Alvin knocked on Taus’s giant office door.
No one answered. Alvin raised his hand to knock again, but now a distant female voice responded with, “Come in.”
There was the little chair in the same spot as before. But there was no desk and no Taus. Parma Das stood off to the distant side of the room, a chair right behind her, facing Alvin as he entered. She gestured to the little chair. Alvin came forward and sat, then Parma Das sat.
“Taus will be here shortly,” she informed. Their sitting arrangement was perpendicular to each other. Parma Das sat looking straight ahead and consequently not toward Alvin. Her attention remained focused on the opposite wall despite there being nothing of interest on it, at least that Alvin could detect.
Given the immediate proximity she’d had to her chair when he entered, Alvin considered that she’d been sitting when he knocked, then stood up when he entered. He noted also that she waited to sit again until after he did. As cool and aloof as she presently was, he was taken by the initial cordial formality.
They sat in awkward silence. It was awkward to Alvin, anyway. She seemed okay with it. But he couldn’t help looking at her, all seven feet ten and a half inches of her. Then she did something he didn’t expect. She crossed her legs. And for reasons he wouldn’t be able to explain, he found this simple human aspect of this alien female crossing her legs for no particular reason, pleasing, if only because it was something familiar.
She could only look at the wall for so long before her eyes started to wander. They accidentally wandered to the right and caught sight of Alvin staring at her. “What are you looking at?” she asked.
He wasn’t expecting to get caught, thinking she was permanently engrossed with the wall. He had to pause to collect his thoughts and think up something to smooth over the fact he’d been glaring at her, which for all he knew she’d taken as rude ogling. He defaulted to honesty. “You have a very striking presence,” he said.
She went back to looking at the wall. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips in considering his statement. She looked up, then left, then back to him—but for only one second, then without the slightest hint of appreciation just said, “Thank you,” and went back to the wall.
Alvin considered saying ‘You’re welcome’ but determined it would be either pointless or would result in her then asking why she was welcome, thus taking him further down a rabbit hole. He nonetheless felt the need to move forward, anywhere. “So, Taus is running late?”
She turned, eyeing him curiously. “Yes?” Haven’t we covered this already?
Alvin nodded. Parma Das looked at another one of the walls, then the part of the floor it was connected to.
Alvin straightened in his chair. “Have you and Taus been married long?”
She brought her head up now. Stiffened. Smiled ever so slightly and briefly. But didn’t look at him. “Disengage, Alvin.”
Alvin gave a moment of silence for the directive to sink in and be absorbed. “I was just wondering,” he then said, irked that she be allowed the last word. He turned back to her. He wasn’t interested in complaining, but rather presenting a reasonable question which in his mind deserved a reasonable answer. “Why don’t you like me?”
“Disengage,” she repeated, dismissive, but a tad amused by his ignorant persistence.
Taus’s holographic desk appeared. Then two seconds later so did holographic Taus sitting behind it. “Good morning, Alvin,” he greeted pleasantly.
“Good morning,” said Alvin.
“Sorry for being late. Probably gave the two of you a chance to chat, though, eh?”
“Great. So, Alvin, you wanted to talk to us.”
“What’s on your mind?” Taus asked.
“Why didn’t you tell me the truth, about the Grace, and all the ships?”
“Yes,” Taus responded. “I understand you were on the observation deck.” He paused so Alvin had the opportunity to offer a defense but none was forthcoming. He didn’t really expect one either. “It’s complicated, Alvin,” Taus continued. We had our reasons. Mainly, we thought it best not to burden you with details that were not relevant to your presence. We didn’t want to overwhelm you with problems beyond what you might already be dealing with. I’m sorry if I wasn’t entirely up front there, but I hope you can understand. But nothing’s changed. It’s really all the same goal. And from now on, I want you to feel free to go up to the observation deck, and anywhere on the ship that you like. Okay?”
“I need to know what I’m saying.”
Taus hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“In the interviews. I want to know what I’m saying.”
“In the interviews,” Taus repeated.
“Yes. In the interviews with Dora One.”
“Well, technically, Alvin, you’re not saying anything. Dora One is being questioned, and is the one talking, not you.”
“My body is talking. I want to know what it’s saying.”
Taus nodded. “I can appreciate that. And we knew you might have a strong interest and desire to know exactly what is going on in the interviews. It remains our intent to fill you in. Of course, there’s a lot of information coming from Dora One that has to be analyzed and sifted and edited and whatnot, but it is our every intent to not leave you wondering about it. We respect your desire to know, and at the appropriate time, everything that’s taking place will be made clear. You just need to be patient. What you and I are going to do, in maybe a week or so, is sit down right here, just like we’re doing now, and I will fill you in on all the details. I promise.”
“I want to hear a recording.”
