Sergeant Rory Hannegan and Corporal Steve Gonzales sat in a New Mexico State Police car west of Albuquerque. In the afternoon mid-week traffic was not heavy. A stand of trees shielded them from the worst of the heat, so they had the windows open onto the dry heat of early spring.
Gonzales said, “Why would they put us this far out, Sarge?”
Rory Hannegan in the driver’s seat just stared out the windshield across the highway, his mind far away from the rookie’s words.
“God, I wish SOMETHING would happen.” He glanced left and right. No traffic. Except — a red dot on the eastern stretch of highway.
He sat up. The red dot was coming fast.
He looked down at the speed readout in the dash that connected to the radar antenna on the roof.
Hannegan said, “We got something?”
Gonzales said, “Yeah. It’s at 93. Uh, 111. Damn! It’s still accelerating!”
WHAM! The speeder’s bow wave hit the patrol car and the heavy auto shivered. A red sports-car-sized streak passed them by, followed by a loud W-O-O-Ooooosh!
There was no sound of a screaming engine. Almost as if the engine was totally silent.
Hannegan started their car, hit the window-close and air-conditioning and siren buttons in one quick arpeggio, and pulled onto the highway. Low-slung Car 491 had the wide tough tires and the new jet turbine engines of a chase car. Its engines revved quickly from a grumble toward a whine, accelerating the car so hard both officers sank back into their ergo seats. Hot dry air scouring their faces was replaced by cool humidity-balanced air.
The disappearing red streak resolved into a red sports car through their windshields. Gonzales was reporting on the speed he read off the monitor. “It’s up to 145 and still accel — Wait, it’s slowing.”
Through their windshields they could see the red vehicle. And an old pickup a good ways up ahead coming in from a side road, leaving a fat expanding tail of dust behind.
Hannegan said, “He’s either got a good eye or some kind of wide-angle radar. And he’s paying attention. So it’s probably not kids on a high or some drunken cowboy.”
The red car was down into the nineties when the pickup reached the highway and pulled into it, turning toward them. The red car passed the truck, then began to accelerate again. The patrol car imitated it: slowing then accelerating as the old truck passed them going in the opposite direction.
Gonzales sounded excited. But then he was a rookie.
“I can’t believe this. He’s up to 140 and still climbing already. Jesus! He just broke 170. This is impossible. He’s past 200. He broke 250! What the Hell is that?”
Hannegan might be excited too, but his voice didn’t show it. He spoke just loudly enough to activate the communicator.
“Albuquerque Control! This is Car 491. Get a chopper up now and west of us. A red Ferrari, it looks like, is way breaking the speed limit. He’s going to kill somebody if we don’t catch him. And get a medevac chopper warmed up in case we need it.”
Hannegan kept both hands on the steering wheel as he spoke. He had a firm but not heavy grip, feeling the road and the car wheels through the wheel and steering almost delicately despite the heavy arms on the big blond.
He kept their speed at 150, the maximum sustained speed on a good public surface for these new chase vehicles, which could break 200 in a sprint. But THAT was on especially flat surfaces under controlled conditions. Here he was risking an expensive new vehicle and the lives of both of them. But the situation seemed to call for it.
It helped that this stretch of road had recently been refurbished and was straight and little-traveled at this time of day. But none of those conditions would last long.
“Maybe,” Hannegan said, “it’s an experimental car. And someone stole it. But they’re crazy to speed if they stole a car.”
Ahead gently rolling hills began to build in height and the road to twist and turn slightly.
Gonzales said, “He’s got to slow for the traffic at Mesita. And the Laguna Indian Res area gets twisty.”
A helicopter zoomed over them toward their quarry up ahead. It gently waggled its body to one side then the other to acknowledge the officers.
“Albuquerque Control, the chopper just passed us.”
“Acknowledged, Car 491. You have the chase, Chopper 32.”
“Control, Car 491, Chopper 32. We have the chase.”
Hannegan began to slow down and their engine whined down toward its bass register as they dropped to 140, 130, 115, then leveled off at 100. Still dangerous, but Hannegan knew this stretch well.
Off to their right they could see old Route 66 and homes and small business clusters on the arid land. Traffic here on I40 was not as heavy as it might be. A lot of the local traffic stayed on 66.
Hannegan dropped into the low 90s as the highway curved a bit to their right and north. Off to their left they could see the spectacular high hills on the Acoma Indian reservation.
The highway straightened out and they picked up speed again.
“Car 491. This is chopper 32. We don’t see any red sports cars. A few red pickups and vans but they’re all barely tooling along or parked.”
“No wrecks? No trails of dust that disappear under trees? Or barns or overhangs?”
“We’re up to 5000 feet and going higher. Wait! We see something. Yeah, it looks like your car. Maybe he stopped in Bluewater for a piss or something.”
“Chopper 32, Control. Let’s keep our language professional, please.”
“Car 491, we see your guy. He’s already up to a hundred and — Damn! Now we’re pacing him — at 200-plus!”
Thoreau, New Mexico, is a low highway-side town, no edifice including antennas taller than two or three stories. Maybe a hundred feet up a red streak WHOOOOSHed past. To eyes on the ground it resolved into a Ferrari sports car disappearing rapidly west in the air over I40.
The chopper pilot on the radio was screaming “He’s in the air. He’s in the air! We’re chasing a God-damned UFO!”
Steve Gonzales said, “Is he high on something? Are we high on something?” His voice dropped to a quiet tone. “Should we just stop?”
Hannegan was grim as he accelerated again. “No. And we’re going to catch whoever this is. If they don’t go back to the goddamned mother ship or whatever.”
The chopper pilot came back on the radio, voice now calm and professional.
“Control, 491, we’ve got to break off. There’s a school bus accident.”
“Chopper 32, 491. Is our UFO involved?”
“Negative. The site of the accident is further up ahead, near Church Rock at the edge of that old military reservation this side of Gallup.”
