Clash Of Cultures

Embassy Book Two

ONE

Tea For Two

At our first encounter with the Brtl I was lucky to get away with a perforated eardrum, some first-degree burns, and a ruined suit. Others, closer to the emissary’s ship, weren’t so lucky. So I hoped this meeting would go better. It could hardly go any worse.

The Brtl (pronounced like it’s spelled, though most people pronounce it “brittle” or “brutal” depending on their mood) hadn’t attacked us; they just hadn’t done their homework. They lived in pressure hells, deep inside of gas giants, and had never developed what we would consider a spacesuit for inhospitable environments like we have here on Earth. It took a kilometer-scale spaceship just to transport them around under the ruthless pressures they found relaxing. To interact with us in our home environment they sent a remote exploration craft, a two-meter sphere surrounded by a loose network of thin rods. It had a certain geometric appeal but sweated toxic hydrazine, gave off pressure waves strong enough to cause internal bleeding, and had a surface temperature of several thousand degrees.

To the Brtl, these were features, not hazards, so they didn’t realize that landing this craft next to a Human was like hitting them with the blunt end of an industrial accident.

To their credit the Brtl seemed to have figured it out quickly, and hopefully had learned from it. Next time, they indicated, they would construct something that was more appropriate.

I could only hope.

It was supposed to be a low-level diplomatic meeting. Their envoy would come down to Earth, and I, as Earth’s junior ambassador to extraterrestrials, would show them some of the local sights. Playing tour guide, really.

For our second meeting, I waited for them alone in the middle of a clearing in Golden Gate Park. It was quiet, sunny, and cool. The sun and fog were doing battle just over the trees to the west, but here the sun was winning. Elderly eucalyptus trees rustled as they perfumed the air, and off in the distance I could hear people laughing as they played. But the area around me had been evacuated, just in case. Also—just in case—I was wearing body armor under my suit, an earplug in addition to my Embassy earphone, and had a foldable emergency oxygen mask crammed in my back pocket. The head of personal security made me drill until I could don it correctly in under ten seconds.

I pushed my hands into my pockets and rocked on my heels, letting myself be impatient. It seemed inconceivable that extraterrestrials had the technology to travel faster than light but were unable to be on time for meetings. However, communications with the Brtl were guesswork at best. I might be waiting in the wrong eon.

My headphone chimed. “Benjamin?” it asked. It was Mohit’s voice, full of mischief. He had been my assistant until a few months ago when ECOOSec (the security division of the Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization) was spun off and they discovered the most experienced security person on the payroll was wasting his time making tea for the junior ambassador. Now he was the head of personal security for the organization.

We weren’t in the same division anymore, and while I might technically outrank him, he didn’t miss a chance to remind me that he was no longer responsible for pressing my suits.

I touched the transmitter in my ear. It wasn’t necessary, but it made me feel like I was in a spy movie. I was already wearing body armor and a dark suit, so it completed the image. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Your envoy has arrived.”

I looked around, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Security was keeping well out of the way, as usual. The bright sun put deep shadows into the surrounding trees and bushes, but I didn’t see anything like a spaceship. Or an extraterrestrial.

Unlike last time I didn’t hear anyone screaming. That was something.

My armor vest felt heavy. I shifted it to a more comfortable position.

“I think you will like him,” said Mohit, in a deadpan voice that worried me. “Should I send him over to you?”

“If it checks out,” I said, and looked around to see where it would come from. I wasn’t sure why Mohit was calling the Brtl “he.” By their preference they were all “it.”

“He is on his way to you,” Mohit replied. I could sense a grin in his voice.

Fifty meters away a figure came into view, following a winding path between the trees. He stepped off the path and paced across the grass toward me.

He wore a dark suit, so I first assumed it was one of the security patrols. Brtls looked like an eight-meter-long millipede trying to eat a pterodactyl, and weren’t often mistaken for Human. As he paced briskly toward me I started to see details. He was thin, tall, and his suit was rather more expensive and better tailored than our security team’s standard uniform. He had a mop of sandy hair on top of a round, pale face. His blue eyes were squinting against the bright sun but his mouth was curved in a welcoming smile. He had a dimple on his left cheek, but not the right. A light dusting of freckles was brushed across his nose. His boyish face would make people mistake him for someone much younger, a problem I knew all too well.

He was me, which didn’t seem right.

I put my finger back to my ear. “Mohit, what’s going on?” I asked. The man was about ten meters away now, and every step he advanced increased my unease.

“He’s a dead ring, isn’t he?” said Mohit.

“Ringer,” I corrected automatically, “But what is he?”

“He is the Brtl envoy. We tracked his descent from the mothership.”

“Okay, but…” I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. There was something unsettling about meeting yourself in an empty park. A primitive part of my brain screamed at me to run away. He appeared to be a perfect copy. We were even wearing the same gray silk tie and hematite tie clip.”

Mohit’s voice was pure happiness. He loved seeing me in awkward situations, and often got his wish. “I leave him to you, Deputy Ambassador. Call me if you need me. Captain Bhandari out.”

The bastard. When I was feeling malicious (like now) I believed he engineered situations like this on purpose just to remind me that he wasn’t my assistant anymore. I trusted him with my life, but not with my dignity.

This could be a great practical joke on his part. Except I couldn’t figure out how he could have done it.

The man who looked exactly like me came up and put out his hand. “Ambassador Taylor, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

He even sounded like me, except my voice wasn’t that nasally, was it?

