Arizona, United States
In the cold Arizona desert, a small, one-story construction sits on a high hill and cuts an unnaturally perfect rectangle out of the sun setting behind it. Next to the structure stands one of the testaments to man's curiosity-- a 50 meter-wide radio telescope pointed heavenwards. Inside, two young students idly stare at black and white computer screens that slowly scroll upwards. The lines of text jump upward in spasms of output. The room is poorly lit, crammed with computer equipment put to indescribable purposes, and over the heads of the two students a string crosses from one bank of hardware to another, supporting Christmas Cards. Pink Floyd's Delicate Sound of Thunder plays loud in the background as one of the students tosses a can of Coca-Cola over the head of the other. It lands with a resounding clank in a trashcan.
"It would have been nice if they'd bothered to get their history right," I groused. "Delicate Sound wasn't released until a couple of years later."
"Man, it's dull." The speaker, a bony young man of pale complexion in a flannel shirt that has seen better days, leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk next to the computer. "I finished reviewing last night. There's nothing there."
"Did you expect anything?" The other, a slightly shorter man in a light jacket, asks. "There ain't nobody out there who wants to talk to us."
"I don't think there's anybody out there at all," the first replies.
"Then what made you sign up for SETI?"
The man in flannel shrugs. "I like radio astronomy. This is just a filler for me anyway."
"Hell of a filler doin' the graveyard shift. I'm goin' outside for a smoke."
"Okay. I'll be here if ET calls."
The second student smiles at the old joke, his teeth shining in his African face as he digs a cigarette out of his pocket and heads outside. He looks up at the stars and mutters, "Merry Christmas aliens. I hope you are out there. I could use someone to talk to." He takes a drag on his smoke. The stars, more here than he had ever seen in his native city of San Diego, shine down on him without ever having to acknowledge his existence.
"What is he doing?" Jaqui asked.
"Filling his lungs with smoke," I asked. "It's called a cigarette. That one probably had tobacco in it, which had a really addictive component called nicotine."
"Eww." The five-year-old gets it right every time.
He smokes for another minute until the door to the telemetry building is thrown open. "Get in here! I've got a translunar radio source!"
There is a frenzy as the two of them stand in front of a cabinet of equipment and examine the output of a single machine, watching a strange red line draw itself down a strip of paper. The line is rhythmic and solid. Excitedly, they examine another set of machines in sequence, the man in the jacket examining a checklist of possibilities. They hand clipboards back and forth, reading off a set of numbers and examining a large, thick printout. "No satellites listed in the area. We're pointed in the right direction. We gotta call the Doc."
The man in flannel nods his agreement enthusiastically. "Now."
Washington DC, United States
In a white room decorated with symbols of authority, an elderly gentleman who could be anyone's grandfather sits on a wide couch. He is surrounded by other men in impeccable suits, some civilian, some military. "Well," he says in a voice both calming and breathless at the same time, "Who else knows about this?"
One of the men in a suit responds. "The entire astronomy class at the University of Arizona, sir. The media will know by the end of the day."
"And we're sure that the signals are coming from outer space?"
"Um, yes sir," a military man responds. "We have checked. We don't have any satellites out there and if the Soviets did, we'd know about it. The signals originate within our own solar system, but they are not of human origin."
"Hush, Ken," P'nyssa said. "They didn't know any better."
There is a knock at the door. A younger man walks in and hands a note to the suited man who spoke first. "Mr. President, we have a confirmation that the aliens are coming here. They have spoken."
"What does it say?"
"It says-- I'm quoting here, sir-- 'Representatives of the Pendor star system would like to meet with representatives of the planet Terra. We are here for peaceful purposes. We would like to make arrangements to land a vessel at John F. Kennedy airport and meet with the Secretary General of the United Nations the afternoon of January 1st.'"
"Was the message in English?" someone asks.
"According to this note, the message was sent in ten different languages. English was the fourth used."
"What where the others?"
"In order, the first was unrecognizable. So far, no translator has identified it so it may be their native tongue. The second was ancient Greek. The third was French, then English, then Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Navajo, and Tutsi."
"They seem to know quite a bit about us," the first military man says. "Their intelligence is quite good if they know that many languages. What the Hell is Tutsi?"
"A sub-Saharan language, sir," the aide replies.
