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Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.
Moeller nodded absentmindedly at his assistant, who placed the schedule of today's negotiations in front of him, and shifted again in his chair. The tissue surrounding the apparatus itched, but there's no getting around the fact that a ten-centimeter tube of metal and electronics positioned inside your colon, a mere inch or two inside your rectum, is going to cause some discomfort.
This much was made clear to Moeller when he was presented with the apparatus by Fixer. "The principle is simple," Fixer said, handing the slightly curved thing to Moeller. "You pass gas like you normally do, but instead of leaving your body, the gas enters into that forward compartment. The compartment closes off, passes the gas into second department, where additional chemical components are added, depending on the message you're trying to send. Then it's shunted into the third compartment, where the whole mess waits for your signal. Pop the cork, off it goes. You interact with it through a wireless interface. Everything's there. All you have to do is install it."
"Does it hurt?" Moeller asked. "The installation, I mean."
Fixer rolled his eyes. "You're shoving a miniature chemistry lab up your ass, Mr. Moeller," Fixer said. "Of course it's going to hurt." And it did.
Despite that fact, it was an impressive piece of technology. Fixer had created it by adapting it from blueprints he found in the National Archives, dating to when the Nidu and humans made first contact, decades back. The original inventor was a chemical engineer with ideas of bringing the two races together in a concert that featured humans, with the original versions of the apparatus placed near their tracheas, belching out scented messages of friendship.
The plan fell apart because no reputable human chorus wanted to be associated with the concert; something about the combination of sustained vocal outgassing and the throat surgery required to install the apparatuses made it rather less than appealing. Shortly thereafter the chemical engineer found himself occupied with a federal investigation into the nonprofit he had created to organize the concert, and then with a term in minimum security prison for fraud and tax evasion. The apparatus got lost in the shuffle and slid into obscurity, awaiting someone with a clear purpose for its use.
"You okay, sir?" said Moeller's aide, Alan. "You look a little preoccupied. Are you feeling better?" Alan knew his boss had been out yesterday with a stomach flu; he'd taken his briefings for the today's slate of negotiations by conference call.
"I'm fine, Alan," Moeller said. "A little stomach pain, that's all. Maybe something I had for breakfast."
"I can see if anyone has got some Tums," Alan said.
"That's the last thing I need right now," Moeller said.
"Maybe some water, then," Alan said.
"No water," Moeller said. "I wouldn't mind a small glass of milk, though. I think that might settle my stomach."
"I'll see if they have anything at the commissary," Alan said. "We've still got a few minutes before everything begins." Moeller nodded to Alan, who set off. Nice kid, Moeller thought. Not especially bright, and new to the trade delegation, but those were two of the reasons he had him as his aide for these negotiations. An aide who was more observant and had been around Moeller longer might have remembered that he was lactose intolerant. Even a small amount of milk would inevitably lead to a gastric event.
"Lactose intolerant? Swell," Fixer had said, after the installation. "Have a glass of milk, wait for an hour or so. You'll be good to go. You can also try the usual gas-producing foods: beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, raw onions, potatoes. Apples and apricots also do the trick. Prunes too, but that's probably more firepower than you'll really want. Have a good vegetable medley for breakfast and then stand back."
"Any meats?" Moeller had asked. He was still a little breathless from the pain of having the apparatus sent up his tailpipe and grafted to his intestine wall.
"Sure, anything fatty will work," Fixer said. "Bacon, some well-marbled red meat. Corned beef and cabbage will give you a little bit of everything. What, you don't like vegetables?"
"My dad was a butcher," Moeller said. "I ate a lot of meat as a kid. Still like it."
