Early Short Stories

 

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In the Eyes of the Avatar

 

“Negotiations resume a  centaseconds from now. Plenty of time to compose myself, plenty of time to assume the properly officious manner of a Terran Negotiator.  I’m more than ready to submit the last of Terra’s propositions for the Exploration Agreement.

“Propositions! Have a few of my own I’d like to enter into the record…..well, maybe not into the record.

“She’s so damn beautiful!  Bounced around this galaxy for more than  ten megaseconds, careening through and off secretaries, staffers, administrators, civilians, and now…..her.  The classic question: where has she been all my life?

“She’s been there in Fraesian home space doing her version of working her way up through the bureaucracy to reach this point, the Fraesian Negotiator.

 

"He will appear on the screen in 100 seconds.  Geneva will establish the link and our negotiations will resume.  He’s so casual in these meeting, as if the negotiations are unimportant.  With the negotiations, yes, casual.  But, he looks at me with intensity, such intensity, as if he’s trying to come through the screen to get inside me.  He is so personal!

"The data on his species does not account for his behavior.  He is bipedal, mammalian, carnivore, oxygen breathing.  What about me could interest him? What data am I missing? Is it important to these negotiations?

"So many questions; no answers.

"No help from Geneva.  The computer translates his features into an avatar, a construct I can deal with. I see a Fraesian yet I know he is not Fraesian.  He is Terran.  I know this. Yet, when I see him, he will be ... handsome."

“Terran Embassy, this is Geneva.  The Fraesian Embassy is prepared to resume the conference.”

On screen, the Genevan logo fades into a Fraesian logo as Geneva comms establishes the link between the orbiting Terran and Fraesian embassies.  Geneva is neutral ground, a safe harbor for communication and cooperation, the culmination of two centuries of rampant xenophobia.  Species after species discovered within itself an innate capacity to distrust anything or anyone different, to translate that distrust into action, into war.

Geneva rose from the wreckage, a place for inter-species communication.  Since physical contact too often produces xenophobic reactions, Geneva obviates the need for physical interaction, even at opposite ends of a comms network.  Geneva’s database contains a comprehensive library for each participating species.  Every conceivable datum, patently relevant or suspiciously irrelevant, is stored to enable construction of suitable analogs. From orbiting embassies, each species talks to mutually repulsive species through an antiseptic connection from which Geneva removes excess emotional baggage.  

Geneva translates not just the language of the negotiation but the climate as well. Terrans view Terran analogs of Fraesians; Fraesians view  Fraesian analogs of Terrans.  Each side is afforded the comfort and ease of negotiating with its own species in place of being required  to communicate with what might be their species’ worst nightmare.

In the Terran embassy, the screen fills with a human face, perfectly formed, eyes a rich, deep brown, lips full and startlingly moist.  Auburn hair frames a narrow female face.  The face is female and the Terran negotiator, Manos, reacts with male sensations: “Damn, she’s beautiful!” he thinks and cannot hide his appreciation.

A female voice accompanies the image, soft, assured. “Hello, again, Manos,” the face on the screen begins. “You look well. I trust your relaxation was beneficial.”

“Raenal, your social amenities are impeccable,” Manos replies, “right out of the very latest protocol manual, but you don’t sound as if your heart is in it.”

“I see your analog before me,” she says. “I see a Fraesian in the prime of life, in perfect health.  While I look at the Fraesian I remind myself that you are Terran, So, when I mentioned you look well, the disparity between fact and illusion jarred me and I began to wonder if, in fact, you do look well?”

 “She reminds me I am Terran; that she is not. That I’m looking at an avatar, a construct, not a woman.  Frustrating! Irritating! What does she really look like? And why remind me that she is not truly seeing me?”

“If you’ll take my word for it,” Manos says, “I do look well”

“I’ll take your word for it, Manos.” Then, Raenal changes the subject. “I have received a printout of Terra’s latest revisions.  They appear to be in order. Fraesia will register no objection to Terran exploration for that particular star system. There is nothing to interest us in that system.  The data we have on the system will be made available to you through Geneva if you are interested.”