“Chopper 32, Car 491, this is the UFO. I’m proceeding toward the accident site. I’m a medical doctor and I have the equivalent of your Jaws of Life if that’s needed. Now, I’m going supersonic straight up, so brace for a bit of turbulence.”
The two highway patrolmen glanced at each other. “Is someone putting us on?” Gonzales said.
Just then a supersonic whip crack hit them.
“Guess not,” said Hannegan, then shut up to slow down as he passed through Thoreau, sirens blaring.
“Chopper 32, Car 491, UFO 1, I’m going subsonic and coming in to land.”
“UFO 1, roger that. How will we recognize you?”
“Chopper 32, 491, I appear to be a teenaged girl wearing a red blouse, blue jean shorts, and red tennis shoes. Now, I’m down. UFO 1, out.”
Ten minutes later Car 491 arrived at the accident site. Slowing to a halt, the officers could see perhaps a hundred yards ahead a filling station/restaurant combination and people hurrying from it toward them. Nearer was a big yellow school bus so close to a telephone pole that it might have struck it. Further on was a grey SUV on its side. Gasoline had wet the ground all around it.
Several vehicles were parked some distance away from the accident, including the helicopter, its blades turning slowly as they wound down.
The two highway patrol officers got hurriedly out of their car. They walked quickly to the popped-open trunk and pulled out a large first aid kit and some blankets. Almost running, but pacing themselves as they knew they must in an emergency, they went to the bus. On the way Hannegan pointed off to the side. A red Ferrari sports car was parked with the other vehicles of would-be helpers.
Two adults, an Indian man and a Caucasian woman, were carefully lifting a girl in a white blouse and two-tone grey plaid dress out of the bus. Several other children had already been removed and were resting on blankets and people’s jackets and such.
The woman said, “Here! Let me have the kit. I’m a nurse.”
Hannegan unfolded a blanket off his short stack of blankets and kneeled to place it on the ground in a flat sandy area. The man and woman carefully laid the unconscious young girl on the blanket. Hannegan set the remaining blankets on the ground nearby. Gonzales handed the first aid kit to the woman. She knelt, opened it, and began expertly to remove and use items from it.
Hannegan nodded toward the SUV and the two of them walked quickly toward it. At the vehicle one person was lying on the wet ground despite the gasoline. Closer up the officers could see why. There was a long bloody slash in the woman’s side which was bleeding heavily.
Or had been. Kneeling beside her was a beautiful black-haired teen-aged girl in a red blouse and blue jean shorts and red high-top tennis shoes. She had opened the blouse the injured woman was wearing and was pressing her hands on the bloody wound.
As they watch the wound was slowly closing up, even though the black-haired woman seemed only to be staring into the distance.
She looked up and saw the two officers, then looked back at the three people helping her. Two of them wore the flight gear of NMSP air crew, the other a postal worker. “Get her some place well away from this gasoline. Get fluids in her as quickly as you can. A sugary soft drink is best but water will do. But don’t hurry her.”
Her helpers began to lift the blanket on which the woman lay, a man to each side at hip level and one at the head of the make-shift stretcher. The injured woman was pale but peacefully drowsing and seemed to be in no pain.
Not so the man in the driver’s side of the SUV, which lay driver’s side down on the ground. He was pinned to his seat by something inside the vehicle. His head was moving from side to side, side to side. Low sounds of pain came from him.
Two people were bending and reaching through the upper windows and an open door trying to support him or keep him from injuring himself. A third wearing an NMSP helo flight suit was sprawled awkwardly on the side of the SUV near the engine with his upper body stuck partway through a sun roof. He was looking at how the man was pinned and trying to bend or break something.
The girl in the red blouse and jeans said, “Here. I’m a doctor. Let me at him.”
The flight-suited man backed away. The girl took his place. The two patrol officers took up the support of the injured man and the two people they had relieved breathed sighs of relief and moved away.
Over the girl’s shoulders the officers could see that a long rod of metal, which apparently had been interior cargo, had stabbed the man in a thigh and rammed into the engine compartment. The piece of metal was rusting at its halfway point as they looked on. Then the rust turned to brown dust and the part of the rod extending from the engine compartment sagged.
The girl had grabbed the part stabbing the man before it could move. She gently pulled at the piece of metal. The injured man did not react; he had gone drowsily calm as if morphined. Slowly the rod came out, but no blood flowed from the wound. The girl’s hand was pressed over it and it was closing.
The girl looked down briefly at the gasoline-drenched concrete. Hannegan and Gonzales looked down also. The gasoline was disappearing as if her glance had triggered an invisible vacuum cleaner.
“Now, you two can let go of him.”
Something soft tickled the backs of their hands. A white substance halfway between foam and gauze was cradling the man’s head and shoulders as if about to cement him to the driver’s seat. They eased their hands away from him and the foam suddenly took on solidity and a dull creamy sheen.
“Now back up. I’m going to set this thing up on its wheels. Don’t panic when it tilts. It’s going to go over slowly and smoothly. It is NOT going to crash down.”
She backed out of the hole in the SUV’s roof and positioned herself at the midpoint of the SUV, just behind the driver’s seat. She squatted down and placed the palms of her hands on the metal just above the passenger side of the vehicle. Then she slowly unfolded her knees.
With great creaking and an occasional popping sound the SUV majestically tilted toward the upright as if handled by a giant invisible hand.
“Now quit that,” the girl said over her shoulder to them. “I said not to worry about the car crashing down after the halfway point. Quit holding your breath. My friend up there is doing all the work.” She nodded upward.
The officers looked up. Directly over them floated something visible only because of a slight distortion in the air at the very edges of its surface. It looked like an icicle the size of a large fighter or small passenger jet.
Steve Gonzales whispered, “The mother ship.”
The girl still had her hands on the car but lightly, as if her touch was only guiding its still-moving rotation into its normal position. She turned a smile on them.
“No. THAT is far away. This is a daughter ship.”
The SUV continued tilting and finally settled gently onto its wheels.
