4. The Niceties
Hot, humid air hit Pilsen in a wave as the cargo ramp lowered down from Nana’s Hog. The sickly, salt smell of brine wafted into the hold, mixing with the fish flakes, and creating an altogether new form of pungent stink. He tried to hide his grimace, but knew he was doing a poor job. The smell was quite unlike anything he had ever experienced and was enough to make him feel woozy. Or was that the nerves? There were plenty of nerves to go around.
Pilsen had been feeling almost confident until his cockpit confidant had confided to him the knowledge of evolutionary superiority among crustaceans. While half of her ramblings were lost in a hallucinogenic bender that made him fear for the ship’s very stability, there were coherent and sobering warnings mixed in. Even on Earth, crabs had been one of the most dominant forms of life. Likely, if humans went back, they would find the beaches swarmed with the creatures, feeding off the land and the sea. Crustacea was the next illogical step in the unending line of seemingly random consequences that was evolution.
He straightened his uniform. Crustacea’s first impression wouldn’t be one worth remembering, but Pilsen would meet the planet with the proper dignity afforded to his position. With stiff legs, he walked down the ramp, trying to convey both political superiority and a welcoming smile. The result was something close to a fascist march that would have brought a trembling fear to the minds of anyone that had lived through one of Earth’s ancient wars. Luckily, the dignitaries from Crustacea knew little about fascism’s relationship to stiff steps and pressed uniforms.
As he descended the ramp, Pilsen caught his first glance of their welcoming committee. An oversized crab and shrimp stood in the middle of a stone bridge leading from the landing pad to a cluster of buildings. Pilsen’s mind took a moment to adjust. His previous experience with crustaceans had been entirely limited to restaurant menus. Seeing them standing across from him as equals and an ostensible welcoming committee was enough to give him a tension headache. There were no protocols for having a diplomatic discussion with your food.
The crab stood nearly six feet tall and bore a glistening, dark blue shell. Its claws were large enough that Pilsen was able to imagine his torso fitting between them moments before he was torn in half. Shifting his attention to the shrimp made him feel no better. While there were no menacing claws, the excited nature of the shrimp’s twitching eyes, and beet-red, armor-plated backside still unnerved him. In the baking sun, the red coloring almost made the creature look like a sun burned tourist.
Had it not been for the warmed anti-matter guns behind him, Pilsen might have felt nervous. Originally, he had been against the idea of landing on Crustacea with their weapons hot, but Zip’s rants were both bizarre and convincing. In any case, one false move from their hosts, and the creatures would be wiped from existence faster than they could ask for a parley. In a way, it was an homage to the original colonial tendencies of the old empires. Pilsen wasn’t sure if that was to be a comfort or a warning.
In the long history of conquerors traveling to strange new lands to kill everything that wouldn’t assimilate, there was also an equally long line of bloody and justified rebellion. Those who abused the land, the people, and just about everything else, often died badly and publicly. Pilsen wondered what the crustacean equivalent of being drawn and quartered would be. Likely similar.
The crab spoke, breaking Pilsen from his macabre fantasy. “Welcome, senior ranking member of the United Commission of Planets. This is Crustacea.” The voice was strange, tinny, and metallic.
Pilsen could not hide his surprise. “Th-thank you.” Stunned, he tried to manage a bow, but something about recent space flight made it feel clumsier than usual.
The crab lowered itself to the ground, imitating Pilsen’s gesture. “We are most honored by your presence. Your manifest said there would be another negotiator with you. Where are they?”
Matter of fact, and to the point. Pilsen let out a forced interpretation of a good natured laugh. While the idea of Zip as a negotiator was indeed a humorous one, the idea of her not leaving the ship made him feel significantly endangered. “The other is my pilot, and she prefers to stay with the ship. It’s an old custom, and one that is not often broken.”
The crab’s eyestalks wavered back and forth momentarily. Its arms and legs creaked as if under sudden pressure, but then relaxed. “Of course. My name is Huron, I am the elected ambassador from Crustacea.”
Pilsen watched as the crab’s large claws rubbed in almost a dainty way along the edges of a metal box between them. The scraping sound was obscured by the clarity of the creature’s voice. It was impressive technology to say the least. “I am Pilsen,” he replied, eventually finding his words. “The elected ambassador for the United Commission of Planets.” Given the crab’s preoccupation with holding the box and the sight of its claws, Pilsen did not hold out a hand to shake. It was one of the first rules in intergalactic relations: Never put your hand out in greeting if you think it might not come back.
“Splendid, our first visit has officially begun!” exclaimed the shrimp, no longer able to contain excitement that had clearly been at a breaking point. “Would you please follow us to the negotiations center?”
One of Huron’s eyestalks turned in what might have been a reprimand, but quickly shifted back to Pilsen. “It is far more comfortable than the rest of this island.”
Pilsen wondered just how obvious the sweat beading down his neck was. He was used to climate-controlled chambers and artificial weather that was always a perfect seventy degrees. Being out in the unnatural heat was getting to him. “That sounds wonderful, thank you.”
Huron turned and motioned for him to follow.
