South of Human
By Gregory L. Norris
THE PLANET APPEARED BEYOND a length of space window, a dirty smudge at first that grew steadily larger but no less gritty as the light-clipper made its final approach. Up close, the end result was a cracked topography of beiges and browns broken apart by minor striations of greens and, rarer, blues. Most of the color differentials ranged to the north—the human-occupied half. The pitted surface south of Human, what little Constable Danton could see with the naked eye, hardly seemed worth all the righteous posturing.
“That all belongs to the Muggs, everything south of that puddle,” the Captain indicated with a point from a finger whose nail looked gnawed.
Danton glanced above the Muggrage territory and the line of boxy alien war craft in low polar orbit; higher, to Human and the matching number of Earth Expansion Militia vessels continuously circling the upper half.
“Why the hell?” Danton sighed.
Captain Gertrude Graves snorted a humorless chuckle in response. Clearly, he hadn’t been the only transferred specialist sent this far out to wonder the very same thing. “You’ve heard of Mugg Rage?”
Maybe he had. Danton shrugged.
“The Muggs are so different from us, so repellent to some, triggering the same primal reaction we have to seeing snakes or spiders, that anxious fingers have been known to open fire on their ships and their territory down there out of disgust. Famous case a few years ago. Ithiel Bohner. Ever hear of it?”
Danton had. “Yeah.”
“They prettied it up, of course. But Bohner’s pot shots at that area of dead dirt down there cost the E.E.M. two hundred-plus kilometers more of human-occupied turf. I don’t think he nailed a single one of those ugly Muggs, which is the saddest footnote. During his trial, Bohner’s defense team argued it was a case of Mugg Rage. We’ve been in this tug of war with them for so long over this ugly chunk of debris that we can’t let go, when what we really ought to do is walk away, let them have it. Really, what’s the point?”
The Captain wandered away from the observation deck without elaborating on her question or waiting for a response. So many unanswered questions, thought Danton. He sensed more would be asked after planet-fall, and hoped there would be answers.
It sure felt like falling a hundred and fifty kilometers out of the sky.
Danton retched up the little in his stomach into the men’s room of what passed on the surface for the Human welcome station. He’d been through planet-fall four times before, though never with so many bells and whistles shrieking their heads off or such violent jolts. All the way down to the spaceport, he thought of Ithiel Bohner, and the little acid voice inside his skull tried to sell him on the notion that someone on the light-clipper or the light-frigates in orbit over Human had gone Mugg Rage on them as the transport craft descended. Maybe the Muggs themselves were firing at him.
After all, they knew he was coming.
“Turbulence,” one of the attendants said lightly, as though he was discussing the weather or some new summer film.
Danton ran water over his face and rinsed his mouth. Mildly gritty, it tasted different from the filtered faucet water he’d grown used to aboard the clipper. His memory accessed one of those background facts he’d absorbed about the planet: that apart from a scant few surface lakes, most of its water was accessible only through deep aquifers. What little resort culture there was on Human was centered to the north, around those lakes.
Gritty but cool. Danton washed his face a second time, willed his stomach out of its knotted state, and retrieved his baggage at the carousel. A whole new world waited for him beyond the welcome center, one that many humans had died to hold onto.
At least to their half of it.
Center City, as cities went, was laid out in an orderly grid to the west of the welcome station and spaceport. The E.E.M. maintained the largest structure at the city’s heart, a twenty-story spire constructed of reinforced synthecrete. The raw materials had come from the sand, hardscrabble, and regolith of the arid desert and, as such, the city bore a beige, bland façade. It was the kind of atmosphere that, after staring at it long enough through windows, Danton worried would leave him reaching for alcohol or his sidearm. The gun, an E.E.M.-issued snub-nosed Black Swan capable of delivering twenty successive shots without a recharge, suddenly felt twice as heavy in its holster. Forget Mugg Rage—the Center City blues could more easily do a man in. The Center City browns, he mused, punctuating the thought with a laugh.
He hoped to be out of here before the drab expanse left his trigger finger ticking. Might not even make the time to visit Thomas Danton’s grave, up near those fancy resorts for the rich, planted in a field of alien shag not fully green in the accepted sense but more olive in color, according to the images tattooed into his memory from a very early age. Thomas Danton. The real reason he was transferred to Human. A blessing to the rest of the planet, but a legacy that was already starting to feel like a private curse to the constable being put on display.
“Take that for you, sir?” asked a voice, male with a soupçon of accent—not fully Earth-based, something either from the outer archipelagos or unique to Human.
