Work and play collide in this story of alien first contract.
Bad enough the planet smelled like lemon meringue pie. But for Uplift Agent Holly Kirk her future hinges on convincing the furry natives to adopt her uplift contract, before her competition beats her to it.
Unfortunately, the natives are more interested in dancing!
Project coordinator Holly Kirk didn’t trust any planet that smelled like lemon meringue pie. She stood at the base of the squat saucer-shaped lander with a scanner held up to her eyes. Her tight blue enviroskin clung to every curve and the smooth line of her body from her tiny ankles to her long neck. A brisk breeze carried the lemon meringue smell across the bright orange spring grass plain. The wind tugged at her black hair, but her glittery silver hair bands kept every strand in place. Her space-pale brow, unmarred by unfiltered starlight, wrinkled as she surveyed the area.
Worse even than the smell was the impossible cuteness of Shermmies’s Planet. The smell came from the spring grass, each coiled orange stem leaking tiny sap beads out through pores. The odor attracted the sipper moths that crawled around each stem, nibbling on the sweet syrup as they left behind their eggs. Even those bugs were cute to human eyes as if a Disney god had designed their bright multi-colored wings and big faux-eyes. Nothing was cuter than a shermmie, the technologically adept, if backward, natives that she’d come to uplift. Through the scanner she watched a contingent of them skipping through the spring grass toward the lander.
The markings varied on each shermmie, as did their general height and weight, just like humans. In a broad sense, shermmies looked humanoid but hardly human. Bilateral symmetry, with two legs, two arms, a head on top of a body. But they were round, soft and covered in long fur that bounced and waved with each skipping step. Only about the height of a toddler but wider than any human child, they looked like madly gleeful bunny people or ecstatic hamsters skipping across the plain. Their faces were fat and cherubic. They eschewed clothing in favor of stashing whatever they wanted to carry in their marsupial-like pouches. Even when they carried their young.
And these were the people that she had come to uplift. As project coordinator, it was her job to convince the shermmies to adopt technology appropriate to their development, with a goal of getting the shermmies up into space. Success meant royalties and licensing fees that would help keep her team funded in the years ahead, even with the overhead costs she paid to the Prometheus. She had nothing against the shermmies, not really, but being around them did put her on cuteness overload. And to make matters worse, she had Gerald Davis leading his team to the southern continent to try and get the shermmies there to go with his uplift plan. Only one of them would get the final contract, so she needed these deplorably cute aliens to go for her plan when instead they were out there skipping after a scarlet road runner.
She lowered the view and yelled back at the lander. “Skipper! Get out here!”
With a whirr of electronic whip-like legs, Skipper rolled down the launch ramp onto the spring grass. As his silvery arms crushed the plants, the lemon meringue scent increased, and sipper moths rose up in a colorful cloud around the robot. The transparent center of his wheel-shaped body turned cloudy, and a fat human face grinned out of the smoke.
“What can I do for you, love?”
Holly pointed out at the gallivanting shermmies. “Go herd them back here onto the launch. It took us three days already to set up this meeting. I want to get started.”
Skipper rolled out onto the plain to chase down the shermmies. Holly lifted her scanner and looked out at the gorge in the distance. On the far side, she saw the delicate buildings the shermmies had built, suspended above the raging river below by impossibly delicate lines that glittered in the sunlight. Their city resembled a dew-covered spider web sagging under its own weight. The scanner’s overlay displayed distance and composition of the structures. Clearly, they could do what she wanted, provided she convinced them to buy into the program. That was the big if. Holly lowered the scanner and went up the ramp into the launch. It was too painful to watch shermmies scattering from the spinning robot like children playing tag.
