foreign affairs

This story started out as a writing assignment for a writing class. The assignment was to write a passage imitating an author I admire. I attempted to copy Neal Stephenson’s voice in the first paragraph. Once I had made that attempt I thought what the heck why not see where this might go as a story. So, I give you Foreign Affairs.

On a crisp fall morning in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, in time to the chirping rhythms designed to aid sight impaired individuals know which street to cross, Aldous Thundershanks stepped off the curb at the corner of Second South and State street in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aldous had more important matters on his mind than trivia, like which light was green and which light was red. The moment before that step, Aldous had received a message on his phone, the contents of which drew his considerable eyebrows together in a tangle reminiscent of the Amazonian jungle. As he took his second step, his eyebrows unknitted themselves in a process resembling untangling snarled cords and his mouth rounded into a perfect O. Those massive eyebrows just had time to leap impossibly far up his forehead when a bicycle messenger shouting vile curses arrowed into Aldous’ outstretched leg, spinning him hard into the asphalt. In a failed attempt to avert disaster, Aldous threw out his hand for balance. Unfortunately, that hand held his phone and extending it only added to the force with which it slammed into the ground, shattering its screen. On the pavement, blood streaming from a cut on his forehead, starred glasses turning the world into a crazed Kaleidoscope, Aldous Thundershanks was numb, his every sense focused on the text he’d received in his erstwhile phone—“Emergency protocol Alpha invoked. Report immediately to rendezvous Tempest Five. A sentinel is gone.”  

Anxious hands helped Aldous to his feet.

“Are you okay, man?” The bike messenger brushed wet leaves from Aldous’ suit coat. At other times the damage to his Mr. Mac two for one suit would have annoyed Aldous, but the words “protocol Alpha” and “Tempest Five” tolled doom in his mind drowning out everything else. It was too soon; they weren’t ready. With a worried glance at his shattered phone, he pivoted and strode back the way he’d come.

“I’m sorry,” the messenger shouted at Aldous’ back. “He stepped right in front of me,” the messenger explained to a bystander.

Weaving among pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk, Aldous stuffed his useless phone in a pocket and fished out a flip phone. When he’d received training on this device, he’d prayed he’d never have to use it. Now, he cursed his luck. This day was never supposed to come in his lifetime. That it had, was tragedy enough, but why today of all days? A flick of his thumb and the phone popped open. The number string sprang to his mind and he tapped it out. That done, he hit a final three number combination and tossed the phone to the gutter where it steamed. Somewhere deep in the bowls of Earth’s telecom system, software packages were opening up and sending activation signals.

Wetness trailing down his cheek and odd looks from people he passed reminded him of his injury. After a moment’s hesitation, he decided his suit was beyond saving anyway and swiped a sleeve across his forehead smearing blood onto the coat. With his phone out of commission, its shattered screen wouldn’t function, he’d have to find another way to alert Mari. Once in the facility, he’d be isolated. The system he’d just activated would provide her with directions, but the compulsion to say good bye forced his hand. His associates had warned him away from the relationship, but he’d ignored them.

“You will pay a price,” his friend Merrick had said.

“Maybe,” Aldous had responded, “but whatever price that is, I’m willing to pay it.”

Now he stared at the bill.

Another trickle. He swiped again. Ahead, a neatly bearded man sat on the edge of a concrete planter fiddling with his phone. With another swipe to remove the worst of the blood, Aldous stopped in front of the man and cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” Aldous said. The man refused to acknowledge him. Aldous tried again. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’ve just ruined my phone and I desperately need to text my wife. It’s an emergency.”

Head down, focused on his phone, the bearded man didn’t respond.

With a sigh—Aldous hated this sort of thing—he drew his SIG Sauer P320, flipped the safety with an audible snick, placed its barrel under the man’s chin and raised it. He didn’t want to kill the man, but now or within a day, the man was dead either way.

Eyes the size of quarters, the man sputtered. “What the hell?”

“I require you phone,” Aldous said, “just for a moment, then you can have it right back.”

