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Emily Post's Guide to Alien Encounters

Audrey R. Hollis is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several places, including Leading Edge, Lunch Ticket, and Autostraddle. She is devoted to oddities, medieval history, and things that glitter. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @audreyrhollis.
"It's their shape that decides it?"
"Not precisely," I began, and then stopped. "People get degrees in this, you know?"
"How interesting. But there must be some sort of common understanding."
I was beginning to regret ever having invited my coworker. T loved the dogs, was fascinated by the barbeques--"You don't usually cook openly; I thought fire was taboo--" and focused their intense stare on each person who looked their way. Which was, in a word, everyone.
"Sometimes it's their shape but sometimes it isn't. People get to decide now, but they didn't before," I said. Talking to T was exhausting. They'd paired us up because Americans were famously rude--direct, as the diplomats would say--and the aliens more than matched us in that regard.
Which is why the rest of my international team of scientists were happily sleeping while I was teaching an alien how to unfold a cheap lawn chair at five in the morning before the Rose Parade. They'd wanted the aliens to experience culture. If they meant opera, they should've asked somebody else.
Five hours and a hundred questions later (T was curious about the health code, pavement, rule of law, street preachers, and everything else), the first float began its stately march down Main Street.
"So sometimes it is their shape and sometimes people decide but always, the people who are women wear the outfits with the tassels?"
"Only if they're in a marching band," I said.
"How interesting," T said. Late one night at the lab, T let slip that they'd been forced to take a class in diplomacy before they were allowed planetside. The only noticeable effect was that T substituted "interesting" for incomprehensible, ludicrous, or risible. Anyone's guess which one this was but reviewing the sentence that had just come out of my mouth, I'd pick risible.
"So, in this ritual, the bands show everyone their talent to celebrate the youth of the year?"
"Yes," I decided after a minute. Close enough. "There's also a football game."
"I would like to go to a football game, paint my face, and wave a fake human hand."
I laughed. "I'll take you sometime, T."
"It is interesting. To see you spend so many flowers."
"They're beautiful floats," I agreed.
T had a massive head that seemed heavy in the way of elephants. It gave them an uncharacteristic gravity considering their personality consisted of an insatiable appetite for knowledge and new fart jokes.
When they scrunched their forehead the way they did now, wrinkles piling up one on top of another, something had upset them. Float seven rolled past, topped with a gigantic dinosaur who snapped towards us, teeth gleaming with lilies. If our visit to the Museum of Natural History last month was any indication--we'd nearly been kicked out due to excessive enthusiasm--T should have been thrilled. Instead, their face was more wrinkle than smooth and the tentacles at their sides had twisted into curlicues.
"It is expensive?"
"I think so?"
"How interesting."
I handed T the program booklet. I'd never have taken them to a bullfight and I'd even put off going to football games because I was certain they would divine that the players hurt when tackled. The aliens were so sensitive to our pain that I was ashamed it had taken me so long to develop a corresponding empathy.
I had somehow messed up by taking them here. I gazed around. There were two children, of indeterminate age and gender, pushing to be in the very front. A man with a sign walked along the curb, shouting about Jesus. A woman on a float threw us pens, while the band marching behind them--the people who were women in tassels and skirts--lifted their instruments to the sun and started to play.
I waited until the band had passed. There was no point in being polite to somebody who did not value or practice it. Perhaps to them, politeness and directness were synonymous. I had a difficult time ascertaining whether these qualities were unique to T or came from their culture, the language barrier, or the terrible sense of urgency which the aliens carried with them, whose cause we had not yet discovered.
"What's wrong? You look upset."
"It is very expensive. And I don't think you have so much left to spend."
"We make our money at the treasury," I said. "I'm sure the people who organize this have plenty."
"But where do you make the flowers?"
"I'm not--I don't know."
"Is your planet so rich that you can afford to kill flowers in such large numbers for sport?"
"Our planet is dying," I said. Americans are blunt, scientists doubly so, and the numbers emerging annually did not leave much room for ambiguity.
"You are killing it," T corrected. "I thought it might be rude to mention it, but since you brought it up. You are killing it quite quickly."
I rubbed the back of my neck. The nature of the human race was written on the surface of our planet, in the chemicals in our atmosphere, and the composition of our water. Yet they had still landed their ships, one in each capital city of every country.
I thought it in my mother's voice, What must they think of us?
Perhaps I should have taken them to something older than opera, Oedipus, or one of the other great plays about patricide. I imagined T there saying, Is it always the people who are women who weave, who weep?
And yet, one of the children grabbed the other's hair and gave it a yank and the sun still shone and everything smelled of hot dogs and sweat. In front of us, a float shaped like a giant clump of fruit sailed by. It was difficult to hold death and the scent of hot dogs in my mind simultaneously.
T was watching me. I couldn't meet their eyes. "We're working on it."
"Working?"
"On fixing it."
Both children were seated together on the curb now, their scuffle forgotten. T uncurled a bit, serifs rather than springs. "Would you like help?"
"We're desperate for it," I said. Perhaps I shouldn't have. We were still negotiating. But it was plain we were desperate. We'd wounded ourselves and yet didn't possess the capacity to leave.
A float with a tropical landscape and indifferent dancers passed us, followed by a band who had flown here from Tokyo. The people who were women wore capes.
I said, "Can you help us? Will you?"
"I'm not--I don't know." Curlicues again.
"Bargaining chip?"
"Our biggest."
We watched the next float go by. "You don't like it though," I guessed.
"It pains me."
T had used that exact expression a few times. I suspected it didn't translate quite right. "Let me know. If there's anything you can do."
Curlicues and then straight, limp tentacles. "I will."
"Whatever they're offering you, it isn't enough," I said. I'd been following the negotiations on the news. Getting each country to agree had been like trying to set toddlers in a straight line.
"I've been authorized to negotiate with individuals," T said.
This, in the midst of the festival atmosphere, was treason. To my country, anyway. "What could I possibly offer you?"
"They said you used to work on weapons. Before you switched to theory."
I closed my eyes. "Yes."
"I was surprised to learn how much we had yet to discover in that area."
My voice was a whisper. "Yes."
"We can halt the damage. Freeze the ice sheets. Calm the storms. Just until the negotiations are through. We can ensure that nothing is irreversible."
"You would use it--"
"As leverage," T said. "One fewer thing to ask for in the negotiations. We have been informed that asking for military secrets is... not done."
"Do you think they assigned us together so you could offer me this?" I ask. It was a question which was answered by the asking.
"Or your interesting taste in cultural events," T said.
The band in front of us lifted their trumpets to the sky. For once, they all had the same uniform, the same long, puffy hats, and each high schooler looked equally uncomfortable wearing them.
"The answer is yes," I said.
T tilted their head back, tentacles reaching toward the sun. "The changes will begin now."
I swallowed. The next float was an actual pool full of sea creatures. They must have felt so far from home in the clear water, nothing but air on all sides.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 12th, 2018

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