fiction by michael werneburg
The bare farms and flaming red trees of central Ontario were gorgeous under a crisp blue sky where low clouds skudded by just above the tree-tops. It was my favorite time of year, but it didn't really suit our disgraced situation at all. The three of us maintained an unhappy silence as I drove.
How far we'd fallen was evident in that we'd been told to leave the compound on our own. The alien Ambassador was now being transported back to the landing site, where the long-awaited media event would finally happen. I'd been told our attendance was optional. Watching a tractor navigate an intersection ahead, I asked, "Do we know if the Chinese or Europeans made any breakthroughs?"
Jane shrugged at me. Cuong was texting. To my eternal resentment, they had both seemed largely checked out over the second half of our contract. The nature of our dismissal today surely hadn't helped with the mood. Maybe they'd realized, with the government's worsening treatment of us, that I wouldn't be able to pay them their bonuses. I decided that we'd have to make a stop so I could deliver the bad news.
"It boggles the mind that they're going through with this," I told them both.
Jane wearily said, "You mean, hosting a globally televised event, trotting out Rover before we've been able to convince it to talk to us?"
I had asked her not to call the Ambassador 'Rover' about fifty times but yeah, that's what I meant. We couldn't talk to the alien visitor, or even understand its physiology. We couldn't even scan its ship, let alone understand how a space-craft could transport the alien through vast distances of space but appeared to have a mass no greater than about five kilograms. We were completely in the dark, and the closer we'd been getting to the day, the worse my feeling of dread. I had a lot riding on this, and thought I'd pulled together a top team.
"How mandatory is the big event?" Cuong asked, finally speaking. They'd blocked cellphone reception at the research site after a couple of embarrassing leaks, and he was clearly catching up.
I looked up at his drawn appearance in the mirror. "We don't have to go. I know a place in town where we can watch the show on a screen."
I took their silence for consent. I'd lower the boom about the money when their stomachs were full.
"Just look at that gait." With a look of distress upon her face, Jane watched some footage of the alien Ambassador on the TV above the bar. The insectoid Ambassador was six-limbed like a big ant, with four articulated legs supporting its lower torso and two others mostly used for grasping or climbing. Its hairless head had a high forehead capped with three long antennae, and its prominent pupil-less eyes were rarely blinked. It had a rough chin and a mouth full of pointed teeth. It had a whip-like tail with which it occasionally manipulate a pencil to draw uncertain shapes and characters.
Jane waved her hand in an exaggerated motion. Now that she was off the clock she'd got a buzz on in a hurry. "I mean, the creature just isn't meant for walking around on hard ground."
Cuong's head bobbed in agreement, but he didn't break away from sipping his beer and morosely watching the screen.
Indeed, as the alien loped along on its four short legs, its low body seemed to roll awkwardly. The alien held its upper two limbs stiffly away from its body, like a toddler steadying her steps.
"Maybe that's just how they walk on his planet," countered the waitress. Her tone sounded like she was standing up for the creature. Seeing the careful way the woman was watching Jane, I wondered if she was going to be trouble. Some people were pretty touchy about the extraterrestrial and its recent landing. This media event was being held to give the people what they wanted - a bit of spectacle and some answers after weeks of shock and official silence.
"Honey," said Jane, "I'm a biologist. I was -- we three were all -- with the team studying the creature. Believe me; it's not designed for walking across flat ground. At the facility, the thing spent most of its time climbing on the furniture."
"You worked with the Ambassador?" the waitress said, incredulous.
I motioned at Jane, and caught her eye with a warning look. The last thing I wanted from the two despondent scientists was a scene. Such things had a habit of finding their way into people's blog posts, and I was already losing enough sleep.
But with my attention on Jane, it was Cuong that blurted out, "Right! We were involved from the beginning."
One or two heads around the bar turned our way. "I thought we agreed we weren't going to do this," I told him. I'd made Jane and Cuong agree to silence before we left the car. "Are we going to have to leave?"
"Calm down," Cuong said, and I saw something hard in his gaze. The disrespectful punk!
