Who would have thought that my life would take this turn? I have to laugh when I think of it. I’ve always been a person who laughs often and heartily and, oddly enough, I’m still that way.
I wasn’t very happy two years ago, though, when I realized that if I wanted to expand my delivery service off-planet, I’d be forced to take a full two weeks out of my schedule, go to Jefferson, our capital city, and attend some stupid bureaucrat’s dream of a time-wasting seminar. Why the CEO of a company, even one as small as mine was then, was required to spend precious time…. Well, it’s ungracious of me to complain, considering the results. I was determined to make more of Barrington Express than I could on our backwater planet; even though my planet of Giria Prime had recently become part of the brand-new confederation of four systems, there was a lot more to the galaxy than the Quadrenian Confederation, and I was going to take advantage of my planet’s new status and connections.
So on a bright spring day I packed my bag, told Glenda to hold the fort, instructed my chief operating officer to keep the planes in the air and the packages flowing, and set off for Jefferson, gritting my teeth and doing my best to convince myself that it was possible for my time away to be worthwhile.
You see, I love my work and resented any interruption to it. Back then, I loved what I thought my work could bring me. I had sown my wild oats when I was young and then, enticed by a vision of what I could accomplish, I’d started my company with two girmarks and a dream. I’d rolled up my sleeves with relish. We’d done well, but I knew we could do better.
Which was why, on a sun-filled Monday morning, I was sitting in a classroom with thirty other men and women, all of them CEOs of small businesses like mine, ready to absorb what our new government was requiring for any company that wanted to do business off-planet.
Donnell caught my eye immediately; he was the only non-human there. You don’t see Marcanians too often. I’d known there was a settlement of them on Portus III, in the system farthest out and least known in our tiny Confederation, and I knew that they were stiff and formal, people who had a cultural inhibition against laughing, who didn’t seem to understand how to smile. They were the tight-asses of our planetary grouping. I’d never met one personally before, just seen them in the newsvids.
Yes, I noticed him, but not for any of the reasons I’d look at him today. I thought he was, oh, I don’t know, compelling in a way I couldn’t quite define. Marcanians aren’t all that different from humans in appearance; they all share the same lanky build and straight eyebrows, with dark hair cut close, for both the men and the women. Not this one, though. His sleek brown hair drifted halfway down his neck and curled at the ends, wispy all around, enough to mark him as different not just in this room full of Girians, but among his own people, too. While I dutifully paid attention to what was being said at the front of the room, I will admit my eyes often strayed to those slightly slanted eyes, to the clanmark tattoo on the side of his neck, and to the grave way he listened to the class leader.
I also evaluated the women in the room. My relationship with Gail had broken up badly more than a year before and, rather than immediately go back to dating, I’d taken some time to lick my wounds. It seemed that I still didn’t understand women well enough to make a relationship work, and I was frustrated. My mother, may the All rest her soul, had once told me that the men in our family needed to be married. It’s strange how I always remember her saying that. At the age of thirty-four, I’d finally come to agree with her. I was feeling the need to settle down, and I’d thought maybe Gail was the one. But she wasn’t.
So I examined the seven women in the room closely; I’d been celibate too long and it was time to get back into the game.
At lunchtime I went out with a group of twelve from the class and discovered two of the women were married. But one with us wasn’t. I realized the other men were interested in her, too, and she played us for all she was worth. When before I might have found her flirtations amusing, even a challenge I wanted to meet, I was indifferent to that superficiality now. I sat back and watched the others make fools of themselves over her.
That afternoon we broke into groups for discussion, and Donnell was one of the people in mine. That pleased me. It would be an opportunity to talk to him, get to know how he thought, try to understand the views of the people—or at least the Marcanians—on Portus III, and see if there was a chance of drumming up some business from that planet. I situated myself directly across the table from him and was surprised when he was the first to respond to the initial problem posed by the seminar leader. He might be a quiet, composed Marcanian, but he had opinions and didn’t hesitate to express them. I was pleased to hear his deep, calm voice. It sounded good in my ear. He talked like a reasonable man, and I liked what he had to say. I leaned forward and responded to his comments, and he responded to mine, and though the man next to him interjected something, we mainly focused on what the other had to say.
You see how I was fooling myself. But I honestly didn’t know what was happening, what had started to happen the moment I’d stepped into the room and caught sight of him. I didn’t know myself as well as I should have.
An interminable hour passed—how enthusiastically can eight people discuss the ramifications of accounting tax rules?—and finally the leader called a break. I found the restroom, though Donnell stayed where he was, and when I was finished I bypassed the mid-afternoon refreshments the government was thoughtfully providing with the money they’d charged for this time-waster, and I made a beeline back to where he was still sitting.
I stood at my seat, held the chairback, and said, “Hi, Mister Sil’senson.” That sounded inane the moment it came out of my mouth, since we’d been talking to each other like business acquaintances, but, still, they were the first words I directed to him on a purely personal basis.
He looked up at me, so seriously, and returned, “Hello, Mister Barrington.” I noticed how pure brown his eyes were.
“Call me John.”
He nodded and said, “I will be pleased to do so. You may call me Donnell.”
There was a short silence. I was conscious of the fact that others would be joining us soon and my opportunity to talk to this man might be short. I cast about for something to say to him when he surprised me by saying, in the direct way I was learning was his style, “The election of Commissioner Barton to the presidency of the Confederation was unexpected to me. Did you vote for him?”
Now here was a man, I thought, who knew how to start a conversation. I’d ceased paying attention to the sports scores years ago, and I didn’t care about the latest media sensation, but politics—that was something I could sink my teeth into.
