Copyright © 2015 by Jack Cusick
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form – electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded, or otherwise, including the use of information storage and retrieval systems (antiquated, currently available, or yet to be invented) – without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or as part of an effort to communicate with extra-terrestrial life.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living, dead, or extra-terrestrial is purely coincidental.
A Short Story by Jack Cusick
Ba’al moorsa, does my head hurt.
Qon Milfar opened his eyes, only to close them again tightly when the acrid smoke that filled the entire hallway made them sting. In the moment that his eyes were open he could make out only the smoke, a few parts of the hallway on fire, and debris all over the corridor.
Qon Milfar was displeased with the image as he held it in his mind. This wasn’t how his ship was supposed to look. Things were supposed to be spotless, orderly, and pristine.
This was chaos.
Bringing his hand to the ache in his head, he discovered the presence of ooze – sticky, sepia-tinted, clear ooze – all over his left arm; he was injured. Hemolymphic fluid was escaping his body; his exoskeleton had been breached in the crash.
Only by sealing the wound could he save the arm, so Qon Milfar grabbed the nearest aid kit (the nearest one that was not burning) and smeared the wound with polymer cement.
While the kit still lay nearby he checked the rest of his body for injuries: his legs were intact, though some of the coarse cilia fibers had been scraped away and patches of yellow marked his dark green shell; his thorax was unbroken; his four midlegs, two on each side of the thorax, were undamaged; and his mandible seemed to be fine.
Meeshla, he thought. Lucky.
He had been deep in the bowels of the ship when the explosions started, and he had no idea what had happened. His time as a reservist in his youth combined with his twenty years working on missions such as this told him, however, that the situation was grave.
Extricating himself from under a pile of equipment and supplies had not been easy, but he’d managed. Getting out of the storage room as it burned was even more difficult. Only after he was in the half-destroyed corridor and tended to his injury was he better suited to draw some conclusions based only on observation.
The first was that half of the ship was missing. The corridor in which he stood should have continued another full hopfaar, clear to the opposite side of the enormous disk; instead of the corridor, all Qon Milfar could see was a blue expanse. He could tell that the ship had broken into at least two pieces, and the conclusion was simple: the war was over, and his people had lost.
His next two observations came simultaneously. He could tell that the ship was at an angle; gravity forced him toward the right side of the corridor – not the artificial gravity of flight, but real gravity. The conclusion was obvious: he, like the wreckage in which he stood, was now on the surface of the planet they had attacked.
This changed everything.
No longer was Qon Milfar merely a survivor of the ship’s crew. He was now a pilgrim on enemy soil, one without proper support or supplies. He was also a target for the enemy (he was on the ground now, and that meant ground troops) and a potential prisoner of war – if this enemy took prisoners. The state of his ship suggested otherwise.
His best potential source of information was the Command Center. He quickly calculated which parts of the damaged ship remained accessible to him. It was fortuitous that he could still reach the Command Center, though it was on the opposite side of what was left of the craft. Qon Milfar began the trek down the angled corridor, climbing over and around bodies, debris, and damage.
The flickering of the lights and the control panels of some equipment suggested that the ship still had some degree of power. The air circulation systems were offline, obviously, as smoke from small fires hung in the corridor hallways and the air had a stale, dry taste.
As he traveled through the hallways, Qon Milfar saw many things he expected to see: the smoldering remains of equipment, now-useless items and supplies littering the floors and doorways, and more than a few dead bodies. The red dye painted onto the shoulders of the deceased was the insignia worn only by warriors, and Qon Milfar silently debated whether or not these had been honorable deaths on the field of battle. It made little difference; these warriors would never see a proper burial on their home world, anyway.
When damage and debris required it, Qon Milfar had to squeeze through access panels and crawlspaces to traverse the ship. He never lost his bearings, however, and always knew exactly where he was and in what direction he was oriented. Though not a member of the ship’s engineering team, part of his duties required that he know all the locations within the ship by heart. Every room. Every hallway.
At one point, well beyond the crew barracks but not quite past the food storage area, he heard an unusual banging sound and some scraping. The ship’s systems were heavily damaged, which easily explained the strange sounds. Perhaps an automatic system had been dislodged from its proper place and was still trying to do its job lying on its side. Qon Milfar gave silent thanks for being in better physical shape than the noisy equipment.
Finally, he reached the Command Center. It was a spectacular mess.
The explosions that had occurred on this level of the ship – and, judging by the debris field and scorched holes in the walls, there had been several – left half the Command Center in ruin. Some of the consoles were intact, and some of the screens were still operating; but the rest was complete ruin. The bodies of red-shouldered officers lay about the room, some in pieces and others charred.
Qon Milfar stepped over the fallen to the nearest operating console. He had come here seeking information, and he would leave this terrible scene as soon as he had all the information he could gather. There was no telling how long that might take; he was not a bridge officer, after all, and his knowledge of these consoles was greatly lacking.
Only three of the seven large view screens on the wall functioned. They were pieces of a large puzzle, one that Qon Milfar needed to assemble rapidly. The first was a tactical layout of the saucer-shaped ship – three-fifths of it was represented by a red blur, the rest was a blue wire-diagram of what remained. This confirmed what Qon Milfar already knew about the state of the vessel.
