A short story to hold you you over…

I feel bad “The Middle of Nowhere” is not up. Here is one of my short stories. I don’t quite have enough of them to publish a collection like “Common Ground and Other Stories” But when I do this will be included.

 A Mission to Earth

 

In the security  business when you guard the President of the United States you’ve reached the height of your career. Not many are good enough to even get close to the position, and for sure the job isn’t a political plum to give away, it’s for a pro.

Two terms, eight years, is plenty for a president. You can look at photos of the Presidents that got a second term and see how the years hang their shoulders and line their face like an illness. Two terms, eight years, whether over one or parts of three administrations was also about as much as a Secret Service boss wanted to put in guarding the Big Man too. Eight years was plenty to get your own grey hairs and worry lines. After you held the top job all you really had to look forward to was a clean retirement.

Not that you had to worry about losing your pension or  benefits if you failed. But nobody wanted to be remember in the history books as the guy that let the President of the United States get killed. Do that, and there would be no golf dates with the replacement team, no hearty welcome to have a drink with  active duty members, no invitations to sit on boards of elite security firms, and no publishers seeking your memoirs of insider stories. Really, worse than failing would be if for some reason the Big Man, or those with his ear, lost confidence in you and wanted a change of guard.

That’s why Eddy Beckem felt a small twinge of fear when he picked up the phone and was told to report across the street.  The Protective services operated quietly in the background, and the only time they were really noticed was when something went wrong, or their charges were chaffing under the needed restrictions. He closed up his safe and terminal and checked out of the office locking up even though his secretary was there.

The tunnel when he got downstairs was in high security mode with extra guards. That would be mirrored on the White House side too. The higher alert must have happened in the short time since he left his office. He dropped his hand to his ‘Berry, then he remembered the tunnel was a dead zone for wireless. He passed a couple staffers in the tunnel. They didn’t seem to be hurrying or particularly grim faced, which was good.

The President was in the Safe Room, so that meant he went down not up from the tunnel level. The President been in the hole or on his way when the secretary called, so the security tightening was a thoughtful ongoing response to something not a panic reaction. He calmly collected and categorized a hundred details as he walked along and arranged their chronology in his mind. He even examined the cleaning crew and their carts looking for any change from a thousand other days.  If the flower vase on a table was different he knew it. Later the data might all crystallize into a sudden insight or not. That was how his mind worked every day and why he was so good at what he did.

The down elevator had two guards, and once inside he needed a swipe card and hand reader to verify his identity. There was no button to push because there was only one destination for this car, the same as the two other shafts going down to the secure level from further above. Eddy looked up in the corner at the camera lens, aware one of his men was watching behind it real time. If something struck that man as wrong he could suspend the car’s travel or override and send it back up. The elevator car had no maintenance hatch on top, and it would take some powerful cutting tools to breach the floor or overhead. It was more secure than a lot of jails. If the worst happened and an armed intruder made the elevator it could be allowed to fall free the considerable drop to the bottom of the shaft, then flooded if need be.

The President’s Secretary was waiting to lead him in, and he’d have welcomed some chit-chat and a chance to feel him out about the reason for his summons, but the man had a blank face and he turned on his heel without a word and motioned him along. That stroked his paranoia again, that he might suddenly be someone with who you didn’t want to be seen talking.

Through the doors into a vestibule and airlock if truth be known. The inner doors were propped open and there was a clump of people still standing backed up into the doorway like they’d just arrived. Nobody was seated yet. Usually everyone was seated waiting for the President and any late arrivals were underlings called in for dog and pony shows.

The President was talking, facing him on the other side of the knot of people and he recognized everyone in sight, but there were two foreigners with their backs to him with some sort of fancy robes on. They appeared to be the ones the President was addressing. He didn’t know of any such visitors scheduled, but he’d find out what it was about in a moment. He’d never seen anyone but staffers on this level before.

The foreigners were tall, having a half head on everybody, even a couple inches on the President. The one with the fancier robes had on something like a beret with fancy embroidery all around the edge. The other some sort of hat or helmet with fur stretched over it. He looked for the edge of it and it just seemed to blend into the neck. Then he looked at the ears and his hair stood up on his neck and he found himself holding his breath. The ear was a big triangle like a fox’s with a tuff of fine hair spilling out, but when the suited man beside him added something to the President’s comment the ear turned nimbly and alive and pointed at the speaker. He felt a hand on his wrist and his man Davison on the Big Man’s detail leaned close and whispered in his ear.

