Angelica Primm © 2019
All Rights Reserved
You would ask if I’m upset with my new posting. No. Not that. Discomforted. Yes. That is the correct word. You know I am a man who likes his routines, the stuff that meshes you to the pleasurable aspects of living. A delicious cup of coffee in the morning. Grilled vegetables on the barbecue and a nice glass of wine on the terrace in the evening. Everyday things.
Where I head is not ordinary…
Landfall is the most dangerous part of the journey.
The transport shook and rattled as it descended to hit the atmosphere of Ostakis. Flames flared from the heat shield and now I know why the pilot told me to pull the shade on my seat window. It’s terrifying watching the flames of friction ignited ionized gas shimmer outside the window and engulf the ship. To take my mind off my impending death I mulled over my last briefing with Director Kotel.
“How terraformed is this planet?” I had asked the director. We both paged our copies of the sparse notes and reports on Ostakis on our government issued readers. Survey had just turned in the information, and I was eager to see it. But, at the director’s request, I had to wait until this meeting to go through it thoroughly.
“Not quite Earth normal,” said Director Kotal. “Ten percent of the original plant and animal forms still survive. The Ostakians fight the planet’s encroaching desert sands. The shield wall the colonists built is in disrepair.”
That was an interesting bit of information. “Any reason why?”
“Our survey found abandoned population centers. Grey and Jacobs in Analysis think the number of people is shrinking. They may not have the workers to maintain it.”
“So, after all this time, it has begun.”
“Yes. It had to, didn’t it?” She stood and stared out of the port window that revealed the desert planet beneath us. “If any planet needs what the HPC offers, it is Ostakis.”
A silence hung between us. The urgency of the mission weighed more heavily.
“And another thing,” she said. “The scout team reported rumors, or myths, of aboriginal tribes hiding in the desert.”
We looked each other in the eye. The first hope of Earth had been finding indigenous sentients, but to our disappointment found none.
“Our lack of knowledge of the basis of the Faith Progressive Church hampers us. They didn’t send literature on their precepts.”
“Odd. Religions like to proselytize.”
“Exactly. So we can only assume that there are things they don’t want us to know. Be careful of Thyenn Sharr, Kaj. He’s the church’s head man. I can’t impress this enough on you. Their highly conservative religious movement does not condone much that isn’t praying and preaching. The hardest part of this assignment is conforming to the societal norms of the planet.”
“Until I otherwise need to.”
“Yes,” she said with a nod of her head. “Until that. So tread carefully.”
The transport landed screaming with a hard jolt and the increased gravity gripped my body, and the heat of the planet sucked my strength. The overheated air danced in shimmers off the newly built tarmac. Even terraforming didn’t change the lack of humidity of this desert world circling a white sun. I took the steps of the high ladder of the flyer to the ground as if I were an old man. My joints groaned, and my lungs couldn’t breathe. My section chief briefed me on the effects of a weightier g-force, but the reality jolted me. However, I had a job to complete, come calamity, storm, or the ache in my bones. The HPC, the Human Planets Collective, brought me to Ostakis to do it, and I thought I was ready.
I should have spent more time in the gym.
By the end of the descent, I sympathized with my grandfather much more, who always told me that aging hurts. As he predicted, so does a planet with a gravity 1.45 of Earth’s. “That’s nearly a half gee more,” the old man had chuckled. He worked the space docks all his life and acclimated to adapting to different specific gravities. “You won’t feel so spry then.”
Thanks for your sage words, Gramps.
My welcoming committee stood in line solemnly at the bottom of the steps. Humans all, though a hundred generations removed from the main stock on Earth. We did not know what adaptations their bodies made to this world in the interval after Earth and her colonies lost contact. Now, aside from a scouting party gone horribly wrong, we were seeing each other for the first time in twenty-five centuries. None of us knew what to expect.
At the bottom of the high stair stood three men and a woman. One was dressed in robes reminiscent of old Earth clerics in black and white, and I assumed this was Thyenn Sharr. Another was an older silver-haired man dressed in what were formal street clothes, an all-body drape of cream fabric. The garment was unlike clothing I’d seen. It was a cross between a Roman toga and a kilt, though the Ostakians did not expose their skin. They accomplished this with a sheath of wide ribbons that covered their frame. Both the over and under cloth sported the pearly sheen reminiscent of superb Earth silk.
