Clash Of Cultures

Embassy Book One

ONE

Dinner With An Alien

I stared with growing horror at the extraterrestrial across the table. It wasn’t that I found the Throad ambassadorial assistant unsettling. Dealing with Extras was my job, and it just looked like an uprooted tree stump perched on a pair of stainless steel ostrich legs. What killed my appetite were the words coming out of it, which was that human excrement was an unmatched aphrodisiac.

“It’s truly fantastic stuff,” it said in a vibrant tenor. “Our entire ambassadorial office acquired enough to saturate ourselves during a departmental orgy. I believe the English idiom is ‘mind blowing.’” It ruffled its tendrils in what was supposed to be an indication of respect. In this context, it felt more like a leer.

It’s a good thing my dinner wasn’t great, I had lost my appetite. Possibly forever.

I was too stunned to reply. “We all found ourselves doing things well outside of our physical contracts. Willingly!” it said with enthusiasm. It leaned toward me. “What is the human biological equivalent of tapping the engorged fourth ventral cavity?” it asked, leering again.

The extraterrestrials had all shown up, each species with its own ship, at the same moment nearly two years ago. It was time, they had said, to make introductions. Forty-eight completely different civilizations with their own technologies, and thousands–or millions–of years of unique history and culture each. Earth was ready, they said. Ready for what, they didn’t say.

And then they more or less ignored us.

Earth reeled, of course. Riots, panic, fear, speculation, conspiracy. But the extraterrestrials continued to do nothing. They were still mysterious, but they were in orbit and we had tangible trouble to deal with closer to home. Natural disasters and political conflict pushed them from the headlines. General interest (and terror) waned and it was time to get down to business. The Extras made it known they weren’t here to conquer us, for the obvious reason that they would have done it already.

The Throad’s nearest tendrils quivered. “Ah, but it would only bore you to hear of our clumsy, primitive attempts. You are, after all, quite intimate with it and you must be masters of using your own effluvium to its best effect.” It paused to withdraw some tentacles and reach out with others. “Can you give me advice to make the best use of it? If I could outperform my partners it would improve my standing in my contract group.”

I didn’t have to make eye contact with someone who had no eyes so, I stared at my messy plate of polenta alla bolognese and found the brown sauce all too reminiscent of the subject at hand. My stomach started looking for the nearest exit.

It reconfigured its tendrils again. “I think I understand. A virtuoso never wants to give away its secrets. Perhaps you can just give me some hints? Do you change your digestive intake to alter the final properties? Smooth to create a romantic adventure, chunky to create an exciting one?”

I had a coughing fit into my napkin. “Uh, no, I don’t do that,” I muttered.

“Hmm,” it said in a way that suggested it was adjusting its estimates of my sexual performance downward. “Regardless, I will be sure you receive an invitation to our next orgy.” Little tendrils on the branch nearest me reached in my direction. Each one had a tiny glistening suction cup at the end.

One of the few things the extraterrestrials had made clear was that they wouldn’t deal with the nations of Earth separately. They needed a single point of contact. In response, the UN created the Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization. Officially we shortened it to ECOO (pronounced “echo”), but casually we called it The Embassy. A few optimistic jokers called it Starfleet Command.

The United States had donated an old navy airbase in San Francisco Bay for our headquarters, complete with Starport One, the official name of several miles of old runway intended for landing starships, though at this point we didn’t even know if starships needed landing fields.

About 90% of ECOO was made up of the Earth Nations Council, the human-facing side of the organization. It was like a junior United Nations where representatives of every country gathered to argue over access to the Extras and their technology. However, at this point, nobody had any access to any of the Extras or their technology, so it was mostly just a simmering group of frustrated bureaucrats.

They primarily aimed their frustrations at my section, the Office of Extraterrestrial Trade and Diplomacy. ExTraD is the side of the organization that officially interacts with extraterrestrials. We have a staff of seven, including two assistants and three part-time phone sitters. And that is still too many people for the amount of work we had. The head of the section is Earth Ambassador Abby Ling, who is technically the first point of contact between Earth and Extras. She’s a lifetime politician, a xenophobe, and my immediate boss.

