The Verity descended towards a plain of identical looking, evenly-spaced one-story metal buildings. The Progons famously built down not up, so the buildings could be anything. His approved approach vector led him to one that began to slowly open to reveal a hangar. Besides the necessary landing equipment standard at all spaceports, the hangar was empty of any other ships. A solitary figure stood waiting.
The Verity touched down and before the Ambassador could finish a landing checklist a warning bell sounded. “External Lockdown Applied, All Systems Suspended,” the ship told him and displayed simultaneously. Not surprising, but disconcerting. Sort of the space travel equivalent of the spooky castle doors shutting behind you and locking.
The Progons had sent a bipedal robot to meet him. That was an unusual sign of deference. Progon machines were of all form factors, and few were bipedal. It wasn’t a necessary form for almost anything they did. The Progons generally didn’t care about making visitors feel at home either. It almost felt like they were trying to flatter him.
“Ambassador X, welcome to Tiel,” said the robot. It was likely an automata, not an inhabited machine but the Ambassador wondered. The Progons preferred to stay in large structures communing with each other in their electron-fast existence, rather than slowing themselves down into machines and the tedium of speaking aloud like an animal. Still, the Progons normally sent the equivalent of a rolling box to greet their visitors too.
“Thank you. What may I call you?” the Ambassador ventured.
“Assistant,” said the robot in a not unpleasant tone. Progons. They had names. They’r aerobats had names. But they just sucked at translation. “Assistant, er, 5.” The robot seemed to make it up on the spot. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters.”
They ventured out of the hangar to a metal walkway that led directly to other square metal buildings. The Progons did like their right angles. Here and there distant movements betrayed other automata going about their business, but the Ambassador didn’t see another soul. Of course the Progons could inhabit any machine, and some inert structures if they wanted. They could have flitted into and out of the robot leading him without his knowledge.
And there were other Ambassadors on the planet as well. Some 453,000 of them. Each one kept apart from the other, equally spaced across the planet, so as not to ever come near composing a threat.
Some theorized it was a type of psychological warfare. Ambassadors on Tiel did not commune with their own kind and were left with unresponsive automata to speak with. It drove some mad. The previous Ambassador from Allendra had lasted a week. Of course he hadn’t gone mad, just requested an urgent transfer for ‘family reasons.’
The robot opened a sliding door at the end of one gangway and motioned the Ambassador to enter. Inside was what appeared to be a one story flat. If there were lower stories there was no obvious way of entering them. The quarters were sufficient. On the left was a circular mat that likely served for a bed. The Ambassador knew it was meant to serve a multitude of species hence the shape and the odd texture.
On the right was a small table that served as a desk and eating area with a chair and a few outlets for connectivity and such. Along the back wall was the kitchen. Large cabinets hung in the wall next to a mounted food preparation machine. A sink of sorts at least something that looked like it dispensed water. A lower wide bowl meant for bathing or possibly for excretion or knowing the Progons, both somehow.
The robot opened the cabinets to reveal stacks of identical bars wrapped in white paper. One side of the cabinet was refrigerated.
“We have provided a wide variety of Alenndran foods for your preparation. Stocks will be replenished automatically. Should you require other foods please make your request through the diplomatic channel you were assigned.”
In other words, you can fill out some paperwork, but don’t expect anything but these bars. The robot moved to the sliding door.
“These buttons here control the door. If you need to leave please alert us to your planned movements through the diplomatic channel you were assigned. You are expected out for exercise between the 4th and 6th hours.”
In other words, except for your daily jog, don’t leave unless we tell you to. There really wasn’t any need to. A diplomats life on Tiel consisted of relaxation, exercise, regular diplomatic meetings with a Progon representative (usually an automata) and wide stretches of boredom.
“May I be of assistance in any other matters, ambassador X?” the robot asked.
“No, thank you Assistant, er, 5,” the Ambassador mimicked the name. “You’ve been efficient.”
It was meant as flattery of its own but the robot showed no visible reaction.
“If you have further needs not previously covered by me,” submit them through the diplomatic channel you were assigned, the Ambassador finished for the robot in his head. But instead it said, “Use the communicator button on the provided device and call for Assistant 5. Have a pleasant day, Ambassador X.”
The robot left through the sliding door. What was that about? A last-minute parting shot of flattery? A communication device. Why hadn’t the robot pointed it out. The Ambassador looked around the spacious if sparse room. He saw no communication device. Was it a trick? A taunt? Then he saw it. Lying on the edge of the circular bed near the wall.
It was a small flat metal box with three buttons. Well that left him wondering which one was the communication button. Ah, it was written in Alendan. ‘Comm.’
The Ambassador had the impulse to call the robot back immediately just to see if it worked. But he didn’t. This was not standard procedure as far as he knew. The departing Alendan ambassador had briefed him and made it clear that he was left with no way of communicating directly to the Progons, probably to increase the isolation.
So what did the other buttons do? One white button was labeled Lights. He pressed it and the lights in the room dimmed. Another modern convenience. Other ambassadors reported the lights staying on at all times, messing with sleep patterns. The last green button was unlabeled. He pressed it but nothing happened. At least nothing he could tell. Maybe it blew up his ship in the hangar. Maybe it turned off the lights in some Progon room halfway across the planet.
He shrugged and tossed the device on the bed. Suddenly the door ripped open and two rolling boxes with surgical arms came rushing in and grabbed him.
“What is the nature of your emergency!” They shrieked.
“A green unlabeled button is your emergency button?” the Ambassador chuckled. “Bad design, Progons.”