Saturday, October 09, 2010

Yet Still More Antisocial

Chapter 4 of Antisocial!:


Zev walked in the front door of Armstrong & Associates and approached the reception desk. The General had retained, as receptionist, Major Janice Barbara, career military, formerly of the Elite Computer Virus Task Force, and, Zev thought, intensely psychotic. As he entered and before he could attract her attention, the phone rang.

“What do you want?” she growled into the phone. “What?...Who the hell are you?...Is that name supposed to mean something to me?...He is, is he? I bet...Are you for real or am I going to have to shove a grenade up your ass?...All right, douchebag...Please hold.” She pressed some buttons and hung up the phone. She noticed Zyzzyx, grunted, then pointed with her thumb over her shoulder to the corridor behind her.

“Good to see you again, too,” he said as he passed.

Zev grimaced, then walked down a short carpeted corridor past a half dozen closed wooden doors until he came to a conference room. Inside, General Armstrong 7 was leaning against the table. He looked much the same as he did when last Zev saw him five years earlier. He had lost a little weight, but was still meaty and compact, with a jowly face that made him look more than a little like the bulldog in old Warner Bros. cartoons. He was pushing seventy, but still looked like he could beat the crap out of anyone. And he could, though he tried to do less of that sort of thing these days. The General, who had been born Armstrong Q. Piddle, got married four years earlier to an extraterrestrial, and his new wife insisted he take her name (“7”). He hadn’t put up much of a fight.

He was joined by a blonde, early twentysomething woman whom Zev did not know. Sitting in a chair, looking forlorn, was Tharbax Cannuuttuu. The General saw Zev in the doorway and beckoned him inside.

“You know, General,” said Zev, “if you’re having trouble attracting clients, I think I may have discovered your weak link. Might I suggest an automated phone system?”

“Zev Zyzzyx,” he said in a businesslike fashion, without the slightest indication that they had not seen each other in almost five years, “this is UTa, one of my associates.” He indicated the blonde woman.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking UTa’s hand.

She stared at him blankly.

“UTa,” said the General, “English, ‘nice to meet you.’”

“Nice to meet you,” said UTa.

“Okay, then,” said Zev, a little confused. Then, to Tharbax, who was looking at them impatiently, “You’re sure it was the Ziij?”

“Most assuredly.”

“Do you have visual evidence? It’s recommended that all ships have a visual recording system.”

There was no such thing as galactic law yet—although that was one of the things that Armstrong & Associates was working on—so “recommendations” were the best they could manage.

“Of course.” He turned to the doorway. “Muutuu!”

Two Aldeberans who had been waiting in an adjacent office entered. They were jointly carrying a large wooden crate of the kind used to transport fine art. They set the crate down at the far end of the conference room and began to slowly and carefully lift out a canvas.

“Oil on canvas, five feet by three feet. This is one of Muutuu’s best pieces,” said Tharbax. “He painted it during the attack. I think he truly captures the hostile energy of the attackers.”

Muutuu and the other Aldeberan held up the canvas between them. Zev, Armstrong, and UTa stared blankly at it.

This is your visual recording system?” said Zev.

“What is it?” asked the General.

“I admit it’s abstract,” said Tharbax.

“Abstract? It’s a completely black canvas,” said the General.

Muutuu looked hurt.

“No, it’s not completely black. Muutuu, bring it a little closer. First of all, the lighting in here is appalling, but if it were not, you could tell that the shade of black changes subtly over the width of the canvas, representing the disruption of space itself. If you look ve-e-e-ry closely at the right side of the painting, about halfway down, there is a tiny gray speck.”

Zev and Armstrong leaned in close an stared at the canvas.

“Okay, so there is,” said the General.

“Well, that’s the Gadabout I, a tiny speck in the utter vastness of space, rendered even tinier by this vile attack.”

“Ah,” said Zev, rubbing his forehead. “It’s not...compelling evidence...”

“It’s merely recommended that we have a visual recording system. No one has specified the exact nature of it. Admittedly, Muutuu is a bit more abstract than the artist we normally employ...”

“Okay, thanks,” said Armstrong to Muutuu, and the Aldeberans packed the painting back up. “Fortunately, we have a statement from the Ziij grand exalted leader—sorry, Grand Exalted Leader—taking responsibility for the attack, claiming they were provoked.”

“Provoked!” said Tharbax. “A monstrous slur! We have had no contact with any member of the Ziij for at least two Aldeberan years. It’s entirely possible they might interpret that as a slight, but the Ziij have always made it very clear that they are the ones to initiate any contact, and we have simply been acceding to their request. In the meantime, will you, General, kindly lend us your assistance in launching a counterattack?”

