On the Use of Insults in Successful Diplomacy

[Note: Underlined text is supposed to be italicized. Don't ask.]

A small number of ships traced a leisurely orbit high above the Earth's atmosphere. Protected by their light-absorbing and radar-scattering hulls, they listened in on the electromagnetic cacophony being produced by the planet's inhabitants. They received all sorts of useful information about them from TV and radio signals, cellular phone traffic, and police and military communications. But their most valuable intelligence came from a small transmitter, less powerful than a child's walkie-talkie set, currently located in the Four Corners area of the United States.

Did I mention that everyone on this planet is insane? the transmitter whispered. I must have. Several times, in fact. The transmitter was lodged in the cranium of a twenty-somethingish woman who, at least for the moment, called herself Sandra Keddis. She had been born approximately five months ago in an orbiting test tube, her genes "borrowed" from a seventy year old Australian woman, and her brain -- though entirely her own -- owed the bulk of its knowledge and personality to Fleet Commander Xuraxnos XXIV. For the last five months, she had been learning to blend into the culture of the current superpower, while trying to fill in the wide knowledge gaps left unfilled by PBS and E! Tonight.

You mentioned it, the receiver told her brain. At the moment, Third Pilot Ykras was on "Human Watch," which pleased Sandra. Ykras was a great sounding board when she needed to talk. But that's not a terribly useful explanation.

Never said it was an explanation, she responded, steering her rusty Geo Metro down the road. But they just don't think like we do. Some of them don't seem to think at all. As best I can tell, the entire impetus for the early space program was the Cold War. They only funneled money into NASA in order to make sure they stayed ahead of the 'Evil Empire.' It was a repeat of five hundred years ago, when Spain and Portugal were racing to get their chunks of the new continents.

Oh, yes. We watched that part on the History Channel.

I'm going to browse through some books on psychology when I find a decent library, she mentioned, as she swerved slightly to miss a tortoise in the middle of the highway. There has to be some reasonable explanation for their apparent disinterest in space. Of course, any reasonable species would have had a decent start at terraforming at least Mars by now. A really ambitious one would be halfway finished, and starting on Venus.

I think you're exaggerating a bit, said the voice in her brain.

What happens if they don't make it? she wondered.

That's not for us to decide, Ykras admonished.

Sandra heard a metallic scraping sound coming from her left rear wheel. She pulled over to the side of the road, and got out. It took several minutes just to clear the clutter out the back of the car and find the jack. The mess was inconvenient, but Sandra was pretending to be a college girl, and the disorganization gave her a feeling of authenticity. Five minutes later, as she fumbled with the heavy jack, a small, rusted pick-up truck pulled up behind her. "You all right, ma'am?" a thin blond man leaned his head out the window. "Car trouble?"

"Car trouble," she responded, a little too obviously. She sized him up. He was decades older than her body, two centuries younger than her mind, and about the age she looked. Which would do.

"I don't know a thing about cars," he admitted, "but there's a town about twenty miles from here. I could take you."

Should I go?

Go ahead. If he tries anything, we can zap him from here. Sandra laughed. The man seemed harmless enough.

"Would you, please? I'd be most grateful."

"Sure. Just don't complain about the mess." As he cleared some plastic wrappers and empty soda cans from the passenger's seat, Sandra grabbed her suitcase and laptop from her car. "By the way, I'm Nick."

"Sandra. Sandra Keddis. I'm glad you found me before the coyotes did."

The truck accelerated onto the highway, engine squealing horribly with every turn. "Nah," he replied, "the prarie dogs are the ones to watch out for. They look harmless enough, but at nightfall, they'll gang up on you. Twenty of them can bring down a full-grown man." Sandra gave him an incredulous look, not sure whether to believe him.

Nick assumed that the joke had gone badly, and flushed with embarrassment. "Sorry. I tend to ramble."

A strange reaction, Sandra thought. She was suddenly fascinated by these mysterious, fearsome prarie dogs, but Nick obviously wasn't comfortable talking about them. Perhaps they'd killed someone close to him, she surmised. Whatever the case, it was better to talk about something else. "So, Nick. What do you do for a living?"

"Nothing much, really. I'm working on a computer science degree at Berkeley, and I used to wait tables at a couple of different restaurants. So when I get back, I need to find out if I still have a job. Nice laptop, by the way."

