Fizzblit tried to ignore the stink of ozone from his ship’s fried controls. He found it hard to concentrate on the decrypted communications scrolling across the holo-screen his personal c&c (Comms and Computer) had projected above his wrist, thankful that he had downloaded the encryption for all of the Dirt native’s militaries. No, he corrected himself, Earth, not Dirt. He had never understood the distinction between the two words, nor why the humans chose to call their world, effectively, dirt. From the reaction he got the time he accidentally used the wrong word when interviewing an alien there had to be a difference, though.
That incident had nearly cost his internship, too. Strong emotional spikes caused problems with the memory suppressors, and the way that guy’s mind scrambled made it into text books all across the galaxy. He shook his head at the memory. Anal probes? Really?
Satisfied, and with a small sigh of relief, he turned off the monitoring app on his c&c and made a mental note to thank his advisor for the clearance to download it. The cloak had lasted long enough, and his entry into the water had been far enough from any water craft for him to remain undetected. He allowed himself a moment of self-congratulation over that last bit. Managing an emergency splash-down, even in a lake the size of a small sea, without alarming anyone would be tricky with everything working. Doing so with the controls failing required special talent, he felt sure.
A fresh puff of smoke from the console brought him back to the current moment. Who should he call? The ‘correct’ answer to that question happened to match the answer to the question: ‘what c&c call at this moment would end his academic career?’
New question, then; who *could* he call. No, not her. Not that they had ended things on a bad note, quite the contrary really. He just hadn’t talked to her in too long. And, as an engineering student, she may not have heard about the anal probe incident. If he called her now…
Another sigh, this one of frustration and far greater gusto, and he dialed her number. Maybe he could avoid the subject… “Fizzblit! There you are! I have been meaning to call you for the longest time. What in the galaxy did you say to that poor alien to make him run around with stories of anal probes?” … or maybe not. Her laughter did nothing to help his mood.
“I failed to learn the difference between two words for dirt, it seems. These aliens are weird, and that sort of thing is exactly why I went into Archeology instead of Anthropology. I never wanted a ‘live culture’ assignment. Give me a nice, safe dead world with a nice, safe dead civilization which can only give academic surprises: not career ending ones.” He took what he hoped to be a telling and dramatic look around him, “Or life ending ones. If I ever find out who started this fad of anthropologists cross training with sociologists…”
Sherlain made a sympathetic face for a moment, then brightened when a new question came to the surface, “Hey! isn’t that the same world where they had a ship crash a few decades ago? I heard someone’s body failed to dissolve, and the natives ended up with something to study. I saw the pictures that got into their media, though. What race was that? And, did the poor sap’s essence get back to a regeneration station? For that matter… What, why do you look confused?”
“I don’t know what you are referring to, love. We have had one other incident with this Observation, well before I even got here. A one-man ship crashed in one of their frozen wastelands, but the safety controls worked correctly, for the most part.”
“No, no no. I know it was the same world. Crash happened near some little city called Razzel or something like that. In a country called the ‘United States’. Who comes up with a name like that, anyway?”
He harrumphed, “Careful you don’t ask a question like that of one of the natives. They, particularly the ones from that particular tribe, get really huffy about questions like that.”
“Tribe? Tribe, Fizzblit? Really? These aliens are advanced well past tribes, even I know that. No wonder you had such a problem.”
He kept his curled fist out of the camera and tried not to show his frustration. She’d almost wandered away from the topic. Time to try and push it back, “No, the crash didn’t happen there. It was clear on the other side of the planet, in fact. Place they call Siberia. Nothing but tundra as far as the eye can see. Enemies of the nation you are talking about, by the way. At least, they were at the time.
“It almost caused small spot of trouble, even though the safety systems worked. The pilot’s body dissolved just fine, and he came through regeneration just fine, but the cold kept some of the metal from being destroyed. Nothing much, scraps with lettering and a few safety diagrams. Still, not enou…”
She had a stubborn look on her face, which got replaced by grainy images of some grey alien with oversized eyes and head. “No, it was Earth. I assume you recognize the language of this broadcast. I still have no idea what race this poor guy… wait… what… why are you shaking your head?”