The second view screen showed an image from outside the ship. Since they had crashed upon the surface, the image was askew. He could see small ground vehicles moving about in the distance, and one or two of the same vehicles on a direct path with the fallen craft. In the background were tall structures of varying heights, and they were undamaged. It was a city. It was a terran city.
He knew from the mission briefings that this is what the people of this world called themselves: terrans.
That the structures were still standing told Qon Milfar much. It meant that the forward infantry had failed to destroy the cities and their populations (this city, at any rate), and that—
A loud noise, like a turbine engine or some great machine, made a whooshing sound on the far side of the Command Center. A startled Qon Milfar found the source of the noise to be a hole in the side of the ship at the other end of the room. A shadow moved briefly through the sunlight that poured through the opening. Qon Milfar did not move from where he stood, but he became more alert knowing that there was an opening – a weakness – so close to the advancing ground troops on the screen.
The third view screen was designed to display connections with other ships in the fleet – a coordination diagram, of sorts. The template showed no contacts. Either the signal connection was down, or the other ships themselves were down. There would be no contact with any of his people on other ships.
But what of this ship? Did anyone else remain?
Qon Milfar pressed a few buttons on the control panel. He wasn’t sure if the panel was working properly, and was even less sure that he knew what he was doing. How hard could it be to check the internal system for signs of life or movement? Should he just put his ears to all the walls and listen for screaming?
“Milfar!” a quiet voice called from the back of the room, furthest from the large hole. It was a scratchy voice; its owner was struggling to use it. “Milfar, help me!”
Qon Milfar searched the back of the room until he found her.
“Qaal Tigra!” he called, climbing over damaged consoles to reach her. She was trapped under large pieces of rubble from the ceiling. “Captain, are you all right?” The smaller pieces were of little consequence, but it took all of his strength to lift the larger beam high enough for her to move to safety.
“My physical form is fine,” the captain growled as she sat up and checked her legs. Her inspecting gaze moved from the clear ooze on her own appendages to the state of the Command Center. “I will live.”
Qon Milfar wanted to reassure her, to praise her for the hard-fought battle; but he had been below, and he hadn’t actually seen it happen. Also, he knew his place in the pecking order: he was male, and the females were the leaders, warriors, and superiors. Considering both the gender roles and the chain of command, he wasn’t even supposed to be speaking to her; but these were unusual conditions.
“Why are you in the Command Center?” she asked as she stood and continued to survey what was left of her command; she didn’t sound angry that Qon Milfar was in the ship’s nerve center, but she didn’t sound pleased, either.
“Apologies, Captain,” he said, bowing his head slightly. “Before I found you here I had not encountered any other survivors. I did not know what was needed.” He paused. “I thought I might find answers here.”
“You thought you would use the ship’s controls to look for life signs?” Captain Qaal Tigra motioned to the tactical display. It showed life in the Command Center (obviously) and some additional orange marks scattered throughout the ship. They were few, and they were not moving, but they were there.
Qon Milfar listened to her veiled accusation but said nothing. He knew a scolding would follow.
“That was wise, given the circumstances,” she offered. She examined the tactical display. “We have suffered great loss.” Looking closer at the outline of (what was left of) the ship, a wild gleam flashed through her eyes. “Are those our people?”
“Captain?” Qon Milfar didn’t understand her question, or her tone. He jumped a bit when she turned around, an animalistic stare now filling her eyes as she pointed to the orange blips on the display.
“Are these our people? Or have the terrans forced their way aboard?” She huffed in anger. “They will pay for what they have done!”
The loud whooshing sound was back, emanating once again from the hull breach on the far wall. The Captain’s head jerked around to confront the sound as it grew louder. She bared her teeth at the hole in her ship.
“They have come for a fight!” she cried, then quickly turned her increasingly-hostile gaze back toward Qon Milfar. “We will give them a fight!” She rushed to the nearest wall and threw open a panel; an array of weapons, lights, and other field gear lay behind it. She grabbed a hand cannon and raised it in the air as she darted for the hull breach. “Arm yourself, Milfar! Follow me! We shall bring the fight to them! We shall spill their blood!” The last sentence rang like a war cry as she exited the hole as fast as her oozing legs would take her through it.
He could hear the Captain screaming obscenities outside; those words were followed by many popping sounds, from weapons on both sides, and then silence.
Qon Milfar suspected that his Captain had just been killed by enemy weapons fire, but he had no interest in sticking his head outside the hole to confirm this suspicion – and there was no need. Only death would have stopped her from screaming and shooting.
There was little time to mourn the Captain’s loss. Although she was known for being arrogant and dictatorial, she treated each member of her crew as important. From the elite command crew to the engineering team to the kitchen and janitorial staff, the Captain had treated each individual under her command as valuable to the operation of the ship. Qon Milfar had not spent much time with her face-to-face, but during the brief interactions he’d had with her he had been made to feel needed and wanted…even, at times, appreciated. He would have enjoyed her advice on how he should now proceed; he was not a leader, and lacked experience in situations such as the one he now found himself. The Captain would know what to do, but she was gone. He was alone.
