Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Science Fiction: Everyone Takes a Test

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Everyone Takes a Test

from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee

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Life Will Get You in the End:
Short Stories by David Satterlee
Science fiction. A planetary visitor becomes the object of crude hostility while having dinner at a local bar. Note: Contains a little crude dialogue. Our hero hesitates, but never blushes. He is up to the task, and we are proud of him.

Everyone Takes a Test

Althon was new to the colony planet. He had arrived at Spaceport Delta near Nuk d’Faln just after local sunrise. There was a muted bustle typical of a full-time operation in the diffuse pink-tinged amber light of dawn while the rest of the city was still yawning. 

Althon was booked with a tour group that was bound for the interior where they hoped to experience the region’s dramatic geography, exotic animals, and authentic primitive culture.

We can simply agree that the day’s cross-country travel by rail and cart was tedious, uncomfortable, and tiring. That night, the travelers arrived hungry. They were herded by the travel host into a large room – already occupied by locals who had evidently finished their evening meal and stayed for conversation and music… and to examine this next batch of tourists. The locals had rearranged themselves to accommodate the arriving group. Five musicians in a corner were playing lively tunes that allowed talkers to hear each other while pairs and quads danced at a moderate pace to a complicated rhythm.

A quiet man by nature, Althon took a seat at an empty table along a wall near the boundary between locals and visitors. He noticed that most people comfortably spoke a mix of local language and Commercial Common. Forms were passed around to determine what special foods and beverages they would expect. Althon left his blank.

A steward collected the forms and paused in front of Althon to
point out that he had not documented his requirements. Althon explained, “I am flexible for the most part, although I eat mostly vegetables. I will be satisfied with local dishes and seasonings. Should I choose to remove some pieces, I will do so discretely and without criticism.” The steward made a brief note, nodded, and moved on. In due time, a fine plate of local vegetables was delivered.

A young girl, (you know the age, well past toddler but still fearless and hyperverbal) approached Althon amidst the din and confusion. She was cautious and stared at his face for a few seconds before offering an impish smile. She was clean and had well-combed hair. She wore a brightly colored smock with matching whispy paint marks on her forehead and cheeks. 

Althon smiled back briefly and looked away with seeming indifference. Sure enough, a couple three tables away were watching. The father was eating while he glanced toward Althon. The mother, although attending to a fussy infant, stared like a hawk. Althon relaxed; all was well.

The girlchild made to climb onto his bench, but her eyes were on the tabletop. There was room to spare. Seeing her struggle, Althon reached to steady her upper arm and add some lift. She made a little squeal in protest, but finished her climb. Turning herself around to sit facing the room, she glared at Althon for a moment while rubbing the spot where he had touched her.

Discovering that she had been more helped than harmed, the girl child pointed at his plate. Althon gave a brief nod and she helped herself to three sticks of fried tuber. It looked like he had made a new friend. Althon relaxed again. Across the room, the father and mother seemed a little more relaxed as well.

As the band reached the end of a set, the player of a stringed rhythm instrument stood, looked dramatically around the room while the drummer produced a roll. Settling on Althon, he snapped his fingers and the drummer ended with a firm whack to a tinny bell. The room quieted rapidly. This was evidently one of their favorite games – bait a tourist.

Smiling broadly, he continued, “You there, against the wall. You are a stranger to us. Would you be kind enough to answer a few questions about yourself and your customs?”

He spoke in Commercial Common and projected loudly enough to be heard throughout the room. Althon paused a moment for reflection and to consider the room. Most of the tourists were watching with mixed anxiety and gratitude that they had not been pointed out. Most of the locals were watching with intensity but not-quite hostility. He quieted and exhaled a breath and then drew it back in before responding. “Very well, what would you ask about me?” 

With his victim thoroughly in sight, the questioner tilted his head gently and enquired, “What is the size of your hose, and do you pleasure your woman properly?”  There was a low background rumble of muttering and snickering. Althon was startled; he had not expected this level of public crudity or effrontery.

He responded with his own question: “Is it proper to ask and answer such things in public and among women and (glancing at the girlchild) children?” The room was unnaturally quiet. Evidently he had been singled out for an exceptional level of embarrassment. The questioner nodded and replied, “We are an open culture, living near to the earth. We are not embarrassed by the natural functions of the body.” 

Again, Althon scanned the room. He was a practiced master of the moment, but appeared to some as a cornered beast desperately looking for some escape. He addressed a table of men as his eyes fell on them. “Is this so?” Several of them nodded curtly. The rest watched intently with slightly feral grins. Althon glanced at the girlchild’s parents; they were staring at him grimly.

He tested the questioner’s resolve. “What was the question?” 

There was no retreating. “Your hose. Your woman.”

Althon returned the directness of the unblinking stare he was receiving. “The size of my hose has always concerned me, especially when it is at rest. Nonetheless, my woman has given me three sons and a daughter. She regularly and enthusiastically enjoyed our unions. She sometimes offered suggestions but was never known to complain.  Things have been less active in the past years that I have lacked ability, but we are content with other affections.” The room held its silence, but with a slightly discernible change of quality.

The questioner asked, “Sir, what is your name?” Raising his hand in public salute and giving a pleasant smile, Althon offered, “I am known to my friends as Althon.”

A fellow to his right suddenly put down his beverage mug with a commanding thump, fixed Althon with a challenging stare, and demanded, “And what makes someone a friend?” Althon responded with a tone somewhere between lecturing and cajoling.

“I would ask, ‘why should not every man be a friend?’ Or, ‘why should any man not be a friend?’ If I arrive among you, I should come with an open mind, an open heart, and a modestly open hand.” He swept his right hand back to the girlchild on his table. Enjoying the sudden attention, she grinned to the room and raised the remains of his last half-eaten tuber stick. Althon continued, “And, if I arrive among you, I ask that you not take what I brought with me.” 

“And what valuable things did you bring with you that might be taken?”

Althon replied, “The physical value of my things is less important that the fact that I possess them. More importantly, I should expect that you not try to take my dignity, joy, or satisfaction of life.”

The silence was absolute. An old woman, wearing a crimson sash, raised herself from the back of the room and made her way slowly to where Althon sat. He stood to face her. She raised herself fully erect with some effort and embraced Althon. “Please pardon the suspicion and bad behavior that some among us have shown toward you.” Smiling kindly, she continued, “I am looking forward to your service here. We will make every effort to assure that you feel properly welcomed, Ambassador Maerfeldt. May we call you Althon?”

The room erupted with the sound of fists pounding tables in approval.