I admit I was a little surprised by how far we were from where we'd been the night before, not only that, but I was immediately jealous of the sleep that Kathy had been able to enjoy, which had still been robbed from me—though she had fainted from fright, so I felt a little guilty, I couldn't shake off the envy completely. We stared up the unfathomable length of that tower, with a base a wide and as large as a Costco, well, likely more, several times more. It rose, and either because of the perspective, or because of its geometry, it narrowed to a far-off spike that disappeared into the sky.
From the edge of the city it seemed like 200 of their stories, but so close, it had to be more, two, maybe five times more. The bridges that slanted from its spire met up with adjacent towers, in all directions, in a circle, a circle that that followed a ring around the central structure with a single road. A round-about, the heart of the city, around which everything expanded, and revolved, with such soaring heights that I grew dizzy and stumbled to my knees with the world spinning before my eyes.
Kathy caught me and held me up by my shoulders, saying something with words I couldn't hear, mouthing moving, eyes urgent, but I no longer cared. The vertigo passed, and I finally heard her voice.
"Philip! Philip? Are you alright? What's wrong?" She shook me by the shoulders, and pressed her hand against my forehead. "You're burning up."
"I am?" I asked, swaying on my feet, standing only with her support. "Perhaps I shouldn't stay outside. Should I see the doctor?"
"No!" She pressed. "We're not going back there."
"Well why don't we go in here?" I pointed weakly at the spire, as I noticed a sliding glass door facing our section of the street.
She wrapped my arm around her shoulder and half-carried me over to the door, which hissed and slid aside to let us in. I was somewhat aware of those dancing purple lights, and a greeting which was directed at me, but I couldn't hear it.
"They've got those lights out again," she whispered, suspiciously pointing at the purple line that glowed straight ahead from her feet to some box secured to the wall behind another one of those tall desks.
"Maybe it's a first-aid kit; they might have something I could use." I separated from her and leaned against the wall, which was cool, and solid, and felt like soft-brushed steel. She anxiously followed the line, which shot ahead of her feet eagerly, and rose to highlight the box I'd noticed on the wall.
She tugged at it and the front panel opened with surprising ease, and Kathy nearly lost her balance. She found another one of those clear plastic films but it was small and folded easily into her pocket. Whatever else was in there, it was inside a black plastic box that she couldn't open, but brought over anyway.
"I can't read this," she said, holding out the small sheet of mnemonic film.
"Yes you can, you're just afraid."
She looked down and covered her embarrassment. "Of course I am, look what happened to you."
"That was after whatever meddling that hologram did. Close your eyes and place your hand on the film." I didn't really give her a choice, because at that point I was a little concerned. If this were some kind of side-effect, then maybe they had some kind of remedy for it. Plus, she hadn't undergone any kind of examination, so I figured she'd be fine.
She froze stiff as the purple light suffused the film and flashed up her arm and hung around her head. Her eyes opened, but they were vacant, reflecting the purple glow of the overlay that sparkled with tiny illegible lines of text that scrolled across her pupils. Kathy's arm trembled slightly, and she fell back on her knees. The light faded, as her hand separated from the film, and she wiped her forehead with her hand, shaking off the effects.
"I have to press it here," she said, placing her finger on a wide circle on the corner of the box, "and send the operative command. Open." The line between the circle and the lid flashed briefly with a matching purple hue, and it popped open with a small cloud of smoke. She rummaged through the box, setting little green-glass vials to the side, with a few sealed prescriptions in clear plastic, until she held up one item with a smile. It looked like one of those injector gun things that they use in the movies to knock people out and kidnap them, and she took one of the vials and secured it in the brace behind its needle.
"I had hoped that an advanced species wouldn't use needles anymore," I said, slumping further against the wall as the vertigo returned. The room spun, but only Kathy didn't seem to move, she reached over with an exaggeratedly long arm, and tilted my head back, looking seriously as the needle drew closer to my head. "Just hurry."
I must have blacked out because the last thing I remember is the pinch at the back of my neck: that pain as the incredibly large needle sunk into my spine. I came to with a start, Kathy already having packed the box and returned it to the wall. She sat beside me staring blankly at the room, like she would've preferred to be exploring, but what've felt bad leaving me alone.
"Oh, you're awake," she observed, rising from the ground, dusting off her pant-legs.
"Yeah, what was that?" I asked, pushing from my back against the wall to stand to my feet.
"I don't really know, but that film had instructions for all kinds of conditions… yours seemed to be a malfunction of your nuero-synaptic psi-aural interface… whatever that is. They recommended inculcating the interface to stabilize it." She shrugged. "I only understood that something was wrong and that the description closest to what was wrong with you matched that section of the paper. So I just gave you the prescription." Kathy smiled and walked over to the desk. "I wonder if I'll need that too."