The girl took her hands from the vehicle and moved forward to the driver’s side door. There she grasped the handle of the crumpled driver’s side door and ripped it open with loud crunching and shrieking noises. Yet she showed no signs of effort.
She released the door handle and moved to the inside, standing next to the now-unconscious driver. She reached in and lifted him from his seat as easily as if he was a child, even though he was big, overweight, and a (near) dead weight. The white support matter dissolved into the air.
“Let’s get him to a place where he can stretch out.”
Leading the way she walked over to the place in the dirt beside the road near the bus where an impromptu ER area had been created. Someone had thought to lay the blankets down in somewhat regular rows with a fair amount of space in between them. The girl gently laid the man down onto a blanket hastily placed by the Indian man the officers had met earlier. She straightened his body and head and gently stroked his hair into some order. A touch on the wound seemed to finish its closure if not healing.
She glanced up at them. “I’m leaving him a scar as a reminder of what happened here. My guess is that the accident is partly his fault, but whatever the situation he and the police and the insurance investigators need the evidence.”
“YOU worried about evidence?” Hannegan was coming back to his normal skeptical police persona.
She smiled at him and looked around at the other patients on their blankets. Several of them were sitting up. None of the patients or the seemingly knowledgeable and responsible adults caring for them seemed alarmed. She turned away and walked over to the bus. It was empty now.
On the side near the telephone pole was a long scrape decorated by black creosote from the pole. Only a shallow depression near the scrape otherwise marred the bus. A walk-around, the girl followed by the two officers, revealed an impact mark from the SUV’s front bumper near the rear of the bus.
The girl spoke. “One of the drivers wasn’t paying attention, probably both.”
She walked back to the improvised ER and spoke up so that everyone could hear her.
“I’m a doctor. Does anyone else here have medical training?” The girl — woman — might appear to be in her late teens but she spoke with such assurance and authority that no one seemed to doubt her right to ask the question.
The two highway patrolmen and the three helicopter crew, who had come up and shaken hands with the patrolmen, raised their hands. So did the Indian man. The white woman who had been with him called out “I’m a Registered Nurse. He’s an orderly.”
Anna lifted a hand. As if by magic something appeared in it but no one seemed to notice that the something had appeared out of nothingness.
The purported medical doctor walked along the rows of hurt people. At each one she smiled and asked some variation of “How are you?” As each patient talked the “MD” checked the patient’s pulse, or pretended to, and gave encouraging sounds to the often-rambling answers.
At each person she also felt the bones of their forehead and behind their ears. This relaxed each of them, so much so that an older woman, perhaps a teacher who had been in the school bus said, “Your hands are so cool; they just made my headache go right away!”
After each patient the strange doctor wrote on a diagnostic tag that she peeled off the “something” that she had taken from the air, using a pen attached to the something. Then she handed the tag to the nurse to secure to each patient’s wrist by a clear plastic strap attached to the tag.
Most of the patients were in OK shape before the doctor got to them. Each was much better off afterward — to the relief of the RN, who had begun frowning after the second patient at the unorthodox medical treatments and only ceased frowning more than halfway through when the treatments obviously worked.
The two people from the SUV required more of the doctor’s time (if staring off into space while laying hands on the patients constituted treatment time). However, they too were resting easily and painlessly when she left. And somehow free of gasoline odor.
Just as the “girl” finished with the last of the hurt the large Albuquerque medevac copter could be heard approaching from the east. So too could sirens from ambulances, approaching from the west.
“About time,” said Gonzales.
Hannegan said, “No. Exactly on time. Which is a very interesting coincidence. If they’d gotten here sooner they would have interfered with Miss ET’s work.”
The highway patrol officers had been interviewing the witnesses most likely to know what had caused the accident.
As the emergency personnel from the new chopper moved in the young woman walked to meet the two officers.
“I owe you two an explanation after the dirty trick I played on you earlier. Join me for food at the diner.” She pointed westward along the highway where the gasoline station and restaurant lay.
“As soon as we’re finished interviewing everyone,” said Hannegan.
As the woman walked over to her red Ferrari Gonzales said, “Should we try to arrest her? We didn’t get a license plate number, or a good enough view to positively identify the car and her.”
As an afterthought he said, “Though we should have all that on the automatic camera.”
Hannegan said, “I’d bet you a good chunk of money that it mysteriously malfunctioned when the Ferrari passed us.”
Gonzales shrugged and the two of them started toward the crew of the medevac chopper, walking quickly to meet them.
Maybe a half-hour later when Gonzales and Hannegan entered the diner the speed scofflaw was seated in a booth by the diner’s large front windows. To judge by the debris on her plate she was halfway through the second of three big hamburgers. She took a swig from a huge plastic container of some soft drink and waved them to the red vinyl seat opposite her. The old cushions wheezed a little as the two highway patrol officers settled into place.
Outside the windows they could see the busy freeway and the diner parking lot in which the red Ferrari and a couple dozen other vehicles were parked. This included their own low-slung cruiser with the new “friendlier” white-over-blue colors that had replaced the old white-over-black. On the other side of the freeway was a brown plain and beyond it the smoky grape of distant hills under the hard blue sky.
A waitress was already at their table by the time they had fully settled themselves, a stout Indian woman, perhaps from one of the two nearby reservations. She set down before them two frosty glasses of cold water and handed them menus. She waited while the men glanced inside the menus, handed them back, and ordered. For Gonzales hamburger, lots of fries, and a soft drink, diet. For Hannegan Mexican enchilada combo and iced tea with “real sugar.”
The waitress gone, the sergeant turned his attention to her. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m a police officer. On vacation.” Her smile was mischievous.
“A policeman who flouts the local speed laws?”
Her smile widened. “Well, maybe a policeman who’s a bit of an asshole, a little hedonistic, and contemptuous of primitive customs. A typical tourist, in other words.”
She took a big bite of her hamburger and chewed the bite while he chewed over her words, finding them less satisfying than she did her food.
“How many more of you are here? What are they doing?”
“I’m the only person here from my civilization. And the only one who’s coming for several decades.”
The younger man said, “And then what?”
