The Aerumnula name for the station worked out to Floats Above Blue Planet with White Moon, but Jordan Eversley thought of it as Three Loud Buzzes and a Fart. It held fifty-eight hundred Aerumnulae, of which three hundred were coiled on the concave auditorium floor. Fifty-eight hundred Aerumnulae and Jordan.
“Mount Rushmore is a spiritual place for us,” he played. “Our ancestors toiled for a thousand generations to carve the gods you’ll see there. For us it symbolizes the union of our species and our planet.” He lifted his hands from the translator’s antennas and wiggled his fingers. The Aerumnulae found human gestures titillating. Their own taboo against displaying their manipulatory organs was so strong that Jordan still didn’t know if they had pincers or tentacles or what under their aprons.
“We gather there in our flocks. We believe the mountain is looking over us.” The Aerumnulae ate that shit up. The auditorium bonged with what Jordan recognized as Aerumnula applause. Borborygmus, his boss, undulated onto the dais to hawk some holos of human sports and ceremonies. From a concealed speaker, a human voice sang to the tune of the Ode to Joy.
Uns’re flocklar sim-ple-lich est, nah-nu kakimas’ hoi thumb.
Jordan leapt behind a pickled-leather screen to calibrate the translator. 3LB&F had just enough gravity to keep the shot in the glass, if you could get liquor here, which you couldn’t. He took a tuning fork out of his pocket and checked the antenna that controlled the fourth formant. Sure enough, it was flat. He tweaked the calibration knob.
A rumble sounded behind him, and the translator screen lit up. “Are you alone here?”
He turned around, still holding the translator. A purple-brown Aerumnula had squeezed in backstage. It was on the small side at thirty feet, a squishy tube with a fringed yellow apron around its midsection. It lifted the toothless rings of muscle that formed its mouth and gurgled a hot, pungent blast into his face.
Once, when he was a kid, his brother Nate’s snake had puked up a half-digested mouse. The smell wasn’t just bad, like spoiled milk or a dirty diaper, but wrong — it made your body want to jettison ballast and take off. Jordan liked to believe some enterprising human had a thriving interstellar business dousing half-digested mice with nail polish remover and selling them to the Aerumnulae as breath mints. His favourite part was the “thriving interstellar business.”
He smiled, circling his hands above his cheeks like he was miming putting on rouge. He didn’t smile all that well since the acid attack, back on Earth, but no Aerumnula was going to pick up on that. “Surely you are lonely here.” The Aerumnula inhaled air through its spiracles and blew it out, constricting at several points to form harmonics. Jordan had read that an Aerumnula could produce all the sounds of human speech, if it wanted to, which — yeah. “No flock.”
Jordan fended off unwelcome Aerumnula advances at every appearance. It wasn’t a sex thing. The Aerumnulae had evolved as symbiotes — parasites, really — of a non-sentient species, the Cornu Copiae. Now they kept flocks of them and fed solely on their secretions. For hardwired biological or learned cultural reasons — no human knew which — the Aerumnulae felt fond of the Cornu Copiae, like pets, and often extended the same affection to humans. They also laid their eggs in the Cornu Copiae and their young ate their way out. Jordan guessed it was a sex thing after all. Anyway, it was gross.
Borborygmus was already squeezing in to shoo the groupie away. “To communicate with the sample humans outside of the presentation is forbidden,” it said. “We have holos for sale, and of course you may sign up for our exclusive tour, Human Ritual Combat.” That would be the package deal — a flyover of the Tour de France and a night at the opera. (Plus a cathedral. The Aerumnulae didn’t like pyramids or great walls. Lots of planets had those.) Last year Borborygmus had called that package Human Mating Displays, but ticket sales were disappointing.
“Thanks,” said Jordan through the translator. “Can I have my pay?”
Borborygmus nudged open a box with its tail end. It was filled with crumpled coloured paper, like an Easter basket. Euros, old dollars. A hundred-dollar Confederate bill, slaves hoeing cotton under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty. Wampum beads.
“We agreed on Aerumnula money. One hundred eight credits.” Jordan picked up a cratered coin that said BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST.
“I thought you might be tired of those.” The slow rise and fall of Borborygmus’s fundamental frequency indicated unwelcome surprise.
“I’ll never get tired of it,” said Jordan. “I find it very spiritual.”
