[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Opening Chapters

ILLEGAL ALIEN

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Hardcover: Ace, December 1997, ISBN 0-441-00476-8
Paperback: Ace, January 1999, ISBN 0-441-00592-6

British edition: HarperCollins Voyager, January 1998


For Justice, though she's painted blind,
is to the weaker side inclined.

— Samuel Butler (1612-1680)


Chapter 1

       The Navy lieutenant poked his close-cropped head into the aircraft carrier's wardroom. "It's going to be another two hours, gentlemen. You should really get some sleep."

       Francis Nobilio, a short man of fifty with wavy hair mixed evenly between brown and gray, was sitting in a vinyl-upholstered metal chair. He was wearing a two-piece dark-blue business suit, and a pale blue shirt. His tie was undone and hung loosely around his neck. "What's the latest?" he said.

       "As expected, sir, a Russian sub will beat us to the location. And a Brazilian cruise ship has changed course to have a look-see."

       "A cruise ship!" said Frank, throwing his arms up in exasperation. He turned to Clete, who was leaning back in a similar chair, giant tennis-shoed feet up on the table in front of him.

       Clete lifted his narrow shoulders and grinned broadly. "Sounds like a big ole party, don't it?" he said, his voice rich with that famous Tennessee accent — Dana Carvey did a devastating Cletus Calhoun.

       "Can't we cordon off the area?" said Frank to the Navy man.

       The lieutenant shrugged. "It's in the middle of the Atlantic, sir — international waters. The cruise ship has as much right to be there as anyone else."

       "The Love Boat meets Lost in Space," muttered Frank. He looked up at the Navy man. "All right. Thanks."

       The lieutenant left, doing a neat step over the raised lip at the bottom of the door.

       "They must be aquatic," said Frank, looking at Clete.

       "Mebbe," said Clete. "Mebbe not. We ain't aquatic, and we used to land our ships at sea. This very aircraft carrier picked up an Apollo command module once, didn't it?"

       "My point exactly," said Frank. "We used to land our ships at sea, because that was easier than landing them on land, and —"

       "I thought it was because we launched out over the ocean from Canaveral, so —"

       "The Shuttle goes up from Canaveral; we bring it down on land. If you've got the technology, you come down on land — if that's where you live; the Russians came down on land from day one."

       Clete was shaking his head. "I think you're missing the obvious, Frankie. What was it that boy said a moment ago? `International waters.' I think they've been watching long enough to figger it'd be a peck o' trouble landin' in any particular country. Only place on Earth you can land that ain't nobody's turf is in the ocean."

       "Oh, come on. I doubt they've been able to decipher our radio or TV, and —"

       "Don't need to do none o' that," said Clete. He was forty years old, thin, gangly, jug-eared, and redheaded — not quite Ichabod Crane, but close. "You can deduce it from first principles. Earth's got seven continents; that implies regional evolution, and that implies territorial conflict once the technology reaches a level that lets you travel freely between the continents."

       Frank blew out air, conceding the point. He looked at his watch for the third time in the last few minutes. "Damn, I wish we could get there faster. This is —"

       "Hang on a minute, Frankie," said Clete. He used one of his long arms to aim the remote at the seventeen-inch color TV mounted on the wall, turning off the mute. The aircraft carrier was picking up CNN's satellite feed.

       ". . . more now on that story," said white-haired Lou Waters. "Civilian and military observers worldwide were stunned late yesterday when what was at first taken to be a giant meteor skimmed through Earth's atmosphere over Brazil." Waters's face was replaced with grainy amateur video of something streaking through a cloudless blue sky. "But the object flew right around the Earth well inside our atmosphere, and soon almost every public and private telescope and radar dish on the planet was trained on it. Even the U.S. government has now conceded that the object is, in all likelihood, a spacecraft — and not one of ours. Karen Hunt has more. Karen?"

