First published in Analog, Nov 2000
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Narita was lying on a hill with her dearly beloved Charles when she felt the earth move. Always one to see the humor in any situation, she let out a stifled chuckle even now, but she knew this was not good.
"What's the embassy up to?" she asked her lover. She was petite, pixie-faced and black-eyed, with a smile that turned her lips up in a V. She was a painter of watercolors. The embassy did not take her seriously, but the feeling was mutual. Charles was a young man with well-groomed hair, a straight nose, a square jaw, and an inscrutable expression suitable for a budding diplomat--except when he looked at Narita. Then hidden thoughts winked in the depths like invisible fish catching a glint of the sun. He worked at the First Clayocluuret Diplomatic Delegation and Contact Team. The long name lent importance to the mission. Unfortunately, since it was not backed up by money, it did not lend very much.
"I'm just the deputy associate linguistic liaison to the consular secretary, fuzzy-wuzzy. They don't include me in their plans."
She smiled at him. She liked being called fuzzy-wuzzy. "Yes, but what do you think?" she persisted. "You know the Cluuries. They'll laugh till nightfall trying to play tic-tac-toe, yet the embassy keeps getting them mad enough to do that mountain-moving trick of theirs."
Charles raised his eyebrows for a look of wonderfully professional detachment.
"Have you been practicing that?" she demanded before he could answer, her smile now quirked into glee.
"Of course," he said unhesitatingly, a faint ghost of her sense of the ridiculous flitting over his face. "I bet they tried another illicit mining operation which is being buried as we speak. His Excellency the Ambassador seems to be a slow learner."
Of course he was, Narita thought. He took his job so very seriously, yet any passing painter could see that the whole mission was simply an advance guard for the well-connected toffs. They would sign the actual agreements and bask in the actual credit.
"Titanium and yttrium and god-knows-what-all," she said dreamily, "buried in dunes all over the planet. But it's more beautiful as flowers." Spring rains had changed the dry, dusty sand of Clayocluuret into sky-blue pools surrounded by red, yellow, blue and white flower meadows. "Besides, I'd poke the Ambassador in the ribs too if I had to talk to him."
Narita, following Charles, had been at the mission right from the start. She'd been there when people thought the natives could be bought off with beads. Although intelligent, the natives showed no signs of knowing how to do anything but float about in the pools and catch insects, their staple diet. They were bipeds the size of a ten-year-old, tubby, and furry even on their toes but not on their heads. They were placid and jovial. The situation seemed perfect.
However, as happens so often in life, the situation was far from perfect. Narita had been there when it dawned on people that the natives wanted a cut of the profit. This was not immediately obvious because the natives' notion of negotiation included standing on their heads and wiggling their furry toes or tickling the Ambassador and then rolling about on the ground making a whistling sound with their wide mouths extended into a tube ending in a small "o." All the staff, including Charles, had scoured the countryside for more "responsible" natives. When they finally found a few and began serious negotiations, the ring of locals rolling on the ground and whistling became so thick that the Ambassador insisted the talks be moved indoors, despite the Cluuries dislike of enclosures.
Like all beings with well-developed sitting muscles, the serious Clayocluurians did not generate any actual results but at least the Ambassador seemed to feel better. Besides, so long as he was negotiating and thereby demonstrating good faith, he said nobody could fault the humans for proceeding with some prospecting. Narita was convinced that "nobody" in this case did not mean nobody, but only that small subset of bodies including the Ambassador's superiors.
The first landslide to engulf a mine was assumed to be a natural event. Maybe wind had somehow blown in an astonishing amount of sand overnight. The next one appeared to be a bizarre coincidence. Maybe wind had blown in an astonishing amount of sand again. The third one had people throwing salt over their shoulders and nailing plastic horseshoes over their front doors. (Iron was hard to come by on Clayocluuret.)
The mission's geologists studied the marching dunes to exhaustion, with no result. Of course, the scope of their questions was limited by the Ambassador's edict that "nonsense" would not be reimbursed. Nonsense included anything connected with the Cluuries, which, as happens so often with funding, directed the research into channels the administrators could understand. Narita mentioned her ideas about Cluuries and dune-moving to anyone who would listen--out of the Ambassador's earshot--but only the newest geologist, Evelyn Frobisher, paid any attention.