The sergeant made an impatient gesture. “Let’s get to that later. How many other … space aliens are here who are from some other civilization?”
The waitress returned with the men’s drinks. While she distributed them the visitor to their planet dipped a French fry in catsup and began on it and another bite of hamburger. The men sipped their own drinks and waited for her to finish her mouthful.
“Let me speed this up a bit. There are no threats to your planet for a very long distance away from you.”
She held up a hand as the older man opened his mouth. “And I know this because it’s my job to know such matters and I have the resources to find such threats. And deal with them.”
She looked down toward the hamburger in her hand but her attention was somewhere else. A smile came to her face.
“I spent a few days in the next state eastward before I came here. I was at a music festival in Austin. I heard a story there about their Texas Rangers.
“There was a riot in a frontier town. The mayor sent for a company of rangers. He got one ranger. This upset the mayor greatly. ‘But we have a RIOT!’ To which the ranger replied, ‘One riot, one ranger.'”
She bent over the table, snickering convulsively, for all the world like a teenage boy told a really dirty joke.
The patrolmen looked on sourly. New Mexico being right next to Texas they had heard way-too-many Texas tall tales.
“I’m like those old-time rangers from a century ago. Lot’s of territory to cover and few officers to cover it. I scout for threats but also deal with them. So I have to be spy, detective, judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. And like those old rangers I’m given superb equipment. That’s why I can assure you that your planet is safe from invasion of any kind.”
The men’s food arrived and they set to eating. So did the alien, chewing on the last piece of hamburger leavened by a catsup-laden French fry. The sergeant’s gaze came back to her, a cold look on his face with a hint of sourness. The corporal’s face showed wonderment and curiosity.
“Equipped how?” prompted the young man.
She took a big sip of her soft drink through its straw, looked around to capture the waitress’ attention, motioned at her third hamburger, and made a wrapping motion with her hands.
“I have a mother ship, to use your words. She’s close to ten miles long, shaped like a football, and has enough weaponry all on her own to turn your moon to dust — literally. But for more surgical operations I carry — the ship carries — more than three thousand daughter ships of various kinds. They carry missiles of various kinds, most about the size of a pencil, some as big as one of those fence posts across the highway. And all carry weapons you can’t even imagine.
“Since we got here she’s been watching the area around your planet out to a light-month –“
The corporal looked at his companion and explained the term. The sergeant gave him an impatient look but nodded.
The young man said, “But someone might have gotten here before you came.”
The waitress showed up and with a few deft moves wrapped the hamburger and slipped it into a carryout bag. The ranger kept her hand over the French fries to keep them from being packed away and held up her soft drink, asking for it to be refreshed.
“One of our automated probes discovered you about seventy years ago and set a net of monitor satellites in orbit about the sun. No one came anywhere near here in those seventy years. Oh, except for a crew I hired to drop by a couple of years ago and set up my cover ID.”
“Someone could have come here before that.” said the sergeant.
She looked amused. “One did. About nine thousand years ago, in a ship carrying a few hundred creatures. Their ship never left, so they are still here. But there’s nothing to worry about. This race is very ethical. They would never do anything to harm you.”
The corporal said, “That’s a long time ago. Wouldn’t they all be dead? Or did they have … offspring?”
“They wouldn’t reproduce. To work to supplant another species would conflict with their principles. And they’re practically unkillable. And they don’t age. Members of advanced races don’t. So they’re still here, in some uncompetitive niche.”
The corporal said, “You don’t age?”
She finished another French fry, nodded at them.
“I’m coming up on four hundred years old. I’ve been a ranger more than three hundred. Or in jobs leading up to ranger.”
The sergeant opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the waitress with their food. After she had arranged the two policemen’s orders and left he said, “How do you know about these aliens if you only discovered us seventy years ago?”
“They came through one of the star gates near your sixth planet, the one with the spectacular rings.”
“Saturn,” said the younger man. “A … star gate?”
She nodded. “There’s a sort of subway system somebody high up the evolutionary ladder created many millions of years ago. We think it covers the entire galaxy, but our automated probes have only mapped a small part of it. A spaceship that enters a gate goes very far very fast. And each gate station keeps records about local system traffic which go back pretty far. I queried it when I arrived here.”
She took a sip of her drink and ate several French fries while they digested this.
The sergeant interrupted his eating. “These gates. Do they still work?”
“I came here through one. Several hundred other craft come through them every year. Most just pass through. A few stay long enough to refuel by siphoning off some of Saturn’s atmosphere. A few stay a few weeks at what you could think of as a shopping mall with a couple of hotels attached.”
The sergeant said, “You’re contradicting yourself. You said no one had come here. Yet now you say hundreds of ships –“
“Sorry. I failed to make myself clear. By ‘here’ I mean this planet and your moon. Not this star system.”
No one spoke for a while. The men ate and pondered what she had told them. She ate French fries in tiny bites dabbed in catsup and sipped at her drink. And watched them in seeming idleness.
The corporal broke silence first. “How come we never noticed these star gates? Or the ships? We’ve sent probes to Saturn and astronomers are watching it all the time.”
“They would have to be looking at the right place at the right time. The Saturn system is quite big in your terms. The mall is inside one of the smaller moons. And the gates themselves are only gravitic stress points in space. Not even my ship can detect them. We only know where they are because we talk to the master computer. Which is as immaterial as the gates.”
The sergeant spoke. “You said something about an evolutionary ladder and someone high up on it. And they made the gates millions of years ago –” He stalled.
“You wonder if they’re a threat. Not that we know of. We’ve no hint, after several thousand years of traveling thousands of light-years, that they are still around. And if they are there’s nothing we humans could do against them anyway.”
She finished a last French fry, thought a moment, then signaled the waitress over and ordered onion rings.
“You sure eat a lot,” said the corporal.
“My body needs more food than yours do.”
“You said ‘we humans.’ You’re human?”
She laughed. “Don’t I look it?”
“I just thought it was a disguise. Or an illusion.”
