Flur traveled across the stars to make first contact with the Cyclopes, hoping to forge a peace treaty between humanity and the first sentient aliens they’ve discovered. She’s undergone careful training and study to prepare for this moment. But what if her approach is too human?
Nobody expected them to look human. If anyone still harbored that kind of anthropocentric bias, they kept it bottled up with their other irrational fantasies (or nightmares) of successful contact. The biophysicists had theorized alternative forms that could support higher intelligence: spiraling cephalopods, liquid consciousness, evenly-distributed sentience. The Mission Director, who was known for being broad-minded, even invited some science fiction writers to work with the scientists in imagining what intelligent alien life might look like. The collaboration didn’t generate many usable ideas for the Mission (although it did lead to half a dozen best sellers and a couple of ugly lawsuits). And after all that thought and effort and retraining of assumptions, the first intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms they found were humanoid.
Not completely human, not like actors in silver face paint, but bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal, with most of the sensory organs concentrated in a central upper appendage that it was difficult not to call the head.
“We need a new word, a whole new vocabulary,” Tsongwa said, as he and Flur reviewed hours and hours of long-distance surveillance video. “A term to remind us that they’re not human, but still give them equal importance and intelligence.”
Because not only were they humanoid (the word did not satisfy Tsongwa, but it caught on and stuck), they were clearly intelligent, with societies and civilizations. They lived not in the caves or intelligent-organic complexes or mind-alterable environments hypothesized by the scientists, but in identifiable buildings, in cities. (The Mission Director promptly brought in architects, urbanists, psychologists, forensic archeologists, urban psychologists, forensic architects). They were “advanced” (Tsongwa insisted on putting the word in quotes) enough that first contact with them could be via radio, and then video. Many of the linguistic problems, not to mention the initial shock of alien existence, could be worked out long before Flur and Tsongwa got anywhere near the planet.
The Mission Director insisted on the importance of a protocol for contact, flexible enough to use in as many different contexts as they could imagine (an optimist, he was still hoping to discover intelligent spiraling cephalopods), yet structured enough to allow for some degree of standardization. Two ambassadors, one male, one female (the Mission Director did not point out that they were also of different “races,” another word Tsongwa used only in quotes). They would go armed, but imperceptibly so. They would go with scientific objectives—as much observation and recording as possible—but also with diplomatic goals that were more important: they were to bring back, if not a treaty, at least an agreement. “A framework,” the Mission Director explained, “for future relations.” He made a template for them, but encouraged them to modify it as necessary. The next day he came back with a few more templates, to give them a sense of the range of options.
Flur, the brilliant young star of what they call the Very Foreign Service, smiles and nods, but he’s overselling it. She’s pretty sure she can figure out the acceptable options, maybe even some the Mission Director hasn’t come up with, just as she’s pretty sure she can charm these aliens by respecting and listening to them, by empathizing, by improvising. Maybe more than Tsongwa. She likes Tsongwa, but he’s so serious, and places too much importance on semantics. She knows he’s supposed to be the experienced balance to her youth and genius, but nobody’s experienced anything like this before. And he’s not actually that much older; it’s just the deep lines on his face and the slow pace of his consideration that make him seem so.
Flur is aware of another probable advantage: as far as they have been able to tell, most of the alien leadership is female. Or the equivalent of female, what looks like female to the humans, which means human females will look like leaders to the aliens. Even Flur’s skin color is closer to the rosy purple of alien flesh. Though no one has mentioned either of these cultural elements, Flur prepares herself for the possibility that she will need to act as the head of the expedition, even if she remains technically subordinate to Tsongwa.
Her confidence, or overconfidence, does not pass unnoticed. But it doesn’t worry the Mission Director or Tsongwa much. Flur is never disrespectful, and she works hard, studying the video and audio recordings, diagramming and re-diagramming what they understand about political structures, writing short treatises about cultural practices.
The time and place of the landing are set, and there is a flashy ceremony for the departure from the base station, full of flags and symbols and fine music, scripted and simulcast. Flur has an odd longing to wave to her mother, but manages to quell it. Fortunately, the Mission Director has managed to fend off requests to simulcast the mission itself (largely by reminding politicians and media executives about the unlikely but real possibility of a grisly end to the adventure). The closing air lock leaves Flur and Tsongwa alone, except for the eighty-two mission staff looped into their communications and recording network. They beam down, a slang phrase for what is in practice a long, bumpy, and dangerous trip into the planet’s atmosphere on a shuttle known as the Beamer. This is Tsongwa’s expertise, and Flur is appropriately grateful for it as she copilots. He ably navigates them to the designated landing site, an extensive field outside of the alien city.
