Illustration: “Powercell” © 2006 by Patrick Stacy
The black security car slipped through the armored gates of the Areadni embassy like a cat sneaking out for a snack. Roger Desprey sighed, got out of his own car at the curb, and waved an arm. The limo slowed to a stop centimeters from his toes. He showed his ID (United Nations of Earth, Diplomatic Service, Level 9) to the human driver. When the lock snapped open he took one last breath of fresh air and opened the door.
The odor hit him immediately, a harsh aroma that always reminded Desprey of a tropical fish tank in need of cleaning. The Areadni Second Emissary sat inside. She wore a thin loose robe, black and crimson, that left her long arms and bony shoulders bare, displaying the dark irregular blemishes that covered the pale Areadni skin.
Desprey dropped into the opposite seat and straightened his navy blue jacket. “Good morning, Kry’ill das Sen’Pal.”
“Where is Susannah?” Kry’ill replied.
Susannah Anson had broken her ankle at racquetball that morning. The Human-Areadni Relations Commission’s computer had designated Desprey as an adequate substitute for the 10:00 a.m. meeting between Second Emissary Kry’ill and the mayor of Chicago.
Desprey chose his words with care. “She injured herself. I am Roger Desprey. The Commission named me to act in her place as your escort this morning.”
Kry’ill’s three eyestalks swung forward to examine him in an emerald glow. “Roger Desprey. Yes. Is Susannah dead?”
“No. She injured her foot playing a sport. But she is not able to walk.”
The eyestalks retracted into Kry’ill’s skull. “You are male.”
“Yes. I hope that’s not a problem.”
Kry’ill said nothing.
The car glided forward. Desprey looked at his watch. Today’s assignment was routine, if unenjoyable: escort the Areadni diplomat to the meeting where negotiations for an expansion of the embassy would commence. Not exactly the glory-filled destiny he’d anticipated when he’d taken the UNE Diplomatic Service test in 2064: he’d dreamed of traveling to other stars, forging historic peace agreements, spreading friendship and understanding throughout the galaxy. Instead, his days were filled with press releases and committee meetings and speeches. His only contact with alien culture was the occasional errand for the Areadni, which suited him fine. For all his well-intentioned dreams and ideals he couldn’t force himself to like them. Their blotchy skin was repulsive. And their smell nauseated him.
“Roger Desprey, please explain the sport,” Kry’ill said. “The cause of the injury to Susannah.”
“It’s called racquetball.” As Desprey tried to think of a description that would make sense, he felt the car swerve and glanced out the thick window to see the walls of a gray alley. “This isn’t the right way,” he said. He pressed the intercom. “Hey, where are we–”
The limo jolted to a halt, rolling Kry’ill forward in her straps. Desprey pressed the intercom again. “What’s going on?”
Everything happened like a vid on fast forward: shadowy human shapes in gray grabbed the door handles outside; fists pounded the windows. Desprey yelled. The driver’s door opened and slammed shut. The gray shapes backed away and then a roar shook the car on its springs and the shielded glass next to Desprey’s face shattered and he felt a blast of heat sear his skin. His straps bit his shoulders as the force of the explosion pushed him away from the door and smoky burnt air flooded the car. In the blackness he heard shouts and curses and then he felt a shock in his arm and remembered nothing that happened after that.
* * *
“Damn it.” Desprey’s voice echoed like a drop of water in a bucket. “Damn it damn it damn it….” With all his willpower he forced his eyes open.
Success wasn’t worth the effort. Bare drywall and a dim glowbulb was all he could see. His back ached as he attempted to sit up. He failed and fell back, hitting his head on the concrete slab of a floor.
“Damn it.” All the pain in his body seemed to pour up into his skull and he lay back, sniffling and groaning and wishing violent payback on Susannah Anson for not being here in his place, until his anger overpowered the pain and he tensed his muscles for another attempt.
This time he pulled himself up and slumped against a wall. Again he wondered why he’d bothered. The room was empty, cold, and dark, like the inside of a crypt. Four walls, low ceiling, one door. Probably locked. Where was he?
He patted his pockets but they’d taken everything, of course, along with his jacket and necktie and belt and wristwatch. The watch had a GPS tracking device but that wasn’t going to do him any good now. Bastards.