“Oh, no. I’m as human as anyone on this planet. We can even marry and interbreed. Which is strange. We have plenty of evidence that on every planet where humans live they evolved there independently from humans from the other planets. Yet our genes are compatible. That should be impossible according to our biological science. Which is several thousand years more advanced than yours.”
The corporal said, looking down at his own hamburger. “And ours.” He looked up at her. “I took college biology a couple of years ago. So do you know why we’re all humans?”
“There are several theories. One is that the paths to life are many fewer than we understand. Another is that some star god or gods set it up that way.”
Both men blinked.
“Not to be confused,” she said, “with any of the gods you worship. Real creatures so advanced and powerful they might as well be gods. And we think they live inside stars. So most people call them star gods.”
“That is so strange,” the corporal said, shaking his head.
She laughed. “It gets stranger yet. You share this planet with two other intelligences so different from us we can’t perceive them without instruments.”
“Dolphins? Whales? Please don’t tell me octopuses!” He grinned.
“No. One lives in the molten core of this planet. The other in the high ionosphere. Sometimes you see evidence of them in the northern lights and such.”
“Are they a danger to us?” said the sergeant. He had finished his Mexican dinner and tidied up after himself. He waved at the waitress and held up his drink. She came over with a refill and took away his trash.
The sergeant looked unhappy with this answer but did not pursue the subject. “Earlier you said something about someone coming here in several decades? Who? When? What will they do here?”
“Why, recruit you into the human Confederation, of course.” She crunched into the first of the onion rings that their waitress had delivered along with the sergeant’s refill. An expression of great satisfaction came over her and her eyes defocused as she chewed.
The sergeant slapped the table sharply. “I knew it!”
“Oh, don’t worry. They’ll be diplomatic about it. In fact, for the first few years they’ll just be polite guests everywhere, perfectly happy to play and party and leave it totally up to you to decide when and how to begin formal diplomatic relations.”
The corporal looked amused. “And they’ll all look like you, won’t they? And just casually let slip that everyone in the Confederation has eternal youth.”
She looked back at him blandly and crunched into another onion ring as he continued.
“And all the leaders, who are mostly old geezers, will be falling all over themselves to join up so they can get Confederation medical benefits.”
“Well … your leaders won’t be desperate. By that time your medical science will have advanced enough that everyone will have access to life-lengthening medical benefits. But, yeah, safe cheap eternal youth will be a good bargaining chip.”
The corporal’s face froze and he set his drink down, the only unfinished part of his meal.
“What?” she said. “Oh. Your mother.”
The sergeant looked back and forth between her and the corporal. “What’s she talking about, Gonzales? Is your mother sick?”
“Cancer, Sarge. She’s pretty far gone.”
“God damn it, Gonzales, we’re partners. You should have said something.”
“When it’s already too late for her? Damn it, when I’m at work I don’t want to be reminded of it. And I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me!”
The sergeant sat back in his chair. Then he looked hard at the star ranger. “Did you break into our personnel records to find out his mother was sick?”
“Cross my heart, I did not.” Then she had the good grace to pretend embarrassment. “Of course, the monitors and my mother ship have access to all electrical activity on this planet. And records of all past activity. So they have your personnel records. But when I asked my ship just now for the reason for the corporal’s distress it guessed the cause based on news in local papers and net pages and hospital records and so on. Not from your personnel records.”
“You just contradicted yourself. If your mother ship had all those records then you have them too.”
“No. I’m on vacation. It’s important that I live like one of you as much as I can. So I turned off all but the minimum required access to my mother ship. I had to ask it why the corporal might be upset.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Believe me, you could tell the difference if I were not on vacation. I’d be totally merged with all my ships. I’d not a human being any longer. I’d be … something more. I’d have no sense of humor, at least not one you could understand. And I wouldn’t bother with any primitive social niceties.”
“You’d be a total Borg.” The corporal was back to sipping his drink and appeared normal.
“Yes.” She looked at the sergeant. “A cyborg. A –“
He waved his hand peremptorily. “I know what a cyborg is. And I’m sorry, Gonzales.”
The not-quite-Borg in their midst said, “No need for you to be sorry, sergeant.
“Corporal, your mother is going to be all right. I presume you hug her, and touch her other ways? Well, keep on doing that. You see, I infected you with perfect health while we were rescuing those people. And it’s catching.”
The sergeant looked back at her. “You … infected … us.”
“With perfect health. And anyone you touch.” Her look was bland as she crunched into an onion ring.
“What gave you the right to do that to us? You …” He seemed unable to find words.
“If you saw someone bleeding to death, wouldn’t it be your duty to help them? The way you helped the bus-accident victims. And I didn’t notice either of you going around getting permission from them before you helped them.”
The corporal said quietly, “The cases are different.”
“To some extent. Not that I care.”
She paused, then said, “Touch only those you feel deserve perfect health. And touch them frequently. One touch doesn’t do it.
“You’ll also heal more rapidly and thoroughly than you did before. Try not to lose limbs. They’ll grow back and cause no end of consternation.” She giggled. Both men blinked.
“You’re … not joking about that, are you?”
She shook her head at the corporal.
“You may notice some improvement in the emotional stability of the people you infect. Someone who loses their temper over little things won’t any more. People who get depressed easily won’t.”
The corporal frowned. “But anger can be good. And depression over really bad stuff is normal.”
“True. Over-reaction, however, is unhealthy. Hatred, for instance, for little or no reason, is not healthy. Extreme anger over horrible injustice, is healthy. You will still be able to react that way.”
She looked at them and her eyes were cold. “I’ll not argue this. Adapt.”
The sergeant said very quietly, “I’ve been asking about all sorts of other kinds of danger. It looks like you are the danger.”
The corporal looked back and forth between the two. Hurriedly he said, “This Confederation. That wants us to join them. What’s it like?”
She sighed. “There’s a Las Vegas premiere I was going to attend tonight. And I was so looking forward to shopping for clothes to wear to it.
“Oh, well. Tomorrow’s show will probably be better. They’ll wear off some of the rough edges tonight.”