Flur takes a deep breath once they are settled. Through the small window she can make out tall, curving shapes: the aliens, the natives of this planet, have gathered as planned. From the screen on the dash the Mission Director looks back at her, almost bathetic in the way emotion and overwhelming awareness of the significance of this moment play openly on his face. Flur checks her comms and stands up. For a moment she and Tsongwa are face-to-face in the narrow aisle between the seats, and though his chin is level with her forehead Flur feels for the first time that they are looking straight at each other. This moment, though it is being recorded and transmitted in a dozen different sensory and technological combinations, is still theirs alone. There is a mutual nod—Flur doesn’t know which of them initiates it—and then Tsongwa leads the way to the hatch.
Stepping out of the Beamer, Flur finds that the aliens look less human at this close range. Their extended bodies curve gracefully into hooks and curlicues, partially obscured by flowing robes that give the impression of square-sailed ships luffing to the wind. When two of them step forward with extended hands, Flur can see that their three fingers are flexible as snakes. They cover the lower part of their faces with more cloth, but above that their noses have only a single nostril, flat on the face, opening and closing like a whale’s. Unsettlingly, it is the eyes that are most human: none of the giant pupils or extended slits of old science fiction movies, but (what appear to be) irises and robin’s-egg sclera within the familiar pointed oval shape, although they each have only one. In the popular press they are already known as the Cyclopes, but Flur finds each eye startlingly (perhaps deceptively?) expressive.
The two aliens have paused, hovering at a safe distance. Maybe that’s their idea of personal space? Flur glances at Tsongwa, a sideways slant of the eyes obscured by her goggles, but he is already stepping forward, arms up and out, mimicking the circular alien gesture that they have identified as significant and positive. Through her speakers, Flur can just make out the sound of him clearing his throat.
“Greetings,” he says, in an accented Cyclopan that they hope is comprehensible . He pauses. In what is surely the best moment of either of their lives, the aliens say the same word back to him.
The two designated humanoids approach, and curve more so that their singular eyes are nearly on a level with their visitors’. The skin of their faces looks parchment-like, worn and creased, like oak leaves pasted together, with striking lines trailing down from both corners of their eyes. They pronounce elaborate welcomes which Flur only partially understands. Their names are Slanks and Irnv, and they are happy to welcome their most esteemed visitors from another planet and take them in this honorable procession to the capital city of their island, where they will meet their leader. Flur almost lets out a reflexive giggle at the irony of it all, but she squelches it, and accepts instead the folds of material that Irnv hands her. “A costume more suited to our climate,” Slanks says, as he hands the same to Tsongwa.
Flur, cozily padded in a latest-model spacesuit, had not noticed any issues with the climate, but at least the local dress resolves one concern. There had been some worry at Mission Control that, having transmitted visuals of humans in their native habitat to the aliens, they would find the sight of them in their tubed breathing apparatuses disconcerting, but the alien clothes include fabric to cover the lower face, so that should help.
It is a moderately long walk to the city, and Flur keeps an eye on the visit clock ascending without pause in the corner of her view, and the bars representing her life support resources shrinking ceaselessly. A milky fog obscures much of the landscape, but Flur stares at the fragments of organic material at her feet, twigs and leaves in strange shapes, or maybe shells or corals, or something they have no word for yet. She longs to scoop up a sample, but is embarrassed to do so in front of their attentive entourage.
At the edge of the city they are guided to a canal or river where they board an almost flat barge, its slightly curved sides dressed with the same fabric that the Cyclopes wear. As they detach and float slowly along, Flur begins to feel disoriented, although she can’t figure out what is dizzying her. Finally, looking down at the canal, she decides it is the water, or the liquid, which is sluggish and thick. Grateful for the flowing native costume, she detaches a specimen vial from her space suit and within the compass of the billowing sleeves manages to scoop up some of the canal liquid, seal, and pocket it. She doesn’t think anyone has noticed, not even Tsongwa, who is deep in limited conversation with Slanks.