I was about to say 'it couldn't hurt' but I knew just how inaccurate that was, not only that, but I still wasn't sure it was safe. It sounded like whatever that Inculcation procedure was that the hospital hologram had wanted to schedule for me would have just been a more procedural, professional one if I had done it there. Not all that different from getting a vaccination. "I wonder if I should go see that hospital after all. There was a simple chime that rang through my head, and the lights around the building flickered to life.
Looking around, it seemed more like the waiting area at an airport or train station than a skyscraper, there were couches and benches with matching holes for those spines and tails like the hologram had, empty fish tanks, dead shrubs in unwatered planters, and what seemed like a magazine rack on the other side of the room. "Kathy, let's take a look around." I crossed the room and found an empty magnetic conveyer, still charged as if expecting our luggage at any time, passing through a hole in the wall to some area too dark to see.
"I'm glad there isn't another one of those glowing things," she remarked, peering into the hole beside me. "But I wonder how we go higher up."
She had a point, I moved behind the desk and found another one of those metal-plaque visors, and pressed my thumb on the small circle at the corner, and smiled as it glowed and resolved into a band of pure energy. I put it on, but this time, there was no painful flash of light, only a resonating glow at the base of my skull. I reached toward the visor with my mind, and find that I had logged in as a guest user, the visual overlay showed my file from the hospital in the upper left corner, and a menu with the words "Jdarad Sky-Ladder, ticket office" printed into three-dimensional letters in my center view.
I grabbed what looked like a pen, or stylus, almost out of instinct, and tapped the projection of my view in the air. It phased out and resolved back into a list of seating arrangements, and train-schedules, one in only ten minutes. I selected the first-class cabin, two seats, and didn't find a button for payment, so I just stood there wondering what to do.
Kathy watched me curiously, as I moved the pen through what looked to her like empty air, but she jumped in surprise as a hologram appeared on top of the desk in what looked like a suit with a blue cravat, and a more slender frame.
Its greeting was in a noticeably smoother voice, soft, friendly, and apologetic, just like the women behind the desk at the ticket office of Sea-Tac or anywhere else. "You have been inactive for some time, Ambassador Crown, is there something wrong with your seating arrangements?"
"She seems nicer than the last one," Kathy said, leaned back against one of the chair with a sigh.
"Yeah, how do I pay for this?" I asked, watching the way her eyes squinted in amusement.
"Your travel expenses have been covered by the Nel'vis Administration, however, it appears there is a problem with your train," she replied, adjusting her cravat with one of her delicately scale-patterned four-fingered hands. There was a subdued clanking and banging noise from higher up the tower, as if something were falling, colliding with everything on the way down. It grew louder, with the hologram merely looking up in thought, as the noise became so blaring that I was convinced that one of the trains had fallen from the very top.
But, even though I expected there to be a smash and a cloud of smoke at any moment, there was only a hum as a layer of blue light suffused the area down the hall where the loading bay presumably was. All was silent, and Kathy bolted up from her chair and ran in the direction of the light. She skidded to a halt over the smooth marble floor, leaving rubber marks from her boots, and pointed out the door with a blank expression, her mouth hanging, and her eyes wide, beckoning.
I walked over, partially because I didn't want to look as childish as she had in the presence of that hologram, who tracked my progress with its yellow-slit eyes. I gasped in awe at the array of train cars that hung, in complete disarray, coiled in a heap, but not yet wrecked, aside from the scratches and dents on the otherwise pristine white outer walls, in the air hovering over a blue patch of that same conveyer light. Each car was rounded and long, lined with oval windows that were tinted completely black.
"Unfortunately, due to an accident, the trains are currently inoperable. We would be happy to provide temporary lodgings until the track is open. Your satisfaction is our highest priority at the Jdarad Sky-Ladder, and so we beg your patience as we undergo repairs to the facility." The hologram walked over tired, but good-naturedly and explained with a few generous waves of her hands and tail.
"Just where would these lodgings be?" I asked, curious to see what an alien hotel would look like.
"One moment Ambassador, booting the Concierge Terminal," she replied and then looked to my right where a shimmering blue form, slightly shorter, with a wider face, appeared.
The blue one blinked several times and then settled its view on me. "Welcome to the Jdarad Sky-Ladder Terminal One, as the Terminal Attendant has already informed you, we are preparing lodgings for you in the Executor Suite. If you would follow me, I will guide you to the elevator to the Terminal Hotel. Please, this way," she said, in an even more appeasing tone, as if she were self-conscious of her weight or something. The Concierge walked over to one of the large pillars in the center of the waiting area and pressed her hand against its white surface, and the seam of a door appeared, and it slid into the ground, revealing a somewhat smaller elevator than the one they'd ridden to the top of the hospital, with white walls and stale air.