Belatedly, I pulled my finger out of my ear and shook his hand. It was warm and felt just like human flesh.

“Is it?” I asked, somewhat flustered. Even after face-to-whatever meetings with a dozen extraterrestrial races they still confounded me every time.

“Of course! And may this meeting be more auspicious than the previous one.”

“Yeah,” I said, still trying to find my mental footing. “You’re the Brtl envoy?”

He smiled broadly. We had the same crooked eyetooth. “Yes, of course I am,” he said, then paused to look at me. “I’m sorry, is this embodiment making you uncomfortable?”

Who could read my emotions better than myself? I was unnerved. “It’s just that last time we met you were like a bomb going off. Today you look exactly like me,” I said.

He paused and looked thoughtful, putting a hand to his mouth, a bad habit I was trying to break. “Ah, I’m sorry. After the previous mismatch of biological expectations, I decided that the best way to be biocompatible was to take your form. You, after all, fit quite well into your environment,” he said.

“Um, yeah,” I said. It bothered me that he was more eloquent than I was.

“But it appears that being your identical has created an unexpected problem. Am I creating an identity crisis?”

“Um, no, not really, it’s just a surprise is all.” He probably knew when I was lying, too.

“Ah.” He glanced around, thinking. “We could postpone the meeting until I can generate a form that’s more acceptable,” he said.

I liked the idea but couldn’t make a legitimate case for it. Delaying the meeting simply because the envoy looked like me would provide endless fuel for jokes at The Embassy. “Couldn’t stand to be in the same room with yourself, could you?” Mohit would say. Then The Ambassador would atomize me with a scathing look, and that was before she came after me with words. Her dressing-downs could etch glass.

“No,” I said, “There’s no reason for that.” I looked in the shadows for the security personnel, sure that they were laughing at the sight of me making myself feel awkward.

My doppelgänger looked around the empty clearing. “Are we holding the meeting here?” he asked.

It was embarrassing, the two of me standing alone in the middle of the grassy field. He knew I was disconcerted and was trying to help me out. Awfully kind of me.

“Not at all!” I said, happy for the offered change of subject. “Follow me, I hope you’ll find the afternoon interesting.” I winced at my synthetic good humor, like the ingratiating tour guide I was.

One of the main reasons for these excursions with extraterrestrials was to introduce them to Earth culture. And while some of the Extras would find it fascinating to sit in the middle of a grassy field (it was, after all, still a grassy field on another planet), they often tended to be dull, so I tried to pick activities that I was interested in.

I led the way, walking fast enough to keep myself out of sight behind me.

“You can call me Mr. Brtl,” my doppelgänger said from behind as we wound our way along the ornamental paths of the park’s Japanese Tea Garden. He managed to pronounce “Brtl” the correct way, the one that requires a double-jointed tongue. He didn’t spit or anything, which had taken me hours of practice in front of a mirror. “And to answer your question, yes, I am an avatar of the Brtl.”

I considered that as we navigated along the flagstone paths between the precisely manicured bushes.

“Does that mean that you—the Brtl—control Mr. Brtl?” I asked, hoping I made sense. As if the situation wasn’t already confusing enough.

I lead the way across a short, ornamental bridge made from a single slab of stone. Orange and white carp gawped at the two of us from the stream. I was getting winded from trying to stay ahead of Mr. Brtl, keeping him out of sight, though not out of mind. We rushed past the tranquil and secluded Zen garden that I had planned to say something very clever about.

“Only indirectly,” he said from behind me. He didn’t seem winded at all. But he wasn’t wearing an armored vest, and wasn’t being pursued by his space-born double. “Our minds, senses, and manner of communication are different from that of Humans. So I, Mr. Brtl take in sensory input, process it through my Human brain to its essence, and convey that essence to the real me, the one in orbit.”

We passed the centerpiece of the garden, a bright red multitiered pagoda with carved details picked out in gold leaf. I’d intended to say something about that, too, but I forgot what. I was thinking about the teahouse ahead, where I had a table reserved and a chair waiting. Then we’d have to sit face-to-face.

“Can I call you Bob instead?” I asked over my shoulder.

He laughed. “Of course, we don’t need any more confusion than necessary.”

My thought exactly.

I lead the way up the steps to the thatched hut that made up the teashop. It wasn’t much more than a roof held up by rough wooden poles, letting tea drinkers enjoy the view in the shade. I took us to a small, rough-hewn wooden table that overlooked a small ornamental pool and the rest of the garden. As soon as we sat, a young woman in a salmon kimono delivered two earthenware cups and a cast iron pot of tea. The tables immediately around us were empty, but otherwise the little pavilion was full of Embassy employees to give the place some atmosphere. It also gave Embassy staff a rare chance to see an Extra in person. They were going to be a bit disappointed today.

We sat across from each other and I carefully avoided eye contact as I picked up the teapot and filled his cup. I put all my attention into the pour as I explained some of the different rituals that Humans had created around tea, mostly cribbed off the internet the night before. I talked about how some cultures viewed pouring tea for someone as a form of apology. He considered this for a moment before taking the pot from me, his hand brushing mine. I repressed a shudder as he filled my cup. “For our previous meeting,” he said.

Our cups steamed as we sat and evaluated each other.

I looked into his eyes. I couldn’t help it. They looked just like mine, and again I felt uneasy. Every morning I looked into my own eyes in the mirror, but these were critically different. Unlike the eyes in the mirror, I didn’t know what was going on behind these.

