website design software
Story 3

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and arts journalism. About a hundred of her short stories have been published in magazines, webzines, and anthologies. Her series of humorous space-opera novels, The Webrid Chronicles, is available at most online book retailers. When she's not writing speculative fiction, she contributes columns on classical and indie music to PS Audio's Copper Magazine, and she's on the editorial staff of Early Music America and Classical Voice North America. Learn more at her website,





By Anne E. Johnson


The deep clang of church bells shattered the frozen Sunday quiet. Although Kelnak had been on Earth for a while, she could not get used to religion. She hoped that, when she had more experience as an envoy, alien beliefs wouldn’t seem so baffling.

“I am here ... three months,” she said aloud, struggling to calculate. It was still a great effort to think in Human units of time. Robert Lindberg, her host, had given her a program that showed her planet’s time zone next to that of anyplace she traveled. Kelnak never used it, though, because it made her homesick for Lelika.

“Breakfast, Kel!” Robert called up the stairs.

Kelnak flopped her wide, flat body toward the landing. Navigating hallways of private homes was one of her biggest challenges on Earth. Staircases, on the other hand, were no problem. She simply curled herself up and rolled down.

The church bell clanged again, jangling Kelnak’s nerves as she entered the kitchen. “Why does the church organization not use a silent alarm pulsation to call members to meeting?” she asked.

Like the chimes of smaller bells, Robert’s laughter tinkled above the static of frying eggs. Kelnak had taught herself to recognize laughter, but rarely understood what caused it.

“It is funny?” she asked. Robert’s lips closed. That meant sympathy, Kelnak knew.

“I’m sorry, Kel. No, that’s a good question. Let’s see.” He crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling. The body language indicated that he was searching his mind. “Church bells are such an ancient custom, it never occurred to me that they could be replaced by technology.” He paused to flip over some sizzling pieces of the foodstuff called turkey sausage. His face widened becomingly with a look of consideration. “Please don’t be offended that I laughed. Sometimes we laugh because we’re surprised. Your question surprised me.”

It was generous of him to make the effort. Not every Human bothered to understand Kelnak’s perspective.

Robert sat down opposite Kelnak and spread yellow fat on his twice-cooked bread.

She forced herself to watch him put food into his speaking orifice, an action that would have been considered filthy back home. It was important to adjust to the norms of her assigned world. With his mouth still full of eggs, Robert reached for his cup of coffee. Witnessing him take in solids and liquids simultaneously was more than Kelnak could bear.

To distract herself, she asked another question: “Why do the bell sounds not pertain to you?” She hoped, as ever, that the query was not offensive to her generous host.

“I’m Jewish,” he replied through a mouthful of sausage. “Well, not really a practicing Jew, but I was raised Jewish. The Sunday morning bells are for Christians. It’s a different religion. Actually, kind of the same in that it’s an organized religion that believes in one deity and the essential nature of sacrifice. Also, both use written texts that are considered holy as their….” He trialed off and took a gulp of coffee. “Sorry, I’m babbling. Comparative religion is too big a topic to tackle before noon.”

He laughed. Kelnak had no idea why, but she enjoyed the sound. Then he turned more serious, cocking his head. “So, how are you doing, Kel? You have everything you need?”

For a moment, Kelnak didn’t answer. Robert wrinkled his eyebrows, an expression of impatience or suspicion. “Please, Kel, if there’s something you’d like to say, then say it. Don’t be embarrassed.”

Kelnak checked her internal database for the term. Yes, “embarrassed” was the correct word to describe how she felt. Pushing her medial speech-hole away from the table, she tried to express clearly what bothered her. “I need to demonstrate,” she said hesitantly.

“Demonstrate what?”

“An Azlenk trait. I must demonstrate something special that defines the Azlenk people.”

Robert set down his coffee cup. “Very well. I’m ready.” He waited.

Kelnak waited, too, unsure what was expected of her. When Robert’s eyes shifted from side to side and his cheeks flushed red, she interpreted it to mean that he felt embarrassed, too.

