Planet of the Tentacons
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Look on me,
Me who have touch'd and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfet have attain'd than fate
Meant me, by vent'ring higher than my lot.
John Milton, Paradise Lost
The mollusks -- generous hosts when they weren't trying to kill you.
Dave Barry, Peter and the Starcatchers
The shuttle shook when it hit the dense, lower atmosphere of Tentos. Talia Denzer, still new to space travel, clutched the arm of her seat. She looked out the window to her right. She could not see much through the thick cloud cover. When the clouds parted enough for her to see anything, they revealed air with a greenish hue different from anything on Earth.
"Is this your first trip to another planet?" Jod Perry, seated to the left of her, asked. Talia had met him only briefly on the trip from Earth. She recalled that he was one of the geologists. He was handsome, if you overlooked his too-skinny frame and nervous demeanor. An intense air hung about his eyes, but he smiled kindly at her.
"It is," she said as the ship rocked and rolled in the turbulent air. "This trip is my first time in space. It's weird to think that ten weeks ago I was teaching classes at Cornell."
"You'll get used to it," Jod said. "Transit is weird when you do it the first time, but after a while it seems normal."
It didn't seem normal, yet, to Talia. It had taken the ship a month to get from Earth to the wormhole station, roughly halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Transit -- the process of traveling 150 light years from the solar system wormhole station to the wormhole station in the Tentos system -- had taken ten Earth days. Another four weeks of travel beyond the station brought them, at last, into orbit around Tentos.
After the usual, lengthy diplomatic song and dance the Tentacons always required, the shuttle, with all necessary mission personnel, finally detached from the cruiser and set off for the capital of Tentos. The closest English phonetic approximation to what the Tentacons called it was I' rizishi I' iz iz har i' i' zhi zhi, but most humans called it Tentos City.
Twelve weeks earlier, Talia, an associate professor in the department of alien linguistics at Cornell University, had been working on a lesson plan in her office. It was early spring, mid-semester, and rain beat against the window of her small office. An unexpected knock came at the door.
A short, officious, middle-aged man entered her office and seated himself in the chair opposite her desk without asking permission.
"Professor Denzer," he said, his manner abrupt. "I'm Gadber Hines, vice president of Stenvo GeoSpace Corporation. You know what we do?"
"You're a mining company," she answered. "You mine other planets."
"Exactly. We are one of the three biggest mining companies in the known galaxy. You're familiar with Osnerium?"
"That's the element needed to make Transit work, right?" she asked.
"That's right. Osnerium is the rarest metal there is. Its existence was predicted by Howard Osner, the architect of modern space travel. When it was found, it opened up the possibility of real space travel for the first time. Without it, travel between star systems would be impossible.
"Unfortunately, it's very, very rare. We're constantly looking for it, but we seldom find it. Until now. That's where you come in."
"What do you mean?"
"We believe the galaxy's largest reserves of Osnerium are on Tentos. We need it. And we need an expert on Tentacon languages to help us with the negotiations."
"What do you need? Lessons in Tentacon languages? I guess I can help with that."
"No, Professor Denzer," Hines said, thin mouth stretched across his pallid face. "We need you to go with us. To Tentos. Have you ever been in space before?"
Talia had not. But Hines made her an offer she could not refuse. Stenvo GeoSpace proposed to have Talia travel with their representatives to Tentos. She would be given the opportunity, after years of study, at last to meet and to communicate with the Tentacons and study their languages (there were many) while the negotiations carried on. Hines already had taken the liberty of communicating with Talia's department chair, and he and the university stood fully behind her participation. They even encouraged it.
Talia noticed that, as he spoke, Hines's eyes kept sweeping over her body. She had the weird feeling that her figure was being appraised. She felt an intense dislike of Hines even though she was intrigued by his proposal. She was relieved when he left.
After a brief spell of uncertainty, due chiefly to her lack of experience with and queasiness about space travel, Talia agreed to the proposal. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would be irresponsible to turn it down. Besides, Stenvo offered compensation for her services that would make Talia comfortable for the rest of her life.
