At least on the last day of negotiations she had the decency to walk into the meeting room like any normal being. So sue me for being human, but nothing has disturbed me quite so much as seeing this blue skeleton caricature strolling around across the walls and ceiling with equal indifference. I can take it when I walk through the ship, but when you're in the middle of diplomatic relations, you damn well have a common sense of up. She'd only paced up the walls a few times, but after that incident when it'd turned me enough to get me green, she seemed to try and stop.
I, in the meantime, could only wonder why the hell no one but me bothered with a grav-belt. They built the damn tech, why didn't they use it?
"Greetings, Rakesh," Chiela declared in that damned monotone no one in this tin can ever breaks out of. I just nodded back, thanking whatever deity's out there that this was the last day.
My father's the diplomat, not me. I just pilot his shuttle around the domes with the occasional side jaunt to earth. But when a ship shows up out of nowhere, authorized and ignored on all sky-watch programs, and the aliens inside demand a pilot to work with, people have this funny tendency to give them what they want.
All of this had led to a two-week session of hell for me. I had enough background in the diplomatic arena that my primary duty as a ship driver was set aside. I'd been given an agenda and debate limits by all the leading dips - particularly my father, who figured he might even get planetary seat for the mess... whatever - and told to get up to the mess of metal, a space-dust-covered thing that looked like it had been patched together after half a dozen different ships all smashed into each other.
I'm a pilot first and last. Aesthetics are always a matter of personal perspective, but no one, absolutely no one, could look at the bloody mess the Arrivals traveled in and not shudder.
Kinda like the inhabitants, actually. They're humanoid, all right, but not a one could pass as human. All are tall, the average topping 6'5" with no problem. Skin ranges from the dead white of a corpse to a faded tan like old, dried up leather worn to a terrifying shine. I saw one that was a literal blue-black, but most are like Chiela - ice-blue like the tips of a glacier come to life. Freakin' creepy. They float around like human skeletons, all thin and stretched and spidery movement that's a combination of dancing and utter deliberation.
I know I'm gonna be avoiding any dancing for a long time when I head home. They have these wide faces like old Japanese masks, but the rest of them are almost literal bones. Just stripes of material that covers what a human would think of as the important bits and no more as clothing. And no hair at all, leaving those bloated skulls with eyes that bulge just a bit - doesn't help that they keep staring at you.
Makes a guy kinda wonder what they see.... It's stupid, but I keep thinking about Darwin and apes. I top out at 6'4" myself, making me a runt to most of them, and shorter by half a foot than Chiela. Brown hair reg'ed out at an inch long and actually earth styled, brown eyes, suntan - I feel too dark here. Not ghostly enough.
I wanted to go home to Imbrium so badly it literally hurt.
"So, we seem to have little left to discuss."
I nodded again, looking over my wrist-comp even though we both knew tech and future relations were all we had left before I could get the hell out of hell. Chiela ran her hands over the inch-thick disc leashed to her waist that seemed to serve the same purpose, and then we both took a moment to stare out the huge oval window dominating the meeting room. The thick plastic-or-whatever gave a great view of earth and the moon, both glimmering with the sun's light as well as the individual sparkles of humanity's most defiant presence. Ever since electricity first came around, man has used it to declare to space "Here I am!" Every single light you can see from a planet is a human spirit, rising out from the ground to declare that it does indeed matter.
I don't get to do atmosphere runs often on Earth, but it's always a religious experience. Roots aren't something most people think of anymore, but something about skimming down over that planet always gets to me.
Seemed to get to Chiela, too. She shoved herself up lightly, with that weird half-movement that nonetheless sent her shooting up and over to the glass. I got up normally, the strange light metal around my waist providing a sense of up and down to me as I sauntered over to the window. We stood there for a moment, until she sighed. I had to stare at her, it was such a human sound.
She stared out at humanity's planets as Mars peeked out from the side of the sun, the darkened habitat domes reflecting dimly even to here. For another moment, we just stood and watched. Finally, she spoke, her pale blue fish eyes never wavering from the human planets.
"I had hoped you wouldn't need the grav-belt," she declared softly. I automatically glanced down at the metal circling my waist - everything else they wore was manufactured of much softer materials. The inch wide blackened metal was almost too small to fit around me, and always gave off an odd, almost inaudible hum from the strange symbols attached to each hip. I'd worn it since my first step from my ship sent me catapulting into the docking bay, flying around like a superball while all those damned blue skeletons just watched, expressionless. One with green stripes passing for clothes around his body had sailed up, into the air, and casually grabbed me on his way past, apparently already having planned for how I'd have changed his angle of approach. He choose what I'd thought was a random wall and clung to it, rotating both of us in the air until our feet landed on it. Without a word, just the slightest pursing of lips, he'd handed me the belt. Took me a few fumbles to get it on, and something pinged in my head. All of a sudden the world made sense, and as my feet actually fit solidly to the floor I could make out up and down again.
