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by Andrew Gudgel
When the intercom on his desk buzzed, Marc’s head snapped up, instantly awake. He’d been dozing in his chair. His finger stabbed the button that told the boss he was on his way. He stood up and straightened his rumpled gray suit before glancing at his watch. One seventeen AM. It figures. The boss tried to cut him as much slack as he could, but humans just couldn’t keep the same pace as the Vrith, who came from the sunny side of a tidally locked planet and didn’t sleep at all.
“Yes, Governor?” Marc said, even before the door to the boss’ office was fully open. Speaking before he could be seen did double duty: it showed that he was eager to be of service, as well as preventing the boss from seeing his yawn–the Vrith sometimes considered wide-open mouths a sign of aggression, and their claws could cut deep. Marc had a couple of scars on his forearms from when the previous Governor’s instincts got the better of them. It was an occupational hazard of working for the Vrith who now ran Earth’s government.
“Marc,” the translation box on the boss’ desk said. “Tell me about–doors.”
He walked across the rough, tile floor that the Vrith preferred to the side of the desk at the far end of the boss’ office, where he made his obeisance by looking down and crossing his arms at the wrists in a sign of submission. He spoke without looking up. “What would you like to know about doors, Governor?”
“You may look at me when you speak,” the boss replied. “Are doors always necessary?”
Marc raised his head and squinted in the harsh, bright artificial light the Vrith also preferred. Four of the boss’ six eyes were turned towards him, as was their feeding orifice. Marc couldn’t help but feel a momentary flush of pride. In the Vrith culture, facing the other party in a conversation was a sign of attention.
“While not questioning them personally, may I ask the Governor the background of their request?”
The translation box strobed with colors. The boss raised one of their communication paddles and a series of colors rippled as the iridescent scales on them bent and reflected the room’s light back towards the translation box. “The Governor of the Mediterranean Region is considering banning doors to prevent collusion and plotting. Several other governors incline towards their opinion. I decided to gather more information before registering mine.”
Marc’s stomach dropped. Doors? They want to ban doors? Might as well ban houses, too, and be done with it. Marc struggled to keep his face impassive. He’d been working for this boss for just under two years now, spending more hours a day here than anywhere else. Yet the way Vrith minds worked still surprised him. But from what he’d read online and from what he’d seen by watching this boss’ interactions with their fellow Governors in Europe, they could be considered somewhat of a maverick for doing what they were doing now: seeking input from humans.
Marc chose his words carefully. “Governor, I can follow the Governor of the Mediterranean Region’s logic and see the end state they wish to attain. Doors might indeed provide closed spaces that can be used for plotting and collusion. However, doors also are essential to controlling the temperature within a structure, thus preventing illnesses and death among humans. Some locations, such as banks, use modified forms of doors to protect property from thieves.” He paused. “And many humans find it–” He struggled for the right word. “Privacy” had overtones of conspiracy in the Vrith language. “Uncomfortable to perform necessary bodily functions and reproductive activities under the gaze of other humans.”
The boss stretched themself up to their full, three-meter height before settling back to a squatting position. Then they reached into the bowl of live Hisk that sat on the desk beside the translation box. They brought the crab-like Hisk to their feeding orifice, where a dozen small pedipalps dismembered it before pushing the still-wriggling pieces deeper into the orifice.
Despite his many years of service, Marc still struggled to keep his face impassive whenever he saw a Vrith eat.
“I have come to a decision,” the boss said after a moment of contemplative chewing. “Doors are more necessary than not. I will disagree in the next Governors’ discussion and may cite your reasons.”
Marc shifted his gaze downward and made his obeisance again. “Thank you, Governor. Is there anything else in which I can be of service to you?”
He turned and was half-way across the room when the translation box spoke. “How long have you been at your duties?”
Marc stopped and turned back. “Since nine this morning, Governor,” he said, keeping his gaze on the ground in front of him.
“You are here very late. Go home and sleep. You may return to work one hour after your appointed time tomorrow.”
They are odd for a Vrith. Marc made his obeisance again. “Thank you, Governor. That’s very generous.”