I didn't have to submit a command this time, the Concierge waved us inward, stepped between us, only as tall as my knee, and waited as the pod shifted and rose about ten stories or so in about thirty seconds, and then, to my utter shock, the pod went sideways and slid down one of those bridges from the central tower to a hexagonal structure roughly twenty stories tall. The walls were transparent as we exited the Sky-Ladder tower and down below we could see the myriad towers and empty streets lit up by the orange sun, casting long shadows out over the plain toward the pipeline I could barely see.
Kathy held onto my arm as we sped down toward the new tower, closing her eyes because of the sunlight that reflected harshly off its vertical sheet windows. I squinted, and as I watched the dark portal for the pod's entry approach, I caught the scent of Lavender from her hair. They always said you couldn't just be friends with a girl, and for me I hadn't yet disproved it, but I found myself blushing, thankful she couldn't see. Nessie hadn't ever clung to me, she'd been the strong one, and me, the hopeless academic; but I had the sense that, at least in some way, Kathy depended on me—and that more than anything, made me happy.
You're going to ask then, well, did we develop a relationship? What are we doing, now that I'm writing this book? Ha! I'm not going to tell you, this isn't an airport novel.
The pod eased to a halt, in a dimly lit space at the center of the tower, and the Concierge pressed her hand against the door, which slid away into the ground, and then stepped out and flicked her tail once. The lights were activated in that moment, illuminating everything with a faint blue light, the black marble floor, the cream-white rugs, the oversized tables and chairs in what looked more like an Executive lounge than the lobby of a hotel.
"Members of the Sky-Ladder Platinum group are allowed to use this lounge while awaiting their trains, please, feel free to do the same. However, before that, I will show you to your room." The hologram walked over to a circular recess in the wall across the room, like a negative-pillar, if you get my meaning, wide enough for two to stand. We stood in the recess and waited for her instructions, but without warning, a sheet of glass came down and enclosed the circle, and then we were propelled upwards by the same blue light as the conveyer belt from the train station. In a few seconds we stopped and a panel slid out under our feet, cutting us off from the effects of the field, and we fell the inch or so to the ground with a few soft thuds of rubber on metal. The glass wall slid up, and we stood on the roof-top floor, covered again like a solarium with a dome of glass, cut from a single molded sheet.
The Concierge appeared before us with a shimmer of light and then waved us around the various sections of the space, none of which could be called rooms, since it was all open and connected, just varied with heights and steps, and well-placed plants—that were somehow still alive. We walked around, separating to explore eagerly by ourselves. I leaned against the window and stared at the ground far beneath my feet, with the sun shining on my back. Far over my head the spire rose, unending, all the way to the stars. It really was an executive suite. I pulled out my cigarette case, and placed one in my mouth, and then glanced over and realized that the Concierge was watching me curiously, with the lighter open, but not yet lit.
"Can I smoke here?" I asked.
"I do not understand, what is this activity?"
I flicked the lighter and the tiny yellow flame sprang to life. She didn't do anything as I held it under the tip of my cigarette and inhaled, and then closed the lighter with a flip of my hand and pocketed it, breathing out into the air.
"Analysis shows this activity poses health risks due to chemical contaminants and carcinogenic effects, why would you do this?" The Concierge asked, staring at me with her head tilted slightly.
"I'm sure you can see that there are other things about this that are pleasing and enjoyable," I said, "why, do you know of a better way?"
She nodded. "If you desire to proceed with this activity, we can fabricate a substitute based on this design with minimal health-risks. Your biology shows that a number of alternatives would be inadvisable, but we will begin synthesis of this Tobacco. Records indicate you have a slight reliance on ethanol, local reserves are available at the bar." She indicated the circular white bar built around one of the support pillars for the dome, with shelves replete with strange glass and metal canisters lit up from behind with those fixtureless purple lights.
"I admit, I'm surprised that you'd have a bar, I mean, if this is another planet… it's nice to know we have that much in common," I said, scratching my head, and walking over. The stools weren't all that different from ours, pristine steel topped by a white leather cushion, with a sort of indent at the back—presumably to make it more comfortable to sit down with a tail. I climbed up on the closest of the four stools but the ceramic bar was still at the height of my chin, so I had to climb up there to really see anything.
My holographic companion appeared on top of the bar beside me, and slid a small saucer over in my direction, an ability I didn't know she had, and said, "Please dispose of your ashes in this receptacle."
I tapped my cigarette over the saucer and walked across the bar to try to read the hieroglyphics on the bottles on the shelf. "Is there any way I can read these?"