       The picture changed to show a pretty African-American woman, standing outside the Griffith Park Observatory. "Lou, for decades human beings have wondered if we are alone in the universe. Well, now we know. Although the U.S. and Russian military aircraft that flew over the splashdown site earlier today failed to make public the videos they shot, a Moroccan Airlines 747 en route to Brasilia passed directly over the area about three hours ago. That plane has now safely landed, and we've obtained this exclusive footage, taken by passenger Juan Rubenstein with his home-video equipment."

       The image was coarse, but it clearly showed a large object shaped like a shield or a broad arrowhead floating atop gray water. The object seemed capable of changing colors — one moment it was red; the next, orange; then yellow. It cycled through the hues of the rainbow, over and over again, but with a considerable period of pure black between being violet and red.

       Cut to a dour, middle-aged man with an unkempt beard. The title "Arnold Hammermill, Ph.D., Scripps Institute," appeared beneath him. "It's difficult to gauge the size of the spaceship," said Hammermill, "given we don't know the precise altitude of the plane or the zoom setting used at the time the video was taken, but judging by the height of the waves, and taking into account today's maritime forecast for that part of the Atlantic, I'd say the ship is between ten and fifteen meters long."

       A graphic appeared, showing the vessel to be about half the size of a Space Shuttle orbiter. The reporter's voice, over this: "The United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is on its way now to the splashdown site. Earlier today, the President's Science Advisor, Francis Nobilio" (black-and-white still of Frank, a few years out of date, showing his hair as mostly brown) "and astronomer Cletus Calhoun, best known as the host of PBS's popular Great Balls of Fire! astronomy series" (silent clip of Clete at the rim of Arizona's Barringer crater) "were flown by military jet to the Kitty Hawk, and are now on their way to rendezvous with the alien ship. The Kitty Hawk should reach its destination in just over one hundred minutes from now. Bobbie and Lou?"

       Back to CNN Center in Atlanta and a two-shot of Lou Waters and Bobbie Battista. "Thanks, Karen," said Battista. "Before Dr. Calhoun left the U.S., our science correspondent Miles O'Brien managed to interview him and University of Toronto exobiology professor Packwood Smathers about what this all means. Let's have another look at that tape."

       The image changed to show O'Brien in front of two giant wall monitors. The one on the left was labeled Toronto and showed Smathers; the one on the right was labeled Los Angeles and showed Clete.

       "Dr. Smathers, Dr. Calhoun, thanks for joining us on such short notice," said O'Brien. "Well, it looks like the incredible has happened, doesn't it? An alien spaceship has apparently landed in the middle of the Atlantic. Dr. Smathers, what can we expect to see when this ship opens up?"

       Smathers had a square head, thick white hair, and a neatly trimmed white beard. He was wearing a brown sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows — the quintessential professorial look. "Well, of course, we first have to suspect that this ship is unmanned — that it's a probe, like the Viking landers, rather than carrying a crew, and —"

       "Look at the size of the thing," said Clete, interrupting. "Pete's sake, Woody, ain't no need for the thing to be that big, 'less it's got somebody aboard. 'Sides, it looks like its got windows, and —"

       "Dr. Calhoun is famous for jumping to conclusions," said Smathers sharply. O'Brien was grinning from ear to ear — he evidently hadn't expected to get an impromptu Siskel and Ebert of Science. "But, as I was about to say, if there are alien beings aboard, then I expect them to be at least vaguely familiar in body plan, and —"

       "You're hedging now, Woody," said Clete. "'Couple years ago, I heard you give a talk arguing that the humanoid body plan would be adopted by purty near any form of intelligent life, and —"

       Smathers was growing red in the face. "Well, yes, I did say that then, but —"

       "But now that we're actually goin' to meet aliens," said Clete, clearly enjoying himself, "you ain't so sure no more."

       "Well," said Smathers, "the human body plan might indeed represent an ideal for an intelligent lifeform. Start with the sense organs: two eyes are much better than one, since two give stereoscopic vision — but a third eye adds hardly any value over two. Two ears likewise give stereophonic hearing, and they'll obviously be on opposite sides of the body, to give the best possible separation. You can go right down the human body from head to toe, and make a case why each part of it is ideal. When that spaceship opens up, yes, I'll stand by my contention that we'll probably see humanoids inside."

