Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Suite (Wednesday, 2012 September 18)

September 19th, 2012

[This one goes out to all the UPS drivers out there that are not delivering my computers. It’d be nice if you guys could, you know, deliver them. Sure, it’s an unreal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but hey! Speaking of unreal wish-fulfillment fantasies, here’s the last installment of the fiction.]

I know I didn’t talk much about the Mission’s evacuation program but I really don’t know much about how it worked. They had picked us up and now we were heading back to Capital City in a wheeled ground transport that I didn’t know the Sumi name for. It was squat but high up, and wide and long like someone had put couches on stilts and wheels. I was sitting in the back on one side of two Missionaries. They looked shell-shocked, like I did. One was crying. Utkeu’s laser pistol was stowed — the drivers hadn’t asked about personal armaments so I wasn’t saying anything.

As far as I could tell from the curt answers the Zhenae drivers gave me, the revolution started in a city near Sunken Grace (one of the major economic centers of Zhen). Word had gotten out that Planetary Counsel had written their report on the election results, which the local population found objectionable on the grounds that the votes hadn’t been counted. These townsfolk proceeded to their local Town Counsel to express their disappointment. Local authorities, including the local branch of the Arms, rebutted their views with rigor and force. Of the townsfolk who survived, some were wearing black armbands. Riots spread from there to the equatorial regions, and by personal communication to the Plateau and the Outer Islands. All government establishments were at risk. Most Missionaries worked at government establishments. You get the idea.

I had a lot of time, because our transport was taking us all the way back to the Mission in Capital City. This let me start to process what I’d seen happen to Utkeu, one of my closest friends on Zhen. I know he had been disappointed in me. In a sense, I’d killed him. He’d given me the benefit of his wisdom, tried to dissuade me from the course I’d already been on, and I’d blown him off. My hubris had gotten him killed. I’d made a mistake. He’d paid for it. I had survived, through no fault of my own. He was gone and he was never coming back.

What about everyone else? I didn’t know what had happened to my friend who had tried to seduce me at the club. Was she OK? I’m glad she hadn’t been there with me when I’d had to leave. She would have been on her own.

As for Jamie, I hadn’t heard from her, but I was willing to bet that she was someplace safe, maybe even already at the Mission, or even off-planet already after finding a way to get out early. I worried, in a completely platonic way, about Morgan.

We trickled in over the next day or so. The last Missionaries pulled into the secure compound in the early afternoon, and we all shuffled to the biggest conference room we could find for a debriefing. The logistics were pretty straightforward; we were going to private shuttle to the Starport in groups and from there lift off back home. Anyone could ask for a transfer to a different planet, but me, Jamie, and Morgan, making eye contact in the back, would not be exercising that option. Our possessions would eventually be dug out of our residences and sent to us.

Missionaries who were evacuated were considered to have finished their service, like an honorable discharge. We’d gotten, therefore, the best of both worlds. We’d finished our service, but without having to actually finish our service. It was all playing out like Jamie had planned. We’d hit the jackpot.

We weren’t allowed out of the compound to go drinking; some Missionaries were staying at the hotel next door, but they were only allowed to go in groups of four. I was alone in a corner behind one of the administrative buildings when Morgan found me.

"We did it," she said.

"Yeah, we’re regular heroes."

She smiled vaguely, choosing not to be drawn in. Instead she sat next to me.

"I wanted," I said. And then I had to stop for a second. "I’m having buyer’s regret. I’m not sure this is the right revolution."

She gave a quiet laugh, almost a sigh. "We did our best. I think time will tell."

"Did they attack your school?"

"No, things are different on the Islands… a little more respect for teachers or something. They just took the Arms House and more or less left us alone."

"That’s good."

"Where are you gonna go next?"

"Not sure yet. You?"

"Back to school, I think. Maybe I’ll really learn how to teach."

"Listen," I said. "I guess I’m still learning how to grow up, how to put other people’s feelings into consideration. I’m sorry about everything."

"It’s fine. Now I can finally get away from you." She smiled and stood up, stretched. "Maybe I’ll see you on Earth."

"Maybe," I said. But as she walked away, I thought, maybe not.

A plan was already forming in my head. I’d gotten this whole planet into a mess because I wanted to go home. I’d thought I knew what God had wanted, and one of my closest friends was dead because of it. Maybe I could turn this around, try to act selflessly for once.

My bag was already packed. I left a note, then climbed over the wall.


Fusil (Wednesday, 2012 June 13)

June 13th, 2012

[I don’t remember whether I actually talked about genders on Zhen. I’ll have to revisit all the old posts later..]