Twenty minutes later Holly put down her half full water glass and stood up as six shermmies tumbled into the large conference room with Skipper bringing up the rear. Around the large oval table, her team leads also stood. On her right, Leo McCloud stood even taller than her thanks to Lunar engineering that had shaped his reinforced skeletal structure. Across the table from Leo was Clarice Thompson, a seemingly delicate Asian woman with fine bone structure and bright pink hair. Clarice was so cute that she looked like she belonged on Shermmies’ planet. The third member of Holly’s team, Autumn Whisper, was also the oldest person in the room. Autumn’s green skin, long white dreadlocks, and rough weathered skin spoke to his origin on NuEden. His broad shoulders stretched the deep brown enviroskin he wore. The shermmies all came to a stop along the side of the table and blinked up at the standing team members while grinning with big vacant grins. Holly felt her own lips twitch in response but refused to smile. She wasn’t even convinced that the shermmies’ expressions matched the corresponding human emotions. That look could be a look of abject terror for all anyone could tell her. The contact specialists and xenolinguists thought that their expressions corresponded, but how could they know for sure? Maybe the aliens all thought that Skipper had brought them here to be eaten by the giants.
With so many people in the room, it felt smaller than normal and more claustrophobic since she had opaqued the walls to a soothing light orange, like a pale version of the spring grass outside. She’d also had the large light panel above the table spectrum shifted to match the shermmies sun. Hopefully, the changes made the room feel a bit less sterile and more inviting to their guests. She did notice that the aliens had brought in the lemon meringue scent with them from outside. She’d never want to eat one of those pies again.
“Everything is going to be okay, no harm will come to any of you. We want to help.” She paused while Skipper translated her words into the shermmies’ language, which sounded like baby babble and children’s laughter.
One of the shermmies with dark tan stripes in the fur around its large doe-eyes chattered back at Skipper.
“Happy says that they understand your speech,” Skipper reported. “But their symbiotes haven’t adapted yet to producing the words, so they need me to continue translating what they say.”
Symbiotes? The reports indicated the possibility of an advanced level of genetic engineering. But how advanced? She’d have to find out how it’d impact her plans. “Happy is your name?”
“That’s right,” Happy answered, with Skipper’s help.
“Pleased to meet you, Happy. My name is Holly King, you can call me Holly. Let me introduce my team leaders.” She went around the table and introduced her people.
“These are my family,” Happy said. “Glee, Cheer, Joy, Ecstasy, and the small one on the end is Bliss.”
Holly took a second to absorb those names while she knew that the launch AI had matched their images with their names and recorded it all in the launch datanet, for storage on Prometheus. “If you don’t mind, how did you select those names?”
“By studying the information supplied by your ship’s xenolinguists. You have a rich and fascinating language, but our naming custom is to find the word or words that best describes one’s nature. These were the closest matches we could find in your language.”
“I see.” Holly gestured to the seats around the table. “Would you like to sit down?”
Happy bounced. “I think we’ll stand. It’s so much more fun.”
Glee chittered at them. “I don’t see how you can sit all the time.”
Holly shook her head. “We don’t always, we’re happy to remain standing.”
Skipper remained behind the shermmies, while also standing in front of the door.
Autumn crossed his arms and stood as solid as a tree. Holly knew that he preferred standing too.
“Let’s move on. We asked you here to talk more about our uplift proposal. Have you had a chance to discuss it in your council?”
“Really?” That came from Cheer. “Oh, we talked about it lots.”
“Yes, many discussions,” Bliss confirmed.
Happy made a noise that Skipper didn’t bother translating before he—was Happy male? Holly made a mental note to find out if such terms even applied—continued.
“Yes, yes!” Happy bounced in place. His arms waved around. “Much fire! Massive explosions hurling a rocket into space. Even so far as our moons!”
“Then you like the idea?”
“Like it!” All the Shermmies giggled. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a giggle, but it sure sounded like a giggle. But then Orgainians fart to thank you, so who knew? “We loved it! Terrifically exciting. And you actually do this? Ride these rockets into space?”
“Well, not anymore,” Holly said. “We’ve developed more advanced technologies, which we will share in time, but we need to start with the rockets. Once those principals are mastered, our people will continue helping you advance.”
“Yippee!” Joy cried out and spun in a circle that made the other shermmies move back. Right there beside the conference table Joy started dancing. Okay, maybe not dancing but hell, it sure looked that way to Holly.
