The sun rose, and the sky separated from the Pacific Ocean.
The water stayed dark, but the air above lightened and developed clouds. They shone pink and hazy, stitched by the gleaming contrails of jets.
Golden Hour, thought Mike Loew, and shoved the sippy lip of the go-cup into his mouth for another desperate sip of coffee. His body still thought it was 10pm. His brain thought he should be in Hollywood. In his heart, Mike was very worried about what the salt and sand would do to his shoes.
“Um,” he said. “Are you sure we’ve come to the right place?”
It was an inane question to ask. Of course they were in the right place. Mike’s charges had woken him up an hour before dawn, fed these coordinates directly into the rental van’s AI, then dashed straight into the water as soon as the vehicle had parked. All that was visible now of the visitors were the little robot interpreters hovering over four ominous shadows below the waves.
Mike tried to think of other ways to politely phrase, “What the fuck do a bunch of non-human film critics have to do at the beach at dawn?”
“Certainly,” said one of the interpreters in the chirpy voice Mike had chosen for Sessile Probings, the non-human in charge. The official name of Sessile’s species was “Individuals Locked in Mutual Tensegrity,” but Mike privately called him a slime-fish.
“We have to wait an hour to get the tide,” said Sessile. “However, Octopus Iceberg was bored at the hotel.”
Mike glanced at a passing jogger, trying to force his brain to work. “Okay, so you wanted a morning swim before we drive up to Hollywood? I just need to know how far I should push back the meetings I’ve lined up for us.” Meetings with people who would never have given Mike the time of day back when he was trying to break into the industry. When he’d been the sort of idiot who thought you got a movie made by telling a good story.
Mike was a government functionary now, and much wiser. Or at least, he had thought he was wiser until this morning. He raised his go-cup and found it empty.
“We do not swim,” said Sessile. “We study film.”
Yes! Mike wanted to shout. That’s why I pulled strings to get myself assigned to you.
He closed his eyes. They’d told him about this in Beijing. Interpreters weren’t perfect. You needed to speak clearly and stay aware of alternate meanings. “I am confused,” he said. “Please restate.”
“Currently, I am studying this film on this rock.”
Mike tightened his grip on on his cup. He stared out over the water, a horrible realization swelling in his gut. “Sessile, what do you mean when you say ‘film?'”
“I will show you.” Shadows moved against the sand, and Sessile rose from the waves.
Sunlight glared off the spun glass globe of Sessile’s primary shell. Then the slime-fish rose to his full height and the sun was behind him, haloing the bloated head within. Sessile’s eel-like tail thrashed embedded in the column of slime that supported his fish-bowl head.
The slime hardened as Mike watched, its surface turning gray and cracked as water wept out of it. Rods pushed out of the mass, dangling snotty strands. Webs of mucus tightened, and these extruded limbs flexed.
A cluster of these limbs cradled a flat, smooth rock, about the size of a plate. It was also slimy. Everything within a foot of Sessile was slimy.
The non-human’s head pulsed within its spiked and blistered globe. Bubbles of air farted out of the depths of the tower of mucus. “Look at this, Mike,” the interpreter chirped. “I found a model film. This is a good example of a film.”
Mike wanted to fall to his knees and shake his empty coffee cup at the sky. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work! He was supposed to be in a Hollywood board room in an hour, facilitating deals and making connections. They had to respect him now! He was bringing them film critics from alternate Earths! Not…not marine biologists!
“I think,” he said, “that there has been a translation error.”
The training turned out to be worth the jetlag. Upon further discussion, Mike and Sessile managed to establish that a film was a series of sounds and images that told a story when projected in front of a human’s eyeballs. A biofilm, however, was a colony of bacteria that coordinated their behavior in order to change their environment. They secreted a number of fascinating compounds.
Mike nodded and looked down at his salt-stained shoes. “Good,” he mumbled. “Good. I’m glad we established that.”