“I remember now. The two nations were enemies, right? The nation which the ship crashed in, they only recovered scraps. The other country, well, their spies managed to get them some pictures of those few scraps. They assumed that more existed, and were afraid that the first nation (where the ship crashed) would be able to get a leg up in the technological arms race they were having.
“So, the second tribe… ok, fine! NATION, created a fake cover up: Made it look like they had a fully in-tact ship, with an alien body, and would be able to glean advanced technology from it, in order to deter the other nation from making weapons with that advanced technology, for fear that they would have the same sorts of things turned against them.”
She shook her head slowly, “Sounds crazy. You are studying a world full of crazy people, sweetie.”
He shrugged, “Study our history, or anyone else’s, really. That age of technology tends to be a bit volatile.”
Her brows came together, “Wait, that still doesn’t explain the alien. If the second nation ‘manufactured’ their alien, then what template did they draw from? What I am seeing in this picture looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it. Has been bugging the heck out of me since I saw it. What? You are shaking your head again.”
He smiled slightly, “You are the engineer love. I would think that you’d find that familiar. You are used to seeing it as a 2D representation, though, not a sculpture…”
She stared at him with annoyed concentration for a moment, then her eyes got huge and she began to giggle herself. “No… NO! You gotta be kidding me! Do you have any idea how much we make fun of the amalgamation figures they put on pictograms? You are really telling me that… ” he nodded, she burst out in laughter, “Oh, my friends are going to love this one. Please tell me that the sculpture is sitting in some warehouse somewhere and can be recovered some day?”
He shook his head, “Afraid not. Wouldn’t do any good to create a fake cover up if someone discovered your props, would it?”
This brought another round of laughter from them both. “Listen, Sherlain, I’m afraid this is not just a social call. I am in a bit of a bind here. I was picking up some of their smaller space junk for someone to analyze and my controls started to go out. I managed to land in a huge lake on the north end of that second nation we were talking about, but the controls are good and fried. I’m still smelling ozone.
“I had the repair bots check the damage, and they say that the needed supplies are not on the ship…”
“Aaaand you don’t want to contact Varlan to request extraction, since it would probably end your academic career. Not to mention he would probably tell you to destroy the ship and spend the next six months in a regen vat. I can sympathize, but what do you want me to do about it?”
“Well, I have the supply list. I was wondering if you could take a look at it, and see if I could pick things up locally…”
“Seriously?!? You are thinking about breaking protocol and going out? I know you don’t have a skinsuit, and even if you did…”
“Well, they recently relaxed the protocols for this place. Limited contact is allowed by qualified personnel, or in the case of an emergency. This is a crash landing, so an emergency.
“Yes, I know I’m skating on thin ice by acting instead of calling control for clearance. Yes, I know they are still a rather violent bunch and I could get killed, Yes, I know it is my career if I screw something up… but my career is over the moment I call control, and that might as well be dead anyway, right?”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine send me the list.”
He sent it, and began to work on his other problem, how to go out among the humans and not get killed or, worse, cause an embarrassing incident. He remembered one of the other students laughing about something, and looked it up. A smile pulled at his lips as he tapped into the human internet and a plan formed in his mind.
It took three hours for her to call back. She smiled on the screen, “You are in luck. The things you need are fairly minor. Someone really screwed up on maintance for these parts to have gone out, but there are Dirt-equivalents.” She smiled at his grimace. “You still have to find a plan to get local money and get the stuff. What you will need isn’t much, but they don’t exactly give away things for free, and even relaxed protocols will keep you out of public places like stores, right?”
“Oh, yes, but I have a plan. This world is at an early stage of their information revolution, following a path of idiot elevation and lowest common denominators such that the intelligent have formed their own subculture… “
She cut him off with a wave of her hand, “I am a tech, hun, keep that up and I am going to start babbling at you about bi-latterial power conversion matrices.
“Wait, you said the creative intelligents have formed their own subculture? You don’t mean….”
He leaned back and threw his arms wide, banging one painfully on a fallen strut. Sherlinda giggled at him as he sat forward and nursed his hand, but his smile could not be contained, “Yep. A science-fiction convention. I am in great luck. There is one starting this very day, in the major city at the edge of this lake I landed in. I should be able to pass unnoticed, just as I am, through the city today, and finding a sympathetic ear should be easy enough.”