The driver had to be part of it. UNE security and the Areadni both screened humans applying for service work, but somehow this one had slipped through. Taken the wrong turn to a spot where they could be abducted.
Plenty of humans didn’t like the Areadni, but Desprey couldn’t guess why anyone would be stupid enough to make an attack like this. The Areadni had fourteen embassies scattered across the world but still maintained a huge starship in orbit over the Earth. They were capable of defending themselves without mercy, if necessary. They’d proven that during first contact forty-two years ago.
“You all right?”
Desprey looked up and saw a man standing in the center of the room. He had gray-streaked hair and deep lines in his face. “Sorry about the explosion, but we didn’t have much time.”
Desprey pulled himself as upright as he could and flexed his fingers. “Who the hell are you?”
“Call me Jag.”
“Well, Jag–” He blinked to focus his eyes. “What exactly the hell is going on here?”
“Nobody will get hurt, as long as the aliens do what we say. We didn’t know you’d be there.”
“We? Who are you with?”
“We are Power Cell 2027. We only care about the alien, not you. You want–”
“Where’s Kry’ill? I want to see Kry’ill.” Damn it, if anything happened to the Areadni while Desprey was responsible for him….
“She’s fine. Like I say, no one will get hurt.”
“Take me to her!” Desprey rocked forward, slid his feet around, and hauled himself to his feet. “I want to see her.”
Jag took a step away. “You don’t need to get involved with what happens to the alien. We got no quarrel with you.”
Desprey teetered on his shaking legs. “I want to see her.” He half hoped Jag would refuse again and let him off the hook. He wasn’t a bodyguard, just a PR guy pulled in for escort duty. No one was going to blame him for keeping his head down and staying safe.
But Jag shrugged. “Have it your way. She don’t smell so good, though.” He reached into his T-shirt and pulled up a shiny copper-colored tube hanging from a chain around his neck. “Neither does this. I squirt some into your face and you’ll be sleeping in whatever you had for breakfast.”
Mace? Or something worse? Desprey nodded. “You’re the boss.”
The corridor outside had concrete floors and beige walls and felt like something underground. They passed two blank doors and turned a corner. A small man sat in a metal folding chair reading a magazine. He wore jeans and Desprey’s navy blue jacket. Its arms were too long for him.
Desprey pointed. “Hey, that’s my jacket.”
“Get rid of it,” Jag told the guard.
He dropped the magazine. “I was going to give it–”
“Felix.” Jag shook his head.
“All right.” Felix frowned at Desprey. “What about him?”
“He wants to see the alien.”
With a snort Felix stood up. “He must like the stink.” He hid the lockpad with one hand, tapped the combination, and pulled the door. “Quick, while I can still breathe.”
Jag shoved Desprey’s back and he stumbled into the room. For the first two seconds his stomach fought an overpowering urge to retch at an odor like rotting vegetables and dead fish and he thought they’d tossed him into a refuse bin as a joke. When his eyes cleared he saw Kry’ill lying on the hard floor and heard the door slam behind him and he wondered if he would have been better off letting Jag just mace him.
“Roger Desprey.” Kry’ill’s voice was a murmur, as if she were only half conscious. “Are your injuries serious?”
“It hurts. What about you?”
“I am — weak.” Her eyestalks drooped like deflated balloons.
Desprey sat down and tried to concentrate on breathing through his mouth. “What’s going on? Did they tell you anything?”
Kry’ill’s body fluttered and she let out a quiet groan. “They told me to speak a message to Dari’all mak Pin’dai.”
The Areadni First Emissary. “What did they want? Ransom?”
Kry’ill made a sound like a cough, and spit something brown and vile from her thin slit-like mouth. Desprey knew almost nothing about Areadni anatomy but that couldn’t be a good sign.
“They told me to ask Areadni to give humans an energy converter,” Kry’ill said.
Pain flared in Desprey’s neck just as the impact of Kry’ill’s statement kicked into his consciousness. “Oh, hell.”