The man’s eyes flicked wildly, searching passersby for help. No one met his gaze. In Aldous’ experience, most people wouldn’t react to this sort of blatant display of force. Either they would pretend it wasn’t really happening or they’d make up a story for themselves in which the gun wasn’t real or the two of them were engaged in an elaborate game, anything to support their sincere desire not to become involved.

“Now, please,” Aldous said. “I have enough blood on my clothes as it is.” Truly, Aldous disliked the terror now shaking the man causing him to fumble the phone and nearly drop it. Aldous mouth turned down in distaste at the stink. As a young man, Aldous never believed that fear smelled. It had seemed to him a creation of fiction writers with overactive imaginations. His mind had changed when he’d first smelled it on himself. Now, the man positively reeked of the heavy musk. Aldous noted more of a urine tint to this one’s smell. With a glance, Aldous understood. A spreading wetness in the man’s crotch accounted for it.

Aldous took the offered phone and with a practiced hand engaged the messenger app and tapped in Mari’s number. “The day has arrived, my love. I’m on a stranger’s phone, but it’s me. We knew it might happen. Remember the plan. If we survive, I will find you. Love forever, A.”

He tossed the phone back. “Thank you,” Aldous said and set off again. At his car, Aldous slid into the driver’s seat and it hit him. He strangled the steering wheel against the tremors. His body shook under each blow of his pounding heart. And the smell. Yes, fear filled the car. After a moment, the wave passed and his training took control. Get to the rendezvous point. He found the indentation on the steering wheel and pressed it. He was about to surprise a few earthers. With a grim smile, he pressed the hollow, and the engine thrummed to life. “Tempest Five,” Aldous said, and his car shot into the air at two thousand miles per hour. Inertia dampened, Aldous felt as if he were standing still. At eighty thousand feet, the car’s program stopped his ascent and hurtled him forward. Sorrow took the place of his fading fear. He’d thought he had time, time for a normal life. If that word described anything about his relationship with a human. His great eyebrows twisted and tangled together again in concern. Mari was safe from the initial assault. He had to believe that their precautions sufficed to preserve their chosen few from the first assault. But if he and his colleagues failed, their efforts were futile.

Half an hour later, above a peak in Alaska’s Brooks Range, the car halted and dropped toward a snow-covered peak. Just before smashing into the mountainside, a thousand square feet disappeared and Aldous’ car sank into the hole. A roof reformed overhead as his car settled to the ground.

“Status,” Aldous said as he left the car, his voice echoing in the cavernous space.

Light suffused the cave glowing from the rock walls revealing six desks at which sat three men and two women. Peter, Harold, and Weston occupied the three on the right, Rita and Carly the two on the left. Carly waved at Aldous as he strode to the empty desk. In his vision, a scene unfolded. Into a star flecked view a ship appeared. Aldous’ stomach clenched at the ship’s distinctive curved lines. Clordan. They’d suspected, of course. If they spotted the signs, the Clordan might too. Sparks fled from the ship, heading at Aldous. Within seconds they expanded into missiles. The picture winked out. A notation showed the time. Two hours ago.

“How they found the sentinel is a mystery,” Carly said, her head shake sending her hair in long black curls swaying. “Lucky for us, the sentinel got the jump drone away before it bit the dust.”

Lucky indeed, if they’d had to rely on the EM signal, they wouldn’t have known the Clordan had arrived until it was all over. Aldous plunked into the chair before the empty desk. With a wave of his hand, the display above the desk lit, showing the solar system from above the plane of the ecliptic. A bright red star marked the sentinel’s former position. Marked in green, their weapons assets sparked in the darkness. Scattered evenly in a sphere centered on the sun and roughly the diameter of the asteroid belt, those thirty assets were poised to swarm to the Clordan ship. They had been scattered because no one knew from which direction the Clordan would arrive. But they had also counted on surprise, assuming the first contact would be a lone unit, something they could handle before the entire planet was destroyed. With surprise, odds were good they could contain the damage. Their sentinel’s destruction shot that theory in the head. There had been no surprise, and the Clordan ship had disappeared. It would reappear in a matter of minutes and destroy Earth.