The owner of the voice was tall, lean, so much so that his uniform seemed to hang off his shoulders, the awkward fit reminding Danton of a scarecrow. The policeman’s red hair, curly at the edges of his hat, added to that image.
“Deputy Will Nottingham,” the lawman said, extending his hand.
Danton shook. All illusions about hands made of straw ended. “Pleased to meet you. Cam Danton.”
“Oh, you don’t need to be one of those telepathic Mugg kids around here to know who you are.”
Danton smiled. “My uncle’s reputation tends to travel ahead of me.”
“On Human, sure. And the ass-bottom of the planet, too. You know the Muggs grudgingly harbor serious respect for Thomas Danton.”
Will Nottingham—the name taunted Danton’s thoughts like a kind of brainteaser—took the larger of his two cases and extended his free hand toward the welcome center’s exit.
“I’ve got your transport parked in the fire zone. No worries about a violation ticket, though,” the lawman chuckled.
“I wasn’t too worried,” said Danton lightly. “Least not about that.”
The full scope of that lightness seized hold of him when the dusty glass doors trundled open, and an arid wind that smelled of clay and dry silt swept in. At the curb, the planet’s gravity, slightly less than that of Earth, tickled him unpleasantly. The effect, though slight at first, quickly grew disorienting. It was, he thought with increasing worry, as though he was able to feel the planet’s wobble on its axis; that with very little nudging, he would fall forward, only instead of hitting the pavement, he’d levitate over the gritty ground and, from there, begin to hover, to rise. Up and up, with nothing to stop him. Eventually, he’d reach the stratosphere; from there, it was a final gasp back into orbit and that ugly, suffocating view of a worthless planet watched over by opposing space fleets.
“Take a deep breath,” Will Nottingham said, as though reading his thoughts. “It’s disorienting the first time, but you’ll get used to it.”
The other man’s words helped to anchor him back to the ground. Danton sensed that if he fell, the other lawman would be there to catch him—supremely important in the days ahead, considering tensions between the E.E.M. and the Muggrage had grown to their worst since the Ithiel Bohner incident.
All over a pile of rocks.
On the ride in the police skiff, Danton figured out that his mind was attempting to contract Will Nottingham’s name. Will Not. Won’t. As the last of his lightheadedness evaporated, he imagined the deputy compacting, too, shortening out of his elongated physical state. He turned his face toward the window, disguised a laugh as a cough. He was borderline giddy following planet-fall. What was the opposite of Mugg Rage? The Sapien Sillies?
Won’t talked in the background, repeating facts Danton had already committed to memory: the DMZ just south of the Human territory line was rewritten following the Bohner fiasco—the Muggs got themselves quite a bit more useless junk-land in the process, though they also gained possession of the Dardanelles, a lesser resort, in the bargain.
“The Dardanelles sat on the banks of Corbett’s Pond. Not much of a body of water when you compare it to Lake Zurich, or the Great Finger Lakes up north past Center City. But going south, it’s a fairly big deal. Mineral springs, about as much green in that area as in most of what the Muggs have between there and the South Pole. As you can imagine, the folks running the resort weren’t too happy to walk away, even with full E.E.M. compensation for their troubles.”
More of Center City whisked past the windows in a blur of streets and buildings, nothing and nowhere memorable from anything else he saw. The lightness on the rest of his anatomy played against the growing heaviness sitting atop his lungs. Suddenly, breathing wasn’t easy, nor was the act involuntary. The desert ... he’d fallen through the sand ... was sinking deeper now, as opposed to floating up past the troposphere. The planet Human-Muggrage was going to crush him one way or another.
“Official residence compound,” Won’t said. His voice alleviated some of Danton’s discomfort.
The place was an oblong quadruple-decker, sandy colored like the surrounding cityscape. His home for the next six years, unless he set up house somewhere else in the city. Or the planet, fractured from all the greedy fingers scrabbling to hold onto its surface.
“You can grab a shower and some shut-eye.”
The shower would involve a dry exfoliant and very little actual water, but the concept had merit. Best to get used to dry-showering, given the projected length of his duty tour. As for the power nap ... Danton absently wondered if it was possible to pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep all the way through until his departure. Less than an hour on Human-Muggrage and he was eager to leave.
“I’m taking that shower, changing my clothes,” Danton said. “Give me half an hour. Better yet, twenty minutes. Then we’re getting started, deputy.”
The guy clearly liked Danton’s resolve. Maybe he’d be able to pull off some good here, and do the family name even prouder than Thomas the Terrible, who’d driven back the Muggs on that long ago day when, according to the stories, the sands of Human ran red.
