Draconian Outlaw

Draconian Outlaw

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:—
“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.”

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

Table of Contents so far

*** *** ***

1. Unwelcome Embassy

Jaime LeClerc flattened himself against the dank alley wall, shutting off his goggles. The rotating red and blue lights of the police robot flickered across the other side of the alley.

LeClerc could hear the wheezing throb of the war machine’s engines idling, saw the puddles shining in the dull glare of deserted thought-shops across the way, the glint of broken windows and locked grates. But the policebot was around the corner, out of sight.

Then, the humming climbed to a higher pitch, the noise of irked bees. The old machine was finally making up its iron mind. Maybe it had a lazy logic programmed into it; maybe the security oversoul had sent out a conservation-of-ammo order that day. For whatever reason, wheezing, one loose tread thudding drunkenly against the blacktop, the old machine trundled away.

Jaime LeClerc let out a slow hissing sign of tension. His face and hands were prickling with sweat. When he thought it was safe to turn on his goggles again, the dark alley was replaced by a brightly-lit alley, each piece of trash and scattered litter surrounded by green ghosts of light amplification adjustments. To the left was the corpse of a dog, partly eaten, perhaps by other strays.

“I know how just you feel, boy,” muttered LeClerc. He pulled up his coat collar and lowered his hatbrim before stepping out into the street again.

A ragged poster dripping from one wall displayed the curfew times, along with cartoonish pictoglyphs for those who could not read. Those illiterate captions were getting more and more common these days, LeClerc noted grimly.

Next were the ads for the thought-shop; all the posted dreams were for nightmares, images of horror and revenge and rape. They had not bothered to remove the older ads, but merely papered over the pleasant hallucinations which had once been for sale, images of victory and hope. Of the original use for the alien’s technology — they had sold it as a rapid education technique — there was no sign.

He sidled along the street. The dangerous moment came when he had to cross the main boulevard. It was wide, and fairly brightly lit. Only half of the lampposts had been shot out by idle customs men.

He crossed the boulevard in a brisk, silent run.

Once across, he crouched behind a pyramid of overturned trash receivers. From here, he could see, down the boulevard to the ruins of the park. Most of the craters were overgrown with weeds by now, out of sight, but the burnt skeletons of trees and broken rubble of monuments were still visible. Nothing had not been cleared away.

He could also see the tall and handsome buildings, dark and blackened now, which once had housed the most famous entrepreneurs and industrialists of three continents. Once, it had been a matter of pride for major corporations and combines to have agents here; here, near the Embassy. Each tower tried to outdo the other, till all along this famous way, one architectural marvel after another had sprung up, breathtaking.

All were dark. Some were burnt. The police had not stopped the rioters.

But there was only one tower, taller than all the others, which had also been shelled. The police had not just smiled at the rioters and stepped aside, not then; they had lent out their heavy military ordinance.

That tower still bore the broken fragments of LeClerc’s logo on it.

LeClerc shivered impatiently, as if old memories were a filthy water he could shake off. It was a short way down another curving alley-way to the plaza.

He turned off his goggles again, afraid government sensors might pick up the telltale activity from the circuits. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The far mouth of the alley gleamed with a very soft and eerie radiance. LeClerc crept forward.

From the mouth of the alley, he could see acres of rubble and destruction. This had not been rioters. Military aircraft from a dozen countries had combined to direct bombardments into this one small spot. It was a credit to their precision that only the center of the city had been destroyed.

In the middle of a wide zone of broken rubble, half-tumbled buildings, and angles of broken pipes, glowing softly in the night, with its lawns and gardens intact around it, untouched, rose the dome and fluidly curving ornaments of the alien Embassy.

LeClerc stepped forward. A squat rectangle of shadows which had seemed to be one more pile of burnt brick amid the tumbled wasteland suddenly flashed a blinding beam toward him. He was caught in the glare of a searchlight. The squat shape was a tank.

“Shut off that light!” he called, his upraised hand throwing the shadows of his fingers across his face.

The stabbing light snapped off.

“Sorry, smug. Didn’t know it was your friendly face, huhn, smug. You got some cheese for me, smug?” Came a voice from a few feet to his right.

LeClerc could make out the silhouette of a bulky figure standing quietly between two piles of collapsed rubble. LeClerc saw the shadow of a gun barrel not quite pointed at him.