Cotton in his mouth, Aldous tapped into the network looking for the status on his assigned sector. He knew what was coming next. His unit checked out, active and ready. A quick glance showed that was true for his group and the other four Tempests.

“We should bug out,” Weston said. “It’s a loss.”

His logic was impeccable. Upon detecting signs of sentience, the Clordan sent a lone ship to cleanse the infection. They adjusted their methods to the inhabitants’ technological sophistication. In Earth’s case that would consist of anti matter weapons delivered to every concentration of a thousand or more humans. Some would survive the initial blasts, but the follow on dust-triggered perma winter would take care of those. And the Clordan would leave behind spy drones patiently waiting to discover if any humans clawed their way back to using the EM spectrum or artificial lighting. At which point the Clordan would schedule another visit. Aldous and his people hadn’t developed an ability to predict a Clordan ship’s jump point.  What they had done before and once again in Earth’s system was to scatter weapons ready to pounce on the Clordan ship and destroy it when it appeared.  

Unfortunately, the Clordan always unleashed their weapons before they were themselves destroyed. So Aldous and his compatriots constructed underground bunkers in which a critical mass could be saved, removed to another planet, and instructed how to form a civilization without giving themselves away to the Clordan in the future. Unless the Clordan knew Aldous and his people had been to a planet, in which case the first strike was much more thorough. Because the Clordan had discovered Aldous’ people, when the Clordan next appeared in Sol’s system, Aldous and his people wouldn’t have enough time to prevent Earth’s total annihilation. Logically, their best course of action was to recall their assets, cut their losses and abandon humanity to its fate.

Rita, Harold, and Peter logged their assent. Acid churned his stomach, and Aldous wished he could calm this human body. Her eyes locked on Aldous’, Rita hesitated. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I know you—

“You know nothing,” Aldous said, fuming. “We can’t abandon these people.”

Eyebrow raised, Peter chimed in. “You mean you can’t abandon those people.” Suspicion pinching his face, Peter continued. “Merrick told me you were too involved. I laughed at him. ‘Not our Aldous,’ I said. ‘Aldous knows better than that.’ But he was right, wasn’t he?”

Sweat prickling his forehead from a sudden heat, Aldous swept away his desk’s display with an angry gesture. He wouldn’t give up; he couldn’t give up. They had to help him. Peter didn’t speak for his group, and he hadn’t consulted the other four groups. Breathing hard, Aldous’ eyes flicked to the others. Harold and Rita were with Peter and Weston. Carly was on the fence. If he persuaded her, she might bring the others along. Aldous closed his eyes and brought his breathing under control. An angry outburst wouldn’t convince anyone. When he opened his eyes, he caught and held Carly’s gaze. “Remember Otozon V?”

Carly’s mouth lifted in a half smile.

“You were at Otozon?” Peter said, his head swiveling between Carly and Aldous.

“You know it’s not hopeless,” Aldous said to Carly, ignoring Peter. “We proved that at Otozon.”

Harold scoffed. “No one has yet replicated that victory. It was a one off. You guessed the Clordan ship’s entry point. You got lucky.”

Carly’s smile faded.

“It wasn’t luck,” Aldous said. “Carly, you know that because we did it together. And look!” With a gesture, a miniature holo of Earth’s system popped up about the desk. “Remind you of anything?”

Carly peered at the model. Her forehead creased as she concentrated. She gasped and straightened.

“Yes,” Aldous said, “I didn’t see it either until a few days ago.”

“What do you see, Carly?” Peter asked.

Carly pointed at the holo. “That geometry. Eight planets, four of which are gas or ice giants in the outer system and the inhabited planet, third from the star, with a sizeable moon. Same as Otozon.”

“And?” Weston said.

“That’s how we knew where the Clordan ship would appear when it attacked the third world,” Aldous said in triumph. “And how we’ll know where it will appear when it prepares to destroy Earth.”

“We tried to tell Central,” Carly said in dismay. “We showed scientists at Central our calculations and tried to convince them to research our method to generalize it beyond the one system configuration, but no one listened. They said it was luck and buried our work.” She turned to Weston, pleading. “Aldous is right. We can’t abandon Earth, not when we know how to save it.”