The room was a basic box with bed, dresser, and holo-center complete with a thousand channels of video and music. Hard to imagine it feeling any more welcoming, even with another man to share the space. Not that Danton planned on being around long enough to make any deep connections, anything permanent. Joe’s face attempted an appearance in his mind’s eye, but he’d already started to forget the man’s features. So many intervening light-years had a way of dulling the clarity of memories. Besides, Joe was the past. This was his present.
He programmed “peppermint” into the shower controls, didn’t care for the scent of the flecks or the oily residue, and switched to “autumn rain,” which was more agreeable.
After washing up, Danton pulled on clean SMART socks and underwear. He was about to don his new uniform pants when he was instead drawn to the holo-center console.
“Voice recognition,” he answered to the mellifluous holo-genie’s prompt regarding pushbutton or verbal control. “Mugg activity—anything recent.”
A list of options scrolled through the pale blue background projected into open air above the console’s triangular emitter grid.
“That one—Skycast,” Danton said.
The option on the menu activated. Displayed in that corner of the room was an eye-in-the-sky view down to the planet’s southern desert, far past the DMZ and the Dardanelles. The live feed, as broadcast from one of the E.E.M. cutters or frigates standing guard in orbit above Human, reached as far as the planet’s curve allowed.
“Magnify,” Danton said. When the holo-genie prompted him to clarify, he grumbled, “Southwest grid, lower third.”
The visuals zoomed in. The region looked newly emerged from the dividing line between night into day. Not much of a day, Danton thought. The arid landscape was dotted by Muggrage city structures built in wild tangles across the desert and bordered by a necklace of pyramidal structures.
He zipped, buckled. White T-shirt and uniform shirt bearing the shield of Human law on upper breast followed.
Danton shut down the video and reached for his hat. He figured Center City, Lumley, Edge-of-the-Canyon, and the rest of human enterprise on Human looked equally sad from orbit, where cube-shaped Mugg vessels were sending back similar live video feed.
“Constable,” Will Nottingham addressed.
“Deputy Nottingham,” he said stiffly and saluted.
Now, it was formal, official. Danton supposed it was wise to put Won’t to rest, should the nickname accidentally surface during briefings or, worse, at the local watering hole following duty shifts if he and the man forged the kind of bond that led to time together after work.
They boarded the police skiff, presently in ground-hover mode, and rode it back into the beige streets to the Center City First Precinct stationhouse. The operations building was constructed from the same local stone and scrabble, but better care was placed upon curb appeal, Danton saw. More of the olive desert vegetation formed neat hedges around the entrance, which dispelled the austerity of the twelve-story domed structure.
Nottingham drove to the front of the building, into one of the reserved slips, and switched off the engine. “Welcome,” the deputy said.
With Won’t retired, Danton acknowledged that he liked Will Nottingham. Maybe his promotion to Human—which had felt more like a demotion from the start—wouldn’t be the hard time he imagined.
The love continued inside, with uniforms welcoming Danton to the First, offering congratulations, and extolling the family name while invoking Thomas the Terrible’s.
“Thank you, all,” Danton said. He raised a hand and ended the ceremony. “Now it’s time I got to work.”
And he knew exactly where his first duty lie. On the eleventh floor, past the concourse overlooking the central spokes holding up the ten levels below, Danton and Nottingham cleared through security and entered the E.E.M. military liaison office.
A tall man with a flawless brush-cut greeted Danton and offered his hand. Danton accepted and shook, putting equal strength into the gesture. “Constable, I’m Colonel Rory Dobbs. Good to have another Danton running the show on Human.”
“Colonel,” Danton addressed.
The office smelled of numerous dry-showers, all blended together into something hybrid—peppermint and vanilla, with an underlying note of desert dust. The air was noticeably cooler than in the rest of the stationhouse, likely in deference to the military-grade tech in constant operation.
The holo-screens displayed the present situation around the planet in sharpest clarity: sixty-six warships holding position above Human, an equal number of box-shaped Muggrage capitol ships to the south. Smaller vessels moved between the fleets and ground on both sides. Other grids displayed the globe and its outposts on either side of a jagged red ribbon—the asymmetrical DMZ that cut the planet in two.
Danton’s eyes fell into the pull of that red expanse. His mind drifted as Dobbs rambled.
“... uncle gave those dirty Muggs so many black eyes that even they showed him some respect. Before Thomas Danton took control, they’d made it all the way to the outskirts, past Lumley, right to within six klicks of where we’re standing.”
Danton nodded and forced a smile. “Not enough respect that the problem went away.”
