A Squat came trundling along the river bank, spotted our barge, and waded with its splay feet right out over the gold coins to press its nose—if that little turnip of a bulb could be called a nose—up against the window next to Peng-Hsin. They regarded each other. We all regarded it, and it swiveled its squat little head topped with ivory fern ears and took us all in.
“It’s curious,” said Peng-Hsin, sounding amused.
M. Caraglio coughed, sounding uncomfortable. “This has never happened before,” he said. “They’ve always kept their distance. Very careful about that.”
“Aww,” said Cheri, who combined the oddest mix of sentimentality and hardheadedness, “maybe it’s just a little baby.”
From the back, Bax burped loudly. “Fuck, it’s ugly,” he said. Mopsy and Flopsy tittered. Cottontail said, “Oh, Bax,” in her breathless knock-me-up voice.
As if in response to his comment, a whole herd of Squats uprooted themselves from their meditations on the lawn and ambled over toward us. Through the windows, we heard a chorus of hoots rising and falling as the herd of Squats formed a semicircle at the bank of the river. Our Squat pricked up its lacy ears, snuffled one last time toward Peng-Hsin, and then turned and trundled back to the shoreline.
“Oh, dear,” murmured M. Caraglio. Bax burped again. The diplomat shot him a look so filled with distaste that it was palpable; then, as quickly, he smoothed over his expression into that bland mask that diplomats and out-of-work actors wear. Caraglio went forward to the lock and made some comment through the translation-screen, and the barge scraped sideways over the coins, following our Squat to the bank. As soon as our alien clambered up onto the sward, it was at once swarmed by other Squats rather like the winning runner is in the last game of the Worlds Series.
“Uh-oh,” said Emmi and Cheri at the same time.
“Looks like trouble,” Octavian muttered, and we all avoided looking back at Bax. The effect was the same, of course. By not looking at him, we made his presence all the more obvious.
Three Squats inched forward and climbed up the ramp that led into the forward lock. The smoked glass barrier pretty-much cut them off from our sight, but I caught a glimpse of a fanned-out fern ear and the trailing end of a bulb nose brushed across the glass from the other side.
Then, like the voice of the gods, the translation-screen boomed out words. “One of our young ones has offended one of your people. We beg your pardon.”
I winced. Octavian covered his ears. On the back bench, Cottontail crossed her arms across her breasts, as if the volume might warp their particularly fine shape. Bax pinched her on the thigh, and she shrieked, giggled, and unwound her arms.
Caraglio had a sick look on his face, like he’d just eaten something rancid. “Not at all,” he said. “I beg… It isn’t… Please don’t…” He sputtered to a stop, flexed his hands in and out, and began again. “We are sorry that this incident has interrupted your deliberations, and we were not at all disturbed by the interest of your young one.”
Muted hooting leaked out through the glass barrier as the Squats consulted.
“What I want to know,” said Kostas in a low voice, “is how, from so far away, the Squats knew Bax was insulting the poor little thing.”