An Undiplomatic Incident
By Paul R. Hardy
THREE SETS OF ALIEN EYES gazed at us across the conference table. That added up to about thirty eyeballs—or at least I hoped they were eyeballs. There’d been some speculation that the orbs festooned around the sensory stalks of the Biryuki might actually be sexual organs, but they were probably eyes. Probably.
Our plenipotentiary, Shahrokh, cleared his throat with the same polite but firm manner he’d used when representing Iran at the Human Unification Summit. “Firstly,” he said, “I should like to thank the Biryuki delegation for their generosity in agreeing to meet us.” Dozens of eyes angled themselves towards him. “I should also like to thank our Nakaii hosts for arranging this meeting.” He nodded briefly to the dark, spindly alien at the head of the table, receiving no response. The Nakaii had the usual number of eyes, but declined to use them to display any kind of emotion. The only expression they’d ever shown in their dealings with us had been interpreted as boredom.
Shahrokh returned his attention to the Biryuki. “As I hope we made clear in our preliminary exchange of notes,” he said, “our purpose today is to negotiate a transfer of technology—specifically superluminal drives. While there is little we can offer you in the way of material goods, nevertheless we feel certain that our two peoples can come to an agreement which will be of mutual satisfaction to both our species.”
He finished with a warm smile, just in case they’d bothered to read our species engagement profile and understood that smiling was a sign of friendship. Shana, our Martian-American security liaison, backed up the smile with a hard stare. Just in case they thought we trusted them.
We waited for the Biryuki to reply. It took a moment. I had the impression they were puzzled, but the sheer number of eyes made it difficult to tell. It didn’t help that they hadn’t bothered evolving faces to go with the eyes. Their sensory stalks sprouted from the tops of fat teardrop bodies supported by four stumpy legs. Everything beneath the stalk was shrouded by formal business robes.
So all in all, they were making it very difficult for me to figure out whether or not they were going to dissolve us into meaty goo.
My name is Pang Mei-Ling, and I was the mission linguist. Strictly speaking, we could have relied on the excellent Nakaii translation software. But it was official policy for linguists to be part of the crew of every human spaceflight, and had been ever since the Alpha Centauri incident. The astronauts on our first mission to another star had unexpectedly found themselves dealing with humanity’s first contact event, and decided to attempt communication despite a lack of training. The aliens in question were overjoyed and happily proceeded to do exactly what they believed the astronauts had invited them to do: they rendered the humans down to protoplasm, did the same to themselves, and tried to merge into one big glob of highly communicative jelly. Instead, they became one big glob of very embarrassed jelly as they realised that humans weren’t capable of surviving the procedure. They were deeply apologetic, but the remaining members of the exploration team declined to accept their apology in person. Or to stay in the same star system, for that matter.
The aliens reported the incident to the Nakaii, who were responsible for looking after juvenile species in our local volume. The Nakaii decided to usher the unfortunate blobs away from our vicinity for the time being, and instead set up trade negotiations with the Biryuki, who were supposedly much more congenial. A lot of people on Earth (and Mars, and everywhere else in the system) wanted nothing to do with the people-eating monsters they assumed the Biryuki would turn out to be, but we weren’t given a choice. The Nakaii made it clear that they expected us to engage with whatever aliens they chose to throw at us. Or else.
So there we were, the only three humans within two light years, trusting to Nakaii assurances that the Biryuki had no interest in melting us down or swallowing us whole. But it was still troubling to see the Biryuki swaying their sensory stalks towards each other, as though they were confused about something we’d said or done, perhaps trying to figure out whether or not it merited our swift and sudden digestion.
Their plenipotentiary, Fwoohweh, pivoted his eyeballs back to me and uncoiled a manipular tentacle to point at the badge on my lapel. I swallowed back my apprehension as he spoke in fluting tones counterpointed by a bass rumble. Their language was complex, depending on a tonal interplay between the two registers. But even so, the Nakaii software on my tablet made swift work of it, offering up a primary translation along with several subtle assonances that enlarged upon the meaning in a way that ... well, that I wasn’t quite sure I could say out loud.
“Do we have a translation?” asked Shana, with a pointed, expectant glare.
“More or less,” I said.
I showed them the tablet and the primary translation: “What is that symbol on your chest flaps?”
Shana frowned. “They mean lapels, right?”
“I think so, but ...”
“Mei-Ling?” said Shahrokh.
“Well, there’s a shade of meaning there that’s more, um, intimate.”