“As long as there are Muggs to our south, we’re stuck with the problem,” Dobbs said. Two of the E.E.M. officers laughed.
“I guess that’s the reason I’m here.” Danton again glanced at the live feed, the dusty globe surrounded by ships of war. Several small craft dropped toward the surface, and he relived his miserable planet-fall experience. “Colonel, my deputy and staff have briefed me fully on the present situation. Is there anything else you can tell me from the E.E.M.’s perspective?”
Dobbs assumed the parade rest position beside him. “Everything we’ve got, you’ve got. Muggs coming, going. All of their ships use Corridor 5, here—”
A blue roadmap appeared beside the gridwork globe. Its course extended out past the planet, through a gap in the asteroid belt at the third orbital station around the sun, and from there, clear of the system.
“You’ve got full Mugg fleet movement reports?” Danton asked. Dobbs nodded. “Can you send me the data, going back a full month?”
“Sure, but it’s guaranteed to put you to sleep,” Dobbs said. “Anything else I can do for you, Constable?”
“Just keep in touch. My door’s always open.”
Dobbs nodded. “Good to be working with you on behalf of Human.”
The requested reports were waiting for him by the time Danton was four levels below and again standing in his new office, his new prison sentence. The day’s allotment of water sweated in the dispenser. Danton poured two cups full and handed one to Nottingham.
“Thanks,” the deputy said. “That’s nice of you, sir.”
“Your accent,” Danton asked.
“Sioux City—Lango, not Earth,” Nottingham said. “My family came here right before Ithiel Bohner went Mugg-mad with rage and almost got the rest of us blasted off the face of Human. I was little, just a kid, but I remember it. Man, it was a bad time.”
“I imagine,” Danton said, and finished his drink in a single pull. The water was colder, less gritty than that in the spaceport’s welcome center. “And as you can imagine, I’m not here by some random choice. The E.E.M. senses that something’s about to shift, or Constable Trenholm would still be in charge. He’s a good man.”
“Yes, but we’re all happy—Jay Trenholm included—to have a Danton giving orders. The Muggs ...” Nottingham’s voice trailed to a whisper, the sentence unfinished.
Nottingham shuddered despite the warmth bottled inside the office. “Well, you just never know with them, but you always feel it. It’s like we’re a bunch of unwanted houseguests, not people with a legitimate claim to the place.”
“I’ll expect you to tell me any time you feel anything disquieting, Deputy—Mugg-related or otherwise. In fact, that’s an order.”
“Yes, sir. Mind me asking if you’ve ever met one? A Mugg, sir?”
Danton shook his head. “Not in the flesh. Not yet.”
“Then it’s my feeling you should.”
The embassy was housed in a pyramid-shaped building that sat alone on a rise behind a wall of X-shaped stone buttresses and other obvious security measures. Rare pops of red and blue splotched the safety curtain. Danton realized the bands were leftovers from paint that had been sandblasted off the stone—expletives and threats against the Muggs by the good citizens of Center City.
They neared the gate. Danton wondered how many eyes and weapons were trained upon the skiff. Two groupings of each that he could see. The snub-nose Black Swan in his holster offered little reassurance as he pondered the likelihood of others he couldn’t. They passed through, following the expected checks and authentication of codes. Beyond the stark synthecrete garage bay was an oval door whose joined halves slid open upon their approach. The door led to a corridor with no windows, and only a panel located halfway up the wall.
“Deposit any and all weapons for safe storage for the duration of your visit,” an overly happy female voice declared. “On behalf of Ambassador Ting and the Muggrage League of Social, Political, Exploration, Colonization, and Defense Initiatives, we thank you for your cooperation.”
Danton and Nottingham exchanged a look while placing their service pieces into the panel, which locked around their offerings. They then donned E.E.M.-issued voice-interlocutor-translators, which fit around the ear.
Ambassador Ting, thought Danton. Ting Wengthah Veridian Yellowcall the Tenth. The Muggs certainly loved the largesse of names and language.
A matching oval at the other end of the corridor opened onto a room that bore two chairs set before a conference table. The slab of polished rock glittered with streaks of gemstone veins in greens and purples. What Danton assumed was Muggrage art hung on a wall behind the desk—something in a triangular frame, a canvas covered in bright golden and orange pinwheels with purple eyes at the centers. Danton assumed the painting hid surveillance equipment. The room’s only other landmark beside the door leading past into the embassy proper was a square block of polished rock, their version of a seat.
