by Tim Myers.
It was the “Odditorium” that made him halt abruptly in the middle of one of their famous entertainment boulevards, with the rising inside him of a sorrow he could no longer ignore or explain away.
He worked the pun out easily, taking quiet pride in the professional application of his Institute skills—only this time in actual use, amid an alien culture—“when the chips were down,” as the locals might say. “Odd” instead of “aud.” And the signs and painted fiberglass figures around the ticket booth confirmed this was an exhibit of unusual beings, bizarre events, and the like. But then he found himself feeling strangely hollow, disturbed in a way wholly inconsistent with his studied Observer detachment.
A woman with only half a body? Painted men with drug-bright eyes running skewers through their own flesh? A baby with fins instead of arms and legs, as if mixed somehow with one of their aquatic species? The locals paid to see these things, actually enjoyed them?
This planet! And this half-mad city!, he told himself—though not for the first time during the four weeks since he’d been Placed in the target coastal meg-urb at one edge of the dominant nation of the system.
But suddenly awash with that mysterious sorrow, he knew there was more to his feelings. And again he wouldn’t say Bresh, wouldn’t allow himself the taste of the word in his mouth, even that slight an expression of longing for the home-world he’d left happily—which seemed, only weeks ago, a place ordinary enough to be excited about leaving.
So he turned and walked back the way he’d come, leaving the “Odditorium” behind but gripped in a sadness so fierce it astounded him. He was in an alien city, he was young, it was his first posting. A certain amount of unease was to be expected—you trained for that, you were prepared. Typical culture-disjunct, he told himself. Of course it was. You’re an Observer, he insisted silently; You knew there’d be difficult moments.
And yet he was suddenly exhausted, though it was early afternoon, and wanted nothing more than to go back to his hotel and crawl into the wide bed with its red and gold coverlet, shutting everything out, drowning in sleep.
So he made his way along the street, over the rose-colored marble stars set in the sidewalks, with famous names in bronze-yellow letters shining from their centers and locals stopping everywhere to read and point, calling each other excitedly, Look! Look who it is! With the instincts of his training he noted the tortilla chips and cigarette butts flattened on the cement by endless passing feet, new phone books piled up at the doors of businesses along the avenue, the almost white haze of the daysky beyond the hard lines of the buildings and theater towers.
It wasn’t as if everything was hopeless; many of the locals were really trying, you could see that. But the dizzying contrasts between rich and poor, the crime, the undisguised materialism—he hadn’t even begun to look at the schools… And the city itself was “unplanned,” to say the least—a cursory look might bring the conclusion that vehicles were in charge and people only a kind of vehicle.
The heat had begun to eat away at him too; he could feel it now, sweat-trickle down his back, dampness at temples, underarms, forearms. And always that sense of invisible grime in the air. His entire four weeks had been hot like this; people said—and dressed as if—it was normal. He wasn’t averse to hot weather, remembering with great fondness the childhood summers he’d spent at his uncle’s bayside tentcamps, hiking the Fenteffians in midday glare or sitting languidly amid kesson flowers while the grown-ups talked about rain cycles and farms. But the unceasing heat in this sun-bleached city mixed inextricably with the combustion and particulate pollution blurring the air—and the feeling of never being able to really fill his lungs—were wearing on him. The locals were in one of those dangerous historical stages of early resource-development, he couldn’t remember which; his Tech-Bio Integration instructor at the Institute had been decidedly boring and unpleasant, and he’d never been able to force himself to learn all that material.
But this line of thought faded out—he’d known it would—and the sorrow was still there, choking him even more than the air. This city! he fumed again; These people! Even as he said it he could feel memories of home rising. Passing some of their “cactus” plants in flowerboxes along the front of a “Mexican” restaurant (another nation, contiguous to this one), he looked at the strange thick green stalks dotted with spines, draggly red and yellow blossoms jutting from the towering stumps. There wasn’t anything like that on Bresh, even in the Dry Quarters or among the hills of southern Blint.
The Observation Arm of the Contact Sciences Institute—he still loved the ring of those words, just like when he was a boy, when being an Observer had become his life’s quest. Not every child had the same goal; he liked sports and females, but was good in school, the “quiet head-filled kind,” as they said in Kiin dialect. And he’d never wanted just a tele-post in far orbit around some non-humanoid planet, all screens and chartings and keyboards, spying as if on insects. He wanted a Higher Forms. Ached for it. It was…well, heroic, dramatic.
