by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
The living quarters were the most boring Eril had ever laid eyes on. If this was a hotel, I=d turn around and check out now. How can these creatures make buildings that are so beautiful on the outside and so dull inside?
The four windowless rooms opened to a spacious central area furnished with a table, benches and a large shallow pool of water, constantly circulating through pipes at either end. The table was more birdbath than eating surface, its water replenished like that of the pool. The sleeping cubicles were empty except for an unadorned couch and a shallow ceramic fixture set in the floor, with perforated openings at one end and a large drainage hole at the other, like an awkward cross between a urinal and a bidet. Everything from the walls to the benches was the same neutral, indirectly-lit gray.
Kithri threw herself down on one of the beds, her back to the others. Brianna darted about, examining everything from the pool to the table to the cubicles with great enthusiasm. Lennart slouched on a bench, encouraging her until Eril wanted to scream at both of them to shut up. When Bhevon returned and indicated that Eril was to return to the laboratory, he went cheerfully.
What followed was the strangest examination Eril had ever undergone, and he=d passed some sadistically inventive Qualifiers at the Academy. The chair, again sculpted to his own dimensions, was superlatively comfortable, yet now he felt penned-in, cornered. Another of Raerquel=s many assistants, Possiv, had drawn six-foot high panels out of the bare walls and surrounded him with them. The panels were close enough for Eril to touch. They completely cut off his view of the laboratory.
Apparently all he was expected to do in this test was watch the patterns of light that flashed across the screens. Ripples of the subtlest shades of gray, barely distinguishable from one another, alternated with loops and squiggles of brilliant white and black. Occasionally they broke into stark geometrical patterns like aerial views of a psychopathically conceived labyrinth.
Eril couldn=t decide if it was the brightness that made his eyes water and ache, or it was the rapidly changing patterns. His leg muscles twitched and his hands curled unconsciously into fists. Something grated on his nerves, as if he were about to fly smack into an ambush. He couldn=t put his finger on what made him feel so jumpy. Whatever it was, it was getting worse by the moment. His vision blurred and the blood vessels behind his eyeballs began to throb.
He briefly considered jumping up from his chair and cutting the whole thing short, but he managed to restrain himself. There was too much at stake here. He=d find some way to put up with it.
"How much more is there of this tri-vid show?," he said. "The visuals are great--I think--but the plot=s a little thin and the characters could use some juicing up."
The panel in front of him shifted from a grid of hair-fine lines to a display of eccentrically spiralling bulls-eyes. A moment later, it slid to one side and Raerquel=s head emerged through the gap, coppery-steel discs reflecting the lurching zig-zags.
"Eril-human, please repeat your communication. Are you in distress?"
Eril tried to stand up, but his muscles wouldn=t obey him. His stomach rolled over three times. He sat back down and buried his face in his palms, his mouth filling with acrid saliva. The spasm of nausea eased, but the pain in his head hammered on like a molten pulse.
He tried to breathe. "Uhhh..."
"Assistant Possiv! Immediate cessation of experiment!"
"I=m all right," Eril protested, sitting straight again and swallowing rapidly. He winced as light blasted once more on his eyes, but kept his hands away from them. "It=s just a headache, that=s all. We can--"
"You are in pain, Eril-human. I cannot permit this to continue," Raerquel said as it flicked its stout lower appendages over the screens. One by one they went blank, melting to the gray tones of the divider panels. Possiv slid the subdivider panels back into the walls.
"I didn=t do too well on that one, did I?" Eril muttered.
"Do not berate yourself." Raerquel placed itself alongside Eril=s chair. "It is a deception that because we possess efficient translating devices, we are therefore capable of instantaneously understanding one another. Your absence of reaction merely indicates the depth of our differences."
Absence of reaction? It calls this headache an absence of reaction?
Eril shook his head, hoping to loosen the pain that had caught his skull in a bone-crushing vice. His vision steadied, but the agony continued unabated. He rubbed his temples, feeling the underlying muscles as tight as strings of steel.
"I did react," he said, trying to sound more coherent than he felt. "Like I said, it=s just a headache. I=m not the type that uses them as an excuse. Let=s go on."
"Be covering your eyes," Raerquel commanded. "NOW!"
