"Does your wife know?"
Tomas wondered at what level Katya intended the question. Her finger twirled his chest hairs until they knotted. She tugged, bringing a smile to his lips.
"Yes," he answered, adding, because above all he was a diplomat, "though you knew first."
Her finger traced a line down to his navel. She propped herself up on her elbow. "So, we'll finally have something in common. We're both going to lose you."
His smile faded. Tomas spoke the words, though they sounded hollow, as they had when he'd said them to Sarah. "It's the only solution; somebody has to do it." And it was his idea, which meant it had to be him. He turned his head aside. He was so used to wearing a mask, but could hide nothing from Katya. He'd spoken with other diplomats over the years, and they all agreed -- the only way to keep the mask was to have one person with whom they were absolutely naked. For some it was their wife or husband; for others, like him, it was their lover. Their spouses usually knew and accepted it. After all, they socialized enough to know the rules of the game.
Katya reached over and touched his chin with her finger-tips, pulling him back towards her. "Make love to me again, while I still have you."
Years of diplomacy couldn't find a suitable phrase to comfort her. As they embraced, a squall of emotions swirled inside him: anger, loss, passion. He knew that after the ceremony in a fortnight's time, this would be a distant memory, like someone else's life, or a vid one soon forgets. He cast that thought out of his mind, as he'd been trained to do, and focused on Katya. He saw a tear roll down her cheek, and stroked it away with a fingertip, then they kissed urgently, as if for the last time, her arms folding tight around his neck. Diplomats aren't allowed to cry, he reminded himself.
* * *
Comportment is everything, his instructor Santo had said. Not only the clothes and finery, not merely the poise, the gestures, and the clear, measured speech, but the eye contact, the appearance to be listening carefully and openly, with an attitude that conveys respect.
Santo had been Japanese, descended from an old samurai family dating back to the Edo Period. He had said that politeness could originate from compassion and understanding, but more often had its roots in fear. The samurai period had been incredibly violent -- a misplaced word here or there could lead to a sword slicing a head off in an instant, a serious breach of conduct leading to one's entire family line being executed.
When Tomas graduated from the exo-diplomacy academy, Santo presented him with an old painting of two samurai, shoulder to shoulder, swords drawn, one injured. It wasn't clear if they were fighting, or if one was supporting the other. He'd smiled upon seeing it, the ambiguity perfectly reflecting the diplomat's situation, as today's enemy was tomorrow's valued ally. But it was the expression on the injured samurai's face which always drew Tomas' attention: detached, serene, zen-like, ready to face death.
Tomas stared at it now, over a breakfast fit for a king, which he'd hardly touched. Sarah's hand connected with his, bringing him out of his reverie. She was beautiful, more so than Katya, and he loved her; just without the same passion. He felt he owed her something. When you're about to lose yourself, so he'd heard, all the things you meant to say condense into one or two sentences, like an epitaph.
"I'm sorry we never had children," he said.
Her glass of orange juice stalled on its way to her mouth. She stared at him awhile, then replied. "I'll see to it that Katya is looked after."
He remembered when he'd proposed to her on Malibu beach ten years earlier, she'd asked him why her, and he'd replied that she was the only person for whom he couldn't predict what she was about to say. He raised his glass and clinked it with hers. "Have children, afterwards," he said.
She sipped some juice, wiped her lips with a napkin, gazed out the window. "I will." But her lower lip trembled.
Tomas wiped his own mouth and placed the napkin on his plate. His last meal was over.
The doorbell chimed downstairs, and they studied each other as they heard their robo-servant open the door, and the polite muffled voices down below. It was time.
* * *
Eye contact, Santo had said. But the Krilleya had no eyes. Instead, the prawn-like creatures had a silver band around their purple heads, which apparently perceived much more of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans were capable of sensing, even with the most recent military augments.
Tomas stood outside the military-requisitioned building near old Fisherman's Wharf, the brackish smell filling his nostrils. A five-storey, windowless cylindrical affair that used to be a theatre, now a meeting place, a border of sorts, for communication efforts with Krilleyan ambassadors. He listened one last time to the call of seagulls, glanced through a gap between gaudy seafront shops across the road, gazing over choppy waves to spy Alcatraz glimmering in the distance. He felt the sun on the back of his head. His wristcom buzzed once, and he left it all behind him, and entered through the guarded metal door. Neither of the two duty soldiers looked him in the eye, nor did they salute, since he wasn't military, but he noticed their stances become a little more upright.
As a diplomat, he was used to looking at others, and looking away, but unaccustomed to having all eyes on him, as they were now. He brazened it out, and marched straight toward the transparent wall of the vast perspex tank filled with seawater, looking for his correlate. He wondered if she was as nervous as he was. He caught a glimpse of purple as she swam close by before looping back into the blue depths.