“Not good form Boss. Take your hand off your gun.”

He hadn’t been aware of gripping it, which was bad in itself, but Davison was a good man, and he trusted his judgment.

“Thanks, what the Holy Hell is with the freak with the ears?”

“Cute aren’t they? I’d bet with ears like that he can hear every word we whisper,” he warned. “I’ve had the morning to get used to them, but they do take your breath away first time. You’re just seeing the back. Wait until you get a full frontal and see the nose on these babies.”

The head turned like it had been a request and a narrow long nose bisected a reasonably normal face from well above the pale yellow eyes to where he expected a chin. It was covered with fine fur with a part down the center visible from ten feet away. The corners of the mouth where it was visible at the top curled in a natural smile and then he turned back to the President.

The overall impression was like a fox or maybe more like a reddish golden wolf with its chin tucked in. The snout didn’t poke out so much as it sloped down. And the eyes looked straight out over it not rolled up like the head was carried down. Where a wolf would lower his head to feed this creature would obviously lift it.

“Genetic engineering?” Eddy asked Davison quietly.

“Alien,” was his clipped reply.

“Made where? China?” he asked still not getting it.

“Alien – like spaceships and bad science fiction movies,” Davison explained a little irritated.

Well shit, excuse me if this is a little hard to absorb, Eddy thought. But then his brain kicked back in a bit finally and he realized the robes alone should have told him. Some lab creation would have been naked or in western clothing. Nobody was going to put a hybrid in embroidered Arab’s robes. And now he saw the creature had a heavy gold chain around his neck just above the robes. Well…

“Take me to your leader, huh?” he muttered to Davison, who looked shocked he’d gone from clueless to joking about it fifteen seconds. That’s why Eddy was boss. He was back in the groove already. “Why didn’t I know about this days ago and have time to brief everybody so nobody had to make mental adjustments on the fly like I just did?”

“Because they just materialized in the hall outside the Oval Office this morning and politely knocked on the door and asked if they could have a word.”

“They speak English, know our customs enough to knock for entry, and have matter transmission?”

“Good summary. They have a ship they want to bring down, but these two came ahead to ask permission. They didn’t want to upset us by landing at Andrews without clearance.”

“Okay, scratch the understanding our customs. Or they’d have known popping out of the air inside the White house would freak us a lot more than landing at Andrews.”

“Maybe they wanted to freak us,” Davison speculated. “Besides, they had much less of a chance of getting a missile up the butt in the hallway than in restricted airspace.”

“But much more of a chance of having a Secret Service agent take you down on your face and cuff you before you can say, Hello.”

“Their timing was good that way too. President Lowther saw then through the door and called off his detail from touching them. In the case of Morrison he had to tell him three times, but he stopped before the other agents had to stop him. Lowther claims he knew they were aliens the instant he set eyes on them.”

That surprised Eddy. He didn’t think of President Lowther as especially imaginative, but if he made these fellows that fast he was nimbler mentally than himself, he had to admit. “So we don’t have any knowledge what weapons these fellows may be carrying while they rub elbows with the President?”

“Come on Eddy, they could have materialized a bomb in the hallway, or likely wiped the city off the map and we’d have never known what happened. We might not even recognize a weapon as such, their stuff is so advanced from ours.” Davison rarely used his given name, but it worked to remind him they were equals in experience if not rank.

“Probably, but I don’t like how it sets a precedence for them to bypass security.”

“If it makes you feel any better, they don’t like to use the matter transmitter thing. They said once in every couple million tries you fail to come out the end where you are supposed to show and just disappear. Sounds safer than flying to me, but I guess they have a lot higher standards of reliability.”

“Good, if they walk in the door now like everybody else we can at least passive scan the heck outta them. I’ll assume their clothing is bullet proof, but if I stick my pistol in the Fox’s dainty ear and let one off I bet he’ll make just as big a mess as you would.”

“Come on Ed, he can probably hear you.”

“Good, they should know someone is dead serious about protecting Lowther.”