“She’s all business again.  The woman refuses to relax.  All formality.  I look at her construct and I can’t help thinking she’s beautiful.  I listen to her voice and know damn well that it, too, is a product of Geneva's wizardry.  Still, I wonder who she is.  I wonder what she is….a fantasy begins to fill my mind.”

“Thank you Raenal,” Manos says, a genuine smile spread across his face.  “My boss will be pleased. I could even get a commendation out of this.”

The Raenal image blinks in surprise.  “But, Manos, why thank me? It was not my doing. I am an agent, nothing more.  As are you.”

But Manos is not easily put off.  “Because, my dear Raenal, I feel good.  Because I feel thankful.  Because I’m pleased that you and I, together, reached an agreement."

“But, Manos,” Raenal protests, “we are merely agents. There was no individual decision on our part.  We received instructions; we relayed information; our people reached agreement.”

Manos’ amusement bubbles up.  “Ah, Raenal, if all we are is agents, then, why are we here? Why not replace us with machines?”

 

"He laughs! He questions our reason for existence so casually, irreverently, and laughs as he does it. What manner of creature is this?

"This has no bearing on the negotiation. They are completed. I should terminate the conference.  It serves no purpose to continue.

"Look at that smile! How can he laugh? Does purpose have no meaning? His eyes are taunting me, wild, Fraesian eyes.

"Stop it! Those are not Fraesian eyes! It is an avatar, a construct with Fraesian eyes that.. enough!"

 

 

That’s more reaction than I’ve seen since this negotiation started.  We’ve been at this for more than 50 kiloseconds and, finally, there is a reaction.  A simple  'thank you' was all it took.  I wonder why? There must be something in Geneva’s banks to explain this. I need to check on it.

"At least she reacted. No more Fraesian business machine. She has emotions after all.  Let’s see how much..

“Manos,” the Fraesian says, “I do not understand your laughter.  It is inappropriate.  Since all germane issues are resolved, I move we terminate the conference.”

 “Yipes!  Too far!  I’m pushing too hard.  How or why I don’t know but she wants out of this and fast.  That’s panic in her eyes. Why? What did I say?”

 “Agreed, Raenal.  The treaty is concluded.  The terms are on file in Geneva. The conference may terminate, but…..”

“You wish something else, Manos?”

“Yes, I wish something else.  I wish to contact you in four or five kiloseconds, if you will be available.”

“To what purpose?”

“To talk.”

“Oh, Manos, what have we to talk about?”  

A surge of frustration rushes through the link.  “Damn it, Raenal, can’t we just talk?”

 

“Brilliant!  Absofuckinglutely brilliant! Some negotiator you are.  You scared the hell out of her.  She’ll never talk now...

“What do you want to talk about anyway?”

"Why does he want to talk? The negotiation is over. What is he after? Should I contact Fraesia? No, there is not time.

"Look at those eyes.  What’s in them? What is he thinking?

"Those are not his eyes. What’s happening to me?"

 

”Alright, Manos, I will await your call.” The screen fades to the Geneva logo, the link between Terra and Fraesia removed.

Manos needs the full five kiloseconds. He runs a check with the Genevan data base.  A full scan runs to a damn bunch of gigabits.  Too much data. How should he narrow his probe? What data will provide the best framework for the impending conversation?

Manos is impatient. All this background information had been unnecessary for the negotiation. His briefing on Terra seemed more than sufficient. He’s a novice negotiator or perhaps he would have researched the files anyway.  Hell, this assignment was routine training for him.  The treaty was never an issue, just a formality. Neither side wasted time or talent.

 

Okay, I can’t possibly get it all.  And I don’t know where to start to find what I do need. So, I’ll stick to me.  Why do I want to talk to Raenal?”

Standing in the shower, hot water pounding his hair and neck, he repeats the question, over and over again. “Why?” The constant is an image: brown eyes, auburn hair. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind a bell chimes: “She doesn’t look like that, you know.”

“Okay, so what does she look like? Ask Geneva. No, Geneva can’t respond.  Geneva exists so that we don’t have to know what others look like.

