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EP353: Talking to the Enemy

By Don Webb
Read by John Mierau
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Don Webb
All stories read by John Mierau
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Talking to the Enemy

By Don Webb

We knew a little, but we knew the Free Machines knew more. We hoped our adversary, the Belatrin, knew less; but since they were such creatures of dream and nightmare even at the late parts of the War, we suspected they knew everything.

The Peace Conference hadn’t happened in the first six months of our being here. Everyone talked about it. Breakthroughs were rumored everyday. The only hard facts are that we had grown more efficient at killing Belatrin and they us.

The “peace planet” was named Mrs. Roger Fishbaum III. Roger Fishbaum had paid currency to name a star after his wife in the International Star Registry a thousand years before. The Siirians had a name for it that had too many clicks and whistles, the Free Machines a binary designation, and for all we knew the Belatrin used telepathy. The planet stank of vinegar and moldy bread. I always assumed that its atmosphere contained some needful compound for our enemies’ breathing, but maybe the Free Machines choose it to annoy us, or them.

Siirian merchants made the most of our discomfort. They sold ineffective air shields that released some herbal concoction. I was buying one when I made my ironic remark about the peace talks. The merchant polished its carapace with two of its legs and whistled out a message that my implant made into, “Honored customer, do you think you will be the chief negotiator for the peace talks?”

I set my translator for ironic mode, and said, “Most certainly. My lowly position as a Viscount of the Instrumentality qualifies me far better than the Dukes of Diplomacy.”

“No doubt this is true my friend.” The implant registered no irony. His carapace had the oranges and whites of early middle age. He could have fought in the Human-Siirian wars, back when is all right to call them “Crabs” to their eyestalks. The high-ranking families of the bureaucracy had commanded legions seeking to kill him, while my family had huddled in the ghettos of Earth. His long claw, a good two meters, reached over and pinned the air shield to my shirt. “Wear it in good health, honored customer.”

I strolled back to the Bureau, where others of the tribe of hereditary Bureaucrats busied themselves in meeting the latest proposal by the Free Machines. Since no human and no Belatrin could sit within two hundred yards of each other without permanent psychic damage to both parties, the Free Machines had built a “Peace Palace” where they would conduct negotiations to end the hundred year old war. Their fees were high, and it was our job to come up with some acceptable package of goods and services that wouldn’t wreck the economy of several planets. My boss Dame Patricia was joking that canned New Martian Champaign might do the trick, since it could be used to get the rust off.

It was wartime. Jokes were stale. They had been stale for a hundred years.

We were not stupid in the Bureau. We knew two things. Somewhere, higher ranking Bureaucrats – Dukes or Earls perhaps – were trying to make direct contact with the Belatrin. Everyone knew there had to be a way. After all they looked like us. Or at least in our part of space they had bodies and looked like us. The other thing we knew is that the Belatrin had a building just like ours on the other side of the planet, presumably filled with cost-cutting officials of some sort. It gave us great hope to believe that however different the souls of our enemies might be, they still looked for bargains.

Everyone laughed his or her stale laugh at the stale joke.

Dame Pat asked me, “What about you Sir Antele? Did your noontide walk inspire you to solve our dilemma?”

“It solved only the wretched smell of this world. It did not give me the ybleenth of a solution.”

“The what?” She asked.

“What, what?” I asked

“That word you said, yleebull? I don’t know it.”

“Ybleenth. You know, the shadow an event casts before it comes.”

She said, “That’s a very poetic word. Is it from your local dialect?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know where I learned it. I suppose if must be local.”

We went off to merge with our data flows. Later as I wiped dripping computer brains from my eyes, Sir Blaine stood by. We had shared teatime since the Bureau had opened here six months ago. He gossiped well, and had introduced me to a tea brewed within a single blossom of ylang tree on his homeworld. His face glowed with a secret.

“Something big is happening on the other side. Our Eyez saw all of them run to their Bureau about an hour ago.”

“So any idea what that means?”

“Not yet, but the Free Machines communication links have almost overloaded. We’re not supposed to work for the rest of the day, but be prepared to link in here at any time.”

“All right Blaine what to do you think is going on?”

“I think it’s the big careneza.”

“What?”

“No really.”

“No what’s a careneza?”

“Are you all right Antele? Having some data fever?”

“Don’t joke with me. Is something big really going on?” I asked.

“Yes.” Said Blaine.

“Then why are you making up words?” I asked.

“I am not making up weywing.” He said. “Something is erstl here.”

“This isn’t funny.” I said.

I saw he didn’t think it was.

“Asrod infirmary.” He said and I asroded right behind him.

I love the deep blue light of any healing room, and I was ready for the calming chants that play continuously in such places. Instead someone was playing comic music, and the room smelled of candy. I wanted to scratch my ears in disrespect, but my mother had been a doctor. The doctor came in and Blaine began jabbering at him. I could follow about seventy five percent of what was said. Blaine thought I had data-flu, which often produced temporary aphasia.

