“Three aliens today,” Jenny calls to him as he walks through the door.
“First one's at nine.”
Russell Biereboom takes off his hat and tosses it over towards the hat-stand, he looks back with one eye to see if his aim is true. He straightens his tie as he walks through reception, glancing at his reflection in one of the blurry panels behind Jenny's desk.
She says “You look good today, sir.”
I look middle-aged and slightly balding. But salary reviews are next week.
He leans over the desk to look at Jenny's screen, and she swivels it so he can see the schedule. There's something definitely pretty about Jenny: her gold-and-citrine hair, the snowfall of freckles on her cheeks. Her complexion has a hint of gold in it as well, a hint of high summer; her eyes have just a small touch of green. In these lights her hair brightens, curling just below her shoulders. The same lights bring out the ocean-blue in her jacket.
And I should be looking at the schedule.
There she is. The first appointment at 9.00am. A Saninthia Casshelwieth. He tries running that over his tongue a few times. “Am I pronouncing it right?”
“I think so.”
Would it kill them to give themselves some slightly more human-sounding names? In the interests of blending in?
The Sam Smith at 9.45, the Roger Grant, and the Sarah Anderton, are all scheduled for nothing more sinister than regular, human, accounts advice. “San – nin – thia. Cassel – Casshel – wieth.”
“You got it.” Jenny smiles at him.
He thinks about asking someone to turn down the lights in here. Jenny's hair is all spun-gold; but the the surfaces everywhere are glaring, and the carpet's too white. Maybe a patterned rug to soften it, break it up a little..... He glances over at the pot plants, where a few leaves have fallen and haven't been picked up. The newest one's beginning to flower. “Send her straight in when she arrives.”
She's a beautiful woman. Or at least she does an excellent job of pretending to be one.
She walks in the door, tossing her hair a little bit, dazzling him with a smile that on its own could make the sun come out. She holds out a manicured hand to shake his, and sits down at once in the chair opposite his desk. She's a work of art in gold – her hair is a rich, golden blond, curled in big, loose ringlets which sit elegantly around her shoulders; her eyes are classically blue, and her lips are poetically cherry-red. She's flawless, and her skin holds a sparkle that an ordinary man might catch himself gaping at. Russell sees in it her true form, though he has to admit that she's perfectly – and intensely, attractively – disguised.
She crosses her legs when she sits, making the most of an elegant, short red skirt.
Yes, well done. And yes, it is working. Rather better than he would like to admit to.
She says “I like your office.”
He does, as it happens, have a great office. It's one of the perks, and he's
proud of it. It perches on the corner of the building, windows stretching for most of the length of two walls. From here he can watch people coming and going below him. There's a fountain in the courtyard where birds come to drink, to be fed by the public. There are jugglers there sometimes. And past that a swathe of green – greenheaded trees in several dozen shades. Beyond that the
cityscape. And beyond that the sky.
He thanks her politely, routinely, with one eye still focussed on the view. I could just sit here staring at it for hours and I wouldn't notice the time passing. There's a late sunrise still lingering on the horizon today – clouds that are long, bright, pink-infused. There's a bright core of energy in the one that looms over Barrett street, and its colours are reflected up into the sky,
as well as into the canopy and over the roofs. The light it casts is full of pinks, lilacs, greens: bruising the sky around it – colours, in his youth, that he would never have associated with sunrise. Or with this hour, come to that. These things are getting harder and harder to explain away.
She says, “I was hoping you could help me.”
Russell nods, waiting, giving her an encouraging smile.
“I want to marry. I want to have children.” And she uncrosses her legs again, to cross them over the other way.
She really does want them. And he can help. The picture behind him is of himself standing next to the president. And behind that polished, presidential smile, there's an unending well of gratitude. Not
bad for a boy who was going to be an accountant. Who still is an accountant. Sort of. Sometimes. He hasn't had time to check the financial pages today.
He says: “Congratulations.”
She looks down, brushing a lock of hair away. “I'm not explaining myself very well.”
“Go on. Take your time.” He knows what it'll be.
She leans forward, summoning up an intimate tone. “I'm a darlaxian, do you know?”
It's my job to know. And he does see the tell-tale signs, however finely they've been wrapped up into the semblance of a woman. He only nods.
“I've been here a long time. A very long time. It might be almost fifty of your years.”
“Then you must be rather fond of the place.”
“Yes. Exactly. I feel almost human sometimes.”
That gives him pause. “He's not a human...?”
“N.... No.” She weighs something up in her mind, and she's looking over his shoulder at some of the photos on the wall. They all wear disguises: normal, terrestrial pictures that would look in no way out of place on an accountant's wall. But there are clues, if she knows very much at all - things that would tell her how well connected he is. And she says at last: “Well, not really. There's some part human in him.”
“And some part?”
“I'm not...” she begins it with a toss of her head, with her eyes honing in on him and deepening in their unearthly shade of blue. He can see it all happening on her face, see the small dimpling, the brightness running briefly beneath her skin. “He's three quarters human.”
“From old stock.” Which means: from forbidden marriage. From a union that two generations ago would have had to be forged in secret.
“But it's been so many years.”
It's explosive. It produces unpredictable offspring whose genes should have had no propensity for the traits that manifest. He's seen proof of them: a winged creature with its two heads trying to eat one another, tearing at each other's mouths, teeth locked into its mutual throat. He moves a few windows around on his screen while he thinks.
“It was a long time ago. And you know there've been other's who've had the practice forgiven. There are a lot of stable, hybrid children. Among humans...”