He smiled and picked up the conversation where we had left it a minute earlier. “I—that is, the Brtl in orbit—distill my intentions to Bob, and my—that is Bob’s—mind converts them into action.” He shrugged. “There are things that are undoubtedly lost in the conversion, but since the two of me—a Brtl and a near-Human—are connected at the level of thought, this manner of communication is the most honest, and far more successful than our other attempts at dialogue.”

Both of our hands were resting on the table in exactly the same position, fingers curled inward, thumb gently touching the index finger. I leaned back and crossed my arms. So did he, almost simultaneously.

That was unsettling.

“Near-Human?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he said smiling. I knew that smile. It was the one I used when I wanted to be reassuring but doubted if I could pull it off. “We started with a perfect copy of you, as far as we could discern. Then certain areas of Bob’s brain were modified to resonate with the Brtl’s.”

He uncrossed his arms and I caught myself matching his movements. I paused awkwardly in mid-gesture. “You started with a perfect copy?” I put a hand to my mouth, my bad habit. I left it there. He left his hands in his lap. I counted it as a quiet victory in the body language war.

“As you would know it. As identical as we can be,” he said.

I blinked a few times.

“So you are me,” I said, not asking.

He tilted his head the smallest amount. “You as you were four hours and nineteen minutes ago.”

I stood suddenly. “Excuse me a moment,” I said, and walked off in search of the bathroom.

I splashed handfuls of cold water on my face in the small, dim bathroom. I had thought I was getting better at my job, getting to know the Extras that had parked in high orbit around Earth two and a half years ago. It had been about six weeks since an Extra had seriously unsettled me, which was a record.

I had been having low-level talks with Extras called Kek Solones. They were slimy slugs the size of a pony, but could communicate quite well in English. However, when we wanted to start higher-level talks to make things official, negotiations hit an unexpected obstacle. The Kek Solones communicate officially by writhing in an oozing communal grub colony. The Ambassador wouldn’t be caught dead writhing, so it was, of course, up to me. I was only saved the horror when Research & Development figured out that the writhing would crush me to death, and at any rate I couldn’t excrete the right chemicals. So the meeting was on hold until Research & Development built a suit that could withstand the pressure and ooze the correct goo on command.

But this was more upsetting than writhing with pony-sized grubs. I didn’t think of myself as the kind of person who could have an identity crisis, but that’s exactly what I was having. He was me. An unauthorized copy had been made and brought to life. After this meeting I was going to have a long talk about the nature of the soul with as many spiritual leaders as I could find.

If they could summon Bob at a whim, what were the Brtl going to do with him after they were done with him? Disintegrate him? Chuck him in the trash? Would that be murder? Or what if they let him live a natural life, and I’d suddenly have an identical twin brother. Holidays with the family would be even more awkward, if that was possible.

I had to pull myself together. If I kept freaking out, I was going to start an interplanetary incident, and it was my job to stop those, not start them.

Splashing more water on my face, I managed to soak the front of my shirt and spot my suit. I used a wad of paper towels to dry myself and slicked back my hair. It wasn’t a look I usually sported, but I liked that the person in the mirror now looked a little different than the guy out there calmly sipping his tea.

I wound my way back to the table, noticing the first threads of low fog making inroads from the Pacific, starting to claim its territory back from the afternoon sun. The tea garden was in shadow, but beyond its sculptured hedges the trees were still bright and sunlit. I could see some small figures in the distance, hear the faded echo of laughter. A dog barked.

I slid back into my seat and decided to get back on script. “This tea garden is more than 125 years old,” I said, going back into my tour guide voice. “It was first built as a temporary exhibit for a World’s Fair in 1894. After the fair, a Japanese gardener and his family moved in as caretakers and it was made permanent.”

Bob cast his gaze around, examining details. “It has much more character and attention than where we met,” he said.

“Yes, well…I wanted to make sure you weren’t going to explode before I brought you here,” I said, forcing a smile.

“That was probably prudent,” he said, his smile natural. “Does the family still maintain these gardens?”

As Earth’s Assistant Ambassador I did my best to be positive while not bending the truth too much. It was difficult, not only to present Humanity’s flaws in a way that didn’t condemn us, but to know what subjects were considered delicate to an Extra.

“No,” I said, and paused to take a sip of searing hot tea. “About seventy years ago everyone on the West Coast who was of Japanese ancestry, including the caretakers, were moved to prison camps.”

Bob nodded soberly. “Ethnic cleansing.”

“Not…exactly. The United States had been attacked by the country of Japan and took paranoid actions, with the intent of protecting itself. Today we find it a very regrettable incident, a mistake made in the hysteria of war.” I looked into my tea. I’d planned on telling him about the tradition of telling the future with tea leaves, but it didn’t seem to appeal at the moment.

“Conflict is usually brought about by a kind of hysteria,” he said, his hands resting gently on either side of his teacup. “Hysteria generates mistakes, and mistakes feed hysteria, continuing the cycle.”

I nodded. It wasn’t the deepest of wisdom, but it was reassuring when an Extra had some kind of philosophy that I could understand. This was the first time it had ever happened.

“Tell me, Benjamin, are we on the cusp of conflict now, or has the threshold been safely passed?”

I shook my head, trying to figure out what he was asking.

“Do you wish to retaliate for the injuries caused during our first encounter?” he asked.

