Wait on Eight – Al Onia

It took me a week of early mornings to determine the mother wave wasn’t six. Not on planet Qu’aean. Fifth world from an otherwise undistinguished F-star. Huntington Beach, Earth, six. Qu’aean surf zone, eight. At least, my empirical evidence indicated every eighth wave was larger. High tide progressed into my afternoon shifts with the delegation, delaying further experimentation.

I’m an average surfer, the difference in riding the largest wave in a set is huge for me. The challenge to not wipe out kept me engaged in an otherwise mind-numbing assignment. The thrill watching the water wall rise higher and higher over my shoulder pumped the rush.

Mornings are mine. I can’t ask for a shift change to follow high tide. After today, Alpha moon would be at aphelion in its highly elliptical orbit for some time. I’d rely on beta’s influence to hone my skill and keep me sane. Keep me from becoming a DiploCorps hack like Dewey, our disesteemed leader.

Afternoons belong to the delegation and Ambassador Dewey. And when they come, the Qu’aeans. They left me alone in the surf zone, some cellular fear or taboo? I was safer here than in the aquavator.

Eight. Not a hard or fast rule. A guideline. My older brother’s friend from California, Jon Vig, pointed out the rule-of-thumb six when I paddled out with them. The highest crest in a set is usually every sixth. Anticipate it and you can be first up. High water right of way. Pick your line and let the gremmies yield.

I’d studied the shoreline on my own time, sweet effay else to do between meetings which rarely involved the opposition. I hacked into the Qu’aean tide schedule, got the ship’s 3D printer to carve a board and hit the beach.

I floated, legs in the water, letting the minor waves bob me around. The trough dropped and the board moved seaward with the undertow. I didn’t have to look to know a big one loomed. I paddled before the curl lifted me. It grew and grew. The shore shrank below me. If I lived, I’d ride the king wave on Qu’aean. The wave front steepened and I rose to my feet, not breathing. I trimmed a diagonal line down near the base then cutback into the higher part. Repeat, repeat. Into the spume and struggle to shore. I lay on the pebbles, gasping and exhilarated.

Hanz waved from the shoregrass. I checked the sun. I was late. The morning’s breakthrough distorted my notion of time.

Why the rush? The Qu’aeans were in no panic to accommodate our requests. Rather, one major request, humans on the land. We take up residence on the tenth of the planet’s surface they don’t even see. When I put myself in their wetsuit, I speculated what mankind’s response would be to aliens who asked for residency in Earth’s oceans. You don’t live in the water. We’d be in the deeps, no interference with your activity.

Such was our argument. We’ll broaden your diet with our land-based harvest. Help you build tidal power generators. Stay away from your environment, after evaluating the intertidal zone’s resources. We’ll stay well above the shore. Except for me and fellow water-rats.

***

“Ensign Knoll, top button.” Ambassador Dewey admonished on his way past to the breakwater’s end.

I squeezed my collar tight, fastened the brass button and followed the retinue. We boarded the skiff and motored to the aquavator construct, the waves splashing against its clear walls at surface. Ninety percent of the aquavator hung below surface. We moored the skiff and climbed over the wall to take our places within the deeper water access cylinder. The five of us sat and watched the water slide up as we descended to the seafloor. The indigenous kelp danced around our clear cage while we waited.

Dewey wrinkled his nose. “I smell salt.”

“We’re in the ocean, sir. It’s salty.” Captain Maine couldn’t repress a grin.

“Don’t be an ass, Captain.” Dewey stood and walked around our small space. He stopped behind me. “You. Knoll. Have you been washing your hair in the ocean?”

“No sir. Yessir. Well, I had a dip.”

He didn’t explode for once. He seated himself, thumbed the crease in his pant leg, pulled jacket sleeves taut and peered beyond our barrier. After a minute he spoke. “A dip. In the ocean. The ocean we’re trying to convince the Qu’aean’s we have no designs upon?”

“Yessir.” I glanced toward Hanz. He wouldn’t reveal the existence of my board. Not that he was my best friend on the mission but he liked Dewey no more than the rest of us did.

“What do you think their reaction will be to this trespass?”

Damn collar tightened. “I couldn’t say sir. I don’t intrude on their near shore zone. Perhaps if we demonstrated non-commercial…” I stopped. At the visual limit, movement. I strained my eyes, knowing the periphery would be more likely to reveal the next flash. I saw it, forty-five degrees from the first. A glint of grey. Then like a water-borne stampede of four, our opposition swam in circles around us. The Qu’aeans had arrived.

