After a peaceful night’s sleep, filled with pleasant dreams, Lozlian sat up in bed at the gentle toll of a cheerful alarm. The mid-summer sun that streamed in through the nearest window seemed to caress his soft, brown pelt and reminded him of his cherished childhood. Those bright mornings in between sessions at the Cove were a joy — with plenty of time to stretch out in the forest and let the fragrance of the leaves, the soil and the blossoms wash over his nostrils. He couldn’t help but luxuriate in that memory.
That is, until he walked out of his spacious bedroom, decorated in soothing greens and dark oranges. Across the threshold, his dark brown eyes came to rest on the steely workstation tucked into the spare room on the way to the kitchen. Memory flooded in, his heart sank and he realized what day it was.
“The hooms are coming,” he whispered. “The hooms!”
He shook his shaggy, rounded Yonopcry head and plodded into his sky blue-tiled shower room. As the Regional Liaison for Interstellar Trade, he knew what was expected of him: Deny his culture, his upbringing, and conform to the Standards and Practices Guidelines set out by the Kroleni Council of Three. That meant reducing his natural scent to a minimum and cropping his pelt in key locations to ensure a proper fit for the required uniform. He even had to ignore the immanent onset of Omah-Drunan, or Mating Day — a ritual aligned with a biological threshold he was destined to cross in less than three weeks. Though by human standards Lozlian might have appeared a “late bloomer,” the Omah-Drunan perfectly in step with the average Yonopcry’s one-hundred-and-twenty-five-year lifespan.
Yet right at that moment, what Lozlian dreaded most was the need for talking. Evolution had been kind to the Yonopcry. His ancestors gradually learned to anticipate the attacks of large, indigenous predators. Over a few hundred thousand years, what began as an instinct eventually changed into a direct perception of aggression in the minds of a distant pack ofjolokany or a vicious pelethaleph on the prowl. In time, they were even able to strike fear into their enemies’ hearts, or make them lose their way in the depths of the forest.
With so many advantages, he often though, why aren’t all sentient species telepathic?
In that respect, the hooms were especially frustrating, because they were so close! Lozlian could sense it in individuals, and even more clearly when he observed groups of hooms working together. They quickly developed a common set of goals (telepathy) sensed each other’s receptivity to new ideas (telepathy) were subject to group mood swings from elation to dejection (telepathy). And when they failed, it was often because a toxic perfectionism spread from one hoom to the other until they no longer believed an achievable goal aligned with a fashionable ideological construct. Telepathy!
In fact, the hooms lacked only the conscious-level telepathy that came naturally to Lozlian and the rest of the Yonopcry, not to mention a good fifteen percent of the other species in the Kroleni Imperium. Maybe, he told himself, if this one distinction were the only annoying aspect of dealing with the hooms, he might find the experience less stultifying.
But they’re also stupid, he thought, and literal-minded and rigid and contentious and….
Lozlian stepped out of the shower and shook his body nearly dry. This was no way, he realized, to start his work day. As he reached for a large, royal blue wrap-around towel, he forced himself to count his blessings. As the Regional Liaison for Interstellar Trade, he had privileges far beyond those his family had enjoyed when he was growing up. That was also partly because, during the twenty-three years of his young life, the Yonopcry homeworld had been acquired by the Kroleni after a bloodless invasion. The tall, bottle-green insectoids had arrived in ships unlike anything the Yonopcry had seen. They displayed such superior might that there was almost no question of resistance.
The benefits that had accrued to the Yonopcry, a forest people subject to the whims of weather, and larger predatory species, were immediate and lasting. Best of all, the Kroleni, though sullen and mostly silent, were not overtly aggressive. They simply set up conditions to ensure they could maximize the planet’s vast natural resources. That meant educating the locals, regulating the predators that had plagued them and generally raising the Yonopcry standard of living to the point where they could, like Lozlian, hold responsible posts.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that the Kroleni’s impulses were “humanitarian.” More precisely, they grasped the wastefulness of exaggerated oppression. Install a provisional government, housed in expensive facilities and then build a police force to collect taxes and keep the local population subdued? Ridiculous. As they had learned from centuries of expansion through sixteen galaxies, tolerant, equitable management was the most powerful form of subjugation in the universe.
At the beginning, as always, the Kroleni encountered difficulties. The shamans of Lozlian’s generation had protested when the Kroleni proposed mining expeditions at some of the Yonopcrys’ most sacred sites. When negotiations broke down, the Kroleni backed off. They had time. With an average lifespan of four centuries, they could afford to wait until the influence of other cultures in their domain would dilute the fervor of their latest acquisition. Already, Lozlian knew, the process was underway. When was the last time, he wondered, that he himself had thought to visit the Grove of Ramthiol or the temple grounds in the Thusian plains?
Regardless, he couldn’t imagine his life without the comforts of an above-ground home, of running water, electricity, heat and protection from predators, as well as from the elements. Not to mention, all of these luxuries were powered by a combination of ocean tides, geothermal heat pumps, solar panels and wind turbines. It was hard to hate one’s captors if they so clearly loved one’s planet.
Time to eat, he thought.
Then, remembering that his first meeting with the hooms was only two hours away, he decided to exercise his rusty vocal cords. After mid-season recess, this was usually a bit of a challenge, but there was no point putting it off.
“Tiaeyema otoo heeat,” his voice growled in a rough approximation of Versaling, the common language imposed by the Kroleni across the Imperium.