A second later Glee jumped in and started shaking and shimming along with Joy. Holly leaned on the table, working hard to keep her face neutral as Bliss, Cheer and Ecstasy also joined the dance. Skipper rolled back into the doorway to give them more room, his facial projection giving her a look like he expected her to do something about the spontaneous festivities.
Right in the middle of it all Happy hadn’t joined the dance, and now he spoke.
“Of course the whole proposal is impossible,” Skipper translated.
Before Holly could get a word out to ask why Happy jumped into the dance with the rest and it was Bliss that climbed up on the table to continue the dance.
Autumn looked at her, plainly expecting her to do something about the shermmies as Joy clambered up with Bliss. Clarice had her hand on her mouth trying not to laugh while Leo gaped openly at the spectacle.
“Please!” When no responded, she raised her voice. “Please!”
Happy lowered his arms and blinked up at her. He chattered at her. “Why don’t you join the dance?”
“Why’s the proposal impossible?”
All the shermmies stopped dancing. Bliss and Joy stayed standing on the conference table which put them at eye-level. Everyone’s eyes watching her and Happy. Happy did a little wiggle and brought his fat little hands together like a moth flapping away. The fine fur and markings on his hands made a passable imitation of one of the sipper moths.
“We don’t fly like a sipper moth,” Skipper translated.
Happy cleared his throat. A deep, understandably human voice came out of his mouth. “That’s right.”
“You can speak our language?”
“Now.” Ecstasy closed her eyes and shivered. Then she opened her eyes a bit and looked sidelong at Autumn. Her voice sounded smoky. “Now we can.”
Cheer grabbed Bliss and pulled her down from the table, swinging the smaller shermmie around. “Now we can! Thank the symbiotes!”
Leo unrolled a palmsheet. “Symbiotes, what symbiotes are you talking about?”
Happy snorted and waved a dismissive hand. He spoke in that same deep voice. “What does it matter? We don’t need the machine to translate anymore.”
Holly had to get the meeting back under control and on topic. “Fine. You’re right. But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand why you won’t consider our offer. With space travel comes a great expansion of your species. You’ll learn by flying to your moons, but soon you’ll go out further into your solar system. There are asteroids there full of mineral resources just waiting to be mined.”
“I know.” Happy grinned. “Your xenolinguists told us all this when they gave us the information to study. We also know that your people are forbidden from mining even a single comet directly.”
Holly didn’t dare look away from the adorably cute alien standing in front of her, only now she realized that she had let their fat, furry, grinning faces and those big eyes trick her. The mind behind that cute front was as sharp as they came.
“That’s obviously true, no one has lied to you or tried to deceive you. We’re here to help. If you accept our proposal, then our team works with your people to build a whole new area of technology. Space travel will introduce you to the wider galactic culture. Just think of the benefits that will bring! In science, education, and culture. And those asteroid and comet resources, not to mention the wealth from the other planets, are the raw material you can use to trade for anything you want. We can make you wealthier than you can possibly imagine.”
Glee skipped forward and spoke in a high piping voice. “And you do this for a percentage?”
Holly pinched her fingers together with a tiny gap. “A small percentage, and as your uplift agents we can guide you into this new phase of development for your planet.”
Happy skipped back from the table. Instantly the other shermmies skipped toward the door. Skipper rose up, but Holly flicked her fingers at him. They couldn’t very well hold the shermmies prisoner in the launch. Skipper rolled out of the way, and she watched as the shermmies joyfully skipped out down the corridor taking her hopes with them.
“Make sure they don’t get lost,” Holly said to Skipper.
“Will do.” Skipper’s arms whipped around, propelling him on out the door after the shermmies.
Holly dropped into her chair, feeling the mesh reform to her body. She touched the massage control, and the smart fibers started kneading her back. “That could have gone better.”
Around the table, the others settled into their own chairs. Clarice leaned forward as if she was going to say something, but at that moment the edge of the table pulsed blue and a ding-dong chime rang through the room. Holly tapped the tabletop.