Just two weeks later, Talia boarded a shuttle and left Earth to rendezvous with the space cruiser. It was her first time on one, and its size awed her. Inside, it was like a miniature city. Space travel could be long and tedious, and the cruiser's designers wanted life on board to replicate life on Earth as much as possible. Talia marveled at the effectiveness of the gravity machines, though it took her a few minutes to adjust after the weightlessness she had experienced in the shuttle.
The amenities on board the cruiser made life relatively comfortable during the 10-week trip, but the security troops on board reminded Talia that space was dangerous. About a third of the ship was off-limits to non-security personnel like Talia. That part of the ship housed the troops and weapons. She wasn't too worried about the trip to Tentos. The Tentacons remained a mysterious race, who kept contact with humans to a minimum, but in the 20 years they had known each other there had been no violence between Tentacons and humans.
A wave of turbulence hit the shuttle, interrupting Talia's reverie. She looked out the window again. The clouds had broken, and she could see the planet's surface not more than two miles beneath her. From this height, it looked a lot like Earth, as she knew it would. To the surprise of the first human space explorers, life had developed on other planets much as it had on Earth. The prevailing theory as to why was developed by Alvin Ling and known as Ling's Principle of the Convergent Evolution of Life -- that certain physical constraints common to all E-type planets would cause life to form and evolve in similar ways. Explorers were surprised, as well, once Transit made interplanetary travel and discovery possible, to learn just how many E-type planets existed. Most scientists accepted Ling's Principle, but some didn't think the theory was plausible and speculated that the similarity of life forms throughout the known galaxy could only be explained by design. What the design was, and who was responsible for it, no one could say. But even some reputable scientists preferred the design theory to Ling's Principle.
Tentos, Talia thought, looked a lot like Earth, but not exactly like it. It had plants, or something very similar to them, which like plants on Earth relied on photosynthesis, but the molecular composition of Tentacular chlorophyll was different from that on Earth, and the foliage on Tentos had a distinct blue-green hue. Beneath her, Talia could see dozens of islands of various sizes rising from calm seas, creating a swirling, blending landscape of teal and aqua. They were near Tentos's equator, and she knew the climate here was consistently warm and humid. Frequent, heavy rain watered the dense forests that blanketed the land.
A few minutes later, the shuttle flew over one of the largest islands, and the forest cover broke to reveal an enormous city -- the Capital City of the Unified Nations of Tentos. The city, unlike the natural landscape, was truly alien. All the structures were curved and sinuous; Talia saw almost no straight lines anywhere. The buildings, if that's what they were, were irregularly shaped dome-like structures, and their color was a near-uniform dark-gray. Talia knew enough about the Tentacons to know that that they had an aversion to bright and contrasting colors.
The shuttle approached one of the larger domes, and an immense door opened in its side. The shuttle entered the door and set down on a landing pad.
"We're here, at last," Talia heard Jod say. "Excited?"
"Very," Talia said. "I've studied Tentacon languages for over ten years, and I can't believe I'm actually going to meet them."
"Well, don't get too eager," Jod said. "We're going to be sitting here for a while. The Tentacons don't do anything hastily. The diplomatic crew has to go through its usual, time-consuming meet and greet ritual before the rest of us can get off the ship and see our hosts in person. But it's worth the wait. I've been here once before. They're the most interesting race I've met, and I've met a few."
Two hours after landing, the shuttle's passengers left the ship as a group, escorted by squat, round robots. No Tentacons were in sight. They walked from the landing pad to quarters that had been built specially and jointly by humans and Tentacons to provide temporary housing for human visitors. Talia had learned that the Tentacons did not allow any humans to stay permanently on Tentos. Talia was led to a spartan but comfortable room with a bed, a screen, a small closet, and a bathroom.
Another hour passed, and Talia left her room to attend a meeting called by Dars Stenvo. A robot showed her where to go. Talia entered a conference room with a long table in the middle.
Talia recognized everyone in the room, although she didn't know all of them well. At the head of the table sat the company president, Dars Stenvo. Next to him were the company's business lawyer, Lennard Wolk, and the head of security, Carson Veen. Also seated were Jod, the chief geologist, Reston Marx, the chief engineer for the mining project, Tracy Partaro, a biologist from the University of Texas, and two other junior lawyers who were there to help Wolk with the complicated process of drafting the contracts. Across the table from Stenvo sat the vice president in charge of the project, Gadber Hines, the man who had recruited Talia.