By the time anybody else found their way back to our table, Donnell and I were deep into a heated discussion about what really mattered in our society, about how the new planetary union of which we were a part would hurt or hinder the average businessperson, and about how stupid Barton’s ideas about the tariff were.
Glenda would have rolled her eyes at me. Personal executive assistants have certain rights and she took them all. She would have told me to relax and treat the seminar as a vacation. Well, I was. I liked talking politics and I discovered I liked talking with Donnell. Too soon, though, we were called to order and got back to the official topics of the day. The hours stretched. I listened to the seminar leader drone on and realized I was going to be incredibly bored if this went on. But I was stuck; my company needed that off-world certification. This was only the first day of a twelve-day marathon.
That night there was a cocktail party in a mediocre restaurant hosted by the Confederation Board of Interplanetary Trade, designed to help us get to know one another and of course to establish contacts. Donnell wasn’t there, but all the women were, and I spent the evening chatting up a twenty-eight-year-old who had that look in her eyes I had come to recognize. We retired to a pretty good encounter in her hotel room; I might not have any skill in maintaining a long-term relationship, but I still knew how to perform in the bedroom. I satisfied her, I’m sure of it.
But I left as soon as it was possible to do so without offending her. I think saying good-bye fifteen minutes after we’d subsided against the mattress made it clear to her that this was a one-time deal. She didn’t seem to mind. At any rate, I know she hooked up with a guy from New Pittsburgh a few days later.
In the morning the ubiquitous donuts and pastries were spread out for the attendees to gorge ourselves on before we started a new day, and as I surveyed the display a quiet voice asked from behind me, “You do not intend to partake of the morning offerings?”
I turned around and of course it was Donnell who’d made that comment. He had a cup of juice in one hand and a plastic dish in the other.
I shook my head. “I don’t need those calories.” I tried to keep myself fit and sometimes that wasn’t easy, especially when I spent late hours in boardrooms trying to land another client, or I took all day in one of our warehouses to make sure our employees understood my very high standards for handling every package entrusted to us. I look like my sailor grandfather, with sandy hair and blunt hands, and shoulders strong enough to haul sail on any of Giria’s many seas. But in his later years Grandpa showed every extra pound he put on. I had decided that wasn’t ever going to happen to me. I worked out three times a week and didn’t eat these kinds of breakfasts.
“It is interesting to me,” Donnell said, “how such unhealthful confections became a staple of human diets at events such as this. Most humans I know do not consume them while in their homes.”
I tucked away the information that Donnell knew other humans and had attended other business seminars, and then I asked him what he was going to eat to start the day.
He lifted the plastic tray. “I have located a small delicatessen with fruit trays, yogurt, tanatur, and feshton bread close to my hotel. I intend to frequent it for more nutritious meals than those provided by the government.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Donnell looked like he was about to say something more, but then one of the men I’d had lunch with the day before, an okay fellow named Morris, came up to us and asked me if I’d seen the game on the vid last night. The Marcanian slipped away from the conversation, and I was left alone to admit my total disinterest in sports.
Can you believe that in addition to charging more than a thousand girmarks for the course, the government expected us to do homework? It had been years since I’d had to spend the evening studying, but that’s what I did that night. I slipped into the rhythm of it easily, and even found some challenge in working on the case study, but I hadn’t expected to be treated like a college kid.
The next morning we broke into the same groups again and were given an assignment to work on together. It didn’t take long to realize that Donnell’s approach was the most efficient of any other proposed. I was impressed by his powers of organization and analysis, so during a break where once again he didn’t leave the classroom, I asked him what he did for a living.
“I am chief executive officer of Geodynamic Surveys. My firm provides information to the planetary government of Portus III concerning expansion of roadways and the construction of other public works.”
“You started the company yourself?”
“Indeed I did.”
“So you’re a scientist?”
“I wish I could answer in the affirmative. My days are filled with administrative work, but I was trained as a scientist, yes, and would wish to return to functioning as one sometime in the future.”
I knew what he meant. Entrepreneurs like us needed one set of skills to start a company and a completely different set to make it successful and allow it to grow. I’d started in the bush country on Giria’s northern continent ten years ago delivering food and supplies to prospectors and far-off outposts, flying my own two-seater and loving every moment I had in the air. Since then Barrington Express had expanded a hundred-fold, and I lived in my office, not in my plane.
Donnell was looking at me somewhat diffidently. “What?” I asked.
“I am interested in learning more about your world from a businessperson’s perspective. Perhaps you would be willing to indulge my curiosity at lunch today in the cafeteria?”
I’d been asked out to lunch by hundreds of different people over the years: vendors wanting my business, potential customers wanting to curry favor, friends from college, lovers, co-workers. Heck, my cousin Herman who grew up on the other side of the valley. Then why was my attention suddenly riveted on Donnell and what he was saying? Even now, two years later, I remember exactly how he looked when he asked that and how calmly he seemed to be sitting waiting for my answer. I wondered, at the time, if others had declined his invitations simply because he was not human. Well, not me. I wanted to learn all I could about other races, other cultures, and other planets, and here was my first big opportunity. I would no more have said “no” to him than I would have jettisoned the freight of our biggest customer.
“Sure. If you reciprocate and tell me about the business opportunities on your planet.”
Though he did not smile, his eyes sort of crinkled, and a light danced in them. I remembered what I knew about Marcanians and doubted my conclusion, which was that Donnell was smiling at me in his own special way.
“I believe the correct term is: It is a deal.”