I was in the teachers’ room, nominally grading papers, but really focusing more on the conversation between Mur Kang and Muh Cham. Kang’s a first-female, and apparently her husband had called her asking her to came home early. The conversation had turned a little ribald, since Cham (who is male) stated his assumption that Kang’s husband was what we humans would euphemistically call "lonely", and being male himself, was urging Mur Kang to go home and "remedy" her husband. "Please, please," he was saying, to hiccuping chuckles and sobs. "Forgive me," he added, and he moved his eyes together in a lascivious manner. That got a guffaw from everyone in the room.

Kang was playing the responsible young naive first-female, although I had seen her brood, so trust me, she’s not virginal. "But if I return now-so-suddenly, who will do all this paperwork? Mustn’t I come back again later? And it is such a far, long journey."

"No, sister, please," Cham said. "Your husband is yet young. It is necessary to take advantage of this youth. His machete will not always be this solid."

"Yet, so?" Kang threw a sly glance in my direction. "And what of Sandiego? He is quite young. Sandiego, are you taking advantage of your machete? Are you using it often?"

Honestly, I think Kang has penis envy, or maybe more precisely envy of the sexual liberation that she didn’t have on her planet. This isn’t the first time she’s straight-up pried into my sex life or implied things about who I’m sleeping with. She’s said some guys like to collect sexual encounters, one of each species, and I don’t know if she was offering or what but I’m the kind to prefer my intimacy a little more seriously. Anyhow, I knew where she was going and I had a response ready. "Well, not that often.. but I sharpen it regularly." They liked that a lot. Some of them were still barking and slapping each other when the men came in.

I didn’t hear any demands or anything besides gunfire. They hit Utkeu first, who went down with only a shrill grunt. Then they got Cham. I think Kang must have dived out a window or something. I never saw her again. I hope she found her way back to her husband and wife. I hit the floor next to Utkeu, who was hit pretty bad, breathing fast and shallow. We’d had a first aid course in training, but it was kind of human-centric. Do you apply pressure on a Zhenae? Does that damage them worse, cut off their breathing? Where was Wheaton or Lara 2 when I needed them? I seized up, completely lost, and trembled next to the dying body of my friend.

Outside I heard sounds of a struggle and the voice of Ahm Simo, the extremely gruff and angry second-female Phys Ed teacher. It sounded like she had found a firearm somewhere, either her own or from our attackers. She was shouting in what had to be an indigenous Zhenae language, a bubbling growl punctuated by shrill cries. Simo was not a pleasant person at the best of times, and I didn’t know her politics, but I was willing to bet she was on the side of the school versus everyone else.

Utkeu’s breathing wasn’t steadying. He made a rippling sound that was probably like a cough. He opened his eyes, locked with mine. His hand travelled upwards along his torso, slipped sideways. I saw control, a stubborn mind-over-matter in his eyes. He was in a lot of pain, but he was a Zhenae with a mission. He tugged a little and from some pouch I hadn’t seen came a small weapon, something like a laser pistol. "Take," he said. I moved to put my hands on it, and he let it go. That seemed like about as much as he could take, and he hissed with pain as his arm slid back to the floor. "Go," he added. "Survive." Then he closed his eyes, and visibly waited to die.

Zhenae machismo dictates that you pretend not to see men at their weakest. Instead we remember them at their best — fighting every injury for one last selfless act. It was in Utkeu’s honor therefore that I turned my back to him and stared at the pistol, tried to figure out how to switch off the safety. I was going to have to try to help Simo — or break out before she was overwhelmed. I tried to sight down the barrel, get my bearings. It had been a while since I’d had my finger on a trigger.

I breathed a quiet "hard-dream-sleep" to Utkeu, and then I left the teacher’s room.


Faible (Thursday, 2012 May 17)

May 17th, 2012

[This section of the story kind of came to me once in the shower but then I didn’t write it down and I had to rewrite it. This is the second version, from a week or two ago, but I wanted to wait and let it mulch until I could see if it was any good. Well, as Julia said about service here, "It’s better than nothing". Here goes.]

Dear diary,

I thought the story of my time on Zhen would be a trashy romance novel — some drama, some sexy escapades and finally a happy ending. But more I feel like I’m living an Aesop’s fable. No talking animals, unless you count the Zhenae, but a very clear moral. The dangers of hubris. Not a creation myth, alas. Not like I wanted.

I still believe that God loves us, and that He has a plan for us. I flattered myself that I knew His plan, that I was qualified to be His agent. I fooled myself that it was for other people’s good, when really I was just being selfish. I can see that now. In trying to do God’s work, I presumed to know God. Maybe I’m being punished, now, for playing God.