Sessile had finished excreting his land-body. He tottered forward on a pair of spindly puppet-legs, a fishy eye bulging behind a lens-blister on his shell. “Mike, does the shape of the front of your head indicate that you are emotionally troubled?”
“No,” said Mike. “No, I’m just fine. Please don’t try to give me a hug.”
“I won’t hug you because it will be disgusting. But please wait a moment. I will call Octopus Iceberg. He studied the psychophysiology of mammals.”
Another monster loomed out of the depths, this one a plexiglass globe perched on top of a ring of articulated metal tentacles. Floating within the globe, veiled in fluttering jellyfish gowns, was an octopus.
Mike wasn’t a biologist or paleontologist, so he didn’t know how octopi had conquered Iceberg’s version of Earth, but the Convention of Sapient Species had much weirder members. At least he knew the two of them shared a love of audiovisual story-telling. Or so he had thought.
“Octopus Iceberg, I believe our native guide is upset,” said Sessile.
Metal tentacles tip-toed over the sand. Segmented suckers opened like camera shutters. Colors and textures flickered across the skin of the octopus. “Yes,” said its interpreter. “He has a mental state of frustration.”
“It’s just I worked hard to get this job because I thought we worked in the same industry,” said Mike.
The non-humans looked at each other.
“But you are a government official and we study film.”
Mike squeezed his eyes shut. “Biofilm! Interpreter, translate that word as ‘biofilm.'”
“There is a very important difference,” Sessile told Iceberg. “This ‘film’ is a tradition of human performance art that Human Mike hopes to participate in.”
“I understand. Human Mike, don’t be ashamed of making bad films. It is very important that you are helping science.”
“I didn’t give up because I couldn’t make a good movie,” Mike told the inside of his eyelids. Who cared what he told a bunch of marine biologists? It might as well be the truth. “I gave up because Hollywood is a corrupt pit where real art goes to die.”
There was some confusion while their interpreters chewed on the cultural context behind that explanation, which evolved into a longer diatribe about the industry in general.
“It’s just so cynical,” Mike found himself saying. “There’s this old boy’s club giving awards to each other. Calculated grabs for attention. Public personas instead of actual people. Just…” he waved his hands, “just lies. But everyone has to act like they believe, or else they get pushed out. Nobody is willing to stand up and say what they really think.”
The octopus and slime-fish looked at him.
“I am still confused,” said Sessile. “So, are there images paired with sounds?”
Mike groaned and clawed at his pocket. “Look. I’ll show you. Here’s the most critically acclaimed film of the past year.” He had it downloaded on his phone, and he watched it compulsively. It always depressed him.
“Look at this!” Mike said, thrusting the phone at the biologists. “That brown color palette. Those fake accents. It’s not a movie at all, it’s just a sign that says ‘this is intellectual.'”
“Yes,” said Sessile. “It seems completely incomprehensible. But only the most advanced art can resonate outside of its cultural background.”
“No, wait, I think I might like it,” said Iceberg. “The problem is that the quality of the display device is poor. Wait a moment.”
A message popped up on Mike’s phone. “New device connected,” followed by a long string of numbers and letters.
“I have connected my armor to your communication device.”
“You can watch movies on your exo-suit?” asked Mike.
“Of course. The entire inner surface is covered with visual displays.”
“Octopus Iceberg’s species sees with their skin and also eyes,” explained Sessile.
“Sure, why not?” Mike pressed “play.”
Iceberg’s skin prickled. Browns and grays marched across his body. “It is pleasant and soothing,” he said. “However, this effect is only effective when you are watching a movie with all eight arms.”
Mike shook his head in despair.
“What about the population?” asked Sessile.
“The population only has two arms.”
“I don’t understand. I mean what movies do most humans like to watch?”
“Oh, the public, you mean? They watch absolute garbage. Uh…look.” Mike found last season’s highlight reel from a reality show and cast it to Iceberg’s suit.
