Patient Diplomacy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ben came to interspecies diplomacy by virtue of his skillsets. He had the complex emotional needs of a houseplant and moved less than the average gargoyle. Which meant he was the perfect candidate to sit quietly and meet the new species on the block for inter-species biological compatibility.

Their official term was Species-X42, but already they had been nicknamed Krakens. One joined Ben now, resembling the offspring of a monkey and an octopus. It felt oddly fitting within the three-roomed space-station that had the stylistic interior decoration of a sardine can.

(Image by Marie Ginga via Adobe Firefly)

Ben had been told the Kraken’s name, but it was only pronounceable to mouths designed for filtering krill. Ben knew nothing about this Kraken, not even if they were male or female, or neither or both. With nothing else to go on, Ben named them Nemo. Mentally, it would probably cause an incident if anyone knew.

For this one-week experiment, Ben had been taught enough basic Kraken body language to understand yes or no. Ben had no idea if Nemo could understand him at all, although talking wouldn’t aid the mission anyway.

Ben was sweating, despite the climate-controlled perfection of the plain white room. Nemo was bundled in thick layers which Ben couldn’t tell if they were body or clothing. Either way, they were never removed. Ben was provided with multiple bottles of breathable air, which he used to help mask a smell that could only be described as past its prime seafood.  The two species’ atmospheres were just different enough so that they could share air for small periods, but mostly he would be breathing through the mask for additional oxygen.  The room wouldn’t kill Ben, but it couldn’t sustain him for long. That had been the best concession possible to share the space.

They didn’t touch. Not yet anyway. After the first week, there would be limited physical contact to see what happened. But for now, sharing air would suffice.

They both had their own bedrooms and bathrooms, adjacent to the communal area. It was like living in student accommodation again; if you wanted to socialize you sat in the living room, otherwise you relaxed alone in your bedroom. Nemo spent most of their time perusing a tentacle-friendly digital device that resembled a chrome ice cream cone.

For now, all they did was sit and wait.


Ben had shelves full of books that he had always intended to read, but found himself rereading the same trashy crime series as he always did. This was his eighth mission, and he had survived all of them to start with this very book. Nemo seemed to be peering at it, so Ben held it out for the Kraken to examine with one rubbery tentacle. It was hard to tell with a face like a sushi platter, but Ben thought Nemo was amused by it.


Ben brought out a pack of cards on day two and played patience. He had access to all the media in the world, but there was something more satisfying and distracting about the physical action of handling cards.

Nemo was curious enough to sit next to him and stare for an hour. Ben tried to teach them with a second pair of cards, but it was hard without a language. Eventually, Nemo went back to their device. Ben had a strong feeling Nemo felt uncomfortable about something, but knew better than presuming aliens matched human body language.


On day three, Nemo cowered in a corner whimpering for hours, then retreated to their bedroom. From there came new noises that sounded like a bagpipe caught in a blender. Ben used his noise-cancelling headphones and cried himself to sleep under the blanket. He knew what was happening, had half-expected this to happen, but no simulation could prepare for the impact of having a person die next to you while you could do nothing to help.


By day five, Nemo was dead. This was Ben’s first death in several missions. Ben entered Nemo’s room and saw Nemo’s skin color was already fading to grey, along with what was left of Ben’s hope and cheer. He would have loved to move the body into a hopefully respectful position, but he resisted. Protocol said otherwise.

All Ben could do was sit there and hope that their incompatible microbes only went one way. Spreading disease to aliens was awful, but it was less awful than receiving alien diseases.


Ben had another two days in the habitat with the corpse decaying in the next room.

For the first time, Ben was glad to be breathing through an air bottle, as the decaying smell worsened by the minute. It already smelled like the time Ben forgot about an old prawn masala in the fridge, and it felt unlikely to improve.

This was not the first compatibility test. Minor exposures had been performed on both sides. Apparently, early signs were promising. All care was taken, and there was nothing else that anyone could have done. Yet Ben still felt responsible. It didn’t matter that he understood that inter-species biology was complex and caused unexpected reactions. It was still his body which killed Nemo.

But the objective was met. Humans and Krakens were not compatible. Unlike the other species Ben had met, they would never visit Earth or its colonies, and humans would never step foot on a Kraken planet. All exchanges would be digital, for the Kraken’s own safety.

After the week was up, Ben was sent to new isolation quarters for another month. Apparently, Nemo’s body would be cremated and spread in space.

The new chambers had plenty of food, better air, and a large window where Ben could entertain the theoretical concept of visitors.

Highlights of the brief experiment became prime viewing on both planets. Ben’s heart ached as watched the news to find playing cards were now the best-selling item on the Kraken home world. He wondered what friendship they could have had, and wept.


This story previously appeared in Stupifying Stories.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Rick Danforth resides in Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. He’s had several short stories published in a variety of venues, including Hexagon and Translunar Traveler's Lounge. His story “Seller’s Remorse” was shortlisted for the 2022 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Short Fiction.