"Would you like to access our complimentary translation software?" The Concierge asked. "It appears that your ad-hoc Inculcation is complete, psi-net access is possible; however your Virtual Embassy is still rendering."
I nodded absently and noticed Kathy inspecting the potted plants; she was bent over, staring at the veins on the leaves of the shrub. They were thin, like wafers, fragile, like a single breath could break them, and glowed a bright almost ultra-violet silver in the purple and blue lights. The bark of the shrub didn't quite match, it was dark brown and mottled with specks of white.
"Rendering complete;" the Concierge interrupted, "initiating user upload."
"User what?" I asked, but I felt a fuzzy haze fall over me, and all my senses stopped, just for a moment, and I was completely deaf, and blind, and mute; but in the next instant, I was surrounded by a flash of sound and color, and then I stood, not in some great embassy as I had expected, but a purple holographic version of my apartment. The fan turned as usual in the window, and the papers on my desk shifted in the reverse wind, which pulled at the smoke that rose from my holographic cigarette.
The Concierge appeared by the door to the kitchen and looked around with intense interest. "So this is what your embassy looks like, I expected something more similar to our buildings, but I suppose you are an alien."
"From my perspective you are the alien, and an A.I. at that." I took a drag, relieved as the purple hue faded and the real colors bled through into the artificial space. "Besides, why is my embassy a copy of my apartment?"
"You live in this small space? Perhaps there is a more suitable building where you can work while you are waiting for the train."
"I normally just work from my apartment, or wherever I happen to be in the real world. Why you would need a virtual office is beyond me." I relaxed in my desk chair and found the glass of whiskey I hadn't finished from the last morning, it smelled almost right… but based on memories, the whole set-up was pretty well done. "Now, what were you saying about translation software?"
The Concierge noticed the couch and walked over to it, and moved her tail to the side to sit down. She held out her hand over the coffee table and a mnemonic film phased into existence on its surface. "Simply access this archive and the files will be installed onto your biological hard-drive. It should take a few days for the information to be internalized as a secondary language but in the meantime you will be able to understand the meanings of the words written in our lexical system. Tautological statements will likely be incomprehensible for a few weeks."
I sighed and picked up the film, and pressed my hand in its center on the surface of my desk. Unlike the usual wash of color, the film itself lit up and projected its images and text directly to my eyes, piercing through my mind like the first time I accessed one in the hospital, imprinted thousands of gigabytes of information at the base of my skull. I could feel its tendrils searching through my brain for the right locations to store the various bytes of data, with memories of my own anatomical instruction appearing before my eyes as some streams were stored in my visual cortex, my language centers, even my hippocampus—which seemed odd.
The pain in my head increased as the amount of data in each stream multiplied, and then cut off suddenly, and the film dissolved beneath my hand. I couldn't think in that new code, not yet, but I could sense the existence of alternatives words and phrases that meant the same, though slightly nuanced, things. I looked over at the Concierge, and smiled. "Well, if you are an A.I. don't you have a name?"
"I am Fis'an Del'vis," she replied, and though I heard the sounds she uttered, in my head it sounded more like 'Unofficial Councilor.' Apparently she noticed my confusion. "While accessing your new information processing language, you likely understood the meaning of my name. It is my job to be of assistance, to support whomever, and for however long it may be required. Your name however, Philip, is difficult to translate. Who are these 'horses' that you befriend? Not only that, but what is the significance of this surname, this headdress you call 'crown'?"
It was the first time anyone had cared to ask me about it. "Well, I know I was named after Philip of Macedon, a king and hero of our ancient world. I don't know why he was named that. As for the meaning of this headdress, a crown symbolizes the authority and legitimacy of a king, and his dominion," I tried to explain, but I got the sense that Fis'an didn't really understand.
"A king, according to your mnemonic records, is the head of the type of government denoted by the term Monarchy, an ancestral line of rulers, which has almost absolute authority over the people. But it seems your domain is quite diminished." The Concierge blinked with a sly smile forming on her reptilian lips, revealing her fangs. "I wonder why Has'ryn Illnakh gave you foreign delegate status."
The name she referenced meant something along the lines of 'Reserve-Director Medical' so I figured she meant that hologram from the hospital. "Look," I said, "I didn't claim to be important, but as one of the only living beings on the planet, my scarcity makes me important."
She nodded. "What of your companion, she has not been Inculcated, surely giving her access to information would be preferable?"
I noticed a log-out glyph on the upper-right corner of my vision, so I looked in its direction, and smiled as the view of the Executive Suite returned through the fading and collapse of the psi-aural shell that I had interfaced with. Kathy hadn't moved more than an inch since I'd logged in, and I searched for the hologram of Fis'an, who appeared behind the bar with a raised hand to cut me off.