And when he finally began his studies at the Institute, it was everything he’d hoped for and more. A shining image of his future life opened out before him, and he’d felt the thrill of it, the rightness of it, down to the depths of who he was.
Sutnir Monabin standing in the lecture hall, her eyes bright though her voice was never loud—he could still see her. She was the finest teacher he’d ever known, world-level expert in half a dozen Contact disciplines, fully conversant in many more—and for all that still a real person, good-hearted, warm, wise—and funny! She knew how to inspire Observer-candidates, how to calmly but intensely lay before them a vision of what they were setting out to do.
Contact, she would say—think of it! There’s little in our existence as profound as this, as sacred—and we must approach the actual task with that same respect. A world with its peoples, its societies, independent nations or planetary confederacy—how many other decisions can they face as radical in their ramifications as to actually engage with another world? We know from our own history, and the histories of many other systems, just how serious this is. Always. Especially the question of when—both for those who reach out and those who are touched. From an ethical point of view, in fact, we need consider only those whose lives and cultures our decision will alter forever…
So it’s not hard to surmise just how precious the data you’ll be collecting really is. Our telemonitor nets are of course effective in their way—but no merely technological gathering device or system comes close to what a single Observer can bring us…
So he’d prepared himself, feverishly at times, always with unswerving determination, over the fifteen required rain cycles—a larger chunk of his life than he liked to think about. Sociology, consciousness studies, interaction psych, economics, pedagogy, environmental clusters, an array of hard sciences, a whole core of culture studies, and of course literature, the spoken arts, the physical arts—not to mention all the practical and logistical training involved, and the intense language study. The list seemed endless. An Observer, after all, sought to compile not just a report but a full portrait, quantitative and qualitative, of “an entire evolutionary system and its highest cultural manifestations,” according to the Institute mission—or, as Sutnir Monabin would insist on their saying (among all the sutnir she was alone in this), “an entire planet and all the people and other life-forms on it.”
So he’d worked, lived it, breathed it in. And he was good. His English, for example—very strong, though not yet fully idiomatic, of course—Langeer in Languages had stressed many times how you could pass verbally even while you were picking up the finer points. But sometimes local language here was just too thick and reference-heavy, and he shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d had some problems. Once he’d seen a striking, statuesque woman, white scarf trailing, walk past him on the street, and then overheard two men on the sidewalk ahead of him say, “Well, that was this city in a nutshell: cell phone and boob job.” And sitting in an outdoor café he’d heard a younger man talking to an older—something about “I was watching Good Morning, LA today…” The older man had broken in with, “Good Morning, LA? Don’t you mean the Fredericks of Hollywood Comedy Hour?” There’d been a pause. Then the younger man had rocked back in his chair, laughing uproariously, his mouth wide open, one knee accidentally banging the underside of the table so the water glasses shook. Deciphering this kind of thing would take more than his vocabulary implant; it was schema. He shouldn’t feel so frustrated about it—so…what? Irritated?
No. It was more than that.
He was approaching his hotel. Across the street from its wide cobble-stoned drive and gilt-lined doors, an immense shopping structure loomed, ten or more stories high, dead white in the glare of the advancing afternoon, casting its mountain-like shadow over the streets. He couldn’t shake the strangeness, felt it gripping him. Alien, all of it—the strange shapes of “cars” and “trucks,” the odd clothes and colors people wore, the cheery or contentious clatter of their talk everywhere around him, the fumes of spent fuel, cacophony of food smells, the odd washed-out blue of the sky. A pang rose in his chest.
Quickly he sought a distraction, consciously ignoring the fact even as he did it. Surrounded by incongruities, his senses under constant dull assault, that escape was easy to make. Besides, this was his task; it was why he’d come. He was an Observer; all that he captured with any of his twelve senses was recorded on the archive implant, lying there in its tiny, perfect, bluish symmetry with a line of others at the base of his lower Kibron fiber-stalk, at the center of his brain. And the Institute was just as interested in his own analyses and impressions.