Weston’s lips firmed into a line and his eyes hardened. “I didn’t want to do this, but you’ve left me no choice, Aldous. Tell Carly and the rest what really is driving your decision.”

Aldous couldn’t breathe. Fear gripped his thoughts and held them. How had he found out?

Into the silence Weston said, “I don’t wonder at your reluctance, Aldous.” Eyes fixed on Aldous, Weston continued, “Aldous here used his host body to impregnate a female human.”

Hearing it said aloud, Aldous flinched. Carly recoiled, covering her mouth as if she’d discovered Aldous carried a deadly contagious disease.

It was one of the fundamental rules of their service. When embodied in another species, never use that body to procreate. The resulting attachments were too strong. They warped an agent’s judgment, prevented the agent from making hard decisions. And it was true. When he had met Marianne, he had intended never to let her into his heart and when she wormed her way in anyway he vowed to have no children, but this body’s pull was powerful and Mari had so wanted a child. And this was never supposed to happen. He was meant to live out a full life in this body before the Clordan showed up. He had been on his way to meet Mari for their first ultrasound when he had received the text.

When he found his voice, Aldous pleaded. “Yes, you’re right. I violated one of our principal directives and with my whole being I want to save Mari and our child, but that doesn’t change the fact that I know where the Clordan ship will appear and we can save Earth.” 

Peter shook his head in sorrow. “I’ll tell you what your entanglement does change. It changes whether you would exaggerate or out right lie about your ability to determine where that ship will appear.”

“We can’t trust you now, Aldous,” Rita said.

Lead in his stomach, Aldous turned to Carly. “Tell them, Carly. Tell them—”

“I thought I knew you, Aldous,” Carly said in horror. “I never thought you capable of….”

“Enough,” Weston said. “I’ve communicated our recommendation and the other Tempests have agreed. We’re jumping our assets to the base at Ceres. We’ll travel there as well, transfer from these human forms and leave.”

And there it was. Without his team’s help, Aldous’ chances of success were vanishingly small. Remaining behind meant almost certain death. But what awaited him if he left? When he’d taken this assignment, he had understood it meant living his life out on an alien world. He had already severed ties with the world of his birth. Nothing was left there for him. His life was here on Earth. That was a consequence of the prohibition he’d violated, but it couldn’t be helped now. The love of his life was here. His family was here. Death with them was preferable to life without them. Resolve transformed his face to stone. He would save Earth or die trying. “I’m staying,” Aldous said.

“Don’t, Aldous,” Carly said, pleading. “You can’t save her. ”

“You don’t know that, Carly,” Aldous said.

“Yes, I do,” Carly said, pleading. “What does adding your death to hers accomplish?”

Aldous turned to Weston. “Please Weston, leave the assets. Let me at least try to save the humans.”

Weston shook his head. “You know how valuable they are,” Weston said, his voice heavy with regret. “Headquarters will need them elsewhere.”

Carly took her lip in her teeth, and indecision wrinkled her forehead. Then her face cleared, and she squared her shoulders. “I told you Weston,” she said. “He’s right. Aldous may have compromised his objectivity, but I haven’t compromised mine. We have a chance to save Earth. And regardless of Aldous’ actions,” her nose wrinkled with disgust, “we can’t let his indiscretion sway us from our mission.”

Fists clenched, Aldous held his breath. Carly’s unexpected aid was welcome, but he was unsure if it would be enough to persuade Weston. A decision to stay and fight would itself violate their protocols. If they were unsuccessful, Weston would suffer.

“I think we should give it a shot,” Peter said. “That victory at Otozon was one of the few bright spots we’ve had in the last thirty years.” He shrugged. “We won’t improve unless we do something different and different means going outside the regs.”

Lips compressed, Weston considered Aldous for a long moment. Finally, he sighed. “I don’t like it, but Peter’s right we need to change tactics and Carly vouches for you so….” He turned to his desk and raised a communication holo, contacting the other Tempests. “We have new information. We believe we can predict the Clordan entry point. I strongly recommend we stay and fight.” He glanced at Aldous with a faint smile. “Let’s nail these bastards.”

