Alvin looked at Cathy as she lay next to him on her side with her eyes closed. “Are you awake?” he whispered.
It took four seconds for his voice to trigger a response. Her eyelids opened slowly, smoothly, like a pair of garage doors, except not at the same time, one starting to open just a tad later than the other.
“That was odd,” Alvin said.
“The way your eyes opened.”
Cathy was tempted to say, ‘Oh, no that’s not odd—this is,’ then rotate her right eye to the far right side while the left continued to look at Alvin, then rotate that one to the far left while the other remained at the far right, then bring the right back to center so that it looked at Alvin, then bring the left back to center afterward—because she could, and because given his comment she thought it would be funny. But she decided not to.
“How long have you been awake?” he asked.
“About four years.”
“No, not on, awake, like awake-awake. Human awake. Presently conscious.” And then something suddenly clicked in his mind. “You’re only four years old?!”
“Don’t overthink it, Alvin. Also, that’s twenty-eight in dog years. So, you know, it’s all relative. And I’d be older than you. If we were using dog years. Which we’re not. But which doesn’t matter. Also, unlike you, I have four different stages of consciousness: standby, semi-alert, alert, and really-really alert. I’m always kind of awake.” She stroked his arm. “I think I need to shift.”
Cathy rolled onto her back and crossed her hands on her chest as that was more comfortable, mainly because it was symmetric. Alvin liked her having been tucked in closer, her face near his, and wasn’t sure what to make of this new positioning. She wasn’t saying anything and she had closed her eyes again. He didn’t know if she was going back on standby or ignoring him, or what exactly. He just felt that she left and he felt the need to fix it.
“Can I do something?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t that strike you as uncomfortably vague if I’d asked the same question of you?” she said, still with eyes closed.
“Try this,” he said. He scooched himself up a little and put his hand under her arm, tipping her to the right side.
“Whoa, where are we going?” she asked with eyes now open, but offered no resistance despite her opening with whoa.
Once on her side he tucked himself in tight behind her, his knees pressing firmly against the back of hers. He slid his arm under her pillow and head and rested the other on her hip.
“Oh, this is nice,” she said. “It would be better if I could remove my right arm and hang it in the closet, but this is very nice nonetheless.” She altered her angle just a little to be more comfortable but without undoing Alvin’s intent.
“It’s called spooning,” he said.
“Because it’s like two spoons in a drawer. How they rest within each other.”
“Oh, I get it. And not to be confused with forking. Hee-hee.”
“Or cork screwing.”
“Or spatulating—which is where I draw the line.”
“And I respect that.”
They lay together for a goodly amount of time. One part of Alvin was the most contented he’d ever been in his life, and the other part kept being a pest. He tried to wish the latter away but under the circumstances, all things considered, this was hard.
“Cathy?” he asked.
“Why did they make you?”
“There was a waitress shortage.”
He smiled for a moment. “Why did they really make you?”
“To go get you.”
He was at first flattered by the expense and time the Grace must have shucked out in order to get him from point “A” to point “B”, not the least of which would have been having to build Cathy, but he couldn’t help but consider the inefficiency of it, given that chloroforming him in a dark alley and sticking him in a trunk would have been way cheaper. “That seems a small reason,” he said.
She disengaged from the spooning and rolled back around to face him. “No. It was the final part of something quite complicated. If you, you Earth people, send a probe or a rover or something to Mars, that takes a lot of planning. And if everything goes well, it lands and does what it’s supposed to do. The only problem is that it can’t come back on its own. Somebody would have to go get it. That would be another complication. Same thing with you. With me.”
Alvin considered it, but it still seemed a little thin. “Is that the only reason?” he asked.
She took a longer than expected time to answer the question but when she did it was just a, “No.”
He waited, knowing he didn’t have to prompt further.
“I’m the Greeter,” she said. “If it seems things may go well, the Grace will land on Earth. They’ve chosen America. Someone has to initially disembark. I’m the someone.”