Now it made sense. A single Areadni energy converter could provide power to the entire city of Chicago and most of its suburbs. In 2027 a group of the world’s governments had traded a museum’s worth of cultural treasures for one and installed it in a testing facility outside Toronto. Two days later it blew up in an eruption that destroyed the city and obliterated the landscape for hundreds of miles, throwing enough ash into the atmosphere to disrupt weather patterns for the next year and a half. Thousands had died in the initial explosion and the immediate aftermath, and no one knew how many more people the pollution and climate effects had killed. After two angry years, the UNE finally passed a motion to request a second one, betting they could avoid a second catastrophe, but the Areadni rejected the request without explanation. Nowadays the world seemed split between humans who hated the Areadni for giving humanity the first converter and others who hated the aliens for not giving them a second one. Not to mention those who hated the Areadni for taking the world’s most precious artwork and refusing to return it.
“We’re dead then.” Desprey closed his eyes. “They’ll kill us when your people refuse to turn it over. Damn it.”
“No,” Kry’ill said. “Areadni will deliver it.”
He jerked his head up. It began to throb. “You mean — your people will give terrorists a power converter that could destroy the entire city?” His voice rattled off the bare drywall.
“We will not allow harm to come to one of our own.”
“Oh, hell.” Desprey wanted to lie down on the cold concrete floor and let darkness close up around him. He was wallowing in self-pity, he knew that, but he didn’t care. He was part of the PR staff. He wasn’t supposed to be a target for terrorists. It just wasn’t fair. Damn it.
After a slow moment the pain inside his head grew less jagged. He looked up again. Kry’ill stared at him, eyestalks extended.
Feeling embarrassed, he sat up, rubbed his face, and leaned toward the Areadni. “Are you all right?” She smelled different. Worse. Or maybe the odor was just building up in the enclosed space.
“Our internal organs are very delicate. I may have been injured by your people.”
“They’re not my people!” He couldn’t help himself.
“You are human.”
“They’re terrorists. Criminals. Don’t Areadni have some who refuse to follow rules?”
“They are still Areadni.”
“Well, these guys may be human but I’d like to injure them myself.” He made a fist. But what could he do?
On his feet he wobbled to the door. Metal, more solid than the walls. He tapped it with his knuckles, then pounded it with the heel of his hand. He might as well have tried to chisel granite with a fingernail.
The bare drywall around the door felt lighter. He pressed against it. With enough strength and about six months of martial arts training he might have been able to kick a hole in it, which would probably just break an opening to another wall behind it. He was no action-vid hero.
But he was a good talker. Part of working in PR. If he couldn’t fight his way out and get away — he looked back at Kry’ill and felt a stab of guilt — okay, if he couldn’t get them both out, maybe he could talk some sense into these people. If he got a chance.
He cupped his hands and shouted into the crack of the door: “Hey! We need water! Hey!”
Three or four minutes of shouting left him hoarse and weaker than ever but the door finally clicked. “Shut up in there,” Felix ordered.
What would get to this guy? A firm demand… a courteous request… pleading? He decided to go for the one thing they had in common: “I can hardly breathe with this alien in here. Could I please have a drink of water?”
Felix peered past him at Kry’ill. “You work for them, you ought to be used to the stink.”
“I’m a substitute, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the car today. Can I please have something to drink? I’m starting to feel sick.”
Felix sighed. “Hang on.” The door closed.
In the corner Kry’ill said, “Humans sense Areadni — differently. Stink.”
Had he offended her? “It’s — it’s very strong to human senses. Sorry.”
“Iren. That word is our personal — smell. Stink. We sense iren before our eyes see. Humans have iren, too. But very faint.”
Iren. Desprey remembered the word from a briefing memo. It didn’t make Kry’ill’s odor any easier to bear.
The locked clicked again. “Stand back,” Felix ordered, and Desprey took a step away as a plastic bottle sailed into the room.
Desprey caught a glimpse of Felix’s arm. The guard still wore his navy blue jacket. Ignoring Jag — or defying him. Good. “Thanks.”
The door slammed and locked.
Desprey peered at the bottle, his hands trembling. Bits of dirt floated inside. He risked a cautious sip. Water. Lukewarm but drinkable. He gulped some more. “You sure you don’t want any?”
“If I am injured internally, water will cause damage.” Kry’ill leaned her head back for a moment, then bent forward to spit again. Desprey held his hand over his face, fighting the smell.
“You’re going to need a doctor,” he said.
“Yes. The human environment is not healthy to Areadni for long periods of time.”
“Good.” He was tired and frightened and the word slipped out before he could stop himself. “I mean — maybe we can use that to get out a little faster.”