His tentacles stiffened. The fishbowl helmet sparkled with refracted images and his skin flashed red, white, and purple. “Inarticulate joy,” said the interpreter.
Sessile’s scarecrow body jerked, sending mucus flying. “Octopus Iceberg! Are you okay?”
Iceberg’s skin shivered. “This is the product of great and noble talent,” whispered the interpreter.
Mike looked at his phone to make sure he hadn’t selected the wrong video. “What? No! It’s just sex and shouting.”
“This art encompasses the essence of human existence.”
Sessile connected to Mike’s phone and his glass shell swam with images. “I understand your idea. This shows the purest form of interaction. Bacterial communities coordinate in a very similar way.”
Mike floundered. Every diplomatic instinct he possessed was saying “Just nod and smile and agree.”
But he couldn’t. Not after he’d bared my soul to these non-humans. These beings who he had thought were people. “No!” He stomped his expensive shoe on the sand. A cigarette butt went flying. “No, God damn it! This stuff is garbage! It’s stupid, Sessile.”
“We will teach you to appreciate it,” said the slime-fish.
“Yes,” said the octopus. “All that is needed for this film is proper analysis.”
Save us from the Whale
“People need a way to stave off the constant possibility that common understanding may break down.”
— N.J. Enfield, How We Talk
Royal tangs wobbled serenely between the softly undulating tentacles of sea anemones. Bubbles rose in a shimmering curtain. The filter hummed. I watched the tropical fish in their tank and tried to control my breathing.
“Waffles?” I said. “The ambassador is running late because of your waffles?”
Lucas turned red. “I did ask him to find a source of malt for the batter, yes.”
“I don’t know what either of those words mean,” I flung up my hands. “And I don’t care. You stupid boys and your stupid Western Cooking projects!”
“He really liked my waffles,” said Lucas, immodestly.
I looked back at the fish, which failed to soothe me. “Translator?” I said in Chinese. “Estimated arrival time for Ambassador Wang?”
“34 minutes,” answered the bumble-bee-sized robot.
“Estimated arrival time for the representative of the Monumental Chamber of Commerce?”
The doorbell buzzed.
“Miss?” came the voice of the doorman. “There’s a…a giant…uh…a sort of giant…”
“Yes, yes, send him up.” I turned to Lucas and said in English. “Okay, so we stall him.”
“Oh,” Lucas looked at the floor. “We.”
“I was just going to serve you lunch. Orata al cartoccio and mousse au chocolat.”
“Sea bream to the paper bag,” supplied the little robot, “and foam at the chocolate.”
“Sounds delicious,” I said, “but I need you in your capacity as biologist, Lucas. I don’t even know what a Monumental looks like.” I thought back to the briefing Lucas had sent me the week before. “Some kind of whale? Some kind of hippo?”
He wobbled his head. “You’re thinking of the word ‘whippomorpha.’ Yes, the Architects of Stable Monuments evolved from stem-whippomorphs. That’s the clade that includes everything that evolved from the most recent common ancestor of both whales and hippos, but left no descendants on our version of Earth. The Monumental Earth experienced an Ice Age during the Eocene…”
I looked at the rising floor readout of the elevator. “Will he be poisoned by fish in a bag and chocolate?”
I thought back to other diplomatic/biological faux pas of the past. “Will his sweat poison us?”
“Will he fit through the door?”
“Um,” said Lucas, and the elevator opened.
A sound rolled into the lobby of the United Nations Embassy to the Convention of Sapient Species, part scream, part rumble, part didgeridoo.
“Let me immediately go away from this very small coffin, otherwise I will put you monkeys in a hole and cover you with a pile of manure!” the translator translated for the representative of the Monumental Chamber of Commerce.
The forward half of the representative flopped out of the elevator and hit the floor with a heavy crack. He did not look much like a hippo or a whale. He looked like a sausage riding a scateboard.