Alvin raised himself up on one elbow. “Why you?”
“Because I look like them. You. You all. And I have a non-threatening appearance, which was by design. And I can speak English. It’s considered that these elements will provide for a smooth introduction. So, I go first.”
“They’re making you?”
“No. They’re not making me.”
“It seems risky.”
“I imagine it is. I like the idea of being the Greeter. I don’t so much like the idea that I’m the canary in the coal mine. It could go, you know, not real good. Hopefully nobody will fire a bazooka at me when I say, ‘Greetings, Earth People, we come in—’ BOOM and splat goes Cathy. Well, I wouldn’t go splat, probably more like ka-boing.”
“You could refuse, couldn’t you?”
She gave it a moment’s thought, never having considered it before, not that it ever needed considering. “I suppose I could,” she said, “but it’s my job.” She wasn’t sure he got the point, and added, “Everybody has a job. You know?”
“So, that’s the plan?” asked Alvin. “Land, you greet?”
“Yes, assuming Dora One says it’s okay. It’s all a matter of what Dora One says. That was the whole point of having Dora One live with you. In you. For all that time. If Dora One says it looks okay, then I go. We all go.”
“And if Dora One says it isn’t okay?”
“I don’t know. I guess the Grace would have to keep looking for another place.”
Moving off the subject, she raised her hand to his face and lightly graced his cheek with a roll of her finger tips. “I have to go to work.”
“At the bar? This early?”
“Oh, no. I have story time.”
“What’s story time?”
“Me reading a story. We don’t have television, so we have story time. It’s one of my jobs.” She scooted off to the other side of the bed.
“Do you get paid for these jobs?”
“No,” she said, putting on her socks.
“Why do you do it then?”
“Because they ask me to.”
“Why don’t you say no?”
“Why should I say no?”
“Because you’re not getting paid.”
“I don’t need to be. If I want to buy something I go to the money dispensary and tell them what I need. If I need a book, or a bunch of books, they give me what I need to pay for them. I just tell them. Outside of that, money has no purpose.”
“So, why do you do these jobs?”
Cathy screwed up her face a little bit as she found the question perplexing and wondered why her initial answer wasn’t satisfactory. So she repeated it. “Because they ask me to.”
“And that’s one of your jobs? Reading stories?”
“Yes. I have a lot of jobs. You can come with if you’d like. Do you want to come with?”
“Do you want me to come with?”
“Yes. I just have to take a shower first.”
“You take showers?”
“Of course. Don’t you?”
“Good to know.”
After Alvin had a cup of something maroon in color that came out of the wall and tasted like sweet liquified tofu, Cathy dried off her wetness, they got dressed, and departed for the elevator.
They entered a door on deck seven. The room was filled with Grace from wall to wall, all sitting on the floor. As Cathy entered they stood up in unison and in a sing-song chorus said, “Wissenet leutesein, Jes Toh Maast.”
“What did they say?” Alvin asked.
“Good morning, JM-4.”
“Why not good morning Cathy?”
No one had posed this question before and now Cathy had to come up with an answer that satisfied Alvin and satisfied her at the same time. “JM-4 is formal.”
“Ah,” said Alvin. He looked at the standing Grace, taking note that they were only four to five feet tall. “Why are they so small?”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense.”
Cathy waved them down and they all returned to their floor positions. From a shelf she took a helmet and handed it to Alvin. “Put this on so you can listen too,” she told him. “It’s a translator. You’ll be able to hear what I say in English.”
“You’re right. Actually, it’s a gag helmet. When you put it on, it shoots oatmeal into your ears. We do this with all newcomers. The kids think it’s a hoot.”
“And again, you don’t have to be an ass about it.”
“Oh, no, I do.”
Alvin summed up the helmet as he held it in two hands, double checking for any oatmeal jets, just to be sure, but mainly being fascinated by the concept of a translator helmet. “This really works?”