“Okay, ask Terra.  Yeah, right. They’ll want to know why I need to know and what do I tell them? Hell, I don’t know why myself”

 

Raenal watches Manos’ avatar fade from the screen, notes the appearance and disappearance of the Geneva logo, and then stares at the now blank screen.

"Why did I agree?" she asks herself for the hundredth time

Abruptly, she stands and goes to the kitchen, stops, changes direction to head for the library, stops again and stands in the middle of the room.  Random thoughts play tag in her mind.  She shakes her head, violently, once,

"All right, now, I agreed to talk, a polite response to another sentient entity. Refusal without cause is rude, undignified.

Very well, I’ll conduct myself with dignity.

Those eyes, how they stab me.

He will call. He will observe the amenities. I will respond to his polite questions. He will become bored. The matter can be closed. I will return to Fraesia.

That body is strong and supple. If we were to run through…enough.

That body is an analog, an avatar.  He is bipedal. He cannot run with me. Too slow! So pitifully slow. Poor creature.

I have time. I can prepare my report and relax. Two kiloseconds relaxation.  I will finish his ‘talk’ and prepare to depart for Fraesia.

Those eyes."

 

Raenal writes her report, objective data, terms, conditions, codicils.  The simple, forthright statements of the treaty serve as tonic and balm. Absent the Manos image, tension in her body abates.  Report finished, she rests. She sleeps.

At 900 seconds she awakes, surprised at the energy she feels, the tang of excitement, excitement that she dismisses as mere curiosity. Raenal places herself before the screen, waiting for the Manos’ image to appear. Waiting, she discovers, to look into those eyes.

                                                                                     * * *

Five kiloseconds become four.  Four dwindle to three, three to two. With one kilosecond remaining, Manos sits in a recliner sipping a stimulant, eyes resting vacantly on the screen.  Behind his eyes, his brain furnishes an image of auburn hair framing deep brown eyes above lips pursed in pronunciation of imagined words. Engulfed in his fantasy, he hums in time with chronometer, faith marking the passing seconds.

At 300 seconds, Manos jerks alert.  Realization floods him; he is about to make contact. She will be there again, on the screen, waiting for him to say something. What is he going to say? “Hi, how are you? How’ve you been? What have you been doing lately? What’s new?”

200 seconds,,,,,100…..50.  The Geneva logo appears announcing imminent connection. Still, he has no idea how to begin. What do you say to an analog?

                                                                                       * * *

Their conversation is a choreography of fleeting contact, nervous withdrawal. Manos’ voice is tentative at first but quickens with each word so that he finishes sentences in a rush.

“Raenal, for over a megasecond you’ve occupied my life, intruded on my dreams, surprised me when I’m resting.  We conducted our business, represented our people, reached a satisfactory agreement.  After all that, I still don’t know you.”

Her voice is quiet, almost hushed. He must strain to catch the words. Instinctively, he knows that it is not a glitch in the link.

“What do you want to know, Manos? Why do you want to know?”

“What do I look like, Raenal?”

“I do not know,” she answers.

“How do I appear to you, right now, on your screen?”

“I see a Fraesian.”

“I know, I know,” he complains, “But, what kind of Fraesian?”

 

"He is too personal. He digs into me throwing pieces this way and that searching for something. What? I still do not know. Does he? He looks…..his analog looks magnificent. Can I tell him that?  With dignity?"

“What kind of Fraesian! Damn, I’m vain!“Raenal, your image is so beautiful I have to know what my image is to you. Are we reacting the same?“Where the hell am I going with this?”

 

“It is a normal, healthy, mature…” Raenal begins but Manos interrupts.

“If the image were real, a real Fraesian, would you be attracted to him?

“What difference does it make? The image is not real.”

“But, if it were?”

She answers exasperatedly: “This is pointless, Manos. It is not real.”

Manos changes the subject. “Do you know what Terrans look like?”

“I do.”

“I don’t know what Fraesians look like. I didn’t take the time to find out. For the last megasecond, you’ve been a Terran to me, a very beautiful Terran. I’m not sure I can visualize you as anything else.”