The doctor began picking up items in the room and asking me to name them. At least I think that was what he asked. What I heard was “Clef I tot these things.” I clef I toted away. The doctor nodded his head, which meant nothing more to me in my new state than it did before. He began touching parts of my body and indicating he wanted names. Blaine left the room, and I regretted his gossip ability for the first time in our friendship.

But he surprised me by rushing back in the room with four books from my room. The bible, the Tao te Ching, Consue’s Infallible Divination, and The Black Pharaoh Returns, which was a popular adventure novel featuring the Belatrin as many tentacled horrors seeking galactic dominion. “Read these.” He said, which turned out to be the last unaltered sentence I would hear from my friend.

I picked up the bible and opened it at random, and could make neither head nor tale of it. The Tao te Ching and Infallible Divination proved better. I could read about sixty percent of the words. The Black Pharaoh Returns proved the easiest. I could make almost all of the words, and certainly could make good guesses about the weird groups of letters. I started to cry. I had always read, and reading would have had helped me deny the fact that I was on a planet swarming with Belatrin who were excited about something.

Suddenly it hit me. The air shield. The Siirian had given me something, something that affected my mind. My problem had come right after I had visited its shop. I pulled the small air shield from my tunic and hurled it to the floor. I started to step on it, but the doctor grabbed it and ran out of the room. I started to follow, but I saw that two guards stood in the corridor beyond. They gestured with their guns that I should remain in the blue room.

I turned to Blaine and asked, “What’s going on here?”

He lifted his head and roared like a lion. Then he marched out of the room.

I sat on a low couch and began reading The Black Pharaoh Returns. I could see the words slip into nonsense. Some were made of sterner stuff and resisted the mutation before my eyes – “Blaster” lasted for several minutes, as did “Belatrin” and “Hieroglyphs.” But they were all gone in half an hour. I just kept paging through the book, looking for anything I knew. I would have been glad for a “the” or a “because.”

Finally I put the book down. I was hungry, tired and lonely. I wondered if I would ever understand anybody again. the weight of the whole assignment hit me. All my life the war had been going on. I was ten when Lister IV had been destroyed by a Belatrin mindbomb, twenty-five when we developed the planet splitter, my uncle Sir Aletee Nan had been aboard the Ramsey when the Belatrin first used the “Colors.” All my life I had feared them, now I was less than a kilometer away from them and I couldn’t hide behind endless calculations about commodities. This wasn’t a passing case of data-flu. I was screwed, screwed by the proximity of the Belatrin. I had been sensitive all my life. I should have renounced my family and became a poet or a musician. The damn music in the healing room grew more and more raucous, I hated these people. They could at least put me somewhere quiet.

The doctor walked in carrying two charts. There were exploded diagrams of the air shield device. I couldn’t read it, of course, nor could I even decide if it showed anything. The doctor made motions with his head and mouth. I knew such gestures used to mean something, even just hours ago. I pointed at my stomach, and it seemed to dawn on the doctor that I hadn’t eaten in six hours. He spoke to the guards and they brought some cold noodle dish and a small cold chocolate beverage. The beverage tasted fishy and chalky and soon after drinking it I was very sleepy. I laid down on the couch and put the copy of The Black Pharaoh Returns under my head.

I woke up in a science room with sensors on my head and restraints across my bare chest. I asked what was going on. The doctor plus a man and a woman I had never seen before came to tower over me. I think they were hungry — they barred their teeth. The doctor spoke in a low tone, indicating he did not truly want to speak with me. The others shook their heads with joy. The woman pointed at her head. Perhaps she wondered if I had a pain in my head. I said,” Din, din, din.” They backed away. I had spoken loudly with respect so that even an elder could hear. She walked to a desk and brought back a photo of the Belatrin Bureau. Banners were hanging from its windows, with written characters on them. She pointed to the banners.

I understood. She thought that I spoke Belatrin, that for some reason a metamorphosis had occurred that had rewritten my mind. I remembered the Siirian’s prediction that I might be the one to negotiate the treaty. It all made sense somehow — they had bypassed the Free Machines and sent in a device to reprogram my brain. A lower level bureaucrat would be perfect; we get our brains reprogrammed every day anyway. My friendly captors had reasoned this out, and wondered if I could read the banners. I may have the spoken language, but not the written one yet. I needed time and I wanted to find the Siirian

At least I thought that was what they were saying.

I tried to point to the restraints across my chest with my chin. This produced no results. Then I tried to express my willingness to accept their commands by nodding my head up and down in the second gesture of submission.

This made them hungry again, but they released me.

I rotated my hands in a gesture of nudity. They seemed perplexed but the woman suddenly grasped what I was saying and my clothes were brought. I dressed and began walking slowly out of the Bureau. The doctor, the woman and the man and ten guards followed me. I walked down the dry dusty sweet-smelling street to the market.

The kiosk of the Siirian, who had sold me the air shield, lay empty. I jumped up and down to indicate this was the runaya, the hidden starting point that must be investigated if the event is to be known. I think my clear gesture was understood; the guards began talking to merchants on either side. One guard grabbed me gently. She treated me as thought I were an elder worthy of respect. I acknowledged her gesture and leaned on her arm. She was right. I was worthy of respect. I would end the war.