My official title is the Deputy Head of Mission of the Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization’s Office Of Extraterrestrial Trade and Diplomacy. It takes up the entire front of my business card. It meant I was the junior ambassador.

Working in ExTraD is career purgatory. We have all the pressure of representing Earth to the Extras and we have to answer to the demands of the Earth Nations Council. But since the Extras rarely return our calls, we have no ability to do anything. There is no chance of being promoted within the department, and since it’s theoretically the most prestigious post in the organization there is no chance of being promoted out of it. There are, however, many opportunities to get fired. Whoever gets assigned here is being punished for something.

I was being punished for not living up to the expectations of my powerful, political parents.

There were hazy rumors about what Abby Ling was being punished for. She’d been the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the People's Republic of China for twelve years. If she had been as much of an abrasive glory hog there as she was here, I could see why they would want to get rid of her.

She’s one of those people who is so uncharismatic and focused on work that no one refers to her by name. We just call her The Ambassador, capital letters and all. She loathes extraterrestrials and only interacts with them when it’s absolutely necessary. She defines “absolutely necessary” as when she can claim credit for something good. Any other work and all blame she passes down to the rest of the section. Which is just me, Benjamin Taylor, twenty-nine-year-old son of a senator.

But hey, at least I get to talk to extraterrestrials.

“Your species takes such joy in its effluent, it makes me a bit jealous,” the Throad continued, oblivious to my increasingly desperate body language. I had gulped a glass of merlot with the hope that alcohol would shield my brain from what was being forced into it. “The word ‘shit’ is one of your most common, a true multipurpose word, invoked more often than your deities. You spend so much time and energy collecting it, moving it, processing it. I’ve heard every house, almost every building, has at least one room with a dedicated altar to it, complete with a throne! At popular gatherings people form queues to access such altars.” It pulled all of its fronds back, tilting back easily on its exoskeleton and considered something. “Are your discharges, perhaps, used for a more special purpose? A primary or secondary form of communication? Should I provide some of my own excrement for your examination to help further our relations?”

The real problem with our section (or “organ” in UN-speak) isn’t that the Extras ignore us, but that there is nothing that they need from us. Our technology is almost prehistoric. Any material goods or mineral wealth is easier to find closer to home. Our musicians, sculptors, performers, and other artists produce nothing original or even appealing to them. So there is little for my section to do except to think of ways our backwater planet could pique the interest of races that could travel between stars.

One idea I had was the Extraterrestrial Integration and Excursion Program, EIEP. I pronounced it ‘Eep’ but I called it Date Night. It was time spent one-on-one with an Extra ambassador (or, like tonight, their assistant) outside of the formal ambassadorial roles. The Extras would be introduced to Human culture by participating in traditional Earth activities, and we would hopefully learn something about them as well. Much to everyone’s surprise, several of the Extras were eager to join in.

Unfortunately I had come up with the idea before I discovered The Ambassador’s xenophobia, and was surprised when she assigned me the job of playing gracious host to our off-planet visitors.

Drinks, dinner, and a show. Quiet conversation and maybe a long walk on the beach. Getting to know each other, just like a date. Except no intimate physical contact, and if it went poorly they wouldn’t simply ignore my calls, they would simply sterilize the planet.

So tonight, while The Ambassador was deep in an after-hours meeting to decide if our official demonym should be Earthlings, Earthers, or Terrans, I was in an Italian restaurant being asked if I could get my hands on my boss’s poop.

“Your Ambassador is the first among your people. Her post-digestive treasure would be a singular gift. It would further our two species’ intercourse.” It leered again.

Normally this is where I would excuse myself, go to the bathroom, and regain my composure. For some reason that didn’t appeal to me at the moment. I hoped there would be a time, somewhere in the distant future, where I could go to the bathroom without recalling this conversation.

“Yours’ is a complex substance, impossible for us to replicate. Each a bit different. Perhaps not unlike your wine?” The waiter had just refilled my glass, but now I eyed it with hostility. “Under other circumstances we’d be willing to trade for your effluvia. But …” It bobbed its stump up and down a bit. If I remembered my briefing correctly, that indicated regret.