I don’t really know what to do now. I’m lost. We set off an avalanche, and it is bigger and more dangerous than we knew. An avalanche is not like a fat-porter. You can’t land an avalanche. You can’t even really guide it. And I wouldn’t even know where to go even if I was behind the wheel.

But then, I was always better at beginnings than at endings.

I was at the school when the rebellion came.


Grève (Thursday, 2012 April 12)

April 15th, 2012

The arm-bands are nice and all but the first sign I saw of things changing on Zhen was militias drilling. It was the second-most surprising thing that happened that day. The first-most surprising was that Morgan called. I was so stunned that for a second I answered the phone.

"What’s up?" I asked. She was standing against a building, and her eyes weren’t tracking me — she was looking out over the phone at something else.

"Hi Sandiego. This is Morgan."

"Yes," I said.

"How are you?"

"Fine." Apart from the surprise of seeing her name on the phone, everything was nominal: heartbeat regular, tone of voice even and level. No problems whatsoever. "What’s up?"

"Just checking in. Have you seen these field exercises? Have I gone crazy or are the authorities really that ignorant?"

"Not sure myself. There’s no weapons, maybe they’re in a loophole somewhere. Like maybe they’re registered as a yoga class or something."

"Yeah, I think mine are a cheerleader squad. They’ve got pom-poms. I guess I’m calling you because I’m afraid I’ll find out that they really are cheerleaders." She tucked her hair behind her ear. When she was quiet, I could hear the shouts and callouts in the background. She was probably watching a local militia. "It’s a nice change of pace from the armbands, though."

"It’s definitely encouraging. We must be doing a great job."

She met my eyes, but she didn’t agree. "How’s school? Is it a ghost town like ours?"

"No, we have students. What’s going on over there?"

"I think the students are training too. Or maybe they know something I don’t."

"That seems unlikely to me."

"Hah. I’ll keep you posted."

"Got it. Signing off." And then I cut the connection.

I wanted to get another look at the village militia so I followed the trail around the back of the hill to the stadium, normally used for sports but commandeered by a bunch of people. None were wearing armbands — plausible deniability? I guess the peculiar jagged dancing might have looked less like battle if I hadn’t been looking for it. But sure enough, there was a local sheriff watching them too, looking, well, complacent. Maybe he hadn’t had enough military training to recognize drills.

As I watched, one of the "dancers" noticed me. He was a big one, muscled and sweaty, with a scar over the corner of his head, and he had just made a series of gestures similar to what you would do to dislocate a joint. He looked me up and down, and he didn’t like what he saw. He narrowed his eyes and his fringe popped up like an angry lizard’s. He bared his teeth and made as though to advance towards me. Suddenly I wondered if Zhen resentment against Sumi extended to all offworlders. I backed up a few steps and then turned and walked away as fast as I could without looking like I was running.

This was the first time on Zhen that I’d felt fear.


Destinée (Friday, 2012 March 16)

March 16th, 2012

[I’ve been "studying French" for two years and I still don’t know the word for "coincidence", for what it’s worth. I’m not even sure about "destiny", which seems to be either destin or destinée..]

I joined the Church because of a coincidence. Most of us do, of course.

I guess with the benefit of hindsight, preeventualism kind of warmed me up to the ideas. The preeventualist doesn’t need to master a philosophy; it’s good enough to just pre-believe pre-philosophies. The essential human nature is positive, optimistic, hopeful. So isn’t that enough?

See here’s the story: I was riding a bus with my suitcase of clothes and "personal items" after my wife threw me out after a screaming row about something obscure I don’t even remember any more. Maybe my friendship with an old flame. The guy next to me on the bus was a knotty old man even worse off than I was, and he tied me up in religious debate that rapidly became an aggressive little sermon. He was Pentecostal. He was a firm believer in the power of prayer, to the point that he asserted that if you prayed, sincerely, with the right words and prayers, God would straight up talk to you.

It’s weird how religion works. It’s distributed unevenly, not exactly a bell curve but with correlations and covariances all over the place. Anyhow, I needed him to shut up, and I’m nothing if not populist or a scientist. So I agreed for him and myself to try his little science experiment: I’d try to pray. All I really want is to be a good person. If God can tell me what to do, why not?

I ended up in some hotel that rented by the hour, heaved my suitcase into a moth-eaten room with a funny smell. At that point in my life I didn’t drink but I self-medicated in a rainbow of other ways: potato chips, sugar highs, mind candy, video games, staying up too late. I started to get punchy and then maudlin around 1 AM local time when the weight and exhaustion of being "on" for 12 hours of constant crisis hit me. Blood alcohol content of 0% or whatever sober is, but let’s say I was five sachets of strung-out on one sachet’s worth of bad decisions. I stumbled into the shower to wash the whole thing off. And I decided to engage in that little experiment the gnarled old man told me about.