I slipped my notebook to my lap. As scribe, it was my task to note nuances the recordings couldn’t articulate subjectively. The reactions, the facial expressions and the body language. Us and them. Them being longer than most humans are tall, the males rounder, the females slimmer as the species’ dominant hunters, vestigial limbs still equipped with retracting talons capable of slicing prey open from anus to mouth in a heartbeat. I’d learned attack posture from early vids of the ill-fated first expedition who had the temerity to enter the deeps uninvited. Facial expressions were more complex. We’d educated them about human smiles: pleasure signal, not aggression. Qu’aeans didn’t smile but could curl their lips. I had to get over the initial gut fear of the two rows of serrated teeth. The eyes glowed in the darkened water. The eyes and claws feline, the mouth a shark’s crescent. Qu’aean ancestors left the shrinking land millions of years before to become the dominant predator in the oceans. They were intelligent and dangerous. In their element. They couldn’t retake the land we wanted. But we had to observe colonial protocol and negotiate an accommodation.

Two gathered near the hydrophone, our audible communication link. Toowee and Chirpay. We thought they were bonded. Toowee’s belly scars marred the otherwise complete golden fur pelt. We’d speculated childbirth gone wrong, hunting accident or rival pod. She hadn’t shared and we hadn’t broached anything so personal. Two others hovered near the clear wall opposite the hydrophone. I moved my chair to observe both pairs.

Dewey began with prayer. A blessing to Qu’aean’s ocean deities and Earth’s supreme guardian. He tried to forge this first link at each meeting, whether the natives were visible to us or not. I kept head unbowed and watched the four visitors. The two next to the hydrophone chirped in cadence with our Ambassador’s words. The others swam in figure eights, weaving neckless heads in a different rhythm. They played, brushing against each other every fourth loop.

He finished and raised his hands, palms up. A supplication gesture imitated by the Qu’aeans with their short forelimbs. “Welcome Toowee and Chirpay. It is a good day on your world.”

Your world. Good start, I thought. The two water dancers continued their frolic.

“I brought images taken far inland. Areas you can’t see from the water. Images of what desolation lies there.” He signaled Hanz to project the pictures to the screen next to the hydrophone. “You can see the barren soil. Not much to loan us.”

“Why want?” Toowee’s voice gurgled from the communicator.

Dewey smiled, careful not to bare teeth. “It is our nature to adopt the barren and the useless. We strive to make such places habitable. It gives our species validation. Our home planet has numerous similar forbidding areas. We’ve tamed them all.”

He didn’t mention we’d had to, centuries past, to try to accommodate our real issue. Too many people. Not the case here. We just wanted the chance to settle again. Tame because we’re driven to it. Try another new environment and the necessary new set of rules. Maybe this time a winning result. Self-sustaining psychologically and sociologically. Stop the continuous settlement failures.

Chirpay moved her mouth. “What is…tame?”

I keyed my lexicon. No equivalent in Qu’aean tongue.

“I misspoke,” said Dewey. “We make it better. We plant foodstuffs. Vegetables and fruit to feed out settlers. Much as you harvest fish.”

The Qu’aeans did not consume the abundant sea plant life, preferring to allow their food sources to eat and metabolize it for them into higher energy protein.

“We take what is given. Never try to make more. Live on what thrives. Control our numbers.”

Not entirely true. Territorial squabbles between pods involved local shortages of fish or migratory changes. Dewey had best watch his words.

“As do we.”

Liar.

“We subsist on what the soil provides. Here.” A second picture showed the same plot of land now transformed to a tilled field. A third image of green growth, the final a bountiful corn crop. “An ideal crop. Food for us, fuel source for transportation and heat and fertilizer for the next planting.”

He wisely neglected the use as an animal feed. No need to add more mammals into the settlement equation.

“Tame. Change. How do these grow where none grow now?”

“Prudent management of rainfall.”

Full-blown irrigation.

“You would steal our sky-water? Ocean needs replenish.” Chirpay wasn’t letting him off the hook.

“None which isn’t absorbed into the soil now. We focus it to a smaller area, making a small area more fertile.”

“See it. One piece land better, rest suffer. Tame.”

Competition they understood.

“It all suffers now,” Dewey stated. “We benefit an area under no benefit currently.”

Toowee hovered at Chirpay’s back. He said, “Benefit Qu’aean?”

