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Through the bubble window of the aircraft, R.H. Herman gazed down at the sapphire blue Mediterranean, and at the rugged little gray-green islands dotting its surface. The expanse of the sea and the sparseness of the land made him feel a little queasy. He was a long way from home, and an even longer way out on a spindly professional limb of his own grafting. Unnerving to think that what happened in this stagnant little backwater of civilization might determine the future of the entire planet -- not to mention his whole career! A trickle of sweat, inspired by the blazing Mediterranean sun, ran down the back of his neck. His wife had been right: he shouldn't have worn the suit.
The pilot singled out a conical island on the hazy strip where the water met the sky and pointed the aircraft at it. Before long Herman made out a white boardwalk ringing a placid harbor. Colorful sailing vessels were moored along long white piers that shot out into the water like the teeth of a semicircular comb. Behind the marina the ground rose steeply, so that the little houses, painted creamy white and blue and salmon pink, appeared stacked on top of one another like children's blocks. Above the houses, the land continued to rise to a stubby gray-green peak, upon which goats grazed, or dozed in the shade of stunted olive trees.
The craft soared over the southern tip of the marina, swooped behind the spur of the mountain, and floated noiselessly down to a bulls-eye landing pad. With an ease born of long practice, Herman popped open the passenger door and hopped out into a thick wall of heat.
A marine, dressed incrisp whites, emerged from a little building and approached along a walkway marked off by red geraniums. His salute had an extra snap that filled Herman with confidence. The man was obviously aware, despite the lack of attendant fanfare, that he was in the presence of power -- or at least, of potential power. After a minimal exchange, the marine pointed out the service tunnel that ran beneath the spur to the marina. Hefting his briefcase, Herman set out upon the last stage of his journey.
An hour later, Herman's progress ground to a halt half way up a steep stone stairway -- the fourteenth he had climbed since leaving the marina. Breathing hard, he dropped the briefcase onto the step above and tried to straighten up. Stairs! An anachronism in a world that had discovered the graviton and its antiparticle half a century ago. Probably kept around for the tourists. Tourists took such pathetic delight in the inconveniences of the olden days.... Putting his hands on his hips, he arched his back. His wife was right: he needed to get to the gym more often. He grimaced at a hanging basket of pink and white flowers. It was becoming a real question how much more he could take.
"Don't worry, mister!"
Herman looked up.
The street urchin who had guided him through the maze of twisting lanes, keeping the peddlers and goats at bay, grinned at him from the top of the stairs. "That address you want is right here." The boy threw his fist over his shoulder, pointing with his thumb.
Taking heart, Herman retrieved his briefcase and pulled himself up the final climb. He followed the boy to the gate of a cream-colored cottage perched on a jutting lip of the mountain.
The front door was painted blue, as were the shutters and roof. A dense, leafy plant with yellow flowers like miniature trumpets climbed up the stucco walls and shaded the windows. Pots of geraniums squatted on either side of the door. A wrought-iron bench, its green paint beginning to chip, afforded a postcard view of the marina far below. Quaint. It would make a nice weekend rental -- except for that climb.
The urchin was shuffling his feet. Herman remembered himself and reached for his wallet. The boy took a moment to record payment and issue a receipt, then loped away like one of the goats, the red scarf that held his white blouse snug to his waist fluttering behind him.
There was no vox patch, not even a doorbell. Herman lifted a brass knocker and let it drop. It fell two centimeters and stuck. He pushed down on the gargoyle head until it hit home with a thud.
"It's open, Mr. Herman." The voice was deep for a woman's, which gave the hint of reproof a little extra muscle.
Herman turned the doorknob and stepped across the threshold into cave-like darkness.
"How much did he charge?" The voice came from somewhere to his right.
He turned toward the sound, removing his sunglasses. "Twenty credits." There she was, sitting at a sleek computer console at the back of the room.
"Tch." The disapproval was clear, now. "The going rate is seven. You should have let me handle it."
"Just doing my bit to prop up the local economy." As his eyes began to adjust, he looked around. To the left, a massive gray stone sat on a table in an otherwise unfurnished area. To the right, two chairs were snugged up on either side of a table set with drinks. "There doesn't seem to be much going on around Kimolos...."