Very quietly: “I am something else, Manos. I am Fraesian.”

 

Damn right, she’s Fraesian.  Deal with that.  Erase the illusion; build a true image.”

"That reached him. I saw the shock pass through.  Finally, it sinks in. We are different, so very different. Now, perhaps, he’ll withdraw. No more questions, I can get back to my life, return to Fraesia..."

 

“Are you beautiful?” he asks.

"He cannot want an answer.  The question must be rhetorical; yet, it isn't. His eyes demand an answer."

“I can hardly answer that, Manos.”

“No modesty, please. There’s no one else I can ask.  If you ask me, I’ll say ‘yes, I’m considered attractive.  There are some improvements I personally want to make but, by and large, people are not repulsed by the way I look. Women seem generally satisfied.

“Now, what about you?”

She is embarrassed but she answers: “I suppose……yes, I am considered attractive.”

“I knew it,” Manos exclaims, “Geneva could not have made that kind of mistake. You’re beautiful! you have to be beautiful!”

Raenal is serious in counterpoint to Manos’ delight, her question should be ice water on his fire. “What difference does it make?”

But it isn’t ice water on his fire. His fire burns brighter: “All the difference in the world. I can rationalize some of the things I’ve been doing. I can live with myself a little better.”

“Why? You still do not know what I look like.”

“Yes, yes, I do. You are beautiful.

This is some stupid damn straw I’ve grasped. She is a beautiful Fraesian and I wouldn’t know a beautiful Fraesian from an ugly one. Yet, her admission is confirmation to me. I’m not crazy. I sensed who she is, what kind of person she is.  Her avatar expressed her fully in terms I could understand…”

 

"And you Manos-avatar, you, too are beautiful.  You send a thrill of anticipation through me. You lighten my heart. Your eyes skewer me, focus my whole attention on you.  I see us running together...stop it, fool! Be yourself. You know what it is that you are looking at."

“Manos, this whole conversation is pointless.  Unless you have something else to discuss?”

Eagerly, cat after mouse, Manos dives in.

“Tell me about yourself. Tell me anything.  Tell me everything.

“Such as?”

“Anything. How old are you? What have you done all your life? Do you have children? What’s your favorite color?”

“My age?” she echoes and then answers her own question” “Yes, I see. The data is unimportant; it is the communication.

“I am roughly 15.6 megaseconds of an expected span of  45 megaseconds. I entered Xenoservices about 1.5 megaseconds ago. This is my first solo negotiation.

“I have no children. Xenoservices does not permit the distraction they would be.”

“How do you feel about that?”

 

 

“I know how I’d feel if they told me no wife, no children.  Take away my choice. Nuts! It’s my life and I’ll be damned if I won’t live it the way I choose. The could take their precious job and insert it where the sun don’t shine.”

How do I feel about it? Numb. Empty. Nothing. It is the way things are. It is necessary. It is right. It is fact. Why should I feel anything at all?"

 “It is logical and necessary, Manos. Surely, Terra is similar?”

“No,” he laughs. “No such restrictions on Terran negotiators.”

“Ah, then you have a mate and children?”

“No, I don’t. Never found anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

“That, then is similar. A marriage is a permanent bond.”

“Not necessarily. I’m just set in my views.”

Raenal’s surprise is evident: “How strange. Not necessarily permanent.  That is…..pardon me! To continue would lead to insult. Your customs are your customs. They should not be judged by my standards.”

“You find it strange that marriage is not necessarily permanent?”

“Yes, strange.  For us, it always is.”

“By law?”

“No, not even by custom, It is essential, The merging of minds is too complete. Dissolution would destroy both parties.”

Now, it is Manos turn for surprise: “Merging of minds?”

“Of course.” Her tone is matter-of-fact, a simple recitation of self-evident data, “How else is marriage possible.  Without minds merging there would be two paths, two lives. How can there be harmony in such a union? One must always be subjugated. One must always be master.  Constant strife.

“Neither side can derive joy from such a union. Our marriage is a purposeful unity, a new creature greater than its parts.”

