Escape Pod 799: No Strangers Any More (Part 2)


No Strangers Any More (Part 2 of 2)

by Ian Creasey

Royal Roundup — “ROSE’S NEW BOYFRIEND? Just days after the end of her relationship with Captain Gerrard Calderwood, Princess Rose has a new companion. Is this interplanetary diplomacy, or something more? Centuries have passed since the days when political alliances were cemented with royal marriages, but perhaps the old tradition is due a revival. Was the break-up with Calderwood so bitter that it soured her on the entire human race?”

Conspiracy Channel — “It looks like David Icke was right after all. He always said that the royal family were secretly a race of shape-changing lizards. Now Princess Rose has come out into the open and admitted her true love for her own kind!”

Goggler — “Princess Rose is stepping out with an alien. Presumably, Earthmen aren’t good enough for her. It’s a slap in the face for all Englishmen, but she’s probably upset and confused. Here at Goggler, we think she just hasn’t met the right guy yet, and we want to help her out. Yeomen of England — do you think you’re good enough for Princess Rose? Write and tell us, explaining exactly why you’re suitable. How would you prove yourself? Which monsters would you slay first?”

#

Rose’s phone went into meltdown. At first she tried to ignore it, but the psychic pressure of all those unanswered calls and messages ate away at her. The phone helpfully prioritised them, telling her that her closest friends and family were trying to get in touch. Rose had almost cracked, and was about to start answering, when she heard someone arrive at the door. If the security team had let them through, then it must be —

“Helena! Do you know what time it is?”

“Yes, it’s after midnight. So what? I’m not bloody Cinderella. And this isn’t a fairy tale. When you talked about waving your wand and using the magic of the monarchy, I didn’t realise you were going to try turning an alien frog into a prince.” Helena stormed past Rose into the kitchen, and fired up the coffee machine. “What were you thinking? The hospital visit I could understand, but Tate Modern? An art gallery isn’t diplomacy, it’s a date! It’s like having a toothbrush and a three-pack of condoms in your handbag —”

“Hey, I had to arrange something he might find interesting. I needed a bit more than a bunch of sick kiddies. It worked really well! He was funny, he got into it….”

“Rose, listen to yourself. ‘He was funny, he got into it’: that’s a description of a date where you had a good time. I know you didn’t mean it that way, because if you’d thought about it for a single second, you’d have realised how the media would take it. But subconsciously —”

The coffee machine beeped, startling them both. Helena poured them a latte each. “No mocha for you: you’ve been a bad girl. As I was saying, subconsciously this is about Gerrard. You wanted to send a message that you’re over him: you’re moving on, and you’re seeing other guys.”

“That is absolutely not true,” Rose protested. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”

“Not consciously, no. Which is why we’ve ended up with a PR disaster. Look, ordinarily I wouldn’t care. I’d be on your side, cheering as you got over Gerrard and dated anyone you liked. But this is toxic. The aliens were already unpopular, and this isn’t helping. You’re not boosting their popularity — they’re dragging ours down. And in case you’ve forgotten, there’s a referendum next month.”

Rose frowned, and sipped her coffee while she examined the latest opinion stats in her vision overlay. The pro-monarchy rating had fallen three points. Her own personal popularity had dropped by twenty points. She sat down, suddenly feeling unsteady on her feet. Would this affect the referendum result? Would history remember her as a Marie Antoinette figure, a foolish princess who helped to destroy the monarchy?

“That’s just the instant reaction, before everyone’s even heard about it,” said Helena. “By tomorrow, this will be global.”

“I hope it does go global,” Rose said defiantly. “If I’m going to change people’s minds, then the first step is to get their attention. This is only the start: you can’t judge the plan by the first day’s results. There’ll be other activities — and they won’t all look like dates, if you’re worried about that.”

“There’d better not be any other activities,” said Helena, glaring at Rose. “We can’t risk affecting the referendum. You’re jeopardising a thousand years of history, just for the sake of a few aliens who can bloody well look after themselves. You’ve got to stop!”

“Helena, listen to yourself,” said Rose, mimicking Helena’s earlier tone. “What you’re saying is that the royals should never do anything unpopular. But what’s the point of having a monarchy if it never does anything worthwhile?”