More than liked it, really. Dirk Moeller came from a long line of carnivores and proudly ate animal flesh at every meal. Most people didn't do that anymore. And when they did eat meat, they picked out a tube of vatted meat product, made from cultivated tissue that never required the butchering of an animal, or even the participation of any sort of animal outside of the purely mythical. The best-selling vatted meat product on the market was something called Kingston's Bison Boar™, some godforsaken agglomeration of bovine and pig genes stretched across a cartilaginous scaffolding and immersed in a nutrient broth until it grew into something that was meatlike without being meaty, paler than veal, lean as a lizard, and so animal friendly that even strict vegetarians didn't mind tucking in a Bison Boar Burger™ or two when the mood struck them. Kingston's corporate mascot was a pig with a bison shag and horns, frying up burgers on a hibachi, winking at the customer in third-quarter profile, licking its lips in anticipation of devouring its own fictional flesh. The thing was damned creepy.
Moeller would have rather roasted his own tongue on a skewer than eat vatted meat. Good butchers were hard to come by these days, but Moeller found one outside of Washington, in the suburb of Leesburg. Ted was a boutique entrepreneur, like all butchers these days. His day job was as a mechanic. But he knew his way around a carving chart, which is more than most people in his line of work could say. Once a year in October, Ted damn near filled up a walk-in freezer in Moeller's basement with beef, pork, venison, and four kinds of bird: chicken, turkey, ostrich, and goose.
Because Moeller was his best customer, occasionally Ted would throw in something more exotic, usually a reptile of some kind—he got a lot of alligator now that Florida had declared a year-round hunting season on that fast-breeding hybrid species that the EPA introduced to repopulate the Everglades—but also an occasional mammal or two whose provenance was often left prudently unattributed. There was that one year when Ted provided ten pounds of steaks and a note scrawled on the butcher paper: "Don't ask." Moeller served those at a barbecue with former associates from the American Institute for Colonization. Everyone loved them. Several months later, another butcher—not Ted—had been arrested for trafficking in meat taken from Zhang-Zhang, a panda on loan to the National Zoo. The panda had disappeared roughly the time Ted made his yearly meat drop. The next year, Ted was back to alligator. It was probably better that way for everyone, except possibly the alligator.
"It all starts with meat," Moeller's father told him often, and as Alan returned with a coffee mug filled with 2%, Moeller reflected on the truth of that simple statement. His current course of action, the one that had him accumulating gas in his intestinal tract, indeed began with meat. Specifically, the meat in Moeller's Meats, the third-generation butcher shop Dirk's father owned. It was into this shop, nearly 40 years ago now, that Faj-win-Getag, the Nidu ambassador, came bursting through the door, trailing an entourage of Nidu and human diplomats behind him. "Something smells really good," the Nidu ambassador said.
The ambassador's pronouncement was notable in itself. The Nidu, among their many physical qualities, were possessed of a sense of smell several orders of magnitude more fine than the poor human nose. For this reason, and for reasons relating to the Nidu caste structure, which is rigid enough to make 16th-century Japan appear the very model of let-it-all-hang-out egalitarianism, the higher diplomatic and political Nidu castes had developed a "language" of scents not at all unlike the way the European nobles of Earth developed a "language" of flowers.
Like the noble language of flowers, the Nidu diplomatic scent language was not true speech, in that one couldn't actually carry on a conversation through smells. Also, humans couldn't take much advantage of this language; the human sense of smell was so crude that Nidu trying to send a scent signal would get the same reaction from their intended recipient as they would get by singing an aria to a turtle. But among the Nidu themselves, one could make a compelling opening statement, sent in a subtle way (inasmuch as smells are subtle) and presenting an underpinning for all discourse to follow.
When a Nidu ambassador bursts through one's shop door proclaiming something smells good, that's a statement that works on several different levels. One, something probably just smells good. But two, something in the shop has a smell that carries with it certain positive scent identifications for the Nidu. James Moeller, proprietor of Moeller's Meats, Dirk's father, was not an especially worldly man, but he knew enough to know that getting on the Nidu ambassador's good side could mean the difference between his shop's success and its failure. It was hard enough running a dedicated butcher shop in a largely vegetarian world. But now that more of the relatively few meat enthusiasts remaining ate the newly arrived vatted meat—which James vehemently refused to stock, to the point of chasing a Kingston's Vatted Meat wholesaler from his store with a cleaver—things were getting precarious. The Nidu, James Moeller knew, were committed carnivores. They had to get their vittles from somewhere, and James Moeller was a man of business. Everybody's money was equal in his eyes.