Kry’ill said nothing. For a moment Desprey thought she’d passed out but her eyes flickered at him.
Should he apologize? Would she really understand — or care? He staggered to the door again. The hell with Areadni feelings. The only thing that mattered right now was getting out of this room.
“Felix!” His throat hurt as he yelled. “Open up! I need some help!”
“Shut up!” The voice was faint and distant.
“The alien’s sick! I need some help!”
After a long, silent moment the lock clicked and the door moved a few centimeters. Desprey saw Felix’s forehead and one eye. “Shut up, would you? I gave you some water.”
“She might be dying!”
“Who cares? You asked to be in there with it.”
Stupid me. But Kry’ill was his responsibility, like it or not. “If anything happens to her and it screws up your deal it’s not going to be my fault — do you want it to be yours?”
“Well, I’m no alien doctor.” The door opened a little more. Desprey saw the shoulder of his jacket and Felix’s full face. His chin trembled as he flicked his eyes back and forth. “She don’t look so bad.”
“He’s not here. I’m in charge.” He pulled the jacket back to reveal the steely handle of a pistol in his belt.
“When is this going to be over? Kry’ill needs help soon!”
He let enough genuine fear leak through his voice that Felix hesitated. He pulled back a sleeve of Desprey’s jacket to peer at a wristwatch. “Couple of hours. Maybe. There’s nothing I can do. Just shut up.” He hesitated. “Maybe your alien buddies won’t mess things up.”
The door closed. Progress? Felix had seemed to listen to him but Desprey couldn’t imagine the guard setting them free out of worry for Kry’ill’s health. Or making any kind of mistake that would allow Desprey to snatch his weapon and shoot his way out like an action hero. But he had a couple of hours to think of something.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
The response took a long time. “I am weaker. It is difficult to remain aware.”
They might not have a couple of hours. Desprey tried to block out the fear tightening around his chest and the suffocating smell clouding the air. There had to be something. Felix seemed nervous. How much longer did they have? Desprey wished he still had his watch.
A couple of hours — Felix had looked at his watch. Desprey closed his eyes to picture it in his mind. He’d pulled back the sleeve of his jacket — Desprey’s jacket — to look at the watch.
He opened his eyes. He was sure of it. Felix had taken his jacket and his watch too. Desprey’s watch with the GPS tracking unit.
He stood up. His legs shook as he staggered toward Kry’ill, and suddenly his legs gave out and he sank to the floor as if falling down a water-park slide. Darkness rose up around him and he couldn’t shout, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. His body seemed to dissolve and he dropped into a cold, enveloping blackness and then felt nothing.
* * *
When he opened his eyes he saw Kry’ill’s extended eyestalks peering at him and felt one of her hands — her hands — rubbing his face.
Rolling his exhausted body over onto one shoulder, Desprey threw up onto the concrete floor. He’d never touched an Areadni before. He knew their skin wasn’t that different from his own flesh but the irregular dark blotches that covered it like boils always made him shudder. That and their smell made his idealism about working with aliens difficult to live up to under the best of circumstances.
Being kidnapped by terrorists wasn’t improving his opinion of humanity, though. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, coughed, and sat up.
“Are you injured?”
“Yes.” The half-empty water bottle lay on the floor. “Could you give me that, please?”
Kry’ill’s limbs moved heavily but she reached for the bottle. Desprey swished some water around his mouth and spit it out. Someone was going to hate cleaning this floor later, he thought. He took a sip and sighed.
“Listen,” he said. “They’re going to find us soon.” He hesitated. What if Jag had planted a listening device? “I just have a feeling. But we may have to move fast.”
“Areadni do not move fast on your world. And I am growing weaker.”
Great. It probably wouldn’t matter anyway. Felix would shoot them both if he got the chance. He’d die in this stinking room with an ugly, smelly alien and never breathe fresh air or —
The roar rattled the drywall around them. For a moment Desprey couldn’t breathe and then he wanted to shout with relief. “They’re here,” he whispered to Kry’ill. “We’re going to be okay.” For a moment he didn’t care about the smell and the pain and the fear because everything was going to be all right.
