by Mark Sachs
The day the world of Ik stood still was a quarter of a year ago.
One summer afternoon a bulbous, futuristic spacecraft dropped through the burning cloud decks which blanketed the planet’s southern continent, pierced the methane-spitting seasonal monsoons, and set down with perfect accuracy on the front lawn of the King of Ilik’s summer palace. The spacecraft landed so gently it barely even bent the razorgrass, but nevertheless its impact radiated outwards like the blast front of an atomic bomb. The wars and religious schisms and general noise of the world halted in its tracks. Thousands of citizens of the city-state of Ilik swarmed the palace, pushing past soldiers who didn’t dare raise a claw against them with who-knows-what watching, intent on seeing and touching the alien ship. Every videodrome in the world switched to the live feed coming over the landlines and telegraph cables from Ilik. Eighteen billion people held their breaths.
Then the door opened and the ramp lowered and the aliens came out.
And they were nice!
The aliens -- the “humans,” as they called themselves -- said they had heard Ik radio transmissions from their own planet and had come all the way across the stars to say hi, which most people agreed was very flattering. That got things off to a good start and even a quarter-year later the humans were still the sensation of the age. Everyone wanted to know about the huge, shy, gracious creatures’ advanced technology (so science-fictiony!) and their strange customs (so fun to gossip about!) and their weird foods (so disgusting!) Humans were, not to put too fine a point on it, where it was at. Everybody knew that.
Mili in particular knew it very well. She was just one dissertation from completing her novitiate at the Convent of the Three Martyrs and she was absolutely certain it had to be on humans. But of course everyone else in the convent was thinking the exact same thing. One more paper full of uninformed speculation would just get lost in the crowd... unless she could get her information straight from the source. Unless she could interview a human herself. It’d make her a star, she knew it.
It wouldn’t be easy to get a human to talk to -- they were reticent creatures and even now any time one appeared in public it was big news -- but Mili had done her homework. She had telephoned the Human Embassy, a complex of brand new ten-story towers (complete with the high ceilings and air conditioning the aliens craved) thrown up almost overnight by experienced Ik builders; they had seemed agreeable, or at least they hadn’t said no. At the very least, they’d promised to consider her request to interview a human.
Promised to consider! Mili had been walking on the clouds for the rest of the day after she heard those beautiful words; the aliens used such elegant turns of phrase! She had called the embassy back every day after that, each time being politely reassured that yes, her request was going through the appropriate channels, and each time it put a song in her heart. She wrote and rewrote her outline, organized and reorganized her list of questions, practiced the strange alien language endlessly. (“Inglish” had spread like wildfire. Everyone who was anyone was teaching their young the language of the aliens; it would be vital in the glorious future of the Ik, when the two species strode claw-in-grasping-appendage among the stars.) She was ready. She was so ready that she felt like she might explode; she barely slept, and jittered all day with excitement, and her friends had endless glee at her expense.
But then, everything had changed. One day the embassy had called her, and said that the interview would not be going forward. Scheduling conflicts. You understand. Well, could they reschedule? Unfortunately not. They wished her the best of luck in her work, and hung up. She called them back – clearly the line had been interrupted, perhaps it was a screw-up at the telephone company, perhaps the True-Rellem across the sea were getting frisky and had detonated another electromagnetic pulse bomb? Undoubtedly that’s what had happened – but there was no answer, and there never was again.
Mili had spent days in an ecstasy of depression, barely eating, missing deadlines, long enough for her friends’ sympathy to turn to exasperation and mockery. But when she finally brought herself to interact with the outside world again, she learned that she wasn’t the only one who had been stood up by the aliens. Public appearances were canceled. Cooperative research projects stopped. The humans hurried back into their embassy and slammed the gates; the constant crowds of rubberneckers from all over the world eager to see an alien first only saw the stern, silent human soldiers in their green uniforms, and then saw nobody at all. Government and church officials were tight-jawed, the videodrome announcers speculated endlessly, buzzing clouds of ornithopters flew in and out of Ilik’s administrative centers. The rumor was that the aliens were unhappy. What could have caused it? How could it be fixed? Most importantly, how could Mili write her paper if her primary sources refused to talk to her?
She was practically chewing on her own antennae at this point. I can’t just sit in my cell and watch my whole future evaporate. I have to do something or I’ll go mad.
Feeling decisive, Mili threw on a colorful shawl over her day-dress, screwed on her best claw tips, put her rucksack over her shoulder and stormed out of the dormitory, ignoring the cheerful insults of her fellow trainees. It was sprinkling rain, the overcast chilly and promising winter, but she didn’t care. She had a mission.
Someone has to find out what the deal is with the humans.
Why not me?
The plan was, admittedly, nebulous when it came to the details. But Mili figured the best way to start would be at the Human Embassy itself. The complex was only a few miles from the convent in a prosperous neighborhood of Ilik’s Upper City, so she decided to walk instead of hiring a pedicab. She wasn’t even halfway there, though, before she realized that the district -- normally quiet in the middle of the workday -- was unusually crowded, filling up with excited people headed for something several blocks from the Embassy itself. Uncertainly, she followed them.