The center of the table appeared to vanish, replaced by a hologram of Gerald Davis, the last man she wanted to see. Not that he was hard on the eyes. His green enviroskin clung to well-defined muscles on his slender physique. That, and she liked the way his hazel eyes looked out at her while an easy grin played on his lips. The Prometheus was a competitive environment, and in this case, it was Davis that had put up the competing bid for the shermmies’s uplift. They’d worked together in the past on sub-contract rights and other, smaller, rights options but as luck would have it they were both ready to move on to a bigger prime contract position, and only one of them could win the bid. So it didn’t matter how much she liked the look of his hands or the shape of his jaw. Instead, she focused on the fact that his nose was a bit too large for her taste and forced a smile onto her lips.
“Davis, what did we do to deserve this call?”
“Just a courtesy, Holly. I know how those landing fees and everything else can rack up quicker than it seems possible. I’m getting close to signing a deal here. We’ve worked well together in the past, so I thought I’d give you a heads up. Figured you’d appreciate the chance to cut your losses now. Plus I might have some sub-contract deals for you once we nail this down. Maybe you’d like to get together back on the Prometheus over dinner? My treat?”
Holly wasn’t going to go supernova over the man’s arrogance. He really thought she’d drop out with an offer of a few sub-contracts and a dinner with him? Either that or he was feeling her out to see how close she was to signing the shermmies herself.
“Funny,” she lied. She let her gaze drop and travel up his body back until their eyes locked again. She licked her lips. “I was about to call you and make a similar offer. I guess these guys are all pretty eager to become space jockeys.”
“Yes.” Davis cleared his throat and broke eye contact. “Don’t be too disappointed when I file first. And that dinner offer is always open. I’d best go. Good luck.”
Davis vanished, and the table surface turned opaque again.
“Wow,” Clarice said.
Leo waved the palmsheet he’d taken out when the shermmies were talking. “I need to study these readings. I think they’ve got some interesting tech here.”
“Is it anything we can use to get them to sign the contract?” Holly asked.
His shoulders came up nearly to his ears when he shrugged.
She waved a hand. “We’ll look at it, but I need leverage right now. We’ve got to convince them to sign with us before Davis closes his deal.”
“I don’t believe he’s as close as he suggests,” Autumn said. The big man interlaced his fingers on his chest. “But he wants you to believe it.”
“So the Southern shermmies probably aren’t taking the proposal any more seriously than ours?”
Clarice shook her head. “It’s dangerous generalizing across a planetary population. Look at the variety of human cultures. Maybe Davis got lucky, and the southern population is more receptive to the concept.”
Holly leaned forward and pinch flicked her access open. A quick drag and snatch pulled up the map of the planet which she flung out onto the table surface, and palm dragged it to fill the space between them. The real-time simulation showed a large tropical storm over the large primary ocean, with more cloud cover over the two major continents in the northern and southern hemispheres. She grimaced at the thought of the satellite connection fees she was racking up just looking at the map, but she had to see what there was to work with.
She reached out and tapped the western continent, more of a submerged continent with a few large volcanic islands surrounded by a shallow sea. “What about here? What do we know about the shermmies on these islands?”
Leo reached out and then stopped. “Do you want me to purchase the survey data?”
“No! Just tell me what you know.”
He settled back in his chair. “Only what the catalog survey showed. There’s data available but the survey identified only two sites with sufficient resources to pull off a large-scale space program. That was here and Davis’ site on the southern continent.”
“I knew that much.” Holly reached out and gave the map a shove, sliding it around to show the eastern continent, clearly once part of the southern continent, but continental drift was carrying it away. Most of the smaller landmass looked like a desert. “I assume the same story here?”
“That was the conclusion,” Clarice said. “We didn’t buy the full data set. Our bid only included potential uplift sites, and Davis outbid us on the southern continent. They do have much larger metropolitan areas there all built up in the rainforest.”
“These people appear to build their cities with an eye to integrating them into the natural environment,” Autumn said. “Maybe the idea of blasting off into space is simply against their beliefs.”