"I don't think I need to tell anyone how important this project is," Stenvo said. "According to our best geological estimates, confirmed by Jod and his crew, Tentacon has greater reserves of Osnerium than any other planet we've discovered. You know what that means. Without Osnerium, there's no Transit. Without Transit, there is no interplanetary travel, and without interplanetary travel, this company, not to mention the civilization that we've helped build over the last 50 years, ceases to exist."
"I thought Osnerium had been discovered on Titan," Tracy Partaro, the biologist, spoke up.
"Nope," Stenvo said. "I heard those rumors, too. We checked. There's none. The only source of Osnerium in the solar system is Earth, and we're running out of it. The sources have been nearly exhausted. We've looked everywhere, on every planet and every satellite we've been permitted to explore. Most planets don't even have it.
"But Tentos does. If our geologists are right, it's got a lot of it. And that means we need to get it, and that requires getting the permission of the Tentacons. They've got enough Osnerium here, we think, to keep us in business for another 50 years, at least. But they don't have human Transit technology, and humans sure as hell aren't going to give it to them. That means both sides have a reason to do this deal.
"But if you know anything about the Tentacons, you know they're tough negotiators. Doing this deal is going to be a struggle. But understand: we have to get this done. If we don't, one of our competitors will. Terranax representatives are going to be here in a month. If we don't get this deal done, the Tentacons might do a deal with Terranax. I can't let that happen."
"How's this going to work, exactly?" Talia asked. "I have a general idea what our roles are, but I don't know what, precisely, I am supposed to do."
Stenvo stared at Talia, as though for the first time. Talia knew he was 61 years old, and he had served as Stenvo CEO for 30 years, taking over the position from his father. His face was lined and worn, but his body was lean and tense. He looked like a coil under pressure, ready to spring. His gray-blonde hair was cropped close. He stared at Talia with eyes the hue of gray-blue ice. His piercing gaze made Talia nervous.
"Well, the first step is the delivery of your code, something we took care of half an hour ago," he said.
"What's the code?" Tracy asked.
"Professor Denzer is one of Earth's foremost specialists on Tentacon languages, as all of you already know. Tentacon languages are extremely complex and utterly unlike anything on earth, making the process of translation and negotiation very challenging. They will be communicating with us in Tentish 4, their most common language, and Professor Denzer has prepared a code to facilitate the translation from Tentish 4 to English and vice versa. Her code doesn't just encompass grammar and vocabulary; it includes modules on pitch, inflection, and idioms. As we speak right now, the Tentacons are incorporating the code Professor Denzer created into their translators. This will make our meeting go much easier.
"Tomorrow we will meet the high lord in charge of this project. His name is -- well, I can't really say what his name is in Tentish, but we call him Odorin. We will be negotiating with him in his lord's chamber.
"All of you will be present. I will do most of the talking, along with my lawyer, Lennard. Jod and Reston will be there to handle any geological or engineering questions. Talia will be there to assist if language problems arise or if the code isn't working. Tracy is here to assist in a biological exchange -- we'll be providing information about Earth life, and they'll be providing information about Tentos life. And, of course, we have Carson to assist if any security issue arises. I don't expect that to happen."
"We'd be fucked if it did, wouldn't we?" Jod asked, with a grim smile.
"Yes, Mr. Perry, we would be fucked," Stenvo said. "It's just us, on a planet of 20 billion Tentacons, a long way from home. But I prefer to think positive. I hope you do, too." He didn't smile when he said it. Talia had the impression Dars Stenvo did not have much of a sense of humor.
"All you need to do, folks, is show up and follow my lead," Stenvo said. "One other thing. The Tentacons do things at their own pace and rhythm. They are not like us. They may do things and say things we don't expect. They may make requests of us that seem to us . . . unusual. That's why we can do only so much to prepare. Stay on your toes. Be ready to adapt. Sleep well, eat a good breakfast, and be ready to go at 0800 hours tomorrow."
