An Inappropriate Response

by D. Krauss 

 

The Denebians landed on the Mall between the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials at about 8:15 on a Monday morning, which is how they escaped major notice. The trans-star drive allows for almost instantaneous movement between two points, and the Denebians were parked before you knew it. D.C. drivers, notoriously intent on cutting off their fellows and proudly blasé about their monuments, didn’t look over. There weren’t a lot of tourists about, either, and those who were thought the copper-looking two-story box just another museum. When the three Denebian crewmen emerged, a couple from New Jersey tried to enter, but were politely rebuffed. The couple was sufficiently inured to oddballs that the crewmen, dressed in what appeared to be aluminum foil and iPods, did not elicit much comment.

Nor did they from the D.C. drivers as the Denebians made their leisurely way across the Mall to Constitution Avenue, pointing out the sights to each other with short fingered slightly emerald hands and doing something akin to taking pictures with the iPod-looking things. “Tourists,” the intent drivers snorted and tried to frighten them with exceedingly dangerous maneuvers. But when you’ve spent the last week playing Dodge Comet in the Oort Cloud, you don’t scare easily.

Eventually, the Denebians found themselves in the lobby of the State Department building, the guards assuming they were just one more act in the daily circus parade that constituted official legations. A very efficient desk clerk thought the same thing and was quite disturbed that such an obviously important tribal delegation had shown up unannounced and unappointed. “Take us to your leader,” one of the Denebians responded to her query, causing the other two to chuckle. The desk clerk knew the leaders were off solving some other tribal concern, so she called around until she located an Assistant Assistant Undersecretary for Policy.

His name was Thurston Henry Cadwallader, III, “Third” to his few friends, “Thud” to everyone else, and he had ambitions and grievances to match the exalted name, which had been inherited down the line of patrimony from proven forebears to his unproven self. Some of those forebears had quietly despaired of the bloodline manifesting in Thud, an attitude of which he was acutely aware. The phone call from the desk clerk, then, caused his flagging hopes to soar.

“Deneb?” he said. “Never heard of it.”

“They said it was pretty far,” the clerk assured.

“Obviously.” Third put on his best Harvard-legacy voice, letting the clerk know her place. “Well, don’t leave them standing, show them in. And call Protocol.”

The Denebians took three chairs across from Third, waving off his apologies for slothful underlings who had the temerity to leave such important representatives waiting. “Are you the leader?” the one who spoke before asked.

“No, no, well, at least not yet,” and he chuckled. So did the Denebians, still unsure of the nuances of Terran humor, it being a rather unique thing in the Galaxy. Third saw it as appreciation. “So,” he said, sensing a career-making opportunity, “what can I do for you gentlemen?”

The Denebians let that pass, knowing from the few primitive radio and TV broadcasts the council had received, that Terrans were unfamiliar with the quadra-sex roles most common to the rest of the Galaxy. “We were in the neighborhood, decided to drop by.”

Third furrowed his brow and wondered what quaint tribal ritual was involved here because no indigenous peoples came to the State Department simply to pass the time. Trade agreements, border disputes, negotiations of some kind, yes, but these little countries had their dignities and needed to play out some face-saving move before availing of Uncle Sam’s largesse. The trick was recognizing the play and indulging it to a fruitful conclusion. This was hazardous, because Third hadn’t the foggiest of Denebian protocols and just might well botch this, as seemed to be his wont.

Fortunately, just as Third began to sweat, the Protocol Officer, Charles Widden, knocked and entered. Third was relieved but Widden was alarmed because he knew immediately these were not ordinary visitors. That was Widden’s particular value, the ability to quickly size a situation, and he considered, then discarded, an urge to call Security. Seeing that the obviously other-world delegation had penetrated this far, Security would be pointless.

“Hello,” Widden said in as neutral a way possible, “and welcome,” and then said nothing more nor offered a hand or bow, coolly letting the Denebians take point. Third thought this was customary and tried to appear sage.

“Well, thank you,” the Denebian said with some relief, recognizing Widden’s professionalism, and offered the short-fingered hand because he (or she or a combination either way) knew this as a comforting Terran gesture. Widden took it with no trepidation, figuring an advanced race was well aware of contagions and would have taken precautions, unless plague was their intent, in which case there was little to save him. Third furrowed his brow, expecting something a little more exotic.