“Do you not have enough room to demonstrate in the kitchen?” he asked quietly.

Now the point of miscommunication became clear. “I did not mean to demonstrate here and now, Robert, but I thank you for the opportunity. You see, in order for me to be raised to a higher place of honor upon my return to Lelika, I must share a trait so that multiple Humans can learn more about the Azlenk.”

“Interesting,” he said. “And what are some Azlenk traits?”

“The most distinctive one is ada-ita,” she replied immediately. Then, feeling foolish for even mentioning that custom, she curled in her corners. “Obviously, I could not fulfill ada-ita away from my home planet.”

“Why not? What does it entail?”

She was touched by his curiosity. “It is the final, most enlightened trait. The trait of sacrifice. When an Azlenk performs this trait, he or she is filled with a profound sense of goodness.”

Robert took a big swallow of coffee. His eyes were wide and eager. “What does that feel like?”

“I do not know. I have not yet achieved this loftiest trait.” She curled her corners in tighter.

“Well, not everyone is cut out to be the sacrificing type.”

Shifting with discomfort―both the topic and the Human chair she sat on made her squirm―Kelnak corrected him. “Ata-ita is required of every Azlenk. Those who do not accomplish it are ostracized.”

“Oh! Well, we don’t want that.” As if he realized his tone was too flippant, he asked earnestly, “What do you have to sacrifice?”

“That is different for each person. The only requirement is that it be a true, life-changing sacrifice for the practitioner, and a true, life-changing boon for the recipient.”

Robert took a bite of eggs. “When you say ‘requirement,’ do you mean that the authorities judge it? The same people who you’re trying to impress to give you a promotion?”

Twisting her upper quadrant in an attempt to mimic shaking her head, Kelnak corrected her host. “No, I am sorry I compared the ada-ita with ordinary traits. One’s ada-ita is judged internally.”

“Meaning what?”

“When I eventually accomplish ada-ita, I will produce a chemical we call nez. It changes one’s metabolism and the texture of one’s flesh, and it has calming properties. There is no artificial version possible.”

“Fascinating!” Robert gushed. He carried his dishes to the sink. “Who are you supposed to do this sacrifice for? Anyone?”

“Someone who has shown you kindness, usually a family member or long-time friend.”

“I can see that’s not going to work on a short trip to Earth.”

“That is correct.” Kelnak was relieved he understood. “I shall choose one of the lower traits to demonstrate. Could you, perhaps, help me find a suitable time and place for this effort?”

Robert bobbed his head forward and back, indicating agreement or comprehension. “Let’s take you to the University,” he offered. “My colleagues are forever begging me to bring you in again. Most of them only met you when you first arrived from Lelika.”

Kelnak tried not to feel homesick at the sound of her planet’s name. Even pitched flatly on the Human tongue, the word moved her. But she was not even one-quarter through her assigned visit, so she knew she must be strong and patient. “I thank you for your generous understanding, Robert,” she said. “When may I accompany you to the University?”


Two nights later, Kelnak rolled and folded herself into Robert’s car. “We didn’t do a public announcement,” he explained as he drove. “I expect maybe thirty faculty and grad students will be there. They’ll all make videos, of course, so whatever you teach us will be around the world by bedtime. Sound okay?” He took his eyes off the road long enough to shoot her a smile.

“Yes,” she half-lied, mainly to refocus Robert’s attention on the operation of his car. In truth, Kelnak had hoped for a much larger audience. It required a lot of evidence to impress the Promotions Committee at her envoy company on Lelika. She feared that thirty witnesses providing amateur video and commentary would not suffice. She should have planned this better. She was ashamed.

“What are you going to show us?” Robert asked. “Can I get a preview?”

Kelnak used the sticky border of her body to pull herself into a slightly less uncomfortable position. “I plan to perform zeztez.”

Zeztez,” Robert repeated as they waited at a stoplight.

“It is a trait.” Kelnak was aware that the word “trait” was inadequate. “It is a customary mode of behavior.”