“We do loads of worthwhile things!” Helena exclaimed. “How can you possibly say we don’t do anything? What about —”

“Yes, I know, I know. We’re all patrons of good causes. I’ve got enough letterhead paper to fill a wardrobe and the whole of Narnia behind it. But those are things that everyone already approves of. Today I had a photo-op at Great Ormond Street Hospital: smile for the cameras, hug the children, whip up some publicity. They must think it helps, or they wouldn’t ask me to do it. But surely everyone already loves sick kiddies. Am I really achieving anything? Is that the best use of royal prestige? Look at Diana — she wanted to make a real difference, and promote causes that everyone didn’t already believe in. That’s what royalty should do.”

Helena tugged the sleeve of Rose’s pink chiffon blouse. “Just because you’re dressed like her, that doesn’t make you Diana. And it doesn’t mean you can achieve what she did.”

“I’m not relying on my clothes,” said Rose, annoyed at Helena’s implicit suggestion that she was doomed to fall short of Diana’s legend. “I’m relying on my own efforts —”

“Yes, indeed,” interrupted Helena, “and very admirable they are too. But why do you need to do all this now? Why not wait until after the referendum?”

“If it wasn’t the referendum, it’d be something else. There’s always some excuse for playing safe — ‘forthcoming budget negotiations’, ‘a sensitive political climate’.” Rose mimicked the voice of the King’s media strategist, who notoriously always advised caution.

“More importantly,” she went on, “right and wrong don’t depend on the calendar. If it’s the right thing next month, then it’s the right thing now. So I’m doing it now.”

“That’s all very well, but it assumes you know exactly what the right thing is,” Helena retorted. “If it was only about you, then I wouldn’t argue. But your actions affect the entire royal family. You’re being selfish, and jeopardising the rest of us.”

Rose fell silent for a moment, struck by doubt. Was she being selfish? Should she hold back, for the good of the family?

“I’m only one person,” Rose said at last. “The royal family is dozens of people. If I’m really jeopardising the monarchy, is that because I’m doing too much, or because everyone else is doing too little? The whole family is responsible for the outcome of the referendum, not just me.”

Helena sighed. “In an ideal world, you’d be right. The public would look at all thirty-odd members of the royal family, weigh up their individual contributions, and cast their vote accordingly. But you know very well that’s not how it works. People are driven by headlines, and you’re creating the headlines.”

“Then we need to make new headlines,” said Rose. “Or at least make the old ones fade away. And we can do that, if we all pitch in. Why is it headline news that I visited an art gallery with an alien? Because it’s unusual. But if we all start reaching out — if more of us make an effort to meet the Felorians and include them in society — then it won’t be unusual any more. It won’t be news. Problem solved!”

“It’s a major news item because it happened straight after your break-up with Gerrard,” Helena said tartly. “You’ll still have to face those insinuations… unless you get another boyfriend. Do you want me to set you up with someone?”

Rose laughed. “That’s very kind of you. But you know what the media are like. Even if I had a boyfriend, they’d still claim I was flirting with Dorvin. They love the freakshow angle. The only way to deal with that is to make the Felorians look less like freaks, and more like regular folk. Then the media will get bored of sensationalising them. And the more people see of the Felorians, the more they’ll realise that the scare stories are ludicrous.”

“That sounds optimistic,” said Helena. “I wish I had your faith in human nature.”

“Maybe it won’t work. But we have to try.”

We?” Helena raised her eyebrows.

“Yes. I’ve got an idea. Let’s take the focus away from individuals, and have a group event. How about a charity football match? Humans against aliens! We’ll auction off places in the team, and sell tickets to the match, and sell the TV rights: plenty of money for good causes. Afterward, we’ll have the usual dinner and drinks and whatnot. There’ll be at least eleven Felorians, so lots more potential for interaction — different stories, new headlines. They’ll start to look normal. And they can talk about their own sports, maybe show us some footage, and challenge us to try one of their games…. What do you think?”

“Football, eh?” Helena smiled. “You must be desperate: you don’t even like football. But I think you’re onto something. A football match — what could be more normal?”

“Then you’ll help?” asked Rose. “You’ll lend your name to it, and recruit some players?”

“Oh, I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty finding players. Everyone will want a crack at the Felorians.”

