James Harmon sat in the cafeteria eating soup. The translucent noodles, made from a starchy root native to the planet, were excellent. The broth was mediocre, with a slight chickeny flavor and a muddy aftertaste. James’ partner Ghraq came in, got a large mug of cocoa from the dispenser, and approached James’ table. “It will be warmer as the sun rises,” observed Ghraq in his native language.
James replied in kind. Ghraq knew a few English nouns, but like almost all of the Karriri was unable to learn another language without losing fluency in his own. Humanity’s skill with languages had interested the Karriri at first contact. James’ fluency, or most other species’ lack of it, made humans valuable as translators and got James his job with the trade mission. “Almost certainly it will be warmer. Good morning, Ghraq. Please sit down.”
Ghraq sat, and sipped his cocoa. He watched curiously as James spooned up the last of the noodles, and then raised the deep, cup-like plate to drink the remaining liquid. Of all his human friend’s peculiar habits, he found the idea of soup most odd. A food, and yet a drink. Still, he had helped James find the yellow leaves that flavored the broth. “Does the flavor please you?”
“Still needs work. Maybe some garlic. So, what’s up?”
“The drone reports a group of mixed gender traveling toward the village.”
“Yes; Another kin group is joining them for a celebration. The clan father told me about it, and suggested we might join them at mid-day.”
“The K’Brell will celebrate; We will join them, and learn what they might trade for the nuts. Let us meet at the gate half an hour before, and walk over together.”
“I’ll meet you at the gate at eleven-thirty.” After taking his tray to the kitchen, James spent the morning writing up his notes on K’Brell historical predicates, and got in twenty minutes on the ergometer. After a shower and a quick sandwich, he met Ghraq at the gate of the compound. The K’Brell had never shown any signs of hostility, but a defensive perimeter was Karriri policy. With centuries of experience on hundreds of planets, James supposed they knew what they were doing.
Ghraq was waiting at the gate and nodded in welcome as James approached. “Are you ready to go?”
“All set. What’re you packing?”
“I will carry a taser; And you?”
“I have some pepper spray, and a noise maker.”
“You do not expect fighting?”
“Well, it’s a party. If there’s trouble, we’ll walk away. If we can’t just walk, we pop the screamer, and shoot if we have to; Then walk. But no running,” he added with a significant look. They both remembered the unfortunate incident; It seemed that running upset the K’Brell. “Anyway, I’d much rather ride out any trouble. We need to be seen as part of their kin group.”
“I agree. More inclusion will remove their reluctance to trade.”
“I think our status as outsiders is part of the problem. They’ve been agreeable enough, if kind of distant. But there are still some elements of their language I don’t understand.”
“We will discover what they want and offer it. They will trade. As we trade, we will come to know each other better. Understanding will follow trade and reinforce it.” James hoped it was as straight-forward as it was logical.
The party began with arrhythmic drumming, which was clearly and annoyingly audible from a mile away. It became louder and more annoying as they approached and entered the cluster of hemispherical stone structures that made up the K’Brell village. The normally active villagers were sitting around a central bonfire talking quietly. Off to one side, the oldest males were drumming.
Approaching a vigorous black-maned male, James spoke aside to Ghraq, “Pretty quiet for a party.” And then to the chief of the K’Brell in their language, “I greet my friend Ahaing.”
Ahaing’s reply was civil, but he seemed distracted. “I greet my friend ‘ames.”
James continued, “We thank Ahaing for calling us to his celebration.”
Ahaing’s reply was a nod to both the partners, and a glance toward the road. Clearly he was expecting the group the drone had spotted. After a moment, James tried again; “Is all well with our friends the K’Brell?”
Turning away with a wave of his hand, the chief replied, “We shall both know soon. The L’Caust should be here in a moment.”
“He says the guests will be here any minute. He seems a little anxious about it.”
“Will there be violence?”
“Doesn’t look like it, but nobody seems very happy either.”
A group of maybe two dozen, both male and female, entered the camp. One approached the chief; Glum faces all ’round. Greetings were exchanged, and the guests took seats around the bonfire, intermingling with their hosts. At a wave from Ahaing, James and Ghraq joined the group. After a few quiet words here and there, nothing much happened. Hosts, guests, and aliens from two different planets sat and looked at the fire. The sense of gloom was palpable.
“Somebody tell a joke.”
The drumming, which had tapered off at the guests’ arrival, stuttered to a start and continued raggedly. After twenty minutes of increasing discomfort, James looked over at Ghraq. A few grimaces and raised eyebrows led James to take the bull by the horns. Clearing his throat, he spoke to the chief of the local group of natives. “My friend Ahaing, what of the day?”
Ahaing looked at his feet, looked at the L’Caust, and looked at James. After a few moments, he excused himself to his guests. Drawing aside, the tall and heavy chief bent down and spoke quietly. “My friend ‘ames, all is not well. There is great shame. The L’Caust are here, and they have no duro nuts.”