In the darkness, the man had no face. There was a glint around where the eyes should be, from lenses probably not unlike LeClerc’s own. From the helmet three short antennae horns rose; this indicated rank-officer channels. This was the tank squad leader, or someone in his uniform.

From his coat, LeClerc slowly drew out a thin bar of heavy metal. He lowered it with both hands to the top of a half-toppled waste high pile nearby.

He backed up. The officer came forward.

He could see the silhouette bent over the bar. A moment passed.

LeClerc said impatiently: “Its real gold.” Then he said: “I don’t cheat my customers.”

Another moment went by in tense silence.

“Yeah,” said the officer, “But people sneaking away from Earth, and leaving every human thing behind..? Kinda funny, you know. Ain’t got no repeat business, so I guess customer satisfaction don’t count for much.” There was a low, heavy laugh, as if this were funny.

“I brought a scale and a density meter,” uttered LeClerc in a low voice.

“Nope. Why would I trust your scale if’n I didn’t trust you, nohow, right? Besides, I know who you are. Jaime LeClerc. Richest man in the world, ain’t you. How it feel to be so rich? Getting rich while babies starve, huhn? Getting rich by playing footsie with the Ex-Ex, huhn?”

Ex-Ex a popular slang for the aliens. It stood for ‘Extraterrestrial Exploiters.’

The officer’s gravely voice, thick with disgust and hate, continued: “Wonder what it costs to get no conscience at all?”

LeClerc pulled his coat shut and said nothing. He had not known the man had guessed who he was.

Finally LeClerc said, “A deal is a deal.”

In the darkness, LeClerc could see the figure perform a comical bow and gesture with one hand toward the distant gleaming dome. “You pay the toll, you take the ride. All yours, buddy. Go inside. World will be better off without you!” Again, the dull-witted laugh.

LeClerc turned and started walking across the broken surface. The dome in the distance gleamed like a bubble of white gold, serene. LeClerc’s back tingled and itched.

He knew now was the time of greatest danger. Bribed men do not necessarily stay bribed.

And then he thought he heard a slight metallic grind of movement, as if the tank had rotated a turret to follow him. LeClerc’s body was trembling with adrenaline, but he kept his footsteps slow and even. He walked ten yard away from the tank at his back. Twenty. Thirty. But the Embassy did not seem to grow any closer.

LeClerc’s foot disturbed something, white, thin. It clattered among the burnt bricks. He looked. Skeletons, two of them, dressed in burnt rags, face-down, scattered as if struck apart by intolerable blows.

Then the man’s voice came from behind, “Hey, buddy!” he screamed. “I had a friend aboard the Orion!”

There came spurt of light from behind, a concussion louder than thunder.

*** *** ***

2. Distant Approach

LeClerc had been a child when the tradeship of the aliens had first been detected, beginning its deceleration burn at about 50 AU’s, coming from the direction of Gamm Draconis in the northern constellation Draco.

It was not a good time for Earth to be receiving visitors.

War-scare stories were circulating in the news.

The Northwestern Democracies were resisting the efforts of the Southern bloc and Sino-African powers to enforce the World Productivity and Social Justice Treaty obligations, which called for millions of acres of American Midwestern farmland to be turned over to Reunited Nations bureau control by 2043 C.E. Meanwhile, the Peacekeepers ever more openly threatened action against any nation which attempted return to the gold standard or in any way refused to accept the hyper-inflated World Forum Promissory Notes as valid currency.

To make matters worse, a semi-literate journalist reported, not that the alien ship used controlled fusion explosives as her drive, but that the ship was a fusion explosive, sent to bomb the Earth.

The alien’s first radio broadcast came when the ship was beyond Saturn’s orbit, at about 10 AU’s distance. The words did not make matters any easier:

“This message consists of symbols intended to convey the intensions of the principles. The principles exist in a dispensation. The dispensation is defined by application to a behavior. The behavior defined excludes short-term, immediate, uncooperative, coercive, unreciprocated gratifications and includes long-term, mediate, cooperative, mutually beneficial gratifications.

“The short-term gratifications we have foregone include the tremendous expense, in resource and lifespan and devotion of materials needed to manufacture and motivate this vehicle. This cost is magnified by the risks we undertake by exposure to your violence and barbarism.