Qon Milfar stood silently, frozen with fear, his eyes moving slowly from one thing to the next. He looked at the orange blips on the display – signs of life deeper within the ship – but was unsure what to make of them. He looked at the hull breach, through which his Captain ran to her death, and had no idea if her act was heroic or foolhardy. He looked at the door that led back into the ship, but could not decide if that was the next step of his journey. Finally, he looked at the wall panel – the Captain had left it wide open – and stepped gently over the debris to survey the treasures inside.
He spent several moments examining the items, wondering which ones he should take with him. Each item served a different purpose, and Qon Milfar could imagine any number of possible scenarios in which he may need any or all of these devices, and backups as well.
With sounds of additional ground vehicles arriving outside, Qon Milfar realized that he could not spend the rest of his life standing on the deck of the destroyed Command Center and staring into a recessed storage cabinet. He selected two electric torches and clipped them to his belt. He took a field sleeve – a thick, wide, fingerless gauntlet adorned with tactical and survival gear – and slid his left arm into it (the pressure of the field sleeve would help the cement to congeal over his wound). Satisfied that he had what he needed, he glanced back at the tactical display to confirm the location of the orange life signs just before the display sizzled and died.
Qon Milfar drew in a deep breath, assured himself that he was capable of bravery, and departed the Command Center – unlike the Captain, he went through the hallway door.
Also, contrary to the Captain’s final order, he took no weapons with him.
As he traversed the rubble-strewn hallways of the ship toward the location of the life signs – not the center of the ship, by any means, but the center of what remained – Qon Milfar could only think of his family. Back home he had a mate (she was stationed on another of the ships in the fleet, one not assigned to this mission) and three small children. They felt a lifetime away. The ten-cycle journey to this planet was not the longest he’d been gone, but he missed his family now more than ever.
Qon Milfar resigned himself to either of two possible fates. If the life signs in the ship turned out to be armed terrans, he would do his best to avoid – or embrace – death. If the life signs were other survivors of this ship, however, the best course of action would be to contact one of the surviving ships, get rescued, and go home. The latter possibility would be challenging and have little chance of success, but it was something to hope for. Qon Milfar really wanted to see his children again.
Rounding a corner, he could imagine a wisp of smoke looking much like his oldest child. The wisp teased its way around a corner, as if his own son was peeking out at him, playing some sort of game. It made sense that his mind played tricks on him, used images of his family to keep him calm in the face of danger and hopelessness.
At least, until the wisp of smoke spoke to him.
“Qon Milfar, is that you?” the child’s voice asked.
It was a child, but it was not terran, and it was not his child. Qon Milfar walked faster to the living wisp of smoke; when he got closer, past the burning trash in the corridor, he saw the face and he recognized it.
“Shocha? What—“ The young face belonged to one of the children on the ship. Many of the warriors aboard were allowed to bring their children, and Qon Milfar’s duties often brought him into contact with the younglings – especially when they were up to unsupervised mischief. He was amazed that the child had survived.
“The ship crashed, Qon Milfar.” The boy raised his helpless gaze. “We did not know what to do.”
“Who is ‘we,’ Shocha?”
From around the corner, four more boys silently made their presence known.
“Ba’al soordeed,” Qon Milfar cursed to himself. Still processing the situation – both the state of the ship and the presence of the boys – he made a gathering motion with his arms, and his voice became urgent, almost angry. “Come, boys, come with me now. We must find safety for you.”
“We have found something you should see, Qon Milfar,” said Shocha. His tone suggested he was trying to be helpful, and Qon Milfar knew better than to begin scolding the younglings when he would need their cooperation. “Will you come and see?”
“Fine,” he answered, “but quickly. Then you must come with me and you must do as I say.”
The five boys, with Shocha in the lead – Shocha was always in the lead with this bunch – led him back around the corner to a large conference room. The boys moved slowly, with Qon Milfar close behind. As they entered the large space, Milfar noticed that the long meeting table was turned on its side and the seating pods were strewn all over the room.
And there was a giant hole in the wall leading to the ground outside.
Qon Milfar quickly hissed, as quietly as he could and still be heard, and grabbed the boys as he did so.
“Behind the table! Quickly!” He made certain that each boy was accounted for and gathered behind the makeshift shelter.
“The ship is damaged, Qon Milfar…” Shocha pointed to the hole in the wall.
“And on fire,” one of the other boys muttered.
“This is a way out,” Shocha half-pleaded, half-demanded. “We will be safer outside the ship.”
“We cannot go outside,” Qon Milfar insisted angrily. This, if any, was the time for scolding.
“But the ship is burning,” yet another of the boys protested.
“We are on the surface of a foreign world,” Qon Milfar berated the group. “It is not safe to go outside.”
“But we can breathe the air!” Shocha waved his arms about. “The ship is broken, and there is air from this planet all around us. We can breathe!”
“Yes,” Qon Milfar affirmed, his patience wearing thin. “We can breathe.”
“Then why can we not go outside?” another boy asked.
Qon Milfar looked about quickly, found an empty food storage container, picked it up, and lobbed it through the hole in the wall. As soon as it hit the ground outside, loud popping noises went off from all directions. The boys could hear the container being ripped to shreds by the popping noises.
“That is why.” He admonished, pointing to the hole. “We do not go outside,” Qon Milfar repeated with finality. In truth, he did not know how many terran soldiers there might be at any given exit point, but they were obviously armed and ready to fight – which was more than he could say for himself and his band of young lopdees. “You will come with me, now.”