“Thank you, I made it.”
“With my fingers. See if it fits.”
Alvin put it on. “It’s a little big.”
“That’s okay, the extra space will let the oatmeal fall out.”
“Well, that’s good. You know, I should just wear this around the ship, when I’m walking around, then I can understand what all the Grace are saying.”
“It’s only designed to pick up me and at short range. But even if your idea worked, you’d look stupid walking around with a helmet on and people would make fun of you. And you’d be able to hear them making fun of you and understand what they were saying, so there’s that. I wouldn’t want your psyche and ego damaged. It could be bad.”
“Got it,” Alvin said, still observing the helmet. “So, there’s a device in here that takes your Grace language input and then turns it into English, huh?”
“No, I’ll transmit both languages at the same time, one verbally and one non-verbally. The helmet just filters out the Grace language.”
“You’re going to talk in one language and think in another one at the same time?”
Cathy turned and sat in the one chair available at the front of the room—a little chair, designed for children and/or her. Alvin sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. Then Cathy began—with no book or anything else in her hands.
“Eisha neu farentela de noe!” she said excitedly.
And in his helmet Alvin heard Cathy’s voice say, “A new story today!”
And all the children voiced something that sounded like “yea!” but kind of creepier, in Alvin’s mind anyway, and slapped their hands on the floor. Cathy continued.
“Charlotte’s Vestuke Soh Madel, Hapett wohn. Hugen Tsagen B’porstle.”
And through the helmet Alvin heard, “Charlotte’s Web. Chapter one. Before breakfast.”
“Damn,” Alvin whispered.
“Eh?” asked Cathy, turning to him. She put her finger to her lips. “Shhh.” She turned back to the group. And Alvin just listened. “Where’s Papa going with that ax? said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. Out to the hoghouse, replied Mrs. Arable. Some pigs were born last night.”
Each time the character changed, Cathy would alter her voice a bit and move her head from one side to the other to let the children know another person was speaking. And as she told the story, her eyes moved from one little audience member to the next.
“I don’t see why he needs an ax, continued Fern, who was only eight. Well, said her mother, one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
The children gasped. Cathy gave them a knowing nod of, ‘Yeah, you got that, huh?’ She continued on.
“Do away with it? shrieked Fern. You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others? Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. Don’t yell, Fern! she said. Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”
Cathy paused a moment for effect. “Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of—” (Cathy then closed her eyes and breathed in deeply), “springtime.”
Cathy lingered on the word. She smiled, so as to convey the meaning and scent of springtime to children who had no concept of what it meant or felt like. For a moment she wanted to stop and explain it, but knew it best to just go on. “Fern’s sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.”
Alvin had seen an example of Cathy’s mental capacity the night before, but nonetheless marveled at this display of her ability to read an entire book—presumably just once—and immediately record it to memory—every word, every comma, every exclamation mark.
After an hour Cathy finished and announced they’d be stopping there until tomorrow. As she stood up, so did all the children. And in the same sing-song chorus in which they greeted her, so did they bid adieu. Alvin understood the reference to JM-4 in their statement, as they addressed her again, and was able to gather that the part he didn’t understand was no doubt something along the lines of “Thank you.”
As they left the room Cathy gave them all a smile and a flippy hand wave goodbye.
“I have a question,” Alvin said as they strolled the corridor.
“What?” Cathy chirped.
“Taus said the lifespan of the Grace is relatively considerable, but when I asked him for specifics he kind of brushed me off. So, how long do they live?”
“Like, about eight hundred years.”
“Wow,” Alvin said. “That’s amazing.”
“I guess,” Cathy responded, though not mirroring Alvin’s fascination.
“I have another question. Who is Parma Das?”
“She’s the head of Engineering, Design, and Robotics,” Cathy said. “And Taus’s wife. She’s a very important person.”
“Really. They’re married, that’s interesting. She speaks English very well. How is that?”