“The gratifications expected to mitigate this expense and risk consists of a monopoly over all of the negotiated exchanges of precious metals, radioactives, volatile gasses, energy ready for use, anthropological curios, and all the other products of human civilization directed toward interstellar trade.

“We neither expend nor expect expenditure unreciprocated. We explicitly exclude expending materials, activities, time, or procedure to aid your civilization in any way which operates outside the dispensation of the principles which produce this message.”

LeClerc could understand why the “Draconian’s” rather tactless talk of monopoly rubbed people the wrong way. But what he did not understand was the fear and hatred which came from politicians, pundits, and editorialists which responded to the next groups of messages, describing the alien’s proffered trade goods.

They had a technique for generating clean, safe, fuel-free power from a quantum vacuum base-energy state, by somehow transmuting virtual particles into stable leptons, including electromagnetic energy in practically any amount: literally something from nothing. “Giving mankind unlimited energy is like giving a machinegun to a retarded child!” screamed one editorial.

The aliens had building materials lighter, stronger, and more durable than any human metal. “The wreckage of the steel industry is the first step in the wreckage of the world’s economy!” warned another editorial.

They had medical technologies for lengthening life, curing brain damage and retardation, regenerating lost limbs and organs. “And who will care for all these healed and healthy people if the world smothers in its own overpopulation?! We need the poor, the sick, the disabled; otherwise we loose a proper human sense of compassion!”

Their most expensive offer was one-way passage to other stars and systems. “And how dare these devils tempt hardworking men and women away from their tasks here on earth to go flittering to their fool’s paradises in the sky? Those who depart are deserters!”

Power, strength, life, and hope was what, it seemed to LeClerc, the Draconian aliens offered. But the voices raised against the aliens and their miracles grew stronger as the years passed, not weaker.

Trade with the aliens triggered new industrial revolutions. In those countries where private ownership of wealth was allowed, wealth flourished. Lifespans doubled; deserts bloomed; backbreaking toil was largely replaced by automation; productivity grew; private individuals lived in splendor kings and princes would have envied, and new technologies granted them powers which would have awed magicians.

Hatred for the aliens also flourished. Matters grew worse and worse.

Then the Orion disaster occurred.

*** *** ***

3. Something for Nothing

Darkness was torn with insanely violent blasts of noise and light. The first thing launched from the tank must have been a smart-rocket, since the counter-electronics woven into LeClerc’s coat pulsed with activity just as something too bright to look at roared by close overhead, twisting and looping out of control, making cursive line flame across the scene. The shockwave of the concussion threw him from his feet; LeClerc could smell the hot column of fire writhing past him.

The tank computer must have realized he was emitting jamming signals, because the next volley was good old-fashioned hard-shot. Shells of massive metal, screaming like dying women, plowed into the ground to LeClerc’s left, throwing up vast clouds of dust and spraying the air with sizzling droplets of molten brick. The dust-clouds rose and spread, nodding like giants. The shells would have hit LeClerc, had the shock of the first volley not flung him down behind a pile of upended concrete slabs.

Dust rendered his goggles useless. He tore them off and threw them high away into the night, leaving the active-pulse circuitry running. Sure enough, the heavy report of the tank’s forward mounted antipersonnel guns now roared and clattered from that direction, and he heard the metallic whine of turrets swiveling to follow the moving signal.

LeClerc felt a flush of heat. The circuits in his coat had evidently decided it was time to activate his refrigerated anti¬-infrared camouflage.

Then the tank stirred to motion, roaring like a dozen trolls. The ground quaked.

*** *** ***

The Draconians charged astronomical prices. Some technologies cost as much as a space program; others, cost more. For the zero-point energy generator technology (one of the more expensive items) and the aliens charged an amount roughly equal to several years military budget of a Cold War-era superpower. The ambassadors who negotiated that deal were dismayed to find that one of the tiny zero-point generators cost, back among the home star civilizations of the aliens, a price equal to a few hours of an unskilled laborer’s wages.

The negotiator for the European coalition was outraged. “This machinery can mean the difference between prosperity and poverty for millions on Earth! This is robbery! You should sell it at cost, or better yet, give it too us freely because we need it.”

