"Just look at that gait!" declared the biologist, her voice slightly slurred with the drink. With a look of distress upon her face, Jane watched some footage of the alien Ambassador on the TV above the bar. "I mean, the creature just isn't meant for walking around on hard ground." Indeed, as the alien loped along on its four short legs, its low body seemed to roll awkwardly. At the same time, the alien held its upper limbs stiffly away from its body, as if to steady its progress.
"Maybe that's just how they walk on his planet," countered the waitress. Her tone suggested that she was standing up for the creature. I saw the way the woman was watching Jane, and my heart sank. Some people were pretty touchy about the extraterrestrial and its recent landing. We were sitting in a tavern just off of the highway, and I was beginning to regret coming to such a public place.
"Honey," said Jane, "I'm a biologist. I was with the team studying the creature. Believe me; it's not designed for walking across flat ground. Its joints just aren't right. At the facility, the thing spent most of its time climbing on the furniture."
"You worked with the Ambassador?" the waitress said, incredulous.
I motioned at Jane, and caught her eye with a warning look. The last thing I wanted from the two despondent scientists was a public spectacle. Such scenes had a habit of finding their way to the attention of the media, and I was already losing sleep as it was.
But with my attention on Jane, it was Reggie that blurted out, "That's right!"
I glared at him. "We should probably be going," I offered, and reached for my wallet.
"But the show hasn't even begun," Reggie said, and I saw something in his gaze that stayed my hand. Reggie was just not going to come along quietly. I'd have to sit through it, it seemed.
"Well," I hissed, "let's move to a booth then, shall we?" I'd noticed one or two heads around the bar had already turning our way. If these two kept it up, we'd be in the middle of a situation that I for one didn't want to cope with.
The Ambassador's arrival had touched off a global orgy of unpredictable behaviour among the human populace. New religions were popping up, families were disintegrating, strikes and shortages were rampant, and no one seemed to be buying luxury vehicles. No, the general population was reacting badly enough, but who knew what kind of nuts might be lurking in a day-time crowd in a watering hole like this. I'd made Jane and Reggie swear to silence on the whole subject when I'd agreed to stopping here. Vows that had apparently evaporated as soon as we'd sat at the bar.
"Is it true that the thing eats squirrels?" the waitress asked hesitantly, as if she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"Live squirrels. Yes," said Jane, plowing ahead despite my warning. "Sometimes. But it prefers chickens."
The waitress made a face. Jane smiled wickedly, sneering at the woman's discomfort.
I stood up, and stepped toward the booth. This brought me behind Jane's seat, and I placed a hand on her shoulder to encourage her along. She tensed, slightly, and Reggie leaned toward Jane in a proprietary fashion as they stood. Reggie stepped between Jane and me, and guided her to the booth with his hand on her lower back. Their closeness and familiarity surprised me. They'd become lovers at some point over the weeks we'd been together on the project.
"We're going to a booth," I told the waitress. We crossed the floor to a secluded corner.
As the scientists sat, I plunked my card into the booth's meter and found the televised meeting of the Ambassador with our world leaders. It was a big deal, of course, maybe the biggest ever.
It had been five weeks since the landing. The Americans had been keeping the Ambassador under wraps here, near the landing site, throughout. Publicly, the reason had been "ensure public safety" and "to establish a dialog in a controlled environment".
During that time, several teams had been assembled to try to study the visitor: to try to establish that dialog; to determine the visitor's health; understand its mission; and identify its home world. And to try to learn something of the wondrous technology that had brought the creature to our world.
I'd been asked to run one of those teams. In turn, I'd hired Jane and Reggie and half a dozen others. But we had failed.
At the outset, we'd been a team of pros at the top of our game. By the end, we'd been humbled by our inability to make progress. We hadn't learned the creature's origins or plans, or even figured out how it communicated. After weeks cooped up in the compound, our exhaustion and frustration had been palpable.