#

News Net — “ALIENS 4, HUMANS 3. The human race today fell to the bottom of the galactic league table, as the All-Earth XI was defeated in a charity soccer match by the Flowers of Feloria. Early goals from Freddy Hooke and Joe Beckham gave Earth a half-time lead, but the aliens gradually grew more comfortable on the ball, and they stormed back in the second half. Their first three goals came from corner kicks, the Felorians’ greater height affording them an advantage in the air. Then a frantic finale saw a late Earth equaliser cancelled out by a dramatic last-minute penalty. Dorvin was fouled in the box, and stepped up to take the kick that gave the aliens victory.”

Tag Scout — “Early stats suggest that fifty million people saw the game, with many more expected to watch clips and highlights. The Felorians’ tag-cloud is changing: ‘Conspiracy’ remains the most popular label, but sport-related terms are rapidly gaining. The team’s striker, Dorvin, already notorious for his association with Princess Rose, now has ‘Diver’ as his third-largest tag, with ‘Not a Diver’ following close behind.”

Goggler — “WHERE IS PRINCESS ROSE? She’s supposedly suffering from ‘illness and exhaustion’ after arranging the football match and hosting the post-match charity banquet. Hard work, eh? I think we can all see through that cover story. It’s obvious that her relationship with Dorvin has moved on to the next phase. She’s pregnant! Except that the aliens don’t reproduce in the same way we do. No, their eggs hatch inside the mother, and the larvae burrow out from the inside, chomping all the way. Princess Rose is currently being eaten alive!”

#

After two days in bed, Rose returned to her duties as soon as she felt halfway recovered. Aside from her efforts to rehabilitate the Felorians, her diary still contained all the regular engagements that the royals performed. This year’s schedule was even more intense than usual. Officially, the additions were part of the thousand-year anniversary celebrations; unofficially, they were an extra PR push ahead of the referendum.

Since 1917, the royal family had sent congratulatory messages to British subjects reaching their hundredth birthday or sixtieth wedding anniversary. These were normally despatched by post, but this year the family were personally presenting as many as possible. Consequently, Rose found herself visiting a town called Saltburn in the northeast of England.

It was a bitterly cold day at the end of October. The wind gusted straight from the North Sea, whipping up sand as Rose endured a tour of the beach, the pier, the Cliff Lift — “one of the oldest funiculars in the world!” — and all the usual quirky local history. Normally Rose enjoyed, or at least tolerated, these trips to odd corners of Britain. Now she just shivered, hoping it would end soon. She should have cancelled this event and stayed another day in bed.

At least the presentation was indoors, inside a village hall festooned with holographic bunting. Operating on autopilot, Rose smiled brightly as she presented cards from the King to six women and three men. Her headache intensified as she greeted each person by looking them in the eye and reading their names from the subtitles in her visual overlay. By the time she reached the last man, she was thinking longingly of home. “Congratulations on reaching your hundredth birthday, Mr Wilcox —”

“That’s Wilcock, ma’am. Cock! Can’t you get your mouth around a cock?” He gave her a cheeky grin.

Shocked, she stepped back. Her fingers lost their grip on the King’s card; it clattered to the floor. She stooped and picked it up, anger flooding through her.

“I can assure you,” she said through gritted teeth, “that despite what you may have read in the media, I have not lost my taste for human men. Although you are rather too old for me!”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” the man protested in a quavering voice. “It was just a joke.”

Rose wanted to retort that she’d met aliens with a better sense of humour, but she knew she shouldn’t inflame this incident any further. It would already make a juicy titbit for the ‘royal gaffes’ reel that anti-monarchists were circulating.

“I’m sorry, Mr Wilcock,” she said. “It was entirely my fault. Congratulations on reaching your hundredth birthday, and please accept the King’s felicitations.”

She handed him the card, then left as quickly as she could, berating herself all the while. Getting someone’s name wrong was the ultimate sin for anyone who dealt with the public. She could imagine the complaint: “I’ve waited a hundred years for this, and she couldn’t even get my name right. These royals are totally out of touch. I’m voting for a republic!”

Yet what about his comment? Was it a standard response to a common mispronunciation, or was it a crude xenophobic jibe about her supposed affair with Dorvin? She wanted it to be a harmless joke, but she couldn’t be sure. Lots of people still hated the aliens.

