In which we learn about sport and democracy
We touched down on the surface of the planet we’d named, ‘Zangerlünd’ with no problems and, as usual we all pressed our noses to the portholes to get the first view of the new place. It was yellow, sandy but there were trees and flowing water. On it stood two of what I assumed must be indigenous creatures. Both were dressed in flowing fabrics. One was tall, maybe two and half metres, and was wearing red. The other was about a metre tall and wearing green. They each had two eyes, one mouth, two arm limbs, two leg limbs and flowing white hair that emerged from beneath their tall caps. They were waving at us, and smiling.
“Well, crew, let’s do what we came here to do”, I said with the confidence and brightness that I’d been taught at Star Discovery Leadership School. Frankly, after the previous first contact shit show on Agragra II where we’d spent two weeks trying to communicate with two very mossy and not at all sentient rocks, I felt neither confident nor bright.
I ordered my science officer and my chief diplomatic officer to accompany me, gave the usual order about regular communications between ship and advance party to the remaining crew, donned the regulation gear, including the universal translator and off we went planet-side.
As it turned out, the tall one was called ‘Barnyor’ and the short one, ‘Yarnyor’ and both were extremely fine guides and, as it turned out, wonderful company. They represented the Harkumstun race who inhabited this part of the planet in what you and I would call a Country or State.
Barnyor spoke first, in a high and quite beautiful voice saying, “Look, rather than mess about with information overload, why don’t we go to this bar we know and get acquainted?” Yarnyor smiled even more widely, nodded his or her head, taking the science officer’s hand and leading the way.
Within a few minutes we were all sitting on very high stools at a long, polished metal bar kicking our feet on the brass footrest. Yarnyor had bought a round of what smelt like aged vodka with a hint of lemon. It was called ‘Speetzi’ and it was the most refreshing drink I had ever tasted. We fell into conversation and soon discovered a deep and mutual love of sports. They have a game which seems at first to be very much like our soccer: eleven players per side, there is an offside rule, there are netted goals and the game is played over two equal halves. However, ‘Pleelnit’ as their game was called was played with two spherical balls.
Yarnyor explained, “One ball is for the left side of the goal and one ball is for the right side of the goal”.
I looked at him or her quizzically.
“You see, you see if the left ball goes into the right side of the goal or vice versa…”.
“Or is saved by the keeper”, Barnyor interrupted.
“Yes, yes, or is saved by the keeper, then the goalie’s side scores a point. However,” and here Yarnyor stood on their stool, “if the right side ball goes into the right side goal, or vice versa, then the scoring side scores one and a half points. It’s all very exciting as I am sure your soccer must be in its way”.
Their form of cricket also used two balls, with bowlers coming in from both ends of the crease simultaneously. As a wicketkeeper myself, I questioned how the keepers were supposed to deal with bowlers charging in.
“With great skill and courage, as is the case for all sports folks”, replied a clearly tipsy Yarnyor.
We continued to drink, answering our communications devices every fifteen minutes as per protocol until eventually the conversation turned away from sport and onto politics.
“We too are a democracy”, said Barnyor struggling a little with pronunciation. “We also have two elected chambers of government: an upper house called ‘The Shatf’ and a lower one called ‘Leibstanglethrum’.
Yarnyor turned to me and as solemnly as he or she could asked, “How long do you leave yours without food or light or heat for?”
I startled at this as did my shipmates. If anything, our elected representatives back on Earth were the best fed and people on the planet. As for being deprived of light, the whole thing sounded like a form of torture not of government.
“You deprive your parliamentarians of food and light? And water”
It was Yarnyor and Barnyor’s turn to look shocked.
“We are not monsters!” cried the taller one.
“Of course they are allowed to drink, how else can they debate if their throats are parched”, said Yarnyor.
I asked for an explanation and my Science Officer disappeared off to the heads and to make our call back to the ship.