The pair disappeared into the water in a flash. I watched the other two. They’d modified their ritual dance into a more complex pattern. I tried to see the repetition but Dewey turned off the hydrophone and called, “Knoll, I want a full de-briefing. My office. Twenty minutes.”

I continued to observe the dance pair. I envied their ease in the water, a medium one could only touch the surface of here. Territory had been claimed by these creatures. It wasn’t for us, it would never be for me. Twists, turns, inside outs. A cat’s cradle couldn’t be more complicated. I focused on one Qu’aean. There was a repeat. I tried to separate the maneuvers into individual steps but couldn’t, not with the distraction of the aquavator retreating to surface. The wall was a true barrier. Man and Qu’aean couldn’t cross into each others’ habitat easily. Or in our sole case, safely. I’d study the vids later, after debrief. Or as Hanz put it, ‘the Dewey enema’.

***

The debrief team were present, waiting for Dewey to appear in his own office. He entered in a rush; the dragged-out negotiations or lack thereof exacted a toll on his mood and patience. I’d say it diminished his effectiveness but how could you go down from bottom?

“Ladies and gentlemen. We have thirty-three days to reach agreement. The seedglider lands on schedule. My reputation is on the line here, folks. I don’t fail.” He cornered every one of us with his glare. Hard to fathom how he’d been so successful if he imposed deadlines. True, the Qu’aeans were the first fully aquatic sentients we’d encountered. No precedent. No common ground, literally or figuratively.

He returned to me. “Knoll, your impressions of today’s meeting. Why did they leave?”

I dropped into scribe mode. “Toowee and Chirpay reacted to the notion of controlling the environment, hung up on the term ‘tame’. Their instinct finds the concept foreign. ‘Congruence’ would be our language’s closest concept to how they view environment.”

“Explain.”

Hanz, our engineer and xeno-paleontologist jumped in. “The Qu’aeans forebears migrated to the seas rather than attempt to control the conditions which forced them from the land. It’s stuck. They’ve survived millions of years in their current form by adapting to conditions, not changing them.”

“Even so, why should it bother them what we do?”

The room remained silent. No one had an answer. Finally I said, “Faith?”

Dewey slapped his hands. “Maybe the scribe’s right. We’re not dealing with a commercial issue but a taboo. In which case, we all go home and leave the settlers to fend for themselves and break who knows how many colonization restrictions of our own.”

“What’s next?” asked Oldershaw, the physician.

Dewey didn’t look at her. He said, “We test it. Demonstrate we aren’t interfering with natural law, we’re accelerating it. Find me some native plants we can eat. Show the Qu’aeans our techniques to improve production, not replace it. Answers tomorrow. Anything else?” He stared at me. The others.

I said, “While the team works on the agricultural side, I want to study the vids of the other two. I think they were dancing or amusing themselves. From the little we know of their body language, I saw no sign of anger or fear. Pleasure?”

Oldershaw said, “Non-verbal communication?”

I wondered. “That’s a lot to project into what may only have been filling time. They didn’t follow Toowee and Chirpay. They were still frolicking as we ascended.”

“Your suggestion.” Dewey’s attention returned to me. “I expect you to finalize the plan within the week.”

***

The week passed agonizingly. I had no time to surf in the first four days even if the tides were favorable. My video study confirmed a regular pattern in the Qu’aean swim dance but half the time their eyes were closed as if we weren’t the audience. The daily excursion aboard the aquavator brought no visitors. The research on local fauna bore fruit, as it were, but only to entertain us. No Qu’aean approached to speak or dance.

Day five, the tides changed in my favor and I plied my board in early morning rides, working on plans to incorporate Qu’aean faith into our transformation of ten percent of their planet. Ten percent, most of which they couldn’t see. What hung them up?

“Ambassador Dewey, a moment of your time?” I poked my head in the door.

“Knoll. Moments I have in abundance.”

“Have we made progress on indigenous food sources?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. There’s a chance a marine plant or two might be adaptable but it would mean a major sea water operation.” He stopped, letting me conclude the obvious flaw.

“Not conducive to the Qu’aean tenet of using what’s present, in its native habitat.”

“Precisely. What can I help you with?”

“The aforementioned belief system. It occurs to me our base may be an affront to their faith.” I’d come to the conclusion hiking up from shore. The huts we chose to live in weren’t part of the original landscape.

“We’re out of their sight up here.”

“True. But they must suspect when they only see us in the aquavator. If they could view us adapting nearer the shore it might convince them we wouldn’t mold the land to our purpose.” The aquavator was a major compromise which the Qu’aeans seemed to accept but we needed to show less intrusion elsewhere.