The machine which translated for the aliens responded: “We speak. Your most recent message contains symbols which have no representation of actual events. We do not rob; as robbery is not a behavior admitted by our dispensation. To sell at cost, or to sell at a loss, is unreciprocated action, not self-beneficial and therefore it is not a behavior admitted by the dispensation in which we speak.”

“It would help starving millions!”

“We do not perform help-actions outside of our dispensation.”

*** *** ***

The huge war-machine clattered forward, searchlight-beam glaring left and right like the eye of a Cyclops. The treads broke brick shards beneath them, and trampled rusted angles of skeletal plumbing as the tank climbed over clumps which had once been houses. A column of dust and smoke rolled hugely into the air behind it as it came.

The squad shadow of the tank came over the top of a rise not far from where LeClerc lay flat. Banks of machine-guns in the lower hull, visible only as guttering darts of flame, swiveled left and right, and tore the air with deafening stammers of noise. Ricochets whined from rubble blocks.

LeClerc slithered to the bottom of the crater in which he luckily found himself, hugging the mud at the edge of the pool of filth rotting there. The gigantic destruction of the roaring monster-engine overhead seemed random. In the dark and smoke, he guessed, the tank sensors were not certain whether the target had been hit.

Then came a noise like the puking of a dozen pythons. A rack of flame-throwers on the prow of the machine opened up. Suddenly light was everywhere, leaping sheets of frantic red and yellow glare. LeClerc held his breath and rolled into the slime. It was deep enough to swallow him entirely, and opaque. He felt, rather than saw, the walls of flame which passed overhead and lit the surface of the pool afire.

His eyes and ears began to ache, and then his lungs.

*** *** ***

LeClerc made his first millions when he discovered a variation on the zero-point energy generator technology. The base vacuum could be adjusted to produce and separate baryon particle-pairs, including antiprotons condensed, by LeClerc’s method, in sufficient quantities for industrial applications, including the production of matter-antimatter conversions.

The aliens themselves wanted to buy the new miracle-technology.

Naturally, he charged them a very great deal: Among other things, he wanted a trip to the stars.

The ambassador-machine explained that the star-ship was controlled by a complex “dispensation” of agreements and treaties among the three alien races inhabiting it, and that the ship could not leave orbit, except under defined circumstances. Apparently to activate the drive required an internal rearrangement of structure of the ship, as well as the suspension or restructuring of a number of cultural and biological activities for each race.

LeClerc was also the first human to find out that the aliens intended to leave within a few years. Incredibly enough, no one else had thought to ask; every one simply took for granted that the starship was here to stay.

They were willing to sell him a ticket. But, he found out, that if he wanted to inspect the ship where he might probably be spending the rest of his life, they were going to charge him a separate fee for that.

He was the only private individual ever able to afford what the aliens charged for a tour of their starship. At that, he had to find his own way to get to the low Earth parking orbit where the metropolis-sized vehicle was; he practically had to buy his own space shuttle.

There was something faintly disquieting about the alien starship. It wasn’t the size; everyone expected the thing to be huge. The artifact was large enough to be seen from the ground with a medium powered telescope. No; it was the simplicity of the starship people didn’t like.

The ‘drive’ was just a hemisphere of thick metal meant to direct the blasts of the crude fusion-bomb style explosions that propelled the great ship.

Then came a long shaft, to separate the drive from the payload. A hub at other end the shaft rotated. Three huge arms with counterweights swung in huge slow circles around the dead center. Each arm was a different length, producing different centrifugal weight. Each arm terminated in a cluster of habitats where three different alien crews were housed. The upper lengths of the arms contained factory spaces and cargo bays.

The arms could be angled back, like the ribs of a folding parasol, when the ship was accelerating, to maintain normal ‘downward’ orientation of gravity in the habitats.

The prow consisted of magnetic rings and scoops meant to gather interstellar hydrogen gas used in the manufacture of the fusion-explosive fuel elements.

And that was it. No fancy antigravity. No mysterious faster-than-light drives involving hyperspace or tachyons. Nothing human science did not know all about, nothing futurists and speculative writers hadn’t already named: Bussard ram-scoops; Orion drives.

There was nothing, in fact, the human race couldn’t have invented and built for itself. LeClerc did not recall seeing a single editorial asking: why the hell didn’t we build something like this?

Perhaps this was exactly what which was so disquieting about it.