       The Clete on the TV set looked positively pained. The one sitting next to Frank aboard the Kitty Hawk shook his head. "Peckerwood Smathers," he said under his breath.

       "That's hooey, Woody," said the TV Calhoun. "Ain't nothin' optimized about our form — y'all only get optimization when you've got an ultimate design goal in mind, and there wasn't one. Evolution takes advantage of what's handy, that's all. You know, five hundred million years ago, durin' the Cambrian explosion, dozens o' different body plans appeared simultaneously in the fossil record. The one that gave rise to us — the ancestor of modern vertebrates — weren't no better than any of the others; it was just plum lucky, is all. If a different one had survived, nothin' on this planet would look the way it does today. No, I bet there's some critter inside unlike anything we've ever seen before."

       "Clearly we have some differing points of view here," said O'Brien. "But —"

       "Well, that's the whole point, ain't it?" said Clete. "For decades, guys like Woody been getting grants to think about alien life. It was all a good game 'til today. It wasn't real science — you could never test a one of their propositions. But now, today, it all goes from being a theoretical science to an empirical one. Gonna be pretty embarrassing if everything they've been saying turns out to be wrong."

       "Now, hang on, Clete," said Smathers. "I'm at least willing to put my cards on the table, and —"

       "Well, if you want to hear my — What? 'Crying out loud, hon, can't you see I'm on TV?"

       A muffled female voice, off camera; Frank recognized it as Clete's secretary, Bonnie: "Clete, it's the White House."

       "White House?" He looked directly into the camera, and lifted his red eyebrows. The shot widened, showing more of Clete's cluttered study. Bonnie crossed into the frame, holding a cordless phone. Clete took it from her. "Calhoun here. What — Frankie! How good to — No, no. Sure, yeah, I can do that. Sure, sure. I'll be ready. Bye." Clete put down the phone, and looked into the camera again. "I gotta go, Miles — sorry 'bout this. They're sending a car for me. I'm off to rendezvous with the alien ship." He unclipped his microphone and moved out of the shot.

       Cut back to O'Brien. "Well, obviously we've lost Dr. Calhoun. We'll continue our conversation with Dr. Smathers. Doctor, can you —"

       Clete hit the remote, and the TV went dead.

      


      

Chapter 2

       There was indeed a Russian submarine present by the time the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk reached the splashdown site, and the Brazilian cruise ship was visible on the horizon, coming closer. The Kitty Hawk held station one kilometer from the alien ship, the hull of which was still flashing through the colors of the rainbow. The Russian sub was slightly farther away on the opposite side.

       The alien ship seemed to be about two-thirds submerged in the water, but it was bobbing enough that intermittently most of its upper surface was visible. Frank, Clete, and a young Navy pilot boarded one of the Kitty Hawk's SH-60F Seahawk helicopters and took off from the aircraft carrier for a flight over the vessel.

       "It sure is streamlined," shouted Clete, over the noise of the chopper's rotor.

       Frank nodded. "It must be just a landing craft," he shouted back. Since the ship had first been spotted entering Earth's atmosphere, NORAD had been scanning the heavens, looking for any sign of the mothership. Meanwhile, Canaveral was readying Atlantis for flight. No American or Russian Shuttle was currently in orbit; Atlantis was the next one scheduled to fly, but it wasn't supposed to go up for another eighteen days.

       The alien ship's hull seemed to be one continuous piece. It had neither the riveted metal plates that made up the Kitty Hawk's exterior, nor the ceramic tiles that covered a Space Shuttle. There were four mirrored surfaces that might have been windows across the pointed end of the shield, and there was something in grayish green that might have been writing going down one side of the upper hull, but it was difficult to make out, especially with the background constantly changing color.

       "I bet they see into the infrared," shouted Clete. "It's probably still changin' colors while it seems to be black before turning red, but we just can't see it."

