As I mentioned, my new home planet was terra-formed with plants, animals, humans and microbes from the Earth. The only intelligent aliens I’ve met are the spaceship crew who transported me here. Still, humans themselves can be pretty odd. Not just the individuals, but also the cultures. To give you a taste of extraplanetary travel, here’s a subtle scene that shows what happened when my three friends (Xus, Eleya, Yith) and I entered the country called Tsagaxk. We had been warned it was very dangerous and we shouldn’t go there, but we had to go through it to get to our destination. And we didn’t know if the warnings were exaggerations.
Yith understood the language, but he didn’t want to let on, since his language skills had got him, and us, into trouble in the previous country we’d been to, Qodra. Our home country is Diyyana, and its local language is called sDiyyanantse.
** ** **
“Sang! tong!” An official in a shockingly European-looking military uniform walked through the crowd of sword-bearing soldiers as the four of us entered Tsagaxk on horseback. We dismounted to meet him. The mysterious phrase was clearly addressed to us.
“Penann diatt,” Xus said to him – ‘good day.’
“Ding! yanna! toh!”
We weren’t sure what to say.
“Diyyana?” Yith asked, and then, still in our language, “Yes, we’re from Diyyana.”
The official turned to a soldier. “Den? tsem? lamen? yoad? yan? tsamma?” The soldier walked towards a stately building across the courtyard. It looked like a low-rise explant from a Parisian streetscape: stone, three stories high, with angled corners making it an octangular rectangular shape. It was decorated with continuous lines of corbelled balconies separating the floors. Each balcony bore a row of curved struts making up a balustrade of black ironwork. Above the second floor, set slightly back from the lower building façade, were slightly sloping roof faces with dormers popping out. That was the third floor.
“I wonder what century we’re in now,” I marvelled in a low voice.
The official held out his hand in a ‘halt’ gesture.
“Uut! bol!” he said.
“Don’t move,” Yith whispered.
The soldier rapped on a stout wooden door that was curved at the top to fit its arched frame. A woman greeted him; she went inside. Swifts twittered overhead in the sky and the wind swished in the bud-laden branches of what looked to be a beech tree. The woman emerged presently with a young girl, about twelve in Earth years, who stared at us. She had straight black hair cut in bangs, and was wearing a blue skirt with shoulder straps over a white top. She looked like a Japanese schoolgirl except she lacked east Asian epicanthic eye folds.
She walked over.
“Welcome to our country,” she said in stilted but recognizable sDiyyanantse. Her words had a strangely declamatory tone.
“I will take you to a room. You may wait – for one – of your country people to come to you. Your horses – can tie – on the (side-to-side headshake) long thing – as we go in.”
She indicated a white railing in front of another building across the courtyard. The building also looked like something out of France or the former Austro-Hungary to my ignorant eye, with sulcately-bottomed string courses in white stone demarcating the floors. The windows on the middle of three floors had miniature friezes over their lintels. There were atlantids – uniformed men carved into the stone of the corbel brackets – holding up the stone ledges at the corners of the building.
The official nodded his approval.
“Well, they’re not going to kill us,” I whispered to Yith in English.
The official practically lept into the air.
“Tang! sotong! bol!”
“Please all speak Dingyana language, not other,” said the girl.
She led us across the stone-paved court to the building in question, with her black leather shoes clicking on the stones, and we duly tied our horses to the railing. Eight soldiers followed along with us.
“Take swords off, knives, give to soldiers,” the girl said.
What could we do? We removed our weapons and gave them to the uniformed men….
“Check for more weapons. No problem,” the girl announced.
“Tae? aman? sehn?” she said to the soldiers. Men came and patted down Yith, Xus and me. The girl herself clicked up to Eleya and efficiently patted her down.
“Please go in,” she said, holding her hand towards the door. She then opened the door. We entered. The light was all natural – no light bulbs. A woman appeared at an inner door. She was haggard looking; her thin frame was cloaked in a long working dress and apron. She wore what seemed to be a slave bracelet – in fact, there were two of them, one on each wrist.
“Sa! tikka! ngap! yollel!” the girl commanded. The woman retreated into the kitchen.