He’d have to do much better than that, he realized. If there was one thing the hooms — the “humans,” he reminded himself — were fussy about, it was diction. He tried again and continued to practice common, familiar phrases over and over again while he prepared his breakfast of fried river fish and dried fruits. As usual, by the time he slid the shimmering flesh onto a large green crockery plate at his broad wooden kitchen table, his voice was already much more flexible. The sound of his voice was even more important than it might have been because the hooms were clearly new to dealing with “aliens.” To them, Lozlian was forced to acknowledge, it wasn’t entirely clear if he resembled a bearish raccoon, or a raccoonish bear.
Still, at least for now, Lozlian was at peace. The fish was delicious. The hot plendalmor cider he washed it down with was its perfect complement. He was ready for anything. Except, that is, the insistent chirp of his dark red, ovoid Kroleni comlink.
Councilmember Achimlemoor, he thought.
A second after answering, a holographic image of an imposing insectoid hovered before his eyes. She was swathed in a lavender silk jumpsuit, pinched in at the neck to form a high collar behind the back of her roughly ovoid head.
“Regional Liaison Lozlian,” she said. “A word, if you don’t mind.”
Lozlian gulped. There was nothing more intimidating than a polite Kroleni. In his experience, the nicer they were to him, the more trouble he was in.
“Of course, Councilmember,” he said. “What can I….”
“It’s about your meeting with the human delegation this morning,” said the insectoid. “I want to stress how important it is that you make them feel welcome.”
“I understand,” said Lozlian. “Has there been an … incident … that I should know about?”
The insectoid’s mandibles clacked.
“No,” she said, “thank the Continuum. However, we are in the midst of important negotiations with their scientists, and need to ensure nothing jeopardizes the outcome.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Lozlian. “No disrespect, but may I ask why you care so much about the humans’ feelings? I mean, beyond common courtesy. Aren’t they simply one more component of your … Imperium … as we are?”
Achimlemoor’s antennae twitched. She leaned forward and continued in a low voice.
“Ordinarily,” she said. “you would be right, if slightly impertinent. However — and this is not for common distribution — the humans have developed a novel means of interstellar propulsion that could revolutionize everything from transport to warfare. Naturally, we would rather have that technology, if it pans out, under our aegis, than see it sold to, let’s say, those hideous, reptilian Chyloradrin.”
“I see,” said Lozlian. “A difficult situation. Don’t you have … means … to persuade them?”
“You know that’s not our preferred operating model,” said Achimlemoor. “That’s the reason we created the system of liaisons, in which you are privileged to serve. Humans are especially prideful, for reasons I personally will never understand. I mean, look at them. In any case, we’d rather keep them and their surprising technical ingenuity under our wing than let them slip away. If we crack the whip, they will bolt. You can be sure the Chyloradrins are already sweet-talking them. So it’s up to you to convince the humans that we offer them discrete advantages, including the ability to develop their talents in peace — with our guidance, of course.”
Lozlian’s heart raced. His superior’s surprisingly candid tone was a bit of a shock. It was either a sign that he had truly earned her trust, or that the Kroleni were feeling uncharacteristically desperate.
“Is there … is there anything in particular you need me to accomplish today?” he asked.
“Very good, Regional Liaison Lozlian,” said the insectoid. “I see you are finally catching on to the full scope of your responsibilities. In fact, there is an unusually delicate matter I need you to attend to. We have learned that the daughter of the human physicist who is chiefly responsible for developing the principles behind the new star drive is a biologist with a peculiar interest in the Yonopcry. She needs a subject to study. Naturally, I volunteered you.”
“To … to … study me?” asked Lozlian. “What exactly….”
“I have another call coming in that I must take,” said Achimlemoor. “You’ll learn more of the details after your official conference with the humans on matters of trade. I know I can count on you. Achimlemoor out.”
The holographic image winked out, leaving Lozlian gaping stupidly at nothing in particular. The idea that a human female wished to study him was beyond unnerving. With his Omah-Drunan so close by, to be alone with a female — any female — not a member of his immediate family was strictly forbidden. If he were seen in her company, how would he explain this lapse to his fellow clan members, let alone his mother? She would never understand and Lozlian could see why.
According to the most ancient Yonopcry traditions, his mate had been selected when they were both six years old from, the females in his village, after an exhaustive round of ritualized blood-letting. The village shaman had tested the effect of blood samples from both children on an array of forest fungi that he’d scraped from each of the seven species of dulantraItrees in the forest’s most sacred grove. Blood samples that stained the fungi in complementary patterns were considered “compatible.” Samples that produced the same pattern were rejected as were samples that produced wildly different patterns. Ultimately, Lozlian was paired with a female named “Aldruvet,” whom he’d met only once, according to tradition. Yet from Omah-Drunan forward, they would be joined for life, irrevocably, through biochemical, emotional and cultural bonds they could no more break than they could yank the stars from the sky.
These, Lozlian knew, were “village thoughts,” exactly what the Kroleni had taught him to ignore as the first step to finding his deserved place in the new order. He’d follow his latest assignment to the letter. Yet, it made him nervous to realize that in this sudden reversion to the old ways, might lie a clue to the biological imperative that was about to engulf him.
Could my time be nearer than I think? he wondered.
His anxious musing was cut short by an incoming wave of mental energy.
Mother, he responded telepathically, How nice to hear from you!
But his mother was in no mood for blandishments.
Don’t, gush at me Lozilanitro, she said. Not when you plan to stay with the bug people instead of returning home, as you promised. The Omah-Drunan is almost here. Aldruvet is already asking after you.
Lozlian wasted no effort repeating a promise his mother would only believe when he fulfilled it in person. A few minutes of mechanical small talk later and she closed contact. He hung his head and spoke his promise to his bedroom walls instead.
“After the humans are settled,” he said, “I’ll tell Achimlemoor I need some time off,”
Yet the icy dread that filled the pit of his stomach told him that would not be so easy.
A new episode appears every other Monday.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Image by Steven S. Drachman