All this public sexuality!, he thought angrily, ignoring the flutter of interest he felt somewhere inside him as two young women passed, their shoes lifted over tall thin heels, breasts clearly outlined under flimsy blouses. The women’s straps getting thinner and thinner, skin-tight stretchcloth taut over hips and buttocks –so different from… He stopped that line of thought, started in on the city again. The sex wasn’t just pictures in windows and magazines or half-dressed people on the streets. Even a kind of theater where men stretched their genitals into comical shapes. He’d heard people talking about it. “Puppetry of the penis, yeah!” a young man, his arms blue-black with tattoos, had been almost shouting to a friend on the bus, “It’s these Arstalian guys”—he thought that was the word—“They call it dick tricks. They’re a fucking trip, dog!”
But his mind was only half-engaged, and for an instant he pictured a crowd of Breshians at a summer waking, in their long half-gowns of blue and green, walking happily under the moons. He’d come to the curb but didn’t see it, feeling suddenly bent down under the weight of a sensation he couldn’t name. Stepping off the unnoticed curb, he felt his whole body wobble at the unexpected impact with the street below. He almost fell. Shocked at himself, he instantly mustered a panicked but iron determination to behave as if nothing at all were happening—no Observer, he thought in self-disgust, would let himself or herself be seen in such a state, drawing attention in such a stupid and childish way.
What’s wrong with me?!
Once he’d opened his hotel-room door he drew the curtains and fell onto the bed. But sleep wouldn’t ease him, even with his bone-deep fatigue. And he played over in his mind, as he had a hundred times, the scene at his parents’ house a few nights before he’d left Bresh. They’d all been on the day-terrace, taking in a fresh breeze off the water-fields and talking about the the ongoing guerilla war in Whin-Farzin and along the Bessed coast. He’d spent a frazzling day in the crowded back-passageways of the capital getting all his Placement forms countersigned. Now there was nothing left to do, and he had to look the thing in the face. But his imminent departure only elated him, and the drinks made him feel even happier.
Both his fathers and one of his mothers were frank and practical; “It’s hard,” they’d said, “especially the first time. There’s no shame in coming back early. That’s what the Option’s for.” There were a number of officially recognized reasons for early Retrieval, some psychological, most of them physical. First, of course, was even the remotest possibility that an Observer’s identity had been compromised. And despite the wonders of organic modification, an Observer’s bodily systems differed naturally, sometimes radically, from those of other evolutions—which created grave perils, especially from various exotic viruses and the like. This planet had its own long list, which he carried in his information implant—but the danger was so prevalent he’d also been trained for exact conscious knowledge of most local diseases. Though he could “pass” among this planet’s locals, there were a number of special precautions he was required to take. I can’t stress enough, he could hear Satnir Bargess saying in a low white room of the Bio-Mod wing, that you are an “alien” biology to your target world; you can contract these diseases in ways the locals are naturally protected against. So you must stay alert and avoid contagion zones… In the nine-hundred-year history of the Institute, over three hundred Observers had died from alien pathogens, either on their target planets or on Breshian ships after hasty Retrievals.
Three of his parents spoke about this and the other dangers openly, giving him an out as parents should—even as the calm and happy tone of their advice made it clear they had complete confidence in him. Nar Begrin, his taller father, had been an Observer himself, on a world in the Detelin System. But Nar Bemood, his other mother, was distant that night, almost curt at times. She gave him a disapproving glance when he started his third drink, as if he were still a child; he refused to acknowledge it even by looking back at her. He knew she was angry because he was leaving, and she loved him and was afraid for him. And that made him angry at her, and he’d been quiet even just before the launch, especially to her, which he now regretted—but it made him angry all over again to think of it. What—did she think he couldn’t take it? Shouldn’t both of his own mothers have faith in him?
You may get homesick, she told him at the ramp door, having trouble looking him in the eye. Don’t be surprised. She’d sounded almost sarcastic. As if he hadn’t been trained for the posting! As if something so simple and childish could undo the cycles’ worth of preparation he’d put into this! He’d given her a perfunctory embrace and turned away.