"Oh, this thing?" she said innocently, pointing to the most powerful number-crunching machine on the face of the planet. "I mostly use it for my writing." She tapped a few keys. "Would you like your nose to be described as 'sharp' or 'hawkish?'"

Nick flushed again. "Maybe you'd better leave my nose out of your story."

A strange request, she thought, but she tried to comply. "Nick, a man without a nose," she said as she typed, "drove his rusty pick-up truck with the skill of. . . someone who had driven a truck a lot." She sighed. "I have no talent for metaphor. What do you think of the space program?"

Sandra watched as Nick tried to shift mental gears, and end up popping the clutch. "The what?"

"The space program. You know, rockets, astronauts, frozen alien corpses in underground bunkers. Anythng that orbits."

Nick gave a long sigh. "I was in favor of it for a while, but it seems kind of pointless these days. The shuttle goes up, the astronauts take some pictures for their scrapbook, and two rodents absolutely refuse to have sex. I can't see what we're getting out of it."

"So you don't want to go back to the moon?"

"Not me, personally. As a species, I guess we should," Nick considered the possibility. "Haven't thought about it much, really. Why are you interested in NASA?"

"Well, it seems like your species. . . our species should be making more of an effort to explore the solar system." She silently cursed herself for the slip.

A small collection of dilapidated buildings appeared up ahead. It took a few minutes to find a mechanic's shop, and another two minutes to find the note saying that the mechanic had stepped out for a bite. Nick decided to stick around. He was in no hurry, and she might need the help. Of course, those might be mere rationalizations to cover the fact that he hadn't gotten laid in over two years.

The mechanic was a large man with a thick red beard named Cliff, and the patch on his overalls advertised the fact. He was a bit surprised to find two college-aged kids sitting on the front steps, engaged in a heated conversation. They didn't even notice him pull in behind the shop.

". . . and if it were Venus, I'd understand perfectly. But you could have a breathable atmosphere on Mars within three hundred years. . ."

"All I'm saying is that the cost of putting that kind of tonnage into orbit is prohibitive. Until we can build self-replicating machinery, it's too expensive for the taxpayers to support it."

"Would you leave the bloody taxpayers out of it? They wouldn't know a good long-term investment if it jumped out of a dark alley and bludgeoned them with a. . ."

Cliff interceded. "Y'kids need anything?" He cast a lustful eye towards Nick's pick-up. It was hard for him to imagine that it could still move under its own power.

"My car broke down about twenty miles down east of here," Sandra stood up, but only came up to Cliff's chest. "Something was grinding in one of the rear wheels."

Cliff grunted to himself. "I'll probably have to tow it back here. Want to hop in the rig?" Nick was about to suggest that they stay, but Sandra had already scampered into the driver's side door and started up the engine. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Nobody drives Lorraine but me," Cliff laughed, waving her into the middle seat. Nick jumped in on the other side, and the three took off down the highway.

"So, Cliff," Sandra asked, shouting over the noise of the engine and the wind from the open window, "How long have you lived here?"

"Oh, about six years now, I reckon." he shouted back. "I moved back down here after the kids left for college. The youngest is 'bout yer ages now. She an' her husband are expectin'."

"Expecting what?" Sandra asked.

Nick smiled. "She's in a family way!" he shouted. Sandra looked at him in confusion.

Cliff caught the idea. "What I mean," he said reasonably, "is that she's got a bun in the oven."

"She's expecting a bun?" Sandra asked in confusion, as the men laughed.

"She's pregnant," Cliff finally told her.

"Oh," Sandra said. "What's that mean, exactly?"

Cliff's jaw dropped, and he shot an incredulous glance at his passenger. Sandra could tell she'd just made another huge blunder. Finally, Cliff let out a loud laugh. "Son, you and her'd better be sleepin' in separate rooms till you explain a few things." He laughed again, and Nick flared crimson. Sandra remembered that it had something to do with sex and procreation. The species' attitude towards its own reproduction was so hopelessly conflicted that Sandra had given up on trying to understand it.

"So," Nick said, trying to break the lull in the conversation, "How are the Dodgers doing this year?"

"Where you been fer the last two months?" Cliff asked. "That new kid, Spellman, is looking to break sixty homers this year, and they've won fourteen of their last seventeen."

"I was hiking the Appalachian trail. Wasn't paying attention to the news. Sixty home runs, eh?"

Typical pointless male chatter. How infuriating, Sandra thought.