“You are from…” Widden deferred again to the Denebians, conveying none of his consternation nor the numerous calculations he was making about necessary notifications and the complete revamping of standard State responses. “Deneb,” Third answered for them, mostly because he did not want Widden gaining an upper hand in these negotiations. “Which, I’m a little embarrassed to say,” Third spread placating, folksy hands, “I’ve forgotten is the capital of which desert kingdom?” Dangerous, that, to admit geographic ignorance in an organization proud of its global knowledge, but Third needed to know right away if oil or mineral rights were at stake here. Perhaps both?

Widden lifted a half-astonished eyebrow, realizing Thud had not caught on to the situation, but only half because, well, what did you expect? The Denebians chuckled, truly appreciating this humor because mistaken identity was a universal. “It’s a star,” the Denebian said.

“No doubt,” Third smiled because the indigenous were given to hyperbole, “but what are your main exports? Cotton, rice?” Perhaps he could gain a clue from that. The Denebians looked at each other and passed what they considered a shrug between them. “Stantatac drives, I guess,” their spokesman said.

Third was puzzled but Widden, who had only attended George Washington but had been a good student with wide ranging interests, was intrigued. “Isn’t Deneb a white supergiant?”

“Indeed,” the Denebian nodded vigorously, “the giantest.” Which was only slight exaggeration, Deneb having been certified by the District Council as one of the five or six largest white stars in the galaxy, despite the objections of the Arcturans, who had no dog in that fight but were just contrary.

“But,” Widden was now suspicious, the limits of Earth science leading him to the inevitable error, “how can that be? I mean, how could you survive the radiation and gravity? And you’re humanoid,” his gesture took in their form which, given his quite sophisticated understanding of current, but incorrect, Terran planetary theory, was impossible near such a harsh star. The Denebians should be radically different, worms, perhaps, or crystals.

The Denebians chuckled indulgently. Oh these pre-trans cultures and their quaint beliefs. “All intelligent life takes this form,” the spokesman made a gracious pass of a hand. “More efficacious.”

“Really?” Widden was nonplussed, “even under such conditions? How can you withstand it?”

The Denebians smiled. “Dark matter, of course.”

“Really?” and here Widden was excited. To be the first human to know the riddle of dark matter! He swallowed. “And what exactly is that?”

The three Denebians smiled, joyous, not patronizing, lifted their eyes to the ceiling and said together, “The grace of God.”

And this is the point where everything went wrong. While Widden experienced shock at the implications of the Denebian response, Thud did not. His reaction was a bit different. He had become increasingly bewildered ever since the mention of a white supergiant, which he’d presumed was an important Denebian deity. The subsequent conversation had been quite baffling. His glances toward Widden had become more daggerish as he concluded the somewhat lesser officer was invoking a set of arcane protocols designed to cut Third out of the process. He saw his primacy in this delicate matter disappearing, along with the inevitable accolades and the easing of the patrimony’s despair.

That was his mood when the Denebians simultaneously spoke, and he could not help himself. After all, he came out of blue blood and Ivy League-everything and, while he could never be described as scholarly, he had imbued the zeitgeist. If you wanted invitation to the better houses (and parties), certain combining attitudes of postmodernist deconstructive condescension were necessary.

So, Thud snorted.

The Denebians started and their jaws dropped fairly akin to the way Bugs Bunny’s used to, although not half as far. That was rather startling to Widden and Thud, the latter getting the uneasy feeling things weren’t as they seemed. The Denebians fixed their disconcerting looks directly on him. “You don’t believe in God?”

Salvage this! Thud’s bloodline screamed, as did Widden’s rather aghast expression, and sweat popped onto his forehead. Desperately, he raced through the templates and patterns of his prep school life and quickly cobbled a standard harmless response for Confrontation With Unsophisticated Churchmen, “I respect your beliefs but I, personally, don’t hold them.”

The Denebians paled to a deep emerald, which Widden and Thud misinterpreted as an angry flush. The crew exchanged gestures any Terran would consider expressions of rage but were really alarm and terror. That is why Widden and Thud remained frozen, holding their breaths while the Denebians stood, looking all the world like they intended to phaser or light sword the two of them when they, instead, sought safety. The Denebians made a hasty exit, trooping out in a line that, under other circumstances, would be comical. Widden recovered quicker after the door slammed shut, saying to Thud at the end of his released breath, “You idiot.”

 

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