The seats for humans were remarkably comfortable, given Danton’s expectations of the Muggs, and they hadn’t sat long when that other door split apart. Ambassador Ting undulated into the room.
Danton had seen plenty of images, so many over the years, though none prepared him for the ambassador’s grand entrance. Muggrage biology had no exact equivalent to terrestrial fauna. Like insects, they bore a carapace that could be manipulated to toughen or soften at will, and their epidermis wasn’t entirely shell; numerous legs like some crustaceans, though the network of limbs worked with a feline’s grace. Ambassador Ting’s upper arms were presently folded. He wore a cape of fiery red fabric with gold piping—the colors of what passed for the Muggrage flag. His large, unblinking eyes regarded Nottingham and then Danton with curiosity and something else Danton couldn’t place.
Neither the VIT on his ear nor Danton’s inner workings translated clearly what he felt at being this close to a Mugg, in the flesh. Shock? It seemed more like surprise. Revulsion? It was there, though not nearly yet in the neighborhood of full-on Mugg Rage.
“Constable Danton,” Ting said in a robust voice.
Danton noticed the ambassador’s mouth frills moving. “You speak Human?”
“Oh, yes—several of your languages, in fact,” Ting said. “I haven’t used a VIT since my thirteenth molt. You won’t need those.”
Ting waved an inner hand at the device hooked on Danton’s ear and maneuvered before the square block, taking the seat with theatrical flourish. Danton smelled what passed on Muggs for sweat—something sweet, too sweet, like the human voice in the corridor—and suffered his first surge of prejudice for the creature facing him from the other side of the desk.
“I hope you weren’t kept waiting,” Ting continued.
“Not at all, and for that we’re grateful.”
Ting unclasped his upper arms and dismissed the kindness with a sweep of a hand. “We Muggrage pride ourselves on punctuality. Especially for one as celebrated as Cameron Danton, descended of Thomas. How may I be of service?”
“This visit is a courtesy, Ambassador,” Danton said. He caught himself breathing through his mouth. “To introduce myself and make clear that I’m committed to keeping the peace intact, fragile as it now seems.”
“And we appreciate that, especially from a son of the Danton lineage.”
“Thomas Danton and his forces drove back the Muggrage aggressors, despite being outnumbered four to one,” Danton said coolly. He leaned back as much as the comfortable chair for humans allowed, and guessed his body language and tone were as easy for Ting to translate as his words.
“The peace, yes,” Danton said. “And it is my hope that you and I will work together here in Center City toward that end. But like the E.E.M., my first priority is the welfare of our citizens. Please remember that.”
Ting settled back, too. For a moment, Danton wondered if the pompous Mugg was fated to spill over backwards. No, the alien ambassador rocked, found his balance on their version of a rear end, and Danton didn’t need to be a Mugg youth during their brief telepathic molt phase to read Ting’s thoughts. Confident, even impressed. But there was that same glint in his wide eyes, and this time Danton knew it for what it was: revulsion. Their version of Mugg Rage. Disgust for the bipedal creatures whose scent he was forced to breathe in.
“My staff and I are always available in helping to maintain the peace,” said Ting. “You must join us for dinner some time, Constable. Our kitchen staffers rank among the most skilled chefs on either end of this planet.”
“I look forward to that,” Danton lied.
“You are ... the proper term Same-Sexed?” Ting said.
“A Samer, yes,” Danton said.
“And we would also welcome your male lover to join us on such an occasion.”
Danton flashed a grin that showed teeth, something he imagined was more snarl than actual smile. “You’ve done your research, I see.”
“One does. All in the favor of keeping this fragile peace,” said Ting.
“There is no male lover here,” Danton said. “But you never know what tomorrow brings.”
Danton stood, extended his right hand. The ambassador considered before accepting. The texture of the Mugg’s inner hand was warm, dry, firm. Danton’s xenophobia deepened.
Back in the corridor, as the panel slid open and the two lawmen retrieved their weapons, Nottingham leaned closer.
“You being a Samer sure enough fooled me, Constable—not that I have a problem. But I shouldn’t have to remind you about something involving your dinner date with Ting,” the deputy said.
“That in the day, before your uncle kicked their butts south of the DMZ, the Muggs were eating humans.”
Once they were back in the police transport, Danton pulled the VIT off his ear and checked the enhancements.
“Did we get it?” Nottingham asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
Danton caught the deputy’s nervous glances around the bay. “Yeah, but let’s stay silent until we’re on actual Human soil. Just in case Ting can also read lips.”