       "Perhaps," said Frank, "but —"

       "Look at that!" shouted the chopper's crew chief.

       A narrow cylinder was rising out of the center of the spaceship's hull. At its apex was a bright yellow light that was winking on and off. Blink, pause, blink-blink, pause, blink-blink-blink.

       "Counting," said Clete.

       But the next sequence was five blinks, not four, and the one after that was seven blinks. And then the sequence started cycling over and over again: one, two, three, five, seven; one, two, three, five, seven.

       "Prime numbers!" said Frank. He shouted at the pilot, "Does this copter have a searchlight?"

       The man shook his head.

       "Get us back to the aircraft carrier as fast as possible. Hurry!"

       The pilot nodded and took the chopper through a wide, banking turn.

       Frank looked over at the Russian sub. It was already returning the signal: the first five prime numbers in sequence, cycling repeatedly.

       The pilot was wearing a radio headset. Frank shouted at him. "Get the Kitty Hawk to use its searchlights. Tell it to blink out a reply at the ship. The first five prime numbers, over and over."

       The pilot relayed the message. It seemed to take forever — with Frank fidgeting through each second — but eventually a large searchlight just below the carrier's radar antenna started flashing out the sequence.

       The yellow beacon sticking up from the lander went dark.

       "Could we have said the wrong thing?" asked Clete.

       The Seahawk touched down on the flight deck. As the rotor was twirling down, Frank got out, the wind from the blades whipping his hair. Clete followed a moment later. Hunching over, they hustled away from the chopper. The captain, a baldheaded black man of about fifty, was waiting for them just inside the base of the conning tower. "The Russians are still signaling the same thing, too," he said.

       Frank frowned, thinking. Why had the aliens shut up? They'd replied exactly as the aliens had, showing that humans understood prime numbers, and —

       No. All they'd shown is that humans can parrot things back at them. "Try continuing the sequence," said Frank.

       Clete nodded, immediately seeing it as well. "They gave us the first five primes; give 'em the next five."

       The captain nodded and lifted a small intercom handset off the wall, pulling it close to him. "Signaling room — continue the sequence. Give them the next five prime numbers."

       "Sir, yes sir," said a staticky voice, "but, ah, sir, what are the next five?"

       The captain looked at Frank, eyebrows lifted. Frank made a disgusted frown. Clete rolled his eyes. "Eleven, thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-three," Frank said.

       The captain repeated the numbers into the microphone. "Sir, yes sir," said the seaman's voice.

       "We better get up there," said Clete.

       Frank nodded. "How do we get from here to where the controls for the searchlight are?"

       "Come with me," said the captain. He led them to a circular metal stairwell and took them up to the radio room. As they entered, Frank saw the seaman who had been operating the light. He was a young white fellow, maybe nineteen, with a half-centimeter of blond hair. "The aliens have started flashing again," he said.

       "What was the sequence?" said Clete.

       "They repeated back all ten prime numbers," the seaman said.

       A wide grin spread across Frank's face. "Contact."

       The captain was looking out the window. "The Russian sub is signaling the ten numbers, too."

       Frank pointed. "And here comes that damned cruise ship."

       The yellow beacon started flashing again. One. Four. Nine. And then so many flashes that Frank lost track.

       "It's gotta be squares," said Clete. "One squared; two squared; three squared; four squared."

       "Give them five-squared as a response," said Frank, looking at the young fellow. "That's twenty-five."

       The seaman started clicking the trigger button for the searchlight as he counted out loud.

       "God," said Clete, pointing out the window. "God."

       The alien craft was lifting out of the ocean. It rose about twenty meters above the waves, water streaming off it. Its hull had stopped changing colors; it was now a uniform dark green. There seemed to be four jets of some sort positioned on its underbelly. They churned up the ocean surface beneath. The ship started moving slowly horizontally. It flew in the direction of the Russian submarine, but stopped just short of the vessel, apparently to prevent its jet exhaust from blasting down on the sub. The lander then flew over to near the cruise ship. With binoculars, Frank could see people on its deck taking photographs and home videos. Then the spaceship changed direction, and headed toward the Kitty Hawk. It stopped about five meters off the projecting bow of the flight deck, and just hovered there.