"Do we know anything about them other than what they've sent us?"
"We have some pictures of their approach; the rockets they use don't seem to be very bright, but they are quite hot and that heat is visible through infra-red telescopes. There are two vessels headed this way. The 'hot glare' from the rockets prevent us from seeing what the ships might be on the other side."
The President looks up at his men. "Do we have anything that can stop them?"
"Sir, these aliens have come from somewhere else over light years of distance. At the moment, I would say that we can make life very difficult for them down here if they want to invade, but up there? No, sir, there is nothing we can hit them with."
"Then I guess we're going to have to let them land."
"Watch this guy," I said. "He's the only one who really understands what's at stake here. "
"It is simply out of the question," a man with a light South American accent says. Wearing a bathrobe, he appears to be in his early sixties, with light grey hair. A woman walks up behind him and places a hand on his shoulder, and he gives her a patient smile. "It is New York. They want to know if I can return tomorrow."
"Of course not, Javier'. It will be the New Year the day after. It can't be that important."
The man places the telephone up against his ear. "Why do you want me back tomorrow?" He listens for a little longer. "Is this a joke?" he demands. He listens further. "Amelia! Turn on CNN!"
New York City, New York, United States
"I think it's the perfect irony," a man bundled against the cold winter weather is saying into a microphone. "Here we are right on the verge of George Orwell's year and the aliens are coming. It couldn't have happened any other way."
The scene on the television screen changes. "They've been watching us for years," a woman is saying. "Now they want to talk."
"I'm not really interested," a third man says. "It's all a hoax. You know, ten years ago it took a million dollars to make effects like those, but these days anyone with a computer could do it."
"Maybe they'll tell us what they did with Amelia Earhart."
"How about Elvis?"
"I wonder what they look like. Are they human or do the look more like those giant bugs in that movie, uh, Alien? Maybe they're here to eat us, like in V."
"My, what big teeth we have!" Cordelia joked.
"Hush, Dear. You're hardly alien to these people."
A man more authoritative than the rest holds the microphone before himself. "It's hard to judge, Bernie, quite what the collective mood is down here. Lots of shoppers taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales seem to know that something momentous is happening but opinion appears to be highly mixed and uncertain."
"Thank you, Roger. That was Roger Clemens in New York. We turn now to NASA scientist George Kilpenny, who has studied the images coming from just outside our solar system. Dr. Kilpenny, do we know any more about these aliens?"
A heavyset man wearing corrective glasses and an ill-fitting tie appears on the screen. "Well, we know a few more things. A voice analysis of the message they sent indicates that they have fluent speakers in English and Archaic Greek, and their native language of course, as well as many other Terran languages. Whether that means they have speakers of those languages or just good computers, we can't say.
"We also know a little more about their technology. People have been talking about the extraterrestrials having some kind of 'warp drive' because their rockets don't appear to be putting out any light. But scientists know that many reaction puts out a lot of energy without creating light. They have very narrow spectrums of output. We've analyzed their engines and they appear to be using some form of advanced fusion reactor to drive their ships. It's beyond our engineering skill to build something like that at present, but the science behind it is well understood."
"Fusion, like in a thermonuclear bomb? Do they present a threat to us?"
"We want your women!" Tails, who usually wanted very little to do with women, said with a chuckle.
"Grown-ups are so weird," Jaqui opined.
"Well, yes, like a fusion bomb but much more controlled apparently. It's not a threat unless they try and use it in the atmosphere."
"Thank you, Dr. Kilpenny. Coming up on CNN, reactions from Washington. I'm Bernard Shaw."
Cape Canaveral, Florida
"Good morning. The scene behind me is the runway that the US shuttle uses when returning to Earth. In just under half an hour this strip of concrete will be the site for the most momentous event in human history-- the arrival of people from another world. Although they originally requested landing space in New York City, negotiators managed to convince them that for the sake of the one of the world's busiest airports in one of its busiest cities, it would be better if they landed someplace more remote. This is that place.
"At the far end of the runway stands Javier de Cuellar, the Secretary of the United Nations, the man the aliens have come to meet, as well as representatives from over a hundred countries. The Vice President is standing next to the Secretary as you can see. We are not sure where the president is today.
