Two months later, Nipu walked into Barry’s office one afternoon to find him on the iBand. He motioned her to a seat.
His plan seemed to be working. From cradle to grave, Earth’s inhabitants were accessible by a planetary communications net that had been refined for the better part of two hundred years. Under Barry’s skillful guidance, the Cacs’kians had become the most familiar and popular alien race with the eighteen and under demographic by the campaign’s fifth week.
Ehrens & Carpano was suddenly the most sough-after marketing firm in Sol System.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve already inked a deal with Pixar,” he was saying. “It’ll be their next feature after the Mushroom Planet film. Yes. Thanks.” He took of the iBand, and she saw his eyes sparkling.
She loved seeing him this happy. “Well, I have to admit that you were right. Everyone’s in love with the Cacs’kians except fried chicken franchises and the National Poultry Association.”
Barry blew out his breath in a great sigh. “Yes, but we’ve still got that one little problem.”
She nodded. “Mm-hmm. All surface and no substance. Now that we’ve got the market penetration, we’ve got no value to add to it.”
“I can’t believe it.” He stood and began pacing the length of the room along the window. Outside was a breathtaking vista of New Manhattan, but he ignored it. “How can a star-faring race have absolutely nothing worth peddling in an interstellar marketplace? I was so sure we’d find something!”
“Give it time. Cacs’k apparently still has about five percent of its rain forests. Preliminary reports indicate a whole slew of interesting plant alkaloids with all sorts of enzymes and compounds.”
Barry snorted. “Alkaloids. Big whoop. It’ll take years of testing to derive anything out of them. And even then, it’ll probably just be something that will cure Twonk’s Disease or hangnails or whatever.” He sighed.
“Worth pursuing but not glitzy, huh?”
“Right. Nothing to sustain the current level of interest.” He smacked the desk. “Dammit, Nipu, unless something turns up soon, the Cacs’kians are going to be as marketable as last week’s chicken salad.”
Nipu stood. “Listen, I have an appointment. Barry, I started the company with you because I believe in you. I really think you have a sixth sense or something. You can smell deals. I’ve seen you do it.”
“Well, I sure have been wrong on this one. I’m sorry, Nipu. I’ve seen the financial projections. I know we’ve got about two months left before we start missing payrolls. Your father will buy us out, and I’ll end up pedaling a cab around Central Park. Or maybe writing spam.”
“Don’t give up yet.” She lingered at the door. “Something will happen.”
He didn’t bother to reply. She looked back to see him settle slowly and dejectedly into his chair and swing around to stare out at New Manhattan, at the busy and prosperous business world he so yearned to be part of.
Three hours later, Nipu presented herself at the main entrance to High Port, the complex of alien housing built on the site of the old Meadowlands Arena. The Cacs’kian Embassy had recently been cleared for visits from Terrans on business, so after a bored-looking human guard checked her ID, she was allowed in.
Here, in a series of variously pressurized and atmosphered domiciles and suites, were housed embassy personnel from star systems all over the Arm. Nipu had taken three or four virtual tours of the place, mostly during her college years, but this was her first visit in the flesh.
Representatives of several races were visible walking among the buildings: some in e-suits, some in armor, a few — from worlds most like Earth in terms of temperature and atmosphere — without visible protection. Cacs’k itself was extraordinarily Earth-like and the sophonts carbon-based, so Nipu had needed nothing more than a universal pathogen treatment from her physician.
Trying to be blasé, Nipu pulled out her memex. “Directions to the Cacs’kian Legation, please.” Beneath her feet, the smartpave displayed a yellow line leading off through the buildings. She set out to follow it. A few minutes later, she approached the entry portal of a large pyramidal structure. Whenever possible, High Port’s buildings were reconfigured to present familiar shapes to the aliens housed within. This one now resembled a typical Cacs’kian arcology, though far smaller.
She was slightly surprised to find the Cacs’kian on duty at the entry wearing an e-suit. By now, they all ought to have received protective immune treatments. Maybe this one’s allergic or something.
“I’m here to see Nuncios G’erk and H’okgon.” She waited while his globe translated it for him. Behind him, the entry opened on a plaza lined with tall orange shrubs.
“Waiting briefly, please,” said the globe in Tanglish. The guard raised his wrist and twittered something into his com-link. The globe couldn’t translate it, as Nipu saw from the violet light it flashed.
“Arriving in just a moment, the Nuncios.” Almost at once, G’erk and H’okgon appeared in the portal, each one accompanied by his own globe.
“Greeting you most cordially,” said H’okgon’s globe as the Cacs’kians moved toward her. Halting at the distance of a few feet, H’okgon bowed to her. His feathery white scales sparkled in the sunlight.
Nipunika swallowed. She returned the bow and murmured a pleasantry, then followed the two aliens as they entered the portal. She waked with a calm, purposeful tread, while her every instinct screamed at her to turn and run.
Stop it, she told herself. These are intelligent creatures. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re your clients, Nipunika! Her endocrine glands, however, weren’t listening to logic. She had not dared to take a tranq today; she needed a completely clear mind.
Unnoticed by the aliens, she clenched her fists and pressed them into her thighs. Despite her fear, Nipu had come to High Port determined to find something in the Cacs’kian habitat to take back and use to bolster E&C’s sagging marketing campaign.
She was entering an antechamber now, with the Nuncios clucking quietly to themselves in that patois the UW globe couldn’t translate. She had been so wrapped up with her fear that she had almost forgotten about them.