Don't let it get to you, Ykras chided her. By the way, 'pregnant' refers to a human woman having a fetus within her womb.

I know, I know. I just remembered. Don't remind me.

Just wait until I tell you how it got there, Ykras said scandalously. Sometimes it seemed that Ykras should be down here instead of her. He seemed to comprehend their humor in a way that was totally alien to her. But, as badly as she comprehended the culture, she was far better at blending in than an eight foot long insectoid could ever be.

Sandra filtered out the sports talk as she typed on her laptop. The President was proposing to slash NASA's funding by five percent, after a cometary probe got lost prior to rendzevous. Some in Congress were demanding more. How did NASA-bashing get to be politically popular? she wondered. She read on. One of the recurring themes was that much of NASA's research had no "practical applications," and that the agency needed to retool their missions to remedy that fact. Improving satellite telemetry, weather prediction, and whatnot. "Studying your damned navels," she muttered bitterly. Her companions didn't hear her over the roar of the diesel.

She hadn't wanted to admit it, but over the last couple of weeks, the evidence had simply piled up. Humanity was doing an Inward Turn, as ConFed's xenosociologists liked to call it. Most species followed one of two patterns. Either they went quickly from the low planetary orbit stage to widespread colonization of their solar system, or they began turning inward, showing no interest in manned exploration. Earth had been classified as a borderline case. That fact alone was enough to warrant this ConFed mission. But now it appeared that the developed nations were becoming very risk-averse, sliding into a planet-wide isolationism. Such behavior was seen by many as evidence of a self-destructive species, which required containment. Long ago, far more drastic measures were often taken, and a vocal minority within ConFed were still arguing that it was best to wipe out isolationist species' altogether. Sandra's stomach churned at the thought.

"Who needs Kobe Bryant anyways?" Cliff demanded. "Sure, he's got talent, but it's not worth the way he disrupts the team."

"I could almost understand your attitude if Shaq wasn't playing injured most of the time," Nick retorted, "but until he's more reliable. . ."

"Excuse me," Sandra interrupted, "but I hereby ban all sports-related talk for the duration of this trip."

Cliff nodded. "Fair enough. I guess we ain't entertainin' the lady. No sports talk."

"I agree," Nick said. "So, what's going on in the WWF?"

Cliff laughed. Sandra wasn't sure what the WWF was, but instinct told her that she was supposed to be indignant. So she glared at Nick.

"C'mon. It's not like its a sport." Sandra still glared. "Okay, okay. Sandra does seem to be fascinated with the space program. What's your opinion?"

"It's all a fake," Cliff said happily. "They faked the moon landin'. An' we were dumb enough to believe it."

"Probably faked Sputnik, too," said Nick. "So they could get money for new warheads. Which seems kind of pointless, since they made up the Soviet Union as well."

"Now yer jes' pullin' my leg," Cliff said sullenly. It sounded like his feelings were hurt. Humans didn't like having their beliefs made fun of, Sandra remembered. It was actually the rule among sentient species.

"Don't worry, Cliff," she consoled him. "I think you have every right to distrust the government. Nick, please don't be so mean."

"I'm not being mean. But the evidence for it is. . ."

"Listen, kids," Cliff broke in, "All I know is what I read on my Internet back home. Maybe it's right, maybe its wrong. It don't do me no harm neither way. There's yer car." Sandra could see her little car up ahead, shimmering in the desert heat. They drove on in silence, punctuated by occasional chatter from Lorraine's CB radio. It worried her that an able-bodied member of the species could believe that the crowning achievement of their space program was a hoax. But right now, she was more worried about getting her car fixed.

Cliff slowed the rig, coming to a stop just ahead of the Metro. He grabbed a hydraulic jack and quickly lifted up the offending wheel, giving it a few experimental spins. Then he pulled off the lugnuts and played with the braking mechanism. He continued disassembling it until, "Aha!" Cliff said to himself. The casters [???] that held the ball bearings had broken apart, leaving the tire to roll around on the [stem?] unprotected. It looked like she'd been driving it that way for quite a while. He'd need to replace the caster, and possibly the stem. He might even be able to convince them that it needed some brake work. But they were nice kids, so he wasn't going to screw them. "I'll have to load 'er on Lorraine," he said, standing up. Rich parents on the other hand. . . He'd have to ask.

"How much will it cost," Sandra asked.

"Won't know till I get it back to the shop," Cliff told her. She seemed satisfied by that.