“Intimate? What do you mean by ...” said Shana, breaking off as she realised exactly what I meant. She shook her head in exasperation. “Never mind. Just set it to automatic and let us make up our own minds.” I did as she said.
Shahrokh looked back at the Biryuki delegation. “Were you referring to our badges?” he asked, holding out his lapel between finger and thumb to make his little chrome insignia more prominent.
“Yes. Those,” fluted Fwoohweh, the translation coming direct to our earpieces. “They are ... new.”
This was more encouraging. If they knew the symbol was new, then they must have read the profile of human history and culture we’d sent them, which had gone out before the symbol was finalised. So at least they were trying to be diplomatic. Unfortunately, the profile they sent us about themselves had been corrupted during transmission—something else that didn’t help me do my job.
“That’s correct,” said Shahrokh. “We adopted it only a few months ago. It’s meant to be a symbol that represents all of humanity.”
“May we see it in more detail?” asked Fwoohweh.
Shahrokh glanced over at me. “Mei-Ling, if you could give us an image?”
“Oh. I do have one, but, um ...” But I only had my little tablet to show it on. I looked over at the spindly Nakaii supervisor at the end of the table and asked: “I’m sorry to bother you, um, esteemed colleague, but ... how do I project an image?”
She looked at me with those deep eyes set in her dark, elongated face. Her look of boredom didn’t change. It never changed. The Nakaii had taken responsibility for us, but not much of an interest. This one hadn’t even bothered to give us her name. I was only thinking of her as she because their translation software always used the feminine pronoun when speaking of them. “You’ll find a facility on your device to interface with our systems,” she said.
And there it was: a discreet little icon on my screen that hadn’t been there a moment ago. So much for our cybersecurity experts thinking they could firewall the translation software. I dropped the vector image onto the icon, and the brand new flag of humanity appeared from nothing in the air above the conference table.
“We wanted to give our species a symbol that represents our home,” said Shahrokh as the arrangement of white circles on a blue background spun slowly round. “So this is a simplified version of our star system, to stand for the Solar Alliance.”
The SA had only been constituted in response to the Alpha Centauri incident, and we’d had the usual extended wrangle over the flag that every new state has to go through. We’d barely received the images in time for our journey out to meet the Biryuki.
“Our sun is the starburst symbol in the middle,” said Shahrokh. “The four large circles around the outside are our gas giants. The ring of smaller circles are the dwarf planets and asteroids. And then the four circles around the sun are our rocky planets. There are other bodies in the system, of course, but we wanted to keep it as simple as possible.”
Fwoohweh squinted and scratched the side of his sensory stalk. “And the small solid circle is ...?”
“That’s Earth. That’s our home,” said Shahrokh. Shana gave him a Martian frown. Earth might have been a solid, but her home planet was just an outline. Shahrokh took the hint. “Or perhaps I should say, our first home. We have colonies throughout the system.”
“I see,” said Fwoohweh. He turned to his colleagues, then looked back at us and said, “Please excuse us for a moment.” A whispered arpeggio-like conversation started among the Biryuki, too quiet for my tablet to pick up. I could have turned up the gain on the microphone to compensate, but we were under instructions to be polite, even if things were looking difficult.
Sharokh looked between me and Shana, then back at the Biryuki. He cleared his throat and asked: “Do you have anything similar to this symbol, in your culture?”
Fwoohweh looked back at him, studying Shahrokh with his frond of eyes.
Then he barked.
It was so sharp and sudden that it made me jump, even though it was muffled by his iridescent robes. I thought for a moment that I’d misheard. Then he barked again, and Shahrokh recoiled back in his chair. One of Fwoohweh’s colleagues joined in, and then the other, turning it into a baying, guttural chorus.
Fwoohweh wrenched aside his robes to reveal what was making the noise: a huge slavering maw as wide as his whole body, filled with metal-edged tusks and fangs. His colleagues did the same, revealing similar gaping jaws as they bayed and spat saliva across the table, expelling a stink like rotting fish.
“Holy shit!” said Shana.
I clamped a hand on my mouth. The stench was enough to make my stomach churn. Shahrokh looked to the Nakaii supervisor and asked: “What is this?”
The Nakaii roused herself from ennui and turned to the yelping Biryuki diplomats. “Esteemed colleagues ...” she began. But a glob of spit struck her in the face before she could finish. It wasn’t the liquefying kind of alien slobber we’d feared, but the reek of it was enough to burn anyone’s nostril hairs off, though I highly doubted that the Nakaii had any. She did look very close to being irritated, though, something I found deeply troubling. The Biryuki only barked louder.