“Okay,” Robert coaxed. “I’m not sure what you mean. Can you describe it?”

She considered. It was exhausting to put into alien words knowledge that came instinctively to her. Still, Kelnak figured that this difficulty was part of her task. If she wanted a promotion, she would have to earn it. “With zeztez I give the power of decision,” she said.

“Give the power to whom?” Robert asked.

 “To one whom strong choice eludes.”

She waited. Robert chewed on the corner of his mouth, a sign of serious contemplation. Finally he spoke. “Do you mean that you will find someone who’s having trouble making a decision, and give him or her the power to make that decision?”

“Yes!” cried Kelnak. Her body billowed with delight at his perceptiveness and clarity. “You explain it well,” she said, trying to still her flesh.

“Is this like hypnotism?” he asked.

Checking her database for that term, Kelnak found that zeztez was somewhat similar to hypnotism. “It is a wave I emit to open the mind to possibility which exists already within it.”

Robert nodded his head. “Amazing. Have you done this before?”

“Many times, yes.” Kelnak thought of her growth-mate, Klin, in particular. Klin had been unable to decide whether to become a physician or join the Planet Mission Team. He was now a successful physician. “I have helped friends.”

“It sounds like a very useful skill,” said Robert.

That was the best thing anyone could have said to her. Not for the first time, Kelnak wished she could emulate a Human smile. But that was impossible, since her five speech-holes, scattered across both sides of her flat body, simply could not form that crescent shape.

Robert pulled his car into a large area where many other cars sat immobile. He steered between two of them, stopped and switched off the engine. “I’m sure you’ll be great,” he said, showing his teeth and exuding empathy.

Kelnak hoped he understood how grateful she was.


The performance of zeztez was a disaster. The volunteer was a man who could not decide what to give his wife for their anniversary. Kelnak worried that it was not a momentous enough decision to spark a zeztez mindwave transfer. But the assembled Humans assured her that it was very important indeed.

The indecisive subject, Professor Yang-qiang Bei, sat on a chair at one end of the conference table. Kelnak crawled onto the tabletop, creasing her body many times to intensify his focus.

“She looks like a lasagna noodle,” someone whispered, as if Kelnak couldn’t hear. “More like a road map,” said someone else.

Then she heard Robert breathe out a dental affricate, an urgent instruction for silence.

Once the spectators were quiet, Kelnak tried to open Yang-qiang’s mind, to let him see and follow his best course of action. Yet, no matter how she tried, she could not open that mind. She could not even find its energy in the room. On her last attempt, Kelnak heard a high, rhythmic bleating from her audience. This she recognized as unfriendly laughter. At that point, unfurling her body, Kelnak was shocked by a terrible realization: the energy waves of a Human brain were not compatible with zeztez.

“I am embarrassed,” she moaned on the way home. “I am ashamed.” She checked her database for another word. “I am mortified.”

“Aw, Kel.” Robert’s melodious tone was meant to soothe her. “It’s not that big a deal. Nobody minds that the experiment didn’t work.” She recognized his tone as commiseration. “Hell, old Yang-qiang should just take his wife on a nice weekend getaway.” He smiled at Kelnak. “Seriously, don’t judge yourself so harshly.”

“It is my superiors who will judge me harshly,” she said, pressing a segment of flesh against the car window and absorbing optical information with her nerve endings. She looked at the houses and shops, so different from what she considered normal. A wave of homesickness overtook her.

Once they were back at Robert’s place, he served her a pile of sliced roast beef. “Come on, eat something,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

Although Kelnak was not hungry, she swept up a slice of meat with a sticky flap and plastered it against herself. “I shall try again later,” she declared as she absorbed the fat and protein.

“That’s the spirit!” Robert stretched his arms out to the sides and yawned. “I’m going to bed. Listen, you were really brave tonight.” With a few fingers he tapped lightly on a fold of her flesh before bounding up the stairs.

Such contact was strictly forbidden by the Lelika Envoy Contract. Still, Kelnak found the sensation pleasurable. She searched the database. “Heart-warming,” she said to the empty kitchen.