He recalled the confusion when it had all begun three years earlier.
By 2065 humanity had already come into contact with half a dozen alien species prior to the Krilleya. All the initial fears had proven wrong. The aliens they met weren't hostile. They were more inquisitive than anything else, and interested in trade. None of them were humanoid in shape, but means of communication had been found. Of course there were gaffes and a few diplomatic incidents along the way, but nothing major, and the other space-faring species seemed to understand that humans were new to this, and cut them a lot of slack. However, none of the aliens handed over the warping technology to achieve faster-than-light travel, so humans remained rooted to Earth and the Solar System, in a kind of "don't call us, we'll call you," arrangement. Given mankind's history and three World Wars, it was understandable.
Then the Krilleya came. The first problem was their mode of arrival. Hundreds of pink starfish-shaped ships plunged into the deepest parts of Earth's oceans and stayed there. It took weeks for submarines to find them all, and the vessels seemed to be just sitting there, inert. They weren't, of course. They were incubating their young after hundreds of years, maybe thousands, travelling at near-lightspeed to find a water-rich planet. On the first full moon a month after their arrival, millions of Krilleyan larvae left their egg-ships and headed upwards.
Panic exploded topside. The military raged "We told you so!", and it all happened so fast that it only took one uncertain President to waver and call DefCon 1 for the slaughter to begin. Hundreds of thousands of Krilleyan young, each about as long as an adult seal, were shot, speared and bludgeoned to death wherever they appeared. At first it seemed to be under control, though half the human population was outraged and begged for it to stop. That was when the Krilleyan Mothers rose from the depths. All that had been seen until then had been hatchlings, like giant krill, hence the name. The Mothers were something else, three hundred metres long with flesh tougher than titanium, and four squid-like tentacles with the tensile strength of steel cable. They tore up and drowned the world's navies on the very first day of retaliation, crushing submarines and cleaving in two destroyers and aircraft carriers as if they were toys. Nuclear weapons killed a handful, but there were more than three hundred of the Mothers spread around the globe. The Generals did the math and calculated that the required nuclear response would result in mutual genocide.
At that point, the Diplomatic Corps was called in, the new Exo Branch dealing with Alien Affairs, to try and clean up an unholy mess. A fragile truce emerged, where mankind held the land and air side, and the Krilleya ruled the oceans. Half a billion people fled off-world during that first year, straining infrastructure to its limits both on Earth and on the Solar cities on Mars, the asteroid mining colonies and three of Jupiter's moons. During that time, no fewer than one hundred and twenty-seven diplomats lost their lives in attempts at 'negotiations.' The situation was untenable, though somehow the truce endured, except for isolated incidents when people were stupid enough to enter the water, or one or two adolescent Krilleya swam too close to the shore.
That was when Tomas had his idea. It took a year to contact another alien species, the Kanaari, whom he'd met four years earlier. All other aliens who traded with Earth declined to get involved in humanity's 'domestic' issues, and did not know the Krilleya. But a Kanaari trader, a female named Lenbar, had mentioned a procedure she had seen in a distant sector. Tomas had to wait almost two years for her to return with the kit, and for SciTech to verify it was possible. During that time, Tomas had been excited, and his career had been boosted since he was the only one to come up with an actual approach to break the deadlock. It also meant he didn't join the ranks of the diplomats killed in the ongoing exchanges and attempts to communicate. That had, as always, been the problem: not only was the Krilleyan mode of language completely different, but their culture was impenetrable for humans. There was no common frame of reference.
Tomas' solution had been simple -- find a way to merge with one of the Krilleya, so that communication could take place, based on an understanding of humanity and its values. Become one of them.
There were dissenters, and generals the world over warned of being taken over by them, of the Krilleya using human knowledge to gain the upper hand. But there was simply no alternative on the table that didn't culminate in war, and continued segregation of land and water on the same planet was unsustainable.
Thanks to the alien gear, Tomas' mind would be merged inside one of theirs. Most probably he would be lost completely, since the process had to allow one mind to remain dominant in order to avoid psychosis, but some of Tomas' thoughts, even maybe his emotions, would resonate inside the Krilleyan host, who would slowly begin to understand what it meant to be human.
Katya and Sarah had independently made the argument that the Krilleya should reciprocate, that one of them should merge with a human host. But that was where the problem lay: the idea couldn't be fully communicated to the Krilleya, who remained completely distrustful of humans. A host had agreed to participate in an experiment, that was all it understood. If that Krilleyan ambassador became 'lost' inside a human host, such a betrayal, as it would be seen, would unleash serious reprisals, if not new attacks. Someone had to go first. Santo had always told Tomas that diplomats were expendable, and had proved the point himself during the early negotiations with the Krilleya.