…Oh. Well, isn’t that lucky.
There was a human, right there in the middle of the street.
She was pretty sure this one was male, as Ik and human sexual dimorphism were very similar (which had inevitably led to some fairly disgusting pornography, but never mind that.) The human was easy to pick out of the rapidly growing crowd surrounding him, since he had the extraordinary height of all his kind – he was over two heads taller than the people surrounding him. She couldn’t make out much else: he was dressed in a long coat, wore glass instruments over his eyes, and even had a white mask strapped over his mouth and nose. The shaggy brown mane on his head concealed what little of his pale face was left. The aliens were shy and secretive, but this was a bit excessive, wasn’t it?
Even as she watched, more people were flooding into the square. The onlookers were naturally curious and excited, calling out greetings and questions in the various Ilik dialects, and occasionally attempting a few words of Inglish as well. The closest Ik were reaching out to touch the human’s garments or his face. But the human didn’t seem to appreciate the attention: alien or not, she could identify agitated body language, as he twisted back and forth, seemingly looking for a way out. At any moment he might start thrashing the crowd with his powerful upper limbs, or something…
What an opportunity.
Mili reached into her knapsack, produced her crime whistle, placed it in her mouth and blew. The piercing tone silenced the square, and even the human looked up, startled.
“Make way! Make way!” she called out with a loud, firm tone as she waded into the surprised crowd. Don’t give them a chance to think. Keep moving and look like you’re supposed to be doing what you’re doing, and you can get away with anything. People backed off as she approached the center of the maelstrom.
Mili was a little shorter than average, and up close the human towered over her. He looked down at her with his small but shockingly blue and wide-open eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she said in Inglish. “I’ve come to get you out of here.” She firmly put one arm around his elbow and the other on his back, and started to chivvy him towards the side of the street; shellshocked, the human didn’t try to stop her.
“All right, show’s over, everyone!” Mili called out in her own language as she maneuvered the enormous alien through the momentarily-compliant crowd, herding him towards the doors of a nearby café. “We appreciate your interest, but please send any questions you have to the Human Embassy. Our friend is just trying to enjoy a nice day out on the town.”
Mili paused a moment at the door and looked back at the mob, sensing its uncertainty. Yes, of course.
“He says: Thank you for making him feel welcome in Ilik! This is the best city in the universe!”
A woman nearby who had a small child hanging onto her shoulders started to applaud. Another man joined in and soon the entire crowd was stomping and cheering. She smiled at the multitudes, pulled the café door open, stuffed her unresisting prize inside and closed the door behind them.
Even by Valery Timoshenko’s standards, he was having a bad day.
He was no diplomat or soldier. He wasn’t even in the military; he was a civilian contractor whose job it was to help maintain the computer networks on board the UNSC Adam Renault. It was by order of his employer, not by choice, that he had been on board the spacecraft as it exercised its still semi-experimental traverse drive, a technology so advanced that the Security Council continued to hold it under the strictest classification. But come along for the ride he had, and then the stupid, stupid thing with the shuttle happened, and then they’d spent months on their own among what every scientist insisted was so unlikely as to be almost impossible: intelligent, technologically developed aliens. Months while politicians back home dithered, until when they finally made their decision everything switched from “wait” to “panic” overnight. Then one on a long list of oversights: equipment had been accidentally left behind in one of the Ik universities, or whatever they were, and no one available on the skeleton staff to go get it but poor Timoshenko.
Who had promptly gotten lost in an alien city.
It didn’t help that he was afraid of insects. The Ik were small creatures, superficially similar to humans in body structure but wrapped in shiny, dark carapaces. They had huge, jet-black eyes, mandibles that opened and shut constantly, and twitching antennae perched on their hairless heads. Vicious claws where hands should be completed the bug monster ensemble. And they were everywhere.
He hadn’t made it far into the city. Once the creatures had properly caught sight of him they swarmed him, heaving mounds of shiny carapaces in all directions. Their bodies’ acrid smell choked him even through his mask, overwhelming air already polluted with diesel smoke from the aliens’ antiquated ground vehicles and the hot, fetid drizzle of rain. They were all around, chittering incomprehensibly, reaching out with their claws --
A piercing whistle broke through the noise and silenced the crowd. Valery twisted around and saw one of the creatures, wearing a drably-checkered shawl, elbowing through the crowd, speaking loudly in the native language. It -- no, he quickly amended once he could see the creature’s entire body, she, quite definitely she -- strode right up to him and stretched up on tiptoe, which brought the top of her head up to the middle of Valery’s chest.
“Don’t worry,” said the alien in surprisingly good English. “I’ve come to get you out of here.”