“I have some Yap money back in my room,” said Borborygmus. “One of those big stone wheels.” But it relented and gave up the credit chit.
3LB&F was an Aerumnula luxury hotel. They left their Cornu Copiae flocks here while they buzzed around Earth’s attractions in low-grav hoverships that weren’t for sale at any price and worked, as far as any Earth physicist could tell, by magic.
Jordan was the only human who lived here, but human tourists paid exorbitant amounts to sit at the automated loading dock and hope an Aerumnula squished by. Today Nate was among them. Jordan never mingled with groups of humans, not since the attack, but he approached the Aerumnula security guard-cum-customs officer at the gate.
“A member of my flock is here,” he said. “I hoped you could let him in.”
“Does he have a permit?”
“No. But it is very lonely here.”
“Oh, poor thing.” The guard swayed. “I wish I could help you. The limits on humans are so strict, though. The smell.”
So Jordan ended up taking Nate’s call at a viewscreen, as usual. When the image engaged he saw that Nate’s left eye was swollen shut, though his skin was too dark to show bruises.
“Thought you were going to move to a better neighbourhood,” said Jordan.
“I did. Still no luck getting the visitor’s permit? Or getting the guard to forget about it?”
“Borborygmus is still saying it can’t swing one. It would be so much easier if you could get in here with me. Or instead of me. Too bad you weren’t the musical one.” Nate was a chemical engineer with two doctorates and a lecturing position at MIT who would have been underqualified to teach in an Aerumnula kindergarten. Not that they had many kindergartens, what with the glacial rate of Aerumnula reproduction.
“Ain’t it, though?” said Nate. “Anyway come talk with me awhile. I think I had a breakthrough on their Galactic Positioning System. I got hold of a holo of a slug tour guide comparing the Colosseum with some distant moon full of giant fungi. I think the guide gave coordinates for that moon, and maybe even for Earth.”
“That’s great. I’ll be with you in a few.”
“Don’t forget to bring me a souvenir,” said Nate.
Jordan was bounding off to the souvenir shop when he heard hostile human voices.
“The traitor,” said a man. “It is good.”
“The least popular man on Earth,” said a woman. They both sounded drunk.
“I’m not on Earth,” said Jordan.
The strangers furrowed their brows. They both wore tailored business suits and name tags affiliating them with the biggest petrochemical company Jordan knew of. The man, Noah, shook his head and asked, “Is it good?”
“It is good,” said Emily.
“Where’d you get the liquor?” said Jordan.
“Told the slugs it was medical supplies,” said Emily. “Guess they don’t care enough to check.” She stumbled on her high heels. “It’s harder to balance in this gravity, but it’s so much kinder to your feet. What a trade-off.”
“Care to offer me a drink?” said Jordan.
“Don’t give him any,” said Noah. “He’ll get slug germs in it.”
Emily shrugged and passed Jordan the bottle. They all sat down cross-legged under a stand of alien plants whose transparent triangular membranes rattled together like data entry.
“The slugs gave us a tour with an autotranslator that knew about fifty words,” said Emily. “‘This is the Aerumnula train! It is good. This is the Aerumnula food. Is it good? It is good.’”
“This is supposed to be a business trip,” said Noah, “but we got nothing they want. Us coming up here is like some Cro-Magnon setting up a meeting to sell Duke Energy a burning stick.”
The woman sloshed the bottle. “I heard that without hyperdrive, you could fly until you died of old age and never get past Aerumnula space. Slugs forever in every direction. Think they squat their saggy asses in orbit without an invitation everywhere they go?”
It might have been the booze, but Jordan wagered he would have felt fighty anyway. “Are you personally worse off now that the Aerumnulae are here?” he said. “They didn’t conquer us and they haven’t taken anything away from us. Has anything in your life even changed since the Arrival? What’s the problem? They have nice things and they won’t share? Look who’s talking.” He reached for the bottle but she held it out of reach. “Before they got here, did you spend your nights lying awake in bed, sobbing into your pillow because you didn’t have hyperdrive? Can you just not stand the thought that they’re sitting up here looking down on you?”
You couldn’t accurately describe an Aerumnula as sitting, but she didn’t take the bait. “Tell it to the humans they kidnapped,” she said. “Caring what happens to other people, that’s called being human.”
