"So, you kids want to run into town?"
Richie pulled his attention away from the book he was reading, "Where to?"
"I need to run some papers by Mrs. Dunagan at the Arcade." Dad was looking smug, "I just need a few signatures, since her uncle dropped Cat off to register by herself, I have the perfect excuse to drop in."
Fern propped her chin on her hands and eyed their Dad narrowly. "You know you haven’t even seen her, not really in that silly alien crocodile suit."
Dad actually blushed. "Now don’t be silly. I talked to her, and could tell that she was a very intelligent woman with a fascinating background. I tried out some of my Swahili, left over from my Peace Corp days, " Fern and Richie exchanged suffering looks, Not the Peace Corps stories, please! "and she was fluent! Oh it really took me back."
"Sure, Dad, I’d love to go the arcade." Richie hastened to interrupt, "I want to look at the models again."
"Great, let’s go." Dad fairly bounced out the door, leaving Fern and Richie staring at each other.
"I do NOT believe this. You’d think Dad was a teenager the way he chases women. And that girl was weird, I don’t want her for a step sister." Fern told him.
"Maybe her Mom’s really ugly, under the suit." Richie said.
"I told you I saw their wedding picture." Fern dropped her voice as they walked into the garage. "Cat’s Mom is really pretty. I figure she’s Asian and Black. And her Dad was white."
"Just going to show that it really doesn’t matter." Their father put in. "Cat did well on her tests, although she had a few odd errors in math and didn’t know any Texas history at all." He eyed them firmly, "She was very good at languages, though, very bright girl. She needs to practice her English. I expect you two to be nice to her."
Richie and Fern exchanged grim looks.
The Arcade was nearly empty, and their Dad made a beeline for the crocodile suit.
"Maybe it’s someone else in there today and he’ll be horribly embarrassed." Fern smirked hopefully.
Unfortunately the croc had turned to greet their father and seemed to be smiling at him. "Hah!" Richie snorted, and moved off to the nearest model. He kept glancing back at the croc though, and finally settled down mostly behind a model where he could observe. Something was definitely not right here.
From this distance he couldn’t see any subtleties of the croc costume, but the overall appearance was very good. It wasn’t really all that true to crocodilian standards, actually. The jaws were about a third of the length of a croc’s, which made sense. Long jaws would make the head-piece off balance. The cheeks were further forward, too, so the mouth was smaller and fewer teeth showed. The eyes…he couldn’t see anyway they could be her real eyes, the placing was all wrong. How did she see?
He’d studied a lot of movie special effects, and that costume was as good as any, and all without computer animation, editing, special lighting or after shoot touch up of the films. She was too good to be true.
He looked around at the other "Aliens". There was this great huge wouldn’t-want-to-meet-in-a-dark-alley guy that looked like a shaved gorilla with a weightlifting program. His proportions weren’t quite…but then people differed like that. He walked as lightly and gracefully as a ballerina through the gate in the staff-only railing and disappeared around one of the big ship models. Another alien was also behind the railing, fiddling with some equipment. He was moderately tall, kinda scrawny, got up like a cross between a bear and a pig with a real weird wrinkly nose like pictures of some bats he’d seen. The mask was again, like Mrs. Dunagan’s, a state of the art masterpiece. The ears flapped idly, and the nose wrinkles flared and relaxed.
There were several guys emptying coins and pottering around behind the games. He frowned and watched two of them together. From the back they were identical. Same height, same dull hair under identical ball caps. As they turned around, he stared harder. Same beard, same moustache. They scratched their sides at the same time, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see another of them doing it too. He counted them. Six. Six men all alike. He saw one finger his hair oddly, and scanned quickly. They were all doing it. He wandered over to a game, passing one of them. Giving him a quick look as he passed, he couldn’t tell if it was a wig or not.
He looked around and spotted the proprietor talking to his father. The obviously fake Elvis. He watched the body language and shivered a bit. Just what was under that Elvis mask?
The Intergalactic Repair Depot. Right. Hiding in plain sight was passé, these guys were advertising!
Then he spotted Cat. Or Gat, the way her mother pronounced it. He frowned. She looked perfectly human, except…people usually fell pretty clearly into a racial group. Her eyes were slanty like an oriental, but they were blue. Her skin was a very attractive color, a deep tan, not white, not black…not…definite. She was practically a ‘generic human’, designed by someone who didn’t understand that humans came in types, not averages. It couldn’t, could not, be a costume. Could it? He walked over to get a closer look.
"Can I stop, now?" Cat panted, as Doctor Domi bounced around her, instruments in hand.
"All right." He nodded, "I could even register the increased oxygen in your blood, and now it’s dropping. Excellent. Your heartbeat is slowing too."
"Whew!" Cat drew a couple of more deep breaths, setting down the weights. "If you ignore the light gravity, the weights look quite impressive."
