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fiction by michael werneburg

We maintained an unhappy silence as I drove. The bare farms and crisp air and flaming red trees of central Ontario slid by under a sky studded with low clouds shining in the sun. It was rather beautiful and didn't suit their mood at all. But they'd failed and had just left the compound in disgrace. The alien was now being transported back to its ship's landing place. Where the media event would happen. Watching a tractor navigate the intersection ahead, I asked, "Do we know if the Chinese or Europeans made a breakthrough?"

Jane shrugged at me. Cuong was texting.

As I drove Highway 7 toward Lindsay the sense of wrongness just built. "Does this feel right to either of you?" I asked the two scientists.

"You mean, a globally televised event, trotting out Rover before we've been able to convince it to talk to us?" Jane asked.

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 scan its ship, understand its physiology. Or 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 more my feeling of dread had grown.

"How mandatory is this big event?" Cuong asked.

I looked up at his drawn appearance in the mirror. He felt as I did. "I know a place in town where we can watch the show on a screen," I told them. I took their silence for consent.

"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. She 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 limbs stiffly away from its body, as if to steady its progress.

"Maybe that's just how they walk on his planet," countered the waitress with a tone 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.

"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. Its joints just aren't right. 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 sleep over the tsunami of bad press that our project had spawned.

But with my attention on Jane, it was Cuong that blurted out, "Right! From 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 on the whole subject when I'd agreed to stopping here. "Are we going to have to leave?"

"Calm down," Cuong said, and I saw something hard in his gaze.

"Well," I suggested tightly, "let's move to a booth then, shall we?"

The Ambassador's arrival had touched off a global orgy 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 ongoing had stopped as suddenly slaughtering other humans over resources or grudges seemed pointless. And no one seemed to be buying luxury goods because it suddenly seemed embarrassing. The general population was reacting badly enough, but who knew what kind of nuts might be day-drinking in a watering hole like this.

"Is it true that the thing eats squirrels?" the waitress asked hesitantly, as if she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

"Live squirrels. Yes," said 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 they'd become lovers at some point.

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 to our world.

I'd been asked to run one of those teams. In turn, I'd hired Jane and Cuong and half a dozen others. But we had simply and utterly failed.

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, take a Canadian and add fame. He 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.

Cuong shook his head. "He was a weatherman, wasn't he?"

"That's probably why he feels qualified to speak in such technical terms about the work we've been doing," she replied. "You know, poking and grabbing." She reached up a hand and played with Cuong's collar while he grinned into his beer.

I turned from the younger couple, embarrassed. These two were in their forties but were behaving like horny teens. Maybe this was just another sign of these chaotic times. But I knew Cuong's wife well, and wanted no complicity in their philandering.

Playing across the screen was the famous first footage of the alien, crouching in its four-legged suit with its helmet in its hands and blinking in the light of Bollen's camera. Bollen's hand extended into the frame and clasped the alien's in a way that caused the alien to drop the helmet, scuttle back, and cower beneath the wing of its ship.

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