Another blast shook the room. What the hell were they doing? Jag couldn’t have that many people willing to fight back, could he? He’d only seen Felix. Maybe there were dozens determined to fight to the death. What if —
Another boom echoed off the walls.
Shouts. He could hear them outside, Felix’s voice and Jag. Maybe more. He couldn’t make out the words but the anger was clear. The yelling grew louder. They were just beyond the door.
Desprey scrambled to his feet. “We’ve got to…” He looked down at Kry’ill. Her body twitched and she seemed to gasp for breath. She wasn’t going anywhere. Not that they had anyplace to hide.
Damn it. He staggered toward the door. He’d attack them when it opened, knock the weapons from their hands, beat them down — or faint dead away. He slumped against the wall beside the door and took a deep breath that shot flame through his ribs. It wasn’t fair. This whole day just wasn’t fair.
Then to his surprise, the lock clicked. What the hell? Desprey tried to flatten himself against the wall. The door burst open.
As it slammed against the opposite wall, Felix lunged inside, holding a handgun in one fist.
Desprey’s heart froze, but then Felix lurched to a sudden halt and suddenly doubled over, retching. Kry’ill’s smell. Iren. Felix wasn’t ready for it.
But Desprey was used to it. Enough to react while Felix was fighting for breath. He hurled himself forward and hit Felix in a heavy awkward tackle that sent them both sprawling to the hard floor. Desprey’s weight knocked the wind from Felix and the gun skittered away from his hand across the floor. Desprey pounded his fist into Felix’s back with all the strength he had. He knew he was weak as a hamster but Felix was down and couldn’t pull enough clean breath up into his lungs to fight back.
Desprey rolled off Felix’s limp body. He crawled toward the gun and picked it up as he again swayed to his feet. Too late he thought of Jag, and he whirled in what felt like slow motion, his mind warning him that he couldn’t possibly lift his leaden arm and fire the weapon in time to stop Jag from killing him. But Jag wasn’t there. The doorway waited, wide open.
He staggered forward and smelled smoke. Holding himself up with both hands on the door — he’d dropped the gun without realizing it — he leaned out into the hall. Clouds of black burning air billowed twenty meters away, like dark thunderheads advancing across the sky. He turned his head, his neck shrieking with pain. The other direction was clear.
Another explosion. Were they firing rockets outside? Maybe Jag had booby-trapped the entrance. The smoke swirled toward him and he knew he wouldn’t be able to breathe once it hit the room. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
He turned. Kry’ill lay on the floor, breathing through pain, her eyestalks fluttering. “Come on!” he shouted in frustration. “It’s not safe here!”
“Go,” Kry’ill replied. “You go.” She lapsed into the Areadni language, then found her English again. “Cannot me move. Weak is my body too much. Go you.”
She lay on the floor, her body pale and slick with Areadni sweat. Something strong and ugly sliced into Desprey’s nostrils and his stomach clenched.
“Go you,” Kry’ill said. “You.”
She was setting him free. He could get away. He’d be safe. Not the alien, but that didn’t matter. Anyway maybe they’d get here fast enough to save her. But he could leave. Leave Kry’ill behind. Get out of the room. Free. Yes.
He staggered out the door, turned left, and stumbled down the hallway.
* * *
“I have one question for you,” Commissioner Rita Tulanis said.
Desprey sighed. He’d been waiting for this question. He dreaded it but there wasn’t any way to avoid it.
Tulanis’s office in the Commission’s headquarters was small and utilitarian, not much bigger than his own cubicle two floors down. But it still managed to intimidate him. The painkillers mixed with his post-traumatic stress had him trembling with fatigue but they needed to get as much information from him while his memories were fresh.
“Why did you go back for Kry’ill?” Tulanis asked. “Why didn’t you just run and leave her behind?”
He blinked, and even that mild movement hurt, but he hid his surprise. It wasn’t exactly the question he’d expected from the head of the Human Areadni Relation Commissions. His ultimate boss.
Desprey closed his eyes. Jag and his people had imprisoned them in a basement beneath a deserted shopping mall. The Security team had blown through a doorway with incendiaries that ignited some boxes of packing material left behind by a retail merchant — hence the smoke.
He’d gotten two steps out the door where even the burning air tasted better than Kry’ill, but then he paused. Kry’ill’s iren still permeated his clothes, his own skin, and he knew it would linger a long time. Days, maybe. Possibly weeks. Or longer. Maybe it would never fade, he thought, and he’d be trapped with the memory forever….
