Sometimes, a gift exchange is more than it seems.
by P. Orin Zack
It had been four intensely exhausting days since the highly anticipated cultural exchange with the Aliens had begun. Ross Farnum, whose curly red hair and beard made stark contrast to his accustomed green flannel shirt, stood about a foot from the wall-mounted conference room video screen, studying the intricately carved box of seed packets being presented to A. J. Warryn, head of the IntraSystem AgriBusiness Coalition. The foreign dignitary’s elegant presentation, as he lifted each packet and held it reverentially in his cupped hands, sounded far more intriguing than the list of names and dates spoken by the more plainly dressed Alien translator at his side. Once all of the packets had been displayed, and the box had been handed off, Warryn thanked his guest at length, and then he and his contingent retreated to prepare for the offering of Earth’s counterpart to the exchange.
Farnum turned to scan the rank of recently vacated seats flanking the long, paper-strewn conference table behind him. The seeds just presented were the last, and by many accounts, the least important of far too many formal exchanges, which was why, of all the specialists that had been assembled to back up the public face of the Earth delegation, only the three of them remained. Inara Svistrom, the lanky blonde linguist, was busy making herself a cup of Kona at the kiosk they’d installed for the team, and Clyde Newell, who contrasted with her in a variety of ways, was engaged in yet another Internet search.
“So… Clyde,” Farnum said, and waited for him to look up from his laptop, “did you find anything? Are they lining up to hire us after this shindig is over?”
“Hardly, Ross. It’s not like there’s a First Contact every day.”
The earlier, purely political formalities between the two species had, of course, been held under the utmost security, considering how many of the solar system’s most powerful national and corporate leaders were gathered in one place. Nobody was certain how important the Alien dignitaries sent to that event were in their own sphere of influence, but the journalistic consensus was that just the expense of the interstellar expedition warranted the inclusion of at least some members of the ruling elite.
Inara had just taken her seat again when a smaller picture inset itself over the main image. “I think we may have a problem, people.” It was Warryn.
“Yes, sir,” Ross answered, rounding the table and returning to his seat. “What can we do for you?”
“I’m sending a transcript of that last bit over to you. We’ll need an analysis of the cultural loading, and a recommendation on how to couch the return gift for best effect.”
“Clyde Newell here, Mr. Warryn. What will you be offering in exchange for those seeds and that nifty box?”
Warryn shrugged. “More seeds, of course; the best on offer from our labs. The problem is we don’t know what to say about them. We were hoping you could figure that out for us.”
The overlay vanished, and Clyde’s laptop beeped. “Got it,” he said. “I’ll run some hardcopy.”
Inara set her coffee down beside the paper that Clyde handed her a minute later and skimmed it, stopping intermittently to compare wordings. “I don’t get it,” she said when she reached the end of the document. “I mean, they’re making a formal gift of seeds, and yet the spiel that goes with it sounds more like a travelogue. There’s nothing of agricultural substance in here. Not so much as the barest of planting suggestions, things like what kind of soil they need, how much light they need or how close to plant them. Nothing.”
“I see what you mean,” Ross said, flipping through the pages. “What’s the point of presenting someone with seeds if you’re not going to tell them what to do with them?”
“Hold on, Ross,” Clyde said, “that’s not exactly true. But we’re obviously missing something.” He tapped the printout. “This travelogue must have some bearing on the seeds.”
“Oh yeah? Like what? Where they bought them?”
“Maybe not where they bought them, but certainly about where they came from.”
“Doesn’t fit,” Inara said, gazing idly at the wall screen, which had reverted to a live feed of the Alien’s orbiting spaceship. “That wouldn’t explain the dates.”
“Okay,” Clyde, said, “let’s back up a bit here. What is it that the Alien was listing?”
“Planets and star systems, from the wording,” she suggested. “And for some reason, those interspersed accounts of births and deaths.
“I’d have to assume that those are planets his people have been on. But who are the people, and why would that be important? What do they have to do with the seeds?”
“How about this,” Ross said suddenly. “What if those planets trace the seeds’ history? If he were reciting the lineage, then the first item after the various names for the plant being presented would be where that particular seed stock originally came from, and the last one would be the most recent step on the journey. Which could, I suppose, be the planet they’d just come from.”
“Sure,” Inara agreed, “there are cultural equivalents right here on Earth; Peru, for example. But if it’s something like that, this box of seeds wasn’t the ‘piddling afterthought’ that self-important twit Geoffrey — who couldn’t be bothered to stay until the end — made it out to be. I’m beginning to think that this was the real big deal. I think our Alien guests saved their most important gift for last.”
“Or maybe it’s not,” Clyde said, leaning back in his chair. “For all we know, the guy could just have been yakking to hear himself wheeze. In my experience, the idiots with the least to say usually make the biggest deal about saying it, and spend as much time as they can doing it, too.”
“If you have a better explanation, let us know,” she said sharply, and then winced at her loss of control. “Sorry. Anyway, under the circumstances, I vote we go with it. Warryn needs to do something, and at least this gives us a frame to build his presentation on.”
He shrugged noncommittally. “It’s okay, Inara. Don’t sweat it. We’re all a bit edgy. So how do we reply?”