"Light!" Domi snorted, an impressive and rather messy expression of amusement coming from a Kersa. "Trust a Hisloxi to think this is light! I think it is nearly ideal."
Cat wandered over to the sink, but eyeing the attached equipment, decided to eschew rehydration until she was sure of what she was drinking.
Domi however, wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity and scuttled to a cold box and got out a bottle of water, a Kersa brand, she saw with relief. Sooner or later she was going to have to eat or drink something native. Probably sooner, Ter was testing local produce. She wistfully thought about hoarding this precious drinkable fluid, but Domi was pointing all his equipment at her, so she tapped the top and took a few sips.
"Oh, very nice gulp."
She giggled helplessly. The little old Kersa was absolutely honest, having obviously missed out on all the leader/politician/warrior genes while inheriting all the intelligence enhancing ones.
The Kersa had entered space early in their racial history, driven by a few disastrous Urb visits. The Urbs’ parasitic breeding habits and mindless ‘eater’ grub stage had started the first and, as far as they knew, only interstellar war. The Urbs were much more careful about avoiding intelligent species and their planets since the Kersa had captured their ships, reverse engineered them, and returned the planetary devastation with interest. Of course, the Urb civilization was mainly a thing of asteroid belts, with planets needed only for breeding, and so wide-spread that the Kersa hadn’t actually done much damage. But the Urbs had started checking for intelligence and avoiding spawning on inhabited planets, and the Kersa still hated them and still maintained an active space guard.
The first Hisloxi encounter had thus met with a very belligerent and defensive species. The Hisloxi had hailed the restraint of Space Commander Herr in not shooting their exploratory ship on sight as an act of an advanced civilization. The Kersa had tried and executed him for the same actions. In the centuries since, they had interacted peacefully, but the Kersa genepool was still dominated by the warrior type. A completely peaceful intellectual like Domi was quite rare.
"What are you doing out here?" Cat asked him. "You look more like a University type than a field researcher."
"Oh," the doctor flapped his ears in embarrassment. "I got curious about something…that wasn’t actually legal to research…and here I am."
Cat boggled, "You don’t mean you’re serving a justice sentence, do you?" and at his flushed and flapping ears, "Wow! What did you do?"
He glanced defensively at her, "I was curious about the genetic basis of intelligence."
"Oh Shata! You didn’t upgrade an animal, did you?" Cat managed to be properly horrified, not impressed. Not. Upgrading an animal was very, very illegal. She was not impressed. "What kind of animal?"
"A soulda. I didn’t bring it term." He added defensively, "I just watched the fetal brain development for a bit then dumped it."
"Soon enough?" Cat didn’t have to pretend to be shocked, now.
"Oh, yes." Domi wrapped his arms around himself and peeled his lips back from his teeth, "Otherwise I’d be happily hoeing rish, without an advanced thought in the world."
"Eeeyah." Cat said. The Kersa had had enough trouble with the Urbs’ ‘eater’ stage, they weren’t about to create a biological horror themselves. A soulda, a small burrowing nuisance, suddenly endowed with enough intelligence to avoid the traps around the rish fields…yeah, for that the doctor’s clan chief probably would have had him wired. Cat squirmed a bit at the thought of having a wire run into her brain, and the power turned up. She’d heard that the Kersa that died of it were considered the lucky ones.
She eyed the miscellany of equipment spread out on the benches. "So now you’re just studying Earth critters?"
He nodded, the Human gesture looking odd on a Kersa, "Studying. Not growing any whole animals." He eyed the benches in turn, "Not that I’m doing much, I haven’t even got everything unpacked yet."
"Yeah, the Embassy got set up awfully suddenly." She looked at him speculatively, "Did you hear anything about what happened?"
"Just rumors, and if they’re true, it was a horrible breach of The Protocols." Kersa were strong supporters of the protocols of non interference with intelligent primitives. Proving that even Urbs are good for something. The doctor dropped his voice, "I heard it was a Kersa. That there were open battles between his guards and native soldiers, and he was routed, fled, leaving an antimatter bomb behind."
"No Kersa would do that!" Cat was horrified.
Domi shook his head, "That’s what I heard. I just can’t believe it, but then why this sudden rush to set up an Embassy, if not to keep everyone else away and find out if the Humans have the ability to return the attack."
"The Kersa were at a even more primitive tech level when the Urbs discovered you, weren’t you?"
"Yes, atmospheric flight was new to us, space flight not even thought of."
"Eeeshesh. What are the Humans doing about it?"
"We don’t know," Domi said. "The Ambassador monitors all of the media news, and has infiltrated the government information systems, looking especially what is being called a dirty bomb in a terrorist training camp in the mountains." Domi looked nervously toward the door, "That’s what makes me think the rumors are right. But don’t say anything to the Ambassador, it’s Not Spoken Of."
Cat nodded. "Yeah. What a mess! If news of this got out to the public, the Galactic Council would be in big trouble."