Eril complied. Whatever came next couldn=t be worse than the light displays. He was unprepared, and therefore startled, when he felt a moist band encircle his head. He reached up and touched something smooth, almost snake-like, and under it a sticky wetness--
His eyes flew open as Raerquel withdrew its tentacle and re-coiled it neatly on its neck.
"You--you tricked me."
"Would you have permitted me be touching you otherwise, Eril-human?"
Eril rubbed his fingers together, feeling the liquid harden quickly to a gel. He blinked. The throbbing headache had vanished. "I didn=t have my eyes closed more than a second before you smeared me with that stuff. There was no time to dig out a container. Where did you get it?"
Raerquel swung its head away, as if preparing to join Possiv in dismantling the screen panels. Eril lurched forward in his chair, reaching out with one hand. If Raerquel had been human, or even some type of animal, something with fur or feathers or even bones, he would have pulled it around to face him. But, he thought as he hesitated, fingers still outstretched, he had already touched the thing, and it hadn=t been horrible. Smooth and cool, more like marblestone than worm slime...
"Did you secrete that stuff from your own body? Was--was it therine?"
"No, what? You didn=t squirt it out on me, or it isn=t therine?"
Raerquel=s head tilted back towards him. "It is not good for you to know the answers to these questions. Clan-inferior Bhevon has already explained to you the dangers of any suspicion of cultural contamination. The day following this, the preliminary scientific inspection team will be reviewing my researches. If I am able to convince them of your potential for personness, then we can begin meeting each other as civilized equals. If not--"
"Then we go back to being pet cockroaches?"
"Then we must gather more proof until we cannot be controverted. And for this we will need the establishment of ignorance, are you understanding? For some on the committee will not be believing even if your only interaction with us was through automatic computing devices."
Eril sat down, shutting up with a considerable effort of will. Finally, when he could trust himself not to come out with something totally idiotic, he said, "Whatever it was, your stuff cured my headache. I=m ready to go on now."
"I am appreciating your cooperativeness, Eril-human. Come here."
One of the coiled appendages high on Raerquel=s neck uncurled into life. Smooth and slender, it ended in a blunt, featureless tip. It gestured towards one of the instrument banks that lined the laboratory walls. "Please to be observing."
Eril got up and followed the creature to the side. The various devices were difficult to distinguish because they were all made of the same highly reflective glasslike substance. A large rectangular screen had been set in the wall at the height of the gastropoid head discs.
Raerquel uncoiled several of its lower, thicker tentacles and stroked a row of small knob-like projections. Under its touch, they lengthened into thick levers. Something white and brilliant fluttered in the center of the screen, spreading quickly into a discernible image. Eril recognized the characteristic silhouette of a gastropoid. Shades of gray, from almost-white to dark charcoal, created scintillating patterns along the bottom and two sides of the screen. Raerquel waited, apparently watching Eril, and Eril waited for something else to happen.
"It isn=t going to do any good for me to look at this if I can=t understand what it=s saying," he said after a few minutes.
"Is translator device being inoperative? You are unable to understand me now?"
"Yes, I can understand you. But I can=t read that." Eril pointed to the rippling lights.
"You cannot read?"
Eril forced himself to take a slow, deep breath. It helped keep his temper under control. "I can read my own language. But I=ve never learned to read yours."
"Your species has to be taught interpretation of vision?"
Interpretation--of vision? Eril thought of the educational programs developed for the born-blind, fitted as children with computer implants. It was certainly true that they had to learn to interpret the electronically enhanced signals. But what did that have to do with reading, an acquired skill?
"Look," he said, "I don=t think we=re talking about the same thing. That stuff--" indicating the bands of patterned light, "looks like a visual record to me. Your people may learn it awfully young, but you weren=t born knowing it. It=s not inherently obvious, at least not to this space-bum."
"You are in error, Eril-human," Raerquel said after a brief pause, during which Eril wondered what new diplomatic outrage he=d unwittingly committed. "Comprehension of what you call a secondary recording is indeed inherent in my species. What we now spew into the air, these patterns of sound vibrations, these are the learned analogs, useful for redundancy in storage, but fraught with potential for error. Light, in its infinite meanings and shadows, light is the true language. Everything else is compromise."
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