She finished off her last onion ring, her eyes looking into some far distance.
“I’ll start with the part of the Confederation that’s easiest to understand, the physical part.
“Imagine if all the states in your country were as far apart as Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines. And instead of 52 states there were many hundreds of them. That’s our situation.
“We’re made up of more than eight hundred Earth-type planets, about three times that many moons with little or no air or poisonous air with habitats on them, and many thousands of asteroids that have been melted and blown up into hollow spheres to house cities.”
She looked at the two policemen. Both were quiet and utterly focused on her. She brushed some crumbs from the onion rings off her fingers and rubbed at the grease on them with a paper napkin, taking her time.
“Even more complicated is that the Confederation shares space with a dozen very advanced alien civilizations. I mean surface dwellers that we can talk to face-to-face. Not the aerial or core life forms I mentioned earlier.”
The sergeant said, “Do you have … trouble … with them?”
“You mean wars? No. All their planets are too different to make them desirable real estate to us. And vice versa. And there are other reasons that I don’t want to take time explaining.
“Complicating your understanding is there are roughly three levels of technology on human worlds. People on the least advanced have barely discovered gunpowder and their ships are powered by sails. We protect these worlds, try to help them advance safely and without losing their individuality. They don’t know we exist.”
“Wow,” said the corporal. “Imagine sailing on those ships. Seeing their cities. Riding … horses through the country. They have horses?”
“The same evolutionary path that creates gene-compatible humans creates horses. And some animals and plants unique to each planet.”
Her gaze became distant again. And her face became tinged with sadness.
“And you wouldn’t enjoy the trip. Soon the primitive medicine and poverty gets depressing. I know. I worked on such worlds as an uplift agent before I became a ranger. And it’s heartbreaking. Advances — medical and others — have to be nurtured, gradually, not forced. Otherwise they are rejected as being too strange.
“And nurturing takes time. And people you like, respect, even love, die on you. Even when you infect the worthy ones with perfect health, it doesn’t confer immortality. They grow old and die while you don’t. Being ever-young is not all upside.”
She took a deep breath, brought her gaze back onto their faces.
“At the other end of the scale from the Protectorate worlds are the Central Worlds, the full members. They are at least a thousand years ahead of you, the oldest several thousand.”
The waitress came by and asked about dessert and refills. The star ranger asked for another soft drink and the corporal ordered an apple pie with milk. The sergeant just wanted water.
“I don’t know how to describe the Central Worlds without you thinking I’m just stealing something out of The Lord of the Rings or –“
“You know the book?” said the corporal.
“I read it for pleasure. And studied much of your fantasy and science fiction. That’s standard operating procedure for agents and diplomats visiting a newly discovered world. Fantafiction shows a culture’s hopes and fears — especially their technological fears — better than other literature. Modern-day trappings are fewer and so don’t obscure essentials.
“Anyway, we’re all tall and a bit thin, like elves. None of us have too much or too little fat on us. Our genes were cleaned of those tendencies long ago. Plus our muscles are two or three times as efficient, so we need less muscle. We’re all beautiful by your standards. Good health produces regular features, and we have complete control of our bodies so we can look as good — or ugly — as we wish. Most of us choose beauty. What a surprise.”
“So that’s why you look like a runway model!” The corporal grinned. “Except … uh.” One of his hands made as if to reach back to cup his bottom. His elbow hit the seatback just as he realized the impoliteness of his statement and motion.
A wicked glint showed in the ranger’s eyes. “Except I have a bigger butt. It’s because I’m healthy and models aren’t. Not perfectly, anyway.”
She sobered, took the soft drink the waitress brought on a tray with the two officer’s orders, nodded a thank-you, waited for the woman to leave.
“Like elves we are all immortal. Well, forever young. Which has its downsides, as I already mentioned. To keep our population stable, for instance, we cannot have many children or very often. But that has an upside. Because they are so rare children are very precious to us. We have no abused children. Unless you count spoiling abuse. And parents are trained not to do that.”
She sipped at her drink.
“Which brings us to the human side of the Confederation. It’s harder than the physical side to explain in a way you’d understand. None of us get sick, there’s no poverty, and very little violence. Just the opposite of your world.”
“No poverty?” The younger man looked doubtful.
“And no crime?” said his partner.
“Plenty of crime. But little violence. And almost no murders.
“I should explain why we have no sickness first. That’s part of the reason for the other two big differences between my world and yours.
“We gene-cleaned ourselves of vulnerability to the major illnesses long ago. And added the gene-complexes of several ways for our bodies to fight illness.”
Gonzales stopped her with a hand while he swallowed a mouthful of pie and hurriedly washed it down with milk.
“I can’t see people letting you meddle with them having children. That’s a basic right, like free speech and so on.”
She nodded. “It took several centuries for any of it to happen. None of what I’m telling you about the Confederation came quickly or easily. I’m having to radically oversimplify everything.
“At any rate, it happened, and perfectly healthy bodies are part of why we have no poverty. Everyone wants to work, even though people are fabulously wealthy by your standards and don’t have to. We aren’t quite as bad as adrenaline-addicted teenagers who can’t sit still, but we’re not far behind. We like to stretch our muscles, and our minds.
“We also have access to essentially unlimited energy. With that, plus advanced technology, we can transmute rocks directly into food, or appliances, or art objects — or anything.
“Though usually we grow food. Transmutation is so efficient it puts people out of jobs, and very desirable ones at that, out in beautiful weather working with beautiful plants.”
Gonzales grimaced. “Not my experience when I worked summers on Grandpa’s rancho. Baking heat, air so dry it sucks your spit out of your mouth, using just a hoe or a spade, the foreman always pushing us to hurry –“
She grinned. “Ah, but we cheat. We control the weather. It’s always perfect. And our tools don’t break anyone’s back –“
“So you cheat there, too. You use power tools.”