I knelt in that filthy shower and I prayed. I even said the magic spell he gave me: "I believe in Jesus as God’s son and my savior. I repent for my sins and accept Jesus into my heart", or something like that. And you know what? Not a single thing happened.

I flashed back on his insistence on sincerity and I guessed that there was maybe some aspect in my heart still resistant, still too proud to accept submission the way the words implied. I tried to suppress or remove that part, and I said the same words again. And again. And finally I gave up and just said what I thought: "Listen, whoever or whatever’s out there. I just want to do right and be a good person. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it." And then I started crying.

And absolutely nothing happened. Not even silence — just the same white noise, the same everyday sounds of a place along a major artery. So after a while I pulled myself together and climbed into bed and curled up in a tight fetal position and fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up and got everything together and got ready to keep moving. Pulled myself out the front door of my cut-rate motel into bright, clear sunlight. The smells of motor exhaust and mowed grass hung beneath an enormous blue sky. And across the thoroughfare, a church. A Church of the Universal Stochastic. I don’t know if I didn’t notice the billboard when I came in the last night, or what, but it said: "God doesn’t give answers, only questions."

Where was I going in such a hurry? I went over and picked up a pamphlet.

The Church of the Universal Stochastic’s dogmas don’t seem completely internally consistent to me, but I guess faith is always a little irrational. Here’s what I got from the pamphlet:

  • God loves us and wants what’s best for us, and He gives it to us whether we want it or not. He visits bad things upon us to spare us from worse things, or to provide us with opportunities for growth. And growth is big. God doesn’t tell you what to do because you are supposed to figure it out — no easy answers. But if you listen carefully, you’ll get hints.
  • God has a plan, and a judicious look around should make it clear to you that this plan is a positive one. Things fall together. Violence declines. People learn to treat each other better. God works on big scales and engineers things for trends, not for individual successes.
  • And yet at the same time it seems like He sets things up for us. Coincidences, hints. I think the principle here is: because the trend is positive, and because God acts in ways that fit comfortably within the null hypothesis, you’re safe just flipping the coin and going always with "heads". Change is generally for the better. Go forth and be confident.

The Church is something of an agitator for development and aid, seeing progress as God’s work. I’d also taken a pamphlet on their offworld volunteering program and I saw a program in Education. Livable stipend — not as nice as a Foreign Service Officer, but survivable. And being a good person is free. I did OK with xenolinguistics in high school. So why not throw that suitcase on the next starship to anywhere else and see if this is what I was meant to do?

God’s plan is subtle and maybe I was "meant" to be here to incite this revolution, or maybe I’m serving some role for some young Zhenae who will grow up to do something amazing, or maybe I’m here for my own spiritual growth. I’m not sure. But even in Sumi there’s a saying along the lines of "You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs". We’re here for progress, and Zhen represents stasis. Anything is better than stasis. Even outright disaster.


Confiance (Sunday, 2012 March 4)

March 4th, 2012

You may have a hard time believing that her parents really named her Bulimia, but most Zhenae don’t believe that your parents really named you a word that translates as "cloaca", so it’s perfectly plausible that she be a volunteer here, in this same village as me. We are drinking for the whole usual litany of reasons and I am noting the prevalence of those armbands. We are splitting our sixth beer, which makes it something like three per person, but I think I have been drinking a little more than Bulimia on each of those six beers so maybe it is more like three and a half versus two and a half. It appears that beer affects me more sincerely than wine or sachets because I am seething with incoherent drunken rage. Bulimia has been telling me stories upon stories and I no longer trust anyone in this village or even on this planet. I am explaining that I do not think it is their fault but that culturally I do not think Zhenae are equipped to feel love. They can’t, they just can’t the same way that we do. They don’t trust each other. Earther love is based on trust. How can you be in love with someone when you can’t even give them the truth or trust that they are giving the truth to you?

Bulimia is a little older than me and she is looking at me with eyes that say that she is about to give me the full benefit of those years of wisdom. She says, "Don’t forget about Sally," who is two villages over and marrying a Zhenae, "or her fiancé Road. I think this is one of those racial tension things. Equatorial Zhenae aren’t the same as the plateau Zhenae we have here. I think Road is capable of love in a way that David isn’t." (David being the name of a particularly notorious villager.)

