Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Towel of Babar.

Zon and I were just leaving the ship.

“That Luiz will get himself in trouble someday.”

Zon, whose build was attenuated at best, shuffled along beside me.

He was amused by the sign over Luiz’s office door. It’s taken from an old movie.

‘Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.’

I grinned. Escobar was tolerated for many reasons.

“Yeah. He is a little impudent.”

Zon snorted.

“Good word.”

The ramp led down into a flat open space a half a kilometre from the village gates.

We strode along, Zon content to shadow my every movement with careful observation and I just enjoying the day. Pre-industrial planets have air that must be experienced. He had his job to do and I had mine. These folks read body language like I can read the training manuals. In other words, ethicality is the key to successful first contacts.

“You really can’t fake sincerity.” When I told him that, his bead bobbed in enthusiasm.

It was a kind of substitute for conversation. His people loved words, poetry, songs. They had aphorisms and quotes for every occurrence.

“Yes, we have a similar saying.”

That’s a good sign, that and their easily-recognized sense of humour. The planet was a bit off the beaten path for the tourist trade, but you never know. It was all significant from the survey point of view.

The air was laden with the scent of blooms by the millions. Even the grey-green turf underfoot contributed something that was spicy, tart and wet-smelling all at the same time. The oxygen-blue sky of the unnamed planet had a certain depth to it that could be disconcerting to the uninitiated spacer. To me it was merely remarkable, rather than threatening.

We were learning each other’s language while the pumps sucked up enough of their air to replenish our stocks of fuel and water. They knew what we were doing, as far as they were equipped to understand it, and with a glee that wasn’t all that mysterious to any student of a more mundane human nature, they were happy with our price. They got a piece of silver for every person in the village, or half a piece for every child under the age of majority.

They responded well, and understood the social concepts. Our captain and the Guild committee responded well to my efforts, and that was good too. But breaking the ice is only the first step.

The walls of the village aren’t high or even very stout. It’s just a palisade of two and a half metre sharpened stakes dropped into a narrow trench and tied top and bottom with roots and thin saplings. They fill in the trench, tamp it down, brace it with angled poles, again dug in and tied off, and that’s about it. It keeps the wildlife out and their domestic animals in. There are four gates to every sizable village. The inhabitants had nice, logical minds.

Zon’s people were not unsophisticated. They immediately saw the potential for trade. The assertion that we were from off-planet didn’t seem to surprise them, as it was all nicely accounted for in their cosmology, which, if a little offbeat, was extensive. We were something like big brothers, smarter than them—to hear them tell it.

There were shouts and calls, high-pitched but happy. Young ones chased a ball, skittling along with the tendency of radial creatures to be asymmetrical in their youth. Every one of their eight little feet were different sizes. They grew one leg at a time, in a circle. When they had eight legs, they were at a second stage of childhood development.

The adults were much bigger and fully-formed octopods.

“It must be hard to buy shoes for them.”

Zon nodded.

“Oh, yes.” He grinned on the segment closest to assure me that he was not offended. “Really,
though, they don’t get shoes until they are at least seven. One of the first rites of passage.”

I nodded solemnly to assure him that I understood. It is extremely difficult to exchange pleasantries in an alien culture. Most of the other crew members were under strict orders not to even try it.

As we neared the gate, the noise level picked up, for a Srettuppi market is something to see.
Part of my training in the Guild involved something called Cultural Comparisons. It’s a first year patch.

The Sretuppi were at about a thirteenth or fourteenth century African level of culture—they were casting bronze. They had gold, grain and weapons. They had kingdoms, engaged in wars and traded with neighbouring peoples. There was an ocean nearby, but all they did was fish—there they seemed, again, to be at that cultural level. They didn’t explore, or trade much up and down the coast.

My job was to assess the place for trading prospects of our own. My instinct said yes, the problem was in proving it. We’d already seen the produce, the woven products, the sort of collectible kick-knacks and what we call ‘flavours’ in the trade. People are always looking for some interesting new flavour to perk up otherwise drab and unchanging diets.

Zon pulled me over to a booth. He chattered gaily with the proprietor, who gathered up a pinch of stuff and put it on a round paper disk. Zon gestured and I picked it up.

“It’s called biimw.”

I smelled it, and then cautiously tasted it. It was hot, the tiniest bit of it burning my tongue.

Wagging my head back and forth in contemplation, something I had seen Zon do, I looked at the proprietor.