*** *** ***

4. Tarnished Golden Age

When he tossed his head up out of the clinging muck, he saw the bulky silhouette of the tank grinding over a small hill of rubble in the distance, moving heavily away from him. The pools and pillars of flame which dotted the rubble to either side were darkening into vast plumes of greasy black smoke.

LeClerc was up out of the pool in an instant, scrambling across a mound of broken brick, and down into a cratered expanse of concrete — perhaps it had once been a parking lot — which gave him a clear view of the softly glowing alien dome. The embassy was much nearer than he had thought. Across the flat concrete space, then over one more field of rubble-mounds, and he would be at the edge of the line separating fragrant grass and garden-hedges from the nightmare world of blasted rock, of flame, and of roaring machines.

He crossed the open space, his footstep silent, swift, and light. He could still hear things all around him, the clatter of tank-treads, echoes of heavy engines roaring, the hissing of burning napalm, but he did not think anything hostile was in the area at hand. LeClerc picked his way across the last field of rubble.

He slithered across the last rampart of broken rock and brick-fragments, keeping a low silhouette against the glow of the nearby dome. In the dark, he misstepped, and slid down a rough slope of concrete and gravel. He hit pavement and rolled.

When he slid to a scraping halt, he looked up.

The grass of the garden was not far away. Twenty yards, maybe less.

LeClerc rose to his feet, bruised, stinking with slime, choking from the heat of his IR chameleon field.

The edge of the alien territory was as smooth as if it had been cut with a knife, grass and trees to one side, and to the other, blasted ruin. It was more beautiful than LeClerc had imagined. The dome was laced with delicate hints of color. The strange decorations dotting the lawn (where they monuments or machines?) were as graceful as silk scarves frozen in mid-swirl. LeClerc, this close, could also see a faint rainbow-glitter where drifting dust and smoke was repelled from the invisible dome of whatever mysterious force protected the embassy.

He ran.

LeClerc was about ten yards short of the garden when a shadowy lump of rubble to one side of him stood up and raised a machine-gun. A tongue of flame lashed out from the shivering barrel; mindless sound hammered the air; LeClerc saw the reflections of flame shimmering from the heavy flack-jacket, the metal curve of the radio-horned helmet, and from the inhuman insectoid lenses of the creature’s gas-mask.

Because he was turning, the sledge-hammer blow caught him across the back, and threw him face-first into the concrete. Metallic flashes swam drunkenly in his vision. Pain beyond

Pain flamed in his body. He wondered if he were dead.

Thought was swallowed by night.

*** *** ***

It should have been a golden age. Yet year by year things got worse.

Several Middle Eastern concerns, affected by the sudden drop in oil prices when the new energy technologies eliminated their major markets, radioed threatening demands and complaints to the aliens.

At the same time, countries in the Far East began begging and demanding that the aliens give away rather than sell goods that would benefit their starving millions.

The World Court, trying the aliens in absentia, found them guilty of violations of anti-trust laws, and with tortuous interference of contract, and claimed that the aliens owed tremendous monetary damages to every plaintiff whose business was or may have been affected by the new industrial revolutions.

A coalition of philanthropic associations grew quite irate when the aliens would not lower the huge fees they charged for tours of their star-ship, to allow missionaries of their various socially benevolent causes to circulate among the habitats.

Ecuador and several other nations over which the ship passed in its daily orbit, protested the violation of their air-space, claimed the ship was their national property since it passed above their land, and demanded the aliens pay taxes.

Not one of these demands or pleas was accompanied by any offer to give the aliens anything in return.

An American space shuttle carrying Israeli negotiators was shot down after leaving the alien starship by a hunter-killer satellite launched by neo-soviet Islamics.

The American, Israeli, and Reunited Nations governments all demanded that the aliens protect their visitors even after they had left the starship or the embassy territory (the aliens had a ground-based embassy by that time). Further demands were that the aliens provide weapons, training, and money for customs agents to patrol their clients; furthermore, the aliens now owed customs duties on articles previously sold over the last ten years to other nations; nor were they allowed hereafter to sell items to private individuals or corporations, nor even to governments which the Reunited Nations did not recognize. In fact, all dealings with humanity hereafter would be only through specially appointed customs officers, and the aliens would be fined if they attempted to negotiate with, or exchange radio-signals of any kind, with any unauthorized persons.

