by Daniel Huddleston
Fogged window glass and damp, white shirts. The droning of fans and dehumidifiers. Fingers tapping on keyboards.
In an office only half a degree cooler than the labyrinth of cubicles that lay outside his door, Nevil Archer–speaking fluent Hakkrati—finished up a call on his satellite phone and leaned back in his office chair, barely able to think. The heat and humidity were leaching productivity from the very air, and a nasty afternoon drowsiness was beginning to creep up on him. An energy drink would have been heaven, but the nearest vendabot that could sell him one was in a star system more than thirty-six light-years away.
These Rochowa summers were murder.
Nevil swiped the palm of one hand across the window glass to his right and looked out through the wet streak of clarity that trailed behind it. Plump red zyzypha trees rose up all around like giant cacti, their carefully-groomed canopies of fan-shaped, jet-black leaves providing shade for the apartments and walkways in their outer sheaths.
Zyzyphas weren’t trees, of course–trees didn’t have hearts or blood–but they weren’t really animals either. Still, the word was sometimes hard to avoid using, since zyzphas didn’t feel pain, didn’t move around, and looked like trees to human eyes. Luckily, the locals didn’t seem to mind the term; they had no real idea of what a tree was anyway. Some misunderstandings were just easier to live with than to have to explain over and over.
From Nevil’s vantage point, there were about as many zyzyphas in view as there were buildings. In spite of the climate that made the summers here so miserable, Rochowa City was a beehive of activity amid its ever-curving avenues below.
It was while Nevil was looking out the window that he came fully awake for the first time since lunch, and felt cold for the first time in three years.
A distant plume of black smoke was beginning to rise up in the north.
Outside his office, he heard a commotion in cubicle country: people were getting up and running toward the windows.
A few minutes later, Orson Blalock from PR came up at a jog and tapped on Nevil’s doorframe.
“Come in,” Nevil said.
“Have you seen it?” asked Orson.
“Yeah,” Nevil replied, squinting at the blackening sky across town. Was it a heat mirage, or could he actually see the flames at the bottom of that giant column of smoke? “Any idea what’s burning?”
“I’m not sure,” Orson answered. “But I’ve got a bad feeling it may be a zyzypha.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Every liuan in the office just abandoned their posts and took off running. Local law trumps company policy in this case. They’re allowed to go and try to help in a situation like this.
Nevil cocked an eyebrow upward. “If every liuan in sight of that smoke goes running straight toward it, won’t they be in the way?”
“Well, once they know which zyzypha is burning, the ones who aren’t needed will start coming back. The ones who stay to help will be mostly the people who actually live there. We’re on the edge of town, so everyone’s zyzyphas are in roughly the same direction from here. Hence, everybody ran.”
“I’d have thought they might have waited for a phone call to tell them which place is burning, but nobody did. Their culture, I guess.”
“I guess,” Nevil agreed with a shrug. In an emergency, he certainly didn’t begrudge anyone doing their duty. “They’re not used to phones yet anyway; even the other companies we’ve given them to might not think to call us at a time like this. Quick question, by the way, but should some of us go as well?”
Orson looked nonplussed. “To the fire? Why?”
“Well, you’re the PR guy. Will they think we’ve been disrespectful if we don’t?”
Orson pursed his lips. “I hadn’t thought about that. I wouldn’t think they’d expect us to go, but still, it would probably be appreciated.”
“Well then, let’s go,” said Nevil. “You’ve got a bicycle?”
It was a silly question.
Everyone had a bicycle.
Nevil and Orson shed their jackets and neckties and headed downstairs, unbuttoning sleeves and collars as they went. It was hotter outside, but once they were out of the enclosed office building, it didn’t feel as stuffy. The breeze helped too. The two men unlocked their bicycles from the rack out front and began pedaling toward the city, up and down its gentle hills and back and forth along its organic, ever curving roadways. The liuans were faster on their feet than humans were. Bicycles were the only way to keep up with them. Soon Nevil and Orson found themselves amid a large crowd of liuans, taking care not to let their front wheels get too close to the sky-blue tails of whoever happened to be running ahead of them. The liuans jogged together in such an orderly yet speedy fashion that the scene looked like some kind of large-scale dinosaur marathon.
As the zyzyphas rolled past along with the open-air architecture of liuan buildings, Nevil thought–not for the first time–that trying to show off Terran architecture here had been a mistake. Those liuan buildings might look primitive, but they had been designed with the heat and humidity in mind. They caught the breezes and used them, while Nevil’s office building was a greenhouse with barely-functional air conditioning, its electricity provided by inefficient solar cells that had yet to impress the natives.
As the crowd drew nearer to the fire, Nevil began to smell the smoke. For the first time, he realized that burning zyzypha smelled a lot like burning incense. The smell took him back to a Buddhist funeral he had attended many years ago, and many light years away. As the Buddhists might say, it was a “less than auspicious” association.
Nevil wondered if there would be anything at all they could do once they got there other than try to keep out of the way. He hoped so. He hadn’t really come out just to rubberneck and score points with the locals. This was a tragedy.
Even if everyone had gotten out safely, even if new homes could be found quickly for all of the displaced, and even if everyone who lived there had had their insurance paid up, a zyzypha tree was burning to death.
Zyzyphas were not just apartment buildings to the locals.
There was still much to learn about both the trees and their dwellers, but in his three years of dealing with liuans, Nevil had learned that the zyzypha trees were to some degree considered family – not just emotionally, but legally as well. He knew as an employer that if the zyzypha tree where an employee resided were to die, that employee was contractually entitled to a standard period of bereavement leave.
Fortunately, it was a very rare thing for a zyzypha to die: it was a kind of loss that the overwhelming majority of liuans would never face in their lifetimes.
Up ahead, a liuan officer was directing traffic. He stood ramrod straight in the center of the road, a uniformed dinosaur in miniature wearing a tall, tall hat. He made clipped, efficient motions with his arms as he ushered some of the crowd one way, and most of it the other. The stream of sky-blue liuan flesh split before him like a river before a sandbar. Behind the officer, a sign was in place thanking everyone for coming, and informing them that sufficient help had already arrived at the site of the fire. Only those who actually lived inside the burning zyzypha (whose address was indicated in fluorescent orange) were being permitted to proceed to the site.