“But what happens to the people? What about their individuality? Their self-fulfillment?

“I do not understand your question.”

 

"Self-fulfillment? How can an individual be fulfilled apart from others? The question must be rhetorical. Fulfillment can only be measured in relation to others. How can Terrans see it otherwise?"

 

“She doesn’t understand the question? How can that be? She’s a rational being; her conversation shows that.  Her answers reveal very little while hinting at so much.  Damn, why didn’t I study Fraesian sociology? I don’t have the necessary referents.  How do I find out what I want to know? For that matter, what do I want to know?”

“Tell me, Raenal, if a person…if you did not ever marry, would you be happy? Could you be happy?

“I would not be unhappy/”

“That isn’t an answer; you’re evading the question.”

“I answered your question to the best of my ability.”

“Then, I did not ask it properly.  If you were not to marry, how would your life be?

“My life would be useful, Manos, and that would give me satisfaction. I would not be a slug; I would serve a purpose. I would be content. I would not be unhappy.  Do you see?”

“Yet, you would rather marry, wouldn’t you?”

There is a pause before the answer crawls across space, arriving in Manos’ speakers as if weary from the journey: “Yes, Manos, I would rather marry.”

 

“At last, an admission, a statement of preference.  So what? She'd rather marry.  Me? “Ridiculous. Even if marriage is a merging of minds.  Where the hell am I going with this?”

"He shows satisfaction with my answer as if he won some debate I know nothing about. I must close this off.  I must stop this nonsense.  I must return to my world, my work.  Forget this Terran in Fraesian clothing. I am wasting time and energy on a fruitless endeavor."

 

“Manos, I think we have said all that we can.  I have responded to your questions. I have observed all possible amenities. I see no profit in continuing.  I must close this….negotiation.”

    Disappointment fills Manos and his voice cracks with the intensity of his feeling: “I understand, Raenal. I’m wasting your time and I have no idea why I did so. I had questions and I have answers.  I needed, I wanted to know more. But, I don’t really know any more than I did and I guess I can never know more.

“Thank you for your courtesy, Raenal. May you live long and well.”

He closes the communications link, watches the Geneva logo appear and the fade to darkness.

 “You are so beautiful, Raenal.  As a person, as an avatar.  Now, that takes the cake: falling in love with an avatar.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Is that what I’ve been doing? Falling in love with an analog of a Terran? Falling in love with a Fraesian?

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

 

Hours pass. Manos wanders aimlessly through the embassy, pausing to drink, to eat, to stare in the mirror.  Again and again his thoughts turn to an image of auburn hair framing deep, brown eyes.

After a while, he sets himself to filing his report but each word he dictates triggers a new explosion of memory and his mind reels in the void that follows.

 

“She’s gone. She’s probably en route to Fraesia, treaty in hand, business completed. If she remembers me at all it will be as an aberration in her completely functional, useful life.”

There is a wistful smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he begins the argument to convince himself that she will be no more than that to him. He’ll return to Geneva, deal with other species.  Maybe, on occasion, he’ll remember his first negotiation and the auburn hair circling deep, brown eyes and he will laugh at the immaturity of his performance.  From the vantage of later years, he’ll know the foolishness of youth and marvel that anyone, especially him, could have been so young.  He will laugh about it,

Sure, he will.

* * *

“I hurt him. There was so much misery yet he honored my request. He was so intense. His flanks were shuddering as if he were leaving home hearth for the final time. Yet, he honored my request.

“What kind of man is he?

“I should call him, immediately, and apologize for my inexcusable rudeness.

“No, I should not.

“It is over, done.  I can return to Fraesia, mission accomplished. I will receive another task and this one will quickly fade into oblivion.

“I hope that all negotiations are not like this.

“I hope that all beings are not like this Terran.

“I hope that ,,,,someday, I will talk to him again.”

 

Raenal arranges her departure, methodically gathering the few possession she had brought, arranging one more time the final report of their negotiations, dispatching her request for recall.  Always, just below the surface of conscious thought – like an itch just below the withers - is an image of the intense, sad, brooding eyes of a youngling just discipline

   - End -

 

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