“Please sit on chairs,” the girl said to us. There were some reasonably comfortable looking, all-wooden chairs along the side of the room, some with arms and some without. We went over and sat in a row of chairs, the kind with the arms, under a mullioned window. The glass in the window looked pre-modern – it rippled slightly. The frames, however, could have been in the older houses in my home town.
“We wait for Dingyana man,” the girl explained. She remained standing.
Not much happened. We didn’t feel comfortable speaking any language.
“So far so good,” Xus eventually remarked.
The woman from the kitchen emerged with a tray bearing a blue-and-white porcelain teapot, cups, small plates, and some small slices of cake. She put the tray down on a small table. Then she stooped over, picked up the table, and brought it laboriously over to where we were sitting. I looked at the rings on her wrists and I could see that they covered scars. There seemed to be a line of scars on the outer side of each arm, going up into the woman’s sleeve, which came to the halfway point of her forearm.
“Ooyoon?” the woman said, and gave Eleya a teacup on a saucer. She poured tea into it. Eleya raised it to her lips and tasted it.
“Never tasted anything like that,” she said.
“Ooyoon? Kaban?” Xus got the next cup of tea. Then me. I also got the same phrase. Yith was last, and just got “Ooyoon?”
I tasted the tea.
“That brings back memories,” I said. “It’s rooibos tea. My dad discovered it in his South African travels and went out of his way to keep it in stock forever afterward.
I can’t believe it.” I sipped and mused.
The woman held the plate of cakes out to each of us in turn. I took a piece. It was similar to medium-weight Christmas cake, with candied cherries in it.
“I’ve been missing that, too,” I said, shaking my head. “Christmas cake!”
The woman stood back and waited to serve us again.
“Please thank her for us,” Eleya requested the young girl.
“Not necessary thank, not necessary to thank,” the girl said, apparently correcting herself.
She didn’t say more.
“Do you live in that building over there?” Eleya said, trying to strike up a conversation.
“No chat,” the girl said.
We waited in silence. Had another round of tea.
“Is there a washroom?” I asked. The girl went to the door and opened it. She called something out and a soldier came in with her. She pointed me out.
“I hope one doesn’t get stabbed for that,” I muttered.
The soldier walked over, beckoned to me, and led me out of the front door. We walked along the edge of the court to a pair of buildings. One was relatively ornate and had carved male atlantids holding a transom over one door and female atlantids doing the same over the other. The second was distinctly shabbier and was marked on the doors with male and female stick figures – a stick dress indicating the girls. Each of the arm sticks had a pair of short crosses across them.
“Vyekhshs! naam!” the soldier said, and pointed at the stick figure male. I went in, and sure enough, there was a long trough urinal, made of porcelain-like material, and a stall. I congratulated myself in only wanting the urinal. Actually, I didn’t have much need – it was
just that drinking all the tea made me paranoid…The urinal had a drain but no running
water. It reeked.
There was a sink with a pitcher of water on a shelf above it. I washed my hands. Nothing to dry them on. Still, the place was like the Palace of Versailles compared to most of the facilities in Qodra. There was even a glazen mirror, though it was fractured around the corners.
I left the facility shaking my hands. The soldier frowned. He took me back into the waiting room and walked out stiffly.
“Soon comes Dingyana man,” the girl announced.
Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
“Naam! surang!” the girl said. The door opened. What it revealed was a tall, thin young man with stringy, sandy hair. He’d let it grow rather long. His face had a mixture of stubble and pimples. He wore what looked like sDiyyanantse street clothes – blue jeans and a casual, purple-striped shirt with long sleeves buttoned at his wrist.
“Hey guys, how’re you doing?” he said. Yep, he was one of us.
“That’s a surprise,” Xus remarked, “we’re great, how are you?”
“Yeah, ok. So I have a job here to meet people at the border who speak our language. I’m … “
“Smaa!…” said the girl, lingeringly. It sounded like a caution.
“You can call me Xati. What are you guys’ names?”
We hadn’t thought to arrange fake names for ourselves, so Xus, Eleya and I looked at each other and gave the real ones. Silly, I thought. Planet with no passports and we don’t go incognito. We’re so naïve here.