The gray-blue buildings are sinuous and low. Flur wonders if they continue underground. They cross a few other canals, but there are also pedestrian paths where tall humanoid shapes in expansive robes move, pause, interact. As they stream inexorably by, Flur catches a glimpse of two flowing dresses, one bold purple, one carnelian red, pressed against each other, fluttering suggestively. She looks away quickly, then looks back, but they have drifted out of sight before she can be sure what she saw.
The canal empties into a wide circular plaza, like a collection basin, or possibly the source of the waters. Avenues dotted with pedestrians surround the central circle of mixing waters, which has been waterscaped into a flat sculpture, tilted slightly upward, with streams of blue and lavender liquid running down it in carefully designed flows. Flur can make no sense of it, but she’s sure it’s important.
“It’s beautiful,” she says to Irnv, and although the alien replies “Thank you,” Flur has the feeling that the crinkles around her eye express politeness rather than real pleasure. Beautiful was not the right word.
They disembark and enter the palace through a gateway draped with more cloth, the bright colors this time woven through with a black thread that gives the whole a muted sheen. The corridors are high and narrow, and slope (downward, so she must have been right about going underground) more steeply than a human architect would allow. Despite her oxygen regulator, Flur is out of breath by the time they come to a stop in a cavernous chamber, and she thinks uneasily about their tanks. As a precaution, during the visit planning they halved their life-support time frame and gave only that conservative number to the aliens. Still, Flur can’t help being aware that everything was an estimate, that if for any reason they can’t use the barge it will take them longer to get back, that they are therefore dependent on the aliens. She calms her breathing, catches Tsongwa’s eye on her and nods to tell him she’s okay. Then she looks around. Mission Control sees what she sees.
The room, like the corridors, has no right angles; its shape suggests the word “organic” to Flur, although she guesses Tsongwa would be able to find some semantic problem with that. The impression is intensified by a shallow pool of slightly lilac-tinted liquid in the middle of the room, roughly where the conference table would have been on Earth. The Cyclopes are reclining in flexible harnesses, suspended from a frame that hangs from the rounded ceiling and ending in constructions almost like hammocks. It takes quite a bit of adjusting for these to be feasible for Flur and Tsongwa (more wasted time, Flur can’t help thinking), but once she’s cradled in one she finds it surprisingly comfortable, her weight evenly distributed, her feet just resting on the ground.
While they are finishing with Tsongwa’s harness she examines the row of decorations along the curving wall, gradually realizing that they are not abstract moldings, but sculpted likenesses. There are no gilded frames, no contrasting background to firm, smiling faces, but once she sees it Flur can’t believe she missed it. There are so many analogs in her own world: the row of ancient principals on the moldy wall of her high school; the faces of presidents in her history book and hanging in pomp in the Palais National; the old, unsuccessful directors hanging outside the Mission Director’s office. Conscious of the video feed, she looks at each face in turn for a few seconds, trying to learn what she can.
They do appear to be mostly female, although Flur counts three faces of the thirty-eight that scan to her as male. There are no confident smiles; a few are actually looking away, their faces turned almost to profile, and most of the eyes are angled downward. They look almost sorrowful; then, as she keeps staring, they look too sorrowful, the way the politicians at home look too distinguished. The vertical lines on the cheeks, trailing down from the corners of each august eye, begin to look stylized. In fact, much as the sequences at home evolve from paintings to photographs to three-dimensional photographs to hyperphotos, the moldings also show the passage of time. The first few are exact and detailed, like living aliens frozen into the wall, and as she follows the series back they become vague and imperfect. The face that Flur places as the oldest is painted in a combination of blues and lavenders, as though faded from the more usual dark purples, and the two-tone palette is unique. Staring at it, Flur starts to feel that it looks familiar. She remembers the fountain in the huge plaza, and suddenly that flowing pattern of water makes sense. It was a face—this face.
She leans toward Irnv to ask her, but at that moment everyone starts swinging back and forth in their hammocks, and more aliens start filing into the room. The last face to enter is also familiar: it is the most recent in the sequence of portraits. “It’s the president,” Irnv whispers. “She lost her three children and husband to sudden illness over the period of a year!”