"The United States Marines have set up several control stations and soldiers are patrolling the area. We are not sure who they are here to protect-- the aliens or us-- although a representative did say that they were here to keep the peace in the event that something unexpected should happen.
"Yeah, people arriving from another world happens every day," Sheja said.
"Sometimes, that's a good thing," Cordelia responded.
"Spectators have been lining up along the fence to watch the landing of the alien spaceship since before dawn this morning. A base officer told me that a few were here before dusk last night.
"I am informed by my producer that we are going to turn on the feed from the Canaveral radar station and follow the descent of the alien ship as it lands here, at Canaveral."
A new voice comes on the speaker. It is scratchy and somewhat distant. "Radar contact at eighty miles and closing; vertical distance approximately six miles. I have one signal, loud and strong. Range at seventy-five miles." There is a strange pause. "I have two signals, one breaking off, one heading straight in to Canaveral. I repeat, I have two strong signals. Only one is inbound. The other is breaking off."
The reporter's voice returns. "Ladies and gentlemen, what you are hearing is the voice of the range radar operator as he reports on the track of the alien spaceship approaching."
"Inbound signal is slowing. Signal about twenty miles out and approaching at about a hundred miles per hour."
The man who had appeared earlier in a military suit is standing on the edge of the runway, a pair of binoculars in his hands. "What the... Seargant! Find out what damn fool is flying a helicopter out there and tell him to bring it down!"
A young man sitting over a circular visual display looks up. "Sir, there's nothing out there but the ship we were tracking earlier."
"I'm looking right at... it." Awareness seems to dawn on his features. "I'll be damned."
For an airship the vessel appears very large. Four rotors extending from hubs that barely protrude from the roof of the ship spin intermeshed blades so quickly they are almost invisible to the naked eye. The wind stirs up grass, sand and even small stones as the ship slowly settles down onto the end of the runway closest to the ocean, landing gear extending out to reach for the ground. It is a dull white color, streamlined and organic. On its side is a symbol that appears to be a flag: On a dark-blue background, an eight pointed star surrounded by a narrow ring set at a slight angle. The rotors slowly turn to a stop, collect themselves to align with the spine of the vessel, and sink into recessed pockets as doors close over them. At the nose of the vessel can be seen a smaller symbol, looking almost like a hastily drawn numeral "5".
"Hmph. It did not have an eldar on it as I recall."
"Yes, it did, and you know it," P'nyssa replied.
Now on the ground it looms even larger. "That thing's almost as big as a 747," one man standing with the dignitaries drawls appreciatively. "Amazing."
They wait. Two hatchways open on opposite sides of the vessel, great bows of metal turning upward to expose their contents, which are then lowered to the ground. Two robots nearly ten feet tall walk forward on the runway, taking up positions by the nose of the vessel. They are quite clearly meant to be menacing: blobs of gunmetal gray, all sharp angles and rigid features but for the featureless face, they carry large square rifles in their hands. A black and yellow triangle is visible on their backs in one corner, clearly a warning of some kind. They are impassive.
"Not very friendly."
"It could be a show of strength," another voice replies. "They're telling us that they're cautious and they're willing to protect themselves if they have to."
"I believe them already," the first says.
From the nose of the ship another door opens, this one smaller than the other two. The floor descends, a shaft of metal in the center of the disk-shaped platform holding it steady as it drops two humanoid figures slowly to the ground. Both are dressed in uniforms of white decorated with striping along the seams of their pants and along the lines of their jackets. Over the left pocket appears the star-and-ring symbol in gold on a navy-blue background. One is clearly male and very human and although the uniform was apparently tailored to him he seems ill-at-ease wearing it. The other is clearly female, quite beautiful and far more comfortable in her clothing. Although her face appears human the camera gives her some reservations. Both have long hair restrained by some sort of tie in the back. She walks with a curious, lilting gait.
They walk towards the robots. The male pauses, speaks to one of the robots which appears to respond, although at this distance no words can be heard. He seems satisfied as they approach the party.
"Secretary General." She speaks with a voice these people have heard before. She is the one who sent the message in English. "I am Representative Genalina Difranz of Pendor. I am grateful for the hospitality of your people."