“Yeah,” Ross said, still staring at the spaceship. “If we’re right about the Alien’s laborious agricultural history lesson, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that those seeds of his are the real deal. The people whose names he reeled off must have tended them personally, and all that biblical begetting from world to world means they have an unbroken chain of custody for the seed stock that goes back who knows how many years.”
“And planets,” Inara added. “Don’t forget that. They’ve traced the transplantings across space, for god’s sake. And what does Warryn have queued up to hand him? Frankenseeds, I’ve heard them called, the fruits of endless genetic tinkering. I doubt the labs even know where the original specimens came from, much less kept any once they had improved on it.”
Clyde laid a hand over his keyboard. “If there was time,” he said, “we could get samples from the cryobank flown in. They’ve got the closest equivalent to what the Alien presented.”
“Okay,” Ross said agreeably. “Let’s ask Warryn.”
A few moments later, with Warryn once again on screen, they sketched out their understanding of the Alien’s gift. The man nodded, feigning an understanding that his eyes did not mirror. Then, haltingly, Clyde diplomatically brought up the cryobank idea.
Warryn closed his eyes for a moment and turned his head. When he faced the camera again, they were blazing. “Are you nuts?” he thundered. “How the hell do you think it would look for the representative of the IntraSystem AgriBusiness Coalition to make a formal gift of something we had nothing to do with?”
“But Mr. –.”
“Unless the three of you want to find a different line of work, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come up with a way to present my lab specimens in a way that will appeal to the Aliens.” He looked at his watch. “Oh, and by the way, you’ve got about fifteen minutes to come up with an answer. And it better be good!”
The overlay vanished.
“Quite a challenge,” Inara said with a nervous laugh. “So what have we got? The Aliens have presented us with a cultural history of the their species by way of the journey of their seeds across space and time. Each one tells a story, each one marks the path they’ve taken from world to world, and how long they lingered at each one before pressing on across space. How do we craft a comparable story about genetically modified seeds?”
“Hold on, hold on,” Clyde said, raising a hand. “The story could be bigger than that, you know. After all, if we’re going to try to match the Alien’s tale, we’re going to need to pump some grandeur into it somehow.”
“‘Grandeur’?” Inara echoed dubiously. “Where are you going with this?”
“The Austrian Empire, I should think,” he said with an impish grin. And England, and —.”
“What are you talking about?” Ross said.
“Well,” he shrugged, “unless you think we ought to go back further than that. I mean, after all, there is quite a bit of folklore we could fold in. And scripture. Don’t forget scripture.”
“Clyde,” Inara said, rising and reaching across the table towards him, “spill it. What’s this story you’ve got cooked up. We’re going to need to hear it before you tell Warryn, especially if you expect us to back you up. You do want us to back you up on this, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. If it doesn’t fly, you could plead ignorance and not take the hit. Let me make the pitch, okay? Then, if it doesn’t please him, you can get on with your lives, and I’ll fall on my sword. Come on. Call him back. Do it.”
Ross shook his head doubtfully and alerted Warryn. A moment later, he was staring impatiently from the video screen. “Well?”
Clyde stood and addressed the camera. “Here’s what you do, sir. Start by making a big deal about the seed stock, and be sure to impress upon the Alien that what you are offering him is not merely the product of the same munificent natural forces that he quoted at you, but that they are equally the product of many generations of scientific discipline among members of different branches of humanity.”
Warryn crossed his arms. “Get to the point, would you? We don’t have much time.”
“Yes sir, of course. Now, we can suggest ways to embellish this, but if you want to keep it focused on what’s in your package, I suggest starting with Gregor Mendel, whose work with pea plants led inexorably to Crick and Watson’s revelation about the structure of DNA, which lies at the heart of the work done by all of the corporate labs in the AgriBusiness Coalition.”
“A marvelous idea, Mr. Newell. Yes. I think I can work with that. What sorts of embellishments were you thinking about?”
“Well, sir, considering that our guests have made such a strong point about preserving the seed lines that they have taken with them through their travels across space, I thought it might be appropriate to speak about some comparable efforts on the part of the human race.”
“Yes sir. Most notably, I would suggest that you mention that we have not only developed the strains which you will be presenting, but that we have also preserved a backup of the progenitor strains from which they were derived. You know, sir, an emergency kit for starting the entire process over again, should that ever be needed.”
Warryn frowned. “Are you suggesting that I mention the cryobanks?”
“Oh, no sir. Of course not. That would never be acceptable to the companies in the Coalition.”
“Well then. If you’re not talking about that, then what do you mean?”
“Of course. There’ll always be weeds, won’t there. And as long as you don’t specify what that backup is, the Alien will assume that you meant something like the cryobanks, and you’ll have a perfectly good explanation for your colleagues in the Coalition.”
“Well, then. I guess that’s that, then. I’d like to thank you all for your good work.”
After Warryn signed off, Clyde fell into a chair, laughing. “And the best part?” he said, wiping his eyes. “The best part is that the Alien will know he’s full of shit.”
“Why do you say that?” Ross asked him.
“Isn’t it obvious? These guys spend thousands of years hopping from one planet to the next, and throughout their entire history, they value naturally grown strains over anything else. They have to know you can’t corral life. That’s the whole point. That’s why it’s so sacred to them. And Warryn out there, he’s about to show them why they should steer clear of us from now on. Well, or at least until we get over the idea that we can subdue nature.”
Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack