If he ignored the lurking sense of uselessness that sulked constantly at the back of his mind, Nils told himself, it was a great day.
To be fair, he wasn’t wrong. The yellow sun overhead cast down its gentle warmth on civilized Ehftia, and a gentle breeze blew across the glassy walkways. This close to one of the warm freshwater oceans, there was always a slight little hint of moisture and freshness in the air. The thread-thin glassine supports that held up the walkways in suspension, high above the ground, vibrated tightly as the air blew through them. Nils was slightly shy of his fortieth birthday, but he still appreciated the mildly reduced gravity of Ehftia.
It was, Nils reminded himself, the dream appointment of any diplomat. He ought to be thrilled at this posting.
And yet, try as he might, he couldn’t shake that little sense of useless melancholy.
Reaching his building, Nils passed through the open doorway. The Ehft, he’d found, were not big believers in the need for solid doors. And really, why should they bother? Here on their home world, there were no bugs to swat away, no hazardous weather to keep out. The most that the Ehft ever received was a light shower of rain, and they cleverly angled and curved their buildings to blow that rain right past the entrances.
Of course, bathrooms had been a rather sore spot, Nils thought to himself with a little chuckle. Xenobiology was back in fashion as a popular field of study, but many potential xenobiologists quickly changed their tune when they realized that one of the most pressing problems was designing a multi-species bathroom.
Here in his building, fortunately enough, Nils had managed to convince the Ehft that doors were necessary. “A long-standing custom of our species that must be respected,” he recalled telling one of the meter-tall little birdlike aliens.
“Morning, Nils! Anything new on the docket?” Charlie, Nils’s second in command, greeted him cheerily as he entered the office.
Nils shook his head at the younger man behind the desk. “Afraid not, Charlie. No update from home. Maintain diplomatic relations, don’t promise anything.”
Charlie’s grin spread a little wider, and the young man kicked back in his seat, propping his long, lanky legs up on the desk. “Sounds good to me, boss. Maybe I’ll cut out early, go try and convince the birds that surfing’s a worthwhile hobby.”
The young man was truly irrepressible. Nils had watched Charlie attempt several times to convince the Ehft that riding a long, flattened spar of wood along the gentle breakers that swept into the bay of Apteryx was fun.
The Ehft, smartly enough, had watched politely, clucking their beaks softly in respectful acknowledgement, and then kept their distance.
Stepping into his office, Nils dropped down into the chair behind his own desk, running his eyes over the mostly empty surface in front of him. His nameplate caught his eye, and he ran a finger over it to wipe off any nonexistent dust.
“Nils Ekstrom, Displomatic Science Policy Advisor to the Ehft,” he read off aloud, unable to keep a note of sarcasm from creeping into his voice. “Sure, Tomlinson. Whatever you say.”
He dropped the nameplate back down with another sigh. He could still remember, almost three years ago now, when the general himself had showed up at his office to deliver the news of his “promotion.”
At the time, of course, Nils hadn’t even hesitated in accepting the offer. Humanity’s fledgling little empire had just made contact with the Ehft, and the whole world was abuzz with energy and excitement. The first alien species still to be alive when discovered! And even better, the Ehft had similar interplanetary capabilities as the humans, and appeared friendly!
When General Tomlinson came to Nils with his offer, the whole world had been gripped with Ehft fever, if there was such a thing. Plush toys of little Ehft filled the markets, and speculation of joint ventures filled all hours of television programming. Just imagine, pundits cried out shrilly, what could be accomplished through the combination of Terran and Ehft technology!
Now, sitting in his empty office with nothing to do, Nils couldn’t help scoffing to himself. “Fat lot of nothing came from that,” he grumbled to himself.
It was true, unfortunately enough. Sure, the Ehft had figured out how to do some crazy tricks with magnets, and their spacefaring ships used a different drive propulsion system than Terran explorers, but there were no great leaps in knowledge to be drawn from these differences. Indeed, the Ehft quickly recognized that the Terran ion-acceleration drive was a superior system to their own magnetic flux drives, and began adapting their own systems to mimic the Terran model.
The commerce angle, another highly touted area of speculation by the pundits a couple of years back, had also fizzled into nothing. Ehftia turned out to be fairly poor in rare elements, and the Ehft technology didn’t show much advantage over Terran inventions. The Ehft also simply weren’t big consumers; instead of striving to outdo each other with bigger and more expensive gadgets and toys, they preferred to spend their free time engaged in freewheeling discussions and philosophical ponderings.