“They don’t seem particularly aggressive. They have not made any demands or even politely requested anything but talk. What they told Lowther first thing was one of their merchant ships found our world a couple months back and reported it. They are obligated, that’s the word he used, obligated to investigate and evaluate if our species should have a relationship or ignore each other.”

“Huh, Okay we can’t build space ships. I mean serious ones like theirs, yet. But if they are Captain Cook in his tall ship and we are the Hawaiians, the natives should still have some amusing trinkets or crafts to trade. Maybe we have some natural resources we can license them to exploit. A coconut or two, fresh water, whatever. As long as we are smart enough not to jack the price up until it is just less trouble to take it.”

“They haven’t mentioned trade at all. It doesn’t seem to be an imperative to them. Nor have they planted their flag and announced we have been discovered and Earth belongs to them like your explorers did. They are interested in talking. They want to speak with our philosophers and learned men. They asked to see how we conduct our family life and run our professions.”

“Oh good. They will see what humans are like from the people least attached to reality, ivory tower academics. I’d rather send them to a Vermont farmer or somebody running a decent  family restaurant.”

“You have a Doctorate yourself. Aren’t you kind of devaluating your own credentials?

“I know how the system works. I paid my hours and dollars and have the pretty sheepskin that says I’m socialized and can smile and nod and bullshit with the best of them. But nothing I learned in school showed me how to keep the President safe. If I could teach a course on it I’d probably have to flunk out more than ninety-nine from a hundred. You can’t flunk out that many and keep getting applicants. Crap, you couldn’t give that many a ‘B’ today before they give you a bad student evaluation and kick your butt out.”

“I don’t know how anybody as cynical as you ever got into public service.”

“If I was shoving license plates across the counter to the public or filling pot holes a ‘B’ mentality or even a ‘C’ performance would be fine. Guarding the President requires your ‘A’ game every damn day.”

Davison gave a grudging nod accepting that was the truth. He was a good man and detail oriented. He just wasn’t imaginative enough to lay out all the details himself. He needed direction from Eddy and they complimented each other well. Eddy needed Davison and several others because he was human and couldn’t function and be alert twenty-four hours a day. They respected each other enough to speak candidly.

The President was doing introductions. The Secretary of State had just been presented and as usual didn’t know when to shut up. President Lowther didn’t quite turn his back on him. He did however turn to his Press Secretary and draw attention to the second alien with the bare head and away from the alien in the fancier robes.

That fellow turned his head away to the new action too, leaving the Secretary talking to his ear, everyone looking at a new center of interest, and isolated awkwardly. He had no choice but to step back or look like an idiot. He could hardly chastise the President for speaking to someone. The alien didn’t appear offended, instead Eddy was sure he saw the same faint smile he’d seen on the other alien.

The President beckoned him with his hand, and Davison actually urged him forward with his hand on the small of his back. He’d tell him about that later.

“This is Edward Beckem the head of my protective services. Eddy has been with me from before I took office, when I was assigned protection as a candidate. This is the head of their delegation to our world and chief scientist. He tells me his name means ‘Watches Trees Grow’. Sounds like the sort of naming conventions our native Americans use, doesn’t it? And this is the fellow who does for him what you do for me, as I understand it. He is named after a Hawk like bird on their world so use that. He says we couldn’t pronounce it if we can’t whistle through our nose.” He took it as a joke and chuckled.

Eddy was surprised the second alien offered his hand. Eddy shook it easily. It was hard and slender. The nails were not claw like but way thicker and smaller than a human’s. He had an extra thumb he felt curl around the bottom edge of his hand

“Since you are employed similarly may I request I be paired with you?” Hawk asked.

“Don’t you have to guard your, uh, leader, friend, whatever you call Watches Trees?

“Hawk made a very human snickering sound. “See Excellency? “He immediately abbreviated your name. I’m told it is an American cultural thing. It was a tossup between shortening it and assigning you WTG as an acronym. I.bet that by tomorrow once he has my ear trained to Watches Trees, he’ll shorten it to ‘Watches’.”

“Don’t get smart or I’ll abbreviate Hawk,” Eddy quipped. Several dignitaries behind the President winced, but Eddy wasn’t going to pussy-foot around these fellows afraid to say anything. If Hawk could dish it out about American culture he could jolly well take it too.