Dewey looked out to the dune tops. “It would be interesting to watch their near shore activity. If they have any. What do you propose? We need shade and wind protection. Our thermobags can function for temperature control at night.”

“Native grass for lean-tos and natural dune overhangs for shelter. We can dig in, using sealant to fix the sand in place. Not all of us would need to occupy the space.”

“Enough to convince them we can live as one with the environment. Only need to until we execute our treaty.”

I frowned.

Dewey added, “Of course we’d maintain the front, rotating citizens regularly. Get the crew working on it. If the Qu’aeans are watching, maybe they’ll return to the hydrophone out of sheer curiosity.

***

Our beach huts took two days to complete. We sealed the sand walls at peak sunlight, hoping the Qu’aeans’ sensitive eyes might not see the details as well as they would at night. I found a new surf spot on the other side of the point, out of view of the new digs, just in case Dewey watched. Day three in the aquavator brought our visitors back.

“You move?” Chirpay hung motionless in the water while Toowee performed the intricate pattern dance around her.

Dewey said, “Our inland shelters constrained our study of the ocean surface. We desire understanding and appreciation of all Qu’aean environments. Land, water and the joining of the two.”

He didn’t mention the sky but I kept quiet. We balanced on a knife edge here. Toowee’s pace increased. Anxiety or excitement? I watched for others but only the two speakers were visible.

“Change for you good. Live on the…interface. The right word?”

“Exactly so.”

“Envy.” Chirpay shot to the surface and back, bubbles streamed from her fur.

Dewey said, “You can always view our fields from nearby rivers. If we obtain your gracious approval to proceed.”

Toowee stopped in mid-twist. “No,” the two said in unison. “Never pass shore. Too dangerous.”

“Conditions have changed since your ancestors left the land to return to the sea.” Dewey emphasized his point with a hand gesture. “You wouldn’t have to come ashore, you’d be able to see all from mid-stream. We have plans to adapt your own aquatic plants to the land. We’d be introducing no foreign species.”

Chirpay sprang away from the image Hanz projected. Rows of kelp leading up from the river banks. She closed her eyes and returned close enough to be heard. “Against faith.” Chirpay rubbed Toowee’s fur with her forelimbs.

Calming him? We’d crossed the line once more.

“Accept our word,” said Dewey. “We’ve demonstrated our ability to use only what is given. We can remove this construct if it breaks a taboo. We can leave the hydrophone to communicate from shore.” Dewey grew desperate. Sweat beaded his brow and his face flushed.

The offer generated no response. Toowee slowly circled the barrier. He put a claw to the wall close to me. I pressed my own palm to it. He tilted his head. I reversed my hand, added my other and hid my thumbs. Eight fingers. He scratched the clear wall, then swam back to Chirpay in a zigzag path. Or a ‘Z’ on its side.

She said, “This one. He understands. Take your machine away.” With that, they fled into the depths.

Dewey looked at me. “What the hell was that? How do you understand, Mr. Knoll?”

While I tried to think of a reasonable story, Oldershaw sold me out. “He rides the waves. Surfs.”

I thought I’d seen Dewey’s number one glare but this look speared me through. “Surfs? You intruded into the Qu’aean realm? This is more than a ‘dip’, Knoll.”

Hanz started the ascent and return to shore.

Dewey blinked. Disbelief? I averted my gaze from him to stare into the deeps. Toowee had seen, watched me.

“Incarcerate Mr. Knoll while I determine what, if anything, can be salvaged from this mission. He may well have cost all our careers.” The Ambassador raced ahead toward the beach.

Oldershaw said, “Sorry, thought it’d help if he knew.”

“Uh, yeah. Turns out different.”

Four days in the makeshift brig served its purpose in demonstrating the error of my ways. Contrite or not, Dewey wasn’t optimistic about my next posting. “You’ll find the brig aboard a space vessel more confining than this. Your career in the diplomatic corps is over.”

“You could leave me on Qu’aean?” I offered. Sooner or later someone with more compassion than Dewey would pardon me. A return to the water would be out if we moved in without agreement from the Qu’aeans. Those shark teeth would always lurk below the surface in my imagination.

“Too easy. I swing, you swing, we all swing for your swing.” He sat, the anger changing into something else. Condescension? “Knoll, you think I have a size ten ego and a size two brain.”

Right on both counts, I thought.