"I have family in New London," Evelyn told Narita quietly at lunch one day, "so it looked like a call home. I had Arvidjian himself on the line--"
Narita knew he had worked out the equivalence of thought and energy, much as an earlier genius had understood the relationship of energy and matter--"and he said they were probably entwining particles. He said it was a good test for his theories. He said more research needed to be done." Evelyn looked thrilled.
Narita looked blank.
"They must condense thoughts to energy," Evelyn continued, "and probably to particles, entwined quarks most likely. They could affect the distant member of the pair, then release the energy and reabsorb as much as they could for the next go-round. Just think of the energetics! There really is so much research that needs to be done on the system," she repeated happily.
Narita left her with visions of high-level collaborations and funding dancing in her head.
When Charles asked the negotiating Cluuries about moving dunes, they squirmed uncomfortably in their seats and wrung their furry toes feverishly since their short legs couldn't reach the floor. Yes, they intimated, "others" were capable of that sort of thing.
The Ambassador sniffed with exaggerated patience when Charles brought him the information. "My dear boy," he said, "it's the oldest trick in the book. Insist on compensation or you'll use your great magical powers. The Cluuries idea of high technology is floating on a log instead of swimming and you're suggesting they move mountains. By what means? Humming at them?"
So the humans kept trying new mines, the Cluuries kept burying them, and the negotiators kept negotiating. There was potential for lifetime employment for all concerned.
Nothing stays the same for long and the situation changed even as Charles and Narita sat on their unquiet dune. The radio in the flitter parked behind them crackled to life.
"Hoy. Whittington. You there?"
"All present and correct," Charles called back to Jamie Olongwethi, an equally junior aide with whom he formed that mutual support society characteristic of intelligent underlings.
"Well, you and your infinitely better half need to beetle back here. Things are happening."
"Um," grunted Charles, standing up. "Things are happening here too. What things?"
"I think, in the nicest possible way, the Cluuries are trying to tell us they are really annoyed. They're burying the embassy."
Charles and Narita stared at each other with widening eyes, flung themselves in the flitter and shot back to the embassy.
It was not particularly grand as embassies go. It was prefab and looked like a giant shoebox with windows, but it was three stories tall and it bristled with transceivers on the roof. Right now the transceivers were overshadowed by a massive dune much too peaked at its leading edge. Arms of the dune reached toward the sides of the building, barely a stone's throw away, as if the whole shoebox was about to be carried off by a beige wave.
The flitter's receiver suddenly came to life with the harassed features of the Ambassador's senior aide.
"Right here, sir."
"Watch where you land. Stay out of the laser beams."
"Laser beams!" But the aide's image had already disappeared.
Charles and Narita searched frantically. Out front were tens of evacuated embassy staff fluttering fitfully about, but lacking the purposeful panic of trained diplomats under fire. Out back were six Cluuries scattered some distance from the dune, calm as sunbathers.
Narita exclaimed, "That's Feather Toes!" He was one of her special friends and had even held brushes for her on occasion as she painted her landscapes. He'd also used the opportunity to paint designs on her trouser leg.
Then Charles and Narita spotted two mining lasers pointed at the dune, small from the air, but huge on the ground. Then they understood.
"Jumping jam jars," muttered Narita, "they're going to try to melt the dune. Pinheads. Dingbats. Wingnuts."
As they neared the embassy, one leg of the tripod holding up the furthest laser suddenly sagged. Its lethal beam arrowed up into the sky, its operator floundered briefly in the quicksand, and the machine settled into an ineffective attitude. He had it righted in another moment, but then the other laser developed the staggers. No sooner was that one sorted out, than the first one flopped in a new direction. Back and forth, like two expertly handled puppets, the two operators took turns jerking at their machines. The sunbathing Cluuries watched appreciatively, moving their heads to follow the action as if this was a new form of tennis.
"Of course," cried Narita, "they're nobbling the lasers!"
Charles refused to be distracted by these side issues. "Why is a burning embassy better than a buried embassy?" he muttered. "It's not like the Cluuries are pushing with their furry fingers and will quit when it gets hot."