Well, that showed how much work remained for her to do. She wasn’t going to quit, but perhaps she needed to adjust her tactics. It might be wise to stop seeing Dorvin for a while. Other Felorians had proved willing to take part in football matches and the like, so Dorvin wasn’t essential to that effort. And Helena would surely agree to take over some hostess duties, if Rose explained that she wanted to draw the sting from the Dorvin issue.

On her way home, she phoned Helena to confirm the change in strategy. Then she phoned Dorvin for their regular liaison call. They discussed the upcoming events roster. After a few minutes of this, Dorvin said, “You keep saying, ‘Helena, Helena’. Are you not coming to these any more?”

“It’s best if I don’t,” Rose said.

“But I was looking forward to seeing you.”

“I was looking forward to it too,” Rose admitted, “but you can’t always have what you want.”

“Not even when you’re a princess?”

“Especially not when you’re a princess. It’s the media — if we keep meeting, it creates unhelpful headlines.” She rubbed her forehead, wishing that her headache would succumb to the tablets she’d taken.

“I didn’t realise you were so scared of headlines. You weren’t before. And you told me that Diana never was.”

“I’m not scared of headlines,” Rose said indignantly. “I’m just trying to achieve our goal. If those stories were helping, then I’d brazen them out. But they’re not helping, so I’d rather not risk them.”

“I understand that,” Dorvin said. “If it’s all about the goal, I mean. I just thought…. Well, I thought we had a special bond.”

Rose hadn’t expected this conversation to be so hard. Wanting to get it over with, she decided to be brutal. “You’re a diplomat — you should know that it’s always about achieving the goal. It’s never personal.” She winced inwardly as she spoke. It was at least half a lie, but it seemed the best answer in the circumstances.

Dorvin’s image on her screen was stock still: no jiggling snout or quivering wattles. He paused for so long that Rose wondered whether the phone connection had glitched. Then he said, “I appreciate your honesty. And now we’ve clarified that it isn’t personal, perhaps I can be honest too.

“The reason why we want a base on your moon is simply so that we can stay as far away from you as possible, while maintaining the necessary communications. We find you disgusting, both physically and spiritually. The stench of your psychic emanations is a stain upon the cosmos, polluting the aether all around your cesspit of a planet. The moon is almost clean, since you’ve visited it so rarely. And the sooner we can retreat there, the better. I trust we can rely on your support in facilitating this.”

His wattles tremored, ever so faintly. Then he cut the connection, and was gone.

#

Goggler — “SEX SECRETS OF THE STARS: The world’s most renowned clairvoyant has applied his powers to ferreting out the Felorians’ secrets. Erick Van Henningsen reveals the sordid truth: ‘It was hard work penetrating the psychic barriers they have around their ship, but I was aided by the souls of a billion dead spirit guides who all want to protect the Earth. When I got inside, I saw scenes of monstrous depravity. Each alien has two penises, three vaginas, and four assholes. But even so, they still find each other repulsive, because they don’t have any breasts. So they’re forced to jack off to pictures of Earth women. Every single alien on that ship has a hologram of Princess Rose above his bed.’ If Van Henningsen is right, then we’re as appalled as any right-thinking soul would be. But has he got it right? How do YOU think the aliens have sex? Write and tell us exactly how disgusting you think they are!”

Fact Shack — “The Felorians today announced their forthcoming departure. Their starship will return home, taking a small human delegation. Some Felorians will stay behind in a new embassy, although its location has yet to be decided. The aliens have requested a final decision within one week on whether they will be allowed to purchase the moon.”

#

When Rose heard the departure announcement, she welcomed the prospect of her life returning to normal, with fewer lurid headlines. Dorvin’s words had wounded her. She kept replaying them in her mind: “disgusting… stench… stain… cesspit”. She’d worried about human hatred of the Felorians, and it turned out that the Felorians hated humans just as much. They were simply better at hiding it.

Unless Dorvin’s parting shot had been some sort of strange joke. “Psychic emanations” certainly didn’t sound like a serious complaint. But what senses did the aliens have? Maybe their snouts could sniff many kinds of effluvia.