"I just hope Road is…" and I fumble for a moment, trying to decide what I want to wish about him. He’s a good guy and at best he seems to love Sally. "I just hope Road is exactly as he seems."

"I’ll drink to that," Bulimia says, and so we do. Night is falling, and we have to decide whether to order the seventh beer or what. Bulimia suggests we move to one of our houses, not in a seductive way but in the sisterly way that develops when you share a village with someone. Even Zhenae friends of mine have commented on how isolated I am and how stressed I seem to be, and I would like to continue this little Earther bitchfest but I have class in the morning so if I am going to continue drinking, I should do it at home and alone. So we part ways.

Hiring transport on this planet is always an adventure. The trick is to be liberal about calling out your destination. "College Intersection," I shout, and on the fourth time a grav-drop slows long enough for me to board, and after I promise him less money than I spent on beer, we are heading uphill. He is wearing an armband, and by way of support I tell him, "Hey, nice armband". He snorts something like amusement. That’s basically as much as I can do in one night, so I just enjoy the ride and figure I’ll cope with this planet better in the morning.


Semblable (Monday, 2012 January 23)

January 24th, 2012

[Note: Today’s coping mechanisms include: two little packets of Swedish fish from my parents (thanks guys!), three sips of refrigerator-cold Sprite, and this little bit of writing.]

Zhenae aren’t unattractive, exactly. Some are even beautiful, and like humans, occasionally you find one who is breathtaking. Sometimes people talk about Zhenae looking like slightly less refined humans, or the other way around, but they really look just different — you couldn’t confuse a human with a Zhenae — but within striking distance. It’s the same way they think different, but still close enough that you can communicate with them. They look different, but not too different. And anyhow, I’m thinking now of a Dutch woman from a long time ago and people aren’t really all the same either, no matter what they look like.

There’s a funny story about this. One time I was in my village visiting a Zhenae friend and his daughter was there outside, cooking, but her voice sounded oddly different. I know he has lots of daughters and I thought to myself, "I’ll bet that’s not Betteu", but I didn’t know how to approach the subject. She recognized me, of course: "Good evening, Sandiego! How’s the school?". But one thing I really do love about the Zhenae is their frankness, so I just said to my friend, "That’s not Betteu, is it?" And he laughed, a grinding noise like a whetting stone, and he said "You can’t tell them apart?"

I had this moment of shame, oh no, I’m *that human, that thinks all Zhenae look alike*, and then it was replaced immediately with relief when he said "That’s Djan. They’re twins."

This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about as I sit in the club, letting my mind drift in a pool of whiskey. I’m in my "region" and I am noting with approval the black arm-bands, symbols of the political unrest we’ve been actively fomenting. It’s about a month after I chose my regional Zhenae counterpart for Revolution Committee, and judging by the arm-bands, he’s been doing well. Each flashing light picks out some arm-bands, tied between the first and second arm joints (just north of a bicep on a human). The black of the bands are pleasing to the human eye against the dark-green Zhenae color.

I’m at this club with a few Zhenae friends, one of whom is female and very, very into me. This wouldn’t normally be a problem — I’ve gotten very good at blowing off Zhenae in general and women in particular — but this is one of my closest friends, one of the few people on this planet who makes anything like sense to me. The truth is that I would be interested in her. That "would" encompasses a lot of things — if this whole disaster with Morgan weren’t still reverberating through my psyche, or even if I weren’t actively trying to overthrow her planet’s government. I’ve tried explaining this to her, once, when she called me on the phone. "I just can’t right now," I told her in Sumi, conscious of how little credit I had for this phone call, wishing in vain that she could understand English, or at least enough English for me to let her down gently. "I just can’t right now." was the best I could do. She responded, just one short sentence in a voice so small: "I understood."

So here we were again, at a club, and she’s pulling me to dance, and dancing close, and she’s brought her A game, she’s pulling my head down to her diminutive frame, into spaces near her ears that a platonic friend of any species should not be entering, and I’m keeping my hands clasped together behind her back and trying to stay away from any zone that could be erogenous. My own stubborn human biology isn’t cooperating. I can’t let anything happen, it wouldn’t be good. I’m usually better at self-control than this. Wait: all I need to do, I think to myself, is to outlast the whiskey. So I pull away from her and go to sit down. A few songs later she follows me, takes up a position kneeling between my legs. The implications are not lost on me, and I need her to stop.

I’m not sure exactly what I said to her this time, but she just hung her head, and I waited for her to pull herself together again while thinking about the juggling act I was trying to pull here — how nice it feels to be wanted, and how you can’t just queue up girlfriends like songs on a playlist, and how I would like her friendship but it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I can’t even have that if she is going to get over me. Is this what Morgan felt like? At first she told me she wanted to be friends, and I even tried to do that out of some eulogy for an emotion I used to have, but all I got was dead air.