I thought back to the ship coming down out of the sky, screaming, burning, and poisonous. I was told my hearing would never be quite what it had been before, and a few people closer to the ship would always have scars from the burns.

“It was an accident. They happen,” I said, forcing a shrug. As far as I knew, no one at The Embassy had talked about retaliation. The whole point of The Embassy was to keep from starting fights with incomprehensibly advanced extraterrestrials.

“Unintended events do happen,” he said. “But to us, intent is irrelevant. Actions are important. If I kill you, does my intention matter? You will still be dead. Your death by accident or intent does not make any difference to your corpse.”

I considered this for a moment. First I decided that he wasn’t making a threat, just a rather blunt analogy. Then I started to get excited.

When I took this job, I imagined I was going to spend long hours talking philosophy and exploring the alternate viewpoints of Extras, delving into their weird and wonderful cultures. But in reality I spent almost no time talking with them, and what time I did was simply trying to establish the basics of communication. The few Extras we could easily talk to were still reluctant to share their thoughts or motivations. Of all my meetings with Extra representatives, these last few minutes were the most revealing any had ever been. It felt like I was actually doing diplomacy for once. I paused to think of the right thing to say to keep this moment going.

I opened my mouth to say something insightful when there was a wet thud and Bob’s face exploded.

TWO

A Bloody Mess

It took me a while to figure out what had happened. It didn’t make any sense. It felt like someone had hit me in the face with a wad of hot potato salad. As I started to wipe it out of my eyes I realized that the texture was wrong. Wrong in too many ways. When I saw the color I knew it wasn’t potato, but brain salad. There were crunchy bits.

I froze when I realized what I was wiping off my face, one eye still squeezed closed. I looked around with my open eye, trying to figure out what to do next. Was it going to happen again? Maybe exploding head was a known flaw with Brtl doppelgängers.

Time was flowing wrong. Everything was moving too slowly or too quickly. There was a lot of yelling. The Embassy employees that had been enjoying tea were panicking. Those who had decided to hit the ground were being tripped over by those who were running. It was different on the official channels in my earphone, which contained short orders and terse situation reports in anxious voices.

To my left Mohit was leading a small group of security personnel, darting in and out of the manicured shrubs as they sprinted toward the teahouse. They had guns in hand, but pointed at the ground, their suit jackets blowing behind them revealing body armor. Their heads swiveled, looking for danger.

To my right an alcove contained a small Japanese gift shop with its neatly arranged trinkets and obscure sweets. The woman in the kimono poked her head around the corner, a furrow notching her brow until she looked in my direction. Her eyes went wide, she put a fist to her mouth, and ducked away.

An unconscious consensus was reached in the teashop and people started flooding the exits. It seemed like a good idea, but I couldn’t make myself move. Security was trying to come in as the tea patrons pushed out. There was more shouting as the two groups plowed into each other.

I looked everywhere but at the slumped body in front of me. And then I couldn’t look away. I wiped the…debris out of my other eye and stared. The table was spattered with gore, but the back of his head was tidy. The back of my head. Little whorls of sandy hair, interrupted by a dime-sized hole right in the center, next to my cowlick.

Dark blood pooled onto the old wooden table and followed one of its deep grooves to stream onto my thigh. I barely felt it; it was body temperature.

Zoey’s familiar voice was in my earphone. It was calm—she was always calm when she was on the comm—but insistent, asking for a situation report. She was in the makeshift communications room at The Embassy where she could route messages between us when we were out on Embassy excursions.

“I’m fine,” I said quietly. I had something in my mouth. I spit it out. “Zoey, it’s Benjamin. I’m fine.” Yeah, right. I wondered what kind of picture Zoey was assembling from the other audio channels.

Mohit arrived at my side as other security team members started to manage the crowd and scan for threats. His happy round face had changed, drawn and serious as he jogged up and knelt. His fitted, black ECOOSec jacket was crisp and clean, out of place here. He cast a critical eye around, again looking for threats. Then he looked down at the mess on the table and added a Hindi oath into the stream of orders he was muttering into his headset. He pulled a starched white handkerchief out of his pocket and started wiping my face.

“Are you hit?” he asked me.

“I don’t think so. How do I know?”

“That is a good question,” he said, searching my face. The handkerchief was already crimson and sodden. He wadded it up and used it to scrape off more gore while he took a shaky breath. Seeing Mohit rattled somehow bothered me more than everything else going on.

Mohit had won medals for bravery fighting India's homegrown terrorists, the Naxalites, and the President of India had drafted him into her bodyguard. The only reason he had come to The Embassy was because his President was forced out along with everyone she brought with her. He had been a great assistant but I was glad that he’d found a job that better matched his skills and experience.

Until this afternoon, I had always assumed he could take anything in stride, and crack a joke along the way.

“Maybe an ambulance?” I suggested.

“Two are on the way, ETA three and five minutes,” said Zoey in my headset. Of course they were, I was still playing catch up.

Mohit said, “We are searching the grounds, and regional law enforcement are coming to help secure the park.”

“Mohit, this park is three miles long,” I said. They’d never be able to secure it. I was glad to talk about more distant problems.

“Yes, but we are very good at our jobs,” he said with a somewhat forced smile.

Mohit’s white cuffs were getting soaked with gore and I felt bad. I should be cleaning myself up, not sitting here like an infant getting tended to by someone who had more important things to do.