Besides, he told himself, lying tight-chested in the hotel darkness, it’s not like I’m marooned here! The transition from deep-space ship to planetary surface hadn’t bothered him that much; the usual three days of queasiness inevitably following the arcane and manipulative physics of Placement had stretched to five, then subsided—so he knew he could do it in reverse. And he knew the middlingly difficult algebraic equation he could mentally access and solve to open up the call-word for Retrieval—a single word, he thought, just one brief modulation of air from my throat—and the telemetry chip would activate, the deep-droid scanners would pick it up and relay it, the Retrieval ship would come. As easily as he’d found himself in a placement cell on the Plakarantheon (the finest tach-8 ship he’d ever seen) and then standing on an empty street between blank-looking buildings on a planet he’d only dreamed of (checking his pockets needlessly for currency, I.D., “wallet” and the like)—with the same ease they’d fire up a cell and pick him up—and I’d be on my way back at 5000 lenngans per—undetected even by this divided and almost paranoid world’s elaborate military defenses and space-debris detection systems.
That easy, he thought. Like I’d never been here at all.
And he instantly felt a desperate thrill of hope, as if some paradisiacal door had opened before him.
He got quickly off the bed and hurried out of the room, letting the heavy door swing shut behind him. Once on the street he set off up Beverly Boulevard, walking fast, hardly daring to think—and feeling within himself gulfs he’d never realized were there. For a number of blocks he didn’t raise his head, except to check the illuminated figures on the traffic poles indicating safe passage across the street. He found himself thinking about how small the doorknobs and door handles were on this planet, how wrong they felt in his hand. His stomach gurgled unpleasantly—probably from the lunch he’d had earlier at “Hamburger Haven.”
Remember how you were on the Plakarantheon, he found himself thinking—how he’d sat so stiff for so much of the post-slip part of the journey, instead of moving about, getting a drink of water, stretching. He felt a vague curiosity—that wasn’t like him.
But as he read the name “Fairfax” on one of the green signs marking streets, he glimpsed a statue—and with true Observer instinct, bolstered by three cycles of Cultural Expressions with Satnir Ol, he crossed to it, secretly thankful for something to do besides keeping his inexplicable emotions at bay.
The statue was of a man, in some brown-gold metal, with his right arm and hand outstretched. On either side of him were tall burnished shapes of silver metal, roughly but not skillfully cast to approximate the wings of some local flying species. The star had set some time earlier; thick lanes of traffic flowed endlessly past in either direction, their lights streaking against the darkness. He read from the plinth,
THIS “ANGEL OF RESCUE” WENT TO BUDAPEST IN
THE SUMMER OF 1944 AS A SWEDISH DIPLOMAT WITH
A MISSION TO SAVE THE REMAINDER OF THE JEWS OF
HUNGARY FROM THE GAS CHAMBERS OF AUSCHWITZ.
HE ISSUED THOUSANDS OF PROTECTIVE PASSES, SET
UP “SAFE HOUSES” AND BROUGHT BACK THE PERSECUTED
FROM THE DEPORTATION TRAINS AND DEATH MARCHES.
IN THE FINAL HOURS OF THE SEIGE OF THE CITY, HE
PREVENTED THE NAZIS FROM BLOWING UP THE GHETTO
WHERE 70,000 JEWS STILL LIVED.
THE SOVIET ARMY MISUNDERSTOOD HIS WORK
AND TOOK HIM PRISONER. HE WAS NEVER RELEASED.
HE SAVED OUR FAITH IN HUMANITY.
For a moment he could only picture this local, whoever he was, in some basement room or underground chamber of his embassy, with assistants perhaps, printing these passes under cover of night; his Planet-Specific independent studies had taught him about some of the cruder technology the locals relied on a century or two ago. He imagined that type of cranking machine—perhaps that was what they’d used. Thousands of passes. How strange. Marks on paper. And then part of him sparked inwardly with a mix of rage and confusion: The Russians, whoever they were—he’d died in their prisons! Because they’d “misunderstood” his work—what could that mean?! He knew about the Nazis—racially motivated and widely successful genocide. How could someone not understand working against that?! What insanity these people were capable of! And on both sides of this hideous equation. He felt himself pulled into a rush of scorn at the crazed and obscure politics of the planet.
But that’s not it, a voice said quietly inside him.