Once he was back in his office with the door closed, Marc took his gray, woolen coat from the hook on the wall and shrugged himself into it. He scanned his desk to make sure it was neat. In his first week with the new boss, he’d noticed signs that they occasionally came out of their own office to look around. He wanted to show every sign of being an efficient subordinate.
Marc left the lights on, closed the door behind him and started down the hall towards the elevator.
Jesus, he thought, shaking his head. Banning doors? What the hell kind of idea is that? God help us if the Governor of the Mediterranean Region wins the discussion. As the elevator arrived and the doors opened, Marc wondered if there were any bars in Brussels still open at this hour. He was bone tired but that last conversation with the boss left him needing a good, stiff drink.
A shadow appeared beside him as Marc sat at his table in the bar, sipping a glass of yellow Elixir d’Anvers to settle his stomach.
“No,” he said reflexively, then looked up.
The face of the young man puckered in confusion. His dark hair was long–collar-length–his clothes rumpled as if he’d slept in them.
“No, I won’t help you,” Marc stated. “You don’t look like a xenolinguist or a xenobiologist–they always ask if I can help them with their research. If you’re a member of some resistance group, I won’t help you. Look what happened to the Americans.” The Americans had been the only country to put up any sort of serious resistance to the Vrith when their ships landed. Now the only Americans left alive were those who had been out of the country when the Vrith replied in kind. “If you’re resistance and try to argue your cause, I’ll report you to the police. And If you’re an American, you have my sympathy. However, I won’t give you any money nor a meal nor a beer.”
The young man shifted from one foot to the other. “Janusz Wojchinski sent me,” he said in heavily accented French.
Marc jerked in surprise. Janusz was his counterpart in Central Europe–the human assistant to the Governor there. “Janusz sent you?”
The man nodded.
Marc pointed to the empty chair across the table. “Sit.”
He waved to the bartender, pointed at his glass and then at the young man, who was just settling into his chair.
What’s this about? Marc wondered. Whatever it was, Janusz was going to interesting lengths to make sure that the two Governors didn’t know what was going on.
The bartender set a glass in front of the young man and departed.
“So. What did Janusz say?”
The young man ran his hand through his hair before taking a sip of his own Elixir d’Anvers. He grimaced.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Marc admitted.
The young man took another sip, but this time, didn’t make a face. “He wanted me to warn you about the ‘Door question.'”
Marc’s stomach dropped. “And what about the ‘Door question’?”
“He said it was a loyalty test.”
Now his heart began to pound. “Did he say why the Vrith would want to test the loyalty of their assistants?”
The young man shook his head. “Not the assistants. There’s some sort of political fight among the Vrith. Janusz thinks those who are too pro-Human might be replaced as Governors. He said you should suggest to your boss that they remain neutral on the question.”
“Damn! Too late,” Marc muttered, looking away for a moment. He picked up his glass. “Was there anything else Janusz wanted me to know?”
“His boss and your boss apparently share similar views on how Humans should be treated.”
Marc’s glass stopped half-way to his mouth. “Interesting,” he murmured.
The young man pushed back his chair and stood. “Janusz said send him an email asking for another copy of the report he sent you earlier today, so that he knows you got his message.”
“And how do we communicate after that?”
The young man shrugged, then downed his glass in a single gulp. He shuddered. “We won’t. I’m heading back to Warsaw on the next train. It’s in Janusz’s hands now.”
Marc sat alone on one of the benches that ringed the Stadspark to the east of the River, trying to decide what to do. Should he say anything to the boss? You can never tell how Vrith will react. Their whole way of thinking is so different. But was their thinking really that different? Resistance movements among the humans. Paranoid fears of conspiracy and political infighting among the Vrith. Two sides of the same coin.
The same or different, what matters is what am I going to do?
Despite serving as an administrative assistant to the various Governors of Northwestern Europe for almost seven years, he didn’t have any particular love for the them. The Vrith, as a race, ran the world no less efficiently than humans had before the invasion. While there were now more restrictions on what a person could or couldn’t do than before, most people had accepted the new situation and moved on with their lives. And this boss seemed to treat the humans in their Governorship fairly well, all things considered.
If Marc did nothing, the boss would get caught out by the loyalty test. They would be replaced by some other Vrith, one who’d likely be much harsher.