"Look!" Nick exclaimed. "Prarie dogs!" He pointed out into the field. [note to self, find out where prarie dogs live] Sandra spun around. Sure enough, two or three were poking their heads out of their burrows, staring at the newcomers intently.

Sandra froze. After a few seconds, she whispered, "Wouldn't we be safer back in the truck?"

Nick looked at her incredulously. Then it dawned on him. "Oh, right. The fearsome prarie dogs. They usually don't attack during daylight hours. Still, you'd probably be safer back in Lorainne," he said somberly. "I'll stay out here with Cliff."

Sandra eased her way around the Metro, and slowly opened the door to the rig. Nick watched her as she went. When she shut the door, he turned and bit his cheeks, pounding his leg with his fist to keep from exploding with laughter.

Nick is very brave, she thought. Up in orbit, Ykras had shut off his microphone, and was chittering with glee.

* * * * *

They got back to town, and Cliff unloaded the Metro at his shop. The girl hadn't expressed any financial concerns, even when he'd quoted $600 to her, so he figured it was safe to throw in some of the "extras" he'd planned on earlier. So he got on the phone, and ordered some parts from Tucumcari. Sandra went to the payphone and started calling around for hotel rooms. There was nothing nearby.

She spotted Nick playing with an enormous dog outside. "Hey, Nick!" she called out. "Where are you staying tonight?"

"Same as every night," he said, throwing a stick. The dog chased after it, clamped down on it with his teeth, and disappeared with it behind the shop. Nick shrugged. "I'm just unrolling my sleeping bag and sleeping in the back of the truck. Why?"

"The closest motel is in Tucumcari. It's about twenty miles."

"Need a lift?"


"Okay. But you have to buy me a beer someplace."

* * * * *

So that's how they ended up at Kipsey's Bar and Grill, where the music was loud and the bikers were louder. The air reeked of cigarette smoke and perfume, and the occasional clacking of pool balls punctuated the air. A group at the other end of the room was celebrating some major milestone by wearing silly hats. Nick liked the place immediately. It was a lot like one of his hangouts back at Berkeley. He scanned the menu, and didn't see anything marked "vegetarian" or "tofu." So in some ways, it was better than Berkeley.

Sandra was staring goggle-eyed at everything, and Nick wondered if she'd ever been in a bar before. It didn't seem possible, but then it didn't seem possible that anyone could believe his prarie dog yarn. She seemed fiercely intelligent in many ways, but in others. . .

Sandra waved a hand in front of his face. "Sorry, what?"

The middle-aged waitress chuckled. "What will you have to drink?"

"Umm. . . Yes." he fumbled, scanning the menu quickly. "I'll have a [Ian, please recommend a beer]."

"Good enough. And you?" she turned to Sandra, pencil at the ready.

"I'll have a beer," she said, a tone of finality in her voice.

"You haven't had beer before, have you sweetie?"

"Of course I have," Sandra responded indignantly. "I've had beer on many, many occasions, and I want another one now."

"She'll have a [Ian, please suggest a beer for newbies]," Nick told the waitress, who nodded understandingly and flashed them a smile as she left.

"Is that a beer?" Sandra asked. Nick nodded. "Why does getting drunk have to be so complicated?"

Over the course of the evening, Nick sometimes asked questions about her past. Sandra would either deflect them, or say something infuriatingly vague and follow up with, "How about you?" It became obvious that she didn't want to say anything about it, which intrigued him. The possibilities ran through his mind. Serial killer? Arsonist? Saluditorian on the run from her barely imperfect past? Escapee from a UFO cult? What could explain this amazing girl seated across from him?

Just after his third beer, a strange thought struck him. No, impossible. But what if she hadn't been joking? "Did you ever figure out what pregnant means?" he blurted out, then wished he hadn't.

Sandra's cheeks went red, and her eyes flared. "Of course I know what it means!" she shouted. The conversations around them ground to a halt for a few uncomfortable seconds. Nick was taken back by the forceful reaction, but its unexpectedness only added to his conviction that she really hadn't known.

"Then tell me," Nick said, his voice almost a whisper, eyes locked on hers. "Tell me what it means."

"It's when a man carries a child in his womb! There! Are you happy?"

"You mean a woman."


"It's when a woman carries a child in her womb. My god, what planet have you been living on for the last twenty years?"

He watched her face go ashen. She fumbled with her silverware for a few moments, teeth clenched. "I was. . . It was a slip of the. . ." She knocked her drink off the table as she tried to stand up.