"And in any event you'll write it off as a business expense and let the taxpayers foot the bill. Don't just stand there, Mr. Herman. Have a seat." She waved a hand at the table and chairs. "That's iced tea in the pitcher.... Of course you did not stop to consider that you only encourage those boys to gouge the tourists. They should be in school where they belong."
"It's July, Dr. Thanau." He laid his jacket over the back of a sofa cluttered with boxes and went to sit at the table.
"Then they should be out playing and having fun. Today's youth is obsessed with making money. Not that I expect you to find anything wrong with that...."
Herman flashed a smile as he gave his host the once over with eyes fully adjusted to the gloom: a spare-boned woman wearing a loose, scoop-necked dress -- a galabeya, she had called it -- with dark eyes above a wide mouth, her gray hair pulled upwards from forehead and neck. She had made no move to stop working, or to join him. He shifted his hip and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. "You haven't changed." He wiped at the sweat behind his ears. "A little thinner; a little grayer."
"A little more impatient." The keypads clicked beneath her long fingers.
So much for small talk about old times to break the ice.... "Then I'll skip the intro about professional opportunity and civic duty and get right to the point." He returned the hanky to his pocket and reached for the pitcher. "I need your help."
"Obvious -- or you would never have left your overstuffed office with the view of the Lincoln Memorial to visit an ugly old woman who doesn't like you."
He tipped the pitcher and watched the amber liquid arc through the air, foaming a little as it hit the side of the glass. "A little crustier...." He spoke in awe rather than anger. "I didn't think it was possible."
The keypads clicked away.
Herman took a sip of tea. Hard as nails; no subtlety. No wonder she hadn't been able to cut it in the big leagues.... "As I wrote in my letter, the UN Commission on Negami-Earth Relations has received the first batch of research proposals from the Negami mission in Virginia. We've agreed to select a pilot project within the next two weeks. The Negami are thrilled. They've sent out five hundred invitations to a black-tie dinner to commemorate the event. Since we've been stalling them at every turn for five years -- while they've been patient and jumped through all our hoops as fast as we could manufacture them -- you might think their confidence is a little naive. But the truth is, we've run out of excuses. We either keep our end of the bargain or admit we never had any intention of letting them carry out their so-called non-invasive studies." And if that didn't pique her curiosity, nothing would.... "By the way. Where do you stand on the issue of Negami contact?" He took another sip of tea.
She raised her heavy eyebrows. "Me? What could it possibly matter what I think? Oh, very well.... I have no interest in them -- other than the usual idle curiosity... how many eyes do they have, what do they eat, how do they reproduce. Well -- I do get a tickle out of watching the religious right trying to corral the theological implications of a sentient species from another solar system. And, conversely, I am somewhat pained to realize that fifteen years of dealing with that species has not yet had the unifying effect on international politics anticipated by the globalists. But of course it was a crushing blow when the Negami set up their mission in the US... as if your President were the leader of Earth. Divisive, shortsighted...."
"The Security Council voted twenty three to nothing in favor of the location."
She waved his remark aside. "And I will also admit to a sincere hope that they are telling the truth when they say they want nothing more than to study our archaic Earth culture to satisfy their academic curiosity. But I don't fret about the unpleasant alternatives, if that's what you're asking. I'm a busy woman, and alien biology is not my field. Speaking of which, I hope you haven't come here on a wild goose chase, Mr. Herman...."
"I don't think so...."
"Because you were never known for your grip on the fundamental distinctions between one scientific discipline and another...."
"Ah, but the course I took from you was unforgettable, Doctor."
"It did at least fulfill what your benighted university system referred to as your 'science requirement.' "
"And allowed me the opportunity of meeting you."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, please!"
Herman held up a hand. "I'm serious, Doctor. I'm still your biggest fan in Washington. Despite what happened."
Her lips tightened into a chilly smile. "Which does nothing to enlighten me as to why you, an advisor to a high-powered UN Commission, want to know what I, your former communication sciences professor, think about the Negami."
"I'm getting there. So I may take it you don't particularly resent them; you're not afraid of them?"
"I wouldn't waste my time."