“Now just calm down,” said General Armstrong. In truth, he would love nothing but to launch a wave of intense destruction against the Ziij, but he had set up his consultancy to avoid such things and resolve interplanetary disputes in a more civilized manner. In time, Tharbax would see the wisdom in that philosophy. More importantly, though, the Ziij were one of only a tiny handful of planets in the galaxy that was actually able launch an interplanetary attack. Earth certainly couldn’t. It had cost a fortune and a three-year U.N. and U.S. Congressional boondoggle just getting the funding to build a shuttle to get to and from the nearest wormhole depot.

“I think the matter deserves a bit more investigation before we start a war,” said Zev.

“Investigation? What is there to investigate? They attacked my beautiful ship and decimated my wine cellar. And you two are well aware of the role that the Gadabout I plays in interplanetary relations. In fact, it was I who provided the means for you both establishing galactic amity. So when I-“

The General held up his hand. “Yes, yes, yes, we’re all well aware of this. But what if the whole thing were the result of a simple misunderstanding? It could escalate and claim many thousands or millions of lives needlessly.”

“Oh, I think you’d say quite needfully if you saw what they did to my oak floors.”

“Tharbax,” said Zev, “just give us a couple of days to make contact with the Ziij Grand Exalted Leader and find out what’s going on. Remember, if they launch a counter-counterattack, they could very well end up destroying more than your wine cellar.”

Tharbax thought about that a moment. “Very well. I give you two of your days while we effect repair on our ship. But after that, if this situation is still unresolved, I shall go elsewhere to seek redress of my grievances.” Zev had a vague hunch what he meant by “elsewhere,” and the result would not be good.

“Agreed,” said the General.

Tharbax marched out of the room, followed by the other two Aldberans carrying the re-crated artwork. Zev and Armstrong both sat down heavily at the table.

“What do you think?” asked Zev.

“Aside from a prepared statement, we’ve been unable to make any contact at all with the Ziij. We don’t know what the problem is, or what this so-called ‘provocation’ was. And they’re a pretty ornery race even on a good day. I need to get Pock and Jet to hack into their planetary communication system and make some back-channel inquiries, but I have no idea where they’ve gone.”

“Pock and Jet? That’s strange. You tried calling them?”

“As you know, Pock doesn’t have a cellphone.”

“What about the bar?”

“That’s the first place I thought of. I sent Jet out to get him and now Jet doesn’t respond to phone calls, texts, or e-mails. It’s like they just vanished off the face of the Earth.”

“If he’s not in his office, it’s possible Pock is lying in a gutter somewhere, blind stinking sober,” said Zev.

“I know. That’s what worries me. Or one of the things. I have a whole list of worries somewhere.”

“Do you want me to see what I can dig up?”

“Leave Pock and Jet to me. The Ziij situation is more urgent. I want you to take UTa to the House Despot on Sprawlnia.”

“The home improvement superstore?” He grimaced. He hated that place. “What on Earth for?”

“The general manager is Ziij, and he’s the only off-homeworld Ziij that anyone knows of in the entire galaxy. Maybe he can give you some clues until I can find Pock and Jet.”

“You don’t want me to go to the planet Ziij itself?”

“Not without knowing what kind of a reception you’d get,” said the General.

“That’s a fair point. I’ll head out at once.” Zev turned to UTa. “Do you speak Ziij?”

“UTa speaks every language in the galaxy.”

“You mean...”

“Yes, she’s a Universal Translator.”

Zev stared intently at UTa, who stared blankly back at him. “I’ve heard of Universal Translators but never actually met one.”

“You’ll find that one of the drawbacks of the Universal Translators is that their minds are so crammed full of vocabulary and grammar rules that there is no residual brainpower to initiate or even participate conversation. She just translates. Watch. UTa, Swahili, ‘My name is UTa.’”

She snapped to attention. “Jina langu ni UTa.”

“Interesting,” said Zev. “UTa, French, ‘Let’s go.’”

UTa stared blankly at him and remained silent. Zev looked at Armstrong.

“Well, almost every language in the galaxy,” said the General.

“Ah.” Zev turned back to UTa. “Shall we go?”

Said the General, “UTa, Ziij, ‘Let’s go.’”

Said UTa, “Ghiik nom.”

“I can see we’re going to be having some rather one-sided conversations.”

Zev and UTa headed out toward the next shuttle to the nearest wormhole depot.

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