Whatever. I’ll be happier when I’m off this rock and the only communication I have with her is the conversations we have at reunions about how great the life is that I am living without her. (I’m not bitter.)

My Zhenae friend pulls me up to dance again, and this time when we get onto the dance floor, she lets the seduction aside and just leans into my chest and sobs. This is more familiar ground for me, consoling a friend, and I’m much better at it, so I just hold her and wait it out, even as (in the back of my mind) I’m wondering if this is authentic, her actual response to pain, or whether maybe this is just what she learned from some movie, how she thinks Earther romance normally works. It’s not a good thought — unworthy of me — one more example of how being a Missionary is just making me more speciesist..


Germer (Thursday, 2011 November 3)

November 3rd, 2011

[Note: my fridge is doing nicely since I can’t cook at the moment. Also, I read a review of Cory Doctorow’s newest book; sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?]

In all honesty, my little Sumi training manual is an amusement, a project I work on when I’m too angry to work on anything else. It’s a little soothing to compose Sumi triplets to explain technical concepts, and with a little poetic license some of those triplets are just the synthesized names for Earther technical words which don’t have indigenous equivalent. Mental exercise, which I hardly get any more. Mostly it’s just waiting. Example: fuel cells for my stove are sold out everywhere within a hundred kilometers. I’m promised that more will be delivered "by the end of this week, and if not, surely by the end of the next one." I therefore took the liberty of acquiring a handheld convection coil, runs off the power grid, when I was in Highest Gardens today, which (I will admit) does a pretty good job of heating my bath water. That should at least make the waiting a little easier.

Even Revolutionary Committee stuff is simmering, proceeding mainly based on obstinancy and patience. In all honesty — which, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is hard to find on this planet — it’s probably that which is making it so hard for me to focus. I was at a meeting last night with Jamie and one of the administrative staff at my school, a sage little Zhenae named Utkeu. I had been hoping to talk him around to our side, provide some kind of memetic strategy for the kinds of public messages we needed to make, so we all went out for drinks and grilled skitters. I was plying Utkeu with a line of reasoning about the need for change.

"The corruption part is the worst," I’d said. "No Zhenae wants need to change because the whole system, straight up to the Planetary Counsel, is just as bad. And even the Zhenae who denounce corruption still perform it themselves, when they can."

"True," said Utkeu, deigning not to notice that my awkward phrasing had included him as potentially corrupt. "It is a problem with deepest roots. Hope that they will wither and be replaced."

"That’s the thing," Jamie said. Jamie’s Sumi is serviceable, but with very English sentence constructions. "The tree is sick. Don’t you want to replace it?"

"Replace? With an axe?" Utkeu did the Zhenae equivalent of a snort at a funny joke. "Not wise. Its fruit may be poison, but its branches still provide shade.. and shelter. Zhen is a peaceful planet."

"Very peaceful." I said, with a glance at Jamie. "But I ask myself, if this were my world, would there not come a day when I thought peace was no longer enough?"

"No longer enough," Utkeu repeated. "No longer really enough. I understand what you say. But this tree is very big, very heavy. If it were to fall, it would crush. Pups are like you, too young to remember. There were many stories during the Zhenae struggle for independence. Some things happen to a family before one’s eyes, and they never really see correctly again." A pause, and then Utkeu fixed me with a suspicious stare. "We are just talking, correct? Hypotheses?" We’d agreed beforehand not to say anything incriminating, just feel him out, but Utkeu was dancing dangerously close to a true question, and if he asked it, I didn’t know if I could bring myself to lie to him.

"We are Missionaries," I dodged. "We are not political. We ask to understand better." I chewed on my skitter, not trusting myself to make eye contact, but I could sense his unease bordering on anger.

"Children should be careful when playing with sharp tools," he said softly. "Have the best night." And then he walked off.

I’m dwelling now on this conversation. Utkeu’s not stupid. Is this just a cultural misunderstanding? He can’t really be willing to spend his life in a broken system with no possibility for getting better, can he?

My faith is what helps me in times like this. My being on this planet, or coming at the same time as Jamie, or the whole affair with Morgan — these coincidences are all part of a greater plan. I can feel that in my bones. We’re going to be the agents of progress. All we need to do is apply a gentle pressure in a few tender areas, and we’ll see if this place doesn’t squeal. I think Utkeu will be pleased once the dust clears, pleased to see the same potential, the same wide-open canvas that we’re used to having on Earth.