"They will be eventually, anyway. The, you, Humans are smart. You’ll be joining galactic society eventually. We only discovered you about twenty-nine years ago." He bared his teeth in a distinctly unfriendly fashion, "That is, an Urb discovered the planet and nearly caused another disaster before it woke up and realized that if someone was shooting at it, that someone was probably intelligent. Unlike the majority of Urbs." He rubbed his muzzle and visibly relaxed. "According to various native mythologies there may have been other visits, but nothing we actually know about."
Cat thought about it, "So the Embassy is monitoring the situation, keeping it from happening again…and contacting the Earth Government before the Earth gets advanced space travel, to negotiate a treaty?"
"I think they’re a long way away from any contact." Domi said, "Otherwise we wouldn’t be hiding behind this silly," he pointed up at the ceiling, "gaming place."
Cat wrinkled her nose. Kersa fun was politely described as active and personal. Generally involving shed blood. Video games would not appeal to them.
"Which has too much background noise for good readings." He continued. "Why don’t we go up and I’ll see if I can still get readings on you through the noise and other people."
"Sure." Cat led the way, heading for the stairs.
Pompelm, the Buran Six, was drilling in an empty space among the various floaters. He was the furthest from home of any of the staff, Buran space being on the far side of Kersa space from Earth. Despite the six bodies, there was only one person there. He executed a rather military precision drill, first moving altogether, then each body moving differently and separately. He was much better at it than most Burans. Cat could see how the single person, so to speak, could be the embassy’s entire security detail.
She trotted up the stairs with confidence. After two days of practice, she had to admit the stairs actually worked quite well.
The Arcade was fairly quiet, the mid afternoon period was a slack time even with school out. Domi looked happy and settled down on the staff side of the railing and started tracking her. She wandered around a bit, then dug some coins out of the pocket of her jeans and played a few games, but they didn’t really hold her interest.
"Man, where did your Mom get that cool costume!"
She turned quickly, to find Richie Springer standing behind her.
"You’re really bad a video gamer," he added.
"I haven’t had much practice." She snapped back, exasperated. Bloody primitive was judging her by how well she played a game at first try?
"Yeah, I guess Rwanda is pretty primitive." He appeared to be to examining her face, and when she frowned at him, dropped his eyes. "What is it like?"
"Very poor." She said shortly. She really didn’t want to talk about it, having not actually been there.
"What did you do there?" He was watching her hands, now. Cat wondered uneasily if there was some body language meaning to it. Dominance, submission, or Ick! Courting behavior?
"Tagged after Ter, my mother, she’s a biochemist and was studying the native plants." She glanced over at Ter, who was talking to Mr. Springer.
"You call her by name?" Richie seemed to find that odd, but then Fern had only referred to her father as Dad.
"It is her name. Why not use it?" Is it a primitive tradition? For what purpose?"
"Well, well, it doesn’t show respect. It treats them like friends or something." Richie scowled at her.
Cat looked at him in disbelief. "Respect is much more than a title. It’s good manners and following orders and doing your part of the house work."
"What are you guys arguing over?" Fern poked Richie with a straight finger. "Dad’ll be ticked." She turned to Cat, "I think he’s got a crush on your Mom."
"Crush." Cat ran the word through her mind a few times, glancing over at Ter and Mr. Springer. Mr. Springer was smiling and talking with expansive gestures…putting on quite a display, in fact. She gulped, surely not. If she found these humans disgusting, with their pale scaleless skins and flat faces, surely a Hisloxi…Ter was smiling back.
"Sweet on her. In love. Capiche?" Fern watched her.
"Ewww!" Cat rubbed her flat scaleless face. "I really don’t think so." She looked again, to catch the rapid triple click of Ter’s teeth in a Hisloxi laugh. "I’m sure they are just friends."
"We can only hope so. Grownups! Ugg." Fern surveyed her. "Not bad. The colors aren’t very… where on Earth did you find them?" She wrinkled her nose, "Have you been exercising?" She looked at Cat with an expression that Cat uneasily thought of as suitable for slime. "You do know what deodorant is, don’t you." Cat’s face must have contained the answer, for she threw up her hands, "Come with me." She marched off and Cat trailed uncertainly after her. "Get some money from your Mom," Ter looked up as they came within hearing range, "and I will take you next door to the Fiesta and show you some stuff you need to buy." She turned toward her brother, "Get lost Richie, this is girl stuff."
Uncertain in the face of this determined human, Cat looked imploringly at Ter. "I guess there’s stuff I’d better learn about?" she trailed off uncertainly.
"Of course." The Ambassador broke in, "An excellent opportunity to look around. Take this, and have fun." He proffered some small green fiber sheets that Cat recognized as the local barter exchange medium.
"Thanks, Uncle Rick." She heard Richie snicker in the background and ignored him, as Fern towed her off and out the doors.