"I smelled it down the street," Faj-win-Getag continued, approaching the counter display. "It smelled fresh. It smelled different."
"The ambassador has a good nose," James Moeller said. "In the back of the shop I've got venison, arrived just today from Michigan. It's deer meat."
"I know deer," Faj-win-Getag said. "Large animals. They fling themselves at vehicles with great frequency."
"That's them," James Moeller said.
"They don't smell like what I smell when they're on the side of the road," Faj-win-Getag said.
"They sure don't!" James Moeller said. "Would you like a better smell of the venison?" Faj-win-Getag nodded his assent; James told his son Dirk to bring out some. James presented it to the Nidu ambassador.
"That smells wonderful," Faj-win-Getag said. "It's very much like a scent that in our custom equates with sexual potency. This meat would be very popular with our young men."
James Moeller cracked a grin wide as the Potomac. "It would honor me to present the ambassador with some venison, with my compliments," he said, shooing Dirk into the back to bring out more of the meat. "And I'll be happy to serve any of your people who would want some of their own. We have quite a bit in stock."
"I'll be sure to let my staff know," Faj-win-Getag said. "You say you get your stock from Michigan?"
"Sure do," James said. "There's a large preserve in central Michigan run by the Nugentians. They harvest deer and other animals through ritual bow hunting. Legend has it the cult's founder bow-hunted one of every species of North American mammal before he died. They have his body on display at the preserve. He's in a loincloth. It's a religious thing. Not the sort of people you want to spend a lot of time with on a personal basis, but their meat is the best in the country. It costs a little more, but it's worth it. And they have the right attitude about meat—it's the cornerstone of any truly healthy diet."
"Most humans we meet don't eat much meat," Faj-win-Getag said. "What I read in your newspapers and magazines suggests most people find it unhealthy."
"Don't believe it," James Moeller said. "I eat meat at every meal. I have more energy physically and mentally than most men half my age. I've got nothing against vegetarians; if they want to eat beans all the time, that's fine with me. But long after they're asleep in their bed, I'm still going strong. That's meat for you. It all starts with meat—that's what I tell my customers. That's what I'll tell you." Dirk returned from the back with several large packages of meat; James put them in a heavy-duty bag and placed it on the low counter on the side. "All yours, sir. You enjoy that."
"You are too generous," Faj-win-Getag said, as a flunky took the bag. "We are always warmed by such hospitality from your race, who is always so giving. It makes us happy that we'll soon be in the neighborhood."
"How do you mean?" James Moeller said.
"The Nidu have entered into a number of new treaties and trade agreements with your government, which requires us to greatly expand our presence here," the ambassador said. "We'll be building our new mission grounds in this neighborhood."
"That's great," James Moeller said. "Will the embassy be close by?"
"Oh, very close," Faj-win-Getag said, and nodded his goodbyes, taking his venison and his entourage with him.
James Moeller didn't waste time. Over the next week he tripled his order of venison from the Nugentians and sent Dirk to the library to find out anything he could about Nidu and their culinary preferences. This led to James ordering rabbit, Kobe beef, imported haggis from Scotland, and, for the very first time in the three-generation history shop, stocking Spam. "It's not vatted meat," he said to Dirk. "Just meat in a can."
Within a week, James Moeller had transformed his butcher shop into a Nidu-friendly meat store. Indeed, the enlarged shipment of Nugentian venison arrived the very same day that James Moeller received his notice via certified mail that the building that housed Moeller Meats was being seized by the government under eminent domain, along with every other building on the block, to make way for the new and enlarged Nidu embassy. James Moeller's receipt of this letter was also neatly coincident to a massive heart attack that killed him so fast that he was dead before he hit the floor, letter still in his hand, venison still unbutchered in the cold room in the back.