"Representative Genalina Difranz, I an Secretary General Javier de Cuellar of the United Nations of Earth. I welcome you to our world." He bows. She returns the gesture although she seems awkward at it, then stands straight and offers her hand. It is the Secretary General's turn to be awkward but he recovers with the speed and aplomb of a diplomat and the handshake is returned.
"Secretary, I understand the press is here. I have a message for the people of your world, if I may."
The Secretary, nonplussed, gestures towards the cameras and microphones. Genalina seems momentarily intimidated by the wall of equipment that approaches her as an army, but she soon recovers. She smiles to the cameras as if enjoying a private joke. "I have a message for the people of Earth. A long time ago an alien species for reasons known only to it came to one of your own and gave him tools and knowledge far beyond what either you or we have here today. With those tools he was allowed to do whatever he wished for a period of time, and what he wished was our existence. We, the eight united species of Pendor, are the children of a child of Earth. We are your grandchildren.
"We come from a star 6.38 light years from here, a star that until two days ago was not even visible in your sky. How we came here is a legend even to us, and we are as a people only a century old.
"That is why we are here. We are only a century old-- we have no past, we have no history, we have no traditions of art, or literature, or performance, but what we have created for ourselves.
"We are, by any stretch of the imagination, a people of abundance and prosperity, wanting for nothing in the way of food, shelter, or health. Our world is full of vistas and adventures as rich and varied as anything that can be found on Earth. We ask that you, the people of Earth, welcome us into your museums, your concerts, and your classrooms. In exchange we offer you fair trade in both our material wealth and our sciences."
"We do not know what happened to the alien race that gave our Vatare', our father, the tools with which he created us. Although we have some indicators that they do not exist anymore, we cannot say for certain either way. The tools they gave him have also gone and are no more. He is still with us and we still love and believe in him, but he in no way leads us for we lead ourselves as was his intent.
"As I said, there are eight Pendorian species. My assistant, Kennet, and I are representatives of two of them. In total, representatives from six of the species are here today with us; the other two could not make the voyage from Pendor in the starships we currently have, although we hope to change that soon. Kennet here is a Human, and I am a Satryl; the differences would be better visible if I were wearing much less, but this is not the time, place, or weather for such revelations."
"Och, horrible," I sighed. "That's not even the right speech. She's compressing months of revelations into one speech."
"It's only a movie," Tails offered.
Behind her, the ship is opening up as more doors bow outward and more discs drop more passengers to the ground. There are five distinct groups. Two have been seen already, the humans and the satryl, who now can only be identified by their peculiar gait. Of the others, one is built on the frame of a human, but is clearly feline in appearance; the head is that of a housecat, as is the coloration of the fur that is visible on the exposed hands and face. The second is built large, around seven feet tall or more for the largest, again appearing feline but much more ferocious. One grins as he walks towards the camera, a mouthful of teeth revealed in the sides of thin, black lips. Their fur is bright white with spots of dark grey or black distributed in a somewhat random pattern. The third is the most peculiar-- humanoid, like the other two, each is covered in a uniform blue fur, but the shades vary from the four individuals seen from a light blue to the deepest indigo. They have large, almost dish-like ears. Their eyes have no visible corneas but are an unbroken monochrome of yellow or green. Their arms do not sway as others would when they walk and it soon becomes obvious that the arms are not arms but tentacles ending in a fingerless mitten. Some of the attendees seem even more intimidated by them than the others. But slowly, even they start to make contact with the waiting, anxious Terrans.
"Well," I said, stretching, "That's the end of part one. Okay, everybody. Bathroom, food, drinks, whatever you need to do do it now. I'm starting back up again in ten minutes."
"Ken!" Jaqui protested.
"Ten minutes," I repeated for her. "No more, no less. You're not back in ten minutes, we start the movie without you." I stood up, yawned, and stretched some more. I hadn't realized this flick was quite so long.
"Where did you find this?" P'nyssa asked.
"In the library. Lance pointed it out to me the other day and I figured we should have a movie night together, just us and some friends." 'Some friends' had ended up at fourteen people or so. "I'm not sure what it is. It calls itself a 'fictionalized documentary.' It's definitely fiction-- while the meeting on the tarmac might be accurate, some of the details are certainly way off. Those powersuits weren't even being made that year-- we had a much older model. For another thing, I remember Genalina being much prettier than that." P'nyssa, who had also been there, smiled quietly to herself. Genalina had resisted all my charms, later admitting that she had mostly been testing me to see if she could keep her role' as ambassador without sleeping with me. "It's not even a drama, is it?" Tails asked. "I'm sure the events were very dramatic for everybody there but was it really, I mean, exciting?"