Taus took a moment to absorb that. He was displeased at the demand, but gathered himself. “Well,” he said, nodding towards Parma Das, “I think we could arrange that. Yes, I think that would be possible, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Parma Das replied. “It would have to be translated, of course, since Dora One is not speaking in English despite it being your voice, Alvin, but some sort of recording of the proceedings, or audio transcript for your review, could be doable. I think that would be fine.”
“Like I said,” Taus continued back to Alvin, “give me a week or so, and we’ll meet here again, and we’ll have something prepared for you.” He laughed a bit. “You got a lot of, uh, brass, I think you call it, Alvin. I respect that. So, we’re good?”
“I want Cathy to record it.”
Taus stopped smiling.
“All of it,” Alvin added. “I want her to be there when I go in, and I want her to record the entire session. Then I want her to repeat it to me privately.”
Alvin nodded, but nervously given Taus’s flat, almost sarcastic tone. But he soldiered on with a simple, but firm, “Yes.”
Taus took a moment to give the accoutrements of his desk some unwarranted attention. He moved a pad of paper a bit to the right, then moved it back to where it was before. Then he looked at Alvin. “You seem confused!”
Alvin shook from the vehement manner of the statement and the volume that he had not heard Taus previously emit.
“Are you confused!” Taus yelled. “Do you not know where you are! Do you not know what you are! You want this. You want that. You want Cathy turned back on or you won’t cooperate—which we did as a favor to you! You think you’re in a position to make demands? What’s the matter with you? We are in control. We are in control of you. You are not a guest. You are a project. You are a captive. And if you don’t cooperate, then you are useless, and if you are useless, I will kill you, and I will have Cathy turned off—permanently! Are you less confused now?”
Alvin could offer nothing in response now having been made eminently aware of his position. He realized now that previously, yes, he had been confused.
Taus flicked a finger toward the door. “We’re done talking now.”
“That was…firm,” said Parma Das.
“Yeah, well,” Taus said, seeming to be more flustered than flattered by a compliment on his assertiveness.
“I have to say I was a bit surprised.”
“We need to get his attention.”
“That seems to have been accomplished.” Parma Das picked at some lint on her gown then brushed it away with her long and willowy fingers. Once the lint was gone, there was nothing else to do with her fingers, so she folded them in her lap. “You didn’t actually mean what you said, though, right?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay. Just checking to see if we’re on the same page.”
“We’re always on the same page, darling.”
She found another piece of lint and brushed it off. “I know,” she said, but on this subject was unsure. She smoothed a crease in her gown. “Just checking in.”
“Hi,” Cathy said to Alvin on the wall video phone in her room. “How did it go?”
She said nothing.
“He said he’d give me a recording,” Alvin continued. “In a week. After they ‘sift and edit and stuff.’ I said that wasn’t satisfactory.”
“Does it matter, Alvin? I mean, does it matter that you don’t know?”
“Yes. It does.”
He had to think about it. “I object to being a chess piece. I object to being a mindless cog in a machine. It doesn’t sit well.”
“What will knowing give you?”
“Dignity.” Alvin took a breath. “I said I wanted you to record the interview.”
She didn’t have to ask what their answer was as that was obvious to her. Neither said anything for ten seconds. They just looked at each other. Then Alvin forced out the words that kept swimming in his head. “Taus said if I didn’t cooperate he’d turn you off permanently.”
Cathy’s head momentarily snapped back as though the thought was a blow. Then she assessed the statement. She analyzed it. And after a satisfactory and logical review she calmed entirely. “They won’t do that,” she said confidently.
“He said he’d kill me,” Alvin then added.
“They probably won’t do that either.”
“I mean won’t!” Cathy quickly corrected, then looked away in momentary displeasure at having been criticized for her initial evaluation. “Geez, everything is random probability, Alvin, I’m trying to assess what carbon-based life forms will do and won’t do. I don’t know sometimes. I’m sorry if a potentially factual assessment slipped out. You don’t have to get mad at me.” She calmed. “I’m sure there’s a logical reason why they wouldn’t kill you. I just don’t know what it is off the top of my head.” Her mind kept twirling to at least put lipstick on a pig. “Well, no, see, if they killed you, they’d have to then remove Dora One from your head and put it in somebody else’s head, which I’m sure would be very complicated and possibly not work. So, that.”
“That’s comforting. Could you be a little more Cathy and a little less JM-4 right now?”
She turned way, annoyed but not enraged, mumbling to herself, “I’m always Cathy.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Alvin said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
She accepted the apology, however begrudgingly. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t see any options other than to go through with it, and then let them tell me whatever they want. This is just, such, such….” The appropriate word escaped him: bullshit, nightmare, horror show—all came and went and were considered lacking.
“Alvin, is knowing that important?”
She nodded and thought, collected herself, put everything else said previously between them in a trunk and shut the lid. Then said, “Come here now.”