"I failed to mention that accessing your virtual office has the added benefit of compressing your attention to your internal state, not unlike dreaming, where processing speed is greatly enhanced, which allows for time-saving advances in things like holding meetings or communicating messages at near relativistic speeds. You spent five seconds." She reached over to one of the bottles, and her hand became a little pixelated as she picked it up and poured what would have been a shot for one of the… Lao'sen I guess they called themselves… given their size. For me it was more like three fingers.
She slid the cup across the unmarred ceramic bar-top and I caught it with a grin. I hadn't expected to receive any kind of service on this world, which at first had been an empty forest. I hadn't thought I could talk to anyone, even if they were only an A.I.
"This Yassar grain alcohol most closely resembles your memories of rye whiskey; I hope you enjoy it, Ambassador Crown." Fis'an shrank to about the size of a figurine and sat on the edge of my ash-tray and sipped at her own imaginary glass of whiskey. I took a whiff of the tall, skinny glass and nearly coughed because of the heat of the alcohol rising off it. It was spicy like pecans, but perfectly clear, like gin. It had to be over a hundred proof, but not more than Booker's Bourbon, so I decided to give it a taste.
I tipped my head back and let in a healthy sip, and chewed on it for a few seconds, enjoying the almost chive and walnut bitterness, that somehow wasn't harsh. It was similar to whiskey, because of its high alcohol content, and the bitter flavor profile, but in some ways it reminded me most of tequila, or mescal.
"Well, how is it?"
"It's good," I said, dangling my feet over the bar, looking up at the afternoon sky. It was still so early, and I felt that I'd experienced so much already. "Fis'an, where is everyone?"
She stood and paced around the ash tray pensively. "I don't know. It has been a long time since I saw anyone. The City Intelligences have maintained the Infrastructure as dictated by the Nel'vis Disaster Protocol, but it has been too long. Perhaps they will return now that we have visitors."
"So it really is a ghost-world," I sighed and was about to pull out another cigarette when Fis'an grew to my size and held out an empty hand in my direction, and what looked like a thin cigar appeared in her hand, with that same cloud of mist that accompanied our travels back and forth between Earth and whatever this planet was called. It tapered to a point at both ends, and was wrapped tight, with what seemed like a native plant's dried leaves. I took it and examined it closely. "Can I really smoke this?"
Her tail swished playfully as she took another imaginary sip from her glass. "It was manufactured according to your memories of Cuban cigars, using local ingredients of course. It should contain the desired levels of Nicotine, but formaldehyde and tar shouldn't be present at all."
I smelled it and noticed Kathleen watching us. She ran over and climbed up beside me and stretched her arms. "Is that the new cigar? How interesting."
"Would you like something to drink?" Fis'an asked, disappearing and then rematerializing behind the bar at an appropriate height.
"Just water thank you," she said, turning to me, "what should we do? It's already the afternoon, and I feel like we haven't explored anything yet."
"I could use an off day," I shrugged, "besides, I feel like we might learn more about why we're here by talking with Fis'an."
I pointed at our host. "That Fis'an."
A glass of water scraped gracefully across the bar, and Kathy caught it before it slid off. "Oh wow, it smells like flowers," she exclaimed, taking a large gulp. "Oh that's good."
"Your name matches your personality," Fis'an said bowing her head slightly in Kathy's direction, "You do seem like a pure person."
I'd been through more baby-name sites than anyone, so I smiled. "An alternative meaning is derived from the ancient Greek goddess Hecate, after the root meaning 'torture.' I wonder if it is through the reduction of our physical form that we are purified, by fire, as it were."
Kathy shot me a mean look. "I'll have you know it is a very proud Irish name, and I'll not have you mock it."
I laughed and finished my glass of whatever it was she'd given me, and set it down with a clink. For now I'd save the cigar, and try it when I got home. I looked over at the Concierge. "Why is it that all your towers are topped by these domes?"
"It would be a waste not to be able to enjoy the view, and with the heights of these towers, it gets pretty cold. The domes trap heat and provide elegance at the same time," she replied, walking over to the edge of the window, looking out at the city-scape. "I'm sure you understand by now that atmospheric regulation is quite important to our species, something a mammal such as yourself wouldn't require. It is always easier to cool down than to warm up, and so thermostats and HVAC systems are of the utmost importance."
"I wonder where everyone is… what if… that quarantine, was there a plague?" I asked, hopping down to the stool and then the ground.
"I was not notified of any such quarantine," she said, and then raised a hand. "One moment, consulting with Has'ryn." In a second, the purple form of the lab-coat-wearing medical A.I. appeared beside her, with his eyes narrowed to slits and his tail twitching impatiently.
"I strictly forbade material-transport from within the hospital mainframe; your actions caused significant damage to my instruments, requiring calibrations to all systems. You are aware that transport is accompanied by a significant psi-aural radiation pulse, aren't you?" He asked in a low, stressed tone.