Aldous let out his held breath and sagged against his desk. Relief gave way to determination. “Help me here, Carly.”

Together they focused on the calculations while Weston and the others coordinated jumping the assets to near earth orbit. Powered by compact fusion reactors, the weapons platforms boasted a particle beam weapon and one antimatter missile. If they correctly calculated the Clordan jump point, they could amass all twenty platforms at that point to greet the Clordan ship.

Aldous’ fingers flew across his virtual keyboard. They’d wasted too much time arguing. Any second now the Clordan ship would appear. They had to know where. Carly swept a hand across her desk. Her calculations flashed into Aldous’ display. He integrated her results. There! Half way between Earth and its moon. That’s where it’d be. He threw the coordinates to Weston. Weston twisted his hand and twenty-five platforms popped up in Aldous’ display. In a globe, the platforms surrounded the point where—

The Clordan ship emerged from alt space. And loosed a dozen missiles at Earth. Platforms directed their energy weapons at the missiles and fired missiles of their own at the Clordan ship.

“They’re preparing to jump!” Weston shouted.

Aldous gripped the edge of his desk, muscles on his forearms popping out. He riveted his eyes on Clordan missile tracks. One, two, three flashes signaled the destruction of those deadly weapons. If even one escaped, it would devastate Earth. Another. Three more to go. A lightening flash and expanding gas ball signaled the end of the Clordan ship.

Another missile down. Two left.  Something hammered at Aldous’ chest. A flash. One left.

“It’s almost to the atmosphere,” Carly said. Once in the atmosphere, the chances of destroying it cratered.

“C’mon,” Aldous muttered

“Directing all assets at that missile,” Weston said.

The missile inched toward the atmosphere.

A flash. Aldous pounded the desk and threw up his arms in victory. “Yes!” he shouted.

Peter flashed a huge grin and grabbed Rita in a big hug, twirling her around. Even Harold slapped Weston on the back and pumped a fist.

Weston slumped into his chair and shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day. An entire planet, a whole population saved. Just like at Otozon.”

“Which means,” Carly said, “we’d best get started.”

Aldous nodded, his euphoria fading. Carly was right. After Otozon, they’d had to evacuate the entire population to a new planet hidden from the Clordan. It was an enormous undertaking. And for him personally, it would be complicated.

“I’ll jump back to headquarters and start the process,” Weston said. He stepped to Aldous’ side and gripped his shoulder. “I’m sorry I doubted you, Aldous.” He clapped Aldous’ back. “You did outstanding work, you and Carly.”

Later, Aldous steered his car into the garage, shut off the engine and stared at the dashboard, twisting his hands on the steering wheel. Mari would return from the shelter any minute now.  Exhilaration from his victory had faded. He ran his tongue across dry lips. She’d have a lot of questions. He really needed to be in the house to greet her, but his hand wouldn’t move to the door handle. Mari didn’t know about him, about where he came from and why he was here. He had told her he was an important government official who had arranged for her evacuation to a special shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. She didn’t know her life on Earth was finished and the stars awaited. She didn’t know he had been born and raised to maturity in what to her would be a misshapen octopus. But he had to tell her. An anvil in his stomach, Aldous opened the door and dragged himself from the car.

Twenty minutes later, another car pulled into the garage.

“Honey? Aldous?” Mari said as she threw her keys on the kitchen counter. Aldous appeared and opened his arms. Mari stepped into his hug and squeezed. After a moment, she leaned back and searched his face. “That was strange. From your message, I thought this was the real thing and I might not see you again.” She pulled him back into her embrace. “I’m so glad they said it was a test. But please don’t scare me like that again. I don’t think I could survive it.”

“I’m glad too, sweetie,” Aldous said. “I couldn’t live without you.” Aldous released her, took her by the hand and led her to the living room. Seated next to her on the couch, Aldous held her hand and stared into her eyes, struggling to find the words that would change her life forever.

Eyebrows contorted in puzzlement, Mari cocked her head. “What is it? It was a drill, right? Everything’s okay now?”

Aldous fought through the dread and took a deep breath. “Mari, darling, I have something I need to tell you.”

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