Rose wondered whether to abandon her liaison efforts. If she told the world what Dorvin had said, she’d create a backlash against the Felorians. The politicians would have no room for manoeuvre, and certainly wouldn’t be able to sell the moon.

“What do you think I should do?” she asked Helena.

“Get yourself a new boyfriend,” Helena instantly replied.

“I mean about the aliens!”

“Do you need to do anything? Are they your responsibility?”

“Only for the next few days,” Rose said. “I want to finish what I started. I’m just not sure how to finish.”

“I’m surprised — shouldn’t it be easier to figure out, now that you know the Felorians better? I’ve met a few of them, and I certainly have a clearer impression. I thought that’s what your project was all about: getting them into the public eye, so people could make their own minds up, rather than relying on media scare stories.”

“Yes, you’re right,” said Rose. “I need to ask everyone to update their tags. But our prestige, and our personal experience with the Felorians, makes our opinions count the most. We just need to record them… once we decide what they are.”

Helena opened a drawer and took out the silver helmets that Rose recognised from her previous visit. “No need to decide — these gadgets pluck your confusion straight out of your brain.”

“And that’s helpful, is it?” said Rose, laughing.

“It can be. It’s just a way of summing up, so that you stop going round in circles. Come on, let’s get this done.”

Rose donned one of the helmets, and felt the familiar prickle of the gadget tuning into her emotions. She recalled her encounters with Dorvin: his calm grace in the aftermath of the egg-throwing incident; his patience in sitting through the hospital concert; his jokes at the art gallery; his enthusiasm for playing in the football match; his friendliness and wit whenever he met the public… and his final unkind words, which now seemed merely a snarky retort to her own brusqueness. It was reassuring to see that Dorvin could be less than perfect, that he wasn’t just a smooth diplomatic interface.

“You’re right,” she told Helena, “it does help you sum up.”

“That’s good, because you need to write an ordinary tag as well. Most people don’t have these fancy helmets.”

Rose created an opinion tag: ‘Trustworthy friend and ally’. She took the time to verify it with her strongest authentication — the modern version of the old royal seal.

The label joined all the others in the global tag-cloud: the myriad opinions that collectively formed the reputational economy. More and more tags appeared every day, requiring more and more sophisticated algorithms for collating them. Soon the imprecision of words would be superseded by mental tags, specifying exactly how everyone felt about everything. There would be no more strangers, no more foreign lands.

“I met some pensioners the other day,” Rose said, “when I was giving out the King’s birthday and anniversary cards. The size of their tag-clouds! A whole lifetime, boiled down into labels and links and opinions…. It’s terrifying.”

“Is it? The whole point is to make people accountable for what they do. Maybe Gerrard will behave better next time, when he realises the reputation he creates.”

“Yes, I know. But sometimes I feel like a computer, processing my life and calculating the results.”

“You mean experiencing life,” Helena said. “You have to live, before you can label. That’s what it’s all about. Come on, we’ve finished here. Let’s go and have a drink, meet some guys —”

“— Tag them, and tame them.”

#

Hourly Digest — “The United Nations today agreed to sell the Felorians a 30-year lease on the moon, subject to various conditions. The proceeds will be distributed according to a formula based on national populations and successful lunar missions.”

Tag Frenzy — Princess Rose latest tags: ‘Traitor’, ‘Sell-out’, ‘Lizard lover’, ‘Vote NO!’, ‘Sheesh, give the woman a break’, ‘Still my favourite princess’, ‘Everything that’s wrong with Britain today’, ‘How many pieces of silver?’

#

Dorvin’s phone call took Rose by surprise. “Before we leave, I wanted to thank you for all your work —”

“You’re leaving? I thought you’d be staying, now you’ve got your moonbase.” An unexpected pang of disappointment swelled within her.

“No, I have to go home. But I need to apologise before I go. Last time, what I said… wasn’t precisely true. Or false. It depends on your perspective. Felorians aren’t all the same. Some of us really do find you disgusting. Xenophobia is universal. But we’re not all like that. I’m certainly not.” Dorvin spoke in short, staccato sentences, the antithesis of his usual polished phrasing.

“I guess it’s obvious I haven’t rehearsed this,” he went on. “I’m sorry for what I said. I spoke in disappointment and anger, and I apologise.”

“Thank you,” said Rose.