"Sure, there was some excitement that year," P'nyssa replied.
"Mostly caused by misunderstandings. Anyone want something to drink?" I asked, heading towards the 'fridge.
"Cola!" "Root beer!" "Orange juice!" I took the orders, carefully filing them away in a small corner of my brain. Opening the door I heard the quiet crinkle of metal as the innards of the machine began to equalize in temperature with the changed environment outside. I found some example of what everyone had asked for except myself-- I was out of cream soda. "Lance, can you send me a six-pack of cream soda?" "It's warm," the AI replied as it appeared on the SDisk. I sighed. While I'm not a fan of ice in anything carbonated, it was a lot better than drinking the stuff warm. I carried the various bottles of requested stuff back out to the waiting audience. Then I went back for my own. "Are we ready?" I asked. There were nods of assent. "Good."
New York State University, New York, United States
A young man sits at a wide, institutional-style table reading a book. Before him are the scant remains of a meal on an equally institutional tray. He is large and hirsute, yet despite his bulk he appears to be withdrawn from those around him, entranced by his reading. Around him the clatter of silverware and the mingling of many voices reveals the comings and goings of a school cafeteria. He has companions who are chattering among themselves, respecting the space he has built between himself and his book.
The clatter comes to a slow halt. All heads turn, including the young man's, to the door where two Pendorians, a female Tindal and a male Uncia, have appeared. It is hard to determine if they are equals for he seems protective of her. They talk among themselves for a moment and the young man turns his attention ever more towards the two newcomers. He stands. "Where are you going?" one of his friends asks.
"To try something," he says.
"You're going to go talk to them?"
"Sure," he replies, skirting around the table. He is muttering to himself as he walks towards them, as if trying to come to grips with what he is about to do or say. He steps up to them both. The whole room is watching as he holds out a hand, to which is not clear. He swallows. "Mellon. Esseo na Joel. Tuleoesse. Quenevan..." His voice trails off as he fumbles for a word; he resorts to gestures, holding his thumb and forefinger very close together. He smiles.
The other two do as well, and the ferocious-looking Uncia takes his hand. "Naiman, Joel. Esso D'Chrofft na.. Mellon!"
"Naiman," Joel agrees.
The Tindal holds out her mitten. "Esso na Minsha. And I speak more English than you Quen I think."
Joel takes her mitten in his hand. "I hope so. That was almost my entire vocabulary right there."
"Practice," she suggests. "Chrofft knows--" and she deliberately pauses, holding her mitten out, thumb very close to the pad-- "English."
"Noluvan pello!" the Uncia objects.
Joel's friends have now joined him. One, a short woman with large breasts barely restrained by her clothing says, "You speak their language?"
"Just a tiny amount," Joel replies. "It's a little like Finnish, I think." He has a secretive smile as he speaks. "She speaks English, he doesn't."
She pulls on the sleeve of Joel's clothing, and Joel bends down to hear her whisper. He whispers something back to her. Now she turns to the big cat. "Chrofft? Esso Lisa na. Nailye vancana."
The Uncia is startled, then smiles. "Naiman, Lisa. Naquen 'canavan'."
"What's that mean?" Lisa asks.
"It means that you pronounced it wrong," Joel replies. "I gave you the wrong word."
"Your words are limited. You said so," Minsha says. "Someone told us: The food at the school center is awful. We came to taste for ourselves."
"Now that's adventure for you," Joel replies. His friends chuckle. "The cafeteria, the final frontier. To boldly eat what few humans would call food. I don't recommend the Jello."
There are more laughs.
He sees them walking across the campus, laughing and joking. Even the tall one that does not speak English is having a good time, and he is walking with the short girl. A dark snarl crosses his face and he walks towards the cafeteria, walking around the side and entering a wooden door, unnoticed. Inside is a smoke filled room. Someone at a table waves to him. "Gary!" one shouts above the din of a pinball machine performing its attraction routine with all the duty and noise of a peacock questing for a mate.