“Oh well,” said Orson.
“Oh well,” agreed Nevil.
They bore to the left with the majority of the crowd. Other officers were already stationed along the way, directing the overflow traffic along a detour that would carry them well out of the way of those who still needed to get through.
Despite being turned away, Nevil felt glad to have come this far. He had never seen the liuans do anything like this before, and the efficiency and speed at which it was carried out amazed him.
At last, they made their way back to the office, drenched in sweat but oddly reinvigorated.
Other liuan employees were also filing back into the building, awkward in the dark suits and ties that they insisted on wearing even in summer – badges of honor proving that they were employed at a human company.
“Get me a head count when they stop trickling in,” Nevil instructed. “Let me know if there’s anyone who doesn’t come back.
Orson nodded, and the two men parted at the elevator.
Liu’s World was named after the Terran who had catalogued the stars in its local cluster more than a century ago, and its fleet-footed reptilian inhabitants were likewise known as “liuans.” Naming an alien world after a human discoverer had drawn sharp criticism from many in the Terran sphere of influence, but fortunately the liuans themselves didn’t seem to mind.
The only other ready-made option was to call the planet RNGC-12583-Null-Null-Emerald, which was a mouthful, and any native word the humans might have adopted would have had to have come from one of the planet’s many spoken languages – a losing proposition, because any native word they could have chosen would have drawn accusations of favoritism from those who spoke other tongues.
In the end the human-centric nomenclature had stuck simply because it was a convenient solution that kept most of the complainers at a comfortable arm’s length of thirty-six point six light-years.
Nevil Archer had arrived on Liu’s World three years ago for a five-year term as executive trader.
To make money shipping things between the stars, you needed high-quality, attractive products that could not be acquired anywhere else. Natural resources alone would never do, not when the same metallic ores, gemstones, heavy elements, and precious metals existed nearly everywhere and were much cheaper to collect close to home. No, for interstellar trade, you needed things that sang to the spirit, that appealed to the taste buds, that showed new forms of truth and beauty, and for the more vulgar-minded conferred status or the illusion of sophistication.
Things that the wealthy would pay through their noses for.
In the two years since he had taken over the Lan-Yo Trading Company’s floundering post in Rochowa City, Hakkrat, Nevil had nailed down contracts with a number of excellent artisans’ guilds, and the number of trading ships making ports-of-call this year was scheduled to increase by two. For Nevil, it was a good start, and proof that his long hours of hard work were beginning to pay off.
Nevil heard the bad news later that afternoon.
A liuan friend of a liuan employee dropped by the office and reported that Habihabi na’Or-45 would not be coming in tomorrow.
Nevil went down to the front desk to meet the man. “Is he all right?” he asked. “He didn’t come back after the fire.”
“His zyzypha burned,” the liuan said. “They couldn’t save it. He couldn’t have come back, or even called in.”
“But he didn’t get hurt trying to help with the firefighting, did he?”
“No, he’s all right physically. But he’s suffered a very hard loss.”
“I see,” Nevil said, not really seeing at all. “Well, if you see him, let him know we’re very sorry for his loss. He’s in our thoughts and prayers.”
“Thank you. I will.”
When the liuan had left and Nevil had dragged himself back up the stairs to his steamy office, he leaned back in his chair, wondering what kind of emotional attachment someone could have to a zyzypha tree. He had never been inside one of the big “tamed” ones: it was some kind of clan rule that they didn’t invite guests over. Whenever he had visited a native liuan, he had always had to meet them either at rented halls, or at parks or restaurants. Neither he nor any human he knew of had ever been inside one of the old trees. Inside the young, uninhabited zyzyphas Nevil had visited, he’d never seen anything but rows and rows of hollow chambers where his voice had reverberated and echoed eerily.
He supposed he could ask Artie about the zyzyphas, assuming Artie was anywhere near his satellite phone.
On second thought, no, he decided. At least not yet.
Artie Rice was a scientist who had been forced on his company in exchange for approval of its contract. As such, Artie was not on Liu’s World to conduct successful trading relations with the natives. He was here to learn, to absorb, and (in Nevil’s opinion) worship anything and everything about liuan culture, society, and biology. He viewed this planet not as a trading partner, but as one huge, unspoiled laboratory specimen. Operating from that perspective, he had had little to say to his fellow humans apart from the word “no.”
Don’t touch that!
Don’t do that!
You’ll spoil it!
You don’t understand!
Nevil had endured Artie’s interference for a full year, and then at last found his chance to be free of him: Artie Rice had developed a consuming interest in the art and oral traditions of the Norspoor frontier region, which was conveniently (for Nevil) located on the other side of the globe.
“Wow! Oh wow! Do you really mean it?” Artie had asked, his eyes tearing up on the day that Nevil had suggested an expedition.
“From the bottom of my heart, Artie,” Nevil had replied with utter sincerity.
So off Artie had gone. He still reported in, sending back samples and papers from time to time, but he hadn’t been back to the home office in two years. Nevil had never specifically set an end date for the expedition. Although he was not entirely comfortable with Artie being all alone so far away and for so long, he had not yet asked Artie to return, and Artie himself had never suggested it. He wondered if it was possible for a human to go native in a place like this.
He’d never dreamed of trying, but he had a feeling that Artie Rice was out there working on it every day.The length of a standard bereavement leave at the Lan’yo Trading Company was three days.
On the morning of the third day after the fire, Nevil found his work interrupted by the sound of a soft knock at his door.
“Come in,” he said.
“Good morning,” said Renee West, the pretty brunette from Purchasing.
“Good morning,” he replied.
Renee’s smile had a way of making even bad mornings good, but this morning she wasn’t wearing it.
“What’s the matter?” Nevil asked.
“Have you seen ‘45 yet?”
“Habihabi? No. He’s due back today, isn’t he? Is he not here?”
“He’s here,” Renee said. “It’s just…well, I think you should see for yourself.”
Sensing bad news in her tone, Nevil stood up and went with her. It was cool in the office, and would continue to be so for a little while longer. The suns were still low.
Following behind Renee in her prim black suit, Nigel plunged into cubicle country, turning left, right, and right again at the printer.
Renee took one step past Habihabi na’Or-45’s cube, then turned and peeked inside through the open entrance. She had made plenty of room, and Nevil could see inside from the opposite corner.