Yith was a little faster on his feet. “Yifei Evrikhoria,” he said. This sounded like a typical sDiyyanantse name, with a surname derived from Greek and a given name in Chinese. Yith later explained that he’d picked the characters ‘Yi fei’ out of a phonetic hat – the meaning arguably being ‘just and beautiful.’ The surname meant ‘open space.’ I supposed that seemed appropriate for an extraplanetary.
“Good to meet you. What brings you to beautiful Tsagaxk?” The young man attempted a grin. He was looking at Xus, and Xus answered…
“We would just like to ask if we could have permission to pass through the country to Spikonikwamekh on the north. We have some trade goods, some necklaces made of shells, that we want to sell there, but really, we’re just young people and we’re hoping to see the world we live on. If we don’t get permission, we’ll go back to Qodra and take a boat, but we thought we’d ask.”
Xati gave Xus a funny look momentarily – his face looked like a stew about to boil over. He wants to say something he can’t, I thought. I can tell he’s friendly by nature – probably hasn’t seen a fellowcountryperson for ages and just wants to have a good convo. His response, though, was very professional.
“I see,” he said. “Well, I don’t have authority to give you permission, but I can help put in the request for you. Do you have other valuable items? Can you support yourself passing through here?”
“The sQodravtse thought that the currency here would be gold, so we brought in some gold coins with us that we think ought to be enough for eight or ten days’ travel, however long it takes to get around the coast. That’s about all, though – other than that, we just have our personal effects and the necklaces for Spikonikwamekh. We can take a boat home when we get there.”
“The customs authorities here will have to go through your luggage in their process to see if you’re allowed in – I hope that’s OK.”
“I guess so. We had that happen in Qodra, too. They’ll leave our stuff, won’t they?”
“As long as you don’t have undisclosed weapons.”
“Ngaa! purr! seun!” the girl exclaimed.
“Aha,” Xati acknowledged. “I have to ask you some questions now so that the authorities here know who you are. They don’t want to have totally unknown people in the country. First of all, where do you live?”
“We all live on farms around the capital city, Regntum,” Xus answered smoothly.
“How many people live in the capital city?”
“Haven’t you been there?”
“It’s been awhile.”
“Still about 58,000, like always, if you include the farms in the tax base.”
“How far along are you in school?”
“We would be in the 12th grade if we weren’t travelling, and Yith, mm, Yiff, was going into grade 10.”
“Do you speak any languages other than sDiyyanantse?”
“Yes, we’ve all studied English and we practice it together sometimes.”
“What do you know about Tsagaxk? Why did you want to come here?”
“We don’t know anything about it. We just hope to explore our world and create friendship among our peoples if we can.”
The young man gave a slight frown.
“Have you ever had training in military techniques or self-defence?”
“Um, not at home, certainly. Some soldiers in Qodra taught me a little sword technique.”
“What about the rest of you?”
“No, nothing – we’re not fighters. Well, you know. No one in Diyyana is, really.”
“Yes, I know, when I lived there, there was no military force or anything like that. I imagine that’s still the case – is it?”
“Of course. Same as always. We’re the land of plagues, as the sQodravtse say – no point setting up an army. This is a strange line of questioning, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I just have to be professional.”
“Well, ok, sorry, I don’t mean to slow you down.”
The girl spoke up again. “Changurr! taegon! vyekhshs! napgab! natad! aban! nguutah!”
Xati looked at her impassively.
“She says I can invite you to my house to stay for dinner and the night. Would you accept?”
“Well, thank you. Sure, we’d be glad to, if it’s not imposing.”
“There’s no commercial accommodation around here, anyways.”
“Well, we do have tents. But we’d really enjoy spending time with someone from home around now, and I hope you’d enjoy it too.”
“Yes, I would,” he said.
This was a curiously flat answer.
Nonetheless, we were invited, and he directed us to head out towards the horses.
“My place is just a short walk from here. The soldiers will bring up the horses in a few minutes after they’ve done the customs inspection of the bags and your packsacks.”
“Can I get something from my saddlebag first?” Yith asked.
“Best not to,” Xati said, “your stuff will be right along. They’ll bring it up to the house.”