He joins them, accepting a glass of beer from the one who caught his attention. "Thanks."
"What gives? You look down."
He leans on the table conspiratorially. "It's those damned aliens. I don't like 'em."
The other leans back in his chair and pushes his hair from his eyes. "It's not like they're here to eat us."
"I say we still don't know that. Besides, I just saw them walk by with some of the wedge rats. Lisa and the big one were like, like--" He too gestures, holding his first two fingers close together.
"God, are you still hung up on that one?" the who has not yet spoken now speaks. "Forget about her man."
"Yeah, easy for you to say," Gary responds. "You don't know what she's like." Gary removes a cigarette and lights up.
"Yeah, I know the whole story. You two had chemistry in bed. Big deal. She didn't like the way you smoke and the way you drink. When you finally cracked up your 'Z' she dumped you. She's a wedgie, Gary."
Gary sighs and puts his drink down. "Yeah, I know. It's just really hard, y'know?"
The others nod.
Joel and Lisa are sitting in a dimly lit restaurant. Behind them is a once-colorful mural of what look like elves handling pitchers of beer and tossing about the components of pizza. Between them sits a pitcher of soda, thus far untouched by either. "Joel?" Lisa asks.
"What do you think of me and Chrofft?"
Joel thinks. "I don't know, Lisa. It's an interesting proposition, that's for sure. He's picked up English almost as fast as I've been learning Quen. It's nice to have a complete dictionary for once." He pours himself a drink, then one for her. "What do you want me to think of him?"
"I don't know," she sighs, accepting the glass he holds out. "I mean, I... Okay, I'll say it. Do you think he wants to sleep with me?"
"Do you want to sleep with him?"
"I don't know that either," she says. "I think I do, but it's so... scary."
"He is kinda big compared to you."
"And rangy looking," she agrees. "But that's not it. Did I tell you I ran into Gary yesterday?"
Joel looks up sharply, clearly recognizing the name. "That loser?"
"He's not that bad a loser," she protests. "He just drinks too much."
"And he smokes. And he's a racist underneath it all. Just ask him about his attitudes towards Indians."
Lisa nods. "I've heard it, Joel." She sighs. "I miss that one part of him."
"Learning to live without sugar was hard for me, too," Joel says unexpectedly. "Diabetes does that to a man. You have no idea how much I hate diet Coke."
She smiles in a sad way. "So how about you and Minsha? Is that working?"
"Sometimes I think I'm doomed to be the best friend of all women and not actually get to date any of them. Minsha acts like my little sister sometimes." He looks up. "Speaking of whom..." Lisa turns to see Minsha walk through the door, Chrofft stooping to follow. The room goes silent for a moment.
"Uh, hi." Minsha says. "Anyone mind of we eat here? Our friends are here." She points in the direction of Joel and Lisa.
Nobody says a word, so she and Chrofft make their way over to Joel and Lisa's table. Chrofft has considerable trouble wedging his bulk into the booth, but eventually he manages. He is head, shoulders, and then some over Lisa, but they smile when they greet and they seem to get along fine. Minsha sits down next to Joel and gives him a brief kiss on the cheek. Joel seems startled but doesn't object verbally.
A waitress approaches cautiously and asks if they're ready to order or do they need more time. "I don't recognize anything on this menu," Minsha says. "Joel, you order for me."
"Do you like more meat, or vegetables? Do you like anything spicy?"
"Spicy is okay but not a demand. And I do eat meat."
"I eat meat," Chrofft offers.
"I figured that," Joel says. He looks up at the waitress. "Okay. Two medium pizzas, one pepperoni and sausage, one half bacon and pineapple, half mushrooms and olives."
The waitress takes the order. "Anything to drink?"
"Soda. Not diet," Minsha says.
"Be right back with your drinks," the waitress says, seemingly grateful to be out of there.
Lisa leans against Chrofft momentarily but he moves away. Lisa looks up, hurt. "Chrofft?"
"I met a man this day. His name is Gary. He said he is your, uh... melar?"
"Boyfriend," Joel suggests. "Not anymore."
"Not for a long time," Lisa agrees. "We broke up a month before Pendorians arrived."
Chrofft smiles, looking relieved. "He seems very upset."
"Why? Because I'm interested in you?"