Let me fill you in. We can secure what we want from the Qu’aeans without negotiation but by showing up. Our command knows it, the Qu’aeans know it. The Qu’aeans suspect fool Dewey doesn’t know it. So I’ll fumble and bumble along at my half-wit pace and pretty soon I’ll have a deal where both parties win. Saves sewing the seeds for future discontent, sabotage, genocide…what have you?”

He paced the cell. “I’m going out again today. Alone. You’d better pray or whatever ritual suits you, they show up.”

I didn’t know if an offering to the legendary Hot Curl would make a difference but I promised to sculpt a bust of the great-nosed one if and when I got out of here.

***

Two hours later, Dewey returned. “Get up. They want to see you.”

Thank you, Hot Curl. I followed the master from the hut to the dune ridge. I headed for the aquavator.

“Not the skiff, Knoll. Shore. Hanz has your surfboard.” He accompanied me to the beach. “They wait.” He pointed seaward and I thought I glimpsed a flash of gold. I changed into my wetsuit, in front of everyone. Thanks, Ambassador. I checked the swells. Not great, I’d have to work hard.

I snapped the ankle leash in place and waded waist deep before climbing aboard. Don’t think shark teeth, I repeated each time my arms dipped in the water to paddle. The waves were small, I’d be lucky to stand up.

I reached the break point and turned to the shore, feet hung either side. The crew on the beach stood stock still.

Dewey’s voice rang clear. “What are you waiting for?”

“Waiting on eight,” I shouted back. I looked over my shoulder as a decent wave passed underneath. One, I counted silently. I could hardly notice the next few.

Bump. I twisted back and forth. Something ran into the board. Gone now. I was being watched. Or hunted? I swallowed bile and resumed count. Four. A kelp string snagged my foot. I yanked it from the water instinctively then disentangled the mess. Five. Swung feet to keep warm. Not chilled but shivering all the same. Six. I could see a bigger wave building behind me. Seven. Yes the next was huge. The trough dropped board and passenger. I lay on my stomach and began to churn for all I was worth. There was more than me riding on this ride. The board thumped again as I gained speed down the front. I stood, kicked back to the crest and rode cross wave. A curl broke above me and I hunched down, overwhelmed by the cylinder of ocean on all sides. Compressed air blew me out of the tube. The wave lost size and I kicked back. Out from the turbulence, I dropped to the board. Furred heads popped from the water around me. With no translator hydrophone, I couldn’t understand the Qu’aeans’ words but they seemed exuberant. They splashed, breached and curled around me, leading me away from shore.

“Again?” I paddled.

Two hours later, I lay on my board exhausted. I let the waves carry me into knee-deep water and struggled up the stony beach.

Dewey and the others sat on the dry rocks. “They’re still at it.”

I slumped to the ground and watched. Golden reflections body-surfed the waves. They’d ride in a group, then dart back to the formation limit of the breakers.

“Why do they wait?”

“Eight, Ambassador. Not every wave is worth riding. The biggest comes about every eighth time.”

“This is how you spent your days when you weren’t working?” He didn’t look as happy as a man whose delegation had just made a significant communication breakthrough should.

I stretched on the ground, letting the sun warm me. I worked every minute I was out there, digesting the days of interaction and data. I tried to understand them and their world.”

Oldershaw said, “Think you succeeded, Knoll. Good job.”

“We’ll see. Next time they show up at the aquavator.” Dewey rose to his feet and left with the remaining sycophants.

Oldershaw and Hanz stayed behind with me.

***

“Take the main seat, Knoll.” Dewey stood to one side of the communicator.

Toowee appeared after an hour. “Greetings, wave rider.”

“Toowee,” I acknowledged.

He moved his head in a rhythm I couldn’t follow but soon dissected into eight different sequences. “You understand our freedom?”

The water. The Qu’aeans didn’t merely live in it, they reveled in joy in it. Why return to the land? Ever. “I envy your choices. I can only enjoy the surface where the ocean meets the sky. But it is glorious.”

“You have showed us new ways to enjoy. You…play?”

“The perfect description. I can play and work at the same time.”

“The humans need to work. This we see. How do both same time?”

I pointed to my head. “The human brain rarely shuts off, needs to be stimulated constantly. In play, one can immerse in the activity so deep that work thoughts disappear. From the surface. But like my board skimming above you in the waves, there is always much going on underneath. The work keeps going even though I’m not conscious of it.”

“Distinction not understood. All is conscious.”

“The difference,” Dewey whispered. “Qu’aeans process every stimuli in the cerebral cortex, discarding information not required for survival. My thirty second psycho treatise.”