He let his soaked handkerchief drop and placed his hands on both sides of my head, turning it back and forth, looking into each eye. “Good news, my friend. Little of this looks to be your blood,” he said.

“It’s all my blood,” I said.

Mohit narrowed his eyes at me for a moment before glancing at the body sprawled across the table. “Sit for a moment. The limo will arrive soon. I need to check something.” He found the wrist of the body and felt it for a bit, careful not to move it. Shaking his head, he checked for a pulse at the neck. He stood still for a moment before he got the same answer.

“What did you expect?” I asked.

He shrugged, wiping his hands on his pants. “Extras are filled with surprises,” he said.

His eyes changed focus as he listened to his headset for a moment. “The limo has arrived,” he said. “Let us get you somewhere safe.”

The “limo” was a custom-built eyesore. It was designed as a courtesy shuttle for extraterrestrial diplomats, but looked like a tour bus having a mid-life crisis. Black, high gloss paint and heavily tinted windows were all it had in common with an actual limousine. It was huge and powerful, built on a commercial truck chassis. The interior was tall enough to stand up in, and the entire back could fold open. The roof had a large bubble dome to give clearance for exceedingly tall Extras. The interior could be customized with movable cushions and partitions, though it was currently just empty space.

Six months ago, after I’d been abducted by Extras, it had been retrofitted with armor, bulletproof glass, and blast-deflection plates, along with an even bigger engine to move the extra weight. It was the ugliest thing on wheels, but it could transport Extras in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and types of locomotion. It was, unfortunately, also what I rode in when taking tea with Extras. At least it had seats for Human shaped beings in the front, for the driver and me.

It put huge ruts in the soft turf as it pulled as close as possible to the entrance of the garden. Mohit hustled me aboard, giving instructions to Richardson, the driver. I didn’t want to stain the upholstery in front so I lay down in the back. That section was designed to be hosed out after carrying passengers with untidy biology.

“You okay, boss?” Richardson asked, turning to look at me.

“Yeah,” I said, but I don’t think he was convinced. The door thunked shut and the limo bounced heavily back onto the road. I slid around the open space in the back as it accelerated and took corners at speed. I stared at the ceiling, listening to the gasping lisp of the turbo diesel going through the gears, but all I saw was that little black hole next to my cowlick.

When I finally noticed sirens, I pulled myself up to see a pair of Highway Patrol motorcycles escorting across the Bay Bridge. We were making very good time. I also noticed the limo had its own light bar, sitting on the dash strobing red and blue.

“When did we get the emergency lights?” I asked Richardson, just to take my mind off. His dark crew cut, chiseled features, and sharp eyes betrayed his previous career in the U.S. Air Force. He had not only completed astronaut training before joining ECOO, but had trained to fly the Air Force’s experimental spacecraft before the project closed down. It reminded me how weird staffing was in The Embassy. Outside of the diplomatic branch, most people were vastly overqualified for their jobs, waiting for the day when their dream job would open up. It looked like it was happening for Richardson. Last week he had remotely piloted ECOO’s own experimental spaceplane on its second test flight.

He glanced at me, checked the road, and then gave me a longer look. “Are you sure you’re okay, boss? We can redirect to the hospital. I’m in direct contact with our escort.”

I thought about it for a second. “No, a hospital’s not going to do me a lot of good right now.”

He gave me another cautious glance, then sat quietly for a moment, eyes on the road. There was a stillness about Richardson that made him seem exceptionally competent. “The lights and sirens were all part of the big retrofit. Haven’t had a chance to use them till now.”

He checked his mirrors as he squeezed past of a pair of trucks and moved into a clear center lane of the bridge. I slid toward the back of the limo as we accelerated. In the bulletproof and bomb-resistant interior, the sirens were just a muffled moan.

“Sorry about that, boss,” he said, as I put out a hand to stop myself from hitting the back. “Five different people are in my ear telling me to get you to The Embassy ASAP.” He stayed focused on the road, but turned his head toward me. “What do you think happened back there?”

I shook my head. “Somebody shot the… I don’t even know what he was.”

“Fatalities?” he asked. He was on a separate com channel and wouldn’t have heard most of what was going on.

“Just one, I think. Just…the Extra envoy.”

Richardson gave a grunt and braked hard as we merged into traffic on the 880. I slid until I came to rest against the back of the driver’s seat. Richardson called over his shoulder, “I have a request that you set your headset to receive on the diplomatic channel.”

That’s what had been bothering me the last few minutes: there was no one in my ear, just my own hysterical voice in my head. No one telling me what to do or asking questions I couldn’t answer.

But I was a diplomat. And I was right in the center of the biggest diplomatic shitshow to happen to our young organization—maybe the planet. I should probably do my job.

I carefully poked a finger into my ear in search of my earphone, afraid of what I’d find. I hit bottom without finding anything. My earphone had fallen out again.

I patted myself down, feeling something squish in my breast pocket, but I wasn’t going to see what it was. I looked around the limo and investigated some of the nearby cracks and crevices with no luck. I checked the custom communication app on my mobile that was supposed to automate all of this stuff. It said my earphone wasn’t in range. It also said I had sixty-seven priority text messages within the last fifteen minutes. Make that seventy-one.

“Let them know I’ve lost my earphone but I’m calling in,” I told Richardson. He nodded and mumbled something into his headset.

I stared at the glossy black brick of the mobile in my hand. The blood had dried on my hands and was starting to flake off, highlighting the cracks in my skin, outlining my fingernails.