"I'm sorry," Nick exclaimed, standing up.

"Get away from me!" she screamed. "Why can't you just leave me alone?" Sandra stormed out of the bar.

Nick sat down to the applause of the other barhoppers, cursing himself. He waited a few interminable minutes before following, and paused before he got to the door. He could hear her talking, and peeked around. She sat on the steps, her back to him, with her head between her knees, talking to herself. "What do you mean, 'it didn't take'?" she asked the air. "I don't care if someone hears. I don't need to be able to recite the history of the Gregorian Calendar or a list of the original signers of the Magna Carta. But those things sure 'took'. I need the little stuff. The stuff everyone assumes everyone else already knows." She sobbed weakly. "I screwed up again, and now he knows, and. . . I have to get out of here."

Another short pause, and then, "Anywhere." She stood up just as two huge bikers staggered out. She stood up. "Excuse me," she said, pulling on a leather vest. "Could you take me someplace?" Nick cringed. He wasn't a big fan of making other people's decisions for them, but this was extremely stupid in more ways than he could count. He started out the door.

"Sandra!" he shouted, running after her. The bikers stopped leering at her, and turned to size him up. They didn't seem very intimidated. "Sandra, don't do this!"

"I can do whatever I want. It's a free country, and I can quote your entire U.S. Constitution to prove it!" She turned, stumbling into one of the bikers.

"It's not safe," Nick swayed slightly, feeling the alcohol.

"C'mon, sexy," the other biker told her. "We'll have some fun when we get back to my place." He cast a threatening look at Nick.

"Sandra, I'm sorry," Nick pleaded. "If you come back inside, I won't ask any more questions. I'll just drop you off at the motel, and you never have to see me again. Just don't do this. It's too dangerous."

Sandra softened at this. "Okay," she said. But the big man had his arm around her stomach. "Let go of me!" The man only laughed.

"Let her go, now.", Nick threatened. "Or I go in and call the cops. I'm sure they know who you are."

"Don't do anything stupid, Mike," the other biker warned.

After a few tense moments, the man released his grip, and Sandra pulled away. Nick turned to walk away.

"Stupid prick just wants the little whore for himself," he called after.

Nick stiffened, turning back around. "What did you say?" The two men just stared back at him. Nick's fists clenched.

"Nick, don't. That's what they want." Sandra tried to pull on his arm. "This is stupid!"

But Nick wasn't listening. "I want you to apologize to this lady right now!"

"Or what?" Mike mocked him. "You gonna call the cops?" Nick stepped forward again, raising his fists. . .

. . . and doubled over as his groin exploded into pain. Even through the agony, part of his brain was screaming that something impossible had just happened. He heard distant laughter, and when his vision cleared, he saw Sandra standing over him. "You. . . kicked me?" His mind was very confused.

"I'm no lady, and getting yourself killed won't prove that I am." Nick raised his head, and saw the bikers nearly falling off their rides, howling with laughter. He smiled weakly as she helped him up. She waved at the men on the bikes as Nick stumbled forward, groaning in agony.

* * * * *

"Feeling better?" Sandra asked, as Nick lay on the motel bed with an icepad.

"Mostly I'm just mortified. Between being beat up by a girl in front of a dozen people and having the paramedics called to inspect my injury, I don't think I can take much more.

"Why did you do it? I mean, they were only words, right?" Nick nodded. "Then why get into a fight you knew you were going to lose?"

"How do you know I would have lost? I'm not totally defenseless. I've watched two. . . no, three Bruce Lee movies in my life. I may have seen one of them twice, in fact." Sandra sat down next to him. "Okay, okay. Serious answer? Part of it was that I didn't want to look weak. Not in front of you."

She thought about it for a moment. "But you'd be looking pretty weak when you were dead."

Okay, I'll grant you that. But I can't say I was thinking logically at the time."

"I once saw this PBS documentary about Jane Goodall and her gorillas," Sandra had a thoughtful look on her face. "It fascinated me. They would fight over mates, they would fight over territory, they would fight over grooming. Gorillas fight over everything, don't they?"

"True. Humans would like to think that they're so much better than that. We have logic, and reason, and CD players. All the trappings of civilization. But we wear them like a disguise, and when something threatens us on some level beneath that disguise, we respond on the same level. You must not think too highly of us, and I honestly can't blame you."