“You are so crazy, always were.” She smiled, “First you don’t want to be on a live alien assignment, now you are going out among them without a skin suit. That’s one of the things I always liked about you, always a new adventure.”
He gave her a mock frown and grumbled about adventures, but that look in her eyes said she saw right through him. He felt both grateful and annoyed at that look. Grateful that it made him a little more excited about his plan, annoyed because it left him no way to back out. He couldn’t embarrass himself like that in front of her…
Getting on shore was simple enough. He waited till a little before dawn, and made sure to come ashore in a dark, low traffic area. Being seen walking across the water just would not do. Thankfully this city had a mass transit system, so getting to the con proved to be no trouble. He found himself thanking his professor again, this time for making him learn some of the native’s languages. He probably had a horrible accent, but was fluent. Sherlinda had walked him through making his c&c interface look like a local coms device, so that didn’t concern him. He just had to make sure he didn’t accidentally put a finger through the holograms.
He walked the streets of the strange city and marveled at how similar the societal evolution of all species got as they approached a certain level of technology. Dozens of worlds, none of which ever met, and all of their cities began to take on the same feel, the same sort of construction, as they came out of their industrial age. He could stand on the street corner, squint his eyes, and almost believe himself to be on a properly civilized world. Likely these humans would be contacted in no more than a couple of their generations, before they stumbled blind into areas of science likely to do damage beyond their own little solar system.
He drew a lot of stares on the train, but his c&c prevented anyone from taking pictures. Most people were polite and allowed him to decline, but a few did not. He found it hard to hide his smirk when their devices suddenly shut down on them.
As he drew nearer to his destination more and more of the aliens wore costumes, and he drew fewer stares. A few of them wore costumes strange enough that he caught himself staring, and had to remind himself that he had worn his recorder to keep from taking pictures of his own.
The ‘con’, as the natives called it, proved to be a cacophony of color and noise as bad as any multi-species academic event he had ever attended. No, worse. Those events showed far less ‘diversity’ of (apparent) species, and often more conservative dress. He felt totally out of his depth for a moment. The assault on his visual and auditory nerves threatened to overwhelm him, but he managed to grasp a thread of normalcy: something familiar to tie him back to the many events he had attended in his life… the registration line.
He couldn’t suppress a smile at the irony of being glad to see a line, even as he anchored to it and queued up. The cracking programs on his c&c made short work of the registration process itself. He couldn’t remember if the humans were dextros or sucrose, so he opted out of the ‘meal card’ option, and felt disappointment the he couldn’t add money to his badge for use at the vendors.
Badge in hand, in order to prevent embarrassing encounters with security, he set out to find what he needed. He hadn’t made it thirty paces before being stopped by a girl wearing some sort of fur suit who commented on his ‘costume’, tied a numbered ribbon around his arm, then pranced merrily away. He considered removing the ribbon, but noticed several others on those wearing costume and figured maybe he would fit in better if he left it on.
Somewhat bewildered, he kept his eyes mostly on the ground both to avoid any potential embarrassment from conversation and his own confusion at the swirl of colors around him. He found the vendor room with little effort, and began to walk through, his hopes sinking with each step he took after he got into the door. He had hoped to find the vendors selling components, but all he found was commercial crap for which he lacked any appropriate reference.
Many of the vendors he stopped at made comments about his ‘costume’ or his ‘cosplay’ (which he assumed to be the same thing), and he got more than a few interested looks from the females, a few of whom seemed to be a little insistent about making sure he took one of their ‘cards’. It took a few of these encounters to realize that this appeared to be a step in one of their forms of mating ritual. He knew that such things could get confusing at this stage of social development, but exchanging cards with identity codes?
The student in him became interested at this point, and he began to watch the exchanges, from a distance, where these ‘cards’ got handed off. He noticed a man handing one to another man and, in fear of an altercation, began to look for an escape. He knew that most of the human cultures still had very strange ideas about homosexuality. The man received the card with a smile, however, and Fizzblit relaxed. Maybe this subculture had more progressive attitudes.