"I didn't know you were sentient," I said awkwardly.
"That is no excuse, furthermore, your emergency Inculcation, first-aid treatment, was hardly professional and carried significant risks. Your Interface could have rejected the treatment and shredded your mind." Has'ryn's head slumped as he scratched the spikes on his neck. "Still, Fis'an, I see you have finished rendering the Embassy. Jdarad systems require official procedures."
"For what? I'm just a tourist."
They both stared at me, Fis'an breaking into a wide toothy smile, and Has'ryn pinching his head between his manicured clawed fingers. "Tourist? You understand that you two are among the few such 'tourists' to remain and continue visiting, are you not? Obviously you have been approved by the Administration—wherever they are." Has'ryn sighed. "That goes not just for the visitors from your planet, but the Jekisth and Hollan as well."
I hadn't expected people to go missing from other planets, I just thought that we were coming here, maybe subconsciously tuning in to some kind of message, or invitation—that some people hadn't been able to find their way back.
Kathy appeared beside me, still wary of the medical A.I., and slipped her arm through mine.
"Oh I see your mate still refuses her mandatory check-up." He crossed his arms.
"She's my friend, not my mate," I said, thankful she couldn't see the blush.
"Ooh? Your physiological response seems pretty positive; you'd prefer such a relationship wouldn't you?"
Fis'an laughed at his comment. "I think you're right."
"What do they mean, Philip, don't tell me you're… aroused…?"
"I am not!" I took a breath. "Why is it that everywhere I go I'm teased, by strangers, aliens, and A.I.?"
The two A.I. shared a look and a smile. "You have that natural scent that tells others you are fun to tease, even we can tell that much," Fis'an chuckled, and then glanced over at the elevator as the glass door slid open and a few footsteps approached from behind one of the potted plants. "Ah, our other visitor has arrived."
"Other visitor?" Kathy asked, her fingers digging into my sleeve.
The footsteps sounded like leather dress shoes, walking with conviction, and patience. The owner of the shoes appeared from around the edge of the plant, and we all stared, as a slender figure strode across the downward sloping marble ground. It was another kind of alien, with a narrow, feline face, and an almost Meer cat like sinuous body with a brown coat of fur that thickened to an almost fluffy tail that trailed tiredly behind its host along the floor. The alien wore a black vest over a white shirt, with tan trousers and boots that went up to the first of joint of its double-jointed legs. The toes of the boots were short, and round, to fit what I presumed were its paws—however, its hands were slender and had opposable thumbs and five fingers, well six total if you counted the thumbs.
"Whiskers?" Kathy asked, not daring to point.
"Welcome back Tassan, how was your walk?" Fis'an asked graciously, with a slight bow.
The alien's, Tassan's tail flicked in response, and its whiskers twitched along with its tiny black nose. It spoke mentally as well, out of what I presumed to be convenience. "Are these the other travelers?"
"Yes, they are," Has'ryn replied.
Its catlike ears turned in my direction, and I was dying to determine what pronouns to use in addressing it. "Hello, my name is Philip, it is a pleasure to meet a fellow traveler," I said, projecting my most formal and polite tone possible.
Its voice vibrated, not unlike a purr at my words. "I see you have acclimated to the psi-aural communication network. Your companion however, seems unable to project her thoughts. I am Tassan al'Chi, Ambassador of the Hollan." It bowed politely, and I figured, from its flat-chested figure, that it was a male representative.
"Nice to meet you, Tassan al'Chi, this is my companion Kathleen…" I turned to her, "What is your last name again?"
"Oh, right, it's McCann."
"Kathleen McCann; and my name is Philip Crown." I bowed in response, wondering just how universal a greeting it was, and how in the grand scheme of things, the American custom of shaking hands was really the oddity.
"It appears we are just waiting for one more," Tassan yawned, "she's really so air-headed, but it makes sense if you consider what she is."
"Why, what is she?"
"A Cervid: flighty, easily frightened, easily entertained… and such a pain to have around. The Jekisth are a fairly advanced species, and peaceful, so we frequently trade with them. However, I am surprised to see a species such as yours here on this planet; your technology seems so antique. How many colonies do you have?" Tassan asked.
"We haven't colonized any planets yet, we're still stuck on our home planet," I replied. "Were you brought here too?"
"Brought? No, I am an explorer. I was sent to determine if official channels between our respective governments could be reopened, however it appears that I may be too late." He was about to continue, when the elevator sounded again, and a rush of footsteps sounded around the plant. The figure who appeared wore a long trailing coat that fitted close to her thin angular body. She had a long neck with a pointy deer-like head, and a very short coat of gray fur that clung to her skin, and the short antlers that rose in delicate branches from her head.