Hawk was not offended. He both snickered louder and smiled even harder. “Indeed, I shall look forward to that,” he agreed. Good, he wasn’t a stuck up prig.

“Eddy doesn’t see me face to face that much. I’m sure he has his department functioning smoothly enough to take a bit of time away. So you keep guarding Watches Trees, he said deliberately shortening it, and he can both give you an Earth Human to study and be of service if you need a local to consult about security matters.”

Oh Shit, Eddy thought. But he smiled and nodded graciously.

Hawk leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Nice smile square tooth, but you look like you just ate a small animal and it wasn’t well.”

“Sometimes there is no point in arguing,” Eddy said quietly. “Better to know when to pick your battles and the rest of the time make nice, nice.”

“I’m going to learn a lot about the nuances of the language from you.”

* * *

     “Do you have a wife and children? Hawk asked later, over a buffet. More aliens had arrived in a more conventional shuttle once they were given clearance. Everyone had been moved upstairs into the White House proper. The aliens had brought their own lunch and had a fellow testing human food with a portable lab about the size of a cell phone that had a few humans salivating to try it more than the food. They marked the safe items with a toothpick with frilly green cellophane on the end. The bad stuff got a red toothpick, and the yellow ended ones meant we don’t know, but don’t blame us if you fall over dead.

“I was married years ago,” Eddy told him. “Our children are old enough to no longer live at home. They are both at university and have been several years. Being married to someone doing my work was very stressful. I wasn’t wise enough to balance my work and the demands of my mate and she decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation eventually. She was polite about it. She didn’t try to demonize me or impoverish me.” His answer rattled Hawk for some reason he couldn’t tell. Too honest? Too different than his cultural norms? He could speak up if he wanted, Eddy wasn’t going to interrogate him.

“Since you are alone, would it be too great an inconvenience to allow me to room with you rather than go to a hotel? We have a few staying in hotels so that experience is sort of covered.”

“I have a spare bedroom. I might like that actually. If only to see the look on the face of the old lady next door who calls the cops if you park crooked on your driveway. With a little luck one look at you and she’ll pop a vessel somewhere and keel over.”

“Once again you have turned words I am supposed to understand into a sort of nonsensical gibberish. You are making nautical references? Vessels and keels?”

“No, I mean if she is stressed sufficiently, and believe me everything stresses her, perhaps she will burst a blood vessel and go like an overturned sail boat – keel up,” he demonstrated, flipping his hand over.

“Ah, an aneurysm . Now I understand. You are one of two humans so far honest enough to express a dislike of fellow humans. The rest of them are still making nice, nice as I believe you put it.”

“You have a little radio in your head to access your computers when you need a word or an explanation?”

“Yes, but it isn’t a radio.”

“Neutrinos?”

“Good guess but it doesn’t work like that. And it isn’t my field, I’m not a physicist or a technician to explain it. A tiny diamond in my unit has a sameness with another little diamond on our ship. They speak to each other.”

“Ah, quantum  entanglement of macroscopic objects. Very neat,” Eddy allowed.

“The computer just brought in a Spatial Physicist on our ship that deals with our ship drives more than personal coms, and asked him if that was an accurate assessment of the technology. He said the equivalent of, “Son of a bitch; that short nose is quick.” The fellow walks around in a cloud of superiority, sneering at all of us peasants, so congratulations on impressing him.”

“Short noses huh? Could be a lot worse. How do we hook up with your boss in the morning and guard him?”

“A limo will come pick us up and then him. We’ll have a driver. Does that work for you?”

“We take him where, tonight?”

“We don’t. He is staying here in the White House.”

“Good, I should have seen that one coming. That makes it easy.” Eddy looked over a pile of alien delicacies and popped a thing in his mouth that looked like a little yellow paper. “Ah, hot ginger, but fruity. I was expecting a different kind of hot.”

“You aren’t afraid to try our food when it might be poison or provoke allergy?”