The quest for a safe place aboard the ship became a field trip, of sorts. After visiting the cafeteria and adjacent food storage areas – Qon Milfar instructed the boys to carry as many of the foodstuffs as they could, having no idea how long they may have to hold out – he led them through the belly of the ship. Although it was an area that the boys had never seen (their quiet fascination proved it), Qon Milfar knew this part of the ship better than anyone. He certainly knew it better than he knew the Command Deck.
Their makeshift tour ended in a large maintenance bay. Ordinarily used to test, repair, and clean the smaller ships used in battle, the bay was, at the moment, empty. Every last ship had been needed for the invasion. The six-person group did not need a big space, but this area was close to tools and other equipment, and it had several points of exit – which would come in handy if they found themselves in a position to flee.
With the food supplies stacked against one wall, Qon Milfar insisted that the boys sleep, or at least rest. Despite their initial protests, it did not take long for all five of the boys to doze off. It had been a long day for everyone. In the silence, under the illusory canopy of safety, Qon Milfar had time to think.
He thought of many things.
He thought about his life, figuratively and literally falling apart around him, and what things would be like now if he hadn’t been posted aboard this ship. Everyone on his planet served the Corps in one way or another, but there were many tasks to be performed, many roles to be played, and Qon Milfar didn’t need to have selected this one. He thought he would have a quiet, uneventful place in scheme of things; and he had no idea he would be so wrong.
He thought about the boys now relying on him. They did not know they were relying on him, and they would never have admitted it if they had realized it. Especially at their age, children wanted to believe they were already adults and able to take care of themselves – they knew of the battles the Corps waged, but they knew nothing of the hardship that accompanied these endeavors.
He thought about what the future held for these boys. Back on their home world, they would come of age and ascend into roles suited for them. Not prominent positions – they were males, after all – but their duties would have meaning. Here, in a dying ship of what was presumed to be a dead fleet, their future was uncertain. Qon Milfar entertained the idea of retrieving a weapon from the Command Center and putting each of the boys out of his misery, just as his ancestors had done during the Harvest Civil Wars so long ago, so they would not have to suffer at the hands of enemy forces later on. He gave such a thought only brief consideration; he did not have it in him to take their lives.
He thought about his own family. He knew their faces by heart, and now more than ever he had so much love for them that this enormous ship, when it was intact, would barely contain it. As much as he wanted to hold them and play games with them and help them to learn new things, he realized he might never see them again. He had not yet considered a plan of action; he couldn’t imagine what the near future would bring.
But he thought about it now.
He thought about the options. They could stay in the ship until help from their own people arrived (unlikely); they could exit the ship to seek out help from a surviving ship, and risk being killed by terrans (dangerous); they could exit the ship, get captured alive by the terrans, and be subject to imprisonment and torture (more dangerous); or they could live out their days in the ship’s remains (impractical).
Qon Milfar decided that the boys were too precious to be risked and too headstrong to be controlled – whatever steps were to be taken, he would have to take these steps alone. They were also too young for danger, but old enough to look after themselves for a bit while he went outside the ship to assess the situation.
Qon Milfar knew there was no guarantee that he would find another of their ships at all. If theirs had been the only craft to fall to the surface during the mighty battle, it would be considered an acceptable loss; the fleet would launch no rescue effort for a single crew. If other ships had fallen as this one had, they would most likely be in the same condition and in no position to provide assistance.
For all Qon Milfar knew, the ship in which he stood had fared the best of the entire fleet. He might have considered such to be good news, if he could ignore the possible fate of the children once the terrans discovered them. But perhaps he could spare them the horror of being discovered – or, at the very least, prolong it.
He rose from the floor, his back sliding up against the wall, and took a last look at the sleeping boys. Having spent a few silent moments convincing himself that the risk was worth it, Qon Milfar slipped into the hallway.
Almost to the first corner on his path back to either of the hull breaches, he was stopped by a low hissing noise behind him.
“Where are you going?” It was Shocha.
“You were sleeping,” Qon Milfar reproached. “Go back and lie down.”
“Where are you going?” Shocha repeated.
“I am going to see if the terrans have left, and maybe see if there is a functioning ship nearby.”
“But what of the weapons? How will you not be killed?” Shocha sounded both worried and curious.
“I am not going outside, I am just going to check.” It was not true, but it was logical, and the boy believed it.
“Then take me with you,” Shocha offered. “I will help you check.”
“No,” Qon Milfar countered firmly, his finger pointing back down the hall. “You will stay and watch over your friends.”
“You may be killed, and then we will be all alone.” The boy said this calmly, but his eyes betrayed his fright.
A moment passed. Shocha continued to look frightened, and Qon Milfar’s frustration only grew. It would have been easier to have left undetected and avoid this conversation.
“Why must you check by yourself? Why go alone?” Shocha’s own confusion – or was it frustration? – rose.
“You will go back to the bay and lie down,” Qon Milfar ordered. “I must go do this.”
“But why must you go out there?” Shocha whined. “Stay here with us!”
“Listen to me now,” Qon Milfar commanded, all of his upper appendages holding the younger one firmly – this child was not of his bloodline, but he scolded as if he was. “If I stay here with you, the terrans will come inside looking for us; if I go out, alone, they will have what they came for and leave you alone, and you will be safe.” Until they remove the wreckage from this place, he did not add. “You are the Grolpnah now, Shocha. You must protect the rest of the little ones.”