Sitting in the slightly-oversize chair, dressed in his black suit and tie, long tail hanging limp from the circular hole in the back of the chair was the employee in question: Habihabi na’Or-45. His computer was on, but he was not yet logged in. He was staring blankly at the login screen, as though wondering what it was for. The familiar sky-blue color of his spiny head was mottled with sickly-looking white patches at every ridge. The needles that radiated backward from his cranium were all white as milk, giving the impression of hair gone gray. His skin looked damp, but Nevil had never even seen a liuan sweat before.
“Habihabi?” he said.
The liuan jumped slightly, startled at Nevil’s voice, and then swiveled around in his chair.
“You are, um, Habihabi, right?” It was a stupid thing to say, but the gaunt figure in the swivel chair scarcely resembled the hardworking liuan purchaser he knew.
Nevil swallowed. “I’m very sorry about your loss the other day,” he said.
“Thank you,” replied Habihabi.
“Do you have a place to stay now?”
“The city has a shelter. But we have to find another zyzypha soon.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of, it’s zyzyphas.”
At that, Habihabi suddenly looked crestfallen. “I don’t want another zyzypha,” he moaned softly. It was the exact same tone that a human child might use when offered a new puppy after the death of a beloved old dog.
“Are you all right?” Nevil asked around the foot in his mouth. “You look ill.”
The spines on his head drooped slightly lower at that. “I’m sorry,” he said in a voice filled shame. “I won’t let it affect my work. I promise.”
“I appreciate the thought,” said Nevil, “but don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you’re sick, go see a doctor. Or if it’s just too hard for you right now, go back to the shelter. Or for a walk. Do what you need to –”
He broke off suddenly. At his words, Habihabi’s red eyes had grown huge with something that Nevil was pretty sure was fear.
“Are you sick?” he asked again.
“No!” said the liuan.
Nevil glanced at Renee. She looked back at him helplessly, shaking her head as if to say “I don’t have a clue!”
Nevil decided to try a different angle: “You’ve got vacation days, you know. If you need to take one or two of them to get yourself through this, let HR know and go.” He forced a smile. “You’ve had a hard week. Go easy on yourself, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Habihabi replied without conviction.
“Well, just tell HR if you decide to go.”
Awkwardly, Nigel beat a hasty retreat from the liuan’s cubicle, signaling to Renee – who had started to drift away toward her own desk two cubes away – that she was to follow him back.
When they arrived in his office, he put in a call to Menlo Ivy in HR, shut the door, and asked Renee to sit down. He faced her across his desk and said, “Was he late this morning?”
“No, he was as punctual as ever. He was at his desk when I got in, so he was probably a little early.”
“And yet he still hasn’t managed to enter his password,” observed Nevil, glancing at his chrono. It was nine o’clock; the work day had officially begun forty-five minutes ago.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in, Menlo!” Nevil called.
The door opened, and a short, balding man stepped into the office.
“Have a seat over there,” Neville offered. “Have you seen Habihabi this morning? I barely recognized him just now.”
Menlo Ivy hadn’t even reached the proffered chair yet, but he answered, “Oh yes, he came by HR this morning to drop off some paperwork for his leave. He doesn’t look so good.”
“No, he doesn’t,” agreed Nevil. “Refresh my memory. In the time since we’ve set up shop, how many times have we had to give bereavement leave to liuans?”
“I, uh, can get the numbers if you need them, but –”
“Just ballpark it,” Nevil said.
“Hmm. In that case, just once or twice every few years. All together, maybe eight times.”
“And have you ever seen any of those liuans walk in here afterward looking like that?”
“Definitely not. I’d remember if I had.”
“That’s what I thought. Renee, is there anything else you can tell me?”
She hesitated, then said, “A few times, I’ve heard him mumbling to himself this morning.”
“Has he done that before?”
“If he has, it was never loud enough for me to hear him.”
“What was he saying?”
“I don’t know. Like I say, he was mumbling. In Hakkrati.”
Nevil nodded and exhaled heavily. “Thanks,” he said. “You can go now. I appreciate your bringing this to my attention.”
Renee got up and left, but Menlo kept his seat. “Nevil,” he said when the door was closed again, “The fastest way to the bottom of this is to just ask another liuan employee.”
“Agreed,” Nevil replied. “Assuming they’ll talk, anyway. Any suggestions for who we should speak with?”
“In that case…sorry but I’m gonna delegate. A freighter’s due in port next week, so I’ve got work piling up too.”
Menlo smiled. “I’ll get back with you when I have some information.”
“If you don’t get the answers you’re looking for by lunchtime at the latest, let me know. I’m worried about that fella.”
“What’ve you got him working on these days?”
“Purchasing. He liaises with several different artisans’ guilds, negotiating prices on tapestries, carpets, folk art and the like. Impressive client list, but I’m afraid I know him more by his work than anything else. We’ve never talked much.”
“Habihabi’s always been a little standoffish, and most of the locals aren’t exactly easy to get to know anyway. I’ll see what I can do. Talk to you around lunchtime.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
Menlo let himself out of the room.Shortly after approval had come in for first contact, liuan representatives had been given the so-called “Koheleth’s Test” – a Hakkrati translation of the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes chapter 3. The Koheleth’s Test was a quick and dirty method for estimating how well an alien species could understand human beings, and vice versa. Certainly there were other tests that provided harder data, but in most cases a species that failed the one would fail the others as well, proving severely handicapped when it came to comprehending and dealing with humans.
Planets where the test failed usually ended up being closed to widespread contact with human civilization. Large-scale interactions between such populations were just too dangerous for both sides. Such “closed worlds” were the province of publically-funded specialists who could only get to them by government-approved charter flight – and who had an alarmingly high incidence of never being heard from again.
In the case of the liuans, the Koheleth’s Test had produced extremely promising results. From their very first exposure to the text, the liuans had understood it all.
Liuans did not grow from seeds or spores, and they were not immortal; therefore, they understood and agreed that there was a time to be born and a time to die.
The liuan’s bodies did not produce energy through photosynthesis, magnetically-induced electrical currents, nuclear processes, or any other method considered exotic by humans, so despite the somewhat blurred borders between their plant and animal life, they could still grasp the notion that there was a time to sow, and a time to reap.