Nottingham started the skiff, put her in glide, and maneuvered the craft around so that it faced the way back to Center City’s drab beige streets. Danton held his breath, aware of the gallop of his pulse, both reactions out of fear that, somehow, the gate wouldn’t budge, or that a line of armed Muggs would block the way once it did. Hungry Muggs. Muggs eager for a taste of Danton flesh.
The gate rolled open, and the bald glow of afternoon daylight spilled in. Heavy seconds later, they were moving and back on the streets of Human.
“They’re up to something,” Danton said on the final approach to the precinct.
Nottingham tossed him a look. “You sure, Constable?”
Danton was, even if he didn’t yet have proof. “Call it Danton intuition.”
Sunset over Human made Danton reconsider the planet’s worthlessness. Bands of waning light jumped past yellows to peach, deep orange, finally to the most vibrant red he recalled seeing. He didn’t think only of blood in the moments before the sun dropped out of sight and an indigo sky flecked with stars loomed over Center City, but also of flowers, fruit, and the little red wagon he’d owned as a boy, growing up within sight of the redwoods of California on Earth and eating up stories of his famous uncle.
Human-Muggrage had no significant moon, only the scraps of asteroid debris trapped in orbit and the remains of scuttled spacecraft hull from the long ago skirmishes between the two sides that marked the start of the present tenseness. As a result of the absence of moonlight, the view of the surrounding universe was colorful, too. And breathtaking.
Danton drew in a deep breath of the new night’s air. Dry, mildly sweet, he approved. He liked the people he’d met and worked with. Maybe, he’d even grow to like Human. Meet a man. Care about the start of something permanent. Stranger things had happened. He remembered his words about tomorrow and caught himself smiling. The gesture was brief; he thought about Ting and the smile sagged, which led him back to the VIT.
The interlocutor sat atop the pad. His shift had ended and still Danton couldn’t switch it off, which was the other key reason he now stood in the constable’s accommodations, the lawman in charge of Center City.
“You work too much,” Joe said.
Danton shook his head, and the ghost evaporated. He picked up the VIT. According to what he knew and what was known, the Muggs had made planet-fall first—though by accident, in the south, and only to make repairs on a deep space exploration vessel damaged in the system’s asteroid field. During that time, they’d buried their dead in the sand, which was the problem, the crux of all the hurt that followed. The Muggs had left. Humans arrived, fed off promising data from an unmanned E.E.M. drone—water, air, some vegetation. An empty world. Not so empty, it turned out, after the Muggs returned, claiming the planet was their property. By then, four of the six human colonies had been established. A mess, for sure, with neither side willing to relinquish even an inch of desert dust.
Danton swore, thumbed the controls, and downloaded the interlocutor’s stolen data into his pad. And then, after draining the last of his daily water allotment, he set back to work.
“Close the door,” said Danton.
The deputy did and folded his arms. “Sir?”
Danton plugged the information into the office’s holo-center. Up sprang another digital image of the planet. A blue streak wandered out and away from the globe, toward the asteroid field.
“The scanner hidden inside the VIT picked up several signals off the Muggs’ wireless. At first, I didn’t know what we had. Turns out, they’re coordinates. What you’re looking at is, in essence, Corridor 6 for approach and departure from Human-Muggrage.”
Nottingham uncrossed his arms. “Forgive me saying this, sir—but there isn’t a sixth corridor.”
“I know,” Danton said.
He gave the 3-D image a finger swipe and sent that part of the room spinning through several astronomical units, all the way to the asteroid belt. “You try and cross through that mess at this location, and you can kiss your sweet fanny goodbye. The damage the Muggs sustained in their original planet-fall way-back-when happened right about here.”
He pointed, illuminating several kilometers of space reduced in scale to centimeters. Nottingham shrugged.
“What if they’ve been clearing a new route, a secret way through, into the system?”
The deputy’s jaw dropped. “We have to tell the E.E.M. guys upstairs.”
“Oh, we will,” Danton said. “Just as soon as we’ve got evidence to back up conjecture. Until we do, it’s too risky—the military’s itchy for any excuse to open fire on those ugly Mugg cubes, and vice versa.”
Nottingham sighed. “But ...”
“Talk to me, Deputy.”
“Wouldn’t we know? If they were blowing up asteroids, clearing a path—”
“Holograms, sensor ghosts—and they might not be blowing things up but nudging them out of the way instead, using the same kind of gravity manipulation their ships employ to land.”
“Insane,” Nottingham said. “Ingenious.”
“If it’s real,” said Danton. He fixed Nottingham with a scowl. “You up to helping me figure out if it’s true?”