Qon Milfar released the boy, stood to his full height to exert his authority (which wasn’t very tall at all, but it was taller than the child), and turned to continue his journey outside.
“Will you come back for us?” Shocha asked, his voice already sounding more like an adult.
“I do not know.” Qon Milfar would not lie to the boy anymore. “I do not know, Shocha. If I do not, you must protect the others. Do you understand me?”
Shocha arched his back and stood as tall as he could. His eyes darted back and forth as if he were acclimating himself to what things looked like through the eyes of a grown man.
“I understand,” Shocha answered. He no longer whined.
“Good.” Qon Milfar knew this was the last conversation the two of them would ever have, and it had to end well. “Thank you, Qon Shocha.”
It was an ordinary title, one given to any and every adult male – but it was more than the boy had a moment ago, and the proud smile on his face confirmed that this moment had meaning for him. Shocha would never lead an army, never fight in battle, and never provide for a family – not because he was doomed to die on this alien rock, but because such tasks went to the females. Positions of power, leadership, and importance always went to those of the dominant gender. The only productive thing a male could do in their culture was to grow up and serve one of the lesser purposes; not unimportant, but lesser.
Shocha returned to the maintenance bay.
Unfortunate as it was for Shocha to make the transition into adulthood under such perilous circumstances, it gave Qon Milfar a sliver of hope that the group of boys might live another few cycles.
As Qon Milfar began his last trek through the ship, he was stopped once more by the newly-minted adult.
“Wait!” Shocha hurried over and handed Qon Milfar a bundle of the purple stalks. “If you make it out and away from the terrans, you may become hungry.”
Qon Milfar nodded. Shocha was already thinking like a protector.
“Thank you,” he said to the boy as he pointed down the hall. “You go, now. They need you.”
From their location in the center of the dead spaceship, Qon Milfar had a walk of only two throbahs, but he spent each moment of that journey thinking of how to stay alive for more than a few seconds once outside the ship. The terrans were sure to fire at anything that climbed from the wreckage on its own.
The hull breach in the Command Center was larger than the one in the conference room, and Qon Milfar thought a better view ahead might keep him alive longer. He stepped once again over the rubble of the consoles and over the bodies of the command crew. He stepped up to the breach and remembered the fate of his captain as she ran into the weapons fire of the terrans.
He took a step back.
Checking his supplies was a subconscious stalling method, but it gave him the moment he needed to strengthen his resolve. He checked that he still had a portable torch (he’d left the other on the floor for the boys), and he examined the field sleeve; Qon Milfar had never worn one before, but he knew how to use the small devices upon it. He pulled a small item from the sleeve and placed it in his ear – it was standard procedure whenever going outside on a foreign world – and took a deep breath.
Still in his hand was the small bundle of food from Shocha. Qon Milfar wondered if he would live long enough to snack during this excursion as he walked through the hole in the ship. If nothing else, it would remind him of the boys until the end.
Chaos arrived after only a few steps out onto the planet’s soil. Qon Milfar moved as little as possible, but he saw the terrans. There were several of them, each with pieces of green cloth wrapped over their torsos, arms, and legs. They pointed dark sticks at him – weapons, he assumed – and made few movements from the semicircle they had formed around him. And there was shouting.
Qon Milfar held his arms out at his sides – Shocha’s food bundle still in his hand – knowing that any sudden movements would draw fire. He remained still, and yelled that he meant no harm, that he had no weapons, and begged the soldiers not to shoot. The soldiers continued to shout, and kept their weapons raised; they could not understand Qon Milfar’s words, and his pleas for mercy – unintelligible to the terrans – probably only scared them more than his alien appearance did.
Qon Milfar knew he was going to die. Remaining still, he silently said goodbye to the boys, then goodbye to his own family, and then he lowered his head. Hopefully, it would be a quick death.
Suddenly, one of the terrans screamed.
“Hold your fire!”
“Explain it to me again, soldier.”
The soldier sat in the office – it was a converted tractor-trailer, a mobile field command post – but it was an office just the same, the Major’s office, and he wanted answers.
“He wasn’t firing at us, sir,” the private said, almost pleadingly. The Major had already told him he wasn’t in any trouble – twice – but each repeated question had the flavor of an accusation to it. “Once we laid down our cover fire he had a chance to engage, sir,” the private explained, “but he didn’t.”
“What did it do?” The Major was taking notes this time. Someone somewhere was going to want these details, but the command post had no recording equipment and the Major’s personal cell phone was dead.
“It just stood there, out of sight for a while. We waited for engagement – that’s the training, respond to engagement – but it never came.” The private swallowed. “Finally, the Lieutenant ordered one of us to swing around back and see if he was still there, or if he’d gone back into the—well, what was left of the spaceship.”
“And was it still there?”
“Yeah, he must’ve been. Before any of us could do like the Lieutenant ordered he came out with his arms stretched way out to his sides, and…”
“It looked like a weapon, that thing on his arm, but he didn’t fire. We told him to drop it, and that’s…” The private’s mouth went dry with fear as the image replayed in his mind. “That’s when he started screaming.”