“A mix. Morraddian blood. Human. Darlaxian.”
“We'd be careful.” And when she says that her fingers play in circles along her knee. She does everything except bat her eyelids. There's a teasing promise in her smile – there's a window into almost unbearable pleasure, a lightness inside him that makes him feel like flying. She becomes the brightest thing in the room, then the only thing; and the world becomes that tiny point where her eyes are swirling and locked into his.
I could. I know I could.
But he pulls back, he glides back in his chair, hands meshed over his stomach. “Darlaxian custom. The hypnotism.”
“Have you used it on him?”
“No!” And the suggestion shocks her out of her rhythm.
“I didn't come down in the last shower, Ms Cashelwieth.” And there, I'm pretty sure I pronounced that right.
She's caught between anger and awkwardness – and a dawning fear that she's made a bad mistake.
Into the silence he asks her “Does he know?”
He looks out the window. It's extraordinary how that view just seems to tug at his eyes. Almost as much as Saninthia's beautiful flesh-and-blood shell. She's done a good job of that. Out there in the
trees, there are widdivings playing in the high branches. Chameleon creatures, but not so hard to spot when you know what to look for: dark eyes, a flash of glass teeth; a signature, spiderlike way of moving.
Once you know what to look for, everything's different.
And I'm lucky. Just knowing what's out there to be looked for. So easily, he could have been just Russell Biereboom: nine-to-five accountant, with a wife, and a dog, and couple of children, going
home to watch the six o'clock news, and do the crossword in the paper.
She tries to explain to him, “He knows who he is. I mean, his origins.” She says it reluctantly: “What he is. He was brought up knowing. But we don't keep with the visitors very much; he spends most of his time around humans. His father is all human, and his mother takes after her human side too, and she lives as a human.” She dares: “His name is Mike. Mike Grevin.”
Ah, a nice, normal, human name.
“I can pay the fees. And we'd sign all the forms.”
“Your children, though, a human, morraddian and darlaxian mix. That's an unstable set of genes to be born with.”
“Then you know as well what kind of restrictions might be placed on you.” And what kind of exposure we could be looking at, and what potential dangers.....
“Then are you sure you want to apply for this dispensation? You'd be monitored very closely for the rest of your life. Your grandchildren would be.”
She says “I love him.”
After she's left his office he sits for a while by himself, trying to decide why he's approved her application. He can forgive her the lapse of trying to hypnotise him; it's in the nature of her people to
do that – it is only a little less natural to them than breathing. She certainly seems sincere. And she's willing to submit to all the tests, to comply with the requirements for monitoring. He doesn't think she'll balk at them once they set in – she's been here too long, too enmeshed in the life of this planet. A low risk. And the morraddian bloodline is only one quarter....
Or am I romantic at heart?
I love him. That's what she'd said.
He spends some time gazing out that window. It is beautiful. There might be only a handful of people, looking at that cloud now, who know that it came from another world. The rest see only a morning cloud, enthusiastically drinking in the colours of a morning's slow sunrise. He sees a deadly energy – a catastrophe that almost came to pass – now burning itself out, dissolving into the blue.
On his wall, the pictures only have innocent faces. Their souls are a much more complex matter. That curved, tranquil beach had been the site of the first colthai landing. He remembers them creeping out of the ocean – blinding and blue; remembers thinking all as one thought: They're magnificent. Will this end in war? And a white-grassed cliff, where – just out of sight – two races met
formally for the first time, looked each other in the eye, and then thankfully, finally blinked. He, in another, with his arms around the shoulders of two now-dead friends. If you look hard enough there are two yellow moons in the background. I was younger then. Braver or stupider?
Fourteen storeys below him office workers are heading out into the courtyard, or off to the cafés for their morning tea break. By the fountain a group of teenagers have lost interest in school, and sit on the edge, dangling their feet in the water, hardly noticing the busker in the red and green coat who seems to be singing so earnestly, but whose voice doesn't carry so high or through glass. When they all come and go at once they seem to weave themselves together into one very human tapestry – all kinds of colours, and shapes, with their dance going off in all kinds of ways at random.
I could. I could just sit and look at this all day.
But it's 9.45, and Sam Smith will be needing some help with his taxes.
Later, when he heads out of the office for lunch, he stops over at Jenny's desk to check the afternoon's schedule. “What do you have for me after lunch?”
“Uh-huh. Which ones?”
“There's an ogghalthian at three.”
“Well, his agent anyway. Sounds human.”
Rodney Jenkins. That does sound like a human. The ogghalthian are a water-dwelling race, related to the colthai. He's never seen one up close, but he's done his homework. Hulking, glittering lifeforms – they're blue, and their skin is encrusted with scales that look for all the world like diamonds. They have three minds, all dwelling in the one head, all independent, and all very stubborn. It's no wonder they're in need of dispute resolution.
“And the other one?” He looks over Jenny's shoulder at the schedule.
“A Mr Gavdarvrian Valamuthnoi.”
But of course. “And he's...?”
“You'd better be careful with that one.”
He's seen the evidence of their fire-starting first hand.... “Oh, I'm always careful.” And he glances back over his shoulder as he heads for the door. It's something about those lights, the way they catch in Jenny's hair; and then the way she presses her lips together, concentrating on some game she's got up on the screen, a tiny crinkle at the corners of her eyes. So he turns back, “Hey, are you busy tonight? I wouldn't mind going for a drink after work.”