He turned into another street, seeing as he walked how someone had made some kind of furtive art on walls and sidewalks by cutting patterns in stiff paper, then laying them against the dusty surfaces and spraying paint to fill in the holes. He’d never seen such a thing on Bresh, at least not in his own country. But even as he admired the cleverness of it, he could feel its strangeness too, the unsettling otherness. And the shapes and designs these invisible artists made, the words or sentences they wrote—it all seemed purposefully indecipherable. ABEL 7 ROCKS. SYNCHRONIZE. NO DUMP-DRAINS TO SAN MON. NO REV ON TV. What could such convoluted babble possibly mean?
As he turned a corner, he saw a fat man limping painfully down the cement steps of a small house with a large electro-sign in the window reading PSYCHIC. He tried to ignore the pain in the man’s face, concentrating instead on the word—a popular pseudo-science, he seemed to recall. He’d have to remember to set his cranial directorate to sleep-access the information implant; he was always proudly thorough about things like that, and by morning he’d know for sure. Continuing down the street, he glimpsed a huge billboard above a pet-food store: It showed a smiling but ordinary-looking man—balding, close-cropped mustache, expensive shirt and tie—beneath block letters: HE TALKS TO THE DEAD. This was an advertisement for a screen broadcast. He noted it dully.
And all the rest of this world…he thought wearily, beyond the mountains that bordered the north and west of the crowded urban grid—more gulfs. More places, buildings, people, animals, tracts of land, languages, wild music, explosions, wars, shops, dumps, the endless making and doing, buying and arguing, sleeping, defecating, sex, talking, screenshows always flickering. This is only a peek! he reminded himself, in Observer slang—a single-city posting, nothing more on his sheet. But it was too much. Just then he saw a waxy-brown insect crawling unconcernedly along the sidewalk in front of him. He’d already learned about the creatures —“Roaches,” the locals would say, wrinkling their noses in disgust.
He trudged back to the hotel, grateful that it was late and he’d at least be able to sleep. Once in his room he opened the heavy curtains. A face taller than a tree stared back at him from across the street, a woman, her flat white forehead big as a truck, sunken cheeks, painted eyes, falsely colored hair, gems at her neck, dead look in her eyes. She’d been there on the upper wall of the shopping structure for three days now, an “ad” placed by the same huge crane that took away the previous, similar-looking occupant. Looking into her gigantic face, he remembered reading one of the mosaic-messages set in a sidewalk of the entertainment district, part of a collection about famous actors and actresses from their screen-show industry:
“A famous director saw me in a film when he was on vacation in our capital, and asked me to come work for him if I was willing to lose some weight. ‘We don’t like fat girls in my country,’ he said.”
Gazing painfully into the desert-like stillness of those door-sized eyes, for a moment he wanted nothing more in all the universe than for her to move, however slightly—for the lips to part, the eyes widen or turn, the head to incline. He drew the curtains.
Bur morning was no better; he hadn’t slept much. He ate in the hotel restaurant, noticing he was getting used to at least some of their day food. Then he walked out again, sick of walking but unable to think of anything else he could bear to do. After a listless couple of miles he’d found himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, noticing that most of the locals had black hair. Exhausted, he sat on a curb, head in his hands.
Bresh, he said to himself. Bresh. Bresh. Without warning all his pain went fluid and pressed up from within; tears came spilling, in utter disregard of his anger at them.
He heard a small voice, a child’s voice. Looking up he saw a line of local children, all in identical orange short-sleeved shirts—a school group, probably walking to the park he’d passed. That was how they did it. One little girl, her dark hair in a ponytail, some kind of bright red drink stain on her upper lip, was bending slightly to look into his face. Three or four other children were watching. He looked around to see a local woman with the main group, kneeling before one of the children as she tied his shoe.
He looked back at the girl. Her face showed no emotion. “How come,” she said, then brushed the bottom of her nose with the back of her hand, “how come you’re crying green? That’s green.”
He looked into his palms where she was pointing. Small splashes of green liquid. He shook himself quickly back into focus and wiped the green away, then wiped his cheeks with his fingertips.
The people in Bio-Mod would want to hear about this—could it be some bio-interaction with the pollution?
He looked at the children again, saw them patiently waiting for an answer. He smiled, got to his feet, and walked off. But he felt a strange lightness. I’m homesick, he told himself in a small voice. I want to go home. The shame this admission brought, he realized, couldn’t match the relief he felt at saying it. The next thought in his head was: The Option.