There was something it said that was important, but all I heard was a potential exit to an awful conversation and I leapt at it. “But what?”

His woody tendrils curled inward. Confusion? “Buthut?”

The Throad talked fluently and without accent (or their implants or translators or symbionts did), so despite appearances, I forgot I wasn’t talking to a native speaker. I never knew what was going to trip them up. The Throad didn’t appear to use a translating device, but I had no idea how it was talking. Or listening. Or what any of its seven senses were. “What other circumstances keep you from trading for our… With us?” I asked, stuttering.

“With regret, the Klovik,” it said, shifting itself in its exoskeleton with little rustling noises.

I was unable to eat my food for conversational reasons, and it couldn’t eat human food for biological reasons, so our plates had sat undisturbed for most of the night. For the first time, it picked up the fork, knife, and spoon in wads of bifurcated appendages and started toying with them. If it had been human I would’ve guessed it was suddenly uncomfortable.

“The Klovik,” I said, happy to participate in a sane conversation for a change. “We haven’t had a lot of contact with them. They seem to keep to themselves.” Even more than the other Extras, which was saying something. “What can you tell me about them?” I asked, trying to pull a nugget of useful information out of this date.

“Hmm, yes,” it said. The utensils were not made for tendril-based life forms. It couldn’t keep a grip on the knife or the spoon, and held the fork backwards, twining thinner roots between its tines. “They have other ways of getting to know species.” It fidgeted a bit more, then shook a branch of tendrils to disengage the fork, which clattered to the table. “Tell me,” it asked, “Why do your chefs prepare food that’s too big to fit in your mouth? Cutting it into smaller pieces should be a standard part of proper food preparation, should it not?”

It was obviously trying to change the subject. I was happy to play along.

TWO

The Ambassador

That, believe it or not, was the fun part of my job. Extraterrestrials weren’t all like that, but they were all unique and fascinating puzzles, and I loved deciphering them. They were truly alien in a way that another human, or even another Earth creature could never be. That made the rest of my job almost worth it.

The Throad ambassador hadn’t wanted to hold hands or take a long walk on the beach, so I got to bed on time. The next morning I was in the office early, working on my report and doing a little cultural exchange with my assistant Mohit.

Our desks were at right angles to each other, which made it easy to divide our time between work and conversation. He looked up from his tablet. When he had my attention, he said, “A monkey does not know the taste of ginger.”

Since he had recently moved to the US to join The Embassy, and my job was trying to understand very foreign cultures, Mohit and I filled our time exchanging cultural minutiae. Lately it had been aphorisms. We were both learning more about our own cultures than the others’.

I leaned back from my desk and gave the apparently traditional Indian saying some thought. “Just a guess, but I think it means it’s hard to appreciate things you’ve never been exposed to,” I said.

A smile lit up Mohit’s already boyish face. “My mother always says it as a great insult against fools who cannot appreciate nice things. But I like your meaning better.”

“Your mother might like the English phrase ‘Pearls before swine’,” I said.

He gave me the dubious look that said he thought I was making stuff up. “I may need some assistance translating that,” he said.

The Ambassador breezed into my office, which meant it was nine o’clock exactly. As usual, she stopped right up against my desk, letting me know that my personal space was of no concern, neither noticing nor caring that she interrupted a conversation. She pinned me with a steady gaze as she slowly raised her full coffee mug to her nose and inhaled deeply.

One of the perks of our division is that it’s aspirationally funded. No one in charge of budgets wants to be blamed if we messed up inter-Extra relations over underfunding. This was a government-like organization, so if we didn’t spend it, we lost it.

And because our legitimate budget was small, we ended up spending it on things like a Swiss coffee roaster for our break room. The Ambassador had claimed it as her own and made her personal assistant arrive an hour early to create one perfect cup of coffee. When it was ready, The Ambassador paraded her fresh brew around the office, making sure everyone could smell it and know that there was only one cup—hers. She had caused it to exist. She even had a locked humidor to store her beans and grounds in environmentally controlled security.