Materialism, and even gambling, was not unknown to them, and so there was a time to get, and a time to lose.
Like humanity, their population numbers had generally run ahead of available resources, and as a result their history was a long, repeating cycle of violent competition and peaceful cooperation. There were idealists among them who dreamed of an end to this cycle, but even they – when they looked at the objective reality of things – were forced to confess both a time for war and a time for peace, a time to kill, and a time to heal.
This recognition of warfare’s necessity was not viewed as an entirely negative thing when it came to dealing with human beings. The human race was both blessed and cursed with a strong aptitude for adopting and adapting new ideas. It also had a fanatic streak, and so sometimes peaceful planets where war was unknown were paradoxically the most dangerous to humanity. Without even trying, such worlds had a way of instilling impressionable human visitors with idealistic philosophies, altruistic moral codes, and utopian visions which were utterly incompatible with human society on a large scale. Converted human visitors would go back to their homeworlds, eyes shining with dangerous new Truth, which they would inevitably seek to spread and impose on their neighbors, sure in their hearts that this time would be different.
For better or worse, greedy, passionate, hungry, noisy, tender, loving human nature itself would eventually cause the implosion of such systems – though usually only after much time and bloodshed.
What responsible human authorities were looking for among the stars were not races who were by any measure “better” or “worse” than humans; what they sought were the ones who could understand – who knew the difference between an empty stomach and a full one, who knew how to laugh and how to weep and how to hate and how to love.
Wide differences remained yet between human and liuan beings, but the more developed nations of Liu’s World – Hakkrat, Daynast, the Yu’ullist Republic of the Uora’uora Archipelago, all the rest – were widely regarded as ideal trading partners for humanity. Although they shared many of the human race’s negatives, they also understood them and sympathized with them, recognizing in their vibrant, variegated cultures a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Lunch time was upon Nevil Archer before he knew it. When Menlo Ivy returned, he had with him Olajoli na’Ulroni-24 from Legal. Despite being a little overweight for a liuan, Olajoli was a sky-blue picture of health compared to the wreck of a man he had seen this morning in Purchasing.
“Sorry to interrupt your lunch sir,” he said in that low-voiced, too-polite way that still rubbed Nevil wrong from time to time.
“No problem,” he said. “Close the door and sit down, would you? Sorry to eat in front of you, but I’m halfway through a sandwich, and I’ve got a meeting at one.” It actually wasn’t rude to eat in front of a liuan, but he said it automatically, more for Menlo’s sake. When everyone was situated, Nevil swallowed a bite of tasty barloo and shumfee, and said, “Well, gentlemen, what can you tell me?”
Olajoli glanced uncomfortably at Menlo, who nodded for him to go ahead. Facing Nevil, the chubby liuan said, “Mr. Archer, it seems there has been a serious omission in the contracts that accompany our offers of employment.”
Olajoli glanced away from Nevil’s piercing gaze, took a deep breath, and then looked back, meeting Nevil’s blue eyes with his own red ones. “The problem is with the clause that deals with bereavement leave. The death of one’s zyzypha is lumped in with the deaths of parents and siblings. Only three days off are provided! Now granted, yesterday was the first zyzypha death in these parts in over three hundred years, but that’s still no reason to include such unfair language in the contract.
Nevil frowned. “How much leave is standard for a zyzypha death? Among Hakkrati corporations, I mean?”
Olajoli and Menlo exchanged a significant glance. The liuan yielded the floor to Menlo for this one. “Apparently, they get as long as they need,” the short man said. “Usually, that comes to about a year.”
Nevil almost choked on his sandwich. “A year?”
“That’s right. 421 liuan days. Minimum.”
Nevil couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Menlo said.
“If the offer is that unfair, why didn’t anybody say anything?” Nevil demanded. He glared at Olajoli, clearly including him in “anybody.”
Olajoli fiddled with his necktie. “Mr. Archer, you have to understand. You humans are still very new to us. The fact that you crossed the starways to come here – sir, I know you don’t want to hear this, but there are still many of us who are in awe of you. For us, it is an incredible honor to work for a human company in any capacity. To speak your language, to be accepted by you – it’s as though we have touched the starways ourselves. And if someday we part amicably, then our next posting in Hakkrati society is practically ours for the choosing. For these reasons and more, the competition for posts in your company is ferocious.”
“Five hundred applications a week, Nevil,” Menlo supplied from the side. “That’s how many I used to get back when we advertised openings.”
Olajoli continued: “I remember very clearly the day I was offered a job and shown that contract. I thought that if I balked at the language, you would simply hire someone else instead. It seemed so outrageous that I also wondered if it might be some kind of test. So I signed it, and bound myself to it. The odds of there being any problem with that clause anyway seemed so remote that I was willing to take the risk. I was looking at the chance of a lifetime, so I took a chance. That’s what all of our native employees did.”
Nevil was rubbing his temples with his thumbs. “So once you were onboard, why didn’t you bring the issue to my attention?”
“I was so elated to be working here that, er, I forgot.”
“Sir – if I may – suppose you lived on a volcanic island that had been stable for three hundred years. How much would you worry about a clause that left you vulnerable in the event of an eruption? Adult zyzyphas are nearly impossible to kill. If that freak heat lightning strike had not set off secondary explosions inside it the other day, that tree would still be alive. They live for thousands of years. They are sacrosanct even during wartime. They –”
Nevil held up a hand to silence him. “All right,” he said. “I get the picture. Everyone made a bet. Now one of them has lost. So, I take it that poor Mr. Habihabi is honor-bound to fulfill his contractual obligations?”
“And that there’s no way short of firing him to make him stay home in the coming year?”
Olajoli looked aghast at the very notion, and that was answer enough for Nevil.
“I see. So what happens now? He looked really bad this morning. Will he get better or worse?”
“Oh, worse. Much worse. This is only the beginning.”
Nevil steeled himself before asking the next question. “Is his health or his life in danger if he keeps coming in?”
Olajoli nodded gravely. “There are things he has to do during this time. If he can’t discharge his duties, his soul will wither.”
Nevil could tell from Olajoli’s word choices – “things he has to do” and “his duties” – that the liuan was skirting around things that he dare not mention. If Nevil attempted more detailed questions on those points, he would run up against the stonewalling that always protected their clan secrets. Even so, he had to try.