“Hawk, you guys are so far ahead of in biotech, I figure you wouldn’t take the chance of setting anything out here some fool would eat and kill himself. It would ruin the party. This was just a little test. You only brought nine items, if you had thirty or forty  plates laid out here I wouldn’t have believed that many safe. But nine? You guys like fancy stuff. Look at your bosses robe. No way you’d put out nine items at home for what amounts to a state dinner. I bet you go all fancy with pretty décor and fancy plates and such. Given how he dresses, Watches Tree’s place probably makes Versailles look like a country cabin. Am I right?”

Hawk just got that faint smile. “If you like hot try those little purple things. But don’t complain to me later. They won’t kill you, but if you didn’t grow up eating them you may wish to die.”

“Not bad,” Eddy agreed, chewing, after a bit. “Sort of like a Habañero, but with more flavor. Do you sleep on a bed and is a guest bathroom with a toilet and shower stall suitable for your use?”

“I can sleep on anything, even the floor. We don’t do that much wet bathing. Maybe once a month, because we don’t sweat. We like to sprinkle dry agents on our fur and comb them out. That affects our social structure. It is time usually spent talking or taking instruction together.”

“Bring your brush along then if you want. I had horses as a kid, and I’d use a curry comb on them after a ride. Little guy like you I can comb down in half the time. If it leaves a pile of hair we have a vacuum device that makes cleaning our carpets really easy. I bet sweat is really disgusting if you don’t do it. Fortunately we don’t care for it either. We go to a great deal of trouble to avoid it. My whole house cools down when it gets hot later in the summer.”

“We cool our places too. It’s pretty hard to carry on a conversation panting.”

* * *

     “This is called a townhouse. It’s an old style of housing, but they have been building them again in urban centers. You don’t mind stairs?”

“Not at all, we have had them back into prehistory.”

“How long you folks been out among the stars?”

“Is this an official questioning?”

“Not at all, that isn’t my job. But I’m not going to take a vow of silence to never tell anybody if you tell me something interesting.”

“You would keep such a vow if you made it?”

“No, because I wouldn’t make it. I am maybe a little off to the edge of the bell curve. I won’t lie to you but if I don’t like how you are treating me I will tell you to go to hell.”

“That, would bother me,” Hawk said suddenly serious. “Personal integrity is the main study of our philosophers and the theme of almost all our literature and theater and art. I have to examine our files and see this bell curve you are referencing.” He paused communicating again.

“This curve,” he traced in the air with a finger after a bit, “is statistics, range of variation, it can be a narrow curve or wide,” am I understanding? The alien asked.

“That’s good as a verbal summary. A mathematician would say it different.”

“Would you explain who would be at the other end of the curve from you?”

“Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think anybody has put that to me like that before. I’ll try to come up with a good answer.” Hawk seemed to lose interest if he wasn’t going to answer straight away and went to bed.

* * *

     Sitting watching old men talk is boring. The scientists and government officials and even a few military asked all sorts of questions. They seemed to dance around asking anything specific like it would reveal too much about them. Eddy thought they were idiots if they didn’t know Watches Trees Grow and Hawk could suck so much data out of not only the net, and any private computers they could see, that there could be few secrets. If alphabet agencies could do it from a van down the street these guys could probably do it from the moon. Or from a drone the size of a horsefly circling the building.

He always made general remarks about what sort of relationship the races would have was key to getting specific. Nobody ever asked what sort of relationship he wanted to have. They talked past each other with catch works like cordial and productive. It was depressing.

There were a couple times demonstrators were either on TV or visible from where people were meeting him. He volunteered a couple times to speak with them. He clearly said he’s speak with anyone.

Watching Trees Grow was always told he didn’t have to meet fanatics and the superstitious. The scholars were embarrassed. They also kept any of the popular news anchors well away. Foreign governments were furious, sure they were being cut out of all sorts of deals. The one lobbyist who had enough punch to get a brief interview was removed when Watching Trees suggested the man was unbalanced and he should be evaluated for a mental condition. He also asked if that was real English the man was speaking.

The unproductive days wore both sides down. It was only a week before Watching Trees Grow announced they would wrap things up and go home in two days.

“Will you be allowing traders to stop and do business with us? he was asked.

“No one is forbidden from trading with you, but I doubt any will choose to.”

“Is there something we said to offend you?” One of the President’s advisers asked.

“Not at all. You’ve made every effort to speak with courtesy.”

When they returned him to the White House Eddy could tell the alien was really tired. He saw signs now how very old he was compared to the others.