She eyed me like I was trouble and took her time savoring a noisy sip. With her daily ritual complete, she got to business. “Anything Earth-shattering?” she asked. This was not her idea of humor. She believed it was possible—if not inevitable—that I would commit a faux pas big enough to bring about the end of the world.

“No,” I said, glancing up from my tablet, ignoring her provocative coffee enjoyment. I preferred tea, but I wasn’t going to let her know that. She’d find a way to ruin it for me.

I knew she was in her early fifties, but her thin, sour face looked ageless. At 180 centimeters, she was nearly my height, but couldn’t weigh more than 45 kilos. (ECOO was big on using the metric system.) I always had the impression that she was starving, hungry for more meetings and paperwork.

“The report will be in your queue in half an hour,” I added.

As usual, she didn’t even nod. She turned without a word, whipping her long horse’s tail of black hair across my desk, and swept off to her own office across the hall.

Through the open office doors I heard similarly terse exchanges with the office secretary and her own assistant. That was good news—it meant she was busy with her own work today and was unlikely to pass anything back down to me.

Mohit and I exchanged smiles of good fortune. “I often worry about why she is so unhappy,” he said.

“I bet your mother would have some advice.”

“That is a certainty. Though I suspect none of it would be appreciated.”

“Okay, here’s a saying I’ve never understood,” I said, putting our conversation back on track. “‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’”

Mohit put his hands behind his head and leaned back, staring at the ceiling and pursing his lips.

“I’ve been told it means that when you’re in trouble you’ll believe in God, but I never got it,” I said. “I always thought if I was laying in the dirt with death raining around me killing my friends and with no hope of escape, that would turn me into an atheist. No decent God would let that happen to one of his children.”

Mohit was still lost in thought. “Of course you know that I served in the army before I was called to the Special Protection Group,” he said distantly.

I cringed. Mohit was so boyish and easygoing, and his duties so rarely martial, that I had forgotten the path that had brought him here. His neat and efficient haircut suddenly looked like it had been trimmed to military order.

He had fought terrorists while in the Indian army. I didn’t know the details, but knew he had been decorated for risking his life to save the members of his squad during an ambush. His valor brought him to the attention of India’s Special Protection Group, their equivalent of the Secret Service. He’d then protected his President for four years before transferring over to ECOO.

When I was out on a date with an Extra, he was on hand as my security liaison, but otherwise he was happy hanging out in the office with me. He had taken the assignment at The Embassy as an honorable retirement after his President was impeached. He had never talked about his time in the army, only referring to it obliquely, if at all.

His gaze was fixed on the past. “There was a time, much like you described. It was hot and dusty. Gunfire was bringing death to those around me. I found my spiritual side became stronger than I have ever known. I truly believed that my soul would find a new body after death. Before, it had only been a convenient thought.”

I tried imagining myself in that kind of situation, and failed. “My God doesn’t do reincarnation,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

His focus returned to the room and his face brightened. “Then let us hope you never find yourself in a foxhole,” he said.

The morning passed uneventfully. I sent my report to The Ambassador and fretted over a few innocuous questions that Public Relations had sent for comment. Mohit and I were picking the remains of lunch out of our teeth and comparing American Beatniks and Indian Hungryalists when The Ambassador stuck her head through the door to my office and jerked it toward her own. I was summoned.

Mohit gave me a consoling look as I grabbed my tablet and followed her across the wide hall through the double doors to her office. As I passed the office secretary and The Ambassador’s assistant, I tried to get a sense of what I was in for. Both of them conspicuously avoided eye contact.

In her spacious but sparse office, she waited for me to sit down before waving a hand at her tablet. “Ben, what is this shit?” It was showing my report.

I had two conflicting reactions. The first was annoyance that she still insisted on calling me “Ben”. The second was to laugh at both her awkward pronunciation of American vulgarity and her topical choice of words.