And she did, although there was a bad moment at the end where she said something to the crowd and they all erupted in shouting and stomping, but before anything violent could happen she shoved him through a doorway -- he had to duck his head to avoid cracking it on the lintel of the child-sized portal -- and then they were safe.
Or… safer. Valery stared around, eyes taking a few moments to adapt to the dim lighting indoors. The narrow, low-ceilinged space had broad glass windows and was filled with undersized furniture, some of which was secured to its back walls. Several sets of tables had surprised-looking insects clinging to them and staring or chattering to one another in the native language. A long counter was piled with bowls of revolting substances and entangled in lengths of metal tubes and piping, and behind it stood some sort of attendant wearing a simple white smock.
His savior escorted him to a table next to the glass windows and gestured for him to sit. Valery had a momentary feeling of having wandered into his old primary school as he squeezed into one of the table’s two tiny seats. Once he’d done so the alien woman called out to the attendant behind the long counter and exchanged a few sentences with him; he came over and placed two little mugs of hot liquid in front of them, then withdrew.
“I’m sorry about that,” said the alien seated across from him. “That was probably pretty stressful.”
Valery pulled the mask off his face and tossed it on the table. “I thought they were going to kill me. Thank you for getting me out of there.”
“Kill you?” It was hard to interpret the alien’s emotions, but he thought she sounded shocked. “No, never! Everyone’s just interested, but we haven’t seen any humans around for the last couple of days so things got out of jaw a little bit when one finally showed up.”
“But, they’re still...” He pointed at the window. The crowd hadn’t dispersed, and was instead pressed up against the window, staring at him.
“It’s fine. Do a human thing. Wave at them, you know, with your hand. They’ll love it.”
“Uh… okay?” Timidly, Valery waved at the horde of hideous bug creatures. He recoiled as a burst of shouting and stomping rolled through the crowd, but several of them did brandish their claws back at him in a parody of the gesture.
“See?” said the insect-woman, smiling horribly to reveal a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. “We’re all friends here.”
He really is jittery, isn’t he? Mili thought. She watched as the human picked up a mug -- in his hugely oversized hands, it looked like a child’s toy -- took a cautious sip from it, and then made a series of explosive barking noises. I’d better move this along. “So allow me to introduce myself,” she said. “I’m Mili. I’m a nun in training at the Convent of the Three Martyrs.”
“Valery Timoshenko,” said the human, still gasping as he set the mug aside. “Wait, you’re a nun?”
“In training,” she confirmed.
He seemed to be having a hard time with this. “Are insect nuns really a… Wait, I thought you were from the government.”
“Ah. Not really, no. Just call me a friend. I saw you looked like you were in trouble and thought I’d pitch in.”
“Oh. Well… thanks.” He looked uncomfortable. “So, I mean, not to be ungrateful, but could you help me get back to the embassy?”
“I can, but before we do that… Well, see, here’s the thing.” She leaned forward. “I said I was just in training. I’m trying to write my dissertation, you see. On humans. So I’d gotten a solid agreement to interview one of you,” she lied, “but then the embassy shut down and everything got weird, and now I think you might be my only chance.”
“You want to interview me? I don’t see how that’s going to help. I’m not interesting. I’m nobody.”
“Don’t say that!” she answered, surprised. “You’re an alien! That automatically makes you the most interesting thing in the world! Everybody on the planet wants to know more about you guys. It’s… I don’t even know how to describe it? Didn’t you ever stand outside at night and look up at the stars and… not want to be alone?”
“All the time,” the human said glumly.
“Well… same here! We figured there must be someone else out there. Someone with a different perspective on everything. Someone to… Just someone to talk to. And then one day a spaceship lands right in front of the Summer Palace, and the aliens come out, and… turns out you’re all really nice, and you didn’t invade us even a little bit. So now the whole world, the whole future, is changed. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?”
Mili looked at him for a moment, then decided a human gesture would be just the thing to close the deal. She reached out to grip his hands in her own foreclaws. “Come on… Valery,” she stumbled a bit over the strange name, “just a couple of questions. It’ll really help me out. Then I’ll take you straight to the embassy. I promise. What do you say?”
The human’s eyes were wide and she noticed he was trembling.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” he said in a strangled voice. “Just p-please let go of my hands right now. You’re cutting them open.”
The horrible bug monster had been extremely apologetic and fetched dozens of small towels for Valery to wrap his bleeding hands in. It didn’t look like she had hit an artery, so that was something. Then, she dug a notebook out of some sort of rucksack she was carrying and began the interrogation.
It was a strange sort of interview. More than once he tried to demur and suggest she talk to somebody from the embassy’s public relations department, but this “Mili” creature wouldn’t be denied. He suspected a detachment of marines would not have been enough to silence her. She asked questions about society and politics, but whether or not she realized it most of her questions boiled down to one thing:
What do you think of us?