“Nice. It’s very strong.” A small cargo might fetch millions.

“He says you may have that as a sample.”

I smiled, nodded and bowed. Safe policy. I gave it back to him so he could wrap it in one of the ubiquitous scraps of paper, which was tough and smooth and silky. We’d talked about the paper already, and the consensus was that we were interested in the process of making it more than the actual product itself. That sort of information-gathering takes a little time, but some native products are produced as knock-offs on factory worlds nearer to markets and raw materials. This was if demand was especially high or if it was a bulky product.

We moved on after effusive thanks on both sides.

I was looking for something special—exotic woods that smelled good and glowed in the dark, that sort of thing, luxury items that made the place special. It had to be something we couldn’t get cheaper somewhere else. A new and unheard-of gemstone of high quality and hardness would fit the bill nicely. Exotic animals, suitable for pets, are another good find. They almost define the category, in that you can’t get them anywhere else.

Make no mistake, a mountain of copper or platinum would be perfectly welcome. That was an entirely different sort of prospecting, and one that I wasn’t really equipped for. I kept my eyes and ears open, though.

The heat of the day rose and we wandered up and down the stalls, brightly coloured, noisy with the hawkers ready to pounce, rife with the sound of people haggling over a pile of fruit or a coloured twist of paper with some apothecary substance inside. Some of them were going for quite good money, as all sizes and shapes of coins and markers exchanged hands back and forth.

The tallest buildings in town, all of wooden construction, were maybe thirty metres tall. It was impressive in its own way. This was all built with hand tools and minimal theory. We had already bought some books, always a good investment with an alien first contact. Their level of knowledge was spotty in places. Certain statements were very sophisticated, and the next minute came superstition, witchcraft and sorcery.

There were caravan trailers, pulled by odd mounts not unlike horses, except they were much squatter, more rounded all over somehow, with big flat feet.

From yesterday’s visit I recognized the prostitutes, and the rolling hotel, which had exactly two rooms to rent for travelers or vendors who needed a place to stay. When it was full to capacity, the owner slept underneath on a carpet. For a fee, he would bring guests breakfast in bed. It was all pretty fascinating, and sooner or later, I would find something of commercial interest. In the meantime, the pumps sucked in air and the ship wasn’t going anywhere for a while.


The bazaar was mostly given over to extensive areas where vendors sat on mats or carpets, selling local produce from buckets, baskets and cages. Nearer to the built-up centre of town, were more permanent stalls and kiosks, roofed with light planks or just coloured fabric. I would think the more permanent establishments were the more prosperous. The agricultural population walked in from five or ten kilometres away at most, with what they could carry on their backs.

Thousands of objects from pots and pans to clothing and shoes were on display. We were just rounding a corner when we bumped into Fenton.


“How’s it going?” A quantum mechanic, Fenton worked in the engine room, but they were only using auxiliary power generation systems, and the pump-master, Jordanis, was supervising that.

“Oh, not bad. Found anything you liked?”

He held up a thin net bag with maybe a dozen of a fruit that looked an awful lot like apples.

Their slightly salty taste, not unlike a barbecued peanut, had convinced us the resemblance was purely coincidental.

The crew was all hot for them, as our own diet tended to be bland, and the word was they were a marvel for inducing regularity.

He had a couple of other purchases, and I was just going to ask him where he had gotten the small purple blossoms—exotic perfumes hadn’t really occurred to me before, when a rising hubbub of shouting and what sounded like a chant came from not far away behind the screen of stalls.

Zon looked at me, how I knew that is hard to describe because one of the eight eyes is always looking at you. Basically, they can’t turn their heads so they twist the body ever so slightly. The adjacent eye rolled to regard Fenton with calm dignity.

“What’s that all about?”

He shook his head slowly back and forth, looking concerned and peering off up the narrow alley into the brightness of the square.

“Let’s go.” I gave Fenton a special look, the one with both eyebrows raised.

Zon looked at me and Fenton again and then led off, focused on whatever was going on, which must be an unusual occurrence judging by his reaction. He hurried along in a state of high excitement as I interpreted it. As far as threats were concerned, my instincts were on full alert and Fenton stuck close at my right side with his face carefully blank.

We both had side-arms but were trained not to use them in anything other than the most extreme circumstances.


What we witnessed was half riot and half procession. There was a central clump of people, maybe a thousand or two of them, running along in transports of joy, holding aloft tall poles and standards. There were models or sculptures on some of them, banners and placards on others.

