“People need a way to stave off the constant possibility that common understanding may break down.”
— N.J. Enfield, How We Talk
Royal tangs wobbled serenely between the softly undulating tentacles of sea anemones. Bubbles rose in a shimmering curtain. The filter hummed. I watched the tropical fish in their tank and tried to control my breathing.
“Waffles?” I said. “The ambassador is running late because of your waffles?”
Lucas turned red. “I did ask him to find a source of malt for the batter, yes.”
“I don’t know what either of those words mean,” I flung up my hands. “And I don’t care. You stupid boys and your stupid Western Cooking projects!”
“He really liked my waffles,” said Lucas, immodestly.
I looked back at the fish, which failed to soothe me. “Translator?” I said in Chinese. “Estimated arrival time for Ambassador Wang?”
“34 minutes,” answered the bumble-bee-sized robot.
“Estimated arrival time for the representative of the Monumental Chamber of Commerce?”
The doorbell buzzed.
“Miss?” came the voice of the doorman. “There’s a…a giant…uh…a sort of giant…”
“Yes, yes, send him up.” I turned to Lucas and said in English. “Okay, so we stall him.”
“Oh,” Lucas looked at the floor. “We.”
“I was just going to serve you lunch. Orata al cartoccio and mousse au chocolat.”
“Sea bream to the paper bag,” supplied the little robot, “and foam at the chocolate.”
“Sounds delicious,” I said, “but I need you in your capacity as biologist, Lucas. I don’t even know what a Monumental looks like.” I thought back to the briefing Lucas had sent me the week before. “Some kind of whale? Some kind of hippo?”
He wobbled his head. “You’re thinking of the word ‘whippomorpha.’ Yes, the Architects of Stable Monuments evolved from stem-whippomorphs. That’s the clade that includes everything that evolved from the most recent common ancestor of both whales and hippos, but left no descendants on our version of Earth. The Monumental Earth experienced an Ice Age during the Eocene…”
I looked at the rising floor readout of the elevator. “Will he be poisoned by fish in a bag and chocolate?”
I thought back to other diplomatic/biological faux pas of the past. “Will his sweat poison us?”
“Will he fit through the door?”
“Um,” said Lucas, and the elevator opened.
A sound rolled into the lobby of the United Nations Embassy to the Convention of Sapient Species, part scream, part rumble, part didgeridoo.
“Let me immediately go away from this very small coffin, otherwise I will put you monkeys in a hole and cover you with a pile of manure!” the translator translated for the representative of the Monumental Chamber of Commerce.
The forward half of the representative flopped out of the elevator and hit the floor with a heavy crack. He did not look much like a hippo or a whale. He looked like a sausage riding a scateboard.
A sausage with whiskers and ears at one end and a flat beaver-like tail at the other, now visible as the enormous creature paddled into the lobby on four limbs that could have been hooves, hands, or flippers. He was wrapped in some sort of tough, transparent plastic and three pairs of wheels lined his belly, like the castors on an easy chair. He smelled like clay and sea water.
Another didgeridoo blare, which the translator rendered as. “I apologize. My calling out was caused by discomfort of the body. I will not let it affect my judgement. I am (untranslatable), who are you?”
I introduced myself and Lucas, and said, “Translator, flag name of interlocutor and assign temporary translation as ‘digeridoo.’ Confirm?”
“I am very happy and ashamed. I go with you see your husband!” trumpeted Didgeridoo.
“Clarify?” I asked, making another promise to myself that I would murder our current translation coder as soon as I found someone who could replace him.
“I want you to show me your husband.”
“Lucas? What’s he talking about? What are the mating habits of Monumentals?”
“Um,” he said. “Oh! Polyandrus! High-ranking females have a harem of husbands — usually brothers or first cousins — who they send out to do things for them.”
“Translator, flag word ‘husband’ in present Monumental language and reassign translation to ‘underling.'” I wanted for confirmation and addressed our guest. “Should I take you to my underling?”
“Yes.” Didgeridoo opened his mouth, displaying peg-like teeth. I assumed that was a sign of impatience. “I know you Nationals are abnormal of custom, but with female strangers, conversation me very much uncomfortable.”
“Lucas?” I said.
“Right, the public sphere is males doing business with each other in the name of their wives, which means,” he glanced at me, “it might help to tell Didgeridoo that I’m your husband?”
Digeridoo’s broad ears swiveled toward Lucas. “Him? This stinky male is your husband?” They flattened against the Monumental’s skull. “I am sorry, I believe your other brothers are more fragrant, but their skills are lower. I am very with pleasure because you have introduced me to your dear wife.” He raised his front flippers and made a motion with them as if doing the breast stroke. “New topic: our meeting. Where is it?”
I looked down at the huge, cigar-shaped sophont on the floor, and thought of the conference room with its table and chairs. “Why, our meeting is right here.”
The ears jerked back toward me and with a squeal of little wheels, Digeridoo rolled onto his back and squirmed like a playful kitten. “I am very happy because you speak to me. Even if you are not my wife, you respect me.” He rolled back over and panted for a moment before addressing Lucas. “New topic: I will relax. How is it I climb in northeast side furniture?”
We looked into the northeastern corner of the room, which was entirely occupied by the fish tank.