"My paintings could have been unburied if they'd just left it alone," Narita realized as she stared at the third floor window which was their room. "But unburned? No."
"Oh, dreck. Your paintings! We better get them."
Narita shook her head decisively. "Don't even dream of it. You'd get fired. Besides"--the dune was glowing red--"if that starts to flow and reaches the building before we can get out--."
"I'm absolutely positive the Cluuries control the dune movements completely. They won't do anything if you're in there."
The receiver crackled.
"Whittington!" It was the Ambassador's aide again. "Who are you trying to impress? The dune is at 1500 and rising and the damn thing's still moving. The building's going up any minute. Get your brainless behind on the ground."
Charles quietly turned off the comm.
He pushed the flitter to its limit and vectored in toward the embassy's roof. Narita stared at him, hoping he was as good a pilot as he thought he was.
"Now we get to see if that monster holds off long enough for you to run in," he muttered.
It was a glowing red wave, still moving forward too slowly to stop fast.
"I don't know, Charlie--" Narita was torn--"they're just paintings--"
"They're your work," he said as if that ended the discussion, which it did because they had touched down on the roof.
The forward flow of dune lava stopped. Its top shifted backward like a wave suddenly hit by oncoming wind.
"Awww," murmured Narita as the hatch started to open, "you probably hurt its feelings by calling it a monster."
She lunged toward the door to the stairs leading down, but two hefty embassy guards cleared the edge of the roof, each maneuvering their jet lifters with one hand and holding a steady stunner in the other.
"Hold it, you two," the senior one barked.
"Shi--" Narita began when loud yelling erupted below in the vicinity of the lasers.
The guards lost their focus.
One glance over the edge showed the two machines beyond control, pointing at each other while their operators dove for cover. The Cluuries were whistling quietly in the distance. Narita completed her lunge for the door.
Moments later she was back, panting, her portfolio under her arm. Charles was being held, literally, by the two hefty guards, one at each elbow. They looked grimly pleased to be holding someone in all this aggravation. Narita thought a few Clayocluurians would be very useful about now to tickle the long arm of the law.
"Look, I insisted," began Narita, "and I was piloting," she added quickly.
The imperturbable expression on Charles's face became a shade more imperturbable. Good, thought Narita, that's what he's been telling them. "And anyway, you're too busy being pleased with yourselves to get the point," she continued recklessly. She'd almost lost her life's work, her lover had risked life and career, and she was in no mood to tread lightly around martinets who doffed their brains when they donned their uniforms. "The point is that the dune isn't moving while we're up here."
This was not strictly true. The lethal heap of lava was slowly backing away.
The two stolid soldiers barely looked at her or the flowing, fiery rock. "We have our orders, ma'am," they said together, but then their comm boxes squawked.
The supremely exasperated voice of the Ambassador himself came on. "The dune no longer appears to be moving. The fuzzballs are covering the melted part with fresh sand by staring at it." The admission appeared to hurt him. "And now Harpo here says he'll talk to Twinkle Toes!"
Narita's eyes widened but she recovered quickly. She was always calling the natives this-toes and that-toes because of their wonderfully furry feet. Once, as she was painting a pool and watching the furry fellows frolic, one of them suddenly asked her across the language barrier why their names in her language all referred to toes. The danger of causing an interplanetary incident with her facetiousness (something Charles said was bound to happen sooner or later) brought her up short. It was a custom in her family, she said quickly. Her own name was Twinkle Toes.
Charles landed the flitter near the Ambassador, while the guards jetted importantly alongside. It turned out to be Feathery himself who wanted to speak to Narita.
"What for they clog our pools?" he asked.
Charles translated, but before Narita could answer, His Excellency took over. The boiled look in his eye said that this was no place for amateurs who had no notion of building words into a dam against rivers of glass.
"We have been on excellent terms and look forward to a long history of cooperation between our peoples. What point is there in destroying our mutual spirit of harmony by what amounts to vandalism?"
Narita knew enough Clayocluurian to hear Charles translate: "Why are you burying our embassy?"
"Why not?" inquired Feathery with all possible blandness. He turned back to Narita and repeated, "What for they dig our sand?"