“You okay, son?” The Major knew battle fatigue when he saw it.
“Yes, sir. It was…I mean, you saw him, right? Had to be more than six feet, right? Dark green…I mean, when a giant bug is screamin’ at you…it’s gonna be hard to forget this one, sir.”
“But it didn’t fire, you said?” The Major wanted to get back on task.
“No, sir. And he didn’t have those big smears of red paint on his shoulders like the other ones did, the ones that engaged.” The private swallowed, recalling yet another image that would haunt him for the rest of his life. “This one just stood there, his arms out, screamin’ at us…and…”
“And all he was holdin’ was this stringy bouquet of flowers, sir.” The private gulped again as a worried look crossed his face. “I didn’t freeze up, sir. I’m not a coward, either. I just—“
“Look, son,” the Major reassured, “no one is mad at you. Sure, the Lieutenant wanted to waste it – hell, if I’d been there I’d have blown it away myself – but the higher-ups at command think there might be value in having it alive, so…” He put down his pen and leaned forward. “You’re not in any trouble.” The Major leaned back again with no idea if he’d calmed the private down. “They do want to know why you decided not to shoot, so just tell me: what made you decide to call ‘hold fire’?”
“I just…” He thought about the image of the alien, with his arms out wide and the bunch of flowers in one hand. “Sir, he was yelling like he was angry or desperate or somethin’, but his posture – and my training – well, sir, I just didn’t feel like my life was in danger, sir.” The private shook his head. “I just didn’t feel threatened.”
This large, insect-like alien reminds me of Abuelo Manny, Luis thought. His grandfather had emigrated from Central America as a teenager; he didn’t know a word of English, and he must have been frustrated with the language barrier. He acclimated eventually, of course, but it took time. The alien could probably be made to adapt over the course of a couple of years.
Luis really didn’t think the Colonel had the patience, though. The aging military man had already been through a lot this week; his gaze suggested that he needed a vacation and a couple of stiff drinks, and the alien sitting in the interrogation room was the only thing standing in the way of that.
Dr. Luis Escoto, the astrophysicist who had been instrumental in identifying the aliens and getting the planet Earth through the invasion ordeal successfully, stood with his hands in his pockets at the other end of the viewing room. He knew the two corporals standing by the door behind the seated alien were just a show of force. The sergeant seated across from the alien seemed frustrated, and Luis knew that the young man would continue to ask questions – sometimes the same question, over and over – until he got a response or was ordered to stop.
“Maybe we should show it some pictures,” the Colonel muttered to no one in particular. “If he uses a few words, maybe we can figure out the rest of its language.”
Luis silently thanked God that the Colonel was not an English teacher.
“Can we get an expert in here, you think?” the Colonel asked.
Luis raised an eyebrow. “You think there’s an expert in this kind of thing?” Being a civilian, he could afford to be condescendingly subordinate.
The Colonel only grunted in response, never taking his eyes off the alien.
Luis, too, kept his eyes on the alien. Part of it was scientific curiosity, of course – how often does one encounter a bug from another planet? – but he’d thought he’d noticed a pattern: the sergeant would ask a question in English, and the alien would reply in its own language (which was guttural and unintelligible), then there would be a pause, and the cycle would repeat. Luis noticed, however, that the alien would respond to each question; more specifically, he paid attention to how the alien responded. He observed the alien’s speed of speaking, and how it varied between responses; he tried to read into the alien’s tone and pitch, or at least note the differences in each response; and he tried to interpret the different physical mannerisms that came with each answer. It was like watching a deaf person respond to a speaker in sign language. There were patterns; there were deliberate, meaningful patterns. He didn’t know what they meant, and they didn’t mirror anything he’d seen in English language learners, but he knew the patterns were there.
He was an expert in astrophysics, not communication – but you didn’t have to be a linguist to realize that this alien understood the questions.
Dr. Escoto had watched through the one-way glass long enough. He moved casually and quietly to the crispest uniform in the room.
“Colonel,” he asked, “how about you give me few minutes with him?”
“Seriously?” The Colonel was so taken by surprise he actually took his eyes off the prisoner and met Luis’s gaze.
“Alone.” Luis was serious.
“Doctor, I appreciate all you’ve done for us throughout this entire ordeal,” the Colonel whispered as he looked back through the glass, “but think it through. That thing could rip off your head.” He turned back to Luis once more. “And eat it.”
“Due respect, Colonel, he hasn’t tried to get out of that chair, let alone that room.” Luis didn’t know if he could make any headway with the alien, but he knew the current tactics weren’t yielding any results.
“I don’t know.” The Colonel said it with contemplation, not dismissively.
“Think it through,” Luis countered. “Thirty-six hours ago you were ordering me out of the command center, calling me a pain-in-the-ass. If he does rip my head off and eat it, at least I won’t be around to bother you anymore.”
For what had to be the first time in the last week, the Colonel smiled. Just a little.
“I’d like to take a different approach to the situation,” Luis added soberly. “One that your people aren’t going to try.”
The Colonel said nothing; it meant he was considering it.
“Please, sir.” Luis knew this was a singular opportunity, and as much as he was looking forward to being a part of a historic moment, he equally hated the idea that the military was going to screw it up. “It’s worth a shot.”