The correct thing to do was call The Ambassador. Abby Ling was my superior and ultimate authority on diplomatic issues between Humans and Extras. But she spent at least eighty percent of her energy trying to make my life difficult. She would bombard me with blame and then hang up on me before I could even give her a report. Then she’d complain to the Secretary-General that I hadn’t given her a report. So while it would be correct to call her first, it wouldn’t actually be helpful.

The other option would be to call Zoey. She was my assistant, though currently on loan to ECOOSec to run field communication. They only needed someone when I had an excursion with an Extra, and since she had been a police dispatcher, this was an obvious job for her. She would know what was going on, and she was much better in a crisis than I was. But our on-again, off-again relationship was very much off at the moment, and we were trying very hard to hide the whole thing from the office. Dating your assistant was not only explicitly forbidden in ECOO regulations, it showed several kinds of bad judgment.

I called Zoey.

She let it ring five times. On purpose, probably. “So, you’re not dead, then?” she answered dryly.

“Not yet,” I said. We careened around another corner and I slid across the floor of the limo again.

“You may want to hold on to something, boss,” Richardson called over his shoulder.

“Get them to install some hand-holds back here,” I told him.

“What happened in the park?” asked Zoey. “Everyone’s giving me orders, but no one is telling me what’s going on.”

“No idea. The Brtl that showed up to the meeting wasn’t an Extra at all—it was some kind of clone. Of me. An exact clone. Who then proceeded to, I think, get shot in the head.”

I caught Richardson glance back at me in his rear view.

“An exact clone?” Zoey asked.

“Down to the hematite tie clip and…” I thought of the neat hole next to his cowlick. “…mole on my left cheek.”

“Hunh. How do I know I’m talking to the real Benjamin Taylor?”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. She had a dark wit. “Well, the other one’s brains are all over the place, so if I’m not me, I’m all that’s left,” I said sharply. I’d regret that. “I kind of hoped you could tell me what’s going on. Things happened in a hurry, then Mohit shoved me into the limo.”

There were several seconds of silence on the other end of the phone. Finally I heard her take a breath. “The park is being sealed off as well as we can manage. Everyone is being searched for firearms before they exit, but there are plenty of places people can just walk out. Hold on…”

There was a pause as she talked to someone else on the comm.

“That’s really all I know. I’m just relaying orders and juggling jurisdictional stuff. We have everyone from ECOOSec down to Muni Police and Park Rangers working the cordon around—hold on.”

Richardson braked hard and I slid forward and hit the back of his seat again.

Zoey came back. “Mohit is asking if you know which way the envoy was facing when he was shot.”

I shivered as the memory came back. “Straight at me,” I said. We were looking into each other’s eyes. I was hoping to say something profound.

I could hear Zoey saying something on another channel. “He says that’s helpful. He’s trying to figure out where to focus the search for a suspect.”

I made an uncertain noise. No one knew what was going on.

I’d been fighting the itch to put my fingers through my hair. Mohit hadn’t done more than scrape the biggest bits off my face, and I was afraid of what I might find. Something warm and thick trickled down my forehead and hovered over my eyebrow. I brushed it away. It was my blood. I noticed the damp metallic smell that filled the limo. That was my blood too.

The light coming through the tinted windows dimmed as we entered the tunnel to Alameda.

“Sorry,” Zoey said, not sorry. “Everyone’s still in emergency response mode. Hold on.”

There was another delay as she talked to someone else. “I really need to coordinate the law enforcement cordon,” she said to me. “There are five different agencies stepping on each other’s toes out there.”

“Go,” I said. “I’ll be there in…”

“Three minutes,” said Richardson over his shoulder.

“A few minutes,” I said, “If you need my authority to push people around.”

“That will be the day,” she scoffed. “But here’s some free advice: Sometime in the next few minutes figure out how you’re going to play this to the media. It’s going to be the Queen Bee’s first question. She’s ordered you to her office first thing when you get back.”

The cabin brightened as we came out of the tunnel, but my mood didn’t. Zoey had a knack for focusing my attention where it needed to be. It was a great talent to have in an assistant, though I was less grateful for it in my girlfriend. “Okay, tell The Ambassador that I’ll be there in…five minutes,” I said, signing off the call and sliding across the floor as we took a hard right.

“I’m sorry, Richardson,” I said, just noticing the burgundy smears I’d left all over the interior of the limo, “You’re going to have to hose off the inside of this thing again.”

We braked hard and a new sound came in behind the sirens and thrum of the engine. “Looks like I’ll have to hose off the exterior too,” he said. I sat up to look out the window and saw we were pushing slowly through the protesters that had become a regular fixture around the front gates of The Embassy. Alameda police kept a watch on them but were afraid of causing a riot. As long as the protestors stayed out of the way and didn’t assault anyone, they didn’t intervene. They threw rotten food at us.

It was surreal, like something out of the Middle Ages.

Richardson shook his head as he turned on his wipers, smearing tomato across the windscreen. “I really wish they wouldn’t do that,” he muttered.

The protesters were angry, and not particularly organized. There was a story going around that they had gotten into a fight between themselves over throwing eggs—the vegan protestors wouldn’t stand for it. I wasn’t sure if the story was true, but they had a lot of energy, sustaining themselves on rumors and ridiculous conspiracy theories. As we pushed past them onto Embassy property, I wondered how today’s events would feed their paranoia.