Flur has no idea how to respond to that, and her half-hearted “I’m so sorry” is lost in the flurry of introductions, swinging of hammock-seats, and a brief interlude of atonal song. After that it is the president who, arranging herself with some ceremony in her hammock-chair, begins to speak. Flur gets most of it. Irnv, who has also apparently been studying, whispers the occasional English word in her ear, but these are so out of pace with Flur’s internal translation that they are more disruptive than helpful. She is grateful that she will have the recording to listen to. She will translate it word by word, slowly, in her office at Mission Control (a thought that fills her with momentary, inconvenient homesickness) but the general point is clear enough. Honored to receive this first interplanetary delegation; already the communications between them have set the foundations for a strong and close friendship, the type of friendship (if Flur understands correctly) which can withstand any tragedy; this personal visit, however, will truly interlace (or something like that) their peoples in mutual regard. Blah, blah, blah, basically.
Then it is Flur’s turn. She had expected to stand up to give her presentation, and it feels odd to speak from the balanced suspension of the hammock, without much preamble except the turning of expectant, one-eyed faces towards her. She takes out the small projector they brought, and aims a three-dimensional frame of the rotating Earth into the middle of the room, slightly closer to the president’s seat. Her presentation is brief and colorful: a short introduction to the history and cultures of Earth, glossing over war, poverty, and environmental degradation and focusing on the beauty and hope integral to human and other biodiversity, with subtle nods to technological and, even more subtly, military power. The aliens seem impressed by the projection, although there is too much light in the room for it to come through at its full sparkling vividness. Flur wonders if they hear her spiel at all.
She nods at Tsongwa, and he takes over, describing their proposed agreement, or framework. Leaning back in her hammock as he steps through the template, explaining why each section is important and the degrees of flexibility on each point, Flur has to admit he’s quite good: understated, yes, but that seems to fit the mood better than she had expected. Before they left she had, privately, suggested to the Mission Director that they switch roles, so that she could take on the key task of persuasion, but although he seemed to consider it, he had not made the change. Flur knows she would have been good, and her Cyclopean is slightly better than Tsongwa’s, but he has learned his piece down to the last inflection. He even seems to have taken on the president’s mannerisms, looking down and to the side and only occasionally, at key points, making eye contact.
There is a pause after he finishes, then the president sways, signaling her intention to speak. “For such a momentous occasion,” she croons, “we will need to discuss with the high council.”
During the pause while the council is called, Flur cannot help fretting about their deadline. Why wasn’t the council there from the beginning, if they are needed? Will she and Tsongwa need to make their presentations again? At least her political diagrams have been partially validated, although she is still not clear on the relationship between the president and the high council, or either of them and what Mission Control has been calling the Senate. Apparently the president does not have as much direct decision-making power as they thought.
There is further singing to cover, or emphasize, the entrance of the high council, and under it Irnv points out some of the more important council members. She seems to have a tragic tale about each of them. There is a woman who lost most of her family in a storm, another whose parents abandoned her as a child. The leader of the council, surprisingly, is male; his wife drowned two days after their wedding. Unable to continue murmuring about how sorry she is, Flur is reduced to nodding along and trying not to wince. She wonders if Tsongwa, a few feet away, is getting the same liner notes from Slanks. Looking at them she guesses he is, but between the oxygen mask and the face covering, it is impossible to read his expression.
Extensive discussion follows. Flur loses concentration in the middle of hour two, and can no longer follow the foreign syllables except for occasional words: “haste,” “formality,” “foreign,” “caution.” Dazed and unable to recapture the thread, Flur shifts her attention to body language instead, trying to figure out who is on their side. The president doesn’t seem engaged, putting a few words in now and then but otherwise looking at the pool in the floor or at the walls. Then again, no one else is showing fire or passion either. The discussion takes place in a muted, gentle tone, councillors lounging in their hammocks, occasionally dismounting to dip their lower extremities in the shallow lavender pool. She wonders if they are showing respect for the president’s tragedy. It is when she catches the president actually wiping a tear away from the corner of her large eye that she leans over to Irnv.
“Maybe the president is, um, a little distracted?” she asks.
Irnv looks back at her but says nothing, and Flur hesitates to interpret her facial expression.
“She seems quite . . .” Flur notices another tear slip down the furrows in the president’s faded-leaf face. Thinking of her lost family, she is wrung by an unexpected vibration of sympathy. “Maybe she could use a break?” What Flur could use now is a moment to talk to Tsongwa in private, to strategize some way of moving this along.
She wasn’t expecting her comment to have any immediate effect, but Irnv leans forward and says something to someone, who says something to someone else, and a moment later everyone is getting up from their swings. Flur cringes, but maybe it’s for the best; they certainly weren’t getting anywhere as it was.