Pilsen took a last glance at the cockpit of Nana’s Hog. Sun glared off the glass, but he knew that Zip was watching, finger itching around the trigger of the tusk-mounted guns. Tearing his mind away from safety, Pilsen started forward and followed his hosts. As he moved closer, he noticed a system of tubes winding around the backs of the creatures. Water leaked out at intervals, creating a constant sheen of water that almost immediately evaporated into mist. Another impressive technological feat for a society built on hand-me-downs.
From above, the island’s buildings had looked like nothing more than squat bricks. On the surface, they were much of the same. The technology was utilitarian to say the least. Each block was coated in a reflective surface that would have blinded most air traffic, but likely kept the interiors cool in the heat. Great, grey tubes, similar to those on the creatures’ backs ran out from the ocean and snaked around the outer edges of the building. At its peak, Crustacea’s temperatures would be inhospitable to most life. Every available cooling mechanism would be necessary for even brief stints above the surface.
Huron approached a circular door on the side of the building. It irised open with a smooth hiss, revealing an opening that was nearly twenty feet high.
Pilsen gulped. Six-foot crabs were one thing. Whatever needed a twenty-foot door on a planet filled with armored creatures that felt humans had treated them poorly in the past was another story entirely. Most of the research Pilsen had found about Crustacea was purely academic, and what was observational, had been done from orbit. No one had sent drones down to investigate, because up until recently, no one had been interested. Crustacea had no valuable resources to strip mine, and in general, people thought of crabs as unpleasant and unworthy of negotiation.
Pilsen cursed whatever twisted part of his brain had driven him to cross Lucretia LaVain. I should be at a dinner party wooing potential donors. Instead, he was stuck walking into an alien facility with his only protection refusing to leave the comfort of her ship. It was only after a minute of being lost in his own self-pity that Pilsen realized Huron was speaking again. What’s the golden rule of negotiation? Listen to everything, because you never know what line is going to be the leverage you need.
“This will be the first time we use these facilities, but they have been built to accommodate far more than a single negotiator.” While the outside of the building had been sparse, the inside bore some of the small creature comforts that other species would need to feel comfortable. For one, the temperature dropped immediately to a comfortable cool that made the sweat on Pilsen’s back prickle and chill. The walls were polished metal with intricate designs carved in them depicting many forms of life under a teaming sea. Recessed into the carvings were small, bright lights, making them look like constellations.
“But the single most important part of negotiation,” continued Huron, “is a good meal.” The crab pressed one of its many appendages to a small panel next to the door. It functioned like a keypad, but with a level of complexity that went beyond entering simple numbers. After a moment of fiddling with it, the door irised open, revealing a long dining table that was slanted upward at one end. This momentarily confused Pilsen until he saw Huron move toward it, and realized it was the right size for something that didn’t sit in a chair.
He moved toward a seat on the opposite end. “This is all quite impressive.”
“More than you were expecting?” asked Huron.
Pilsen found it hard to lie in the bizarre nature of the situation. “Yes.” A hunger was growing within him, and it had nothing to do with food. If the crustaceans were as advanced as they seemed, they might actually become a valuable partner for the UCP. If he managed to bring them in successfully, it would be a start to getting his career going back in the right direction. “I’m sorry, but the shock of it all has made me forget my manners. We brought you a gift and it’s been left in my cargo hold.”
Huron waved an appendage in dismissal. “There will be time for exchanges later. For now, let us observe the old custom of bread and salt. Huron snapped a claw and a side door opened. A mix of shrimp and crabs, on the smaller, but still far larger than normal side, marched out carrying trays of what was clearly supposed to be food. A crab, about four feet tall and pale orange in color, dropped a silver platter on the table in front of Pilsen with little grace. The creature regarded him suspiciously, or at least what he felt was suspiciously, but quickly scuttled away.
“Thank you.” Pilsen gave another small bow, unsure what customs to observe when trying to hide one’s revulsion. On the silver plate was a jiggling mass of brown that might have been expected to pass for bread. Next to it were slimy strings of green seaweed, woven into a ball in a primitive attempt at presentation. Pilsen immediately regretted his premature excitement.
“Brown bread, made by the finest baker’s Crustacea has to offer.” Despite the cold metallic nature of Huron’s voice, the creature’s pride was clear.
Pilsen looked at the ‘bread’ and wondered if whatever it was would kill him. Reluctantly, he took his seat at the table. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Huron lowered to an approximation of a seat and watched Pilsen expectantly.
The things I do for my career. Pilsen picked up the metal implement that resembled a fork, but wasn’t quite the same, and pushed it into the brown mass. As he broke the surface, a hiss of noxious gas escaped the food. It smelled enough like yeast to make him wonder just how far off the mark they were from making something palatable. Carving off a piece and lifting it towards his mouth, he deeply regretted everything about his life decisions.
“To peace between our nations,” said Huron.
Pilsen forced a smile. “To Peace bet—” A loud crash followed by the staccato reports of gunfire interrupted him.
An alarm blared, and red lights illuminated in the corners of the room.
Pilsen jumped out of his chair, dropping the fork, saved from one fate by another.
Huron moved toward the door with blinding speed, its claws clacking across the polished stone floor. “It’s the damned lobsters.”
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