I looked around the place. It was the same as I remembered: a bit awkward in its use of space, it was too lacking in character for a pub, and too dominated by large wooden structures for a restaurant. The floor was crowded with tables but booths that were if anything oversized. There was lots of wood, which was usually welcome, but it was all too big and solid in a way that had once looked slick but now had marks and dings from decades of use too well lit by the sterile white light. Lacking any kind of comfort or coziness, it had the air of an unloved convention center, all business. I'd chosen it because it was a perfectly forgettable place to level with these scientists about their pay.
"Well," I suggested tightly, "let's move to a booth then, shall we?" On the screen, the subject went to riots in what looked like a Chinese city: the central government there was losing its grip. The Ambassador's arrival had touched off a global tsunami of unpredictable behavior. New religions were popping up: "if god made us in our image, who made the ambassador?" Strikes and shortages were rampant as people walked off the job after reconsidering their lives. The handful of wars previously in progress had stopped as the futility of slaughtering other humans over resources or grudges or the whim of some strongman had finally gotten through to people. And no one seemed to be buying luxury goods because signalling status through material things suddenly seemed embarrassing. The general population was reacting badly enough, but who knew what baggage the day-drinkers around this place might be carrying.
The waitress gestured with her palm held up. "Is it true that the thing eats squirrels?" she asked hesitantly, her nose scrunched as if she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"Live squirrels. Yes," mocked Jane. "Sometimes. But it prefers chickens."
The waitress made a face. Jane sneered at the woman's discomfort.
I stood up and went toward the booth. This brought me behind Jane's seat, and I placed a hand on her shoulder to encourage her along. She tensed slightly and Cuong leaned toward Jane in a proprietary fashion as they stood. Surprised, I watched Cuong step between Jane and me, and guide her to the booth with his hand on her lower back. I realized then that at some point, they'd become lovers. Was the reality of going home to his wife what explained the edge in Cuong's glare?
With an apology, I told the waitress we were moving, and we crossed the floor to a secluded corner.
As the scientists sat, I plunked my payment card on the booth's meter and found the televised meeting of the Ambassador with our world leaders. It was a big deal. Maybe the biggest ever.
It had been five weeks since the landing. The Americans had been keeping the Ambassador under wraps near the landing site. Publicly, the reason had been "ensure public safety" and "to establish a dialog in a controlled environment".
During that time, several teams had been assembled to try to study the visitor: to try to "establish that dialog"; to determine the visitor's health; understand its mission; and identify its home world if we could. And of course, to try to learn something of the wondrous technology that had brought the creature across unimaginable distances.
I'd been asked to run one of those teams. In turn, I'd hired Jane and Cuong and half a dozen others. We'd gone in a team of pros at the top of our game. But we'd been humbled by our inability to make the slightest progress. We hadn't learned the creature's origins or plans, or even figured out how it communicated. We did have scans of the alien's physiology and understood something of its remarkable organs and astonishing brain. Some of the other teams had made similar progress in their fields, but in the things that mattered, we'd all failed. The technology was unfathomable, and without being able to converse, the rest was a complete mystery. After weeks cooped up in the compound, our exhaustion and frustration had been palpable.
The screen at the side of the booth lit up, and we watched the segment continue. Hosting the entire broadcast was Harold Bollen, the journalist who'd been the first to broadcast from the Ambassador's landing site. Bollen spoke with the tone of perpetual arrogance he'd developed since coming to the world's attention.
"If you want an asshole," Cuong said, "take a Canadian and add fame."
Bollen said, "Welcome to a special all-networks broadcast of the historic first meeting of the world's leaders with the extraterrestrial visitor who I simply call, 'the Ambassador'."
"Like he invented that name," Jane muttered, her glass at her lips.
"He probably did," I observed, though I had no love for the broadcaster myself. He relentlessly put his own interests—and his by-now towering ego—ahead of everything else.
"As you know," Bollen continued, "the Ambassador has been tucked away in a secret facility near Omemee, Ontario for more than a month, while the scientific community poked and prodded at him. Yes, Earth's welcome for this magnificent visitor -- who I was the first to greet -- was to cage him up and dismantle the space-ship that brought him to Earth."
Jane said, "No one's 'dismantling' anything! We can't put a scratch in it. Can we mute this?"
I gestured at the screen to kill the sound. It was still audible from other screens in the tavern, but at least it wasn't entirely intelligible.