The sound of a loud smack registered in his mind before the slight pain in his behind. When his feet returned to the floor he, still startled, stared at the (presumably) young woman giggling furiously at him, wearing fake cat ears and fur which left more skin exposed than even a Ndarin would consider appropriate. He groped for an appropriate response, but she seemed capable of giggling and talking at the same time, “you are awful cute in that outfit, honey. Wonder if you are as cute out of it. I have to say I am impressed, I can’t even tell what is make-up and what is fabric.” She stepped closer and ran a finger down his chest, “Ohh, and where did you get such pretty cloth? What is it? Maybe we can go back to my room later and…”
He had tried to back up slightly, but she used it as an opportunity to step forward and sway her hips in a fashion he thought he remembered human men finding attractive. Another female grabbed the giggler’s arm and cut her off, “C’mon Linda, the panel starts in five minutes!”
“Oh, just give me a minute, here. I was just about to get cutie-boy’s name…”
‘Linda’ turned back to him, with a smile he could only classify as predatory. He took another step back and Linda’s friend spoke, “More like cause the dweebe a heart attack! Can’t you see he’s terrified of you?”
“Oh, I know, they are so cute when their eyes get big like that.”
Linda’s friend tugged on her arm, “Come ON! This guy is a total goob, I can’t even recognize what he is supposed to be. What kind of hopeless you gotta be to spend that much effort making something neither of us recognize?”
Linda rolled her eyes, tried to put her hand up to his face, but he backed away. This elicited another giggle. He tried to think of a way to extract himself from the situation. He started to ask her for her card, but Linda’s friend pulled on her arm again and she wandered away.
He assumed that ‘Linda’ was an attractive enough girl, for a dirtling…. earthling…. but certainly not his type. Too short, for one thing. He took another look around the floor, then pulled out his c&c. It had a list of the parts he needed, and a basic scanner came as part of the gear built into the project-issued c&c. If he got really lucky…
Yes! Most of what he needed was, in fact, in this room. Half of it was in one item, some sort of remote-controlled mini vehicle by the look of it. Should be right… there!
He walked over to the table with the wheeled… thing. A smiling, overweight human with a beard appeared out of no where on the other side of the table, and he had to suppress a smile himself. Dozens of sentient races, thousands of different kinds of events, but vendors were the same everywhere.
The man wasted no time, “Hey, man! Great cosplay. What is it from? Never seen the like. Whatever it is, gotta say, class act.” The man looked down at the vehicle, “You can give it a try if you like, got ’em on sale for this con.”
Fizzblit looked at the price tag on the item, and cursed silently that they didn’t have things set up to let him put money for the vendors on his badge. “Listen man, I need this thing, more than you know. I can’t exactly afford it, though. You see, we don’t exactly use currency the same way where I’m from.” He took a look around, tried to make sure no one was within earshot, “You see, this isn’t a costume, man.” He pinched his skin, pulled some away, “I really am from… well… lets say ‘elsewhere’. My shuttle crashed in the lake, and your little toy here has most of what I need to fix it. So, in the interest of inter-species relations…could you help a guy out?”
The guy behind the counter displayed an expression, for the moment, which he knew all too well to be human anger. Then laughed, “Oh, I think I may have seen this one after all. Let me see if I can remember… I am supposed to… ask you to tell me how you know I have what you need, right?”
The man then suddenly became (or seemed to become, he had never gotten the hang of reading their faces) very serious, “Oh, far traveler, I might be willing to help one in such a plight, but how do I know you are what you claim, and how would you know that my little device has what you need? Surely you have not taken one of these apart before?”
Fizzblit felt excited, the man might help. “I am a student, and very limited in what I can do to prove myself to you, man. Sorry. I can show you how I know you have what I need, though. Look here.” He pulled the scanning app back up on his c&c, and scanned around the room.
“Oh, man. Wicked cool! Where did you download that? Is it just a filter or… oh… sorry,” The man became suddenly serious again, “Well, that is impressive technology, but how do I know you didn’t just grab that from some government lab, oh traveler. For all I know you could be some foreign spy trying to…”
A female walked up to the table next to him, grabbed some trinket, and pulled out what had to be cash money. The man behind the table stopped mid sentence to talk to the girl, take her cash, hand her back some different cash, and leave her with the trinket. She smiled and walked off, just as another young (probably young?) man walked up. The man behind the counter looked back at him, “Hey, thanks, man, that was fun. Cool app. You are number 357 for the cosplay hall prize? You got my vote. Enjoy the con. Look me up in the room parties later and we can knock one back.”