He stood up from the table but then paused and looked around the table again.
"I forgot one final thing. What to wear. The Tentacons are extremely visually sensitive, especially to color. There are colors and patterns they dislike intensely. They insist we wear clothing specially prepared by them when we meet their high lords. Tomorrow morning, before we go, packages will be delivered to each of your rooms, and you must wear what they've provided."
"Um," Tracy raised her hand. "That seems kind of odd. Do you have any idea what they want us to wear?"
"No, I do not," Stenvo said. "I asked, but they wouldn't tell me. But it's something on which they are non-negotiable. Apparently, it is a necessary sign of respect to be in the presence of one of their high lords. But I don't think it will be a problem."
Stenvo turned and left the room, with Carson Veen and his lawyer in tow. The rest rose slowly from the table and went back to their rooms, each escorted by a robot.
Half an hour later, Talia heard a knock at the door of her room.
"Come in," she called.
The door opened, and Carson Veen walked in. His hair was damp and looked freshly washed. He held a bottle of wine in his hand. Without asking Talia's permission, he walked to a small cupboard and pulled out two glasses. He put them on a counter and turned to Talia with a wolfish smile and a hand beginning to unscrew the bottle top.
"I wondered if you would have some with me," he said.
Talia stared at him, nonplussed.
"Shouldn't we stay sober?" she asked. "We have an extremely important meeting tomorrow."
"Yes, we do," Carson said, "and it's over 14 hours from now. A little wine won't impair our faculties. Besides, I thought it might make things more fun."
"Things? What things?" Talia asked, confused.
"Fucking, of course," Carson said, his smile growing wider. "I'm here to fuck you."
"Excuse me? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about fucking, of course. Don't you want to fuck? I'm good-looking, I have perfect abs, and I have a big cock. And I guarantee I'll make you come. I always make 'em come. You'll want to come before the meeting tomorrow. It will make you sharper."
Talia shook her head with disbelief.
"Mr. Veen," she said. "I don't know where you are getting this, but I do not want to fuck you. I think you should leave."
He looked at her, perplexed. Then he put his finger to the node on the side of his forehead.
"Ah. My mistake," he said. "I mistook your profile. I thought you'd adopted Space Protocol. I see you haven't. Dr. Partaro has, however. I have the wrong room. My apologies." He turned and left with his bottle of wine, but not before giving her a look that was more lustful than sorry. "A pity," he said before exiting the door. "It would have been fun."
Now Talia understood. "Space Protocol" was a sexual behavior protocol that many frequent space travelers had adopted. It entailed a pattern of nearly unrestrained promiscuity. Some researchers had found that high levels of sexual promiscuity helped relieve the anxiety that often accompanied space travel. Many companies strongly encouraged it, because they believed it made their workers happier and more productive. Talia, who was not an experienced space traveler, had heard a little about it but not adopted it. On the ten-week journey, she had satisfied herself with toys and with her fingers, not with other men and women.
Talia ate an early dinner, delivered by robots, without wine, by herself. She did not make herself come. At bedtime, she stripped off her clothes and snuggled under the bed covers and fell fast asleep.
The alarm woke Talia at 0530 hours.
Talia threw the covers back and jumped out of bed, as she always did. She did some exercises and took a shower. She began to get dressed when she remembered that she was supposed to wear only clothing that had been prepared for her. At that moment, a bell sounded at her door.
She wrapped herself in a towel and opened the door. A small bot rolled away in the hallway, leaving a package on the floor.
Talia walked back into the room with the package and opened it. She released the towel and it fell to the floor. She stood naked. Inside the package was a note and some clothing. She read the note first. It said, simply, "Wear these to the meeting today, and nothing else."
Talia up-ended the package, and three things fell out, onto the bed, all in pale gray-blue: two slippers, and a dress.
There was nothing else. No bra. No underwear.
Talia picked up the dress. It weighed almost nothing. She didn't recognize its material. It was thin, but she could feel a substance to it as well, and it was soft and luxurious. After a few moments of stroking it she held it up over her head and pulled it onto her body. She looked at her reflection in a mirror on the wall.