So far, Nils thought blackly to himself, even the most conniving Terran entrepreneurs hadn’t figured out how to establish a big sales base among the Ehft.
Over the last twenty-four months or so, communication and travel between the Ehft and the Terrans had largely declined. Only a couple of supply ships still bothered to take the long detour to Ehftia, and they mostly just carried a handful of tourist sightseers. The Terran government now seemed to be focusing on expanding in towards the galaxy’s center, moving away from the Ehft so as to best avoid any territorial disputes.
Dragging himself out of his thoughts of history, Nils forced himself to look through the light handful of documents on his desk. One of the Ehft kitchens wanted to try setting up a food import program, exchanging some of the bland but nutritious foodstuffs produced here for some classic Terran spices. Nils tried unsuccessfully to muster up some sort of enthusiasm for the program, but he just couldn’t quite pull it off.
His roaming eyes fell on the only decoration he’d brought to his office – an old classic Terran pistol, hanging in a wall-mounted glass case. Before he’d left the military service to take a position in the diplomatic corps, where he was less likely to be shot at, he’d been one of the best pistol shots, winning most of his unit’s competitions.
But there was no point in getting lost in misty-eyed recollection, Nils told himself with a shake of his head. Aside from Charlie, he was the only human in the city, quite possibly the whole planet. And while the Ehft were always polite enough, the little bird-like aliens didn’t really understand the idea of friendly competition.
Besides, he thought to himself, allowing himself a brief grin, the Ehft didn’t really possess the necessary evolutionary appendages for shooting. They were very dexterous with their beaks and taloned toes, but they didn’t gravitate towards the tool use like humans.
Nils looked back down at the other documents for his appraisal, but the buzz of his holocomm, the Ehft version of a telephone, came to his rescue. “Head Terran diplomat Nils Ekstrom,” he said as he hit the button to take the call.
“Yes, Diplomat Ekstrom,” replied the Ehft voice at the other end, managing quite passable Terran English. Nils was glad he wouldn’t have to strain his voice with the squawking Ehft tongue. “This is Khal, flight leader at the spaceport. I have an incoming shuttle, from the Terran freighter *Spaceman from Pluto*, requesting to speak with you.”
Nils frowned. He wasn’t expecting any messages, and didn’t recognize the ship’s name. “Uh, sure. Put them through.”
A pause for a moment. “That is, you wish for me to connect you now?” Khal asked. Clearly, the Ehft didn’t quite understand all the subtleties of English quite yet.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant. Connect me.”
The Ehft made the little beak-click that signaled assent, and the line crackled with static for a moment. After a few seconds, the static shifted. “Hello? Is this another person?” called out a female voice at the other end.
“This is Nils Ekstrom, the Diplomatic Science Policy Advisor to the Ehft – do you have a message-“ Nils started, but the voice cut him off before he could finish.
“Are you in charge?” Nils couldn’t be sure, given the rather rough comm connection, but he thought the woman on the other end sounded off, like something was wrong.
“Erm.” Nils had an unfortunate streak of honesty – not the best trait in a diplomat. “I’m in charge, but only because there’s not really anyone else here. Just me and Charlie.”
The woman at the other end of the connection let out what sounded like a huff of exasperation. “Ugh, listen. I’ve got secure information, something that I can’t send over a comm connection like this. I’m headed down to the spaceport now – can you get here by the time I land?”
The spaceport wasn’t far. Nils glanced once more at his meager pile of diplomatic duties, and then rolled his eyes. Who would even report him for leaving his post? Charlie certainly wouldn’t say anything. “Yeah, I’ll be there when you touch down,” he promised.
“Great. Get there now.” The woman on the other end of the line hung up.
For a moment, Nils stared down at the little black box of the holocomm. Had he grown too used to the overly polite Ehft? Were all humans this uncouth, and he simply hadn’t noticed before?
After a second, however, he hauled himself up from his chair and headed out of the office, towards the spaceport across the gently waving glass bridges. He sent one last glance at the displayed pistol in his office as he headed out, but he didn’t even consider taking it, removing it from its case. What danger could he face here in the heart of the civilized Ehft homeworld, in their capitol city?
Nils had anticipated that he would beat the descending shuttle to the spaceport by several minutes, but the shuttle was already touching down as he arrived. From the look and sound of the ship, the pilot had been in a hell of a hurry, he considered. The whole underside of the shuttle, coated in heat shielding, glowed a dull orange with excess heat, and the engines crackled and hissed as the exhaust vents cooled. The pilot must have been redlining the thing the whole way down, Nils thought to himself.