She wasn't wearing shoes per se, but rather it sounded like the metallic clop of horse-shoes, and as she turned to examine her surroundings I caught sight of the white fluffy tail that poked out from the back of her coat.
I shrugged and looked at Kathleen who still clung to my arm. "Why is it that we don't have cool tails? I'm kind of jealous."
She chuckled and relaxed a little.
The Jekisth representative noticed us, and her large black eyes widened considerably as she decided whether to investigate us or run away. Apparently she decided on the latter. "New representatives? How strange." She commented in a high-pitched soft timbre mental voice.
"Well that's everyone," Has'ryn said, waving for their attention, "Fis'an and I, and well, Ya'pas have noticed that this city has been empty for too long. We do not know why you have gathered, but perhaps you can assist us in determining where everyone has gone."
A third A.I. appeared between him and Fis'an, the Train-Station assistant, with the blue cravat and the temptress eyes. She nodded seriously. "The Sky-Ladder will take roughly six days to repair, and then perhaps you can use the orbital station to scan the surface and locate where everyone has gone, but in the meantime, I would like to facilitate the cooperation between the various representatives who have gathered on our planet."
"Pardon me for interrupting, but I had thought I'd return to my planet and convey the futility of reopening communications between our governments," Tassan said, his tail curling slightly at the end, as if it pained him to say so.
The as-yet unintroduced deer-like alien stared at him as if he'd said the most offensive thing ever. "Tassan, I don't believe you, of course your government would want a thorough investigate and a report on your findings."
I yawned and stretched my arms over my head, wishing I could try that cigar, and do something that wasn't as bothersome as interacting with such serious-minded and self-important aliens. I had always expected them to be more mysterious, but aside from their outward appearance, the way their eyes understood whatever they say, and the way that Tassan's bureaucratic behavior mirrored what I disliked about officials and official capacities, made me less and less interested. Why couldn't I just go back to relaxing and enjoying an empty suite?
"I can sense your disinterest, Philip, and I apologize for the inconvenience, but as an A.I. my capabilities are limited, and I could use your analogue interface. The same goes for all of you," Has'ryn saidinterrupting my thoughts. "I am afraid, that for your companion to be of any use, she will need more complete access to the psi-net." He held out a hand and another one of those frighteningly large syringe-guns appeared floating just above its surface.
I took it begrudgingly, and Kathy trembled on my arm. "It's not all that bad," I lied, "see I'm doing just fine."
"But I don't even know what that is," she complained.
"The same could be said for anything a doctor prescribes, we always have to take it on faith." I tiled her head forward and lined up the needle just as she had done. She gripped my arm as the ridiculously large needle touched her skin, and goose-bumps appeared on the back of her neck. I just hoped I wouldn't paralyze her as I pressed it in, and felt through the psi-aural sensors built into the syringe the texture of her muscles and bones, and the way it passed between her vertebrae and sunk to an optimal depth in her spinal cord.
She cringed, but didn't utter a cry, biting her lip, tightening her grip, as I pressed the lever to inject the nanites into her spine. It was a terrible thing to do a person, especially one who couldn't understand, and I shook my head at the guilt I felt, subjecting her to such pain. Finally it was all in, so I slowly pulled out the needle, and was passed a bandage to cover the hole by Has'ryn, which stuck to her neck without even the stickiness I'd expect from an adhesive.
I looked up, and noticed Tassan's tail twitching, and the tightness of the muscles on his light-brown fur-covered face.
"Oh that was an intense thing to watch…" He said with an almost drooling tone in his voice.
"Hey, now don't you go getting aroused," I said, pointing with the empty syringe gun in his direction.
But his voice changed to a higher pitch, and I realized that I'd been wrong… Tassan was a girl. "I wouldn't mind if you did that to me…"
It was just getting worse. "Um, not going to happen. Has'ryn, what do I do?"
He smiled; at least I think so, having gotten somewhat of a hang of how their faces worked. "It's your job to be a friendly representative for your species, Philip Crown, and with a name like that; I assume you are somewhat highly ranked. Be polite, and maybe you'll be able to visit their planet too."
I shook my head. "I don't even know how I'm getting here."
"Material-transport, what else?" Fis'an interrupted. "But I see your point, if you are not actively transferring here, that is an awfully high energy cost to reach out and bring you here. If so, there is a chance that someone in another city has access to the transport-grid and that we can figure out what happened."
"Oh, I see," Tassan said, her tail still twitching playfully. I'd have to be careful about that.
Even at this point, I hadn't learned the other alien's name. "Sorry to interrupt, but what is your name?" I asked her.
Her black eyes fixed on me and she tilted her head strangely as if considered the risks of answering. "I am Tesith, Jekisth Explorer. What is your occupation?"