He walked on, absorbed in the intoxication of his relief. I could go home. Now he had to force a new set of thoughts from his mind—the four of them, his parents—stepping out of the ramp doors where they’d be waiting for him, their eyes full of raw parental empathy and protectiveness disguised as “understanding” and “acceptance”—Nar Bemood openly relieved, probably weeping. Weeping—like I just did.
There was a building beside him—he’d walked close to it without paying attention. A low building, mostly white, its double doors propped open for air. The locals here weren’t speaking English, he realized; it must be Spanlish. The dark hair. From that contiguous country, at least originally. Two large signs flanked the doors. He was almost next to them, not three feet away. SIDA, he saw in large black letters, and CLINICA. Disoriented, he stopped and peered through the doors, wondering where he might be. There was a long desk inside, a woman and a man behind it looking into file folders. A phone rang. Somewhere inside a child began crying in a low, defeated voice. He looked to either side, the open doors giving him a clear view of most of the room. There were rows of chairs along the walls, people sitting.
SIDA, he thought. Why is that familiar? But I don’t know Spanlish… Satnir Gonnakreklu had dismissed the desirability of his learning any other languages; “Our monitoring, and their own dispersed signals, make it quite clear—this ‘English’ is a world-language, and more than sufficient for a visitor—‘tourist,’ by the way, is how they say it…” But it kept nagging at him, in an idle way—SIDA…?
His eyes, adjusting to the shade of the interior, swung to the right. On one of the battered-looking folding chairs a young local male sat, the skin drawn tightly over his bones, his eyes dull as cement. He slouched in the chair, but not with the studied insouciance some of locals liked to imitate—he could see in an instant that this young man was having trouble keeping himself physically in his seat, had to make an effort to keep from sliding oonto the floor. Then he noticed the bruises on the young man’s arms, the sores at the base of his neck just above the thin shirt collar. But he’s…he thought with sudden fervor,…he’s sick! This is some kind of…hospital!
Before he could move, a woman approached him—black-haired like the others, heavy in the body, wearing a pin with her name, he knew, on it: Batista. She wore white pants and thick-soled white shoes, a flowery jacket over a white shirt.
“Do you want to come in?” she said softly, smiling at him. She gestured with her hand to the chairs.
Come in? he thought. Why would she ask me… As if a sudden rainburst over a farm, it all arranged itself instantly in his mind. SIDA. Just mix the letters up—AIDS. You weren’t paying attention! You’re in a contagion zone!—or close to it. If you stepped over that threshold…
He looked in again, glimpsing the many figures in various postures on the plain chairs. Then all of them are…!
And then the second thought, quiet as flowing water, and it felt as if his heart had paused in its beating. You’re close enough—it’s practically the same as being in the zone. This is contagion danger. It could be my Option. No one would say anything. They’d accept it—no, they’d know. Because it is. And I could…
He looked in again, past the woman. A fly droned behind the drawn blinds of one of the windows. The gray-skinned young man hadn’t moved. He looked back at the woman.
Maybe we could help them…, he thought.
“Having trouble deciding?” she said, her voice low and full of understanding. “I know it’s not easy.” Again he glanced beyond her, noticing a picture on the wall beside the counter, something religious probably—a woman in long veil-like blue and white clothing, surrounded by stylized gold and silver rays of what must be light—arms open, palms facing up, her face glowing with kindness and forgiveness—a welcoming mother.
The medical woman reached out and gently laid her hand on his shoulder, smiling at him. She was calm as a flower, her smile genuine but tranquil; she’d seen this same decision in the balance, he realized, a thousand times before.
Well, not exactly the same decision.
For a moment his heart ached with the nearness of his desire. And suddenly he imagined the incomprehensible gulfs of space, the almost utter darkness, lying between this burgeoning, troubled little planet and his own. Then, for some reason, he pictured Nar Bemood’s hand, the back of it, her skin softer and looser with age, feeling in a searing instant all his love for her.
“Uh…thanks…thanks anyway,” he muttered, trying to smile. He lowered his eyes, then turned and moved back along the street.
There was a tightness around his heart, a grave uncertainty that almost overmastered him. But he knew he’d be staying—that he’d see the mission through.
And some part of his mind was saying, with fierce pride, That phrase was exactly right. “Thanks anyway” to mean “No”—that’s exactly how they say it… END