She caught the implication. "What are you saying?" she stared at him incredulously.

Nick took hold of her hand, looking at her eyes. "I don't know what you are, but I suspect somehow that you're not. . . At least, you weren't raised among other humans. It's the only thing that fits."

Sandra knew she was supposed to feel terrified. But she didn't. "Did I blow it that badly?"

"No. But you've never spent this much time around one person, have you?" She shook her head. "And you've never had a beer before, have you?" She laughed. Come to think of it, she hadn't, although she'd spent too much time flitting between libraries to really notice what she was missing.

"I thought you said you weren't going to ask any more questions," she said, grinning eagerly. She wanted more questions. She had a strange desire to tell him everything. [Wait a minute! I'm writing a romance? How did THAT happen? Fine, I'll run with it.] So she told him about ConFed, their mission, her memories of being grown in a tube, ConFed's concern that humanity was going to disengage from the rest of the galaxy, the square root of 11,287,103 -- which was useless since Nick had no way of checking the answer -- and her frustration with trying to blend in.

"Take that pencil, for example. I know that it's for writing things. But for the life of me, I can't always remember which end I'm supposed to use, and it takes me an uncomfortably long time to associate it with 'paper'. My computer is so much easier to understand."

"So, is that a perfectly normal computer?" he asked suspiciously.

"Not really. Want to know how I'm paying for the repairs tomorrow?" Nick nodded. She punched a few numbers, and six hundred dollar bills slid out of the disk drive. "Matter converter. Speaking of which, I'm going to need to buy some more disks to feed it."

Nick stared at the machine in a manner somewhere between religious devotion and carnal lust. "Man, and I thought the school's mainframes were impressive."

"Okay, I've told you just about everything. Now tell me more about our beautiful little primate species."

"Well, we fight a lot. You noticed that. We fight over things that don't seem tangible. You noticed that, too. But they feel real to us. Our bruised egos can have a life of their own."

"So when you were striding forward into certain doom, what felt real to you?"

"Maybe I just thought you'd be impressed by my act of chivalry. Stupid idea, I know. But we've been trying to impress women since before we developed opposable thumbs. Mates have always been treated like a commodity, or a resource, or something. And if you look at the interest of a mate as a resource in itself, then I thought I was fighting over resources. It's a stupid way of looking at the world, I know, and we've spent the last century trying to drive that sort of sexism out of our species."

Sandra smiled. "So you wanted to attract my interest as a mate?" Nick nodded glumly. "So you want to have sex with me?"

He nodded again, obviously embarrassed. "On the other hand, you did shatter my testicles like maltzo balls. So maybe I'm not so interested anymore."

"The paramedics said you're fine. Of course you're still interested," she said firmly. "Why do humans play these silly games with sex? Everyone has a libido, everyone knows everyone else has a libido, but most of you are terrified to admit it, and the rest of you revel in it like it's the only thing in life. So let's cut the crap. You're a great guy, and I want you."

Nick leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Sandra and kissing her forcefully. She reached out and turned out the light. Then, with a quick, forceful thought, she turned off the transmitter.

* * * * *

She woke up much later, and fumbled for her watch. 3:31. She grabbed the arm that Nick had draped over her, and gently pushed it away. She threw on some clothes, and snuck out the door. It felt good to be out in the cool desert air, but the bright fluorescent lights from the nearby truckstop irritated her. They were washing the stars out, and she really wanted to see them right now. With a quick thought, she turned on the transmitter.

I was wondering when you'd come back, Ykras said. We thought you'd been ravished by the hairless monkey.

Sandra laughed. I'm not sure who ravished who. It was great!

Congratulations. Has this given you any grand new insights into the human psyche?

Actually, I'm still letting it all soak in. But I think I understand them a lot better than I did two days ago. Maybe it'll be as simple as just insulting them. Give me some time to think on it.

Who would you insult? The President? His mother? Insulting their mothers always works on TV.

Like I said, give me some time.

Sandra heard a dull clatter from the door behind her. It opened. "I thought maybe they'd whisked you off," Nick said. He closed the door and sat down next to her.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing his neck. "No, I'm not leaving you."

"Have you decided how to drag humanity kicking and screaming into space?"

"It doesn't work like that. The best we can do is try and give you a reason to want it."

"Why not just announce that you're here?"

"We've considered it," she said, "but sometimes when you do that, the species just gives up. They expect us to just give them the schematics for an FTL drive. It's better for you to learn to do it by yourselves."


