Just after midnight, Jen was called to the captain’s study for the sixty-seventh time in a week.
“On my way!” She stifled a yawn and looked around for her coat. Curse all officers. It had been exciting at first. Adventure, excitement, new cultures. Every ethnographer’s dream. But lately the captain had taken to summoning her at odd hours in order to pick her brains. The captain was one of the most experienced and decorated in the fleet. He had fought in the Three Years’ War and won a stunning victory while outnumbered five-to-one, but the protocols for meals and greetings during this mission might just defeat him.
She walked down the dimly lit corridors, shivering even in her thick coat. All the windows had been shuttered since they arrived, and the glaring overhead lights illuminated everything in a cold, blue glare. When she arrived at the study, she found not only the captain but also the commander, the first lieutenant, the second lieutenant and the archivist. She had been serving with them for months and supposed she ought to know their names by now, but they were just uniforms to her. Tall and immaculate. Except the archivist, who was dusty and shrunken. He sat at the very edge of his seat and appeared to be chewing his lip.
“Good evening,” she said.
The captain waved at her to sit down. He was short and bald and had the habit of tugging at his side whiskers when he was nervous. He was doing so now. Possibly this was about something more serious than the greeting protocols.
Jen sat. “Is there anything I can help you with, sir?”
“It’s the gift,” he said. “Are you certain it’s suitable?”
“Excellent,” said the commander. “That’s that, then.”
“But we’ve got much more interesting things!” The captain waved at the archivist, who jumped and nearly fell off his chair.
“Well, yes, we have, that is to say…” The archivist put on a pair of reading glasses and took out a little notebook. “We have a crate of spiced rum, a marble statue of the emperor, the complete volumes of An Illustrated History of the World, three bales of green silk -”
“Stop,” Jen said. She didn’t want to know why they had all these items on board. “These are far less suitable than our original idea. They like plants. It’s a common theme in all their stories.”
“Yes, well, it’s just that…” The captain picked up his own notebook and flipped through it. “I was reading some of their stories this afternoon, and the plants are usually alive. Here, I made a list.”
“I’ve read them,” said Jen, after a quick glance at the notebook. It was an odd collection of fairy tales, novels and plays, all from different time periods. “Most of these actually feature dying plants.”
“But not dead!” The captain tugged at his whiskers again. “That’s significant!”
The first and second lieutenants exchanged a glance. The commander rolled her eyes exactly the amount that was allowed by regulations.
Jen just shrugged. “It is, but only in the sense that dead is better in this case. A living or dying plant might propagate. They’re very concerned about introduced species taking over ecosystems. They’ve had some trouble with that in the past.”
“But a dead plant…”
“A beautiful piece of fossilised wood,” she corrected him. “It’s symbolic of our history and our offer of friendship. These people love symbolic gifts. And there’s nothing in all their history to suggest they’ll turn us away if they are disappointed.”
“I hope not,” said the captain. “We need this alliance. Dismissed.”
Jen couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned and punched her pillow while her mind whispered about all the things that could go wrong tomorrow. If the gift was disappointing, it wouldn’t matter so much, but what if it was insulting? What if it was the wrong gift for the occasion? She had spent the entire journey reading and rereading the official dispatches and the stories they had been sent. Most stories featured love and friendship, true, but these people were easily offended and notoriously short-tempered. In the past thousand years, they had fought over ideas, over perceived insults, over people crossing borders accidentally. They had once gone to war against birds. It wasn’t clear what the birds had done to deserve this. Perhaps people as strange as that would prefer a crate of rum?
Sometime in the early morning, Jen gave up trying to sleep and went to the mess hall. It was packed. She got herself a hot drink and squeezed in at a table with the translators. They were reciting adverbs and trying to keep themselves from drumming on the table or biting their fingernails.
Jen worked closely with the translators. They told her what a text or a recording said, and she explained to them what it meant, taking into account the context. Between them, the four translators knew seventeen of the languages that were spoken on this planet. Jen could just about read a simple story in one of them. Apparently, there were thousands.
“Just a few more hours,” said one of the translators. “This is your first time, right?”
Jen nodded. First contact. Well, first real contact. The government had been communicating with this planet for years, and this visit had been planned for months. They had talked about mathematics and even exchanged recipes, with humorous results because no one could get the correct ingredients. But actually stepping outside on a different planet that none of them had ever visited before, that was different. She wondered whether the ethnographers and translators on this planet were just as nervous.
