BY GRETCHEN KEEFER
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS time. McGill had been observing the inhabitants for 48 hours and had learned all he could without actual contact. He had come to think of them as “people”. They were bipedal, had faces of a sort, used their upper arms to grasp, used tools, had speech and a hierarchal social structure. He was not yet sure if they were total vegetarian. All he had seen them eat was leaves, which they plucked off the plentiful bushes and stuffed in their mouths. They chewed slowly, unless the leader had just spoken to them. Then they chewed furiously. Anxiety release perhaps? McGill realized he actually knew little about the culture these people had developed, but they knew even less about him, only what they could discern from the outside of his vehicle, which they warily watched in organized shifts.
At night all the natives climbed as high as possible in the slender trees. While viewing the surveillance tapes, McGill thought he saw a large dark shape thrashing through the area. The video was unclear, so he filed the idea away for further study. Perhaps it was just the wind.
The computer had analyzed the speech and come up with — very little. Apparently, the squeaks, squawks, clicks and whistles of the locals comprised too much of a challenge, in spite of the Interplanetary Phonetic Notation system that had assigned symbols to every possible speech sound. The computer had often spit out queries assigning “Proper Name?” to untranslatable phonic clusters. McGill was fairly confident that he had the greeting correct, however. It was a word the natives invariably used when approaching one another.
Oh. Wait. McGill remembered a piece of his hurried linguistic training. Some cultures had formal and informal language. What if the greeting he had so painstakingly worked on was an informal greeting? Would he seriously offend the people if he used the wrong word?
Never mind. He was only an adventurer on a scouting mission. After the research types had analyzed the data from this trip, they could more properly train the next group of experts. He would be far away by then.
McGill opened the door and stepped out into the new environment. He carried with him a staff similar to those he had observed the natives holding. As he expected, the curious natives had gathered at a safe distance to observe his vehicle and him. Each individual held at least one weapon-like instrument – spear, bludgeon, blow darts. McGill stopped at the entrance to his vehicle, then moved slowly forward. The apparent leader also approached. He uttered the greeting, and McGill’s stomach sank. There definitely was a change in inflection, and it was a doozy. McGill struggled to copy the complex combination of odd sounds, changing pitches and gargles. After a pause that to McGill seemed to last hours but was only a few seconds, the leader nodded and laid his staff down. McGill breathed again and laid his staff down as well. He spread his arms out, away from his own weapon holstered at his hip. The anthropologists at his training had taught this gesture as a universal signal of non-aggression.
The natives backed away and chattered loudly and ominously. McGill stood quietly, holding the non-aggressive stance. One individual stepped forward slowly, waving a leaf-tipped spear and making loud vocalizations. McGill took a tentative step forward and smiled.
Immediately a barrage of weapons sped his way, one striking his shoulder with fierce intensity. McGill backed into the vehicle and shut the door. Obviously, he had offended some important cultural norm. He would need protective suiting before he ventured back out.
Ghra’l* turned back to his cadre. “Explain,” he commanded.
Several voices shouted at once. “Sir, mandibles!”
“Ready to grab us!”
“Fools,” he scolded. “It had no weapons. It was not going to eat us.”
Gretchen Keefer has always created scenes in her head and now writes family friendly short fiction for fun. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul — Christmas Miracles (Oct 2022), Rain Magazine, local anthologies and the website firstname.lastname@example.org.