The young man then handed some cash-money over. Fizzblit wanted to be excited about watching real physical money changing hands -live! right in front of him!-, but his dashed hopes quelled the excitement.
He made a couple of circuits of the vendor room, tried to tell his story, but got much the same reaction from the other vendors. Except for the one who threatened to call security for trying to ‘hustle’ him, whatever that meant.
Desperation clawed at him, and he began to watch the table with the toy vehicle, looking for a chance to steal when he nearly jumped out of his skin for the second time in one day. A hand snaked across his back and clasped to his shoulder. A small, even dainty hand. Definitely feminine. His head turned rapidly, and he swore he heard a light giggle, but the face that greeted him belonged to the only vendor who had talked to him longer than the bearded man. She had peppered him with questions, most of which he did not understand, and come to some sort of conclusion about him being ‘very good’ at something or other. She grabbed him by the wrist and spoke, “There you are! I have someone you just have to meet. He is a producer for one of my favorite webcasts” Webcast? He barely formed the question in his mind, much less had the chance to speak it, before she began to lead him expertly through the crowd. She spoke so fast he could barely keep up, much less get a word in. “Anyway, he wants to meet you and hear your bit. They have some time they want to fill with a fiction piece, and… oh, don’t look at me like that… they have real sponsors! They don’t pay much, but they do pay, and they will give you links to whatever you produce, and a few seconds at the end of each bit to plug… whatever.”
The rapid-fire words continued until they reached a man with hair that he felt fairly sure did not grow naturally on humans, and tight black clothes which reflected the light. “So, this is the guy Mel?” The girl’s torrent of words stopped and she nodded, “Well, you know how to build a cosplay, at least. I like that, obviously really getting into the part. So, wow me, man. “
Fizzblit almost walked away, but he could almost feel the time slipping by. He didn’t have long before he had to head back and report in. Report in and end his career for good. He looked the human in the eye, and gave it his best shot, “Listen, this isn’t a costume, man. I really am from outer space. I shouldn’t tell you some of what I am about to, but I’m desperate and need some help. If I don’t get my ship repaired, I’ll be in huge trouble. My home planet, well, that of my species, orbits the star you call…”
The strange-haired man cut him off, “Oh, man, no. I can see why Mel liked you, your delivery is smooth and I can practically feel the desperation, but you got it all wrong for radio. You gotta work on your delivery, man. Tell you what, do some recordings of yourself, listen to them, work on it a bit, and hit us up at Dragon Con in a couple of months. I’ll be easy to find.”
The man linked arms with Mel and they walked off. Fizzblit hung his head and began to make his way from the vendor room. He thought again about stealing the vehicle, but as he got near that table he saw a woman standing behind it, and the long stare she gave him did not seem as friendly as the man he’d talked to before.
He went downstairs and tried to make his way out, but a huge crowd had gathered between him and the door. Most of them were dressed to look like anything other than humans, and most had numbered ribbons tied around their arms. They had crowded in front of a low stage, which had a couple of video displays and someone making announcement: “And, the fourth place hall prize, winner of a free picture opportunity with our guest of honor, is…. Number 357!!!”
Most of the people began to clap and look around. Fizzblit stopped, trying to remember where he had heard that number today. Several people around him began to point in his direction, others began to wave excitedly at the stage. He looked up to see the screens on the stage showing a live feed of the crowd. A live feed which appeared to be homing in on his position.
A chill ran through his bones. To be recorded, alive, at an event like this… he couldn’t let that happen. It would cost him more than his academic career. Limited contact with fringe individuals was one thing, and no one would begrudge him a pic snapped on one of their primitive cell phones taken from too far away for his c&c to jam, but those looked to be pretty high resolution video recorders.
He ducked and ran, pushing people aside as he had to. He ran through the lobby of the building, out the door, and ran. Ran in anger, in frustration, in fear, each footfall a condemnation which spelled the end of his life as he knew it.