Of course he was, Danton knew. Nottingham had a girlfriend—nothing serious, according to the deputy. But he did have family on Human, including a sister in Lumley.
The police mechanics gave the skiff a thorough diagnostic and packed in an extra three days of water. And then they departed.
The streets and buildings of Center City drifted past and fell behind them, leaving the two lawmen facing open desert.
A few pinpricks of olive green dotted the horizon, telltales of an oasis.
“We’re close,” Nottingham said.
Danton woke from his daydream. Close to the Dardanelles, former retreat of the well-to-do upon the banks of Corbett’s Pond. He called up the live feed from the nearest E.E.M. listening post along the DMZ and suffered an odd emotion at the image. The resort stood, a beige stone ghost perched above the shore. Two decades had passed since the resort fell under Muggrage control thanks to Ithiel Bohner, but its walls lacked signs of defacement, like the Mugg embassy and was, by all outward signs, untouched. The Muggs had no interest in the place beyond its conquest in terms of the land grab.
All over a handful of grave markers in the south polar desert, thought Danton.
“We have our reasons, they’ve got theirs,” he grumbled.
“Sir?” Nottingham asked.
They drove on.
The E.E.M. listening post was built into the side of a basalt crag and looked out across desolate valley toward towering signs warning that the land beyond belonged to the Muggrage Government. Danton assumed the warning signs on the other side, written in alien words, were considerably more expressive and loquacious.
“The Human ambassador to Muggrage,” Danton said.
“That would be Tolliver Nilsson,” said the young E.E.M. lieutenant colonel. “Wouldn’t want his job.”
“He and his staff check in every two hours?”
“On the dot. We call it the panic button.”
This close to Mugg territory, Danton had managed to stay only a brief distance ahead of his panic. “And there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on?”
“Look around you, Constable,” the man said and spread his arms. “You passed ordinary over six hundred klicks ago.”
The lieutenant colonel set them up in one of the listening booths and offered water, iced coffee, or cold orange Glug—a Center City specialty—compliments of Colonel Dobbs.
“We’ll pass on the Glug and take the water,” Nottingham answered for them. Then when they were alone, in a lower voice, he added, “Trust me on the Glug ...”
The booth was state-of-the-art, despite the age of the structure that housed it. Monitors kept vigilant watch over the desert and peered as far south as the first of the Muggrage outposts, which translated as Pommel of the Midday Sun. Other eyes and ears watched the flow of traffic up and down, and scrubbed audio and visual broadcasts. The VIT had worked great in close quarters within the embassy, but was useless over five hundred kilometers of desert, even with boosting.
They scrolled through channels. A grainy gray image passed through the feed, there one moment, gone the next.
“Go back to that,” Danton said, right as the lieutenant colonel returned with their drinks—water in tall, frosted military-issued sippers.
The lieutenant colonel laughed. “Oh, that.”
That showed several young Muggs, what Danton guessed were the equivalent of teenagers, sitting in a crescent in a poorly lit room, before a series of stone triangles. Blocks levitated in the air above the triangles. As the clip progressed, the blocks drifted down, their notched bases landing atop the triangles. One tumbled off point and spilled onto the floor, and a young Mugg broke into a blue streak of alien expletives.
“What the hell is this?” asked Nottingham.
“Their version of educational programming,” the lieutenant colonel sighed. “Every now and then, we catch signals from a low-band channel they use for entertainment content.”
Danton checked the time stamp. “This came in over two weeks ago?”
“Sure. But it’s just a bunch of young Muggs playing a kid’s game. It’s nothing.”
Invisible ice froze over Danton’s flesh. He reigned in the panic, asked the E.E.M. officer for privacy, and waited for the door to close.
“Sir?” asked Nottingham.
Danton scrolled back through the flight records. Boring, yes—and true to Dobbs’s promise, the laborious reading had helped him to sleep on his first few nights in Center City, which now felt light-years behind and part of some other stage of his life.
“Rewind,” Danton said.
Nottingham did. The Mugg teens, no less ugly in his eyes than their adult ambassador, repeated the performance. Blocks levitated and lowered, most seamlessly landing atop the spears of triangular bases. One crashed.
“Comings and goings. As part of the treaty and concession of lands following Ithiel Bohner’s Mugg Rage incident, we’ve operated a strict exchange of arrival and departure schedules with our counterparts. Here, right before this image was intercepted, thirty Mugg youths arrived as part of a school trip. According to the passenger manifests, they haven’t left.”