She worried she might never get a trait to work on a Human subject. She might not receive that promotion. In her daily recording of thoughts―this would become her official report when she returned to Lelika―she tried to explain the problem of mind energy. “Somehow I’ll find a trait I can demonstrate successfully,” she promised the recorder. She didn’t believe it.

For days Kelnak moped around. Robert tried to draw her out, to comfort her, to amuse her. She did not respond, going against all her social training as an envoy. She was, in Earth perceptions, being rude, but she couldn’t help it. Her whole job seemed pointless if she couldn’t teach aliens about the Basic Traits. They were the most important aspect of Azlenk society, after all.

Kelnak’s homesickness tore at her. Several times a day, when she should have been out among Humans, she folded herself into Robert’s back yard shed and leaned against her corporate transport module. It was tempting to slide into it and just leave. But that would be the end of her career. She’d probably never get to travel again. She’d heard a Human expression about “burning bridges,” and that seemed to apply here. Although her visit to Earth was not working out, running away would be worse.

One morning when Kelnak rolled into the kitchen, thinking she was alone in the house, Robert stalked in. With the corners of his mouth lowered into a sign of displeasure, he pulled out two chairs for Kelnak and one for herself. “Sit, please.”

He stood over her until she bunched up and balanced on the chairs. Rather than sitting, he paced. Kelnak read his agitation.

“Kel,” he began, “I like you. I want us to get along. But for this to work, you need to communicate with me. Something is clearly wrong. Let me help you.”

With more purpose than she’d felt in a while, she said, “I still need to demonstrate a trait, Robert. However, the mind energy levels from Humans are not compatible.”

“I think that may be an insult!”

Momentarily horrified, Kelnak studied Robert’s face and saw the half smile and intensely gleaming eyes signifying humor. She decided he was not angry.

“What are our options, as far as traits go?” he asked.

“The atiz is a trait of strength.”

“Physical strength?”

“Yes. That is an ancient trait, from before the age of machines.”

“You lift something for someone when you demonstrate this?”

“No, you imbue another with the strength to perform a particular task.”

“Ah-hah.” The way Robert looked at his hands showed his discomfort.

“As I say,” Kelnak continued quickly, “machines have replaced the need for this trait.”

“Still, you could demonstrate it. Get some weakling like Professor Merris to lift up a car.” He laughed, but she didn’t know why.

“The same mind wave problems would prevent a successful demonstration.”

“Ah. Any of your traits don’t need our mind waves?”

Kelnak had already given this a lot of thought, but decided it would be good to talk it through with Robert anyway. “There are two other traits, both facing the same issue. Leet causes understanding of another’s perspective.”

“For ending arguments?” Robert smiled. “Wow, could Humans use that one!”

Hearing that reaction made Kelnak’s disappointment even keener. “Sadly, I fear....”

“It wouldn’t work, for the same reason. I get it. There’s one more, you said?”

“Yes. Zeltiz turns followers into leaders. Again, it requires mind energy.”

Robert bit his fingers, a disturbing habit that indicated stress. “I have to say, it’s maybe just as well you can’t do that one.” He pushed his brows and mouth together asymmatrically.

“May I ask you why you are expressing…” She checked her glossary. “Consternation?”

His face relaxed into a grin and he laughed. “I was picturing the mindless sheep that make up most of Humanity, suddenly with the power to lead other people. Honestly, it scares me. Most people are not fit to lead. Even a lot of leaders aren’t fit for it, but the sheep are scarier.”

“I apologize for scaring you. I apologize also for being unable to demonstrate any traits.” She thought again of her disappointed bosses back home.

“It’s not your fault, Kel. Our species just aren’t compatible in that way. No reason we all can’t still be friends.”

Kelnak knew that letting herself feel hopeless was her worst failure yet. But she couldn’t help it. “Won’t you please excuse me, Robert?” She slid off her chairs and folded and unfolded her flesh until she reached the stairs.