“We will take a short refreshment break,” Irnv tells her. “Come, I will show you the place.”
They file into a corridor beside Tsongwa and Slanks. Flur tries to exchange glances with Tsongwa, hoping that however the refreshment is served, it will allow them some tiny degree of privacy to talk, even if only in their limited sign language. Food would be nice too, but since the breathing apparatuses they are wearing make eating impractical, their suits are fitted with intravenous nutrition systems. They won’t get hungry until they’re long dead of oxygen deprivation. Flur is wondering how to explain this to Irnv in some way that will make their refusal of refreshments less impolite when Tsongwa and Slanks turn off the corridor through a small opening draped in purple. Flur starts to follow but Irnv catches her arm with her three serpentine fingers.
“Not in there,” she whispers. “That’s the men’s side.”
They take a few more steps forward and then slide through an opening with crimson curtains on the opposite side of the corridor. The space is smaller than Flur expected, and there is no one else there, but in the far wall is a row of curtained, circular passages, like portholes. Irnv gestures Flur toward one, then wriggles into the cubbyhole beside it. After a moment of hesitation, Flur pokes her head into the hole. Inside is a low space, a small nest with cloth and cushions everywhere and a shelf with several small jars holding different items: violet straw, green powder, ivory slivers the size of a thumbnail. Flur pulls her head out, but the drape has already fallen in front of the Irnv’s opening. Flur crawls into her own nook, lets the curtain down behind her, and leans her head back against the unsettlingly soft wall.
It is so obvious she doesn’t even want to whisper it into her comms (although Tsongwa is probably doing just that at this same moment, on the men’s side), because surely they’ve figured it out by now: Eating is a social taboo. That’s why they cover their mouths all the time. Of course they hadn’t mentioned this during the previous discussions, any more than earthlings would have said, “By the way, we don’t discuss defecation.” Fortunately, because of the intravenous nutrition and the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to eat alien food, no one at Mission Control brought the matter up during protocol discussions for the trip. Flur wonders what the reaction would have been. Embarrassed silence? A quick, mature resolution of the question and no more said about it? Giggles?
Even though she’s not going to eat (she does take samples from each of the jars for her specimen cases), Flur finds the isolation soothing. She would like to sit in this cozy womb, silently, for at least ten or twenty minutes, breathing slowly and remembering why she’s here. Instead she talks to Mission Control.
“How long would it take for us to get back without that canal?” Flur asks the air in front of her nose.
“We calculate walking would add another hour to the journey,” answers Winin, the desk officer assigned to her earpiece. “That’s with no obstacles or disruptions of the sort that might come from visitors from outer space walking through a major city.”
“So about two and a half hours total,” Flur muses.
“You’ve still got some time,” Winin assures her.
“Yeah, but we’re coming up on the limit we gave them.” Flur lowers her voice, wondering how sound travels among these cubicles.
“Well, you can find an excuse to extend that, if you have to. How does it look?” Winin asks, as though she hadn’t seen and heard everything that happened herself.
“Can you patch me in to Tsongwa?” A moment later she hears his voice.
“. . . very interesting, how many things we did not foresee.”
“It is, it’s fascinating. I think we can consider that alone a success, a complete validation of the need for this expensive face-to-face visit in addition to all the other communication.”
Flur is a little surprised to hear the Mission Director. So Tsongwa went straight to the top during his break. She clears her throat. “Hey Tsongwa, how’s the food on your side?”
He lets loose his surprisingly relaxed chuckle. “We’ll have to ask the lab techs later,” he says.
The Mission Director is not interested in small talk at this juncture. “Now that I’ve got you two together, what do you think? Can we get the agreement signed today?”
There is a moment of silence, and Flur realizes that, through the layers of alien building material and empty alien atmosphere that separate them, she and Tsongwa are feeling exactly the same thing.
“It seems unlikely,” she offers, at the same time as he says, “I doubt it.”
The Mission Director lets out a whoosh of breath. “Well. That’s a shame.”
“It’s not a no,” Tsongwa clarifies. “They need more time.”
“Maybe if we could talk to someone else,” Flur says, looking for some hope. “The president doesn’t seem up for it right now, with all she’s been through.”
She’s hoping that Tsongwa did not get the full tragic history and will have to ask what she means. Instead he says, “Actually . . .” He pauses to order his thoughts and in that pause Flur hears a rustling and then her name called, very softly, from the other side of the curtain.