The Colonel sighed. It was the sigh of a man who didn’t like hearing a good, rational idea that was contrary to his own wishes.
“All right,” the Colonel conceded. He activated the intercom to the interrogation room. “Sergeant, lets get our people out of that room. Doctor Escoto, here, is going to give it a try.”
“Thank you,” Luis offered gratefully as he opened the door to the hallway.
The terran entered alone after the sentries had exited. For a few moments, Qon Milfar worried that after the guards had left, the room would be filled with poison gas. He did not expect another terran – this one wearing different, mismatched fabrics than the others, and without any obvious weapons – to enter the room and sit across the table.
“My name is Luis. I’d like to talk with you, if that’s okay.”
“Do as you wish,” Qon Milfar said, knowing it was gibberish to the terran. The language barrier was probably the only thing keeping him alive; once it was solved, he’d be that much closer to death. “I have no choice in the matter.”
The terran – Loo-ees, he called himself – cocked his head slightly, then shook it gently back and forth. It was a gesture that conveyed his attempt and failure to understand. He leaned back and shot a quick glance to the reflective glass – perhaps other terrans were watching?
“May I tell you what I think?” the terran asked, smiling. “I think you’ve understood every word we’ve been saying. This whole time.”
Qon Milfar looked across the table at the terran. He was suspicious of any being that would wear fabrics across his body in such a fashion, but the demeanor of this particular terran was…well, it was calming. Almost peaceful.
“Am I right?” the terran Loo-ees added.
Realizing that this might be his only chance to make his situation known to a terran who was ready to listen, Qon Milfar reached for the gear strapped to his arm and removed a small device.
Loo-ees raised a flattened palm toward the reflective glass. It was a sign of caution, much like the gesture of the soldier outside the ship that did not shoot him. This confirmed two things for Qon Milfar: that there were, in fact, other terrans watching through the reflective glass; and that there were now, even though he had not shown a single sign of hostility, weapons drawn on him. The terran Loo-ees remained calm, either because of bravado or instinct.
Qon Milfar, still holding the small device out over the table, used his own instincts and decided that the risk was worth taking. He dropped the small device on the table and kept his arms still. He remained motionless as he watched the terran Loo-ees reach for the device, lift it, and examine it through the spheres of glass that adorned his eyes.
Luis drew no conclusions about the device. It was small, had no markings, and seemed completely inert. He was reasonably certain it wasn’t going to explode, but had no idea what to do with it.
The alien pointed to the side of his own head, then pointed to Luis. Glad that the alien’s movements were slow and non-threatening, Luis began to put two and two together.
It can’t be that easy, can it?
Luis hooked the device over the top of his ear. It was not unlike a Bluetooth headset, both in size and in function: as the alien spoke, Luis could hear more intelligible words through it.
“Yes,” the earpiece spoke over the alien’s native language. “I am understanding everything have that you been saying.”
Luis wasn’t looking for the upper hand in the conversation. It didn’t even register that he’d just had the first intelligent exchange of words with a being from another planet. All he cared about right now was representing the human race better than it had represented itself during the fighting of the last three days.
“My name is Luis, and we call our home the planet Earth.” It seemed like as good a place as any to start.
“I am called Qon Milfar,” the voice in the earpiece said as the alien spoke slowly, “and I am not wanting to know more about your planet Earth.”
Luis nodded. The alien did not make any kind of threat – that he had seemed threatening from the moment he was discovered made sense, given his appearance – but his lack of threatening behavior probably meant that they had all the time they wanted to talk…as long as the little ear gizmo continued to work, anyway.
“It’s been a very difficult couple of days,” Luis offered in an effort to solidify a truce. The alien let out a heavy, seemingly exasperated breath.
“I do not need you to tell me this thing,” the earpiece said.
Although it was just a computer relaying words through the earpiece, Luis could detect the tone of the alien’s voice in the words – it was not just the humans who were feeling the strain of the week’s battle.
“I have been asked,” Luis said hesitantly, “to find out more about your objectives.”
Qon Milfar brought his giant head about in a great circle before responding.
“I am not understanding this question about an objective,” the earpiece reported.
“We want to know more about you, what your role is in your military, and why you…” Luis paused, suddenly remembering that he was playing a diplomatic role in addition to his scientific one. “We want to know about your invasion of our planet.”
“I am understanding you now,” Qon Milfar replied. “I am only a Rolyna on one ship, but I will be telling you the things that I am knowing about this.”
The conversation went on. As Qon Milfar explained what he knew about the attack on Earth, Luis saw him grow weary – of answering questions, sure, but also weary from the day’s events.
Qon Milfar stopped talking, looked about the room, and finally brought his tired gaze down to the table. Luis, by no means an expert interrogation, could tell that the alien needed a break.
“Qon Milfar,” Luis said as respectfully as he could, “there are going to be many more questions, and this is going to take quite a bit of time.” He watched the alien nod, making sure the translator was working. “Before we continue, is there anything you need? Medical care, maybe?”
“I am must to tchalva for the safety of other survivors,” the earpiece said to Luis. The word did not translate, but he assumed that tchalva meant negotiate. “But before we get to that…”
The Colonel continued to watch through the one-way glass as Dr. Escoto continued his…what was it? Interrogation? Conversation? Were he and the alien just having a friendly chat? The Colonel was used to being in the know, not waiting around in the dark to be briefed at the whims of others.