What do we…? Well, he, Valery Timoshenko, didn’t like the Ik. Right? They were a bunch of scary alien insect monsters who were about to find out that… well. He just wanted to be away from them and not think about them. But that would be undiplomatic and, more importantly, he was surrounded by hundreds of them, so brutal honesty was not called for here. Instead he switched his gaze back and forth between the alien woman sitting across from him, wide eyed and smiling with a pen poised over her notebook, and the crowd outside who apparently thought that a human sitting in a chair too small for him was the best entertainment they’d ever seen, and tried to look at them differently.
What would somebody who liked these guys say? She was still waiting for a response and with slight horror Valery realized he had lost track of her most recent question. The silence drew out agonizingly until --
“I saw that movie you made,” he finally blurted out.
“The movie?” Mili looked blank. “What movie?”
Ah, the panicked conversational gambit that crashed and burned. Well-known from a number of first dates that had never led to second dates. The feeling of embarrassment was comfortingly familiar, though, so he soldiered on. “You know. The movie about an… Ik, who goes to Earth. It had this really long name --”
“Oh!” The alien woman looked delighted now. “The Great Jalik Journeys to the World of Humans! I loved that one! The special effects were so good. What did you think?”
What did he think? A bootleg of the movie with a rough English translation had been circulated around the ship and it had been very hard to wrap his head around. “The Great Jalik” was some sort of comedy-adventure character who was portrayed by a different actor, or sometimes actress, in every one of the dozens of films he had appeared in. This one had come out just two months after the shuttle had landed on Ik. In it Jalik had, thanks to something Valery didn’t understand involving a pod, been stranded on a spaceship which took him to “The World of Humans.” Said humans were enormous, ungainly monsters in plastic masks that Valery was fairly sure were played by one Ik standing on another’s shoulders. Jalik had a series of comedic misadventures on the World of Humans before he turned out to be the only one who could save the planet and everyone on it from a “tiger,” which the film’s creators apparently believed was an eight-legged stop-motion space demon that could topple cheap model skyscrapers with a swipe of its paws. At the close of the film Jalik was given a medal by the King of Humans, who then delivered a corny speech about how wonderful their new alien friends were and how soon they would take on the universe together.
It was… Well, it was absurd and strange and breathtakingly poorly made by human standards, and for the next week he had tossed and turned with nightmares where his friends pulled off their skin to reveal chitin and giant black eyes, but looking back on it now, it was hopeful. It was sincere. They wanted everything to work out. Wanted it so much. Wanted --
They wanted to look up at the stars and not be alone.
Something turned, just a little, in Valery’s head.
He stared at the horde of horrible insect monsters outside. Something was different.
That one -- That one was a mother, out with her brood. She carried a bag over one shoulder and three small children were grabbing at her leg or pulling on her dress, staring in through the window or asking question after question of their mother. And that one was obviously some kind of construction worker, wearing a reflective smock and with several bags of tools slung over his shoulders. And that one, a man draped in elaborately formal gowns, maybe a religious figure or a businessman, and that one…
They weren’t monsters. They were just people.
Mili wondered uneasily if the human she had found was psychologically damaged in some way. He had been depressive and reluctant to speak at first, but she felt she had been successfully drawing him out until that thing about the movie. Then he had frozen up again, staring back and forth between her and the crowd outside. Maybe he didn’t like movies?
I’d probably better wrap this up. “Well, let’s put that aside for now,” she said breezily. “Last question, I promise. I hope I’m not poking around in any state secrets, but... ”
Mili lowered her voice.
“What’s going on with the embassy?”
Valery stared at her.
“A week ago you guys all packed up and went and hid in there and nobody knows what’s going on. I mean… It’s not because of something we did, is it?”
“I…” said the human. He put his hands over his face. “No, it’s not because of something you did. It’s…”
He looked through the cage of his fingers at her.
“There’s a saying we have where I come from,” he said. “‘It’s not you. It’s me.’”
Mili was baffled. “Er… what does that mean?”
“It means what we’re best at is hurting others.” He stood up abruptly, or at least as abruptly as possible given how he was wedged into the Ik-sized table and chair. “I’m sorry, I have to go. I hope your dissertation goes well, Mili.”
“Wait!” she said, rising from her own seat in alarm. No, no! Everything is falling apart! “What about --”
“I can find my own way back to the embassy. Don’t worry about the crowds, I’m not scared of them any more.”
Valery turned to go, and that’s when she heard the sirens.
A ripple of alarm went through the rubbernecking crowd outside. Two -- no, three -- large black six-wheeled trucks had rolled into the far edge of the square, hazard lights rapidly flickering blue and green. They were broadcasting a PA announcement, but it was garbled into incomprehensibility.
Valery stopped short. “What’s going on?”
“That’s the police,” Mili said, “but I don’t know why they’ve --”
Tiny figures were clambering on the beds of the police trucks. Moments later, shells were flying upward in an arc, trailing smoke.