“I ... I think that perhaps we will withdraw for the moment,” said Shahrokh.
Well, he withdrew. Me, I ran.
Once outside the conference rooms, we tried not to look like we were panicking as we headed at a brisk pace through the gardens of the diplomatic centre parked in the interstellar void between Sol and Barnard’s Star.
“Oh, thank god,” I muttered as we saw the rings of the Solar Alliance Superluminal Vessel Friendship through the dome over the unearthly foliage. The spinning wheels must have looked ridiculously primitive to the aliens, betraying as they did our reliance on centrifugal gravity and Alcubierre generators. We might as well have been Pacific Islanders rowing our biggest canoe out to a steamship to barter for trinkets. But at least the SASV Friendship was safe. Well, safer than the conference room, at any rate.
I only calmed down once the airlock was sealed behind me so that I could hear the thrum of air conditioning and smell the familiar earthy stink of a ship where three people had been living for the last six months without a change of air. We gathered in the cramped, cluttered meeting room which was also our galley and our lounge. It was pretty much the only place where the three of us could assemble at the same time and have a private conference, thanks to a Faraday cage that would (hopefully) shield us from electronic surveillance.
I made tea to calm my nerves while Shana paced back and forth as best she could in the tiny space. “It’s Alpha Centauri all over again,” she said. “Frankly, if it weren’t for the Nakaii, I’d be firing up the engines and getting us the hell out of here.”
“I don’t know,” said Shahrokh, scratching his chin as he took a pouch of sharbat from the fridge. “It just seems so random. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation of some kind.”
“And what if there isn’t? What if it’s an unreasonable explanation?” she asked.
“Dealing with unreasonable situations is more your province than mine,” he said. “Let’s not go there just yet.”
“Don’t go there?” she said with an incredulous look. “What’s it going to take before you go there?”
He raised an eyebrow. “More than this. Mei-Ling, did we recover anything from their species engagement profile that might explain this behaviour?”
I gulped back a mouthful of tea. “Uh, not really,” I said. “I’ve been trying to use the Nakaii translation software to interrogate it, but that hasn’t been getting anywhere either.” The profiles of history and culture we’d exchanged were databases that should have been searchable with ease. We used a carefully filtered version of Wikipedia for ours—enough to give them a good idea what to expect, though vague on military matters and things like, oh, all the ways in which we could be killed. But the Biryuki one wasn’t nearly as helpful. It replied to search requests in halting Maori, Welsh, or Cherokee, or at least it seemed to. The answers it gave didn’t actually make any sense, either to me or the Nakaii translation package. “It’s more like a practical joke than anything else.”
“Oh, I wish it were,” said Shana. “Then we’d have some idea what we were dealing with. But this is just ...” She shook her head. “They’re so alien. They could turn round and attack us at any moment. For no reason! And we’re seriously supposed to be opening up a trading relationship with these things?”
We’d come prepared to barter, though we didn’t have much to offer. We didn’t manufacture any goods that the rest of the galaxy needed, nor could we provide raw materials in any form more convenient than those simply lying about in space. Our only saving grace was one we shared with all species at our stage of development: we had a reservoir of cultural artifacts that no one else in the galaxy had yet seen or heard or touched. The Nakaii had hinted that licences to our artistic heritage ought to be worth something. We were hoping that David Bowie’s back catalogue alone would be worth an upgrade from Alcubierre drives to sub-reality tech.
“There must be something we’re missing,” said Shahrokh, massaging his brows.
“Like maybe the Nakaii set a trap for us by matching us up with these monsters?” said Shana. “Is that the kind of thing we’re missing?”
“I don’t think it’s a trap,” I said. “Did you see the look on the supervisor’s face?”
Shana gave me a frowning look. “No. I didn’t. That’s your area.”
True enough. I was the one who’d spent two whole weeks learning everything humanity knew about Nakaii language and physiognomy. “She was seriously pissed off,” I said. “I mean, she was actually irritated. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Okay, then,” said Shana. “Let’s use it! If the Nakaii are as unhappy as we are, maybe they’ll let us apply for another contact species.”
“I think that would be premature,” said Shahrokh.
“After what we just saw?” said Shana.
“We don’t want to seem picky. We’re hardly in a position to be precious about who we talk to, are we?”
Shana sighed, because he was right. We had no idea how far Nakaii tolerance might extend. From what we understood, species that didn’t co-operate had a tendency to disappear from space. They weren’t killed. They were simply restricted to their homeworlds and existing colonies, with no access to space travel—not even within their own systems. This usually led to resource exhaustion and societal collapse.