“I taught her. I teach everybody English—well, not everybody, just the upper people, you know, and then the people who end up being teachers. It’s one of my jobs.”
“You seem to have a lot of jobs.”
“Yeah, maybe, I’m awake a lot, anyway, she’s a very gifted person. Teaching her English was easier than other people.” She paused then mumbled, “Sort of.”
“How sort of?”
“Well, you know, it’s like teaching your mother how to cook, or speak English. It’s an awkward dynamic.”
“Is that how you see her?”
“No, I was just using a metaphor to convey a concept—what other questions might you have, Alvin?”
She grinned at him but he noted the retort was a little on the prickly side and he chose not to pursue it. “So, you taught Vaka how to speak English, too?” he asked.
“I think she might have missed a few lessons.”
“How many languages do you know?”
“One. Point taken.” He put his hands behind him and continued to stroll casually beside her. He took note of the eight-foot Grace as the two passed them in the hall. “I’m struck by Grace’s strength,” he said. “Sort of like chimpanzees.”
“Well, they’re big. Also, that’s racist. Or speciesist.”
“No, beyond that. Chimpanzees on Earth have an exponential degree of strength given their body size in comparison to humans. The Grace seem to have the same.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, you know, you got thrown across a bar and into a wall. I’d guess you weigh about a hundred and ten pounds. That’s still a lot to heave, you know.”
“Oh, I don’t weigh near that much.”
“No? What do you weigh?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, fifty-five or sixty pounds, tops.”
“How can you only weigh sixty pounds?!” Alvin exclaimed.
She didn’t answer, just gave him a look of, ‘Because I’m not human being. Remember?’
“Never mind,” Alvin said, sucking it back in. “Even so, seemed like quite a throw for anybody, even if they are eight feet tall.”
Cathy stopped and grinned. “Go ahead. Pick me up. It’s easy.”
Alvin took the challenge. He stood behind her and put his arms around her waist. She put her hands over his to further secure them to the sides of her tummy, even though there was no practical reason to do so in terms of executing the experiment. Then he yanked her up with more ease than he thought possible, like he was picking up just a big bag of kitty litter.
“Whoop!” she cackled as her feet left the ground. All the Grace passing in the hall stopped to look back to see what silliness was afoot.
Alvin continued walking forward but Cathy didn’t.
“Now try it again,” she said, calling him back. She spread her feet half a yard apart.
Alvin got behind her again and pulled. But he couldn’t pick her up. Her shirt sleeves slid from the force he applied, but her arms didn’t. Her musculature didn’t even give. It was like trying to lift Michelangelo’s twelve-foot David.
“Ha-ha!” she laughed.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said as they both continued their walk down the hall.
“No, really, tell me. How did you do that?”
“Nope. A girl can’t give away her secrets. Segue,” she said to change the subject. “How are the interviews going?”
“How did you do that?” he insisted.
“Nope—moving on,” she said. “How are the interviews going?”
He studied her as she walked beside. This event that just occurred was extraordinarily fascinating—and bizarre—but unfortunately there was to be no further discussion of it. Just when he thought he had a reasonable grasp of what or who he was dealing with, something like this would pop up. He decided to let it go, and accept the fact that it was now “normal,” and calmly and expectantly wait for the next weird thing to present itself.
“Okay I guess,” Alvin said. “The first one I had was tiring, but not too bad. I just hope the Grace, Taus and everybody, get the answers they want. Maybe they can fix their planet. Maybe I can help. I don’t know.”
“Fix?” she asked.
“Yeah, you know, feel comfortable with Earth people, get their planet fixed. Get some help for their planet, for their people.”
Cathy stopped abruptly. “What are you talking about? Fix their planet.”
“Fix the planet where the Grace are from. Reverse the warming. Help the Grace on their planet.”