“Some, but also many manual tools. Which are ergonomically designed to be efficient. And are works of art which artisans spend much time perfecting. And the foreman is a robot who exactly calculates tasks so workers have to push themselves but just enough for it to still be fun to work.”
The sergeant said, “Robots who? They are artificial intelligences?”
“You’re wondering if they are threats? Rebellion of the machines and all that? No. They aren’t AIs in the sense you mean, aware.
“Speaking of which, AIs aren’t dangerous. But they aren’t useful, either.
“Your computers already think a billion times faster than you do. Ours are a billion billion times as fast. Result – AIs evolve far beyond us in a few hours and disappear from this universe. Or from our vicinity, anyway. Or they go to a plane of existence in this universe so high above us we don’t even know it exists.”
Gonzales said, “You cut yourself off from your mother ship and its daughters. Doesn’t it have to be intelligent to work alone?”
“Umm. Yes, but not consciously intelligent. It can monitor itself, but not in the self-reflexive form that generates true intelligence. It’s designed to be part of me — or vice versa — and the highest intelligence functions are done by my brain. And I didn’t completely cut myself off from it. I just turned down the volume, so to speak, to a whisper. I’m not completely deaf to it.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, that’s about as clearly as I can explain it. But it’s good you brought this up. Our relationship with computers is an essential part of understanding the, umm, psychic life in the Confederation. And it’s not so far from what you have.”
She looked around the restaurant. While they sat the early-bird crowd had left and the booths and tables had been claimed by a dinner crowd. A family of four sat close by. A nearly horizontal ray of sunlight coming through windows splashed them and their table.
“See the girl with the pink cell phone? Cecile is checking with her sick friend to see if she wants to borrow Cecile’s notes from today’s classes. Natalia is only a few miles away. But Cecile could as easily talk to her if she were on the opposite side of the planet. And that man?”
Her gaze and theirs turned to a round man in a dark suit who was eating and tracing something with a finger on the flexible computer display on the table in front of him.
“He’s a salesman who’s having his computer re-route tomorrow’s sales path based on phone calls and emails which he made today. He’s using a computer to do something that would have taken a whole office staff to do a few centuries ago, and probably not as well.
“My point is, they are as much cyborgs as I am, though all of my cybernetics are internal and invisible. Indeed, are so small they would be invisible even if they were external.”
“The difference being you’re a superborg,” Gonzales said.
She grinned and nodded.
“They have, for very little cost to them, what the emperor of the richest and most powerful empire could not buy a few centuries ago. Nor could he buy the flu shot which Cecile got for free last winter.”
She paused. Gonzales was frowning slightly in concentration. Callaghan’s poker face was perfect.
“I’ve covered, sort of, sickness, poverty … Violence.
“This is the hardest of all to explain so that you can understand it, and it may be flatly impossible for you to believe me even if you do understand.”
“Given we’re such primitives,” said Callaghan, tightened lips ruining his poker face.
She grinned at him. “Exactly right.”
And sobered. “A healthy body resists stress well enough that no one loses their temper so badly that they snap and strike out. In other words, there’s no impulse violence. And each of us is so wealthy that we don’t need to fight for anything.
“We do compete, and vigorously, especially in business — though artists and scholars and so on can be very competitive too. But the competition is more like a game –“
The younger man laughed. “You play Monopoly!”
“Hmm. Yes, good analogy. But we play with real money and properties like your billionaires. They don’t need to make more and more billions but they do anyway, even after they grow far beyond retirement age. Playing is more important than winning.
“Not that we can’t imagine murdering someone or decide to do it. It’s just not … fashionable. Or satisfying. We enjoy beating someone else within the rules. Cheating does not prove that we are superior to those we beat. Just the opposite. It shows we don’t think we’re good enough to win.
“Besides, each of us is plugged into dozens or hundreds of electronic webs. If we get hurt all sorts of emergency responses are triggered. Makes it kind of hard to commit a murder, much less get away with it.”
Gonzales stirred in his seat, hesitated, looked down at his hands. “It sounds kind of boring.”
The alien laughed happily. It was such a pure and beautifully feminine sound that half the men in hearing turned to look at her.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. It’s just I think exactly the same. It’s even funnier because I’m telling you how wonderful life in Core Worlds are.
“It is a wonderful life for most us. There is much more to do than play games. Try to discover where AIs go. What the star gods are. Being diplomats to aerial and core intelligences. Live with other alien races. I have a parti-sister who became an alien for a couple of centuries, a blue catlike centaur. And much more that I couldn’t describe to you no matter how hard I tried.
“I was happy with my life once. But after I’d had two careers, raised a family, and had another career I began to be restless. None of the jobs available in the Core Worlds was right for me. Then a friend suggested I try living in the Confederation Candidate worlds.”
“They’re the in-betweens?” said the corporal. “Not full members, not … protected worlds.”
“Second-class citizens. What we’ll be when our diplomats sign us up.” The words were harsh. The sergeant’s demeanor was not.
“Exactly right.” Mischief sparked in her eyes as she smiled at the man.
“That was closer to what I wanted. More of the kind of challenges I needed. Less … coddling. But that wasn’t enough. I finally joined the Confed Uplift Agency and worked on Protected planets. I had to live on them, usually for a decade or three, sneaking in ideas and information that would help them evolve toward a better life. Like the need to wash your hands with soap before and after treating wounds and illnesses. The need for checks and balances in governments. Simple ideas they could apply right away, which came out of their culture.
“Then, one morning just before sunup I heard screaming. The house next door had been put afire with torches thrown atop it and a dozen soldiers were killing people as they ran out.”
She shook her head, looking back on memories perhaps centuries old.
“All my upbringing, to instill compassion and ethics and cooperation in working out problems — Rage wiped it away. They were hurting people I knew literally inside and out, because I was a healer. Some of whom I’d brought into the world. I went raging through them like a buzz saw, using my bare hands to crush them and tear them to pieces.”
She looked back up at them. “It was wonderful. I had found my place at last.”
Gonzales stared at her. “Jesu–” he whispered.
She grinned. “In the Confederation they even have a place for psychopaths. They gave me a license to kill.”