THREE

Unexpected Reaction

“What do you think this will look like in the media?” The Ambassador demanded.

I really needed to give Zoey a raise. Or maybe give her my entire job. She understood The Ambassador much better than I did. I imagined Ambassador Ling was out to get me, always devising plans to humiliate or denigrate me. But The Ambassador didn’t have to work at it; she was a natural. I didn’t doubt she schemed—she was a career politician, after all—but she wasn’t scheming to make me miserable. She was just a jerk. Zoey understood this and didn’t let it bother her, whereas I was too unsettled by her constant attacks to think rationally.

I was sitting in a white leather chair in front of The Ambassador’s desk. She, however, was standing, leaning forward with both hands pressed to her desktop. It was her usual angry stance, giving the impression that if there wasn’t a meter of white granite desk in the way, she’d show me how upset she really was. She was middle-aged, tall, and poised, her thinness accentuated by her waist-length black hair and starched cream suit. But there was nothing weak or timid about her. She was powered by some fathomless anger. Her office was an extension of her, sterile and colorless with lots of straight lines and no character. No knickknacks on her desk, not even a stray piece of paper, it was empty except for her tablet, aligned perfectly with everything else in the room. The walls didn’t even have the usual politician’s gallery of portraits of themselves shaking famous hands.

Sitting in her guest chair, I realized why she had a pristine white office. It was for moments like this, where I had a choice between ruining her furniture or disobeying her order that I sit down. I’d decided to sit and let my blood-soaked clothes silently cause thousands of dollars of damage to her white leather chair. She would be mad at me either way, and I was unsteady on my feet. Besides, she demanded I report to her before getting cleaned up, so it was her fault. Or maybe I was just being passive-aggressive.

Despite Zoey’s warning about the question, I didn’t have a good answer. I hated the idea of manipulating the media, as little as one could even do that. But I also felt a responsibility to keep Alien Panic down as much as possible. It only fed those crazy protesters outside. The Press Office had already told a few whoppers that I wasn’t proud of. If we told any more obvious lies, it would blow all of our credibility.

The Ambassador, on the other hand, had spent her professional life working for the Chinese government as a high-ranking Party member, and she tended to think of the media as her obedient tool.

I sighed and wiped my forehead again. There was no point in explaining yet again how freedom of the press and social media worked.

I looked at my hand. There was fresh blood. I was actually bleeding from somewhere.

I tried not to think about it.

“Let’s see what’s happening,” I said swiping through a few screens on my tablet. I brought up some social media searches and sent them to her wall display. My tablet was already smeared with blood. I was like a walking slaughterhouse. The musty metallic smell was getting worse.

I scrolled through the search results. “It looks like most people are just complaining about the park closure, not many even suspect it was Extra-related.” I was playing it cool for a change. Usually being called in front of The Ambassador broke me into a nervous mess, but I had used up all my panic-related neurochemicals for the day and kept my head.

“Quite a few are asking what’s with all the police around the park. Some people assuming bomb threats or terrorists.” I read a few more random posts from the last half hour. “It doesn’t look like anyone but Embassy staff actually saw what happened, and they’ve been keeping protocol.” Protocol says that Embassy members don’t talk about Extras without explicit approval from the Press Office. I was surprised—they tended not to obey this rule.

I tried a few more searches and scrolled around some more. “All anyone is talking about are the police searches as they leave the park. A few people noticed the Embassy limo with the police escort, and someone is complaining about the Tea House being closed. That’s good.”

I glanced at The Ambassador and saw she didn’t think it was good. And of course she was right. This was bad. The corners of her mouth pointed at the floor and she seemed almost distracted, looking into the fine pattern of her stone desktop. She thought this was all my fault.

She looked up at me. “Good, you think?” she said, tapping her fingers on her desk.

“Good in the sense that we don’t have to explain why an extraterrestrial envoy came to tea only to have his head explode. At least we don’t have to explain it to Humans. What we’ll say to the Brtl, I have no idea.”

She waved a hand in the air like she was shooing a fly. “It doesn’t matter. They are beyond understanding.”

I gave her a calculating look. She was acting…off. She was always focused, often on reading me the riot act. But today she seemed distracted. And not distracted by an Extra diplomat getting a bullet in the head, but by something else. I didn’t want to speculate what would be more distracting than current events.

“The Brtl are hard to talk to,” I said, which was an understatement, “but we should at least make the effort to inform them.”

She made the dismissive gesture again. “At the right time,” she said. When she looked up at me, it appeared she had made some kind of decision. She leaned forward, putting both hands back on her desk. This was more like herself.

“What will the press release say?” she asked.

“That’s really a job for the Press—”

“I’m asking you,” she said, slapping a palm on her desk. She was practiced, and could make it crack like a whip. This was a classic strategy of Ms. Ling: she would give me jobs that I wasn’t qualified for so she could complain when I messed it up. There was little I could do except keep trying. At least it gave me an appreciation of everyone else’s jobs at the Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization.

“The press release should say…” I paused to give the truth a good massage and rummage through my mental thesaurus of weasel words. “An Extra envoy was taken ill today,” fatally ill, “while on a visit to Golden Gate Park. He had an … attack that lead to the expulsion of some biological material. All precautions were taken to be sure there was no biological or chemical contamination.”

Abby Ling stared at me as if she didn’t understand. She had graduated from Columbia and her English was near perfect, but sometimes the nuances of the language challenged her. Not that she would ever admit it.