The mortar shells landed in the middle of the crowd and columns of gas burst into the air. Confusion turned to panic outside. Inside, everyone had frozen, Mili included. Some of the other patrons were starting to gather their wits and climb out of their chairs when a second volley of shells went up, and one smashed right through the window of the cafe.
Valery stared at the spherical shell as it bounced across the floor and came to rest against the counter. It seemed to fill the world. He found himself counting the notches on the side of the scratched black metal case and trying to puzzle out the alien blockletter printed on the side. Then the shell flew open with a thoroughly anticlimactic “pop” and pale gray smoke poured out, filling the cafe in an instant.
The smoke smelled like lavender and stung his eyes, but Valery found he could still breathe just fine. The Ik all around him weren’t so lucky; they were collapsing onto the floor, gasping like fish out of water.
“Mili, what’s --”
The alien woman was bent almost double over the table, clutching her throat and shuddering violently.
“Valery… get out,” she choked. “Run --”
Looking back on it, he wasn’t sure why he did it except… it seemed like the thing to do. He stepped forward, swept Mili up out of her chair and threw her body over his shoulder. She squeaked in protest and pounded feebly on his back, but he ignored her objections and turned to the back of the cafe. The insect-creature was light and he barely noticed her weight.
Through a tiny door behind the counter, past several confused-looking Ik who had been in the middle of butchering a large, soft-shelled marine creature when all hell broke loose outside. They raised claws dripping with blue-green ichor towards him, but he shouldered through them and then squeezed himself and his burden through another door even tinier than the last, finally finding himself in a narrow and breathtakingly filthy alleyway.
“Put me down.”
Valery glanced back and forth, trying to work out which direction would take them away from the square full of police.
“Hey! Put me down or I’ll stab you, you horrible space monster!”
Oh, right. He carefully placed Mili on the ground. She seemed to have recovered quickly from the gas, if her furious expression and the way she was brandishing her claws was any indication. “Sorry about that,” Valery said. “It was the quickest way to get you out of there.”
“It was just choke gas,” the insect-woman said. “The police use it all the time. I would have been fine. But… thank you, I guess. Just don’t do it again.” She paused. “The gas didn’t have any effect on you?”
“Not really, no.”
“Huh.” She scanned the alleyway. “I don’t know why the police were here, but we should probably just get you to the embassy. I think it’s this way --”
There was a loud screech of tires and suddenly a police truck was blocking the exit from the alleyway. Its side compartment opened and dozens of aliens, aliens wearing black uniforms and carrying what looked like rifles, poured out.
“I mean, this wa --”
They turned. A second police truck was blocking the other exit.
“I guess we know why the police are here,” said Valery.
He turned back to face the formation of black-uniformed Ik marching down the alley towards the two of them. Valery took a deep breath, and stepped in front of Mili.
“If you want to get her,” he said, “you’ll have to go through me!”
He put up his fists.
The Ik policemen stared at him for a long time, long enough that he started to feel awkward.
“Not here for her, human,” the one with the fanciest uniform said finally, in slow, heavily accented English. “Here for you. You go home,” he added, waving dismissively at Mili.
“Forget it!” Mili answered suddenly, shoving in front of Valery. “If you want to get him, you’ll have to go through me!”
Valery found himself making eye contact with the senior policeman. Alien or not, he could identify a look of pained exasperation.
“Mili, maybe I should just go with --”
“Not on my watch!” She waved a claw dramatically at the policemen. “And don’t bother with those rifles, mister. You’re not going to shoot a human and create an interplanetary incident.”
The senior policeman twitched. The other Ik troopers were looking uncertainly at each other.
“Enough,” said a new voice in perfectly accentless English. “Stand down, constable. Let me take care of this.”
The police all snapped to attention as someone else climbed out of the police truck and entered the alleyway.
This latest arrival was the oldest Ik Valery had ever seen. Where the creatures’ carapaces were usually various shades of polished dark gray or black, this one’s was pale and mottled, and his antennae hung limply off his head. He moved slowly. His head was bowed, and one eye was milky and blind.
The policemen all stayed at attention as the ancient creature passed them by. Valery couldn’t help but straighten up himself.
At length, the newcomer stood in front of the two of them. He raised his head and fixed Valery with a piercing gaze from his one good eye.
“Valery Timoshenko,” he said. “Am I pronouncing it correctly? I am Karrikan. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Karrikan extended a claw in a very human gesture. Seeing no alternative, Valery grasped it and shook gently. He had feared for his own hands again, but the claw’s edge was worn and dull. He felt like he would have crushed the appendage if he had squeezed it too hard.
“N… nice to meet you too.”
“You won’t be harmed, you know,” the ancient said. “We simply need leverage. That’s all. I believe this ordeal will be over very shortly, one way or another. Will you come with us?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Karrikan looked at him curiously. “We always have a choice, Timoshenko.”
Valery stared at the aged creature in front of him. He could detect no sign of humor in the alien’s face. At last, he sighed in defeat and held out his hands for the police.
