THE FINAL TRAIT
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
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
“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
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.
“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
“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
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.”
“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
“Fascinating!” Robert gushed. He carried his dishes to
the sink. “Who are you supposed to do this sacrifice
“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
“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
“It is a trait.” Kelnak was aware that the word
“trait” was inadequate. “It is a customary mode of
“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
“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
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
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,
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
“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
“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.”
“Yes. That is an ancient trait, from before the age of
“You lift something for someone when you demonstrate
“No, you imbue another with the strength to perform a
“Ah-hah.” The way Robert looked at his hands showed
“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
“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
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
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.