Some of the young males were naked, covered in mud, filth, blood, and what looked like raw egg. The gnashed their jaws and stabbed at their chests with sharp sticks. I exchanged a sharp glance with Fenton. He nodded, mouth tight.

We seemed to be safe enough, as the figures of two priests, recognizable by their painted bodies, were the centre of attention as they balanced precariously on platforms borne on the shoulders of gaudily dressed Sretuppi laymen.

They were all male, with arcane symbols painted on their faces. This was not a mourning ceremony, of that much I was sure as they were oddly festive affairs, although with the same type of signs and such held high. This was something completely different.

By this time most of the population of the town was involved, with the three of us on the sidelines at the mouth of the passage. The noise was horrendous. A sort of wave went through the crowd, they were jumping up and down in a frenzy of collective harmony. With all those legs, the sight was bizarre in the extreme.

Zon was straining his ears to catch some sense of what was happening.

He turned to me.

“Oh, my.”

“What is it?”

He put a limb on my arm.

“I must go and see about this. Remain here, you are safe.”

And then he scuttled forward to arrest and confront a similarly-dressed male about his own age on the edges of the seething rabble of folks clustered around the priests, now halted in the middle of the square and chanting a long and arduous monologue interrupted by numerous reprisals from the crowd.


My report to the committee, along with Fenton’s, was, under the circumstances, necessarily brief.

“It seems they found the Towel of Babar. He's a local deity. Some boys were looking for avian nests in the temple, and they had permission to do it, which seems a bit off but I’m told they do it from time to time. The eggs are sold in the marketplace, and I recall seeing them, or ones very much like them. They found a loose board in the edifice, up high above the capital of a column. They were using ladders—that’s one reason for needing permission. Also, the dignity of the place must be respected.” A Sretuppi ladder had two sets of rungs, set at right angles to each other on a stout single pole.

“So what do you think, Mister Macdougall?” The captain was chair of the Guild committee.

There were seven of us at the evening meeting, held in the lounge for the sake of comfort.

Meetings were pretty informal affairs, with thin notes and few official records kept. We were on the spot and the Guild was a long ways away. The power of discretion resided with us.

“I think we had better tread lightly. It’s hard to know what to make of it. The populace takes it seriously. That’s all that really matters here. The relic they found purports to be the Towel of Babar, with not only the holy perspiration of the Enlightener, but a faint image of his visage as well. Zon was extremely excited, and it’s clear that he accepts it as a miracle of the first order.”

How manipulative the local authority figures were was unclear, but I had my gut instincts in these matters. 

While it had all the hallmarks of a manufactured incident, we couldn’t rule out coincidence. The actual facts weren’t that important, the impact on local opinion was.

The committee members, all more senior in rank than I, listened to Fenton, who gave his impressions of the noise and excitement of the discovery.

They thanked us for our reports and Fenton left as he isn’t a member of the trading committee.

“So. What do you think?”

The Chief Pilot, Luiz Escobar, looked me over as I hesitated.

“I congratulated them on this marvelous discovery and described it as a historic moment. I told him how privileged we were to be witness to this miracle, and how grateful we were to have friendship with the people of the Enlightenment.”

“And?” Katrel, chief of security, of course wanted some conclusions drawn so he would know how to act.

“I think it’s a bargaining chip.”

Their eyes lit up and their faces relaxed.

“Okay. So what do you want us to do?”

“I think we should be very diplomatic in our dealings with them. And quite frankly, get out of here as quickly as possible. A follow-up mission in five or six years is not out of the question.”

This would give them time to think on things. It would also show we weren’t a big threat to their way of life.

“Zon is a representative of the government, and he watches us very closely. Yet the appearances are informal, and quite friendly. Almost intimate, in the psychological sense.”

They sat with their hands across their bellies, chewing on their lips and with their eyes far away.

I interpreted this as a good sign.

“Other than that, the prices have just gone up.”

This one actually drew a laugh from the hard-nosed committee members. My plan passed by a quick and unanimous vote. Another three or four days would do it anyway.

“Thank you, Mister Macdougall. You’ve done a fine job.”

This was high praise coming from the captain, but I don’t let that sort of thing go to my head.


My latest science fiction novel, Third World, is available for $2.99 as an ebook on Kindle, and a 5 x 8 paperback will be available by Christmas from Createspace and Amazon..

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on the blog posts, art or editing.