“Excuse me,” Mili spoke up. Her voice was quavering. “Sir.”
“Seriously, I’ll be fine --” Valery began.
Karrikan held up a claw to silence him and turned to Mili. “Yes? And you are?”
“M-Mili. I’m from the Convent of the Three Martyrs. I… Sir. You can’t take him away.”
“And why not, Mili from the Convent of the Three Martyrs?”
“I’m not done interviewing him.”
Karrikan gazed at her for long moments.
“I admire your dedication to the cause of knowledge,” he said at last. He gestured to the policemen. “Bring them both,” he said.
“Wait! Are we under arrest?” the alien woman blurted out, as a policeman took each arm.
“Do you want to be?” said Karrikan.
“Well, no --”
“Then come along politely, and you won’t be.”
This was certainly not how Mili had anticipated the day going when she got up that morning.
She looked once more around the high-walled, open-topped truck the police had, not ungently, loaded her and Valery into. The human was perched on one of the benches, hunched over and silent. Half a dozen armed policemen filled the rest of the space, some standing and some clutching onto wall fixtures. Karrikan himself was in the front cabin of the vehicle with the driver, leaning his head out the passenger side window and letting the breeze blow over him as the police trucks rumbled in formation through Ilik’s streets, occasionally blurting their sirens to clear some unobservant driver or pedestrian out of the way.
“Valery,” she said.
He looked up. “Yeah? Sorry about all that space hero stuff, by the way. I guess it probably looked pretty dumb.”
“Well… it did, yeah, but it was also kind of cool in its own way. I mean, I had to try it out myself, right?” She looked back at the policemen, who were attentively watching the two of them. It was pointless, but she lowered her voice a bit anyway. “I kind of get the feeling you know what this is about.”
The human sighed. “I do.” He shook his head. “I’m not happy about what you did to me, Mili.”
“What I did --? You mean the hand thing?”
“No. What you made me see. I didn’t want to think of the Ik as people, because of what’s about to happen.”
Well, that didn’t sound ominous. “What… what is about to happen?”
“But then you made me see it anyway, and now I can’t unsee it.” He put his head in his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think to speak up and now I can’t do anything to stop it. Please don’t hate us for this.”
“I don’t know about hate,” Mili said, “but all this human vagueness is getting pretty irritating.”
She was about to say more when the police truck bounced hard over a curb and then abruptly braked to a stop. The top of a trio of ten-story buildings was visible above the side panels of the truck.
“We’re at the Human Embassy,” Mili said.
Valery smiled weakly. “You did promise to get me here,” he said.
Mili smiled back. His answer made her oddly happy: at least Valery wasn’t completely back in his original depressive state.
There was a distant click and pop of a loudspeaker switching on, and then a human voice spoke.
“Attention, Ik forces,” it said. “Do not proceed any further. You have taken one of our citizens captive. This behavior is unacceptable. Release him at once.”
“Let me,” she heard Karrikan say in their own language. The ancient plucked a microphone from the driver’s claws, opened the door of the truck and stepped out onto the running board.
“Hello, human embassy,” he said in Inglish. “We do need to have a conversation about unacceptable behavior, I think. The Ik took one of your citizens captive because we know what you are doing and we won’t let you do it without explaining why. Allow this vehicle into the complex and summon your leader for a dialogue, and we will release your citizen.”
“You are presuming greatly upon our friendship,” said the intercom voice, hard and cold.
“Yes,” answered Karrikan. “Yes, we are.”
There was a long, unpleasant pause.
Then the embassy’s PA system clicked off, and she heard the grumbling of a gate moving aside. Karrikan waved off the other trucks and said something to the driver while handing back the microphone, and they began moving forward again. The ancient stayed on the running board, though, and just seemed to be enjoying the experience of hanging off the side of the vehicle.
“Who is that guy, anyway?” Valery said.
“Karrikan? He’s famous! He’s the King’s minister for technology. And a big advocate for science education. He’s on the videodrome all the time.”
“A man of science, huh?”
“That’s right! Plus he’s a great patriot and national hero. He’s the man who made our atomic bomb program possible!”
“Ah,” said Valery. “Well-rounded, too.”
Valery watched as a refreshingly high ceiling rolled into view -- they were in the embassy’s vehicle pool. A garage door closed somewhere behind them and a few moments later the rear gate of the truck went down. The Ik policemen fanned out, and one of them waved Valery and Mili out, too.
He closed his eyes for a moment to enjoy the cool, recirculated air inside the embassy facility. It was probably the last pleasant thing he was going to experience for quite a while.
He opened his eyes. There were a lot of unhappy-looking human beings glaring at him, but pushing past them was a tall, olive-skinned woman in the white jumpsuit of the Adam Renault’s medical staff.
“Hi, Janice,” he said.
“What did they do to you?” Janice shouldered through the surprised Ik policemen before they could react, lifted up one of his bloody, clumsily bandaged hands and then looked daggers at the insect creatures. “This is no way to treat a prisoner. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
“It was an accident,” Valery said quickly. “Completely my fault.”