“What does Habihabi have to do?” he asked. “No, don’t give me that look! I think every one of you liuans knows the answer to that question. I think it’s the same for every clan, every nation, and every tree. You may not talk about it to outsiders, or even among yourselves for all I know, but I know you know. So how can I know? I need to understand this if I’m going to deal with this situation!”
“Just leave him to us. We can at least make him more comfortable –”
Nevil suddenly felt rage boiling up inside. “You just told me that one of my workers might die! He’ll be moving to a new place soon, won’t he? As soon as his clan chooses a tree. So what does he have to do there that’s so important?”
For the first time, Olajoli looked genuinely conflicted, and for a moment Nevil thought he had the liuan lawyer pinned down.
But liuan lawyers are lawyers still.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last, “but we bind ourselves with contracts within the clan as well. I cannot answer that question. Not without the permission of my clan’s headman, headmistress, and chief dancer.”
“Dancer?” Nevil repeated.
But Olajoli refused to so much as repeat what little he had said.
The intercom buzzed. “Mr. Archer, your one o’clock is here.”
Archer gazed longingly at his still-unfinished sandwich and then started rewrapping it. “Get out of here,” he said. “Menlo, you’re not off the hook yet. See if you can think of some way to find out what we need to know to help him.”
“You can’t help him,” said Olajoli.
“GET OUT!” Archer shouted.
“I’ll do what I can, Nevil,” Menlo said as he patted his taller coworker on the back. “C’mon, big guy. Sorry to put you through all this.”
When he was finally alone, Nevil took a moment to straighten his necktie and smooth out his hair. Then, with a last, defiant bite of his sandwich, he swept out of the office and hurried down to the reception room.
Over the next few days, Nevil watched helplessly as Habihabi began his slow descent into darkness. The soft-spoken purchaser was on time for work every morning, but after arriving, he would just sit at his desk and stare at the computer screen, mumbling and whining to himself all day. Needless to say, no work was getting accomplished at his desk. Renee pointed out that it might not be a good idea to have him answering the phone, so Nevil gave instructions to the operator to quietly forward all of his calls to the other members of his team. At the end of each day, Habihabi would pack his things and leave at the precise moment the second hand struck 5:15. He said goodbye to no one on his way out.
For all their offers of assistance, the other liuan employees seemed to have given up on him. Nevil never saw them talking with him or trying to console him. They all just looked sad and sympathetic.
Nevil could not order him to leave. As he understood matters, doing so would have taken away the only point of pride that was sustaining the man.
The weekend came and went, and when work resumed, Habihabi’s color seemed a little better. At least it hadn’t gotten worse. He had apparently been doing whatever it was he was supposed to be doing for the past two days. That morning, Habihabi told Nevil that a new tree had been selected, and he had already moved in with the rest of his displaced clan.
But as the week wore on, these encouraging signs proved to be nothing more than smoke. Two days of recovery was simply not enough to undo five days of crushing misery.
It was late in the week when Nevil, feeling helpless and frustrated, finally dialed the satellite phone of Artie Rice. An answering machine replied, and Nevil was on the point of hanging up when he suddenly changed his mind.
“Artie, this is Nevil Archer,” he said. “We have a problem at the home office. You’ve probably heard the news about the zyzypha that burned over here? Well, it turns out that one of our employees actually lived there. He needs to be with his clan right now, but he thinks he has to come in to work every day because of a mistake in the contract he signed. He’s not doing well at all. I’d like you to head back over here as soon as you get this message. Thanks. Bye.”
Nevil was not thrilled with the notion of facing Artie again, but he was too worried about his employee now to put off calling in the expert any longer. Three years ago, Artie had taught him a lot about liuan culture. The do’s, the don’t, the taboos.
His value was impossible to deny, and Nevil still consulted him by satellite phone on occasion.
But Artie’s attitude had always been a little hard to put up with. It was as if he thought of every human being other than himself as a bull wandering about in a china shop.
First thing the following morning, Nevil’s ears were assaulted by an earsplitting Norspoori greeting.
He winced and covered his ears, but couldn’t help smiling when he got his first good look at Artie Rice in two years. Artie was tanner and slimmer than he had last seen him, and yet he had gained a much more solid physical presence. He was also wearing an outlandishly garish hat made of multi-colored feathers and foliage. It made soft scratching sounds when it brushed against the ceiling tiles. His face was painted up with day-glow symbols, and he was wearing the traditional half-mantle of the Norspoori working class.
“Well, look at you!” said Nevil, astonished. He took a step back to take in the full effect. Bizarre as the Norspoori getup looked on him, what was more surprising was the firm muscle that had replaced all the pudginess he had associated with Artie in the past. “Welcome back! How have you been?”
“Loving it,” he said with a smile.
“Well, it certainly seems to agree with you,” Nevil said.
The small crowd that had gathered around Artie before Nevil’s arrival now started to disperse. It looked like he had been entertaining anyone who would listen with stories from his travels. Nevil, to his mild chagrin, noticed that Renee West had been part of his audience, and as she turned away toward her desk she was smiling perhaps a little too widely.
“Artie, my office please.”
“Yes, sir!” he shouted, and then sent off his remaining admirers with an ullulating Norspoori farewell that split Nevil’s eardrums all over again.
They’d better be delivering ibuprofen on that freighter next week!
Once in Nevil’s office, Artie fell into a chair. He was all feathers, paint, and smiles. “Man, it’s great to be back!” he said. “I mean, it’s been great being over there, too, but wow! You just don’t realize how gorgeous the women are until you’ve been alone in the field for –”
Nevil held up a hand. “Yes, well, you know why I’ve asked you to come back. Have you had a chance to meet Habihabi yet?”
“Is that the name of the one who lost his zyzypha?”
“And would he also be the one who just sat in his cube and ignored all my great stories just now?”
Nevil grimaced. “Most likely.”
Artie took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, looking serious for the first time since his arrival. Have you tried talking with him?”
“Well, of course. He doesn’t have much to say, though.”
“I don’t mean holding a conversation,” said Artie. “Just talking to him. Talking at him if you have to. This must be an awfully quiet time for him right now, so it may help.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean being out of a tree at a time like this. Away from his family.”
Nevil shook his head. “Actually, he’s with both. They’ve already found a new tree and moved in.”