“Did you know that we’re taking a few humans back to Feloria? Scientists and diplomats, mostly. If you wanted to come, I would be happy to invite you as my honoured guest.”

“Um…. wow.” Rose didn’t know what to think. Reflexively, she fell back on politeness to cover the gap. “Thanks for the invitation — I appreciate the offer.” Then she realised that before she could make any sensible answer, she needed to know a lot more about the journey. “How long would I be gone?”

“A few years. I’ll send you the details, if you’re interested. I should warn you that it’ll be hard. But whatever happens, I know you’ll keep calm and carry on. I think you could make a big contribution. We’ve all been impressed by your efforts to promote harmony.”

Rose smiled. “Thanks,” she said again. “Please send me the details. I’m sure you understand I’ll have to think it over. When do you need an answer?”

“We’re leaving in three days.”

#

News Net — “BRITAIN KEEPS MONARCHY. Today’s referendum results showed a 7% majority for retaining the King as head of state, with the UK remaining a monarchy rather than becoming a republic. The outcome had previously looked threatened by Princess Rose’s controversial liaisons with the Felorians. Yet pollsters reported that many voters admired her willingness to stand up for a cause, even an unpopular one. ‘We need princesses to do what politicians can’t,’ said a Saltburn resident who recently met her. ‘I liked the way she handled herself. She gave as good as she got.'”

#

Rose sat in the visitors’ gallery on the starship bridge, nervously clutching the armrests of her seat. All the furniture was a little too high for her. The sensation of not knowing what awaited her was both exhilarating and terrifying.

“Does this vehicle have seat-belts?” she asked Dorvin.

“We have no need of such primitive technology,” he replied, his wattles quivering.

She laughed. “I can’t work out whether that’s reassuring or not.”

Below her, the crew made final preparations for the forthcoming leap across the galaxy. In her vision overlay, only the barest minimum of tags appeared — a few names, a sprinkling of friendliness ratings and etiquette reminders.

Rose looked at the big screen, showing the view ahead of the ship. Distant stars studded the blackness like new jewels on an old mourning dress. Her overlay displayed no tags whatsoever.

A Felorian voice spoke on the intercom. Dorvin interpreted it for her: the launch countdown had begun. Rose smiled, bracing herself to greet the unknown.


Host Commentary

by Mur Lafferty

In part one, Princess Rose was at a summit to discuss selling the moon to the aliens, the Felorians. She befriended Dorvin, one of the diplomats, and decides to be seen with him in public to normalize human/alien contact. She is trying to channel late Princess Diana in fashion as well as outreach. Unfortunately, this is 2066 and two things haven’t changed: British media and the internet’s love of judging people based on superficial reasons.

#

It is almost quintessentially human to be defensive when people perceive someone attacking them. It’s a very common first reaction. The way you can tell if someone is mature, is if they will then look beyond emotion and see if the accusation has merit.

Until this reading, the Felorians had been politely confused when trying to understand humans, but Dorvin gets pissed and lashes out. Star Trek has a bad reputation of showing many different kinds of human characters, but every alien is much like another of their race. Klingons must always have honor, etc. We see Dorvin have an angry reaction here when we hadn’t seen anyone else react this way; and if some of the others hate humans as much as Dorvin says they do, then they are pillars of restraint.

Did anyone else wonder if Princess Rose changed soap when she was packing for the trip? I don’t know if I’d want to go to a place where people think I’m disgusting.

I am thinking about the tagging system, especially since Princess Rose uses it all the time. If you get a twitter mob after you, can you remove whatever terrible slur they put in your tags? This might be one of the reasons Rose is looking forward to the unknown.

And our quote is from Lao Tzu: “Care what other people think, and you will always be their prisoner”

About the Author

Ian Creasey

Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England. He began writing when rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls. So far he has sold seventy-odd short stories to various magazines and anthologies. His debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011; a second collection, Escape Routes from Earth, came out in 2015. His interests include hiking and gardening — anything to get him outdoors and away from the computer screen.

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About the Narrator

Pippa Alice Stephens

Pippa Alice Stephens is an actress and voiceover artist. She is soon to be seen in ‘The Invisible War’ playing Rose Berkeley and ‘Spiralling’ playing Natalie.

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