"It appears I am an Ambassador now," I laughed, "but back on Earth I am a writer."
"Oh, so your people revere artists then?" Tassan asked. "That sounds like quite a cultured place, perhaps I will have to go there next to initiate diplomatic ties."
"As I said before, we are hardly what you can call a space-faring species. We've only visited our moon and one other planet in person in our solar-system. Not only that, we don't really revere contemporary artists, it would be more accurately to say we respect them and their works after they are already dead. History is the only judge of character and worth."
"What an interesting philosophy, I wonder why it came to be so." Tassan moved to a nearby couch and waved to Fis'an. "Could you get me something from the bar?"
I raised my hand as well and moved to the seat across from her. Fis'an vanished from our view to prepare drinks, and the others moved a few of the foot-stools around in a circle to make the conversation easier. Tassan's question deserved an answer, but I had no idea myself. "How do your people view war, and how has it affected your history?" I asked.
She nodded politely, and held out her hand patiently, and a cup of that clear alcohol appeared in it. "There have been numerous clan disputes, but thankfully, over time, the various clans have been combined through political marriages into branches of one Imperial line. We do not have wars between members of our own family, but in the past, it was quite brutal and divisive. They say that war breeds an interest in peace, and vice versa, so I assume from your statement about the importance of art on your world, that it is still a place of considerable strife."
I held out my hand and was relieved when a cup appeared between my fingers. I took a sip and then a long breath. "Sorry Kathy, I don't want to let you know too much about what happens between our times, but after the Industrial Revolution, the development of more advanced strategies and weapons became something of an arms race between countries. Realpolitik meant that a dispute between two parties would quickly embroil the surrounding countries in the fight, spreading the conflict. We have had two World Wars, where advanced weapons and expanses theaters led to death-counts in the millions. After that, people had had enough of war, and treaties were drawn up that outlawed the use and development of inhumane forms of combat, such as chemical or biological weapons. "
Kathy listened with a mixture of interest and horror at the mention of weaponized plagues, and millions of deaths. Tassan merely nodded as if that were expected.
"And so, the effect of war was to break the spirit and make the survivors search for meaning—leading to the greater proliferation of philosophy and art." She summarized.
"Even now, with the end of the Cold War, a nuclear arms-race between the two superpowers at the time, as we have entered a time of multi-polar competition in Cyberwarfare and Special-Operatives, political posturing is probably the most open form of conflict. Trade sanctions and the like have been used to crush economies, and lead to the rise of extremism and terrorism in some of the more vulnerable countries. So I cannot say we have really advanced all that much." It was more than a little embarrassing to admit to these representatives of advanced species.
Tesith laughed, a somewhat chortling horn-like call. "In most places throughout history, war and conflict are a constant. It seems however than your species management of conflict is becoming more efficient. Just like any other method, war is a way to achieve your goal, and as long as it is possible to achieve something through war, it will continue to occur."
"Like the Cervid has said, you cannot truly eliminate war. If it isn't an argument or competition between countries, or cousins, it will be between species. Two hundred years ago, if I recall, the Lao'sen closed our embassy and discontinued contact with all other species, tightening their borders, as the tensions between the clans came to a breaking point… I wonder if that had anything to do with why it is so empty here." Tassan took a long drink and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
It was getting dark, and the stars were just starting to come out. Everyone seemed to notice and look up at the same time, sharing a solemn moment of silence. It was odd, that an alien would hold to the same ideas as Clausewitz, the Prussian strategic theorist. She didn't word it the same way, so I doubted she'd ever even heard of him, but perhaps, if the nature of conflict didn't vary all that much between races, perhaps they'd come to some of the same conclusions about it.
Kathy had been silent all this time, unwilling, perhaps afraid to speak to the others, but now, looking up at the stars, she turned to me. "When we go back, take me with you."
"Oh, do you like Seattle? What about your job?"
"I've already gone missing, just like those others. Maybe they didn't vanish, maybe they just found a better place to be?" She smiled and brushed her coiled red bangs out of her face.
I could almost feel that mist beginning to form at my fingertips. "I'm sorry, but it seems my ride has come."
Tesith didn't notice, but Tassan waved politely with her hand and tail simultaneously. "See you tomorrow, little Prince."
I waved as the mist rose to my hips, encompassing Kathy as well. "What makes the desert beautiful, is that it hides a well somewhere..." I quoted, but she just blinked not knowing the reference, as I faded out of that place, and reappeared inside my apartment. Kathy let go of my arm and stretched hers high over her head.
"That was very strange," she said, falling back on the couch.
"Yes, yes it was." I looked at my clock, it was Monday, and I had to be at work in five hours. What a pain.