This got James’ attention. The duro nuts were what they were here for. The marketing director was eager to the point of mania for the duros. The fragrant oil pressed from them he hoped to trade for yet another product, and earn an immense profit. The K’Brell had been unwilling to part with more than a few, keeping all they had in a large building that seemed purpose-built to store the nuts. They didn’t eat them, didn’t press them for oil, didn’t wear them for decoration. So far, they had just cultivated them, packed them as they ripened, and stored them away. Anything involving duro nuts was of great interest. “So they have no duro nuts. Had you expected them to bring any?”
“No, of course not. How could they? They have none. They are deeply ashamed, as are we. There is no ciemittasae neshteyma. No good can come of this.”
James beckoned to Ghraq, who joined them. James explained the situation, as well as he understood it. “The guests didn’t bring any duros; everyone’s embarrassed about it. Something or someone can’t be attached to something else. He used a formal phrase I don’t understand. Interfering could be risky.”
“Risk generates profit. Their trouble is our opportunity. Ask if we can help.”
James spoke again to Ahaing. “My friend, please pardon my ignorance. We do not wish to give offense or cause embarrassment or discomfort. We do not know your ways, and yet as your friends we would like to help you if we can. May I ask you more of this matter?”
“You are my friend. Ask what you will.”
“The L’Caust have no duro nuts, yet you have many. Would the shame be less if they had some duro nuts?”
“Yes, of course. What of it? They have none! Ciemittaset’eshteyma. If things were otherwise, they would be different.”
“Is it inconceivable that you could give them some duro nuts?”
“We could do no such thing. Vaghentaa cuidshi. That would be worse yet.”
“And yet, a few weeks ago you gave Ghraq a basket full of nuts, and others of your people have given me nuts on two occasions.”
“Yes; What of it? You are not L’Caust; You are not K’Brell. You sopeliashest’balisha.”
“Could we then, Ghraq and I, give duro nuts to the L’Caust?”
“That would be very kind of you. But you have few. At most two baskets, is it not? I appreciate your good will, but our store house has hundreds of baskets.”
Actually, the traders only had a double handful of the nuts left. The marketing director had sent out samples, and laboratory analysis had used up most of the rest. James again withdrew and spoke to Ghraq. “If I understand correctly, we might be able to act as middle-men and at least help the situation.” Again Ghraq urged him to be aggressive. He pointed out that both of them were growing older, and neither wished to do so on this backwater planet. James continued to Ahaing, “My friend, if you gave us the nuts, could we give them to the L’Caust?”
“My friend, I know not what to say! You offer hybchsea’tartuba? You will help us?”
“Yes, my friend, just as you would certainly help us if we needed something.”
That afternoon, James and Ghraq moved baskets of duro nuts from the storehouse to the side of the trail. It was unclear how this would get them any of the nuts, since James and Ghraq assumed that the L’Caust would take the nuts home with them. The work was tiring, but at least the drummers had found a beat. Both L’Caust and K’Brell watched the traders with contented expressions. Ghraq was enthusiastic. “We’ve helped them; They’ll help us. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon. You’ve often spoken of their commitment to equity,” he reminded James.
“That’s true, and I think it’ll work out. But I didn’t completely understand everything Ahaing said. He used some formal constructions I hadn’t heard before. Okay, that’s the last basket. Here comes Ahaing, and the L’Caust female.
“Grach, ‘ames, we are very grateful for your help. Cyitoksha istabalishta. Vrexni is our guest from the L’Caust.”
“Greetings and thanks, ‘ames and Grach; Cyitokshi istabalishtat. You have helped us very much. Ahaing tells me your friends value the duro nut. Would you like these?”
“Uh… Yes, thank you. That’s very generous of you; But don’t you need them?”
“Oh no, not at all, not now. Please take them. We are shaculynat now; Baymami’yeis.
Ghraq was thrilled, and his enthusiasm was undimmed even after he learned that he and James must personally carry away the baskets, at least as far as the compound. After that, Ahaing assured them, they could do as they liked.
Maybe it’s an operative future concessive
After a week of hard labor hauling baskets of nuts, James had come to regard duro oil as stinking rather than fragrant. Still, he and Ghraq enjoyed the enthusiastic congratulations of both the marketing director and the head of mission himself. Commissions to both the young traders would be generous. Ghraq came into the cafeteria one morning to get his cocoa. James sat reading, with a spoon held over his bowl. Soup again, this time one of the cream variety, served cold. “Good morning James; How is the soup?”
“Uh, fine thanks.”
“Are you troubled?”
“Well, there may be a problem. You know I told you the K’Brell had fourteen different declensions? Don’t glaze over on me, this is important. Their thing-names end differently depending on what they mean. Well, I’ve found at least two more, and, uh, another kind of action word as well.”
“James, I am sure this is very interesting, but honestly it gives me a toothache. How is any of this a problem?”
“Well, you know how I thought the K’Brell and L’Caust had given us a monopoly on nut trading?”
“Well, the thing is, I may have misunderstood. We may have given them the monopoly.”
“We gave them nothing. On what could they have a monopoly?”
“Well, that’s just it. We may have incurred a perpetual obligation to haul these duro nuts around every six weeks. I’m afraid we’ve given them a monopoly on ourselves.”
Tom Harrison, 2005