Semmer (Wednesday, 2011 September 28)

September 28th, 2011

Being on Zhen for so long, I’ve started to crave just a little bit of truth every now and then, the same way I crave broccoli or hamburgers or competent dentistry. It’s just one more commodity that’s hard to come by (although I hear sometimes they have it in the bigger cities). As a Missionary here you become familiar with many different shades of lying, which plays a critical if unhappy role here. And as with any linguistic skill, learning how to participate can greatly speed your integration and help you function effectively. Let’s briefly summarize.

First and foremost there’s the empty promise. This is a pretty common form of lying found on Zhen, and it’s sort of the equivalent of the Earther "white lie", an innocent-seeming lie that spares someone’s feelings. If a pup asks you if you brought them candy, you can tell them that you forgot but certainly you will bring them some next time. It’s fine if you don’t bring them any next time either, because maybe they’ll forget by then, and if they don’t, you can promise them earnestly to bring some the time after that. Every Missionary is familiar with hearing "We’ll talk about it tomorrow", which becomes the day after, or next week..

Then you have the half-truth, which you’re probably already familiar with. Someone asks you, "Did you buy that on Earth?" and you can say "No", which can mean "No, I did not buy that on Earth", "No, it isn’t mine", or "It is mine and it came from Earth but no I did not buy it". Depending on context, the questioner may be left with the idea that such things are available on Zhen, maybe even made locally. To be totally truthful, you might say something like "No, the Mission gave it to me" or "I borrowed it from Jamie". It takes a certain skill to be able to listen for half-truths. It helps to pose open-ended questions: "Where did you get that?"

Subtly different is the half-lie, hiding something you don’t want to reveal in something that someone already knows. An example: I can tell you that my last girlfriend was Morgan and that will still be true even if Lara 2 and I exchange vows at the Mission’s chapel. Obviously everyone already knows about Morgan, but I can still manage to keep the marriage thing with Lara 2 secret as long as you don’t ask the right questions.

But the real master-levels of mishonesty come in when you start letting people think things. There are lots of finer-grained levels than that, but you can start with joking and implications. You can get really good at it, really subtle. The idea is that the best lie is the one that the listener comes up with himself. You might be asking yourself if Lara 2 and I really did get married without telling anyone. Or maybe you’re telling yourself that it’s obviously just an example and Lara 2 and I are certainly not married nor even likely to get married. If I pushed a little harder in either direction, I bet I could get you to settle on one or the other.

It’s at this level, of course, where most of our memetics work takes place.

This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about when I’m doing work for Revolution Committee. I’m kicking it in Highest Gardens (my regional capital) at a bar "interviewing" local partners to help with the effort. Each is trying to convince me that he is most committed to the development of his species, most well-connected, most deserving of the per-diem that Revolution Committee is willing to provide for qualified assistance. I am trying to sort out the truths, the real truths, from the things they are saying (and not saying). Of the three Zhenae genders, all the candidates are "male". Periodically street vendors will walk in and try to sell us things. I am tired, hungry, and sober.

"… with more patience and purpose than you will ever know. Purity-force-united. Thank you." That’s the last Zhenae proposal. Vaguely threatening, kind of gravelly of voice, but mostly just angry and sad. As an Earther he didn’t strike me as a Ché or a Fidel or even a Facundo. None of them did yet. But I’m an Education Missionary and that means that at times like these I think, "Maybe I can tease it out of them". So, class, time for an exercise.

"Can you each please interpret me this sentence, one at a time?" I asked, passing them a Sumi triplet I’d constructed for this occasion. The words on it translated as: "Intention (or Deity)-problem-given".

"God gives me problems to solve." That was the gravelly-one, who happened to be closest to me. Literal translation. Not compelling. For an Indigenous Partner, I needed someone inspiring. I noted his response and looked to the next Zhenae.

"Problems, because God wants solutions." That was the skinny one with poor hygeine (by Zhenae standards). He wouldn’t be attractive to his peer group, so that ruled him out, but I was glad all the same to see a little bit of originality and critical thinking.

"God gives me problems with the intent that I solve them. No, wait." This was the one with the thick tentacles — young, probably attractive in the native culture, and now demonstrating some kind of problem-solving abilities. "He who discovers a problem is intended to solve it." He looked at me. "It’s that, isn’t it?"

I made some more notes on my clipboard and tried not to smile. "Thank you. I have your contact information, and I will let you know of our findings as soon as possible." I made a "thanks-that-will-be-all" gesture and they started to turn out of the bar. Only the last one stayed. He tried to make eye contact with me. "Yes?" I said.