In fact, it was odd that she wasn’t feeling more panic-stricken. She had fully expected that being in proximity to the Cacs’kians would give her the screaming heebie-jeebies. Yet, here she was, strolling along next to them as if she consorted with giant chickens every day of the week. Anyone would think she didn’t have a care in the world.
When you slowed down to look at it, though, wasn’t that pretty much the case? If this business scheme didn’t work out, something else would. The company could be liquidated for a tax-loss. She liked Barry’s managerial style and his positive energy; perhaps he and she could put something else together. Of course, her father wouldn’t want anything to do with that. No, Frank Carpano would probably prefer to keep her around as a clerk or something in one of his little enterprises, overpaid, living beyond her means, and dependent on the salary….
Now that she thought about it, Old Frank was really kind of pathetic. He’d never been much of a father; but was that his fault? On the other hand, was it just his nature to be so controlling? Perhaps the poor bastard could un-learn some of those damaging behaviors. If…
She halted in her tracks. Ahead of her, the Nuncios, chatting amiably, realized that she had dropped behind and turned to look at her. Funny, she’d never noticed how glossy their feathery coats were. In fact, the Cacs’kians were rather attractive.
Out of their e-suits. Chatting amiably.
“Nuncios,” she said sharply, walking up to them. “Always before I’ve seen you in protective suits. Today, I notice that you aren’t wearing them.”
“Being no need,” said G’erk. “Passing all your world’s quarantine requirements. Taking much longer than we had expected, necessitating our wearing the suits whenever we ventured out of this compound previously.”
“Presenting unanticipated difficulties,” H’okgon added. “Being unused to isolation.”
“Isolation?” Nipu asked. An idea was tickling the back of her mind. “But you could see and hear each other; you were not isolated.”
The avians exchanged a few rapid phrases in their thieves’ patois. Then G’erk said, “Being deprived of sight or hearing is not the crucial factor.”
“But—” Then the light dawned.
“I noticed how they were acting toward one another,” Nipu said a few nights later. Again, she was sharing a table at Jake’s with Barry. “Not antagonistic, like during the meetings at E&C.”
“Neither one could make a suggestion without the other one stomping all over it.” Barry sighed. “Yeah. And G’erk is supposedly the First Nuncio, but H’okgon hard-timed him over and over. It amazed me that they could work together at all, the way they got along.”
Nipu grinned. “Because they couldn’t smell each other. In those e-suits, they were isolated from each other’s pheromones. It’s how G’erk’s people have managed to dominate H’okgon’s: A species that is not only bigger and stronger than they are, but probably more intelligent, as well.”
Barry eyed her. “So… if you put a few of G’erk’s people in an unruly crowd of other Cacs’kians, the antagonism fades away?”
Nipu nodded. “And it seems to work for all of the species, the intelligent ones. H’okgon’s people have plenty of aggressive tendencies, strutting around like big damn roosters, but they’re also excellent engineers. They’re the ones responsible for Cacs’kian space travel and the materials sciences that make their arcologies structurally possible.”
“Which wouldn’t be socially feasible without pheromones emitted by G’erk and the others of his species to calm those around them.” A certain look came over his face, a thoughtful look that Nipu recognized.
She pressed her point. “You’d never be able to cram two hundred and fifty thousand humans of diverse cultural backgrounds and races into a space like that, no matter how many parks you put in. It would be like a, a henhouse in there.” They both dissolved into laughter.
“But! If you had a Cacs’kian parked in a corner somewhere, or better yet, walking around, like in a crowd, like surrounded by children? It would work. It worked on me.”
Barry shook his head, marveling. “Why didn’t the contact teams report this?”
“They were all spacers, and spacers are bred to get along. With them, it’s genetic engineering, but the Cacs’kians are natural.”
“Well, it’s great, you know, and it’s what we were looking for, but I can’t see how we’re going to market it. People don’t want to be tolerant. They hang on to ignorance. They stick to their own kind, they live in enclaves. It’s, I don’t know, human nature.”
“What we need is more money to study the situation.”
“That’s something we’re pretty short of.” Barry sighed. “I mean, if we go around putting Cacs’kians at strategic places to defuse aggression, it’s all very humanitarian, but the bottom line is, B&E is going to tank. We can’t go public saying that we’ve got foolproof living mood elevators. Everyone would start yelling about human rights.”
“Let it tank. Let it go. We’ll start a foundation, rehire all our employees.” She laid a hand on his arm. “My dad has a ton of money, Barry.”
“Frank thinks I’m a loser. We walk into his office even with world peace on a leash, and he’ll throw us out just to be ornery.”
Nipu grinned. “Well, we’ll just have to invite G’erk and H’okgon to come to the meeting with us. Without their e-suits.”
A.L. Sirois has had fiction published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantastic, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, among other publications. His story In the Conservatory was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has a fantasy novel, The Bohemian Magician, due out in August 2017 from Dragon Scale Books. Other works include a children’s book, Dinosaur Dress Up (Tambourine Press/William Morrow). He has contributed comic art for DC, Marvel, and Charlton, and has scripted for Warren Publications. He wrote and drew “Bugs in the System” for witzend #12, the famous comics fanzine started by Wally Wood. He lives in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus. Together they are writing a Young Adult novel set in ancient Egypt. You can find him online at http://www.alsirois.com/or connect on Facebook or Twitter.
“This Chicken Outfit” was previously published at the now-defunct web site Fictionwise, back in 2002.