Tomas gazed through the toughened glass into the cylindrical tank that funnelled downwards into San Francisco harbour. His female Krilleyan host, a human-sized adolescent whose name he knew as Guhurlik -- that was the best the linguistics experts could do -- approached the wall a second time, and stayed, her upper fore-claws down, two of her eight claw-like legs rippling in the water, presumably to keep her stationary. He saw a thin line like two closed lips beneath her silver band, which he guessed to be her mouth. Tomas spread his arms wide, palms open, and then bowed deeply. When he straightened up, she was still there. She moved a little closer. He reciprocated, and placed his fingertips on the glass. She became perfectly still; he presumed it was the equivalent of giving him a good, long look. He smiled, without really knowing why. Then she backed off, and he moved away from the glass. He couldn't be sure, but her body seemed to bend at one point around her mid-section, as if returning his bow.
His smile faded as he heard footsteps behind him. "I know," he said, before the man could speak. "I'm ready."
The procedure wasn't painful, at least not physically. Beforehand, he'd met the President, who'd waxed about noble acts, and told him a statue was being erected in remembrance of his sacrifice today. Tomas had uttered correct phrases to make the President feel at ease, peppered with words such as 'honour' and 'duty.' Just before he entered the small Kanaari cell atop the seawater chamber for the transformation procedure, Tomas searched the audience for Sarah and Katya, and was surprised to see them sitting next to each other.
Lenbar sealed him inside, and Tomas felt his mind drift away onto a cloud. He watched the hours-long process as if regarding a not-very-interesting vid. After some indeterminable time, his body was gone, and only Guhurlik's remained. He felt her mind: strong, young, firm of purpose, the way he imagined a wild animal's would be, never second-guessing herself for a moment, instinctive. But there was also intelligence -- no, more than that: cleverness and discipline.
Tomas felt his own mind slipping away. Hers was far stronger, and in any case he was inside her body. This had been a known risk. Lenbar had said it was the most likely outcome, but added that even if he was totally lost, his host would still gradually gain a better understanding of humanity's culture through the process, and could become the first true Krilleyan ambassador, someone who could mediate with mankind.
Tomas felt her mind access his memories, probing, devouring his life. The more she consumed his mind the more his sense of self slipped away, as he became her. He tried to remember his wife's name, but couldn't. And there was someone else, someone important. He remembered a painting, two men with swords. And then all he could see was the face of one of them, fatally wounded but serene. His Krilleyan features tried to mimic the expression, but could not. There was a feeling, like a hollow stomach -- sadness, yes, that was what it was called.
A flood of images, sounds, and feelings ricocheted around her mind. These humans had so many emotions; they were so complex and conflicted. But a fraction of it she could relate to: they had mothers, and young, too, born from their own flesh rather than eggs, and they cared for them, protected them. Still, there was too much information. It would take years to make sense of it all. Guhurlik quit the Kanaari cell, headed to the bottom of the chamber and entered the code to leave through the tunnel towards the sanctuary of the ocean, her realm. She needed to get away. This had been a strange experiment indeed. She wasn't sure what the point of it had been.
But as she swam faster to meet with the Mother, a name bubbled to the surface of her mind. Katya. She had no idea what it meant, only that it had meant a great deal to the human whose chaotic jumble of memories she now possessed. She slowed, paused, then turned around. She returned to the chamber, and swam to the glass wall where she had last seen her consort's body.
She waited. It was hard to see, as there were many humans there. They wore shiny buttons and shapes on their heads. Then two females pushed through and approached the wall.
Guhurlik felt Tomas deep inside her consciousness, drowned, listless, like many humans they'd tried to communicate with in the early days. He stirred inside her mind, as if choking, coming back to life, drawn to the surface by these two females. She felt odd, but let him see through her. She approached the glass wall, two of her feelers touching it. The two females each placed a hand on the other side. One of them dropped to its knees. There was something about this human's eyes. Guhurlik saw drops of water coming out, running down the female's cheeks, streaking its face. Her knowledge from the human's -- Tomas' -- memory told her something astonishing. It was salt water. Like the sea, like the ocean, like us. The Mother had to be informed about this straight away.
Guhurlik bolted away, down through the tunnel to the harbour, to the sea, and out into the ocean to find the Mother. As she kicked harder, gaining speed, she found her mouth adopted an unusual position. She had no idea why, but the edges of her lips trailed upwards.