Holly shook her head. “We’ve seen the data about the shermmies here. They obviously have sophisticated metallurgical skills. Which means that they have mining and refining technology. We’re not talking about straw huts here.”
“What about what Happy said?” Clarice asked. “He said they don’t fly.”
Leo leaned forward, nodding. “That’s true. No aircraft of any kind. The survey included that detail and limited ground transportation. They do use domesticated animals to haul carts, and they’ve got a fairly sophisticated railway network. Otherwise, most travel is on foot.”
An idea occurred to Holly. She slid her hands together across the table, closing the map. “Right. Maybe we’ve approached this the wrong way. We flew down here in a lander. What if we approach them on foot? Meet with them on their terms and stress the environmental benefits of moving industry applications into space? Not to mention all of the other subsidiary environmental remediation technologies we could write into the contract to offset the impacts of developing the space program.”
“I believe it’s worth a try,” Autumn said.
Holly stood up. “Great! Then you’re with me. Clarice, Leo, keep an eye on the fort and start working on the contract language. I want to have that nailed down in case they go for it. We need their agreement and need to get it transmitted to the Prometheus as quick as possible. Everyone clear?”
Nods all around. Silver flashed in the doorway as Skipper rolled into the room. “What did I miss?”
Holly was already heading out of the room with Autumn on her heels. “Check with Leo, he’ll get you caught up.”
Close up the shermmies’s city was even more impressive than when Holly had seen it through the scanner. She stood in front of a floor to ceiling transparent wall looking down at a thousand foot drop to the whitewater rapids at the bottom of the canyon. Her initial impression of the city as a dew-covered spider web was good, but up close each of those dew drops was a building hanging by cables that also served as skywalks connecting the buildings. But her impression was also wrong because the city was a three-dimensional web with multiple levels stretching back and forth between the canyon walls. Thanks to the transparent walls everywhere she looked she could see shermmies busily going about their tasks and living their lives. That was a lot of dancing, skipping and cavorting cuteness. Holly turned away from the view back to the room they’d been guided to when they reached the city after walking the three kilometers from the launch.
The floor was bowl shaped, and Autumn stood at the very bottom of the bowl with his arms crossed. It wasn’t that deep but enough so that she was almost the same height for once. Their guide had left them alone. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t sleeping but was doing some sort of NuEdenist meditation in the sunlight streaming through the roof.
Without moving a muscle, he opened one eye. “Yes.”
“Are you with me?”
His eye closed. “Of course.”
Holly was pacing around Autumn when Happy skipped out of one of the connecting tubes into the room.
He flung his arms wide. “Greetings!”
Holly smiled and threw her own arms out wide. “Greetings! Thanks for seeing us again.”
“After we spoke I came back and talked to the council again.”
Holly took a deep breath. “That’s great. I actually wanted to come here and talk to you, to your council if you like, because I realized that in all of our talks I’d left out some important points.”
Happy’s big eyes blinked. “Oh?”
“When you left we realized that we didn’t share the environmental benefits that come with a space program. Sure there’s an impact to the program itself, and we can include environmental remediation in the contract, but once you’re established out there in space, you can relocate most of your heavy industrial applications. Back on Earth, we reversed centuries of environmental damage once we got our space legs.”
“We discussed this,” Happy said, cheerfully. “I had overlooked something too.”
Autumn stirred. “What was that?”
“Fun!” Happy spun on one foot and flung out his arms. “Glee thought of it on the way back.”
Happy’s eyes widened. “All those explosions, riding on top of a rocket, it sounded very scary. We don’t fly. What you call sipper moths fly, other animals fly, but we don’t fly. I don’t think any shermmie on the planet has ever really thought about flying.”
“Never? Is it some sort of phobia?” Holly hadn’t considered that. What if the whole planet was deathly afraid of flying? They’d never sign the contract then. Not unless she could convince them to hire an outside workforce, with the overhead taken out after her percentage.
Happy waved his hands. “No, no. Not a phobia.” He scratched his head. “We didn’t see the need. Why do it? There are safer and more reliable methods to travel.”