Dr. Atkinson tried to assure Dirk that the shock of the letter in itself would not have been enough to kill his father. James's aorta, he explained, was like a cannoli solidly packed with lard, the end result of 53 years of uninterrupted meat consumption. Dr. Atkinson had warned James for years to eat a more balanced diet or at least to allow him to snake out his arteries with an injection of plaque 'bots, but James always refused; he felt fine, he liked his meat, and he wasn't going to sign off on any medical procedure that would give his insurance company the ammunition it needed to raise his rates. James had been a heart attack waiting to happen. If it wasn't now, it would have been soon. Very soon.
Dirk heard none of this. He knew who was responsible. He had found his father's body, had read the note, and had learned later that the day after the Nidu visited Moeller's Meats, a Nidu representative flew to the Nugentian preserve in Michigan to seal a direct venison distribution deal with the cult, using the information James Moeller innocently supplied in conversation. The Nidu ambassador knew when it came through the shop door that Moeller's Meats would be out of business in a matter of days, and he let Dirk's father give him free meat and information without so much of a hint of what was coming down the road.
It was just as well his dad had the heart attack when he did, Dirk thought to himself. Seeing his grandfather's shop torn down would have killed him otherwise.
History and literature are filled with heroes called upon to revenge the deaths of their fathers. Dirk took to this same task with a grim methodical drive, over a span of time that would have made Hamlet, the very archetype of obsessive-compulsive deliberation, utterly insane with impatience. With the compensation provided by the government for the Moeller's Meats property, Dirk enrolled at Johns Hopkins, down the road in Baltimore, majoring in interplanetary relations. Hopkins's program was one of the top three in the nation, along with Chicago and Georgetown.
Moeller did his graduate work at the latter, gaining access to the intensely competitive program by agreeing to specialize in the Garda, a seasonally-intelligent race of tube worms whose recent mission to Earth was housed on the former grounds of the Naval Observatory. However, shortly after Moeller begun his study, the Garda began their Incompetence, a period of engorgement, mating, and lessened brain activity coinciding with the onset of Uuuchi, an autumnal season on Gard which would last for three years and seven months on Earth. Because Moeller was able to work with the Garda for only a limited period of time, he was allowed to pursue a secondary track of research as well. He chose the Nidu.
It was after Moeller's first major paper on the Nidu, analyzing their role in helping the United Nations of Earth gain a representative seat in the Common Confederation, that Moeller came in contact with Anton Schroeder, the UNE's observer and later first full-fledged representative to the CC. He'd left that behind to become the current chairman of the American Institute for Colonization, a think tank based out of Arlington committed to the expansion of the Earth's colonization of planets, with or without the consent of the Common Confederation.
"I read your paper, Mr. Moeller," Schroeder said, without introduction, when Moeller picked up his office communicator; Schroeder assumed (correctly) that Moeller would recognize the voice made famous by thousands of speeches, news reports, and Sunday morning talk shows. "It is remarkably full of shit, but it is remarkably full of shit in a number of interesting ways, some of which—and entirely coincidentally, I'm sure—get close to the truth of our situation with the Nidu and the Common Confederation. Would you like to know which those are?"
"Yes, sir," Moeller said.
"I'm sending a car over now," Schroeder said. "It'll be there in half an hour to bring you here. Wear a tie."
An hour later Moeller was drinking from the informational and ideological fire hose that was Anton Schroeder, the one man who knew the Nidu better than any other human being. In the course of his decades of dealing with the Nidu, Schroeder had come to the following conclusion: The Nidu are fucking with us. It's time we start fucking back. Moeller didn't need to be asked twice to join in.
Copyright © 2006 by John Scalzi. All rights reserved.