Eight Hours

Commander Alexander Towncroft couldn’t sleep. And he hadn’t slept in several days. Earth’s first intergalactic embassy had the unfortunate luck to be positioned right next door to what must be the most unlikeable race on the planet, the Napli delegation. For days now, he’d heard nothing but their drums. Big drums, small drums, drums banging and bashing away outside of his walls. For three days he’d gone to work to their rhythm. And for three nights, just as he felt himself falling into sleep, they seemed to get louder just to jar him awake again. He could only be glad that they hadn’t developed a fondness for the cymbals, yet.

He laid down for what he was sure would be another fitful night, knowing that he would toss and turn and hear the drums. Even a few hours would be better than nothing. He needed to be bright and shiny for tomorrow’s big welcome ceremony with the neighbors. It was an eight hour ceremony and he needed his strength. He could muffle the sounds, but even with a dozen pillows over his head he would never be able to block out the vibrations that were coming through the walls. His head felt like someone had inflated a bouncy castle inside of it and invited the neighborhood over for a sugar-fueled jumping contest. He could almost see the primary colors of it all invading the darkness of his room, but that was probably just the hallucinations setting in.

“Bugger this,” he grumbled as he got up.

He grabbed his boots and cracked the door open, checking the hallway carefully. No sign of any humans around. It was close to midnight by now and most of them would be snug in their beds, secure in the knowledge that their troubles and responsibilities could always be passed up the chain to someone higher than themselves. He didn’t want them to see their commander sneaking through the hallways in search of a good night’s sleep.

The commissary was thankfully empty. Late at night, lukewarm coffee and whatever baked goods were about to go stale were sitting out for those still working. Alex poured himself a glass of milk and took a seat, dropping his tablet to the table in front of him. He leaned over the milk, putting his head in his hands, while he considered his options. He knew that a glass of warm milk was supposed to be good for sleep, but he doubted its effectiveness without a little something added. It was too late in the night to ask the doc to drug him and he wanted to keep it quiet, anyway, if anything on this base could be called quiet just now. The drums seemed to echo off the walls in the empty commissary.

He jumped as he heard someone else enter the room and looked up. Earth’s ambassador, Guo Sung, took a cup of coffee for herself and sat down across from him. Her mug added its own percussive note as she thunked it on the table.

“Can’t sleep?” she asked him.

He hid his milk with his hand self-consciously. “Lots of work to get done before tomorrow’s ceremony. If you’re making me devote a full eight hours to it then I should try and get caught up. Are you sure that I have to be there tomorrow? I don’t think I can take their drums up close,” he said.

Guo took a sip of her coffee and gave him one of her hard stares. “Every species has their own rituals when they live in close quarters with each other and we need to respect them. You never took brownies to your neighbors back home?”

“I guess I wasn’t a very good person to live next to,” he said. “But I did do my neighbors the courtesy of keeping the noise down. I thought the Napli welcome drums only lasted a day?”

“A day their time,” Guo explained. “I had someone look it up yesterday. Their days last about 75 hours our time. Our translators forgot to do the math. You’ll have to put up with it until tomorrow’s gathering, I’m afraid.”

“Great,” Alex said. He was having visions of where the new neighbors could stick their drums until then. And then he had to stop and remember if the Napli actually had any orifices where it would be uncomfortable to stick them. He settled on hitting them over whatever appendages he could identify that might be painful.

“Did you get my report on what’s expected at tomorrow’s ceremony?” she asked him.

He tapped the tablet in front of him. “It’s in the queue,” he answered.

She stood up to go. “Well, take a look at it before tomorrow. They took some pains to accommodate us. I think you’ll find it interesting.”

He played some rousing games of solitaire on his tablet before heading back to his room to pace some more, trying to wear himself out enough to sleep through anything. He paced back and forth in his ten by ten foot room, each footfall adding its own beat to the rhythm coming from next door. He paced in time to the cadence and he hated himself for it. He started to wonder who’s side his feet were on.

He was still awake when the alarm on his tablet told him that it was time to get up and get ready for the ceremony. He ran a hand over his face and made his way to the shower. It was going to be a long day. He hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours each night before the grand welcome party and to describe his temper as “on edge” would be an understatement. Military training, years spent cramming xenobiology and anthropology textbooks before this mission, and half a gallon of bad coffee were the only things keeping him on his feet at this point. He had eight long hours of official ceremony ahead of him and he was in no shape to act as a representative of Earth.

He met the Napli in Ambassador Sung’s office. Guo looked pressed and polished, as always, despite the fact that she’d been up almost as late as he had. The aliens beside her were dark, almost black, with iridescent blue patches, like a raven’s feathers. But they didn’t have feathers. They had what might be described as a membrane. A sort of gelatinous, oozy membrane. Really, they just looked like slugs. Large black slugs with arms. There was something unlikeable about giant, ninja-black slugs that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Or didn’t want to, anyway. He gave them his best scowl.

The drums were even worse as they stepped out into the open air. The Napli drummers lined the way as they were escorted to the ceremony. It took most of the mental energy that he had left, but Alex made it a point to break up their rhythm with his footsteps.

As they entered the main hall, Alex saw the most beautiful sight that he’d ever seen in his entire life. There, in the center of everything, were several four-poster beds. The kind that you see in old movies or especially posh hotel rooms. Around them were the …nests, presumably, where half of the Napli population was already curled up together, asleep. As the last of the Napli came inside to join them, the drums finally stopped. Alex missed them for a moment. Without their steady beat, his body didn’t seem to know how to hold itself up anymore.

Guo must have seen the look of sheer joy on his face. She gave him a smug little smile. “I knew that you weren’t reading my reports. They’re communal sleepers. For centuries, they’ve welcomed newcomers to their community by inviting them into their main halls to rest. You devoted a full eight hours to this ceremony, right? It would be the height of rudeness to wake you before the ceremony is complete.”

Alex nodded as the aliens ushered him into a nice, cozy bed with a cool, fluffy pillow and absolutely no noise. He was asleep before the final words of welcome had been uttered. And he felt very welcome, indeed.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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