Holly got it. “Fun! You’re saying Glee was the first one of your people to realize that flying might be fun?”
Happy’s heels kicked out in a little jig. “Exactly! It seems obvious, but even many on the council had difficulty imagining how it could be fun. But Glee set up what your database called a swing in the council chambers, and they all took a turn! Glee said flying would be like swinging, but you don’t come down!”
“Flying is fun,” Autumn agreed.
Holly had never felt better in her life. As the primary agent of contract for Shermmies’ planet, her future was nearly assured. She pulled a palmsheet out of her pocket and unrolled it. “That’s great news, Happy. We’re all happy now! I’ll contact the launch, and I’m sure they can get the contract of intent transferred right away. That’s just the initial contract that shows you agree to work with my team on the uplift contract and then we can work out all of those details.”
Happy had started a little jig, but he stopped. He crossed his arms, mimicking Autumn’s pose. “Oh, no. We can’t sign a contract with you.”
Holly managed to find her voice. “What? Why? Did the southern continent already sign with Davis?”
“No,” Happy said. He gave a little bounce. “The council spent more time studying the information you provided and came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to pay a percentage of our future forever. As it appears we would in your legal system, if we agree to the agency deal you propose. Instead, they’ve agreed to work with the southern council to build an independent space program.”
Holly shook her head. “You don’t want to do that, Happy. You’ve got to go back to the council and urge them to reconsider. Or let me talk to them. It isn’t easy building a space program. On my home world, we had several false starts before we really got established in space and it cost people their lives. Working with an agent, we can guide you past those troubles. It’s a percentage, but once you really understand what’s involved, I’m sure you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”
Happy gave her a little bow. “Thank you for your concern, but now that we see how fun it could be I believe we can figure it out on our own. And if there are any stumbling blocks it looks like there are those that provide technical assistance for a one-time fee, in case we get stuck.”
“That’s hardly the same as an agent that works with you every step of the way. Just think of the time you’ll save in not having to figure it out yourself!” Holly put away the palmsheet. “How about you just agree to give it a little more thought before you decide?”
Happy giggled. “You just never give up, do you? In that case, the council has instructed me to revoke your contact permit. I hope you have a fun trip back to your ship!”
And with that, he skipped out of the room.
Autumn looked at Holly. “Do you remember the way back?”
Holly stormed through the Prometheus’s clean white corridors on her way to Legal. There had to be a way to get back down to the surface and convince the shermmies that they needed to sign the agency contract. She almost ran into Davis before she saw him coming toward her, she was so into her head and was looking down at the deep blue floor while she walked. She stumbled trying to stop.
Strong hands caught her arms, steadying her. Holly looked into his hazel eyes and noticed the flecks of green and gold mixed together. He had really pretty eyes. “I see the furballs threw you off the planet too?”
Holly scowled and stepped back. Davis’ hands fell to his sides.
“Yes, they’ve decided to go independent. Evidently, they think that’ll be more fun.”
“They could be right,” Davis said, a grin playing on his lips. “In a way I’m relieved.”
“Why?” Did he know how long it had taken her to save up to make this uplift bid? “I just threw away a small fortune trying to land this uplift contract.”
He raised his hands. “Hey, me too, but I wasn’t looking forward to spending a bunch of time around all those cutesy, happy furballs. It was a bit much, you know?”
Holly laughed. “I’ll agree to that.”
“Good. And since you’re in an agreeable mood, how about we get that dinner we talked about? I have a proposal for you, I think we can pool our efforts and maybe land a new uplift contract on a new planet just surveyed.”
He did look really good, and she hadn’t eaten anything in the past ten hours. Holly gave him a small nod. She raised a finger. “Dinner. We’ll see about the rest of it after. But if they have lemon meringue pie for desert I might kill someone.”
Davis laughed, and as they walked back down the Prometheus’s corridors, Holly finally laughed too.
This story is the 94th short story release, written in June 2011, during a workshop on the Oregon coast.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Good Samaritan.