The crew had been on edge since they had landed. Even with all the preparations, they couldn’t just step outside the minute the spaceship touched down. They had scanned the atmosphere to see whether it was indeed suitable, and the inhabitants of the planet checked and double-checked that all measures to protect the planet’s ecosystems had indeed been put in place. It was understandable of course, but for the ship’s crew it was maddening. Without the hum of the engines that sent them out between the stars, the ship was suddenly just a cramped and uncomfortable building.
Shortly after sunrise, the main doors of the ship opened. Jen was too far to the back of the waiting delegation to see anything that was going on outside. The air smelled fresh and sharp. From outside came the sound of stringed instruments, followed by clapping. Beside Jen, the second lieutenant stiffened slightly.
“It’s all right,” she murmured. “It’s how they signify approval.”
They began to move down the ramp, and Jen got her first look at the planet outside. The plants were different from the ones at home, and the people were taller than she had expected, but other than that it was not so different from her homeworld.
The delegation fanned out, and then the captain stepped forward, flanked by the translators, to meet the representative of the planet.
“Welcome to Earth,” she said, loud enough for Jen to hear, and in the one Earth language that she understood. Jen understood far less of the speech that followed, but the translators were quick and efficient. The speech was bland and polite, full of phrases like “historic moment” and “interspecies friendship”, and Jen felt herself relax. The captain was next. He peppered his speech with clichés. At Jen’s suggestion, he sometimes addressed the Earth representative and sometimes the crowd directly. Judging by the outbursts of clapping, they loved it.
It was time for the gift.
“I have heard so much about your love for plants,” the captain said. “Therefore we offer you, as a token of our friendship, a part of our ancient woods. May our friendship endure.”
The archivist stepped up and handed the gift to the captain, who held it out to the Earth representative. Jen had thought long and hard about how the gift should be presented. There were so many different traditions on this planet. Some wrapped gifts in paper, which had struck her as odd for a species that claimed to love trees. In the end, she had settled on a simple box with a silk cover. Inside, the piece of fossilised wood rested snug on a little cushion. The captain held the box out in both hands, which was something Jen had repeated to him again and again. Offering something with one hand was considered impolite in some Earth cultures, and she didn’t want to take any chances.
The Earth representative took the box and said a few words of thanks. There was, apparently, an assembly building for all the citizens of the Earth where this gift would be displayed. Then she opened the box and held it out for the crowd to see. They clapped even louder than before. Jen released a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
“You seem very relieved for someone who was sure this was the perfect gift,” muttered the second lieutenant out of the corner of his mouth.
“Shut up,” she muttered back.
The Earth representative was speaking again. “We have a gift for you as well. A long time ago, when our species first began to travel into space, they sent disks of information out on unmanned spacecraft, in the hope that one day, they would be found and understood. Our gift is a reproduction of this disk.”
While the crowd clapped, the captain took the box that he was offered and opened it. Jen craned her neck to see. Something glinted in there. Something horribly golden.
Somehow, the delegation had made it through the rest of the ceremony. They listened to Earth music and tasted Earth foods, and talked about the weather on their home planet. The crowd could not stop clapping and there was no time for the officers to discuss the golden horror in private. It was only now, after sunset, that they were able to take a closer look at the disk. It lay on the table in the captain’s study. It was definitely covered in a thin layer of real gold. The officers stood and glared at it while the captain paced around the room. Everyone’s eyes flickered from the disk to Jen and back to the disk again.
“Are you sure it’s not a threat?” asked the commander.
“I don’t think it is,” said Jen. “I know it’s strange, but they value gold.”
She shrugged. “They like the colour, and the fact that it’s shiny. That it doesn’t rust. To them, that eternity represents life, not death.”
“It’s unnatural,” muttered the captain. There were murmurs of agreement from the others.
The first lieutenant spoke up. “Sir, I suggest we double the guard tonight. Just in case.”
“Agreed.” The captain turned to Jen. “Find all references to gold in their literature. I want a full report by tomorrow afternoon. If there’s even the slightest chance that this is a declaration of war, we leave immediately.”
The officers all saluted. Jen went back to her tiny room, dug out her notebooks and got to work. Perhaps the members of the Earth delegation were also spending a sleepless night, fretting about a piece of fossilised wood.
The ethnographers and translators of the Earth delegation had gone to a bar. In honour of the occasion, all cocktails were buy one, get one free. The ethnographers were pleasantly tipsy and the translators were building something out of their paper umbrellas.
“I think that went really well,” said one of the ethnographers.
“We made friends with aliens.”
“To the aliens!”