The Draconian response was: “We comport ourselves in a dispensation where each individual restrains natural passions and aggressions, in order to avail himself of mutually beneficial and mutually tolerant behaviors. We do not expend our efforts beyond this dispensation. We do not give unreciprocated goods. We do not pay unreciprocated monies. We do not reorder the internal relations of civilizations outside of our dispensation. We do not protect the individuals of your civilization from predation and criminality by other individuals of your civilization when they are outside the established boundaries of our territories.

“We do not understand you. We do not share your emotional configuration. We are alien to you. We do not have common sympathies with you.

“Your natural assumptions concerning other behaviors which you value, but to which we have not agreed, are not relevant.”

With great fanfare, and the promise that the Draconian monopoly on interstellar trade would be broken forever, a Euro-American joint effort was made over the next five years to construct a starship with a atomic drive. LeClerc’s antimatter technology had made nuclear warheads out of date, and there were plenty of the otherwise worthless old things to spare for the effort.

The aliens refused to give away any navigational information on the locations of their home worlds or available markets or civilizations in the local stellar area.

The Orion designers merely copied design details stolen or extrapolated from the Draconian ship. The budget for testing and research was limited, and no tests were done to see if human materials and techniques were best for this type of design. The Joint Effort was driven by political rather than economic motives, and so the whole project was surrounded by vast amounts of waste, inefficiency, and pork-barrel funding. Inferior materials were used.

The Orion‘s drive suffered a major disaster after it passed the orbit of Jupiter, only four weeks into its initial burn. A mis-timed explosion ruptured the drive-plates, and radiation killed the hydroponic algae used for air-recycling. The Orioncrew radioed for help.

The Draconians did not stir.

The entire world listened in horror as, over days, the stranded crewmen weakened and died. The last living crewman, sobbing in the microphone, hallucinating, oxygen-starved, whispered over and over: “Its all their fault. All their fault. All their fault…”

Everyone knew who he meant.

The Draconians replied: “We do not extend our aid or effort to those who exist outside of our dispensation.”

When the Reunited Nations declared that the alien starship was now to be seized and nationalized under the laws of eminent domain, it further decreed that all entrepreneurs who had made a profit from the aliens were, in effect, smugglers.

LeClerc was singled out because he was, first, the only individual who had ever bought a private audience with the aliens, and, second, he was the only human from which the aliens had ever bought a new technology.

A magistrate ordered LeClerc’s arrest, and the police came to seize his property and bank accounts and confiscate his house at about the same time as the mobs came to riot in front of the Draconian Embassy.

*** *** ***

5. Alien Familiarity

LeClerc had never seen the aliens face-to-face, except once, shortly before the Orion disaster.

Even the best human-built space armor could not allow him to walk into their habitats. There were three separate races living on the ship, but they could not tolerate each other’s environment any more than a human could.

One race looked something like jellyfish, and lived in a crushing Gas-Giant atmosphere. Deathly cold hydrogen and ammonium, compressed at unthinkable pressure, stirred into super-hurricanic turbulence, and continuously lashed with hellish electromagnetic discharges, filled the heavily armored far end of the longest (and heaviest) arm of the ship.

The second arm held near-vacuum vapor and floors of frozen methane snow, across which, always in motion, a race which looked like metal thorn bushes covered with fishhooks paced, absorbing tiny amounts of nutrients through their leg-blades.

The third race lived in low gravity, buried alive under sulfurous magma, and looked, in their solid phase, like obsidian outcroppings, and like long strings and globules of molasses in their liquid phase.

There were scientific names for all three races, of course, but people called them the windbags, the backstabbers, and the slimeballs.

The one to whom LeClerc spoke more intimately was a “windbag”. The alien occupied a super-pressurized cylinder that filled one side of the near-hub cargo bay; slabs of some unthinkably tough transparent material should have allowed LeClerc a view inside. But he could see only hints of a floating mantle, a writhing mass of slender tendrils. All else was obscured by semi-transparent yellow-green atmosphere. And when the cylinder flared with the billion-volt lightning discharges which the alien needed as part of its natural environment, looking into the cylinder was like looking into the opaque glare of a neon tube.

LeClerc himself still had to wear space-armor. Even as heavily shielded and insulated as it was, the cylinder still emitted temperatures and radiations unhealthy for unsuited humans.