As she dragged herself up the first step, she heard Robert say, “You know, Earth couldn’t ask for a nicer ambassador. I think you’re doing a great job.”


Kelnak flopped onto her bed. The mattress was the size they called “Full,” but it was narrower than her unfurled body. “This is typical of my residency on Earth,” she said to the ceiling. “Humans always want me to be comfortable, but it is never quite right.”

She started imagining how she would word her resignation letter. “Being unable to demonstrate any of the essential traits of our species, I believe it best if I....”

The front door slammed. Kelnak heard the soles of Robert’s shoes flapping on the concrete. She wondered what pleasant Human errand he might run on a summer afternoon: a trip to the grocery store? Picking up a book at the library? In the driveway, the car engine growled quietly to life.

“Maybe he’s driving far away,” she thought miserably. “He probably needs a break from harboring a useless alien who can’t even use a fork.”

Rolling off the bed, she peered out the window at the aluminum shed out back. In that shed was her ride home. Just enough energy for one trip. No changing her mind. Kelnak rolled down the stairs, thinking, “If I don’t get out now, I’ll never find the nerve again.” She accordioned herself out the door and waddled toward the shed. “Robert will see that the ship’s gone. He’ll understand.”

She opened the shed’s double doors. There it was, her gateway to home. All she needed to do was flatten out and slide inside. Her own mindwaves and the surrounding lightwaves would be converted to sufficient energy to transport ship and rider. “Maybe they’ll arrest me when I get there,” she acknowledged, “but at least I’ll be in my own world.”

Attaching her sticky side to a thin strip of sensors, Kelnak activated the ship’s primer cylinder. In a few minutes it would be ready to transport the shamed envoy back to Lelika.

A horrible noise tore Kelnak out of her self-pity. Squealing tires. Two sets of them at different pitches. Screaming brakes. The slow crunch of metal giving way to metal.

Without thinking, Kelnak opened to full width and caught the air. She wasn’t supposed to speed-fly on Earth, but some instinct had taken over. She found the accident right away, at the corner two blocks from Robert’s house. A big, brown van sat crooked, one wheel in the gutter, steam pouring from under its hood. A man in clothing the same brown as the van staggered in an oval, rubbing his head.

Just beyond the van, crushed like paper, was Robert’s small car. People were gathering, talking, pointing. No one was helping him. Kelnak swooped down close enough to see him. He was disfigured, broken, gnarled. A hint of the person called Robert, under layers of blood and gore. They weren’t helping him because there was nothing they could do. By the standard of Human measure, he was no longer alive.

But Kelnak’s society was much more medically advanced. She knew that doctors on Lelika could heal anything, even alien tissue. He had to get Robert to Lelika immediately. There was only one way to do it.

Using half her body as a sling, she swept him up from the wreckage and flew his limp, bloody carcass back to his house. When she landed in front of the shed, she found the transport ship ready for energy transfer. It took a minute to figure out how to use her own energy to power the ship for someone else.

She did this by inserting half her own body for the first cycle of conversion, as was the normal procedure. At the cycle-end alarm bell, instead of sliding all the way in, she pulled out, numb and shaking. Into the door she pushed Robert, who barely fit. The machine’s walls were so tight on either side, they kept him upright. It was surreal to see him standing, yet clinically dead. Kelnak knew he couldn’t hear her, but she spoke anyway. “You will be all right, Robert. My people will heal you. I give you this journey in friendship.”

The ship buzzed. Its image blurred for a second. Then it was gone.

Kelnak looked at the empty shed. A trace of sadness touched her, but was instantly blasted out by a flood of joy. Absolute ecstasy, a feeling of supreme being. Ada-ita. The trait of sacrifice. The final trait. Kelnak let the almost painful happiness rage and roil through her.

When the extreme sensation faded, Kelnak was enveloped in the greatest peace she had ever known. The Envoy Corporation would not send another ship for her. They did not have the resources. She might have to live out her life here on Earth. But Robert would get well. Of that she was sure.




[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]

Copyright © 2018 by 4 Star Stories. All Rights Reserved.