In many ways all of the fears of my life, of my generation and that of my parents and grandparents were melting away at this moment. I was the messiah. The nanlatoo.

As we walked back to the Bureau the guard kept a tight grasp on me. I was too precious to be loose.

At the Bureau they began brining me star maps. Some had sections colored in green, others in yellow, others in red. I knew this represented what I could give away, what was to be negotiated over and what must remain in human control I was hungry and showed my teeth often. Eventually they brought food.

I wished I could read star maps, but I was not worried. There would be time in the negotiations. Once I was in the in the picture the Free Machines would provide their services as go-betweens very cheaply.

The next morning they woke me up very early. They had the robes of a Duke of Diplomacy for me to wear. The pink sun had not risen, and few people were around. I ate a disgusting combination of fermented milk products by myself. Many people slapped my back, but I had done nothing wrong. At the end of the meal, they tied a ribbon around my brow. Our Eyez had seen the Belatrin wear such things. They sort of pushed me through the halls of the Bureau. I gathered there some sort of deadline. I didn’t like the rough treatment. At the door they gave me the star maps and a several pages of instructions. I told them that these were of no help to me, but they just showed their teeth again.

Outside of the Bureau three land cars waited . They pushed me into the central one and sped off, I had never been outside of Humantown since planetfall. The pink sun was just rising, The weeping lavender trees and bright blue birds were lovely. I knew their names. They were inlaroo From time to time the trees caught one of the birds, but mainly they flew too swiftly. We drove for about thirty minutes when we came to a series of towers about ten meters high. The towers stood about ten meters apart. On our side of the towers was a thin bluish moss such as the ground cover of the forest, on the other side the earth had been scorched. I could see another set of towers in the distance.

We drove on.

When we stopped my driver handed me a pair of viewers. There was a round table set in the bare earth midway between the two rows of towers. It had two chairs. My driver took the viewers from me, and guards opened the door. I wanted music and song. I wanted to be recognized for my sacrifice.

They pulled me from the car

I dropped the star maps, but they gathered them up and gave them to me. They were bulky and hard to carry. I did not look like a nantaloo. The guards helped me up to the towers. One of them carried a small device which he clicked as we drew close. They shoved me toward the bare earth.

I did not want to go. I did not want to be their messiah. Let someone else end the war. I don’t even know what our society would be like with no war. There had been war all my life, all my parent’s life. I wanted to go back to my job. I wanted them to fix my brains.

One of the guards pulled a short rod from his belt and touched my arm with it. It shot burning pain. I whimpered. It was clear that I could not avoid this diplomatic mission. So I walked forward.

The bare earth beneath my feet felt like sandpaper. On the other side of the barrier I felt less afraid. Maybe I was walking toward people that could understand me. I would guess the bare earth was about two kilometers in width. It took me less than ten minutes to walk to the table I pulled out a chair. I couldn’t believe with the resources of two empires there wouldn’t be at least a roof to sit under.

I watched the Belatrin side. Some small flying vehicles had landed and they were leaving them. A veiled figure, that I perceived to be a woman, began walking toward the barrier and then across the bare earth. I was wondering what lottery had chosen her, and if she were seen as a winner or a loser by her people.

It seemed to take a very long time for her to cross to me. She carried some silver scrolls. Her skin was light blue, her eyes dark green. I could not tell if she had hair. I realized that I was closer to a Belatrin than any human had ever been and not gone mad. She was closer to a human than any Belatrin had ever been and not died. At least as far as we know of.

When she approached, I stood up to pull out a chair for her. She seemed frightened by this action, and wouldn’t sit until I returned to my side of the round table. She spread her scrolls out. They were covered in characters and diagrams that I didn’t understand. So I stood and unrolled my star charts out over her scrolls.

“These are what we wish to agree to.” I said.

Then she spoke.

Utter gibberish.

I wanted to garb her, shake her, slap her, scream at her. She must speak the language as I. My loss of a language, of a galaxy of friends and culture must mean something. She stared at the star maps and cried. She pushed my maps off the table and onto the dusty earth and began rolling up her scrolls.

I didn’t understand her gesture, but not because of the curse of babel visited upon me. I simply didn’t understand her purpose.

She stuffed the scrolls in the tubes and began walking past me toward the human side. She may have hypothesized that she had the human tongue I the Belatrin. Maybe it was a gift from the gods, or maybe it was a Free Machine sociology experiment.

I watched her go.

She walked slowly and deliberately, so they wouldn’t shoot her. They showed great bravery and let her walk up to them. Then they rushed forward and hugged her. She must have had the key, the Word. Then they drew back and she convulsed. Whatever had changed her brain had not made her able to withstand humans. I could not tell if the humans were mad, or if they had been spared.

I thought about my options.

I gathered my star maps and began slowly walking toward the Belatrin. Maybe I will end the war.

Or maybe I’ll just be a madman among people that understand what I am saying.

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