Janice clucked like a mother hen as she unwound one of the bandages and then opened her medical kit. “This is the worst field dressing I’ve ever seen; who did this? Anyway, we heard that you disappeared on your way out to the Ik university to pick up that junk the astronomy staff left behind.”
“I got lost,” said Valery. “That’s all it was. You didn’t have to worry.”
“And then you got kidnapped by a platoon of armed aliens.”
He paused and then looked around at the policemen. “Well… that part’s true.”
Janice looked unhappy and touched his shoulder. “They know, don’t they?”
“I think they do, yeah.”
“Know what?” Mili cried, exasperated.
“Yes,” said Karrikan. “Know what?” He climbed down from the running board of the truck and shuffled forward. “Would you care to enlighten us... Admiral?”
Oh, no. Valery turned back around.
Admiral Gross, flag officer on the UNSC Adam Renault, was very short, barely taller than some of the larger Ik, and in her sixties with nut-brown skin and tightly curled white hair. She was favoring Valery with an expression that made him feel two feet high.
“Quite the mess you’ve created, Timoshenko,” she said. Qvite ze mess. Admiral Gross’s clipped accent made her sound like a villain in an old movie serial.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he fumbled. “I… I didn’t tell them anything --”
The Admiral waved him aside petulantly. “Never mind. What’s done is done. We were going to tell you, Karrikan.”
“Were you really?”
“Hmm. No, not really.” Admiral Gross sighed, took off her cap and ran a hand through her hair. “Must you make me say it out loud?”
“Fine,” said Karrikan. “I’ll do it. You’re leaving.”
Mili froze. Ichor turned to ice inside her body, and it wasn’t just due to the chilly temperatures inside the embassy. They’re leaving?
“We’re not stupid, you know,” said Karrikan. He looked angry. He was the kind voice on the videodrome from her childhood, talking about the great future that lay ahead for everyone. He could occasionally be querulous, or sarcastic, but she had never seen him angry before, not ever. “We can count. We can see empty shuttles landing and fully laden shuttles departing and draw the appropriate conclusions. So: Why do this? Why lie to us?”
The human Admiral took a deep breath.
“The story we fed you about first contact,” she said, “was false from the beginning.”
She paused to collect her thoughts.
“We didn’t come here specifically to meet you at all. We had no idea the Ik even existed. Our mission was to take the ship out on an experimental flight, to narrow down the performance characteristics of the traverse drive. We picked this star to jump to because its emission profile is stable and well-known, that’s all. When we arrived, we were shocked to hear radio transmissions coming from your planet.” She shook her head. “Even then, the regulations are very clear. If we encountered intelligent life, we were under no circumstances to make contact.”
“Why not?” Mili couldn’t help but ask.
“I’ll get to that.” The Admiral frowned at her. “Who are you?”
“Mili has been assisting us with the human,” Karrikan interrupted. “Please continue.”
“Very well. So we were going to stay hidden, as ordered. Until our scientific staff,” here she glared at a short, fat male in a white coat who had the grace to look abashed, “figured that some quiet orbital reconnaissance wouldn’t hurt, and more fool I, I went along with it. Then one of the shuttles had engine problems on its insertion burn that turned it into a re-entry burn, and when it broke through the cloud layer its pilot realized he was above a city. He picked the only open space he could find to set the crippled shuttle down without harming anyone.”
“The Summer Palace,” Mili realized.
“Yes,” said the Admiral. “Or so we figured out afterwards. And now we were stuck, weren’t we? At the very least we wouldn’t be able to get our shuttle out of there without weeks of repair and new parts from the Renault. So.” She spread her hands apart. “We made up a story, stalled you all for a while, and sent desperate messages back home begging for instructions. For retroactive permission, really. We wanted to stay and make this real, I promise you! But a week ago the Security Council finally made up their mind.”
“To call you home,” said Karrikan. “To disappear in the night, as if you were never here, and never return.”
The ancient scientist tilted his head and for just a moment he looked like a lost child.
“Was it because of us?”
“No, not at all,” said the Admiral quickly. “Listen, Karrikan. Humans have a very poor track record of interacting with less developed groups. Our history is rife with examples of advanced societies meeting backwards ones and destroying them, accidentally or on purpose. Reducing them to helpless dependents or just conquering and taking their lands and resources. That is the reasoning behind the bar on first contact: the damage it could do to innocent cultures. So no, it’s not because of you. It’s because of us.”
It’s not you, Valery’s voice ran through her head. It’s me.
She understood what he meant, now, and how much it could hurt.
“So there is little more to say,” finished the Admiral. “And unless you have more questions --”
“I have a question,” Mili said.
Karrikan glanced at her, but didn’t move to intervene.
She stepped forward.
“Who do you think you are?”
The human admiral looked surprised. “What?”