"That would seem to be," Chrofft says. "I do not want to make things bad here."
"You won't," Lisa says. "Gary and I were very good to each other one way, but he drank too much and smoked too much."
"How can one 'drink too much?'" Minsha asks.
"Alcohol," Joel replies. "When we say he 'drank too much,' we usually mean alcohol."
"So he was out of control often?" Minsha asks.
"That's a good way of putting it. It didn't look like it, though. He could drink a lot and still seem sober. But he wrecked his car a couple of months ago driving drunk and got his license suspended."
The drinks arrive, followed shortly by the pizza. They eat in pleased silence. Around them it is obvious that others are watching them closely, but they ignore it and try to enjoy their meal. Minsha has some difficulty with the pizza and resorts to a knife and fork, looking very much the lady in manner if not in appearance as she eats.
As they eat, they are joined by some of their friends seen in the cafeteria. These friends are dressed scruffily but they are smiles as they take the booth across the aisle from the four. Jokes and laughs are exchanged; there is a hint of envy in the eyes of some but the general air is one of acceptance and respect. Clearly there is a sense that the Pendorians belong among these people, of all that they could have met on campus. One wears a fishing vest festooned with insignia from a half-dozen different science fiction stories; another is dressed as if she were a medieval peasant.
Dinner ends, the meal is paid for, the party gets up to leave. "Joel," Minsha says, "Stay for a minute."
"Hey, Farmer!" Joel shouts at the retreating backs of the crowd. One turns. "I'll be along in a little while. Go on without us!"
A young man with red hair and beard nods. "We'll be waiting for you."
They are left alone. "Joel," Minsha says quietly. "Are you attracted to me?"
Joel is surprised by the question. "If I say yes will it ruin our friendship?"
Minsha shakes her head. "I do not think so. I do not hope so."
Joel looks into the oily swirl of his now flat soda. "Yeah, I am. I guess you would notice sometime."
"No," Minsha says. "I did not notice. That is why I asked. I could not tell and I was surprised. You have been so friendly that I wondered if something was wrong with me. I thought maybe you were, um, eroile'."
Joel looks puzzled and digs in his jacket pocket for a small book. He flips through it rapidly until he comes upon the word in question. "No," he says, "I'm definitely not gay. I mean, erolie'." He appears to be amused at the idea. "Why did you think that?"
"Because you have not indicated any interest in me."
"I thought it would be rude," Joel says. "We don't just come out say, 'I'm interested in you,' here on Earth. Are you interested in me?"
She seems uncomfortable answering the question. "You are very large, Joel, and you have a genetic disease. On Pendor, these problems would have been fixed long before now because genetics is our principle science, but I understand that we are not on Pendor. You are very different from any human I have met before because of your difficulties and because you are a Terran and I am here to have an adventure of learning." She places her mitten on his hand. "I would like to learn from you."
Chrofft and Lisa are walking through the dormitory area when Gary appears from around a corner. "Lisa," he says, "You can't be serious about this. Come back to me."
"No, Gary," she objects. "We have been over this. That was six months ago. You cracked up your car the day before Christmas, and I swore in the hospital that it was over. It is over."
"But you can't be serious about hanging out with this-- thing."
Chrofft leans over. "Lisa is with who Lisa wants to be with." He gives Gary his most menacing smile. "She says is over. Is over. Nunule?"
Gary growls and says, "You can't come here and just take what you want."
"Take what?" Chrofft asks. "All I take is Lisa's time which she gives."
Gary looks back and forth at the two of them. He is clearly interested in a fight but the Uncia outmasses him by too much. He leaves, cursing.
"I'm sorry, Chrofft. That can't be too common on Pendor."
"It is common enough. Not so jealous of time because we live so long, but jealous of attention." He grins. "I like your attention."
"I like yours. And you speak better English when you are not under pressure."
"He make me angry. I started to forget."
"He made you angry."
"You are right. He made me angry. I am not angry now that he is gone."
"Good." She takes his hand and pulls him down. He lowers himself to one knee and is eye-to-eye with her. "Can I ask you something?"
"Is it possible for us to-- you know-- melchar?"
He laughs. "It is very possible. Why? Do you want to?"
He smiles and touches her face. "I want to as well. But I must be truthful with you. I am not so young as you think." A look of puzzlement crosses her face. "I am ninety years old."