“Gotta go,” she whispers, and then slides out of the cubbyhole.
Irnv is reclining in a hammock-harness outside the cushioned wall of nests, still within the women’s area. Her face covering is loosened and hanging down below her chin, and although Flur is careful not to stare at the dark purple, circular mouth, she finds she is already acclimatized enough to be shocked. The orifice seems to be veiled on the inside by a membrane of some kind, and doesn’t fully close. Struck by the curiosity of the forbidden, Flur wishes she could see how they eat.
“Do we have to get back now?” she asks, wondering too late if she should thank her host for the food she couldn’t ingest.
“We have some time still,” Irnv says. “I don’t know how you do it, but here we usually relax and socialize after eating.”
“It is . . . like that for us too,” Flur says, wondering if she is right about the translation for ‘socialize.’ Following Irnv’s graceful nod, she climbs into the hammock next to her and tries to put a relaxed expression on her face. Where is everyone else? They must have designated special eating rooms for the aliens and their handlers.
“Flur,” Irnv says, and Flur snaps out of it. “What does your name mean?”
Rather than try to define a general noun, Flur takes out her palm screen and presses a combination she had pre-loaded. “Like this,” she says, holding it out to Irnv as the screen runs through hyperphotos of flowers, all different kinds.
“Ahhh,” Irnv strokes the screen appreciatively, stopping the montage on a close-up of a wisteria cluster.
“And you?” Flur asks, trying to keep up her end of the socializing.
Irnv looks up, her head tilted at an angle that is so clearly questioning that Flur begins to trust her body language interpretation again. “Your name,” she says. “What does it mean?”
“Star,” Irnv replies, with a curious sort of bow.
“Oh, I thought star was ‘trenu,’” Flur says.
“Yes, trenu, star. Irnv is one trenu. A certain trenu.”
Flur finds herself tilting her head exactly the way that Irnv did a few minutes ago, and Irnv obligingly explains.
“Irnv is the name of your star. Your . . . planet? We tried to pronounce it like you, but this is our version.”
Terre. Earth. Irnv. But “pronounce it like you?” They have only been in contact for a few years. How old is Irnv?
“And your family?” Irnv asks, while Flur is still turning that over. “Where are you from?”
“An island,” Flur says, one of the first words she learned in Cyclopan. She takes her palm screen back and brings up globes, maps, Ayiti. She hadn’t prepared anything about her family, though. “Many brothers and sisters,” she says. She thinks of the video that was made for the launch party, presenting a highly sanitized version of her backstory, and wonders why nobody thought to load that into her drive. Maybe it wouldn’t translate well; their research has not pinned down the alien version of the heartwarming, life-affirming family unit. “We used to raise chickens,” she says, unexpectedly, and quickly pulls up a picture of a chicken on the screen, and in her mind, the memory of chasing one with her brothers.
Irnv blinks her single eye. “They are all well? Your brothers and sisters?”
“Well?” It’s a hard concept to define. The pause feels like it’s stretching out too long. “They’re fine. We’re just fine.”
A beat. “And how were you chosen for this?”
“Oh,” Flur says. These are all questions they should have prepared for. She can’t imagine, now, why they thought the conversation would be all business all the time. “Well, I went to school, and there were . . . competitions.” She can’t remember the word for tests. “And then more school.”
Irnv is nodding, but Flur reads it as more polite than comprehending, and she’s trying to remember the words, find the right phrase to explain it, how it’s not just written tests, but also character, leadership qualities, sacrifices, observations by instructors and mentors, toughness, drills . . .
“. . . happy to have you here,” the alien is saying, with seeming earnestness.
Flur rouses herself back to her job. “We are very happy to be here too,” she manages. “But we will have to go home soon, and we would really like to complete this agreement. For the future.”
Irnv leans back in her hammock. “We hope so. But it is a very short time.”
“It is,” Flur agrees, with as regretful a tone as she can summon. “The president . . .” she trails off, delicately.
“The president is a great woman,” Irnv says, in a tone that sounds to Flur very close to reverence.
“She is,” Flur agrees, disingenuously. Pause, effort at patience. “Perhaps it’s not the best time, though, with all she’s been through recently.”
Irnv looks confused, then understands. “You mean the loss of her family? But that wasn’t recent, that was many years ago.”