“I see. Well, even so, he’s still cut off from his whole clan history, most likely.”
At that, Nevil raised one eyebrow. “What exactly are you talking about?”
Artie smiled. “You know what I did with that prefab dwelling you packed me off with two years ago?”
“Broke it down and used the parts for barter.”
“Because unlike some people, see, I didn’t come here to build my own little bubble of Terran culture and make money in it. And I certainly didn’t come here to contaminate these people with our way of doing things. I came to protect them, to learn about them, and learn from them. I –”
“Get to it, Artie.”
“Okay, fine. So get this: I sleep in a zyzypha room now!”
For just a moment, Nevil was genuinely, truly impressed. “You’ve actually managed to join a clan?” he asked.
Artie backed off quickly. “Um, no,” he answered, looking chastened. “Where I live is just a little tree I found. Nobody else lives there.”
“Mm,” said Nevil, disappointed. “That was quite a buildup there to your telling me you live in a hole in a tree.”
The edge of Artie’s lip twitched upward in a mild smirk. “Well, if your patience can endure me just a little bit longer, I might actually be able to point out something you’d find useful. Maybe.”
“Which is what?”
“Zyzyphas store sounds. Unless you’ve lived in one for a while, you’ll probably think it’s just a faint echo. I did too, at least at the beginning. But, well – don’t take this the wrong way – but, living alone like I do, sometimes I kind of start talking to myself at night. And then one night, after a few weeks of sleeping in my little treehouse, I started hearing my own words coming back to me. Freaked me out at first. I thought I was either in a haunted tree or I was losing my mind.”
“’So?’” Artie parroted with surprise. “So the trees remember voices. The walls whisper back what they hear over and over again. The clans live in the same trees from generation to generation. The trees can live for thousands of years. Are the lights coming on yet?”
They didn’t for a second, but then Nevil’s eyes suddenly opened wide as the implications reached him. “His ancestors’ voices!”
“Precisely,” Artie said. “Poor Mr. Habihabi hasn’t just lost a roof over his head; he’s lost contact with the voices, the conversations, the pooled wisdom of his entire ancestral line. Bye-bye grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, and so on. They were all part of his life, and in a sense, they were all still with him until the day that zyzypha burned.”
Nevil couldn’t believe what he was hearing at first. But then he remembered his own weekend explorations of young zyzyphas when he had still been a new face in town. He could clearly remember the eerie way that his voice had echoed inside the soft walls of the hollow chambers.
Was his voice still echoing inside it even now?
“Good heavens,” he whispered. “Is there anything we can do for the poor devil?”
Artie shrugged. “Normally, he’d be off with his surviving family for at least a year. I don’t know for sure, but it’s my hypothesis that they spend that year curled up in their new homes, whispering everything they can remember back into its walls.”
“Do you have any evidence for that?”
“Just circumstantial. Those kinds of things aren’t talked about outside the clan, but back in Norspoor, there’s a public law that covers bereavement leave. In the case of a dead zyzypha, it allows the time off from work to be scaled up or down according to the length of the surviving family’s known lineage. In other words, the longer your bloodline, the more time off you get. Which at least doesn’t contradict my hypothesis. If they really are inputting ancestral memories during the bereavement period, a bigger pool of memories would require a longer period of time. By the way, how are the other Hakkrati treating Mr. Habihabi?”
“Like the walking dead,” Nevil replied, remembering that for as long as he had known the man, Artie had never once used the word “liuan.”
“They’re all from other clans?” Artie asked.
“They’d be in the same shape he’s in if they weren’t.”
“Well, that’s true enough. Anyway, I guess that’s to be expected. For Hakkrati, and for other nations as well, the clan is the center of everything. Business outside the clan is just that, with strictly binding contracts that set the rules for interaction. They’re probably sad for him, but it really isn’t their problem.”
“I just remembered something else that might be relevant,” Nevil said. “It’s been reported by, um, one of the workers sitting near him that he mumbles to himself in Hakkrati rather loudly sometimes.
“What’s he saying?”
“Well, he’s mumbling, so it’s hard to tell.”
“I see. Can you have a recording device put in his cube when he’s out?”
“Of course not!”
“Okay, fine. Can you put me in a cube next door to him, then?”
Nevil thought about that for a moment and said, “Now that I can do.”
It was Nevil’s misfortune that logistics forced him to place Artie Rice right between Habihabi and Renee. She didn’t look nearly as displeased as he had hoped when she heard the news. She looked even less displeased when Artie showed up for work the next day minus his feathers and war paint, dressed prim and proper in a sharp-creased black suit.
Nevil knew that if Renee took a liking to Artie, there would be no one to blame but himself. Artie had been gone for two years. If he liked Renee, that was more than enough time for him to have tried to get to know her better. But all this time, he had kept things strictly business. Perhaps it was the influence of liuan culture, but throughout the office, there was little personal interaction between anyone during working hours.
After hours, maybe. Nevil didn’t know. One of the bad parts of being the boss was that he couldn’t really socialize with the others much without bringing with him the specter of office politics.
Nevil went home alone every day. He relaxed, ate, slept, and headed out to work again. Somehow, the polite mood in the office made him think that he was far from alone in that manner of living.
Everyone knew how temporary their assignments were on Liu’s World, so there didn’t seem to be much point in getting too tangled up in one another’s personal lives.
Two more years here, and then he would be headed back to his own homeworld of Arlum III, hopefully to a plum posting after his hard work on the frontier. There he would forget all about Renee West amid the snowstorm of new faces that would surround him at that time. Renee, who had arrived the year after him, would stay on for one year more after he was gone, and then go back to RNGC-34295-Null-One-Amethyst – better known these days as Greenveldt.
They were all of them transients, and knew it well.
Encouraged by the liuan cultural norms that surrounded them every day, most of the humans were in a way living in little clans of one or two, going out each day to work and seek their fortunes on neutral ground.
This made sense to Nevil most days, yet sometimes Renee would smile at him in the morning, and he would feel a rise of dissatisfaction in this chest. As though this environment–successful as it was from a business standpoint–wasn’t giving its humans a chance to live human.
For the next week, Artie Rice worked out of the cube next to Habihabi. He insisted on helping out with his share of office work each day, but his ears were always attentive for the moans of the liuan sitting a meter to his right. Each day, he would quietly write down his words and translate what he could of them, presenting the results to Nevil near the end of the day.