Then he was back in the room, bending down, holding his breath as he put a hand on Kry’ill’s bare shoulder — touching her spotted skin — and somehow he got an arm beneath her body. Her iren filled his lungs and he gasped for clear air but he spread his legs for balance and lifted her. His heart pounded, but to his surprise Kry’ill felt no heavier than a child in his arms, and after steadying himself he turned and lumbered out the door with her.
He hated Kry’ill at that moment more than Jag and Felix, more than the Security team, almost more than he hated himself for wishing he could leave her. But he carried her until they reached a half-open door to an empty, spacious storeroom where he could set her down. The Security team found him a few minutes later, lying next to Kry’ill in a daze, watching her chest rise and fall as he held one of her hands in his fist.
Why had he gone back? The question he’d expected from Tulanis was why he’d almost left her in the first place.
“Well…” He forced a laugh. “I don’t know. I guess I was afraid she’d survive and tell you I abandoned her, and you’d fire me.”
Tulanis nodded. “Probably I would. But hell, Roger — don’t get me wrong, the Areadni are important to us, but touching one?” She shuddered.
Desprey felt a stab of anger. “It was fine.” What did she think they were? “I mean, I couldn’t just leave her to die.”
“I’m just glad you’re both all right. The one you called Jag is dead, but Felix is alive, and we were able to intercept the group that picked up the converter, so it’s all good.” She smiled. “Especially now that we’ve got our hands on that converter.”
“You’re giving it back, right?” he asked automatically.
“Are you kidding? That’s the best part. The government’s been after us to get one of those things for years. This time we’ll get it right.”
He stared at her. I almost died because of that damned converter. He’d throw the thing in the river. But his own people were keeping it. Jag had done humanity a favor. Maybe.
He didn’t trust himself to say anything, so he let her dismiss him with orders to get some rest and expect a medal from someone. He left her office in a blur of exhaustion and anger.
* * *
A driver took him home in another black limousine. He spent thirty minutes in the shower before collapsing on his couch.
Desprey slept for fourteen hours and woke with every muscle stiff and aching. He swallowed some pills from the infirmary and took another shower. The phone buzzed as he was trying to pour himself some coffee.
“Roger Desprey.” Kry’ill looked calm and comfortable once again. “I hope you are well.”
“I’m fine,” he lied. “Are you all right?”
“I suffer some pain but our physicians assure me it will pass. We are pleased that you are unharmed.”
He could smell her iren in his skin and told himself he’d take another shower soon. Maybe. It didn’t seem to bother him as much right now.
“Please accept our gratitude,” she said. “Your efforts must have been very difficult.”
“It was… actually, it wasn’t that bad. I’m glad I was able to help you.” He hesitated. “I hope we can work together again.”
Had he really said that?
Kry’ill’s eyestalks peered at him. “Yes. I can request that. But if you would prefer not to I will take no offense. The iren is unpleasant to humans.”
Repulsive, Desprey thought. But… “It’s unpleasant to realize what some humans are willing to do to get what they want,” Desprey said, thinking of Tulanis. “The iren isn’t as difficult. I think I could get used to it.”
“Then we will see each other when you are recovered.”
He nodded. “I’d like that.”
Kry’ill cut the call off. Desprey found his coffee and leaned forward to take a sip, without lifting it any higher than he needed to. Maybe he didn’t need that shower just yet. *
About the Author: John Cowan writes newsletters on management and leadership, and lives in Chicago with his wife, his son, and their well-fed cat. His stories have appeared in Planet Magazine, Aphelion, Universe Pathways, and the anthology “Destroyer World: New Blood”, edited by Warren Murphy.
(c) 2006 John M. Cowan JCowan@ragan.com
About the Artist: Patrick Stacy got his degree at UMass in what seems a long time ago. He works in a variety of media, from pen and ink to oil, preferring to illustrate all genres. Winner of the L. Ron Hubbard’s “Illustrators of the Future” contest back in ‘96 (which is not a contest to become a Scientologist or meet Tom Cruise!) and currently is working on getting published more often.
(c) 2006 Patrick Stacy email@example.com
Web site: http://www.portfolios.com/pstacyart