"Ninety? In your years that's what?"
"Ninety in yours too," Chrofft explains. "If I am not killed in an accident or by someone else I can live to be a thousand. Probably more."
"Oh." She says. "You were born in 1894?"
He nods. "It is a good year. Hershey's Chocolate founded that year. Marconi discovered radio telegraph but he waited until 1895 to get patent." He smiles. "I am a history student."
"I remember. Why are you telling me this, Chrofft? Are you trying to tell me that this won't last?"
"I have two friends, humans, who I am melar with back home. Lovers? Yes. Good friends. Terrans mate for life we are told. I am worried. Reputation is so important to Pendorians. It must be important here too?"
She nods. "It's important here. But if we're going to become, uh, melar it won't do damage to my reputation in that regard." She takes his hand. "And if we do, I don't think it could last forever. Mellon?" she asks, giving him a broad smile.
"Mellon a Melar," he responds. "Friends and lovers."
Joel is lying on his back, a sheet brought halfway up to cover his torso. A languid tentacles lays across his belly, tensing briefly as Minsha hauls herself up to look into his eyes. "I'm sorry, Minsha," he says.
"For what?" Minsha asks.
"I'm not very good at this. I, um, I've never done this before."
"Nobody on your world has."
"I mean, have sex."
A cross look swiftly moves across her features. "Why didn't you tell me? I would have been a lot less ferocious. I've been on this world for six months without having anyone pay that much attention to me. I thought... Oh, Joel, I'm sorry. I've made a terrible assumption. I expected you to be someone who really wanted and knew how to..."
"I do!" Joel responds quickly. "I like you, Minsha. I'd like you to stay. Please?"
"I won't make it worse if I do?"
"No, no!" he says. "You'll make it better. I guess I just... feel like I should know what I'm doing. I'm too old not to."
"How old are you?"
"And I am fifty one," she says calmly. "And I do not know everything, Joel." She kisses his cheek. "Listen, I would like try again." She kisses his throat. "You can try again, can't you?"
"Yeah... " Joel says.
"Practice makes perfect, Joel. Isn't that what humans say?"
Lisa is lying atop Chrofft, her head on his chest. His arms are over her, obscuring her apparently large charms. She has her eyes closed and a smile on her face. "Oh, Chrofft... That was good."
"Good," he says. "I am happy. I hope this will not hurt your relationship with your friends."
"The ones I care about will be envious," she says with a smile. "You may find some of our friends paying much more attention to you." She crawls up the length of his body to look into his face, then bends her head down to kiss his nose. "My big, loving kitty."
Chrofft's arms tense momentarily in a hug. Lisa gives a goodnatured "oof!" as he does so. "I hope this is a good beginning."
"The best," Lisa agrees.
I stood up and stretched. "Well," I said, "That's the end of that." I glanced about the room and found that about a quarter of the visitors, mostly the children, had fallen asleep. "Jaqui," I said. "Time to get up. Melad, you too." The kittens rouse themselves slowly. "Time to get ready for bed."
"Is it over?" Jaqui asks, fluttering open those lovely, strange eyelids of hers. The Han's eyelids fold up and out slightly, giving the eyes some shelter from the overhead glare of their desert "homeworld."
"Yes, it's over," I said with a laugh. "Come on, head for bed."
With moans and groans people picked themselves up off the floor. I shrugged at Tails. "Mostly a docudrama, and not very dramatic. There are about forty of those; this isn't one of the better ones." I chuckle. "But it's actually quite accurate in showing the landing scene, except for that speech." I laughed. "That speech. Uuch. If I could, I'd do the original all over with a better writer, too."
"You did the best you could at the time," P'nyssa offers. "Don't feel bad about it. I was there and it had the desired effect. People were surprised. And we left fifty on Terra and brought some home with us. That was an interesting year."
"The translight speeds kept getting faster and faster those years. I remember in the space of sixty years we dropped the transit rate from six months to six days." I chuckled. "Nowadays it's something like six hours." Eventually the movie night crowd managed to break up, leaving P'nyssa and I alone. "Bed?" I asked.
"Mmm. I'm tired."
"Me too. G'night, Lance."
"Goodnight, Ken. Goodnight, P'nyssa."