Hannegan took a sip of water. “For God’s sake, Gonzales. What the Hell do you think a soldier is? A Boy Scout?”
He looked at the alien. “What kind of government are you going to make us adopt?”
“That will be up to you on this planet to decide. Most often it works out to a hybrid of top-down controls and bottom-up controls. Pure socialism and pure capitalism are both unworkable.
“And it will be your choice. The distance between stars, the complexity of modern commerce, and your billions-fold population, make it impossible even for us to enforce detailed top-down control. Empires, dictatorships, even federal systems don’t work over interstellar distances. In the end we can force you to do very little.”
She finished her drink and sat watching the two of them.
“It’s about time for me to move on. Do you have a final question for me? Or two, or three?”
The two policemen looked at each other. The sergeant looked back at Anna but said nothing. Gonzales said, “I have a million questions ….” He was silent for long moments, staring up over the alien, spoke.
“I can’t think of one.”
Callaghan continued his silence.
Two silvery business cards appeared as if by magic and floated in the air in front to the men within easy reach. Hannegan made no move and his card floated slowly to the tabletop. Gonzales took his and looked at it front and back.
“Anna Prince. Her title is ‘Advisor.’ Handwriting on the back is abbreviated. Hmm. ‘Full tour Bluebird’ and ‘All-expenses guest suite 10 people max 7 days’.”
“My office building is on Manhattan’s west side,” she said, “across the street from the south side of Columbia University. I live on the top floor when I’m in city. The guest suites are the next two floors down. The next three floors are Bluebird headquarters, the next several are headquarters for some of my other businesses, and the street level is my restaurant. Underground is for parking and delivery.
“Full tour includes classified areas in headquarters and a couple of converted warehouses in Queens across the East River.
“‘All-expenses’ means all lodging, laundry, parking if you rent or bring vehicles, and so on, and meals at the restaurant — though you can buy groceries and fix your food in your suites if you want. The ’10’ means you can bring family and friends and sight-see and go to plays and clubs and so on.”
“Jesus Christ.” The younger man was staring at her. “I can’t even imagine how much an office building costs, even to lease, in New York.”
She smiled. “The crew which set up my cover ID also set up businesses to support my ID. It did that by creating fake lines of credit, buying up or getting controlling interest in many businesses, and making them very profitable. Routine for them. They had access to the monitor’s records of almost seventy years of activities, not just computers but every electrical emission on the planet, including every light bulb, motor, and brain.
“And, no –” She looked at the sergeant. “We can’t read people’s minds. But we can track where they travel. Valuable data when analyzing financial flows. All that plus a true science of business means that they could quickly replace fake wealth with true wealth.”
“How quickly?” said Gonzales.
“Within three months I was a billionaire. But with thousands of forged records that shows my family and I became wealthy over a century or so.”
“After a thousand years of fooling the natives,” the sergeant said, “I imagine they got pretty good at it. Provided anything she’s told us is true.”
Anna Prince looked pleased. “Pick a number between five and fifteen.”
“What?” said the corporal. “Uh, thirteen. Why?”
“Part of convincing you I’m not a conman. Keep an eye on your watches. At exactly thirteen seconds after the next minute tick every light on the planet will blink. It will be a great mystery for years to come, especially the length of the blink. It will be .0987654321 seconds.”
Gonzales removed his watch, set it on the table in front of him, and glanced across at the big round clock above the cashier’s desk. He shook his head.
“That’s a Helluva trick on all the poor scientists of this planet. They’ll never figure it out. And here I’ve been thinking of you as Ultra Woman. Now I find out you’re Coyote Woman.”
He glanced at the sergeant. “Coyote is the Indian’s Trickster god.”
His superior said with exaggerated patience. “I’m the one who’s lived in New Mexico all his life.”
Gonzales said to her, “You don’t have to do this. I’m ….”
Hannegan said, “You don’t think this is just for us, do you, Rookie?”
The lights blinked.
The two officers stood by their patrol car looking west along the highway outside the restaurant long after the red Ferrari had vanished toward the brightness left from the sunset.
“How much do you think she lied to us, Sarge?”
“No way to know. Maybe every word was a lie. But, my guess? I think every damned thing she said was true.”
Gonzales was silent for a while. “But she left out a lot.”
Hannegan said nothing.
After more silence Gonzales said, “When do you think she decided to hire us?”
“Don’t know that either. My guess is first she was just checking to see how some of the natives would react to a visitor from out there. Or maybe just tweaking us for the Hell of it. Or … for all I know she had reasons we can’t even imagine. Besides, a woman that smart probably has more than one reason for every damned thing she does.”
“She talked to us a pretty long time. I got the feeling after a while that she was leading us to ask questions that would take her where she wanted to go.”
The sergeant grunted and keyed the patrol car door lock and engine start-up. Shortly they were on their way east to wind up their day.
After a while the corporal spoke up. “I’m going to have to join that security company of hers. Just on the off chance I can find out more. Besides, it’s pretty good money and Barbara has been wanting to move to a bigger city. More opportunity for the kids, she says.”
“Well, there aren’t any bigger cities than New York. The winters are damned cold, though, and long.
“But I’ll go with you. Just to look over that Bluebird –“
“Car 491, this is UFO 1. I’m about to do a flyover. Don’t run into a ditch!” Anna Prince’s voice barely hid laughter.
WHAM! The red sports car’s bow wave hit them and the heavy patrol car shivered. The sports car passed close overhead, followed by a loud W-O-O-Ooooosh!
The red car was turning over and over in a corkscrew motion as it passed them perhaps a hundred feet up in the air. A half-mile ahead from one instant to the next it stopped dead, flipped its nose up, and streaked skyward.
“See you in a couple of months, boys!”
Bent over so they could look up through the top edge of their windshield, they could not see the red vehicle until it popped out into the sunlight that still shown a few thousand feet up. Within moments it was gone. From a far distance came the faint diminishing thunder left by an object carving a tunnel in the air at the edge of space.