Narita opened and shut her mouth a few times feeling a bit like a carp out of water. Her first impulse was to say, "Because they need a sandbox," but she couldn't help feeling sorry for the slowly swelling Ambassador.
"I, uh, don't really know." She found herself thinking that if the Ambassador swelled much further, someone might get the idea of using the final explosion to blow back the dune. "I don't know," she repeated much more firmly. "All I know is the Government wants your minerals so they sent out a junior crew of people"--the Ambassador turned a delicate shade of purple--"to make whatever mistakes there were to be made. They could fail and be demoted without major repercussions"--the Ambassador's purple deepened--"and the more senior crew they sent next could use the information to negotiate a contract more quickly."
"Minerals?" asked Feathery Toes. "What for minerals?"
"Computers," answered Narita, "and medical machines and space ships."
"It allows people to see funnies," said Charles with the acumen of a true diplomat. "See?" He unlatched his computer from his belt and started an old film running. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." the hologram said, "by Buster Keaton."
The natives settled down to watch once they realized that trying to tickle the serious, miniature Keaton would have no effect.
"Whittington," said the Ambassador severely, "this is neither the time nor the place. We're in danger of being wiped out. Get them to pull back. Then we'll talk."
"Yes, sir," said Charles evenly, with no visible effect on the course of the film.
The Ambassador appeared to be on the point of exploding, but suddenly contained himself when he noticed a Cluurie out of the corner of his eye, imitating his every move with the uncanny accuracy of an irritating ten year old.
"It is good you have other grownups," said Feathery, pointing at the hologram and whistling in obvious enjoyment.
"Other grownups?" asked Charles, bewildered.
"Yes," Feathery agreed, misunderstanding the question as a statement. "That is good use." He nodded at Keaton tilting against the hurricane as the front wall of a house fell on him and neatly framed him in a providential window. "You may use some of our sand for 'funnies'. We will say where."
The Ambassador suddenly lost interest in his dune-halting agenda and interrupted to take advantage of this new state of affairs with his usual adaptability, drive and initiative.
"It gives me great pleasure to see that our months of careful negotiations have led to understanding among all parties concerned. Of course, we realize there are still many details to be worked out, but at this point in time we can, I am sure, move forward once your committees have issued instructions to your negotiators, and--"
Feathery turned his back on the flow of words. "Usual is the whole pond decides together," referring to the groups favoring specific wet-season watering holes, "but you from far, so other grownups perhaps difficult." He looked at Narita and seemed to wait for confirmation, giving the Ambassador an opening he instantly used.
"And then we can work out the language for each--"
Feathery gave an odd shrug to his shoulder fur. "Good time to go 'negotiate' now," he suggested, pointing toward the knot of serious and embarrassed Cluuries who usually were called upon when negotiations were needed.
The Ambassador had the incongruous feeling he was being told to run along, but local customs were often inscrutable and it wouldn't do to offend anyone at this delicate stage. He called over a more senior translator to accompany him.
Feathery seemed almost relieved. "Always a problem, at that age," he murmured at the Ambassador's retreating back. Then he returned to his point. "More people difficult?" he asked Narita again.
"To bring more non-diplomatic non-essentials like me here?" asked Narita, casting about for what he could possibly mean. "Well-nigh impossible, I should think."
"Is all right," said Feathery reassuringly. "Your Big People do not need to send anyone older. You are old enough, Twinkle Toes."
"I'm not old," protested Narita.
"You did say someone more senior," muttered Charles. "How do you know she is old?" he asked Feathery.
"She is old enough to laugh."
"But children laugh too. More, if anything," said Charles carefully.
"Is it so among you?" Feathery Toes whistled in amusement, jumped and stood on his head.
Charles stiffened slightly.
"No," whispered Narita. "No, I think he just means we're a topsy-turvy species."
Feathery folded suddenly, rolled out of his headstand and jumped up before them. "Among us only children are serious. Anyone who knows anything about life has learned to laugh."
"But--then--" Charles glanced back at the Ambassador talking to his little circle of Cluuries, now more earnest than embarrassed.
Narita glanced over too. The ineffectiveness of the Ambassador's negotiations suddenly made perfect sense.
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