Damned if Green-Stripes didn't give me a look that actually could have had shades of disgust in it as he pointed down a hallway off to my rear left. Most emotion I've ever seen in this tin can. "Chiela will meet you at the observation deck. Go that way to the window." Then he pushed off quick as he could, leaving me to slog my way down this tunnel until I'd reached the same room we watched Earth from.
"I had hoped-" She stopped, then sighed. "You came from your ship expecting a down."
She gave just the slightest of nods, and let the silence rest for a moment. "How long?"
The question was so quiet, so strange, I just looked at her. The alien said nothing, just stared out at the planet that I had only visited, yet still considered place of my birth. Home of my species.
It took her awhile to ask the question again. "How long have you been able to control gravity?" Her voice broke somewhere in the middle.
"Over a century. It's how we managed to get the domes structured and settled. You clearly have equal abilities." I gestured down to the belt, but I don't know if she ever saw it. She just kept staring at the planet.
The only reply I got was a soft "hmm" that told me nothing.
At last, she sighed again. "You have not asked what we plan to do once you leave."
Once negotiations are over. No one had any idea of their military abilities, but no one really wanted to find out. I didn't even bother to look at my wrist-comp. "I'm not authorized to grant you settlement permits, but I can point you to the right people, who would love to -"
"No." Her face showed nothing, but the tone, much to my amazement, held clear anger. How the hell she got that into just the barest syllable is beyond me, other than maybe I'd spent too long around these almost emotionless aliens.
Unfortunately, it also totally threw me. I'm not meant to be a diplomat. I just fly. So we stared at the planets in uncomfortable silence.
"You... humans," she finally burst out, "faking lives in plastic domes on foreign planets, ignoring your home - why not simply live on Earth?"
They really should have sent a dip. It sure wasn't anything polite that had me answering. We needed to talk about the damn points so I could go to the home she was mocking. "Like you're one to talk, stuck like rotten sardines in an ancient, ugly can?"
All of Chiela's emotion disappeared, even as she never looked at me, never looked away from the planets. "None of us have ever had a choice. Our parents were put onto this ship as children, growing into adults and learning from decrepit computers, cursing their children with - Why do you not live on earth?"
Well that was a tidbit I needed to pass home. No one had been able to figure out where they had come from or why. Maybe I could pick up the why. "It's not a very good place to live," I started slowly, joining her in looking at the origin of my kind. "Wars in my granddad's time led to a lot of destruction, which were perhaps necessary, considering the population explosion that came right before. When the dust settled, a lot of people didn't have homes, a lot of people were dead or missing, and no one knew how to rebuild."
"So you abandoned it all for greener pastures."
Well that was a funny saying. "We didn't abandon, we rebuilt up instead of out. Same way the ancients went from sprawls to high rises. We expanded in as many directions as we could."
Chiela stared out a moment more, then sighed. "You wear the badge of a criminal."
"We meant no insult, it was simply thought to be a ridiculous precaution. Thus the symbols to indicate your... presence." I gawked down at the grav-belt, half wanting to get it off, mostly just wanting to know what the hell was going on. "It is how we punish those who do wrong. If the act is not punishable by death, but requires measures nonetheless, they are locked into the belt. It can be calibrated for specific levels.... You are currently at a gravity far more than what we would put even the greatest criminal under. None of us would survive at that level.... It would be a slow, crushing death."
Again with the moment of damned silence. Then, ever so slowly, she raised her arm, just letting it float in the air, fingers neither pointing at nor cupping the earth.
"You missed a spot," she whispered. "Before you abandoned your earth, there were wars. A War, perhaps. And fore-thinking people saw what was happening, predicted what would happen. They also predicted the worst. They planned for it. And when The War's destruction got well underway, the population explosion made it easy for children to... disappear."
Thoughts of alien abduction and hundreds of old body snatcher movies danced through my head.
"They were taken - the orphans, the rejects, the lost. And they were placed away, taken to they knew not where, and raised after a long, communal sleep that made them older when they woke. They found they would not walk, but fly. There were no adults, only computers."
She turned, arm still raised and floating, as the hairs on the back of my neck finally started to defy gravity.
"There was no Earth. No home but a ‘tin can' they could never see. The computers were programmed to teach slowly, to grant only bits of knowledge drabbles at a time." A sigh, and she turned back to the window. "All the planning ever done could not accommodate what happened. The launch was far too early - means were to be found to create gravity, decent cryogenics should have been installed, adults should have been around. But in the end, we adapted. We fly, we learn, and we curse the next generation for the sins of the fathers." Her hand trailed closed, limply enclosing the image of the globe before dropping down to her side.
"We're done. Go home." She turned and slowly drifted off, barely raising her hands to pull herself along the corridor, never looking back.
I stared out the open door for a moment, then slowly let gravity have its way with me, sinking down to sit on the floor. I wasn't sure where to look; down the hallway where all those people floated, lived, wandered... or just out the window, at that suddenly strange blue and white planet snuggled next to the white orb of home.
At that moment, it all felt too familiar, too strange... I just wanted to go home.
Let me out of here!!!! A.K.A. Home
I want to read more! To get back to the fic archive
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