Barnyor took up the narrative, “Well, first thing’s first: candidates for government sit general and local knowledge quizzes at a local level. They also stand for local election. Their combined scores are then totted up, and the ones with the most votes and points go forward to the nationally broadcast quizzes with questions relating to general knowledge as well as the knowledge required for them to sit on the committees, select committees and sub-committees of their choice. Once everybody is elected, the real work starts.”
“Drinks? Same again?” my chief diplomatic officer had been playing three-tier pinball with a couple of Yarnyor looking beings, and she appeared to be having a lovely time. We all nodded, a new round of drinks was presented, and Barnyor continued with the Civics lesson.
“Members of each house are there to check on each other’s work and this, like the original work in committee and the floor of the houses, is done in pitch black rooms with only Lfpsis (water) and toilet breaks allowed.”
“Why is there no light or heat?” asked my Science Officer? How can they read anything or make notes?
Yarnyor looked surprised, an expression he or she achieved by raising their eyelids to the point where the headgear nearly toppled off. “Everybody had personal recorders and anything requiring playback is played back in a calm and measured tone.”
“Many are auditioned for this narration work, only a few are chosen”, said Barnyor proudly.
“Yes, yes, yes, luck of the draw. Anyway, this way they have to concentrate on what is being said and not on anything extraneous like dress or painted faces or badges or gesticulations”, croaked Yarnyor.
“Why do you not allow them to eat?” I asked.
“Because all of what they do, most of the legislation and committee work, relates to keeping the people who elected and quizzed them safe and fed. Imagine a place full of people making laws who have no idea what it’s like to be hungry or cold? That would be stupid. How would they be able to do their best work?”
My officers and I fell silent to consider this for a long while, both Barnyor and Yarnyor were immersed in a tight game of Pleelnit that finished 2.5 to 1.5 much to their chagrin. My communication device vibrated and I realised it had been doing so for at least three minutes. This was dangerous, because after five minutes of no-response, the ship was ordered to deploy marines in order to find us.
“Calm down, Janssen!” I barked, “Everything is ok here, we’re learning a lot. Stand down”, I could hear Commander Janssen swearing and telling the other marines to stand down. She was the least subtle of any of the crew members. I turned back to Barnyor and asked, “When do they get to eat?”
“Once they’ve done the work of the day and agreed on corrections to the other house; when they’ve passed or not passed legislation, amendments to Bills and such like Parliamentary activity. Then the doors are opened and everybody goes to a nice warm restaurant.”
“What if there are things they can’t agree on?”
“Then they stay where they are”, said Yarnyor smiling.
“What if they come to a sticking point and can’t agree?”
“Well no, yes, yes, yes. In that case there are two options: option one is the Compromise Box. The problem in question is recorded and the recording is placed in the Compromise Box to be reviewed next year.”
I considered this and took a sip of the Speetzi. My Science Officer prompted our hosts for option two.
“Option Two, yes, yes, they stay where they are until they can come to an agreement.”
“But what if that means starving to death! Or going insane with the lack of light? Or freezing to death?” I was appalled.
Both Yarnyor and Barnyor looked concerned by my reaction and patted my arms and head gently. The taller one spoke, “Why would you want to elect anybody who wasn’t prepared to sacrifice everything for their beliefs?”
“Or to come to a compromise?” said Yarnyor.
My Diplomatic Officer then spoke, “Friends, what kind of person stands for election when they know these are the circumstances in which they will have to work?”
Again, our hosts seemed bemused, “Why, the kind of person who wants to represent the best interests of their communities and is prepared to do so at the highest of costs, obviously”, said Barnyor.
“To be honest, they’re mostly in and out in time for lunch anyway. Most people know how this works. It’s not rocket science really, just politics”, said Yarnyor.
We chatted some more about popular culture (sing-a-long shows were big, reality shows were marginal); food (they liked food, a lot); intergalactic travel (tried it, didn’t really take to it) and relationships (yes please, lots of those) before we headed back off to the ship as firm friends.
We are now heading for the planet Xergis before we finally return home to Earth. Commander Janssen is looking forward to making planetfall as she had heard bad things about the local inhabitants.
This story features in a collection called Lembit & Elika in Love.