The third, a middle-aged gentleman, donned the same clothing. I recognized him from the dossier—Mar Seyatt, the mayor of Kiji Ost, the capital city of Ostakis. The lady attired herself in a provocative red wrap with a yellow under wrap. Her raven colored hair was piled on her head in a spiral. They all wore sandals.
The woman moved forward and bowed. “My house welcomes yours, Ambassador Deder,” she said in the standard Ostakian greeting.
She mispronounced my name, a common enough error among non-Earth English speakers. “Forgive me. It’s spoken as ‘Deeder,’ with a long e.”
She nodded. “Please forgive my house for any offense.”
“I took none,” I assured her.
“Thank you, Ambassador Deder. I am Irdrana Vos, your counterpart from my government’s side.”
Ah. The first real slap in the face. The scouting expedition had discovered that women held a lesser status than men. Did someone mean her appointment as my equal as an insult? But she was lovely to look on, and I did not mind. I would make the best of it by ignoring their insult. They could laugh at me if they wished, whisper snide comments aside to each other, but there were worse things than working with an alluring woman.
It was evident she wanted this posting, though. She practiced her English so that barest hint of an accent graced her words. This was a small miracle as Ostakian gained many strange permutations of inflection that baffled Earth linguists.
I smiled graciously. “One of many I hope we share.”
My reply deviated from standard conversational forms. A slight upturn of my counterpart’s lips and her eyes’ merriment told me she understood the game I played. She caught that I poked and prodded in the smallest of ways, testing the sincerity of the greeting I received. I might be young, but I was an ambassador’s son. I’d watched my father on similar occasions many times.
Irdrana Vos was charming, yet professional, displaying the traits of the perfect ambassador. I hoped she found comparable qualities in me.
“And these are citizens you will interact with.” Was her English not nuanced enough to know this was not the correct word? Or did she understand the differences in the shades of meaning and used it deliberately? “This is Most Reverend Thyenn Sharr, the high priest of the Faith Progressive Church.”
I bowed as previously instructed and offered the standard greeting to a cleric.
“Faith and devotion always inspire hope,” I replied in my rudimentary Ostakian. I prayed, but not to some incorporeal godhead, that I would get this right. Sharr was not a man to offend. Ostakis sent its language manuals later than we requested. I jammed in what my poor brain could pick up while we waited for them to construct the spaceport. Hopefully, I would learn the rest quickly.
“Why thank you, Mr. Deder,” he said with the barest of smiles. Irdrana shot him a vexed glance. It did not escape me he refused to use my title nor offer me a similarly standard greeting. Okay, then. Not a fan.
“And the Trademaster of Ostakis, Aulkus Klath.”
“We welcome your house to ours,” said Klath. He didn’t speak warmly, but at least he used the correct words. He was cautious, but not unfriendly.
I bowed once again. “My house rejoices in your welcome.” The Trademaster betrayed the barest of smiles. So, this was a man who appreciates niceties.
“And the mayor of Kiji Ost, Mar Seyatt.”
I bowed again. “My house begs your indulgence to join your city.” It was an awkward sequence of words in English, but in Ostakian the correct form.
Seyatt broke into the first smile I received that day, and I instantly distrusted him. That grin was odd, unnaturally wide, and unsettling.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he replied enthusiastically in an Earth-style fashion. Ah, a xenophile. Or pretending to be one. That put me in a culturally awkward position. Not only did Seyatt ignore my traditional plea for acceptance, making me entirely unwelcome in the city he lorded, he expected me to greet him as an old friend. It was pointedly impolite. I noticed Sharr’s lips curl in a self-satisfied half scowl at my upcoming humiliation, while Irdrana’s expression communicated she wanted to harm Seyatt. Klath stood the farthest from me of the three, his face drawn tight in discomfort at the imminent cultural debacle.