“You think…” She waved one claw around. “You think of us as backward? As less developed? You think that because you have these ships and all this technology you’re better than us?”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all!” protested the admiral. “We --”
“That’s exactly what you’re saying!” she cried. Her face, her antennae, everything felt hot with anger. “You are so morally superior to us that you are going to, out of the graciousness of your hearts, avoid contaminating us lesser species with your science and your knowledge and y-your friendship. Because you might do something bad to us. As if we’ve never done anything bad! As if there aren’t any atrocities in our own history!”
Mili stopped short. She realized she had walked almost right up to the Admiral and was shouting at her and brandishing her claws in the woman’s face. Some of the green-uniformed human soldiers were looking uneasy and gripping their weapons a little more tightly.
“I --” She stumbled back. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to speak out of turn. I’ll --”
“You’ll finish your thought, young lady,” Karrikan said sharply. “Go on.”
She looked back in surprise. He waved a claw impatiently. “Go on, I say.”
Mili took a deep breath and looked back at the admiral again.
“You don’t want to treat us like inferiors. Sure, we don’t want that either. But we don’t want to be treated like superiors, either. Just… treat us like equals?” She hesitated. “Like friends?”
She bowed her head.
“I’m sorry. That’s… that’s all I have.”
“Mili,” the admiral said. She reached out and placed a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder. “I understand. But we have our orders --”
“Our orders are stupid,” said Valery suddenly. “Ma’am.”
Mili twisted around in surprise.
“The Ik are… they’re just people. Like us, good and bad. And… I’ve been trying not to accept that because then I’d have to also accept that after thousands of years of being alone we finally found a friend out in the universe, and we decided to push them away so we could feel better about ourselves. That’s wrong, ma’am.”
Where was this guy an hour ago? Mili wondered.
“I agree with him,” Janice spoke up. She had finished re-bandaging Valery’s hands and had been listening silently to the exchange. “More than that. We need them. We’ve been alone too long. Everyone on Earth is scared of change, scared of everything. The Security Council has kept the existence of the traverse drive secret! The existence of intelligent aliens, secret! Is that… doesn’t anyone realize that’s insane?” she flashed. “We need a different perspective or we’re going to go crazy.”
“I didn’t realize you had such strong opinions, Janice,” Valery said.
“Well, we’re not supposed to talk about politics on the job, but screw those idiots,” she replied.
Mili stared back and forth at the other humans, who were muttering and talking to each other. What she could overhear wasn’t very complimentary towards their superiors; it was starting to sound like a full-scale revolt. Are they going to…?
“Enough!” barked the human Admiral. The chatter was silenced instantly.
“You all have your opinions, I see. However, that doesn’t change our orders. It is my job to carry out the Security Council’s wishes, irrespective of my or anyone else’s personal views on the subject...”
Ah. I knew it was too much to hope for.
“...So they’re just going to have to fucking fire me,” finished Admiral Gross. She turned to a tall human standing next to her. “Davis, the withdrawal is cancelled. Get the technical planning group together. I want options for broadcasting the existence of the traverse drive program and the Ik publicly on Earth.”
“Ma’am?” he hesitated. “Are you sure? If I may… the General Secretary is going to shit a brick.”
She shrugged. “Maybe she’ll be grateful if it gets the rod out of her ass in the process.”
Mili did not understand most of these phrases, but they certainly didn’t sound very respectful. She looked back at Valery and his friend.
“Is this for real?” she asked them. “Aren’t you all going to get in trouble?”
“Probably.” Janice said. She looked happy, though. “But it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
Mili had wanted to see the shuttles landing, so a few hours later she and Valery were sitting on the embassy’s third-story balcony, watching the space vehicles touch down in the gathering twilight. The Ik builders had made the ceilings and doors of the embassy complex big enough for humans but had overlooked the balcony railings, so Valery had always been reluctant to come outside for fear that he’d trip over the knee-high barrier and tumble to his death. It didn’t seem to bother him that much any more, though.
“You seem different from when I first met you,” the Ik woman said.
Valery thought about it. “I never had the courage to stand up for anything before,” he said finally. “Back home on Earth it’s very easy to go through life without ever standing up once. You don’t need to, and you’d be sorry if you did, because everyone thinks they already have all the answers anyway. So I never did. Until you made me. Thank you.”
“Well!” Mili sounded both embarrassed and pleased. “That’s quite a compliment.”
“Do you think this can work, though?” Valery said. “We’re still very different from one another. And I’m pretty sure everyone on both sides has been on their best behavior until now. It won’t be so easy in the future.”
“Absolutely,” said Mili. “The future’s going to be amazing with our two people working together. The Ik are smart and tough and brave. We can solve any problem.”
Valery hesitated a moment. “So… if the Ik have all that stuff covered, what does humanity bring to this partnership, exactly?”
“Well, that’s obvious! You guys get things off high shelves.”
She smiled, and this time it was no longer quite so terrifying.