“According to the ages listed, it’s the molt-stage when they briefly gain temporary powers of telepathy and telekinesis. If you were the Muggs and you were bringing in extra muscle to push us off the planet—say a fleet of thirty or more of those big ugly cubes up there to do the trick—how would you get them swiftly past the E.E.M. fleet and down to the ground before we could bring in our reinforcements?”
“Fly in on minimal power, holographic echo manipulation—”
“And you only kick in your gravity-based braking power at the last few seconds, right before your ships make landing on all those pyramid towers you’ve built out there in the desert.”
Nottingham’s throat knotted under the influence of a heavy swallow. “Coming in from a different corridor, which they’ve masked ...”
“They cover their fleet in additional stealth measures, get them down using those young Muggs to guide in their ships for final approach on air-to-ground telepathy. And then ...”
Danton gazed across Center City from the stationhouse’s eleventh floor balcony.
“You’re sure about this, Constable?” Colonel Dobbs asked.
Danton touched his badge, straightened his shirt, and donned his hat. He nodded. “Deputy Nottingham—”
Nottingham met him at the elevator. They rode it down to the ground floor, neither man speaking.
The ride to the Muggrage consulate seemed to pass quicker, and Danton was barely conscious of his heartbeat, which pulsed in his ears. The comfortable Black Swan went into the storage panel for safekeeping. Then they were back in that room, and Danton found that he even somewhat appreciated the Mugg artwork in the triangular frame. The place was growing on him. He cared about it. And he understood what was at stake, thanks to a deeper appreciation of why humans belonged in Human.
Ambassador Ting undulated into the room. “Constable Danton, this is a surprise.”
Ting sat. Danton locked eyes with the ambassador’s wide lenses and, in that bottled gaze, struggled to not be the first who blinked. Tense seconds later, Ting shifted his focus to Nottingham.
“To what do we owe this joyous visit?”
“Ambassador, I wanted to finish our conversation,” Danton said. Ting’s eyes again met his. “I understand the investment your people have in this planet in terms of emotion and resources. Our people feel similarly, which is why we’ve stayed here. To many of us, this is our home. We don’t want to leave it any more than you.”
“Clearly,” said Ting. He steepled his inner hands as much as his anatomy allowed.
“That said, understand we won’t be leaving any time soon. And if we ever do, the exodus will be on our terms, and of our choosing.”
Ting did the Muggrage version of a shrug. Danton again caught the too-sweet ripple off the alien body on the other side of the stone slab table and wondered if the smell owed to Ting’s nerves.
“I brought you a present,” Danton continued.
He placed the chunk of rock on the table. Ting tensed.
“What is this?”
“A little souvenir I asked the E.E.M. to bring back from the system’s asteroid field, specifically orbital reference point 3-1-1, where a sixth corridor through the belt has been created.”
“I know of no—”
“It’s there,” Danton interjected. “And now, so too are two dozen E.E.M. light-cutters and a half-dozen frigates, mapping its viability.”
Danton flashed the barest trace of a smile. The fake joy vanished from Ting’s face.
“We’re bolstering our defenses along the DMZ and are ready to extract Ambassador Nilsson and his team at my say-so. And you should know if you already don’t that our fleet is on high alert and ready for an unprovoked ground assault, should one be made against Human and her citizens.”
“You are of Danton blood,” Ting said, and his smile surged back, matching the Constable’s.
“I have plenty of human matters to attend to, Ambassador, without worrying about what the Muggrage are up to in my backyard. Surely, you too have bigger concerns than another military confrontation with the E.E.M. that will end up costing you living space here. I’ve heard the Dardanelles were one of the best places to vacation on the planet. Isn’t that correct, Deputy?”
Nottingham nodded. “Yes, sir. Wouldn’t mind a visit to Corbett’s Pond.”
“So I suggest you think about it, make some inquiries, consider all that I’ve said. Because, Ambassador Ting, have no doubt—we are ready.”
Ting picked up the rock and eyed it. It no longer mattered that Danton had grabbed the thing at the edge of the precinct’s parking lot, among the olive vegetation. The message had been delivered.
“Yes, I’ll do that, Constable Danton. And thank you for your candor.”
Danton approached the door but hesitated after the oval split in two, and the way out was presented before him. “Ting, you can thank me after your military stands down and cancels this foolish plan to strong-arm us off Human-Muggrage. Dinner, our place or yours, should be sufficient. I’m sure I’ll be able to scare up a date.”
“I look forward to it,” Ting said as Danton exited the room.
Gregory L. Norris is a full-time professional writer. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, novels, “Star Trek: Voyager,” and the feature film, “Brutal Colors.” He is also a Roswell Award honorable mention winner.