“Clarification,” I said. “You want to lie down on the couch?” I pointed at the couch next to Didgeridoo.
Didgeridoo didn’t track my finger with his ears, but the translator rumble-squeaked something and he gaped, wiggling. “I don’t want to tell you that you are not correct. You
stretched your hoof in the direction of a dry object. It doesn’t have roots. I am pointing
to the furniture in the northeast corner of the room. It smells like fish. I like it. However, it is very high from the ground. I do not know how to climb in.”
“It’s a fish tank,” I said. “It isn’t furniture. It isn’t for sitting in.” When the hell was Wang going to arrive? Waffles!
Digeridoo flipped back over onto his back. “I feel very disappointed and not comfortable.
I feel very ashamed.Because you are a woman, please don’t talk to me.”
Lucas looked from the quivering belly of the Monumental to me. “I think you intimidate him.”
I sighed. “So you talk to him. Tell him I’m sorry we don’t have a suitable place for him to rest, but we would be happy to serve him lunch while we wait for the ambassador.”
I resisted tapping my feet while Lucas relayed the message and Digeridoo flipped back over, castors screeching across the floor.
“What kind of food did you make fermented for me?” Wrinkled nostrils opened and snuffled between Digeridoo’s ears. “I want to confirm that the food is not your nauseating smell’s source.”
I groaned and Lucas sniffed his fingers. “I smell chocolate and baked fish.”
Digeridoo flattened his ears and slapped his tail on the floor. “The fish has been fired in a kiln! National, you must clarify that you put the fish in a kiln, and you have smeared the ashes of the fish on your flippers, and now you are talking to me! Don’t you know that my wife writes letters to the Pyramid of the River Delta, which is filled with Gleaming Specks of Mica? No, you must know! You are making a lot of damn pyramids on this damn Salmon Festival!”
Lucas looked at me with panic in his eyes.
I may not have had time to read up on Monumental Biology, but that was because I had prioritized the spec sheets they had given us and the terms of the contract they were offering. Money and future trade considerations in exchange for the manufacture of millions of devices called, by the translation software, “Toy Pyramids of the Salmon Festival.” Lucas’s fancy fish-in-a-bag lunch had gravely offended the religious sensibilities of our guest.
“Uh. No,” I said. “That was…a terrible accident. No baked fish.” Then, before Digeridoo could show me his belly again, “tell him, Lucas.”
“It was a mistake?” he said.
“And go get the chocolate mousse and the sample toy pyramid.”
“Just a moment, sir.” Lucas ducked through the door into the embassy.
I smiled awkwardly at Digeridoo, who wriggled awkwardly back at me.
“What sample toy pyramid?” called Lucas from the back rooms.
“The one we had manufactured on Earth,” I called back. “It’s a decoration for the Monumentals’ equivalent of New Year’s. It’s shaped like a pyramid!”
Lucas rushed back into the foyer with three small plastic glasses, spoons, and the toy pyramid, which looked like the Antikathera Mechanism had mated with a Rubix Cube.
Digeridoo sniffed, running his whiskers over Lucas’s out-thrust hands. “What is this paste of bitter grass? I will take the toy pyramid of the day of the salmon.”
He delicately grabbed the pyramid between his front teeth and rolled over onto his side, curling around the toy and prodding at it with whiskers, tongue, tail, and all four limbs.
“I told you to cook something that wouldn’t poison him,” I hissed at Lucas.
“I did!” he said. “There’s nothing in his biochemistry that should have a problem with sea bream or chocolate. Nothing in the literature said Monumentals think cooked fish is taboo!”
“Maybe it’s only the Monumentals whose wives write letters to the Pyramid of the Mica Delta,” I said.
Lucas nodded glumly. “We’re going to need to do a lot more cultural research if we want to make these people’s Christmas ornaments for them.”
“I am very satisfied so far,” said Digeridoo. “Just now give me some mud.”
“Um,” said Lucas. “Clarify?”
“Mud!” hooted Digeridoo. “Dark mud! Silt! Soft mud! Loose mud! [unassigned word]! Clay and water and organic granules! I assume the mud in the room’s northeast corner. Please give me that mud, so that I can test the toy you made for me. Is the toy effective?”
“The specifications didn’t say it needed to work in mud,” I said. “No, never mind, don’t roll over.”
I looked at the fish tank, and sand that covered its floor. I pictured that sand in the pyramid toy’s many tiny gears. “Lucas, give Digeridoo your mousse. Tell him that’s the mud he wants. And don’t you roll over at me, either.”
Lucas sniffed, pulled his lower lip back in, and gave the Monumental his chocolate mousse.
“Bitter grass,” mumbled Digeridoo. “I am unhappy because of this smell.”
So was I at the squelching noises.
“However, it is apparent that the toy operates well in normal conditions,” Digeridoo concluded. “I am very happy because your species meets our lowest standards of manufacture. We will eat, then we will discuss payment.”
“Eat?” said Lucas.
“Yes!” said Digeridoo. “Food is a negotiation prerequisite condition.”
Lucas looked at me.
“Translator,” I asked, “when will the ambassador arrive?”
“In 10 minutes.”
I turned and looked at the fish tank. A blue tang swam by.
“Ask him,” I told Lucas, “if he would mind a raw fish.”