It was true. The Aerumnula sometimes abducted humans to keep with their Cornu Copiae flocks. The Aerumnula government forbade it, but didn’t take too hard a line on enforcement. The captives usually came back, though admittedly often poisoned by Cornu Copiae treats, or missing fingers that the Cornu Copiae had licked off. The Aerumnulae hardly ever laid eggs in them though.
“Back when I lived on Earth,” Jordan said, “humans were known to abduct other humans. I hear this one time a human killed another human on purpose.” He turned his head to give her a better view of the scarred cheek.
“Maybe we would have hyperdrive if it weren’t for the likes of you,” said Noah. “Who would want to trade with the booger-eating middle-school civilization you paint us as?”
“I’m not the one who gave them those ideas.”
“So what,” said Noah. “More of them have heard you speak than the President. Any time something might make them change their minds, they can look back at you and be reassured that they don’t have to.”
“It’s not like they were being generous before I got this gig. You said it yourself. What could we possibly offer them? Not technology. Resources? There are a hundred uninhabited worlds out there for every one with enough of a civilization to pile one rock on top of another. Why would anyone buy what’s lying around free?”
It wasn’t worth keeping Nate waiting for this, especially if they were no longer providing refreshments. “I just figured out a way to double my income,” Jordan said by way of goodbye. “The Aerumnulae might not eat bread or drink wine, but I’ll just bring one of those Cornu Copiae in. I’m going to celebrate Mass.”
Emily took a swing at him.
After the guards had ejected Emily and Noah, Jordan went to the gift shop. He still hadn’t seen what kind of tack was on the upper shelves. He wouldn’t have minded having Borborygmus’s box of money, or at least the box, to stand on. Still, he hadn’t yet exhausted the things within reach.
A rope of lights snaked through the air, spelling out laboured Aerumnula jokes. Jordan reached towards it, below it, over it. Probably the same grav-repellent they used in their hoverships. It cost 214 credits, though.
He could only guess what was in most of the packages. The written language was still mostly opaque to him. The merchandise bawled the same phrases over and over and over: Humans Love You. Rejoice! Greetings From Earth.
One of the holos was new: a human marching band, retouched to add aprons covering their hands. The illustration on the back showed a large Aerumnula beside a small lumpy one. Something for Aerumnula children — could he wring a better understanding of the language from it? Chances were, though, that all the vocabulary dealt with Earth stereotypes.
He picked up a bas relief of Mount Rushmore. Like a lot of the cheap stuff, it was cast from a grey protein Nate called Argillastra. All four faces had spectacles and Lincoln’s nose was below his mouth.
On the back there were bumps labelled with Aerumnula characters. He touched one and the same character appeared in the flat space below it. Nate already had plenty of Argillastra to experiment on — his Argillastra-related patents had already paid for eight trips to the loading dock — but keypad and screen were new. Too bad Nate wasn’t here to help him decide —
A blast of pungent mouse warmed the back of his neck. The salesclerk had wandered over.
“You not want,” it said in its usual baby talk. “No good for human friends. Only for Aerumnula friends. Earth is close. Don’t need for Earth.”
“I have lots of Aerumnula friends,” said Jordan. “They love me.”
“Someone helps you write name, name of friend? Put it here, put numbers to show place —”
“Coordinates?” An alien postcard. “Is that how they, the —” he didn’t know a word for mail — “is that how they take this to the right friend?”
“No one take, no.”
“They use the coordinates, I mean,” Jordan tried again. “To sort messages onto the ship that’s going the right way?”
“No ship, no ship.” The alien’s apron creased. It took the postcard and whooshed it through the air. “Flies all the way! Doesn’t need ship!”
A self-delivering postcard. Jordan’s hands shook. He was holding a portable hyperdrive.
“If you’re going to buy, seventy credits,” said the clerk.
“I’ll take it,” said Jordan. “The price is right.”
With a working drive to copy, Nate and his engineers could build another someday. A third. A fleet. And when the human starships streamed across Aerumnula space, spreading humanity like kudzu, their prows would read “Eversley Industries.” And everyone, human and Aerumnula alike, would be forced to take Jordan Eversley seriously.
Greetings from Earth. Humans love you.
Tracy Canfield’s short story “Starship Down” won the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Short Story appearing in Analog, and she has had other stories in Analog, Fantasy Magazine, and Strange Horizons.