“Humans can’t always absorb vast amounts of information bombarding us,” I said to the Qu’aeans. “We allow a different part of our brain to take the overload and work it out while our consciousness focuses on something else.”

“Don’t envy.”

“You shouldn’t.” Dewey swayed beside me. I knew what he wanted. How would this help our negotiation? Beat the shit outta me.

“Play tomorrow? Let your mind work some more?”

“Yes. I will be in the water tomorrow.”

Toowee shot to the surface.

Dewey shut off the hydrophone. “Another delay? Thought we’d made a breakthrough. Clock’s ticking, Knoll. Where are going with this play-work-conscious-subconscious deception?”

“Damn-if-I-know, Ambassador. But we’ve got another day’s grace and communication is open.”

“We’ve less than a fortnight before the settlers arrive. You better hope your inner mind doesn’t ‘wipe out’, in your lingo.”

***

I searched the files for twelve hours for the right piece. The great plains in North America. 20th century. The autumn harvest when men were more integral than machines. A threshing crew. The stills were black and white, grainy as all hell but showed what I needed.

Dewey stood to one side in the aquavator. “This is your show, Knoll, you take the chair.”

I backed away. “No, Ambassador. I’m the scribe, remember? I’ll take the fall if this doesn’t penetrate the Qu’aean barriers. You get credit if it works.” Appeal to Dewey’s ‘get results at any underling’s cost’ credo.

“Very well. Proceed.”

I began the slide show, projecting the images in full 360 degree panorama so they could be seen from all directions. The Qu’aeans appeared. At first in ones and twos, then we were surrounded.

To his credit, Dewey didn’t falter. This was his wheelhouse. “Your water friend has recovered these images from our history. Our ancestors, like yours, had set ways of doing things. Change happened slowly and over many generations. Mr. Knoll believes you can relate to our ancestors reaping their harvest, as we would on Qu’aean.” He gave me a glare which said it all. Scribe Knoll could be writing his final report. Ever.

The Qu’aeans observed each picture, I had eight, and chirped and tweeted as they images repeated. Many came and went, they became a blur in my memory, until Twoowee and Chirpay remained. Toowee spoke, “We have seen. We understand. If this is the way you can conduct on the islands, we grant permission. May you not starve.”

Dewey held rigid, barely breathing. I mopped the sweat from my brow and resisted all temptation to unbutton my collar.

Dewey hand signaled Oldershaw and she passed the metallic document through the waterlock. Toowee made his bitemark in the foil, then Chirpay did the same.

Dewey spoke about grand cooperation of species who would move from this humble beginning to friends.

When he’d finished, Toowee and Chirpay bowed. Their final request plotted my future. “Knoll stay. Water friend play and teach young Qu’aean.”

Dewey wasn’t happy, I think he still wanted to see me punished in a more public venue but he realized spending the rest of my days trapped here was career punishment enough. The ambassador was a man who did not play.

When we returned to shore, he cornered me. “I guess I should thank you for your part in this. I ground them down, your little show must’ve bored them to tears and they signed off out of pity.”

I had little to lose with him now so I told the truth. “You didn’t study the pictures close enough, Ambassador. Have another look.” I brought out the printed copies and he leafed through them.

“I’m not seeing it.”

I pointed to two. “Look at their faces, what do you see?”

“Forehead tan line on the ones holding their hats. Sunburn or dirt, hard to tell in black and white.”

“Look lower. Their mouths.”

“Bad teeth?”

“Smiles,” I corrected. “They’re working long, exhausting days for little money. They loved it. The Qu’aeans know what our smiles reflect inside. Happiness. This they understand. If we can be happy tilling the land here, they accept it.”

Dewey slapped his thigh. “Noted. Don’t know if I’ll ever run across a similar situation but I will not forget.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Knoll, I don’t know if you’ll be any good over the long term, success this early might be the worst thing to happen. Failure keens the edge more than victory, trust me, I’ve had my share of both and more misses than hits. Stay humble and you’ll have the greater chance to be good and to do good.”

***

Stuck on Qu’aean. Forever? Probably not. I’ve got some apprentice wave-riders surpassing my skill already. The young Qu’aeans have chosen them over me. My first taste of the failure Dewey spoke about. Still, I could have a worse position than official surf god of Qu’aean. I call myself Hot Curl when no one’s listening.

Damn, missed a good one. The next seven would pass soon enough. Contemplate my future while waiting on eight.

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