       "What's it doing?" shouted Frank.

       Clete shrugged.

       But the seamen spoke up, "Sir, I believe it's waiting for permission to land, sir."

       Frank looked at the young man. Perhaps he'd dismissed him too quickly.

       "I believe the boy is right, Frankie," said Clete. "They know this is an aircraft carrier. They've seen our helicopter take off and land from it, and they can probably tell just by looking at the planes out on the flight deck what they are — they're clearly designed according to aerodynamic principles."

       "By all means they can land," said Frank. "But how do we tell them that?"

       "Well, if the question is obvious, the answer must be, too," said Clete. "Give 'em the prime numbers again. Do it correctly, and that's `yes.' Do it incorrectly — say, one, two, three, five, eight — and that's `no.'"

       Frank nodded. "Signal the first five primes," he said.

       The seaman looked at his captain for confirmation. The captain nodded, and the seaman used his thumb to operate the light trigger. In the window, Frank could see the alien ship moving over the flight deck.

       The intercom whistled. The captain picked up the hand unit. "Raintree here."

       "Sir," said a husky voice, "the Russian sub has radioed us, asking that we send a helicopter to bring three observers over here immediately, sir."

       The captain looked at Frank, who frowned. "Christ, I don't want —"

       Clete interrupted. "Now, Frankie, they chose international waters. You can't really —"

       "No, no, I suppose not. Okay, captain."

       "Take care of it, Mr. Coltrane," said the captain, and he replaced the hand unit in its clip.

       "I want video equipment set up on the flight deck," said Frank. "I want everything recorded."

       The captain nodded, and spoke into the intercom again.

       "Let's get down there," said Clete.

       Captain Raintree, Frank, and Clete went back down the circular staircase they'd gone up earlier, and emerged from the same door at the base of the conning tower, exiting onto the flight deck. There wasn't much wind, and the sky was mostly clear. The lander was still in the process of lowering itself.

       "Damn," said the Captain.

       "What's wrong?" asked Frank, over the roar of the lander's exhaust.

       "It's setting down in the middle of the runway. No way we can launch a fighter with it there."

       Frank shrugged. "It's the biggest clear area."

       In the distance, another Navy Seahawk was now hovering over the conning tower of the Russian sub. A rope ladder had been lowered, and a man was climbing up into the chopper.

       Captain Raintree looked at Frank. "We do have recorded music, sir. We could play the national anthem."

       "Is there a United Nations anthem?" asked Frank.

       "Not as far as I know, sir," said the captain.

       "Anybody got the theme from Star Trek on tape?" said Clete.

       The captain looked at him.

       Clete shrugged. "Just a thought."

       "I could assemble an honor guard," said the captain.

       "With rifles?" said Frank. "Not on your life."

       The lander came to rest. Frank could feel vibration in the deck plates beneath his feet as it clanged against them.

       "Shall we go have a look?" said Clete.

       "Sir," said the captain, "the lander could be radioactive. I suggest you let one of my people check it over with a Geiger counter first."

       Frank nodded. The captain used the intercom again to give the order.

       "Do you suppose they're going to come outside?" asked Clete.

       Frank lifted his shoulders. "I don't know. They may be incapable of coming outside — even if they have spacesuits, the gravity may be too high for them to move around."

       "Then why land on the Kitty Hawk at all?"

       "Maybe they were just getting seasick being tossed on the ocean."

       The helicopter was now leaving the Russian sub and heading back toward the Kitty Hawk.

       Clete pointed at the gray-green markings on the ship's dark green hull. They were complex, consisting of a horizontal line with various spirals and curves descending from it. No way to tell if the whole thing was one character, or if it was meant to be a word, or just abstract art.