One of the questions he had paid to have answered was: “How did your races ever learn to cooperate with each other? You have nothing in common; you apparently have no shared language or culture; certainly no shared psychology; and you can’t stand each other’s environments.”

“The thought-substructure which this group extends to others members of our dispensation is (untranslatable expression, perhaps of emotional or aesthetic value).”

LeClerc tried again: “Do you like each other?”

“The three races do not ‘like’ each other. We cannot. Each race is as utterly alien to each other as we are to humans. We do not share common emotional configurations or habits. The (“slimeballs”) for example, do not have (untranslatable expression, perhaps related to meteorology or aerial formation: swimming, or dance) and the (“backstabbers”) are not only “deaf”, they do not even have (expression related to the emotional values surrounding reproduction by asexual fission). !!! (Expression of exclamation or emphasis).”

LeClerc thumbed the button on his talk-box to indicate translation failure. “I don’t understand.”

“Your race and mine are nearly identical. You and I are both hydrocarbon based life; you and I both have digestion and excretion and related pleasures. You can apprehend the joy of (feasting), and of (consumption), and of (eating), despite that the (small airborne food-animals, perhaps like krill or plankton) must be indelicately compressed into your internal tube-like digestive tract, rather than then captured with (glorious?) display along (handsome?) outer-mantle absorption-layers. (Expression of the ‘long-distance emotion’) Alas! That your (twins produced by asexual fission. Half-mother remnant? Brothers?) do not have the excitement (joy?) of perceiving (smelling?) your happy gluttony during full-storm krill dance-dives, when all outer mantle layers are (expression relates to change in texture of sonar-characteristics of mantle tympanum. Rich? Colorful? Full?) with life-giving food-stuffs!”

“Yes, but new mothers get to wipe drool and spit-up milk off of little baby’s chin. That’s almost the same.”

“(Exclamation of a second type!) You are capable of (emotion related to drawing analogies). You understand the (effect? point? joy?) of (drawing analogies) and yet you also (draw analogies). This provokes that you and I can enter into (untranslatable expression of emotional relationship based on feeding-frenzy ceremonies).”

“Yeah. I guess I have a sense of humor, too. We can go out later and grab a few beers.”

The talk-box gave off a signal showing catastrophic translation failure. LeClerc snorted and shook his head. Eventually he thumbed the reset button and tried again.

“Let me ask again: how can races with nothing in common learn to cooperate?”

“(Expression indicating shift from ‘short-range’ to ‘long-range’ emotion speech-mode). I answer: sympathy and understanding cannot be used, since these thought-structures are adapted to local historical conditions. However, every being capable of rational thought is capable of comprehending the concept of mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges. All rational contact between mutually alien civilizations take place within this dispensation. Benefit cannot be measured except in the absence of coercion; therefore coercive acts are excluded from this dispensation. Involuntary assertions are excluded. Unreciprocated action of any kind is excluded.”

LeClerc nodded. No wonder the aliens were hated by mankind. The aliens seemed cold and calculating and uncaring, not because they necessarily had no emotions, but only because emotional appeals could not and would not work on them.

“I understand. But it’s sad that you don’t have any appealing or likable reason to get along with anybody. No sympathy.”

“(Exclamation!) There are emotions that accompany trading for mutual benefit. Trust. Honor. Gratitude. Pride. Display of Outer Mantle layers (analogy, perhaps to pride of workmanship). Honesty. We know your race must be capable of these emotions, for we see your civilization had risen from squalor to technological (glory). Yet we wonder why these emotions are never expressed by your people. We wonder who built your civilization; for it does not seem to be the people who occupy it now.”

*** *** ***

6. Beneficial Lethality

LeClerc must have been unconscious for only a second. With an agony that tore at his chest, he rolled himself onto his back. A thin whimpering scream escaped his lips; drunk in his dizzy pain-haze, he was remotely surprised at how feeble and boyish the noise was.

He could not move his left hand at all; he right eye was likewise dark, perhaps filled with blood, perhaps punctured. He was sure several ribs were broken.

The only reason he was not dead was that his the alien-technology circuits in his coat had stiffened the special layers in the fabric before the bullets hit to shock-armor toughness. The bullets hadn’t gone through him, true, but the impact, even if distributed over more of his body, was enough to break ribs. And maybe break his spine also. Numb tingles pumped through legs he could not quite locate.