“Stories,” Nevil said at the end of that week. “Is that all he’s giving you?”
“Snatches of anecdotes. Bits of conversation. It’s not hard to guess where they came from. Though ‘when’ might be a pretty tough question.”
“And you’re talking to him, too?”
“As much as I can. It’s pretty hard, actually. He hardly even responds. I don’t think I’m getting anywhere.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Current events. Weather. Sports. Norspoor. Anything I think might interest him. But the more he hears, the more he closes up. I’m afraid I’m having the opposite effect.”
“Well, you’re the expert; follow your instincts. But one thing I will suggest: don’t try to be too “liuan” in how you deal with him. We know how his fellow liuans are treating him, and that isn’t any help at all.”
Habihabi was growing weaker by the day, so Nevil at last decided to take matters into his own hands. He knew that Habihabi would be at his relative best early Monday morning, so he waited until then to call him to his office.
Nevil showed Habihabi na’Or-45 inside and shut the door behind him. They sat down opposite his desk. Nevil looked across it at the liuan man, regarding him carefully. His body was paler and sicklier than ever. His spines drooped pitifully along his cranial ridges, and his eyes had an empty, vacant stare. Only the liuan’s business suit was in its usual, impeccable condition, though its loose folds bespoke its owner’s loss of body weight.
“Can I get you anything?” Nevil asked. “Something to drink or eat?”
“No thank you,” came the hollow reply.
“We have a problem,” Nevil said.
“I’m sorry, sir, I—“
“No, Habihabi. We have a problem. Both of us. And we need to solve it here. I know your clan rules are very strict. You have to abide by your contracts no matter what.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “And so do we,” he added. “Habihabi, I’m not going to cancel or try to change your contract. Future contracts will be different, but we already have our agreement and need to stand by it. So what I’m looking for now is a loophole. For example, could I order you to work from home for the next year? I could give you a satellite phone. If it rings, you answer. If it doesn’t, well, you don’t.”
At that suggestion, Habihabi looked unnerved. “Mr. Archer,” he said plaintively, “It’s all I can do to hold back my personal business in the office. If I were at home and the phone were not ringing, the temptation would be too great.”
“Habihabi, don’t you understand that I don’t mind? And even if I did, I would never know.”
“I would know,” Habihabi insisted. “I would know that I was taking your money while doing my own pleasure. At work, I sit at my desk, unable to do anything. I endure the stares of my coworkers all day long. I feel their eyes boring into me, accusing me of laziness and salary-theft. But at least by coming in, I’m doing my best to –”
Aghast, Nevil broke in. “Son, nobody here is accusing you of anything! We’re worried about you!”
“The liuans from other clans are,” Habihabi insisted. “As for you humans, it’s hard for me to tell what you’re thinking from your faces. But I just assumed that —”
“Don’t,” Nevil said. “Don’t assume. Ask. That’s the only way we can know sometimes.”
Nevil tried hard to smile. Now was the time to find out whether it had been worth bringing Artie back or not. “What if we gave you a satellite phone to put in your room at the new zyzypha? You could talk to the tree that way from here.”
Nevil had been on Liu’s World long enough to recognize shock on a liuan’s face when he saw it. “How do you know?” Habihabi asked in a whisper.
“I have my sources. What’s more important is whether the idea’ll work for you. If it’s the other clans you’re worried about, we can move your desk away from them.”
“Thank you, but I thought I made it clear: I cannot do this during working hours. If I were to do so, my dishonor would be recorded in the new tree, and it would live on for thousands of years.”
“What about lunch hour and breaks?” Nevil asked.
“You’re free to do as you like during your lunch hour. You’re also entitled to two fifteen minute breaks during the day. If you wanted to go into a dark room and talk to your tree by phone at those times, you wouldn’t be breaking any rules. It might make you feel a little better, at least.”
Nevil held his breath. No matter how well he might think he knew a liuan employee, he had to remember that whenever he interacted with them, they were either on his turf or on neutral ground. The liuans’ home life was something he could never truly penetrate, so there were limits on how well he could truly know them. Though Artie Rice’s guesswork seemed sound, he could only pray now that it had facilitated a proposal that might work for them.
“But the satellite phone is company property,” said Habihabi.
“Confound it!” cried Nevil. “I’ll rent you one! Will it work or won’t it?”
Several seconds passed, and then the liuan finally looked up to meet his eyes. Nevil saw them reflecting both gratitude and relief.
“It may help a little,” the liuan admitted sadly.
Nevil felt tension draining out of his shoulders. He leaned back in his chair. “Thank goodness,” he said.
The sickly Mr. Habihabi also seemed to relax just a little.
“You know,” said Nevil, “I don’t think I’ve told anyone this since I came to Liu’s World, but when I was a young boy, I lost my grandmother. Schaflin Syndrome. I know the name doesn’t mean anything to you, but once your people manage to beat back cancer and heart disease, that or something like it’ll probably be waiting over the hilltop for you too. She was one hundred fifty. Quite young, really, when the organs cells stopped dividing. We lived close to each other in those days on a planet called Arlum III. That’s how we pronounced it anyway; it’s really RLM III – short for Rosa Lucille McClellan III. Some young man had it named after his wife over a thousand years ago. Anyway, my family and I used to visit her often. She’d talk a lot about her younger years. How things were before we were born. She told me about how she and her brother caught a wild umpus hatchling in the woods once. Next morning the shed where they’d hidden it had been flattened by the mother. It’s funny, but I – are you all right?”
Somewhere along the way, a bewildered expression had appeared on Habihabi’s face. He was staring at Nevil in utter amazement, mouth hanging open and eyes dilated to double their normal size. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked.
“I don’t really know. You just reminded me.”
“You are not my clan. I am not yours.”
“Well, I’m a human being. To a limited extent, we can choose our own clans. I’d be happy to have you as part of mine. Sometimes I think it would be nice if everyone who worked here could be part of it. I don’t think we’re all that different, really. You form ties, strengthen then, affirm your social structure by sharing memories within your group. The scale and the implications may be different, but now that I think about it, we really do the same thing too.”