"That's what I wanted to hear. Because if you were, you couldn't help me." He studied the water droplets that had beaded and run down the outside of his glass. This was where it got tricky.... "Here's the problem. Truth is, CONER is splitting at the seams. The Commissioner doesn't buy it that our visitors have 'come in peace.' He thinks the policy of entente cordiale is facilitating a secret Negami plan to learn as much about Earth as possible in preparation for invasion. He sees even the most desiccated research proposal they submit as a clever assault on Earth's sovereignty. In lock step with the Pentagon, he hammers the President with demands for military preparedness and complete noncooperation. In fairness I have to point out that the Negami's refusal to share their knowledge, while at the same time begging us to share ours, only supports the Commissioner's position. The Secretary, on the other hand, continues to preach patience, and the dangers of bringing about a crisis of confidence. I don't mind admitting that she represents the opinion of a significant number of European and African governments. She sends a weekly memo to the President reminding him that in fifteen years the Negami haven't shown the slightest sign of aggression. In her opinion, we have an obligation to take them at their word until we have evidence that we shouldn't. The Commissioner says the Secretary is compromising the future of the planet with her pacifism. The Secretary says the Commissioner is provoking confrontation with his militarism. The President, of course, is in the middle, and wants to have it both ways so that whatever happens no one can say he was on the wrong side."
The click of keypads had ceased. "Should you be telling me this in such graphic terms, Mr. Herman?"
"You have clearance."
"Correction. I had clearance ten years ago, for about six minutes."
Herman wiped the water from the outside of his glass. "You've been reinstated."
"On whose authority? I have agreed to nothing. Obvious -- as you have not yet told me what you want from me."
"On my authority. I knew I needed to explain the situation to get your cooperation, but I can't explain it unless you have clearance. So I, ah, pulled some strings."
"Don't you risk your reputation if I turn you down? I didn't hear you asking me to keep quiet about this. What if I blab to the press?"
He drained his glass and reached for the pitcher. "That's a risk I'm willing to take. You're too intelligent to go along with what I have in mind without knowing all the ramifications. Besides, I happen to know you're a woman of integrity." Even scientists have egos....
She thrust her square chin forward, moving her lower lip back and forth. Finally she stood and came out from behind the console. "Pour me a glass, will you, Mr. Herman?" She sat opposite him. "And continue ramifying."
He filled her glass and set it down in front of her. "Three months ago the Secretary appointed a confidential task force to come up with ideas for ending the stalemate. I'm on it. Chairperson."
"Congratulations. Your career continues to skyrocket."
"Maybe." So, she knew about his swift rise to power.... "I admit I feel like I'm at the crossroads of something big. My analysis of the situation and proposal were recommended by the task force, and then approved and adopted by the Commission. Yesterday, the Secretary asked me to implement my plan."
"Please try to be more specific, Mr. Herman."
He watched her raise the glass to her lips. "Now, where have I heard you say that before?"
"It must have been on your final exam, when you referred to Homer as 'an early European author who produced many famous works.' "
Herman chuckled. "I wish I had your memory!" And that was no mere flattery.... "Well, I may not have studied my Homer, but I've put in the hours over this one. Here's the key point: the Negami are far more technologically advanced than we are -- they managed to cross some sixty-odd light-years of space to get here, right? Lucky for us, they are also highly civilized."
"A philosopher might suggest that luck had nothing to do with it."
He met her sarcasm with a smile. "People were scared at first, but the Negami have obeyed our laws and behaved themselves as if they had dropped in from Japan instead of somewhere in the constellation Taurus. Even the average joes are getting used to the idea that, as they used to say, 'we are not alone.' And the eggheads hold the collective opinion that there is no point in worrying about them at all -- since they clearly have the ability to conquer us, or destroy us, or make us dance the cha-cha if they want to, and there's not a damned thing we can do about it."
"Having not been in a coma the last fifteen years, I'm familiar with this argument." She picked up her glass. "Did you say this was your analysis?"
He took it on the chin again. Sometimes you swallowed a few insults in a worthy cause.... "No. This is my analysis: they want to study us; they are dying to get their hands on our funny little old-fashioned culture. Well, what if we turn this on its head and use it to our own advantage? You're the one who taught me that learning is a duplex communication; that the teacher also learns from the student."
"Did I say that?"
"Yes. But don't worry, you weren't talking about me."
"I didn't think so." She pushed at the wisps of hair on her forehead.
Copyright © 2003 by Ellen Larson