Marc shifted on the bench. I can’t let them get caught up in the infighting.
Should he merely go back to work and say that he’d reconsidered the question and then somehow steer the boss towards a neutral answer? Or reveal Janusz’s warning?
As Hamlet said, That is the question.
Marc could see the scenario playing out in a number of ways. His boss might not actually be of the same faction as Janusz’s boss, in which case there would doubtless be a sudden leadership change in the Central European Governor’s office, followed by a crackdown on the human populace there. Or perhaps his boss would consider him and Janusz conspirators, in which case both their lives would be numbered in minutes. Or both scenarios might happen simultaneously. Marc reached into his coat pocket, searching for a pack of the cigarettes he stopped smoking years ago.
Standing in front of his own desk, Marc took a deep breath before pushing the signal button on his intercom. He stepped into the boss’ office and stared a hornet in the face. Not a live hornet but one of the microdrones the Vrith used for personal defense. Smaller than his pinkie finger, it hovered an arm’s length in front of his nose, but on command, could accelerate faster than a rifle bullet through his skull, turn, and come back through before his body hit the tile.
Marc’s heart clenched in his chest. He struggled to keep his voice even. “Governor, I am very sorry to bother you. I will leave now.”
“No,” the translator box said. “Come here.”
The hornet flew back into the room and began orbiting the boss’ head.
Marc crossed the tiled floor, made his obeisance, and began speaking while looking down. “Governor, I’ve been considering the question you asked me earlier about doors. And I think it may be best if you–”
“You may look at me when you speak,” the boss said.
“Thank you,” Marc replied. When he lifted his head, the Governor was facing him. Normally, Marc would have been pleased at the recognition; now he hoped that the boss didn’t know how to read human facial expressions. The hornet hovered between them.
“Go on,” the boss said.
“I–I think it best if perhaps you take neither side in the Mediterranean Governor’s discussion. This question is very complex and it may be better to not commit to either side until–”
“What made you change your mind?” the Governor asked.
“I–I am, as always, concerned with giving you the best advice I can and–”
“You gave me excellent advice earlier. Something caused you to change your mind.”
The hornet drew closer to him. Marc sagged and closed his eyes. Let it be quick.
“I was told that the question about doors was being used by some of the Group of Governors to determine which Governors were sympathetic to humans and which were not. I’m afraid that if you answer in support of the humans, your career–maybe your life–might be in danger. I feel you care about how we humans are treated and would hate to see you replaced by someone who did not.”
He’d never talked to a Vrith so bluntly. He was surprised after a moment to find himself still alive and opened his eyes. The hornet was now only inches from the tip of his nose.
“Who told you this?”
“The human administrative assistant to the Governor of Central Europe.”
The hornet quivered for a moment, then darted backwards to land on the boss’ desk.
“Thank you, Marc, for telling me the truth.”
Confusion washed over him. “The Governor was aware they were being tested by the other Governors?”
Waves of blue light rippled up the boss’ body–the Vrith equivalent of laughter. “The Governor of Central Europe and I planned all this.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They sent a human to find you and tell you that I may be in danger. I sent a human–you didn’t think you were the only human working for me, did you?–to their Janusz to say that they were in danger. We wanted to see just how loyal you were to us personally, rather than to just the Vrith squatting behind the desk. You passed the test.” They stretched themself up, then squatted back down. “And I learned just before you came in that Janusz also passed. That makes for four of us. A small beginning, but I am sure it won’t remain that way.”
The boss leaned in towards him, then stuck one of their clawed arms out. “I believe this is how humans begin to conduct business with each other. I am Blue/Red/Green Triple-flash. Welcome to the first European-area resistance cell.”
About the Author
Andrew Gudgel has always loved words and playing with words. He lives on the east coast of the U.S., in an apartment being slowly consumed by books.
About the Narrator
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he was decommissioned from the Cyborg Outreach Mission after that misunderstanding with the python, the cream and the dignitaries. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife and three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to properly express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey”, but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He was the Golden Pen winner for Writers of the Future in 2016, was shortlisted for the James White Award in 2016, and is an associate editor at the best Escape Artists podcast, PodCastle. He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place.