Still, the interaction in that little room appeared civil, at least.
The Colonel maintained his composure, given that a sergeant and two corporals were still in the viewing room. They seemed just as flummoxed by Escoto’s risky play as the Colonel was, and if they were they had the good sense to keep it to themselves. They waited a few seconds after the Colonel had checked his wristwatch to check their own. Escoto had been in there for almost an hour.
Looking back at the desk against the wall – someone’s workstation, obviously, complete with family photos and pothos plant on the desk – the Colonel eyed the telephone. He had been toying with the idea of calling in a lip-reader, someone who could at least keep him up to speed on half the conversation, and his patience was wearing thin. Just as he steeled himself to step away from the mirror and make the call, Escoto rose from his seat, placed the earpiece on the table, and left the room.
Finally, the Colonel thought to himself. Time for some answers.
Escoto entered the viewing room quietly – almost somberly. For a man who had just finished the first conversation with an alien, he didn’t appear to be pleased.
“Gentlemen,” he said, glancing through the mirror at Qon Milfar as he patiently sat, “today we may finally learn what history has been trying to teach us for years.”
The sergeant and the corporals wrinkled their brows in confusion. The Colonel, however, had become hardened to the mysterious, aloof nature of the egghead set – and he wasn’t taking the bait. He nodded toward the other room.
“Translation device?” the Colonel asked, coldly. While allowing Escoto into the room yielded an enormous positive, it had a downside: it meant that the difficult conversations must now begin. Some part of the seasoned military man’s psyche had silently hoped that some questions would go unanswered and they could remain ignorant of certain facts of war. Such bliss no longer seemed possible.
“Yes.” Luis motioned to his deviceless ear. “Works both ways; he’s been using it since he was…what are calling it? ‘Captured?’ ‘Arrested?’ You’re probably going with something safe, like ‘detained.’ Right?”
“Can we get any useful intelligence out of it?” the Colonel asked. “Should I be talking to it instead?” His gaze followed Escoto as the doctor walked across to the desk with the houseplant on it. “How high up in the ranks is it?”
“He is,” Luis announced as if lecturing back at the University, “a Rolyna aboard his ship.”
“Is that like a General?” the Colonel asked.
“Well, the translator can’t handle certain nouns, it seems,” Luis explained matter-of-factly, “but I asked him to explain his duties aboard the ship, and from what I can figure out…well, the best translation for Rolyna would be ‘environmental maintenance engineer.’ I don’t know,” Luis added with nervous laughter, “if that counts as a rank.”
It was the sergeant who broke the incredulous (or, possibly, confused) silence.
“He’s a janitor?”
“Yeah.” Luis lifted from the desk a pad of paper a couple of pens, as well as the potted pothos, and headed back toward the door.
“Hold on,” the Colonel said, his hand extended in frustration. “What about the invasion? They weren’t trying to kill us?”
“Oh, yeah, they were,” Luis answered, still cradling the plant. “Their species identified Earth as a planet that could sustain plant life, and they’re running out of room to grow food.” Luis tried to keep any trace of accusation out of his voice as his gaze met the Colonel’s. “They’re herbivores.”
“So they were trying to conquer the planet,” the Colonel said in what was, to Luis, an obvious effort to justify all the violence of the last few days.
“Well, yes and no,” Luis answered, nodding slowly. “Their plan was to wipe out the humans and turn off or destroy all the technology and machinery.”
“Why?” asked a corporal.
“So that the planet’s atmosphere would return to normal,” Luis answered. “Don’t get me started on the on the irony of that one.” He found it difficult to keep the emotion out of his voice any longer as he faced the Colonel once more. “Their army, or their farming-preparation-corps, or whatever you want to call it, was trying to kill us and take over the planet, yes. That one ship’s janitor, on the other hand,” Luis nudged the plant in the direction of the one-way glass, “was just trying to keep the ship clean.” Luis turned, writing pad and plant in hand, and reached for the doorknob.
“Excuse me, sir?” asked one of the corporals. “What’s the lesson?”
“I’m sorry?” Luis was impatient to return to the task at hand.
“You said history was trying to teach us something, sir? What is it?”
The astrophysicist sighed and shook his head in futility, then turned back to the man in the crisp dress uniform with the eagle on his chest. “He doesn’t care about our politics, Colonel. He doesn’t even care about his own people’s politics. He doesn’t want any problems. He’s just a guy trying to eke out a living for his family.” Luis opened the door.
“What’s with the plant?” the sergeant asked.
“He’s hungry,” Luis offered soberly.
“Does he want anything else?” the Colonel asked with just a hint of sympathy.
“Yeah,” Luis sighed. It was a sigh of frustration, of sympathy. “He wants the one thing we’re powerless to give him.” He turned to the corporals. “He just wants to go home.”
Luis closed the door behind him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Cusick is the author of MEME (his debut novel), the unproduced screenplay “Freedom One” (named Best Science Fiction Screenplay, 2015 Table Read my Screenplay Competition), and has other books, stories, and screenplays in the works. He lives in Southern California with his wife, a constantly developing sense of self, and a weird cat.
Visit his website at http://jackcusick.com
Find him on Twitter @jackcusick
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org