The girl, who was following behind, issued a string of language to the soldiers, and five of them came over, one per horse. (We had a pack horse with us to help reduce our packsacks and saddlebags.) The language sounded eerily like a Filipino person speaking Mandarin Chinese in a California Valley Girl accent – you know? the accent? where, like, everything? sounds? like a question? I was dying to ask Yith if he could understand what was happening, but I didn’t want to cause a ruckus.
I was always nervous whenever we had to let someone go through our bags, but it had happened enough times by now that I was practiced at reassuring myself nothing would go wrong. The soldiers led the horses into a barn as we hiked up a stone-paved roadway that headed onto a low rise of land in the direction of the ocean, which we could hear but not
see. We went past several other buildings looking like woodframe cottages set in among the bare deciduous trees of the hillside. Fire smoke emerged from chimneys, and everything seemed peaceable. There was a buggy in one yard, and a ceramic doll on the porch of
another. Everyone had a woodpile. Something caught my eye overhead and a medium-sized owl flapped rapidly through the trees. Our group was quiet, as was the young girl bringing up the rear.
“How’d you end up here, Xati?” Eleya ventured to ask our host.
He looked back towards the young girl. She made no acknowledgment.
“I worked on a fishing boat, and one day a storm blew us into these waters, aground here. They, um, rescued me and I’ve been here since then.”
“Don’t you want to go back?”
“No, everything here is lovely,” he said. Again he snuck a peek at the girl. She noticed, and narrowed her eyes.
“Are there other members of your crew here? Do you communicate with folks back home?”
“No, the others – left to go elsewhere. I stayed here. I don’t have a way of communicating with home.”
“Wow, do people know you survived?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure they do. No problem.”
“Well, if you’d like us to take any messages or anything home for you, we’d be glad to.”
“Thanks, that’s very kind of you. I’ll think about it.”
Something about this finally jammed a knife firmly into my panic button. What on Ullikummi was going on here? A shipwrecked guy who didn’t want to talk to people at home? Did he hate his family or something?
And the little girl behind us was like something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. What the devil was that all about?
Then I remembered Yith’s lipreading skills. “I don’t like this,” I mouthed to him in English, while rubbing my cheek with my open hand so that the girl couldn’t see my lips move.
He nodded very slightly.
Ghaa. We were in trouble again. But what kind of trouble?
….. (later, at dinner) …
A sweating maid arrived through the kitchen door with a large container of what seemed to be soup. She set it down on a leather hot-pad on the tabletop. Another maid arrived with a ladle, while a third brought in bowls. They all wore wrist rings, but the one with the bowls was amazing. She had six rings per arm, and you could see that the weight of the rings distinctly altered her movements. All of the staff seemed very nervous and quiet.
Suddenly, three military officers burst through the door. They alternately singsonged and barked words in their language, pointing their fingers at us.
Oi vey vey vey. Now what?
“We can’t start dinner just yet,” Xati said nervously. “They say you guys lied to them. But they’ll give you a chance. If you’ll set a few matters straight and agree to answer some questions, we can go ahead with dinner.”
“How did we lie to them?” Xus asked.
“First of all, they found concealed weapons in your gear. Tiny but deadly knife blades, they say. One soldier cut his finger severely taking the covering off one of them. They say there were enough blades there to assassinate half a platoon.”
“Lying is not allowed here,” the young girl said sternly.
“Sepren? yemon?” one of the officers said to her, or asked her. I couldn’t tell if it was a question or not.
“Dangren?” she said in return. Yith looked at me and gave a minute wince.
“Those blades aren’t weapons,” Xus said. “We didn’t lie. Those are part of our medical supplies. They’re only used for surgery, to help heal people. We used them in Qodra to heal a girl whose tongue was stuck to the bottom of her mouth.”
“I know, yes, scalpel blades,” Xati said, “but here they’re considered weapons because they could be used to kill. You should have declared them, sorry. Anyways, that’s the least of your problems. The officer here wants to show you something.”
(Let’s leave it at that for now!)
Let me tell you, travelling on an alien planet requires a lot of nerve. And as for me, my only tough feature is my toenails. So I’m not cut out for this. But sometimes life serves up a lot of things we’re not cut out for. You wouldn’t believe what was going to happen after this. Woah. Cliffhanger doesn’t begin to describe it.
- Study: 8.8 billion Earth-size, just-right planets (bostonherald.com)