All the way back to the docks he tried to figure out what to do with himself after he got back. Most likely the project lead would tell him to institute safety protocols, just out of spite. He would upload all of his video data on this subculture, then they would tell him to evaporate himself and he’d spend the next six months in a regeneration chamber.
They would hold his hearing in absentia, deciding that his transgressions were flagrant enough that he didn’t need to be present. The hearings would only be a formality anyway. He would be lucky if they didn’t charge him for his regen. Between that and his student loans he might, if he managed to get a job on a really *good* garbage hauler, be able to pay off his loans before he went into a retirement home.
These dark thoughts circled his mind on the ride, haunted him such that he couldn’t even enjoy the novelty of walking across the water, now being lowered through it and staying dry. The door to his small ship closed behind him, and he contemplated the last few steps to the button which would end his career.
His feet stopped short when he heard… humming? Not just humming, but familiar humming. The tunnel vision of despair widened abruptly, and the pair of legs sticking out from under the ship’s console registered in his mind. The question of the leg’s ownership was answered by the recognition of where he’d heard the humming, and his mouth engaged of its own accord. “Sherlain!?”.
She giggled at him from under the console. Why did every species of female know how to giggle in just that way which set his teeth on edge? He pondered this universal question as she, slowly, rose from under the console and began to walk the few steps across the shuttle toward him. He sputtered out the start of several questions, questing for coherence while he tried to figure out why ‘Linda’ suddenly came to his mind.
She giggled at him, again, and he backed away, “You know, I could play around with you and say that the dates for my internship just HAPPENED to get moved forward so that they matched up with yours, and that I just HAPPENED to draw this backwater observation assignment to work at, but… then I wouldn’t get to hold all the strings I had to pull to get here over your head for the next three months.”
She flashed that disarming smile of hers as he backed against the door. “Aww, my poor Fizzblit, did the humans stress you out that badly? Need something to help you relax?” Her hand went softly to his belly and he nearly hit his head on the roof of the shuttle.
The playful pout came off her lips and she sat, which engendered a sigh of relief. He stepped past her to the front of the shuttle to stare at the console and try to collect himself.
He practically heard her back stiffen, and the cold in her tone when she continued did not bode well, “Hey, came all this way out here, pulled all these strings, AND managed to get clearance to come down here and help you, and you can’t even look at me, much less talk to me? I know I was pushing there, but… Oh, no. You have found another girl here?”
Trepidation snuck into her voice, and his guilt could not allow that. “No, no. Not that at all. I’m just awfully overwhelmed. I have no idea how to cope with live subjects, and the whole day was terrible. Then to come here to such a huge surprise….” he heard her shift and turned to look at her with what he hoped was earnestness in his eyes, “A good surprise, granted, wonderful even! Still a bit of a shock.”
He turned away again, “If I’d had any idea you were coming. Wait, you must have been on final approach when I called you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because, my showing up was supposed to be a surprise, silly. Then you were down here and stuck, and going to be out of the ship for several hours, and if I had told you I was coming you wouldn’t have gone out with a recorder and recorded a bunch of data which will probably save your career. More importantly, I would have missed seeing the expression on your face when I walked in here.
“You should be more glad than you know that I am here, too. It looks like someone was trying to play a prank on you with those controls. N1171 panels simply do not break down the way that one did. I bet I know who did this too, but we can let the maintence logs sort that out. Someone else might have missed it, or covered it up. They probably were just trying to trap you in weightlessness for a few hours, but their prankster nature outshone their actual skill. They messed up the panel badly, too. It is going to take me at least a full day to fix it.”
“A full day? For you? I thought you said it wasn’t damaged that badly?” He heard something else short, and the smell of ozone pressed on his nose.
She giggled again, “Well, it certainly is now. Or, at least, is bad enough that it would take most student engineers that long.”
He turned around to tell her that she wasn’t most student engineers. He had barely a moment to wonder whether she had done some subtle damage to the panel herself, but the question died when he saw what she no longer wore.
Too much, just too much for one day. He went to lay down on the bunk beside her. He had intended to sleep when he headed toward the bunk, but today didn’t seem to be the day for his plans to go as intended.