A sausage with whiskers and ears at one end and a flat beaver-like tail at the other, now visible as the enormous creature paddled into the lobby on four limbs that could have been hooves, hands, or flippers. He was wrapped in some sort of tough, transparent plastic and three pairs of wheels lined his belly, like the castors on an easy chair. He smelled like clay and sea water.
Another didgeridoo blare, which the translator rendered as. “I apologize. My calling out was caused by discomfort of the body. I will not let it affect my judgement. I am (untranslatable), who are you?”
I introduced myself and Lucas, and said, “Translator, flag name of interlocutor and assign temporary translation as ‘digeridoo.’ Confirm?”
“I am very happy and ashamed. I go with you see your husband!” trumpeted Didgeridoo.
“Clarify?” I asked, making another promise to myself that I would murder our current translation coder as soon as I found someone who could replace him.
“I want you to show me your husband.”
“Lucas? What’s he talking about? What are the mating habits of Monumentals?”
“Um,” he said. “Oh! Polyandrus! High-ranking females have a harem of husbands — usually brothers or first cousins — who they send out to do things for them.”
“Translator, flag word ‘husband’ in present Monumental language and reassign translation to ‘underling.'” I wanted for confirmation and addressed our guest. “Should I take you to my underling?”
“Yes.” Didgeridoo opened his mouth, displaying peg-like teeth. I assumed that was a sign of impatience. “I know you Nationals are abnormal of custom, but with female strangers, conversation me very much uncomfortable.”
“Lucas?” I said.
“Right, the public sphere is males doing business with each other in the name of their wives, which means,” he glanced at me, “it might help to tell Didgeridoo that I’m your husband?”
Digeridoo’s broad ears swiveled toward Lucas. “Him? This stinky male is your husband?” They flattened against the Monumental’s skull. “I am sorry, I believe your other brothers are more fragrant, but their skills are lower. I am very with pleasure because you have introduced me to your dear wife.” He raised his front flippers and made a motion with them as if doing the breast stroke. “New topic: our meeting. Where is it?”
I looked down at the huge, cigar-shaped sophont on the floor, and thought of the conference room with its table and chairs. “Why, our meeting is right here.”
The ears jerked back toward me and with a squeal of little wheels, Digeridoo rolled onto his back and squirmed like a playful kitten. “I am very happy because you speak to me. Even if you are not my wife, you respect me.” He rolled back over and panted for a moment before addressing Lucas. “New topic: I will relax. How is it I climb in northeast side furniture?”
We looked into the northeastern corner of the room, which was entirely occupied by the fish tank.
“Clarification,” I said. “You want to lie down on the couch?” I pointed at the couch next to Didgeridoo.
Didgeridoo didn’t track my finger with his ears, but the translator rumble-squeaked something and he gaped, wiggling. “I don’t want to tell you that you are not correct. You
stretched your hoof in the direction of a dry object. It doesn’t have roots. I am pointing
to the furniture in the northeast corner of the room. It smells like fish. I like it. However, it is very high from the ground. I do not know how to climb in.”
“It’s a fish tank,” I said. “It isn’t furniture. It isn’t for sitting in.” When the hell was Wang going to arrive? Waffles!
Digeridoo flipped back over onto his back. “I feel very disappointed and not comfortable.
I feel very ashamed.Because you are a woman, please don’t talk to me.”
Lucas looked from the quivering belly of the Monumental to me. “I think you intimidate him.”
I sighed. “So you talk to him. Tell him I’m sorry we don’t have a suitable place for him to rest, but we would be happy to serve him lunch while we wait for the ambassador.”
I resisted tapping my feet while Lucas relayed the message and Digeridoo flipped back over, castors screeching across the floor.
“What kind of food did you make fermented for me?” Wrinkled nostrils opened and snuffled between Digeridoo’s ears. “I want to confirm that the food is not your nauseating smell’s source.”
I groaned and Lucas sniffed his fingers. “I smell chocolate and baked fish.”