He had supper with a sullen Hawk.

“Watching Trees Grow” would seem to be the name of somebody with a lot of patience,” Eddy pointed out.

“Indeed he is.”

“But your leaving seems early to us. You just got here to our way of thinking. And it doesn’t seem like we have accomplished much.”

“Well, like when your boss sent you off with me, sometimes you can just see it wouldn’t do any good to speak, and it is better to let it go and make nice, nice. We are taking our leave as nicely as we can.”

He got up and made himself a drink, considering it. “Do you folks drink ethyl alcohol?”

“We drink fermented fruit. Stuff you’d call wine I think. We never invented beer, because we eat very little starchy grain. My computer tells me those of us who have tried beer like it. If I eat much rice or potatoes it will upset my digestion. But beer hasn’t bothered anyone.”

“You don’t distill alcohol?”

Hawk looked alarmed. That was a new face to catalog. “We distill alcohol for fuel, or chemical stock, solvent. Not to drink.”

“Oh, well here is what we call a shot and a beer.” He brought a couple tall chilled bottles of beer, and poured tiny glasses of whiskey. “Up to you if you want to try it.” He knocked back his whiskey, rolled it around in his mouth and chased it with the beer.

Hawk sniffed at it dubiously. “For science,” he declared, and tossed it back. He blew his breath out in one long blow. For a minute Eddy was afraid he wasn’t going to suck it in again. Eddy pointed at the beer. Hawk regarded him with tear filled eyes and sucked a shuddering breath in. He chugged some beer and belched and chugged it again. “No wonder they like beer if it is after the whiskey. I’d drink anything to uh, flush? rinse?”

“We call it a chaser,” Eddy supplied.

“I don’t think it chased it far enough.”

“Now you are cracking jokes in English,” he said pleased. “To answer your question you proposed to me a few days ago, I have a relative. He shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. He’s at the other end of the curve in my opinion. He lies even when he doesn’t have to lie. Maybe just to keep in practice for all I can tell. He might lie because he doesn’t want to start any bad habits and if he tells the truth casually he may mess up and tell it when it matters. He would never make any complaint about you unless it was for gain.”

“Don’t people avoid him after his nature becomes obvious?”

“I do. I haven’t seen him in years. But a lot of family will still invite him to family functions. They seem to forgive anything for kinship. Not that they would loan him money. The thing about it is if you live in a big city, you can meet new suckers and never run out of new people to fool in a lifetime. He doesn’t lie about business badly enough to be taken to court. At least not too often. But when you put your hand out for change you better count your fingers as well as the coins you get back.”

Hawk snickered. “That translates very well actually.” To answer your question. We have been out of our star system for a bit more than two thousand of your years. It took us that long to explore and get established all over our home system.”

“About as long we have a fairly reliable written history,” Eddy noted.

“This is usually the third question others ask.” Hawk volunteered.

“Good, I’d rather not bore you. What do normal aliens inquire first?”

“How did you get here? That is, how does your ship work, and have you met other aliens traveling around?”

“No point in my asking how your ship works, because I am not the technical sort who would be able to make a functioning device from your answer.”

“Says the guy who so casually figured out our com system.”

“Doesn’t really matter if we find out exactly how you travel faster than light anyway. Once you know something is possible that is 99% of it right there. The rest is engineering.”

“You believe that!”

“Absolutely. You must be in our net and have access to our history. Please look and see how long we took to go from sail boats and horse drawn carriages to nuclear powered ships and rockets into orbit.”

“That’s impossible,” Hawk said staring into the air, seeing other things in his very literal mind’s eye. “Less than two hundred years? Why didn’t I see this before?”

“And as for other aliens. Of course you have met them. You are slick at learning a language and presenting yourselves effectively to the local savages. What tells me more about them and maybe you, is you didn’t bring any of them along with you.”

“Could I have another beer?”

* * *

     Later, when they were both a little deeper into their cups, Eddy asked: “I know he’s in the White House. There isn’t any place much more secure than that. But doesn’t it make you itch not to be near and supervising his security?”

