover from ecological disasters.

There was a brief silence.

“Chief,” Mark finally said, “there are a lot of things I don’t understand about this.”

“What are you having problems with?”

“I understand that Shui is a desert planet that promises to be a great asset to the Galactic Federation, with all the solar and wind farms we could construct there.”

“Right.”

“But I don’t understand the situation with the Zeruda. Why are we spending the next few days here with them? We aren’t involved with the negotiations.”

Anderson heaved a sigh as he pushed his glasses up his nose. “In all honesty, I’m confused myself. Overall, we know very little about the Zeruda. We don’t know if they have any form of government beyond the basic family group. Even though they are excellent at digging underground tunnels and living quarters for themselves, we don’t know if they have any kind of formal architecture. They have thousands of vocalizations, but our linguists aren’t sure if they have a true language. But I do know that their decision affects how we treat the Zeruda – do we treat them as equals or simply move in on Shui and regard them as wildlife.”

“So how were their ambassadors selected?” Princess asked.

“I don’t know.” Anderson replied, “The committee hasn’t disclosed that information. ”

“I heard,” Jason said, “that some of the committee members, especially Ambassador Harcharot, think we’re wasting our time – they think the Zeruda are just a bunch of exotic pets.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that.” Anderson replied, “Given the experience I’ve had with the ambassadors, I think some of the committee members are using human templates to measure non-human intelligence.”

“What does that mean?” Keyop asked.

“It means,” Jason replied, “some people in the Federation think the Zeruda have a low intelligence ‘cause they don’t talk like we do.”

“I don’t talk like you do.” the Swallow countered, “Am I stupid?”

“Team,” the chief gently interrupted, “the ambassadors have arrived.”

The team members slowly turned until they saw the two ambassadors from the planet Shui. The aliens stood a bit behind one sofa, near the end closest to Chief Anderson. They looked like foxes almost as tall as Great Danes. And they each wore a collar – one wore a royal blue, and the other wore a cherry red.

But there were other differences. Their fur had a tan and white pattern meant to camouflage them in their native desert environment. Their muzzles were shorter and came to a sharper point in relation to the rest of the face. They had big, black eyes. And their ears were the same length as the rest of the head; Jason resisted the urge to comment on how they must save a fortune on satellite television costs, since they had two built-in dishes.

“Wow.” Princess said under her breath, just loud enough for cerebonically-enhanced hearing to detect, “I didn’t think anything could move so quietly!”

The ambassadors suddenly turned their heads toward Princess and rotated their ears toward her. Could they hear her?

“Mister and Madam Ambassador,” the chief said in a gentler than normal tone, “this is G-Force.” He pointed to each member as he said each name and waited as the ambassadors looked from him to each young person. Each team member also gave a slight nod or wave in order to ensure the aliens knew which person the chief was indicating.

“Team,” Anderson continued, “let me introduce Ambassadors Faron and Jasmine of Shui. Faron is wearing the blue collar, and Jasmine chose to wear red.”

“Chose?” Mark asked.

“Originally,” Anderson explained, “they were assigned powder blue and pink. But several members of the committee objected to this, so Faron and Jasmine were given several options to choose from.”

“I think they chose well.” Princess replied, “Those other collars would have made their coats looked washed-out.”

Jasmine laid her ears back, dipped her head a bit, and wagged her tail.

Faron stepped forward and Jasmine followed as they went to each member of G-Force, sniffing the hair and throat of each person. Jason made it a point to follow the rule of not making eye contact with an animal, but Faron would not have it. The Zeruda kept moving his head, trying to establish eye contact. Finally, Jason gave in and peered into Faron’s eyes.

At first, Jason only saw his own intense eyes reflected in Faron’s, but then he relaxed as he looked deeper into the dark, soft eyes. It took a moment to identify what it was about Faron – Jason couldn’t recall ever seeing it in any adult – but a part deep within him connected with the ambassador once he recognized it. Faron had no agenda, no plot to advance his own self-interests.

Faron touched his nose to the bridge of Jason’s nose and then moved on.

Princess found she couldn’t resist – she carefully reached out and touched Faron and Jasmine on the neck when they came to her. “Oh!” she breathed, “You’re so soft!” The two Zeruda closed their eyes and let out a tiny moan as Princess rubbed their necks. Finally, she stopped, and they resumed smelling her hair. Before they moved on, Jasmine touched her tongue to the Swan’s cheek.

Finally, they came to Keyop. The Swallow squirmed a little as they sniffed his hair. They stopped, exchanged looks while making a few, barely audible grunts. They each put a nose in his armpits and snorted simultaneously. Keyop let out a shriek and curled up in a ball.

“Be careful!” Mark scolded.

“Tickles!” Keyop managed to cry between spasms of laughter while Faron and Jasmine continued placing their noses in his armpits, his ribs, and his belly and snorting loudly. Mark, Princess, Tiny and Jason exchanged looks, not sure what to do. Keyop slowly slid onto the floor. The Zeruda continued tickling while their tails wagged faster and faster.

Finally, when Keyop was sure he was about to wet himself, Faron and Jasmine stopped, hopped over the sofa, and made their way out of the room, tumbling over each other and nipping each other as though they were puppies at play. Keyop wiped the tears from his face and slowly pulled himself back onto the couch.

The chief finally said after a brief pause, “I think that went well.”
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