I let the two reactions fight it out and mostly kept a straight face while I tried to give a straight answer. “Well, ma’am, that was how the ambassadorial assistant put the request, and I know how desperate we are to have something—anything—to export off planet, so I thought—”

“Not that.” I had been there long enough to recognize all of her extensive portfolio of scathing expressions. She had one particular look that was identical to the one my mother gave me when she found out I was the only kid in my class who couldn’t tie my own shoes. The ambassador used it now.

“This,” she said, tracing a line of text as she read from her screen. “‘There is an unspecified conflict with the Klovic that prevents exports of this nature.’” She glared back at me. “If you know how desperate we are to generate exports, why didn’t you find out what the conflict was?” She put an exclamation point on her question by slapping her hand on her desk.

I stuttered a bit. “Uh, a date—an EIEP outing—is supposed to be an informal cultural exchange and avoid diplomatic topics.” Defending myself with official policy seemed like a great idea, so I rolled onward. “I reported the information, as well as the Klovic’s mysterious ‘other ways’ of gathering information so that this office could followup through formal channels.” That felt right. That was policy. Unimpeachable.

For some reason throwing her own policy at her only earned me an icy glare. My confidence was broken but my mouth kept talking. “Besides, it was nervous.”

She looked at me like I had dropped some Throad aphrodisiac on her desk. “Nervous.” It was a statement, not a question, but I answered it anyway.

“It was restless, playing with its utensils. Dropped its knife and spoon.”

Back to the You Disappointing Idiot look. “You didn’t feed it any of our food, did you? You know what that does to them.”

“No, I didn’t feed it.” She had a way of making me feel like I was a dog that had chewed her favorite shoe. “The Throad had very specific body language all evening, but when we started talking about the Klovic it was all different. It withdrew and started fidgeting. And it changed the subject.”

“To what?”

“Why we cut our food.”

She took a while to digest that. “After reading this piece of…” she waved a dismissive hand at my report and bit back a word, “I spent ten minutes talking with the Throad ambassador and its assistant.” She said this like it was the worst thing she could possibly do. Like I hadn’t spent several hours doing the same thing last night. “They are adamant they never mentioned the Klovic and that you have made a mistake.”

What could I say? For diplomatic reasons the dates weren’t recorded, at least as far as I knew, so it was my word against theirs.

She doubled up on her glare. “It also asked for ten kilograms of my excrement.”

I would have sacrificed a lot to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. I cleared my throat to stifle a laugh. “Did you…?”

“It’s under consideration. Then,” she continued before I could really put my foot in it, “I spent an hour pulling every last string I had trying to set up a meeting with the Klovic ambassador.”

I swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. This was bad. Worse. Because of me she had pulled strings. Now I owed her a set of replacement strings. I didn’t have any strings. My experience was more on the marionette side. Her stare made it clear how expensive this had been for her.

“I failed,” she said at last. “He refused to see me.”

“Ah.” I knew she’d find a way to make it my fault. I wondered what the punishment was going to be.

She told me.

“But you,” she said, jabbing a finger at me, “have a date tonight.”

THREE

Dinner, Again

Date Nights are staged. We try to keep an authentic appearance, but all of the “public” venues are vetted in advance and rented out for the occasion. The locations are populated with ECOO security or staff who want to eat and drink on the organization’s tab. This gives the restaurants, bars, and other locations some ambiance while keeping the cranks, crazies, and gawkers away. Or at least on the other side of the glass.

Since vetting and organizing locations takes weeks, we hastily decided to reuse the location from last night. That meant that for the second night in a row I was sitting in an Italian restaurant not eating dinner.

The Klovic ambassador had demanded a window seat. I thought he might have an affinity for glass, as he was more see-through than most people, but when I asked he (all Klovic are “he”) said no. In fact glass was completely opaque to his senses, but apparently the street traffic gave off interesting vibrations. I was not so lucky since, to human vision, much of his body was transparent or translucent.

The Klovic ambassador was reminiscent of a pony-sized caterpillar. Most of his body was a thick tube, three meters long with four pair of stubby legs near the bottom and three pair of stubby arms near the top. He stood on all eight feet and held himself upright, curving his body into an L. He didn’t have an identifiable head, and the top half meter of his body was where he kept his short, wrist-like arms and stubby three-fingered hands.