“How long can we sit here, anyway?” asked Shana.
“I’m not sure,” said Shahrokh. “I must say the Nakaii don’t make this easy with their sink or swim policy ...”
“So let’s not sink!” said Shana. “Let’s do something. Make a formal representation. Demand an apology. Something. Anything!”
“Have some patience,” said Shahrokh. “If Alpha Centauri teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t leap to conclusions.”
Shana narrowed her eyes at him. “You have got to be—”
A buzzer interrupted her. Shahrokh checked the screen on the wall: a call from the Nakaii. “Ah,” he said, smiling at Shana’s withering frown as he tapped accept. “I was hoping you’d call,” he said to the lengthy face on the screen. “We were rather concerned ...”
“I had a discussion with the Biryuki,” said the Nakaii. “I reminded them of your unfortunate history with outside contact—in particular, that matter in Alpha Centauri. They were, of course, mortified, and would like to make an explanation in person.”
Shahrokh’s face brightened. “Oh, well, in that case, we might be interested. Allow me a moment to consult with my colleagues.”
He looked round at Shana to be sure of her approval. She sighed, rolled her eyes and shrugged. He looked to me with the same query. The idea of going back in there with those creatures made me shudder, but ... well, the job is the job. I gave him the nod.
Shahrokh looked back at the screen. “Yes, I think we’d be prepared to attend such a meeting. When were you thinking?”
They were thinking immediately. Ten minutes later we were back out the airlock and heading through the gardens to the conference suites at the centre of the dome. Flowers had bloomed from every last bit of vegetation during the brief interval, which I assumed to be an attempt to put us at our ease. It didn’t work.
Shana held us up as we entered, taking a good long look round the conference room and lingering on the exits as she made her mental risk assessment. The Biryuki were present, though calm. The Nakaii had a slight shadow under her eyes that indicated mild annoyance, but nothing worse. It was good enough, and Shana gave us the nod. Shahrokh kept his serious face on as he took his seat, with narrowed brows that meant he was tolerant, but nearing his limit. I fired up my tablet and studied the Biryuki for any clue to their mood. As before, it was impossible to read their fronds of eyes. But at least their robes were once again concealing their awful maws.
The Nakaii bade Fwoohweh begin. He fluted and rumbled at us, and the tablet sent the translation to our earpieces: “May we firstly say that we are very sorry for our behaviour in our last meeting. It was highly inappropriate and we hope you can forgive us.”
Shahrokh made a show of nodding and thinking about it. “Well, I’m certain we can come to an understanding,” he said. “It’s good to see that all sides are capable of humility. We too have made mistakes in diplomatic negotiations, from time to time.”
“Of course,” said Fwoohweh. “That goes without saying. To be a living creature, it is inevitable to make errors. To be sentient is to forgive them.”
Shahrokh raised his eyebrows. Shana’s frown lifted. “Yes, we have a similar saying among our species,” said Shahrokh.
“It is a universal thing,” said Fwoohweh. “But now we would like to show you something. You see, your national symbol recalled something to us.”
“Oh?” said Shahrokh.
“We also had insignia like yours once. We have little use for it now under our current governmental arrangements. But would you be interested in seeing it?”
Shahrokh looked to Shana and me. She shrugged. I was still concerned, but ... there couldn’t be any harm in letting them show us an old flag, could there? So I nodded back.
One of the three Biryuki made a noise like a suppressed bark. Shana gave the alien a sharp look. If she’d had a gun, her hand would have gone to its holster. “Forgive me,” said the Biryuki. “I had a heavy lunch.”
Shahrokh looked back at Fwoohweh and said: “Of course. Please continue.”
The Biryuk tapped on a device wrapped around his tentacle, and an image appeared above the table between the two delegations. It was a simple line drawing that looked rather amateurish, as though it had been scrawled by hand. It wasn’t clear what it was at first. It didn’t resemble any kind of flag or national symbol I’d ever seen. Nor, thankfully, did it look like one being eating another. Except ... well, maybe from the side ...
One of the Biryuki growled under his clothes. Fwoohweh shushed him.
We looked at the Biryuki. We looked back at the image. Then we tilted our heads.
Our eyes went wide.
“Is that ... what I think it is?” said Shana with a perplexed grimace.
It was a horizontal pole entering an aperture. The sort of thing you could find scratched into a lavatory wall in any high school anywhere in the solar system. It really couldn’t be anything else.