I sighed heavily. “Everyone is already used to reading between the lines of our press releases,” I explained. “When they read between these lines, they will think the envoy had an allergic reaction to flowers or tea, puked, and was rushed away in the limo. And the cops were there to make sure that no one stepped in Extra vomit.” I wasn’t happy with it. It was misleading, though technically correct. The press office would jump at it—they had all worked in advertising.

Another drop of sticky wetness ran down my forehead and parked on my eyebrow. I absently wiped it off and flicked it away.

The Ambassador watched the trajectory of the drop of blood as it flew across the room. It hit the wall and immediately soaked into her white silk wall covering.

“Get out,” she said, coldly.

I stood and found that my pants had become sticky, stiff, and cold. I didn’t look at the mess I had certainly left in her chair. While I tried to open the door without smudging the handle she called after me. “Get cleaned up and have the Press Office put out that release immediately.”

FOUR

Pick Your Brain

“Hmm,” said the doctor, “very interesting.”

The Embassy’s small infirmary had been completed three months ago. It could deal with emergencies up to and including exotic biological breakouts, but had so far only treated the occasional injury from the security team’s training exercises. It was full of advanced equipment that Dr. Castillo, who was tending to my forehead, was anxious for any excuse to try out.

At the moment she was using ordinary forceps to dig around the bleeding gash at my hairline, checking to see if what had cut me was still in there. She made a satisfied noise and carefully pulled something out.

“Here, hold this for a moment,” she said, indicating the piece of gauze she was pressing over my wound.

Dr. Castillo was a stocky Brazilian woman with maternal features and a focus that I’d found common among other scientists. But she had a casual manner and was regarded as one of the best medical researchers in the world. Since Research & Development hadn’t collected much Extra biological material, she spent her time running the little clinic.

Her lab coat was sunny yellow instead of starched white, and her office was furnished more like a country home than a health center. The exam room had the prerequisite adjustable exam bed covered with a roll of coated paper, but the white ceramic sink, mismatched wooden chairs, and flowered wallpaper belonged in an old New England farmhouse.

She wiped the forceps on another piece of gauze and presented it to me. “Look familiar?” she asked.

I didn’t want to look very closely, afraid it might be a piece of my skull.

It wasn’t skull, but I wasn’t sure what it was. There was a lot of blood on it. “Is it metal?” I asked.

She picked the shard out of the gauze with forceps, held it over a stainless steel bowl, and squirted some alcohol on it.

“Yes, but I’m not sure what kind,” she said, brightly. “You didn’t put it there yourself, then?”

“No. Someone was shot right in front of me.” Dr. Castillo had clearance to know what had happened, but I didn’t feel like talking about it yet.

She admired the sliver, turning it side-to-side in an examination light, holding it close enough that her eyes crossed. “I’ve removed a few bullets from people. This is curious. It’s much harder than lead.”

She stopped and held it at arm’s length.

“What?” I asked.

“That’s a nasty thought,” she muttered to herself. “Wait here.” She left the room holding the metal fragment at arm’s length.

I sat pressing the gauze to my forehead for a minute, but she didn’t return. I sighed and lay back on the exam table, scrunching the paper beneath me, and thought about how bad I was at my job.

My job was being the junior ambassador (officially the “Deputy Head of Mission”) for the Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization. ECOO (pronounced like “echo”) was an organization hastily created specifically to communicate with the forty-eight different alien ships that had appeared in orbit around Earth two and a half years ago. They hadn’t been explicit about their reasons for coming, but they did say they would only talk to an organization that represented all of Earth.

That was, of course, a huge problem. The only thing that made it happen was that everyone wanted to find out what the extraterrestrials wanted. In just a few months the UN had spun off the ECOO, and we had been working out the details ever since. The U.S. had donated a disused naval air base in San Francisco Bay to house the organization. It even had a giant runway, ostensibly for spaceships. We called it Starport One.

Initially there were two divisions to ECOO. The Earth Nations Council (ENC) was the first created, filled with representatives from every sovereign nation. They elected a Secretary-General from their ranks to oversee things, and were supposed to set policy, but spent most of their time fighting among themselves because the extraterrestrials are so frustratingly reticent.

The second original division is the Office Of Extraterrestrial Trade and Diplomacy (ExTraD) where I’m technically the second in command. We’re the people who actually deal with the Extras and facilitate the mandates of the ENC.

But in reality, that’s not how it works. The Ambassador, the embodiment of that single point of contact with the Extras, is a huge xenophobe. So, as her number two (and the only other person in our tiny division with any power at all), I’m the one who does the face-time (or whatever they have instead of faces) with the Extras—at least the ones that communicate with us.

Most of them are simply silent, up in their spaceships 45,000 kilometers above. I’ve been able to entice a few down for short cultural exchanges, but the directives from the ENC—largely about trying to get Human hands on advanced Extra technology—weren’t going to happen for a long time.

The hallway outside filled with the sound of people moving with concern and purpose, but I couldn’t make out any of the words. There was a lot of tense caution in their voices.

That’s not to say ECOO has been a complete failure. Six months ago there was an…event. I was abducted, along with more than a hundred Humans, by Extras called the Klovic. When they finally kicked us off their ship for being obnoxious, we brought some of their hyper-diamond technology with us.

We also came out of it with a treaty with another race of Extras called the Throad, who will protect us from future aggression from the Klovic. All it costs us is regular shipments of sewage.…