A dusty slither nearby told him the customs agent was approaching. LeClerc saw the hunched, apelike silhouette, gun barrel questing ahead, a thin metal snout. A trickle like cigarette smoke hung thread-like from the barrel.

The soldier’s chuckle sounded like drops echoing in a dry well. It was the same voice, the officer who would not stay bribed. “What’s the matter, smug? Where you trying to sneak off to? You’re staying right here, you deserter. ”

LeClerc wondered in a daze why the guy wouldn’t shut up.

Then LeClerc saw a figure move out the trees and pace toward them with a graceful step. It was one of the manikins the aliens used as ambassadors and negotiators among humans.

It was human sized and human shaped, to allow it to climb stairs, turn doorknobs, ride cars, and move around in a world made for humans. The mask had been modeled on some ancient Greek statue; it was a face noble and godlike. The clothes it wore were years and years out of fashion, dark-colored, with a high, stiff collar and a demi-cape. The aliens may or may not have a notion of clothing on their worlds; they certainly would not understand when styles changed.

Expressionless, the manikin walked up to the edge of the grass. It stopped, and stood with an utter stillness, a blank absence of body language.

“Help me!” coughed LeClerc.

The soldier stepped back, turned his helmet to keep the alien manikin in view. Then he laughed his dead-sounding laugh. “An Ex-Ex. Save your breath. They don’t help nobody, never.”

The manikin stepped off the grass toward LeClerc.

“Stop!” shouted the soldier

The manikin approached.

The soldier fired a burst toward them both when the manikin stooped over LeClerc. There was a blur; the bullets stopped in mid-air and fell pattering to the pavement.

“You’re not taking him nowhere!” Shouted the soldier, his voice panicky and shrill.

The manikin’s mask turned toward the soldier. No weapon was visible, but LeClerc felt a subsonic hum of power throbbing in his teeth. The soldier’s silhouette blurred and slumped, disintegrating into slithering dry columns of ash. An empty jacket fell softly to the burnt ground; the helmet fell, clattered, and rolled away.

The moment the manikin’s hand touched him, LeClerc felt a faint tingle, and soft radiant glow stole across his body. The pain stopped when the manikin picked him up.

“Why are you helping me? You never help anyone. You don’t like anyone…”

The mannikin replied after a brief delay as the message was relayed from orbit. In the years since LeClerc’s face-to-face conversation with the aliens, their translation machinery was greatly improved. The machine-generated dialog sounded almost normal.

“You have paid for passage to the stars. We do not dishonor our covenants…”

A deal is a deal, thought LeClerc.

“…And we help those who are members of our dispensation.”

“Member? Me? Hey — when did I join you..?”

“Our first messages during expedition deceleration into this star system defined our dispensation of behavior. We have learned better words of yours for our concepts since then: scrupulous discharge of all voluntary obligations, you call honor. Disregard for obligations imposed by force or fraud, you call liberty. The strict adherence to rational and reciprocal standards of conduct, you call justice. All your prior dealing with us displayed such conceptions actualized. When you joined this dispensation is unknown. It was at a point prior to our first dealings with you.”

“Dispensation,” murmured LeClerc. He coughed and raised his voice: “You mean contract. Agreement. Partnership. It is not a law, but culture. It is voluntary.”

“Translation inaccuracies exist. Prior to any explicit contract is an implicit contract. It is a silent agreement on which the expressed agreement stands. Axiomatic partnership pre-exists conditional partnership and makes it possible. Before it was known, it was your place.”

“My place? Then I guess its good to be home,” smiled LeClerc, and he closed his eyes.

“We ask question.”

“Mm? Go on. Ask.” He laughed a hiccough. “No charge! We are partners, now, after all.”

“Had we of the expedition made our meaning more plain, would there have been more sympathy between our races and the earthly race?”

LeClerc opened his eyes and turned his head to look back across the darkened rubble. Fires still smoldered in the distance.

“No. The earthly race, we all understood you just fine.”

“Then why did the earthly race display coercive threat-and-attack-behaviors? Surely to attack benefactors with lethal force displays catastrophic misunderstanding?”

“I don’t know, partner. I guess I really just don’t understand them at all,” he sighed sadly. “With thinking like that, I just cannot sympathize …”

He was carried into the garden, and, not long after, to the stars.

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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!