The next day, Nevil walked past Habihabi’s cube and saw Renee talking with him in the entrance. She was telling him about jump rope games she and her friends used to play when she had been a little girl. Nevil nodded approval at her and walked past without comment. Shortly after lunch break, Orson from PR dropped by Habihabi’s desk. Nevil overheard him sharing a story about his cousins – back on Earth of all places.
Nevil had gone out on a frightful limb and sent out a memo to key people in the organization. The word was now out in the office that the company had just become an informal sort of “clan,” and that when work was slow, human employees were encouraged to go see Habihabi, and share something of their lives, or their family memories with him.
To his surprise, they were practically lining up to do so. If Habihabi had been starving to hear such stories, perhaps the humans had in their own way been similarly hungry to tell them.
A week passed, and Nevil noticed that the liuan’s color seemed to have improved just a little.
Three weeks more went by, and even some of the other liuans started speaking with Habihabi again.
They got through the first month, and one day Habihabi was finally able to take a client’s phone call again.
“Just rolled off your silver tongue, didn’t it?” Artie said on the last day before he was to head back out into the field. Nevil had surprised the whole office by inviting everyone out for a night on the town. Now in the rented courtyard of a large open air restaurant, laughter and conversation danced in the humid air, and smiling faces were illuminated by the flickering glow of parasite-repellent torches. A local brew was making the rounds, and sweaty human faces were talking without inhibition with their awkward-looking liuan counterparts.
“What?” Nevil replied innocently.
Artie had been drinking, and was perhaps a little too uninhibited tonight. “About humans ‘choosing their clans,’” he said. “About the company being like a clan. We both know what a crock that is. With all due respect, sir, I have to wonder what you were thinking.”
Nevil shrugged. “I was trying to make Habihabi feel better.”
“Well, you’ve got your worker semi-productive again. Congratulations on that. But at what cost?”
“Cost?” Nevil said. “Good grief, man, we saved his life! And not just that, have you looked around the office lately? We humans have grown a lot closer too during the past month. We’re not just talking to Habihabi. We’ve heard or overheard each other’s stories in the office, and now we’re talking to each other more. As long as we don’t overdo it, all I see is gain.”
“But think about the ideas you’re spreading here. The clan is central to the lives of these people, and what you’re doing is undermining that. Undermining it in the service of a for-profit organization. Not only that, it’s the same for-profit organization that nearly caused Habihabi’s death. Doesn’t that strike you as just a little cynical?”
Artie started to get up, presumably intending to let Nevil sleep on that one.
“Artie, wait a minute,” Nevil said. “Drunk or sober, I am not required to justify myself to you, but I can’t let that comment pass. The error in the contracts was just that. An error. It was a mistake we couldn’t have possibly foreseen. And secondly, don’t you dare call me cynical without taking a good long look at yourself first.”
“You view your own species as a corrupting influence here. Like we’re germs contaminating some kind of pristine lab sample. If we left it up to you, you’d probably take Liu’s World right off the charts. Only allow scientists to come here, or even know about this place.
“Hm. If it were up to me, maybe I would. But it isn’t, so the best I can do is to send off my reports and let the researchers back home know how special this place is. People need to know, so we can advocate for its protection.”
“Protection from us corporate types? Yeah, I know. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who would give the liuans a raw deal. But when you talk as if we’re all like that, well, it hurts, Artie. See, some of us corporate types actually think the liuans and ourselves can do business with each other. Business – as in both sides getting something they want. It’s not a bad word, Artie. And maybe our two species can learn a few things from each other. Maybe even understand each other someday. Contact with us will change this place a lot, certainly. Eventually, it’ll change humanity as well. I have no idea how, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be a bad thing. For them or for us. I know how much you love the liuans. But can’t you see how much I like them? Who’s being cynical here, Artie? You tell me.”
Habihabi was not at the party. Many months still remained until he would be able to participate in any kind of social event. But he was pulling through. Nevil felt sure that he was going to be all right.
“Artie?” he said.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want you to leave on a bad note. Thanks for coming here. We couldn’t have helped him without you.”
By early autumn, Habihabi’s color was – if not exactly good – at least not nearly as bad as it had been.
That was to be expected.
As Nevil Archer knew, the observed improvement in Habihabi’s condition didn’t mean he was feeling good by any stretch of imagination. That old tree, with all of its centuries of voices and memories and stories and wisdom had gone up in flames. The soft whispers that had comforted Habihabi as a small child were now silenced forever. Never again could he lay his head against its soft inner surface and feel its peaceful warmth and its reassuring hearbeats.
A long road lay ahead of him still.
Nevil opened his planner, and flipped back a couple of pages. He found the date of the fire, and then scrolled slowly forward again, back to the present day, counting the days that had passed as he went.
Not yet even two months.
He took a moment to look over the notation for today’s plans, smiling at the bottom, where he had recently input the time and place for an after-work dinner date with Renee West, not that he was in any danger of forgetting.
After Artie’s going away party, he had started to think about his own words, and taken a long, hard look at himself as well.
Not calling her was the safe route. It was the way that the status quo was maintained. It ensured that nothing would get worse in his personal life. It also ensured that nothing would get better. Drawing closer to one another held risks for both of them. It might be a mistake. It might even end in tragedy.
But it might not.
The potential rewards included friendship, companionship, and even family. Wasn’t that worth the risk?
For these past several weeks, Nevil had felt unusually happy, and although Renee had been a big part of it, there was something else as well: he felt like he was living like a human being for the first time in years.
After a moment, Nevil began scrolling forward in his daily planner again. As the pages rolled past, he tried to visualize Habihabi’s gradual recovery and adjustment to his new home at various stages. He imagined himself and Renee drawing closer all the while as well.
At last Nevil stopped scrolling as his eyes came to rest on the entry for a date exactly one liuan year removed from the disaster that had nearly killed poor Habihabi.
With a faint, hopeful smile, he keyed a memo into the planner for that date.
It read: “A time to dance.”
Daniel Huddleston teaches English in western Japan. In addition to writing original fiction, he enjoys reading and translating Japanese SF. His translation of Ueda Sayuri’s short story “Fin and Claw” (English title tentative) will appear in “Speculative Japan 3” from Kurodahan Press later this year. At the moment, he’s shopping around his first novel while putting the finishing touches on its sequel. This is his first fiction sale.
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