“What kind of being would do such a thing ...?” said Shahrokh.
The Biryuki erupted in a fresh round of barking, screwing up their eyes and ripping flaps and robes aside to reveal their teeth again. The three of us flinched and recoiled back into our seats as spittle flew across the room.
It made no sense! Unless ...
Shahrokh shot a baffled look at the Nakaii, expecting her to intervene. The Nakaii looked back—but her irritation had gone. She was once again completely unruffled, and waiting for a response.
She knew this was going to happen. She expected the Biryuki to do something like this. But what did it mean?
The answer struck me. The barking first began when they saw the insignia of the Solar Alliance. This flag was a reply to that. A reply that looked suspiciously like crudely-drawn human genitalia ...
The Biryuki kept on barking. “This is unacceptable!” yelled Shana, jumping up from her chair to dodge the slobber flying across the room.
“I agree,” said Shahrokh. “Supervisor, I must lodge a formal pro—”
“Wait!” I cried. He stopped short and gave me a surprised look. I turned to the Nakaii. “I think I understand,” I said. She made the slightest movement of her head, inviting me to continue.
I looked to Fwoohweh. “Esteemed colleague,” I said. “I hope you don’t mind if I ask an indelicate question?” Fwoohweh paused between barks and waved at me. “Thank you. Is it the case that our symbol, um, this ...” I pointed to my lapel. “Does this happen to resemble your, um, genitalia?”
The Biryuki fell silent. Each of them stared at me with those wide eyes on stalks.
Then they barked again, yapping even louder. A glob of spit flew right at Shahrokh and into his mouth as it hung open, making him retch. Fwoohweh pointed at Shahrokh and emitted a short run of barks until he was wheezing and gasping for air.
“They’re laughing,” I said to my colleagues.
“You’re kidding,” said Shana, passing a handkerchief to Shahrokh as he coughed and hocked up the vile mess.
“No,” I replied. “I’m not—but they are.” I looked to the Nakaii. “Do they have a reputation as practical jokers, by any chance?”
She nodded. “Some find it tiresome,” she said. “But patience usually has the desired effect.”
“Do you mean to say that you tolerate this behaviour?” spluttered Shahrokh as he tried to scrape the spittle from his face. “This is completely unprofessional!” One of the Biryuki banged its sensory stalk on the table and rolled it back and forth. “And puerile!” The Biryuki just laughed harder. “And it’s not even funny!”
The Biryuki sucked air in what could only have been a gasp. The room fell silent as they stared back at Shahrokh with unblinking eyes.
I opened my mouth to speak, although I didn’t have a clue what to say. But Shana put a hand on my shoulder and whispered: “I got this.”
She sat back down, leaned forward on the table and glared at the Biryuki delegation with deadly serious eyes. “Esteemed colleagues,” she said. “This has all been very amusing. Now how about we cut the crap and do some work?”
Fwoohweh wheezed and his body deflated. It might have been a sigh. “Oh, very well,” he said. “What was it you wanted, sub-reality tech?”
“Superluminal drives, yes,” said Shana.
“That’s expensive,” he fluted back.
She gave him a deadpan look. “If all this was any indication of your sense of humour, then I’m pretty sure we can find some kind of cultural artifact that meets your needs.”
Fwoohweh made a noise that the translation software rendered as doubtful grumble.
“Just know one thing,” said Shana. “And I’m going to make this a solemn promise.” She narrowed her eyes, glaring across the table like a promise of death. “If we do a deal, then one day, somewhere, somehow, at the moment you least expect it ...”
A dreadful silence froze the atmosphere across the table. The Biryuki eyes widened in—was that alarm?
“... We’re gonna get you back.”
The Biryuki looked among themselves. Then back at her.
I could have sworn their eyes were grinning.
“Agreed!” fluted Fwoohweh, extending a tentacle across the table. “We clasp feelers for agreement,” he explained.
“So do we,” said Shana, reaching out and shaking the tentacle. I glanced over at the Nakaii, and thought I saw just the slightest shade of approval in her eyes.
In the end (and after a great deal of spittle-soaked negotiation), we made a deal for a working model of a sub-reality drive in return for distribution licences to the works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Of course, the first time we used the drive we ended up in the wrong star system. But at least we understood each other.
Paul R. Hardy is a British writer. His stories have also appeared in the “Unidentified Funny Objects 5” anthology. He has produced corporate videos and short films, recently winning a BBC Drama Award. Read more about him at his website.