The microseconds ticked while I formed a response that fulfilled forms that did not make me appear an uncultured fool parroting words without understanding their meaning. The sweat beading my brow was not due to the heat. But why not play on assumptions?
“My house welcomes your friendship.”
I was playing with fire. With those words, I called Seyatt on prematurely acting a friend when we had not yet established trust between us. And I did so politely. He now had two choices. Seyatt could stand by the inferred offer, which could prove difficult for him if I failed my mission or walk it back. That would embarrass him and his house.
Seyatt’s face lost color. In front of these observers, my reply shoved my foot inside Ostakian society. By this planet’s laws, witnesses trumped a written record, photograph, or video. Now Seyatt could not gainsay my supposal. But he was the person who acted in an overly friendly manner. Any Ostakian would assume the honor of an offered friendship, so I would too.
Irdrana’s eyes brimmed with merriment while Klath’s lips upturned in the barest of smiles. Sharr’s expression grew hard as he stared at me like a monster that threatened to devour all of them. Seyatt stood there, silent, not knowing how to respond, and the tension thickened.
Klath coughed, breaking the unease, and all heads turned to the trademaster.
“Shall we retire to my home for daymeal?” he offered. It was an incredibly polite offer. Ostakians reserved daymeals for family, friends, and close business associates. Within minutes of my arrival, I had jetted into a new social position within Ostakian society.
Beginner’s luck, I warned myself.
I contemplated the three of them. Irdrana had an unnatural arch to the curve of her dark brow, and Klath an undertone of orange to his skin not seen on earth. Detecting a difference in Sharr was hard. Cleric clothing covered everything but his face. What aberration did he hide under his clothes? Seyatt looked entirely human except that extra-wide smile. Something happened in the genetics of the people here that did not follow the typical path of evolution. The First Contact teams suspected that, and one of my jobs was to find out if it were true.
Would it please the cautious Kotal that I jammed my foot into the social structure of Ostakis within my first moments of arrival? Or would she think I moved too quickly?
But haste in all forms chased this operation. There was much to accomplish before the HPC cruiser hiding in orbit around Ostakis’ moon left for another former Earth colony. Either I stayed or left with that ship after I performed any of my assignments, the first being evaluating whether Ostakian society could fit within the HPC framework. My superiors’ current thinking was that it did not. How Ostakis received me was the first test.
I followed my welcoming committee and stepped off the concrete onto crushed gravel. This spaceport was brand new, erected on the hope of Ostakis entering the Human Planet Collective and establishing trade with member worlds. But it was incomplete. The mission commander patiently waited as the Ostakians built the required landing space for off-world transport. But the ship that delivered me had a tight schedule and other places to go. We could not wait for them to finish construction. As soon as the natives laid the tarmac, my people sent me in the flyer.
I looked over the shoulders of the welcoming committee to the city that lay at the edge of the spaceport.
It was a long walk, even for me who was used to walking everywhere. And the gravity and the heat rapidly claimed me as its victim as we made for the brand new Ostakian terminal. Fresh paint greeted my nose, and I spotted no security personnel at the gate. When two electric vehicles that reminded me of golf carts arrived, I gratefully took the seat Irdrana Vos offered. Soon we entered the city proper, and I marveled as we rolled along streets as straight as a ruler. A few modest gleaming and newly built skyscrapers dominated the streetscape. Seyatt, playing tour guide, kept a running commentary of the accomplishments of Ostakis.
The whir of the electric engine stymied conversation. We lurched side to side as the driver zig-zagged erratically to avoid pedestrians. The driver’s efforts earned us curious and impolite stares as we whizzed past the people of Kiji Ost. I could imagine their dialogue.
That’s him, the man from Earth.
Tsk, don’t you have anything to do other than gossip?
His skin is as pale as the night moon.
He comes from the stars, doesn’t he?
The wheels of the electric vehicle jolted onto uneven cobbles in an older part of the city. The streets narrowed, shutting out the sun. People pressed close together traveling on their daily routines. Modern and old, wide and close, bright and dark, these were the contrasts of my new home.
In which light would I stand in the coming days? Despite the heat, I shivered, because I did not know the answer.