He hurried towards the landing pad as the shuttle’s door opened. A blonde-haired woman poked her head out, her expression set in a frown, which only deepened as she spotted Nils.
Not waiting for the shuttle’s little ramp to extend out, she hopped down to the ground and stalked towards Nils. “Are you that diplomat from the comm?” she demanded, not waiting for any introduction.
No, Nils thought to himself, it couldn’t be that all humans were this rude, and he’d merely grown too accustomed to the polite Ehft. This woman just happened to be especially impolite. “Yes, Nils Ekstrom,” he greeted her, holding out his hand. “And you are-“
“Sarah Walker, *Spaceman from Pluto* captain,” the woman replied, giving his hand a perfunctory shake, looking as though she was fulfilling a particularly distasteful favor. “Listen, this is important. Can you get a line open to Earth?”
Nils blinked. “And what,” he asked, drawing on his diplomatic stiffness, “is this regarding?”
The woman, Sarah, just stared back at him flatly. “We’re under attack,” she responded, glaring.
Again, the diplomat had to blink as he tried to wrap his head around these words. “Excuse me? Under attack? Who? From whom?”
Sarah shook her head, muttering something under her breath. Nils didn’t quite catch the words, but he correctly ascertained their meaning. “I don’t know,” she admitted tersely. “But I just came from Idris, and someone there was transmitting an emergency SOS.”
Idris. Nils knew the name. It was a small agricultural planet, owned by the Ehft and in their territory, but recently opened up to human settlers for expansion. Fairly remote from Ehftia, even more distant from Earth. “And this SOS stated something about an attack, maybe a failure of some equipment?” he asked, hoping his tone would soothe Sarah.
It didn’t seem to be doing the trick. “Not just an equipment failure. An attack. An alien attack.”
”It couldn’t have been some kind of miscommunication from the Ehft-“
“It was in English – from a Terran settler. She witnessed it firsthand. They got her husband.” Sarah’s eyes flashed, daring him to challenge her again.
Nils paused again – but this time, his brain was racing.
His first thought was that this sounded like it was definitely above his pay grade.
His second thought, however, was that he didn’t really have much choice but to handle it. He could escalate the information back to Earth, of course, but it would be days before he heard a response. At the moment, he was the highest ranked human within several light-years.
“Okay,” he said, surprising himself with the calmness of his voice. “Can you come back to my office and give a full report?”
Sarah nodded, reaching up and brushing a few strands of her blonde hair back behind an ear. “Yeah, sure,” she said. “It’s not like I’m losing money sitting on a shipment. After getting that SOS, I figured I needed to haul ass back here and pass on the message.”
“Probably smartest,” Nils agreed, gesturing to the freighter captain. “Let’s head up to my office, and I can get all the details.”
As he led the stressed-looking woman up to his building, Nils eyed her, trying to get a good assessment of her. She looked to be in her early to mid thirties, perhaps, he guessed, although age was difficult to even calculate for freighter merchants. A trim figure, suggesting she kept in shape on her long flights. That spoke to inner strength, perhaps less likely to lie.
In any case, Nils pointed out to himself, what would be a reason to lie, especially with a lie so fantastic! He tried to wrap his head around this almost unbelievable new piece of information, assuming for the moment that this was true.
Someone had launched an attack on Idris? Some other alien race, not only previously unknown to humans and the Ehft, but hostile?
Nils didn’t usually let his brain wander off on flights of fancy. Even in his office, with very little to consume his time, he did his best to keep his mind on current challenges. He knew that daydreaming could quickly mire him in deep trouble. Fantasies didn’t belong in his mind, his job, or his life.
Now, however, an idea that, only minutes before, he might have described as fantasy was suddenly becoming very real. He didn’t know how trustworthy Sarah Walker might be, but surely she’d had the presence of mind to bring the transmitted logs from Idris.
He’d pass this on to his superiors, Nils decided, glancing sidelong at the woman’s resolute expression. After that, this would be out of his hands. He’d probably have to interface with the Ehft, of course, but surely the Terran United Worlds would send someone with better skills to handle this new issue.
Nils led Sarah into his building, but as he stepped inside, the diplomat couldn’t help glancing up at the sky, his expression concerned. Nothing looked out of place among the soft, fluffy, thin clouds, but he didn’t feel comforted.
If Sarah Walker was right, something – something dangerous – was lurking up amid the stars.
Hidden – but perhaps not for much longer.