It takes Flur a moment to recover from that, and when she does Irnv is looking at her curiously. She puts out her hand, and the supple, red-purple fingers curl around Flur’s arm. Flur is shocked to feel their warmth, faintly, through the protective space suit.
“I think she will agree,” Irnv says. “It will take time. We can’t rush.”
“Of course,” Flur answers, still feeling the pulse of warmth on her arm, though by then Irnv has removed her hand. “We go,” the Cyclops says, sliding the scarf back over the bottom of her face as she stands.
They are not the first ones back into the meeting room, but it is still half-empty. Tsongwa and Slanks aren’t there yet, and Flur wonders what they might be talking about in the men’s room. She decides to put her time to good use.
“Irnv,” she says gently, getting her attention from a conversation with another alien. “That—that face there?” Flur nods at the first one in the series, the two-tone blue and lavender portrait. “Is that like the fountain in the middle of the city?”
Now that Flur has seen Irnv’s mouth she finds she can better interpret the movement of the muscles around it, even with the mask covering it. She is pretty sure Irnv is smiling. “Yes, yes,” she says, “you are right, that is another example. She is the founder of our city. After starting this city she was visited by very great tragedy. In her sorrow she wept, and her tears, different colors from each side of her eye, became the canals that we use to navigate and defend our city.”
Flur is trying to figure out how to phrase her follow-up questions—does she probe whether Irnv understands it as a myth and exaggeration, or take it politely at face value?—when she notices Tsongwa has come back in with Slanks, and nods to them.
“It is in her honor,” Irnv continues, “that we now make the tear tracks on our faces, to represent her learning, sacrifice, and wisdom.” She runs her fingers along the deep grooves in her face.
“You . . . do that? How?” Flur asks, trying to sound interested and non-judgmental.
“There is a plant we use,” Irnv says. “But when one has really suffered, you can see the difference. As with her,” she adds in reverential tones as the president enters the room, and Flur can see that it is true, the wrinkles in her cheeks are softer and have a subtle shine to them.
“That’s . . . impressive,” she says, feeling that admiration is the correct thing to express, but then the president begins to speak.
“Very regretfully,” she begins, her eye not nearly as moist as Flur had expected, “the time our visitors have with us is limited by their technology, and unfortunately we will not be able to settle this question on this visit.”
Flur’s hammock shudders with her urgency to speak, even as she catches Tsongwa’s warning look.
“However, we look upon it favorably,” the president goes on. “We will take the time to discuss it here among ourselves, and converse again with our good friends soon.”
Flur is about to say something, to ask at least for a definition of ‘soon,’ a deadline for the next communication, some token of goodwill. It is the Mission Director’s voice in her ear that stops her. “Stand down. Stand down, team, let this one go. We were working with a tight time frame, we knew that. And it’s not over. Great job, you two.”
The positive reinforcement makes Flur feel ill. Irnv’s face, as she turns to her, seems to hold some wrinkles of sympathy around the mouth-covering mask and her cosmetic tear tracks, but all she says is, “We should get you back to your ship as soon as possible.”
The return trip, indeed, seems to pass much more quickly than the journey into the city. Less constrained by the idea of making a good impression, Flur takes as many hyperphotos as she can, possibly crossing the borders of discretion. Noticing that they are taking a different canal back (unless they change color over time?) she scoops up another sample. She even pretends to trip in the forest to grab some twigs, or twig analogs. Irnv says little during the walk, although Tsongwa and Slanks appear to be deep in discussion. Probably solving the whole diplomatic problem by themselves, Flur thinks miserably. When they find their ship—it is a relief to see it again, just as they left it, under guard by a pair of Cyclopes—Flur half-expects Irnv to touch her arm again in farewell, but all she does is make the double-hand gesture of welcome, apparently also used in parting.
“Irnv,” Flur asks quickly. “How old are you?”
“Eighty-five cycles,” Irnv says, then looks up, calculating. “About thirty-two of your years,” she adds, and Flur catches the corners of a smile again. Meanwhile, Tsongwa and Slanks are exchanging some sort of ritualized embrace, both arms touching.
The return beam is less difficult than the landing, and once they are out of the planet’s atmosphere and waiting for the Mission Crawler to pick them up, Tsongwa takes off his breathing apparatus and helmet, removing the comms link to Mission Control.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” Flur says, trying for a why-wouldn’t-I-be tone. “You?”
Tsongwa nods without saying anything.
“I just wish we could have gotten the stupid thing signed,” Flur says finally.