"I guess because you don't have to resent owing us anything."

"I take it you've done this before?"

"The Fleet Commander has, and I have some of his knowledge and memories. Most of it didn't fit. You have to understand that he's got a big old brain on him." Nick squeezed her tighter.

"So," Nick said, breaking the momentary silence, "Who lives on that star?" He pointed at one of the few dots that wasn't washed out.

"They look a lot like giant prarie dogs," Sandra said, giving her lover a sharp jab with her elbow. "Nobody lives on stars, and most of the visible ones are blue giants. They burn out in a few million years, before evolution has a chance to kick in."

"That one's not blue. Who lives on that red one there?"

"Nick, that's Mars."

* * * * *

Two days later, they stood looking over the vast bowl of the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona. They had left the car with Cliff in lieu of payment, and had traveled almost non-stop along I-40, stopping only for food, bathrooms, and energetic makeout sessions. As they drove, they had run through all sorts of different schemes for spurring humanity to action, but all of them had at least a dozen major flaws. So they were feeling rather dejected as their overly perky tour guide led them around the north rim.

"So," Nick asked as the tour guide gushed on about everything about the crater, "Should we head straight for California, or head up to the Grand Canyon first?"

"Don't care much," she responded dully. She stared out over the railing. [I wonder if there's a railing. . .] "This thing probably killed everything within forty miles. Why aren't we trying harder to catalogue these objects?"

"It's good to hear you using 'we' like that," Nick squeezed her hand. "I think once the first one hits, we'll start looking harder. Of course, your spaceships have probably found everything in the solar system bigger than my fist, and have extrapolated the motions out for a good thousand years."

Sandra didn't try to deny it. "So tell me," Nick asked, "If there was something screaming towards us right now, would you tell us?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" she laughed, shoving him playfully. "No, of course we'd tell you, if it were getting close."

"What I wouldn't give to hike down inside this monster," Nick laughed.

"But the tour guide said that it wasn't allowed. And she used a very stern voice."

"All the more reason to do it," Nick reminded her. "What fun is there in doing it if there's nobody to say 'Bad Sandra! Bad!'"

Sandra tried to follow this line of reasoning, but couldn't. "Why would you want to do something that there's a rule against?"

"Why?" Nick asked, jumping to the other side of the railing, "Because that makes it more fun! You're not just doing what you want, you're doing it while telling all the clueless rulemakers to go stuff themselves!" His voice was getting louder, and starting to attract the notice of the other dozen tourists. "You're asserting your independence! No man owns me! No man chooses my path! I am free to live my own life, to choose my own course! Live free or die!"

"Sir, you're not allowed on that side of the railing!" the ordinarily perky voice of the young tour guide became quite harsh.

"Yes ma'am," Nick climbed back over the railing. He did a quick parody of a hopeless, dejected shuffle, and then continued on.

"But you don't act that way with all rules."

"True. But when we think a rule is stupid. . ."

"So the only thing we have to do is tell your species that you're not allowed to leave the planet anymore?"

"Could work," Nick said uncertainly, wondering just what he'd done.

* * * * *

A week later, the aliens broke radio silence, and made radio contact with the leaders of the Earth. They were informed of the fleet's intention to land, and that they had a very important message to deliver to Earth's inhabitants. The news exploded across the planet, causing newspapers to print "WE ARE NOT ALONE" in very large type, and pre-empting "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" The ambassadors behaved as predictably as possible, even going so far as to land on the White House lawn. "It's tradition," Ykras had to explain to the Fleet Commander. Of course, they'd just alienated every other nation on the planet. But they weren't there to make friends.

The news even reached the depths of the Grand Canyon, where Nick and Sandra were camping. They were just about to fold up the tents and head off on a hike, when they heard a loud female voice screaming in the next camp over. She was fixated on her portable television, and screaming for everyone to come quickly.

"Aliens!" she blurted out. "Landed here!"

Nick stared at the box. "Shades of Orson Welles," he muttered. He looked at Sandra, who only shrugged innocently. About a dozen more campers joined the huddle. A woman held a small baby protectively, while trying to hush the older brother. Two older couples whispered to each other.

The woman with the TV turned the volume all the way up just as the President was finishing her speech. A large insect-like creature, covered in protective chitinous armor, and wearing a strange breathing apparatus over its overlarge head, approached the podium. Sandra laughed out loud when she saw the "translator" the Fleet Commander carried. It had a wide assortment of lights, diodes, and spinning dials, which most likely did absolutely nothing. Ykras had been a dedicated fan of early science fiction movies.