       A sailor appeared next to the captain, holding a Geiger counter. The captain nodded for him to proceed. The man looked nervous, but headed out across the flight deck toward the lander.

       "Captain," said Frank, "can you sail this ship to New York?"

       "Want to take 'em to see Cats?" said Clete.

       Frank frowned. "To the United Nations, of course."

       The captain nodded. "Sure, we can go anywhere."

       The helicopter landed. Two Russian men and a Russian woman disembarked, along with the copter pilot. They came over to the American captain.

       "Sergei Korolov," said the Russian, a thickset man in his thirties. He saluted. "I'm — first officer, you'd call it, on the Suvorov." He nodded to the woman. "Our doctor, Valentina Danilova, and our radio officer, Piotr Pushkin. Neither of them speaks English."

       "Great," muttered Frank. "I'm Frank Nobilio, Science Advisor to the President of the United States. This is Cletus Calhoun, astronomer, and Captain Raintree."

       "I point out," said Korolov, "that the lander only settled on your ship because it was not possible to settle on our submarine. But under international salvage laws, the lander is clearly ours — we got to it first."

       Frank sighed. "It's not our intention to steal the lander, Mr. Korolov. In fact, I want to take it to the United Nations in New York."

       "I will have to consult with my captain, and she will have to consult with Moscow," said Korolov. "It is not —"

       The man with the Geiger counter returned. "It's clean, sir. Just normal background radiation."

       "Very good," said Captain Raintree. "Do you want to go have a closer look, Dr. Nobilio?"

       "By all means. Let's — My God."

       A portion of the curving wall of the lander was sliding up. The hatch had been completely invisible when closed, but the opening was obvious. Inside was a gray-walled chamber — an airlock, in all likelihood. And standing in the middle of the chamber was a figure.

       A figure that was not human.

       "Damn," said Captain Raintree, under his breath. "Sir, if that thing is carrying alien germs, we'll have to, er, sterilize this ship."

       Frank spoke firmly. "I'll make that determination, Captain."

       "But —"

       "Captain, shut up." Frank stepped closer to the lander. His heart was pounding in his ears.

       An alien.

       An actual, honest-to-God alien.

       It didn't have the big head, the large eyes, the tiny body, or any of the other characteristics associated with UFO sightings, of course. Frank had always taken such unimaginative descriptions of alien beings as proof that UFOs had nothing to do with extraterrestrial life, Packwood Smathers's ridiculous contentions notwithstanding. No, this was clearly something that had evolved somewhere else.

       The creature was not humanoid.

       It stood about five and a half feet tall, and, at a wild guess, probably weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. It had four limbs, but all four of them seemed to be attached at the shoulders. The left and right ones were long, and reached down to the ground. The front and back ones were shorter, dangling freely. The head was a simple dome rising up from the shoulders, and on top of it there was a topknot or tuft of white tendrils that seemed to be waving independently of the gentle breeze. Positioned near the front of the dome were two mirrored convex circles that might have been eyes. Below them was an orifice that could have been a mouth. The being's hide was blue-gray. It wore a dun-colored vest-like affair, with many pockets.

       Clete had moved to Frank's elbow. "No spacesuit," he said. "It's breathing our air, and it's standing in our gravity."

       The alien began to walk forward. Its left and right limbs were joined at three places, and its stride length was close to six feet. Although it didn't seem to be hurrying, it managed to close half the distance between itself and Frank in a matter of seconds — then it stopped, dead, still about fifty feet away.

       The meaning seemed plain enough: an invitation to come closer. The alien wasn't going to invade Frank's territory, and he clearly wasn't looking to grab Frank and steal him aboard the lander. Frank walked forward; Clete fell in next to him. The Russians began to move as well. Frank turned around. "Just one of you," he said. "We don't want it to think we're ganging up on it."

       Korolov nodded and spoke briefly to Pushkin and Danilova. They both looked disappointed, but they obeyed the order and moved back to stand next to Captain Raintree.

       The three humans closed the remaining distance. Clete held up a hand when they got within eight feet of the alien. "Better stop here, Frankie," he said. "We don't know what it considers to be its personal space."