Tsongwa raises both palms. “It’ll happen. I think.”
“The president seemed so . . .” Flur shakes her head. “It’s a shame that we caught a weak leader.”
“You think she’s weak?”
“Well, grief-stricken, maybe. But it comes to the same thing. For us, anyway.”
Tsongwa leaves a beat of silence. “What did you talk about in the eating room?”
“Personal stuff, mostly . . . names, families. Oh, that’s something,” Flur sits up in her chair. So different from those hammocks. “Irnv told me she’s named after our planet, but after our word for it. Earth, I mean.”
Tsongwa is stunned for a moment, then laughs. “Well, that’s very hospitable of them.”
“Tsongwa, she’s thirty-two. Thirty-two in our years!”
Another pause. “Maybe her name was changed in honor of the visit?”
“Or maybe . . .” Neither of them says it: Maybe the Cyclopes have been listening to us longer than we have been listening to the Cyclopes.
“What did you talk about?” Flur asks finally.
“Family, to start with.” Tsongwa says. “Personal history. It’s very important to them.”
“What do you mean?”
He arranges his thoughts. It occurs to Flur, looking at the lines in his face shadowed by the reflected light from the control panel, that she has no idea what he might have told them about his family, because she doesn’t know anything about him outside of his work.
“They wanted to know if I’d suffered.”
“Suffered?” Flur repeats, in the tone she might use to say, Crucified?
Tsongwa sighs; the English word is wrong, so dramatic. “They wanted to know if I’d . . . eaten bitter, if I’d . . . gone through hard times. If I’d experienced grief. You know.” An alert goes off; he starts to prepare for docking as he speaks. “They think it’s important for decision makers, for leaders. It stems from the myth of the founder—you heard about that? They believe that people who have suffered greatly have earned wisdom.” He twitches a control. “Now that we know this, we can adjust the way we approach the whole relationship. It’s a huge breakthrough.”
“But . . . but . . .” Flur wonders, with a pang, whether this means she won’t be included in the next mission. Can she somehow reveal all the hardship and self-doubt she has so painstakingly camouflaged with professionalism, dedication, and feigned poise? “But come on! The president has suffered, okay, but she didn’t seem any the wiser for it!”
Tsongwa shrugs. “They believe it, I said. That doesn’t mean it’s true. They aren’t perfect, any more than we are.”
And Flur thinks of the Mission Director, his careful multidisciplinarity and his pep talks, or the president of her country, a tall, distinguished-looking, well-spoken man who has failed by almost every measure yet retains a healthy margin of popularity. By that time they are docked, and scanned for contaminants, and the airlock doors open, and then they are swarmed by the ops team, shouting and congratulating them, slapping their shoulders and practically carrying them into the main ship where the Mission Director, his emotion apparent but held in perfect check, shakes hands with each of them and whispers a word or two of praise in their ears. Flur tries to smile and nod at everyone until finally, though it can’t have been more than five or ten minutes later, she’s alone, or almost, stripped to a sterile shift and lying in a clinic bed for the post-visit checkup.
“What’s the matter?” The medical officer says, coming in with a clipboard and a couple of different scanners. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Fine,” Flur manages through her sobs.
“You did great,” he says, as he runs the scanners over her quickly, almost unnoticeably. “The geeks are already raving about those samples you brought back. There, there,” he says, when she doesn’t stop crying. He pats her arm awkwardly. “It’s just the tension and excitement. You’ll be fine.”
But it isn’t the tension or the excitement. Flur is thinking about the things she could have said to Irnv: about her four brothers, dead, drunk, imprisoned, and poor; her three sisters, poor, unhappy, and desperate. About her own childhood, hungry and hardscrabble. If she had unburied these old sufferings, would Irnv have trusted her more? Would she have been able to get the agreement signed?
But mostly, and it is this that makes her want to cry until she makes her own, shimmering tear tracks, she is thinking about her mother. Twice abandoned (three times if you count Flur’s reluctance to visit). Beaten occasionally, exploited often, underpaid always. An infant lost, a dear sister lost, an adult child lost. Flur has always avoided imagining that grief. When her brother was killed, she clung to her own complicated pain and did not look her mother in the eye so she would not probe those depths. Now she weighs all her mother has suffered.
In another world, it would be enough to make her president.
“Tear Tracks” copyright © 2015 by Malka Older
Art copyright © 2015 by Richie Pope