The mother of the two children shushed at Sandra. Everyone fell silent as the Fleet Commander commenced his speech. "Greetings, people of the planet Earth. I am Xuraxnos the Twenty-Fourth, commander over the Ninth Science Fleet. My crew and I are members of the Confederation of Allied Planets. The constituent planets of the Confederation span twenty-thousand light-years, and its origins are lost to the depths of time."

"We have watched you from the beginning. Our first probes entered this system over eighty thousand years ago. They discovered a few primates with sufficient brains that, it was presumed, could eventually master the technologies needed to ascend to the stars and join us in our great Confederation. So we waited. And we waited. And we waited."

"We waited as you discovered fire. We waited as the Egyptians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans rose and fell. We waited through the Chinese dynasties. We waited through your Dark Ages. We waited through the recent explosion of your technological prowess. When your race first set foot on the moon, we cheered alongside you. We believed that, after your many stumbles and mistakes, you would finally begin to rise above your petty arguments and seize your future.

"Since then, we have been sadly disappointed. You have played within the confines of low Earth orbit. You have launched a few tentative probes, and squandered precious opportunities which, once lost, can never be regained. 'MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN: You have been weighed in the balance, and are found wanting.' Your species has been judged too timid to be proper caretakers of your own solar system, much less citizens of the galaxy."

"From this day forth, by the order of the Confederation of Allied Planets, nothing is to ascend beyond the confines of Earth's atmosphere. A fleet has been dispatched, and will arrive in your system in approximately one hundred years to enforce your confinement. Until then, we expect your full compliance with our directive."

"We now return you to your regularly scheduled syndicated programming." Standing tall on four of his legs, the Fleet Commander made his way down the center aisle, past the stunned journalists and security guards. Then the booing began. It quickly increased in intensity as the audience finally comprehended the full implications of the speech. Someone in the crowd behind the security forces threw a half-finished soda can, hitting the Fleet Commander's torso. Others followed, and soon much larger objects were being thrown. Xuraxnos broke into a skittering run, and quickly closed the distance to his ship. After a few seconds, a high-pitched whine could be heard from the ship. It took of quickly, with a hundred projectiles following futilely in its wake.

Back in Arizona, Sandra laughed. "This is how all great revolutions begin," she exulted. The woman with the TV glared angrily at her, then returned to the TV.

"Damned bugs aren't gonna push us around," she fumed. "It's our galaxy too." Nick had to grin. Prior to this, the woman had probably never given space exploration more than a passing thought.

They watched the tiny screen as the President approached the microphone. She appeared visibly upset. "My fellow Americans," she said into the microphone, hands clenched to the podium, "and fellow members of the human race, this will not go unanswered. If thousands of years of human history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot tolerate enslavement. We shall not be controlled. We shall not be ordered. We shall not have our destiny chosen for us. Whatever form our future struggle may take, know that it is a struggle for our survival, and our freedom." As she left the podium, the crowd erupted in a deafening cheer.

As the commentators began their stunned analysis of what had transpired, Sandra nudged Nick. "Let's start on that hike, shall we?"

* * * * *

That night, the starry sky was often broken by flaming satellites as they were blown out of the sky by the departing fleet. Nick watched the pyrotechnics, awestruck. "Was all this really necessary?" he asked. "We depend on those satellites."

"Well, we need to look sincere." They sat on the hood of Nick's truck.

"What about the space station? It's manned, isn't it?"

"Not at the moment, fortunately."

"But you're taking it down, right?"


Nick sighed. "Is this really the way we should have done it?"

"Just listen to the radio. It worked. Trust me, you're going to be amazed at how quickly you start making progress. You'll be to Alpha Centauri before the supposed deadline passes."

"I hope you're right," Nick said, yawning. Another satellite plunged into the atmosphere, emitting a bright purple trail of light. "So, will you be leaving?"

"No. Earth is my home. I can't imagine being anywhere else. Besides, there are some particularly treacherous quantum mechanical equations looming over the horizon, and somebody needs to give those dullard scientists a little hint now and then."

"What about me?"

"I could never leave you. You are my cherished plaything." She rolled over on top of him, kissing his neck and giggling. He embraced her. A sonic boom shook the ground. They both giggled again.