“I’m not so much his physical security,” Hawk explained. “We are more like your Japanese. A very homogenous society. There are very few who would harm his holiness. We have much less mental illness, because our medicine is more mature. I’m more a balancer. I provide a counterpoint to his decisions and desires. I’m more an administrator and he is an idealist, but neither of us compel, it’s not our way. Sometimes you go with what you want to do and sometimes the cost is too much. I try to keep him from biting off more than we can all chew.”

His holiness? Eddy thought. He didn’t ask. He just got Hawk another beer.

“So what sort of bite have you taken on that was a burden?” Eddy asked two beer on.

“Oh the Riyth,” Hawk answered without hesitation. “There were twelve billion of them on three worlds. It has been three generations since we uplifted them and we are still recovering. It will be another three before we are back to taking care of our own concerns.”

“Were they oppositional? Difficult with you?” Eddy didn’t want to say the word war.

“Difficult? They loved us! Loved us to death almost. Do you know how bad they were?” He asked Eddy in a slurred voice.

“No, tell me.”

“They didn’t know how to read. Twelve billion sapients who memorized things and did calculations in their head and carried on astronomy by oral tradition. Can you imagine? They would call across the continent on a telephone, describe a complex part to be machined and when they made it and sent it the part would fit.

“They must have generally good memories.”

“Well, they breed for it obviously,” he said waving a hand. “If you can’t entertain your lady love by singing five hundred page classic ballads you don’t stand a chance of winning her love. All we did for them and the joke on us is they pity us for being what they consider mental defectives.”

“That seems, unappreciative at the least.”

“Glad you understand. It’s rough doing the right thing. Sometimes it is just too much to expect us to keep volunteering,” you know? He was having trouble sliding off his seat. “If you guys can bootstrap yourselves up like that in two hundred years, I don’t see you need much help.”

“Your probably right,” Eddy agreed. Hawk was on the thin line between being open and unconscious. Eddy thought this was a good time to ask what he had been holding back most of the evening. “Why do you call your boss his holiness? Is he the religious head as well as the political head?”

Hawk looked at him slightly cross eyed, “I’m as close to what you think of as the secular head, executive call it. My job to be practical,” he explained. “He’s religious, well not head, but public voice? speaker? conscience? He doesn’t order the race about. He just states the ideal if you wish to know and try for it. It horrified him to see your scientists and religious people at odds with each other. He’s the head scientist. If he finds out something about the universe it makes God’s face just a little clearer to him. But any time somebody religious wants to meet him they make excuses and are embarrassed they even exist and shoo them away. Not like us, and he doesn’t know how to tell you. Galileo? Our church folk would have carried him through the streets on their shoulders and given him a prize, not put him on trial. There’s a passage in your bible we saw – ‘His invisible qualities are seen by the things made.’ Something like that, pretty close. Somebody here got it right at least once…”

“What should I do?” Eddy asked. “How can I straighten things out?”

“Can’t order you. Not my job. You gotta ask his holiness. He can’t order you either…”

“What should I ask him?” But Hawk was passed out, and aliens snore.

* * *

     All the lesser aliens were in their ship and seemed eager to go. Only Watches Trees Grow and Hawk remained on the tarmac to bid a formal goodbye. President Lowther looked dismayed. His career was over next election. Nobody understood why there was a failure, but if the aliens were leaving without mankind getting any goodies that is how it would always be seen.

Eddy was so close to understanding it, and it just didn’t click. They didn’t want trade. Mankind didn’t seem to have anything they wanted. If they didn’t want something why were they here? He stood there looking at Watches Trees Grow shake hands with the President. He had on a gorgeous cape today. It was a silvery fabric with little seed pearls and a rolled candy strip piping along the edges. He always had on the same beret,  just like the pope always had his little beanie. They were really leaving. All of them. Crap, even if an island didn’t have any gold or anything the Europeans at least left somebody behind. They, they, Oh! Oh,oh,oh…

The alien turned to go and Eddy stepped out of line and sank to one knee. Alarm filled the faces of the humans. But nothing like the horror on Hawk’s face. “Your holiness, how can you leave without instructing us? Will we ever see the face of God clearly on our own? Do you refuse to help us?”

“No indeed,” the tired alien answered, bags beneath his weary eyes. “it is my great honor to instruct you, if you ask. You said to just show you one,” he said turning his face to the other alien, “Well, here is your petitioner.”

– END –

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