"Please," he started, then made a motion analogous to a curtsy. "I was wondering, on your planet, are you an appropriate gender for me to marry?"

I hoped Jamie and Morgan were having better luck.


Revolution (Monday, 2011 September 5)

September 5th, 2011

We worked fast over the next week, while we were still together for Medical Week. We submitted to the tests and to the samples with the normal amount of distaste, but our real work was elsewhere. For once we pored over the Mission literature, indulged the bureaucratically-designed manuals on Behavioral Change Techniques and Memetic Design. We were in a hurry — Jamie and I agreed that the coming election in a few months would be our best target. We wanted Zhenae to want a change badly enough to vote it into office. But if that didn’t work?

We were going to start a revolution.

"Where’d you come up with this idea, Jamie?"

"I think it was the first time I was peeing in a latrine, flashlight in my teeth, while Zhenae pups climbed all over the walls trying to figure out the intricacies of my biology."

The idea was brilliant in its simplicity. Item one, Zhen was stuck in some kind of stasis. Item two, the tendency of Creation was towards progress. Item three, we were tired of being stuck on this useless planet. So when Jamie had one more painful discussion with her boyfriend back home, that had sparked something in her — and now we meant to spark it planetwide. If that meant hard work, well, that was fine; that’s why we had come in the first place. We were no strangers to hard work. It was Thursday, after all — somehow it was always Thursday on Zhen.

We passed the week developing materials to encourage civic action. The hardest part was the virality. It wasn’t enough to just convince one Zhenae to vote differently. Even if we convinced everyone we knew, it would never be enough. We needed to convince them to speak out, to convince their friends too. It was tricky to capture existing Zhenae sentiment — "things need to change" — and turn that into the message we wanted — "and I need to change them". You can’t press too much when you’re bending memes — they can press back, and then things get ugly.

And of course you don’t want to destroy indigenous economies of freedom-fighters and civil unrest. And the literature we were working off of was terrible. Sometimes I knew more on the subject than the nebulous Mission authors.

So it was hard work. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was Morgan.

The door banged in and I looked up, half afraid that we’d been discovered already. Jamie was at a bookshelf, looking over her shoulder back at where the bang had come from, where Morgan stood in shade, and behind her, sunlight, and behind that, a thick wall to keep the riff-raff out. I started but I regained my composure quickly — vanilla again by the time Morgan was sitting at my table, looking over my notes. I wanted to say something tetchy, but I knew better, so much better.

"Hi Morgan," I said. "Something the matter?"

"You’re up to something," she said. Blue eyes locked on mine. "You and Jamie.. something’s different. You’re taking Medical seriously. You haven’t been at the bar or in the House or anything. What’s going on?"

I’d have told her, of course, but for Jamie, who was really on the hook here — her idea. So I looked past Morgan at her, ignored Morgan’s stare.

"We’re blowing this popsicle stand." Morgan turned in her chair to face Jamie. "See, civil unrest can cause the Mission to withdraw. You heard about the D-Range, right? All we need is a little bit of rioting. That could happen at the upcoming elections. And if it doesn’t, well, maybe we can help ’em out a little bit. Then we can go home." Best case scenario. I’d settle for a planet-wide spirit of civic pride and optimism, but if we hit the jackpot, we’d go home.

"I’m in." Morgan turned back to me, but she was looking at my notebooks. "These are good ideas but you need broader support. I can translate this stuff into the Swollen Language and get it around the Outer Islands. For the election to even be contested, you need those votes." Then she leaned back and looked at me, with Jamie behind her also studying me.

"Can we trust her?" I said, sounding plaintive and hating it. It was a stupid question, because Jamie probably trusted her already. Could I trust her?

"I want to go home too," she said. "Face-facts-forward, Sandiego. Anything else is sentiment. I don’t have time for sentiment." We were Missionaries. That meant we were practically family. There was only one reason I couldn’t trust her — because she’d hurt me, personally. But that was already months ago.

"The Outer Islands would be a big help," said Jamie. Which meant: this is still my ship, and I think we should do it, but I’m leaving this up to your fragile emotional state. I slapped my forehead a few times. I didn’t shatter. Vanilla, I told myself. No problem.

"Fine." I spun my notebooks to face her. "I’m done with Medical tomorrow, so I’m leaving Saturday. Here’s what I’ve got. You want to start translating now or should I beam you a copy?"

"Beam me a copy," she said, as her eyes ran across my slogans and demographic projections. "But I’ll start translating now. You go to the bar. People will start to notice."

"Notice what?"

"You’re sober. That makes us uneasy. So cut it out."


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