Digeridoo flattened his ears and slapped his tail on the floor. “The fish has been fired in a kiln! National, you must clarify that you put the fish in a kiln, and you have smeared the ashes of the fish on your flippers, and now you are talking to me! Don’t you know that my wife writes letters to the Pyramid of the River Delta, which is filled with Gleaming Specks of Mica? No, you must know! You are making a lot of damn pyramids on this damn Salmon Festival!”
Lucas looked at me with panic in his eyes.
I may not have had time to read up on Monumental Biology, but that was because I had prioritized the spec sheets they had given us and the terms of the contract they were offering. Money and future trade considerations in exchange for the manufacture of millions of devices called, by the translation software, “Toy Pyramids of the Salmon Festival.” Lucas’s fancy fish-in-a-bag lunch had gravely offended the religious sensibilities of our guest.
“Uh. No,” I said. “That was…a terrible accident. No baked fish.” Then, before Digeridoo could show me his belly again, “tell him, Lucas.”
“It was a mistake?” he said.
“And go get the chocolate mousse and the sample toy pyramid.”
“Just a moment, sir.” Lucas ducked through the door into the embassy.
I smiled awkwardly at Digeridoo, who wriggled awkwardly back at me.
“What sample toy pyramid?” called Lucas from the back rooms.
“The one we had manufactured on Earth,” I called back. “It’s a decoration for the Monumentals’ equivalent of New Year’s. It’s shaped like a pyramid!”
Lucas rushed back into the foyer with three small plastic glasses, spoons, and the toy pyramid, which looked like the Antikathera Mechanism had mated with a Rubix Cube.
Digeridoo sniffed, running his whiskers over Lucas’s out-thrust hands. “What is this paste of bitter grass? I will take the toy pyramid of the day of the salmon.”
He delicately grabbed the pyramid between his front teeth and rolled over onto his side, curling around the toy and prodding at it with whiskers, tongue, tail, and all four limbs.
“I told you to cook something that wouldn’t poison him,” I hissed at Lucas.
“I did!” he said. “There’s nothing in his biochemistry that should have a problem with sea bream or chocolate. Nothing in the literature said Monumentals think cooked fish is taboo!”
“Maybe it’s only the Monumentals whose wives write letters to the Pyramid of the Mica Delta,” I said.
Lucas nodded glumly. “We’re going to need to do a lot more cultural research if we want to make these people’s Christmas ornaments for them.”
“I am very satisfied so far,” said Digeridoo. “Just now give me some mud.”
“Um,” said Lucas. “Clarify?”
“Mud!” hooted Digeridoo. “Dark mud! Silt! Soft mud! Loose mud! [unassigned word]! Clay and water and organic granules! I assume the mud in the room’s northeast corner. Please give me that mud, so that I can test the toy you made for me. Is the toy effective?”
“The specifications didn’t say it needed to work in mud,” I said. “No, never mind, don’t roll over.”
I looked at the fish tank, and sand that covered its floor. I pictured that sand in the pyramid toy’s many tiny gears. “Lucas, give Digeridoo your mousse. Tell him that’s the mud he wants. And don’t you roll over at me, either.”
Lucas sniffed, pulled his lower lip back in, and gave the Monumental his chocolate mousse.
“Bitter grass,” mumbled Digeridoo. “I am unhappy because of this smell.”
So was I at the squelching noises.
“However, it is apparent that the toy operates well in normal conditions,” Digeridoo concluded. “I am very happy because your species meets our lowest standards of manufacture. We will eat, then we will discuss payment.”
“Eat?” said Lucas.
“Yes!” said Digeridoo. “Food is a negotiation prerequisite condition.”
Lucas looked at me.
“Translator,” I asked, “when will the ambassador arrive?”
“In 10 minutes.”
I turned and looked at the fish tank. A blue tang swam by.
“Ask him,” I told Lucas, “if he would mind a raw fish.”
Daniel M. Bensen