       Frank nodded. Up close, he could see that the creature's skin was crisscrossed with fine lines, dividing it into diamond-shaped scales or plates, and — Frank couldn't help smiling. There was a small adhesive strip, perhaps three inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide, attached to the side of the alien's domed head — apparently a bandage, as if the alien had bumped its head on something. Somehow, the small sign of fallibility made the alien seem much more accessible, much less formidable.

       The alien was presumably studying the humans, but there were no visible pupils in the mirrored lenses — no way to tell where the alien was looking.

       How to proceed? Frank thought for a moment about making the hand sign from Close Encounters — and that thought gave him a better idea. He held up one finger, then two — he was conscious that he was making a peace sign — then three, then five. He then brought up his second hand and added two fingers from it, for a total of seven.

       The alien lifted its front arm, and raised the hand attached to it, which ended in four flat-tipped fingers, equally spaced around the circular end of the arm. The fingers seemed undifferentiated — they were all the same length, with no obvious thumb. The first and third fingers opposed each other, and so did the second and fourth.

       The alien raised one finger, then two, then three. It then reached its second hand around from behind its body, and raised two of its fingers — making a total of five — and then the remaining two, making a total of seven.

       So far, so good. But then Frank thought perhaps he'd made a mistake. Maybe the alien would now assume humans communicated through a gesticular language, rather than a spoken one. He touched a hand to his own chest and said, "Frank."

       "Frank." The alien was a gifted mimic — it sounded just like Frank's own voice.

       No, no, that wasn't it — it had recorded his voice and immediately played it back to him. There must be some sort of recording equipment in the vest it was wearing.

       Frank pointed at the alien. There was no reason to think the gesture would make sense to the creature — pointing might only be meaningful to beings who had been spear carriers in their past. But almost at once the alien's mouth moved. It was a complex structure, with an outer horizontal opening and an inner layer of tissue that had a vertical opening, letting it make a variety of rectangular holes. "Hask," said the alien. Its voice was smooth and deep — Frank had seen nothing on the being that might be genitalia, but it sounded male. The voice started softly, but the volume lifted by the end of the word.

       But then Frank realized that he hadn't really established anything. Was Hask the being's personal name, or the name of its race? Or did the word mean something else? "Hello," maybe? Frank pointed at Cletus. "Clete," he said. The alien repeated the word back, and this time Frank was positive that the sound was coming not from the mouth, but the alien's chest. One of the pockets on its vest contained a small rectangular object; its outline was apparent by the way the fabric was distorted, and the top of the unit was peeking out of the pocket's flap. The sound had apparently come from it.

       The alien pointed at Frank, and said his name — this time it did come from the alien's mouth. He then pointed at Clete, and said Clete's name. Both times the word started softly, but grew louder over the length of the syllable. The alien pointed at the Russian. Frank looked at him, but was damned if he could remember the man's name.

       "Sergei," said the Russian.

       "Sergei," repeated the device in the alien's pocket, and then, a moment later, the alien said "Sergei" on its own.

       Frank then indicated himself, Clete, and Sergei. "Humans," he said.

       "Wait," said Sergei. "I object to contact being made in English."

       Frank looked at the man. "This isn't the time —"

       "Certainly is time. You —"

       Clete spoke up. "Don't be a pain. Dr. Nobilio is in charge here, and —"

       "Nyet."

       "For heaven's sake," said Frank. "We're getting this all on video. Let's not squabble."

       Sergei looked angry but didn't say anything further. Frank turned back to the alien, repeated his pointing at each of the people in turn, then repeated the word, "Humans."

       The alien touched its chest, just as Frank had touched his own moments before. "Tosok."

       "Tosok," said Frank. "Hask."

       "Humans," said Hask. "Frank. Clete. Sergei."

       "Now we're cookin'," said Clete.


More Good Reading

Another passage from Illegal Alien
More about Illegal Alien

Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
More Sample chapters


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