She studied him closely, trying to comprehend his last statement, then simply said, “They’re all dead, Alvin.” She let that sink in a moment. “The planet is dead. There were a billion Grace and they’re all dead except for those on the ships.”
“What ships? I thought this was the only ship. It’s a research ship.”
“Oh,” she said, and then hesitated for as long as she could. “Is that what Taus told you?”
“Yeah. Isn’t it true?”
Cathy found herself unpleasantly in the middle of something unexpected as well as insufficiently understood. Nonetheless, a decision and action were required. She had two options: She could advance to the next step—taking Alvin with her, or she could retreat. Both options were the right thing to do, and both of them were the wrong thing to do. The ramifications of both were unknowable. And the loyalties that pulled at her from both sides—despite completely different reasons—were equally strong. She summoned data and perspectives for the purpose of breaking the deadlock, hoping for something noble and decisive. The first to arrive was ‘Honesty is the Best Policy.’ However, she found that too Pollyanna and open to counterargument. She brought it down a notch, focusing on practicality rather than pithiness. And she found what she wanted: ‘Level the playing field.’ This satisfied her. Now she knew where to go—forward.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Where are we going?”
“The observation deck.” She moved more quickly now and Alvin increased his pace to keep up with her.
“At the top of the ship.”
“Taus said I’m only allowed on the middle decks and nine. I don’t think I’m supposed to be up beyond that.”
“It’s okay, you’re with me.”
“Is there going to be a problem?”
“It’s okay, you’re with me,” Cathy repeated.
The elevator doors opened and they entered the enormous opened area that ran the width and two thirds the length of the ship. Many Grace were scattered about, some lounging, some eating, some standing, some reading. One uniformed and officious looking Grace approached. Seeing Cathy was nothing new, and he wouldn’t normally have engaged her, instead politely leaving her to her own devices, but he didn’t know what to make of Alvin’s presence, and was consequently impelled to speak. “Can I help you, JM?” he asked.
“No thank you,” Cathy said, turning away and pulling Alvin with her.
The room was ringed by unending windows twenty feet high. Looking forward was the expected vastness of space. But off to either side was a fleet of ships extending for as far as Alvin could see. A hundred, maybe two hundred giant vessels flanked the Mela. Some were high above and others far below. Others lay directly right and left. All unmoving.
“What are they?” Alvin asked.
“Most are supply ships, but most of those are empty now. The rest are—” Cathy thought for a moment to find the right word. “arks,” she said. “They’re the home for the Grace that escaped before the planet died.”
Alvin took in the panorama. “How many Grace are out there?”
“Four hundred thousand. About six thousand on each ship, out of an original planet population of one point seven billion. The planet heated up. Kept heating up. Over decades. Bit by bit, until nothing would grow, there was nothing to eat. When the Grace realized they couldn’t stop it, they began construction of the arks.” She turned to him. “You know, lifeboats.” She looked back out at the arks. “On the planet, they developed a process for the artificial growing of food, inside buildings, underground. But eventually just the heat killed—even everything and everyone underground—the food, the people. And the planet became a cinder. One by one, as each ark was completed, another group would be sent out. Waiting and waiting for the others to join them. And then, when everybody who could leave had left, those who were alive, they united and began travelling forward.”
“To anywhere. Like the Israelites, wandering the desert.” She looked back at him. “Until now, when they found Earth. Then they stopped.”
“They’ve been sitting and waiting for twenty years?” Alvin asked.
“Yes. They’ve been waiting for Dora One to complete its mission and assessment. They’ve been waiting for you.”
While the enormous arks were not moving, Alvin saw perhaps a dozen much smaller ships moving quickly on the periphery. “What are those?” he asked.
“Fighters,” Cathy said. “Exercising.”
“Exercising for what?”
The concept that the best defense is a good offense immediately intruded into Alvin’s mind. A minute ago he was looking at the lifeboats of hopeful refugees; now he saw an armed armada. “I have to talk to Taus.”