The Great Equalizer
by Jakob Drud | 2,467 words
Despite the powder on my face, despite the Xanax, I start sweating as soon as I leave the broadcast truck to enter the Istanbul Tower Hotel. The lobby with all its marble and air conditioning does nothing to relieve me of my anxiety, and the concierge, privy to the arrangements, is a mirror of my emotions.
“John Hallman, right? Any, eh, messages before you go up?”
He might as well have asked, Any last words? I shake my head, not trusting my voice to remain steady. He hands me the keycard to suite 1502, preprogrammed to let me off at the forbidden fifteenth floor. Its edges bite into my hand while I head for the elevator.
On the way up I rehearse the questions I’ve prepared for the Ionians. Interstellar travel is the Ultimate Big Question now that it’s been proven practical. In addition a host of researchers want me to ask the Ionians about their homeworld, their social life and history, and all the other things they haven’t covered in the annual interviews they’ve given since landing three years ago.
Milliat shouldn’t have asked for me. This interview is better suited for a fit white guy with a family and the experience to skirt controversial subjects. Or better yet, a brilliant up-and-coming black-haired Asian reporter with political savvy. Certainly anyone would be better suited for TV than a balding, waist-heavy fiftyish gay who has pissed off half of Washington by asking questions about outcasts, prisons, and failed social policies. Not that I could say no to this opportunity. The interview is going to be CPR for my career, and if half an hour of polite chit-chat is what it takes, I can be diplomatic. Can’t I?
On fifteenth I pass the door to 1501 warily and walk quickly to the interview suite. Inside I’m greeted by Maximillian Teak, or Milliat as per his byline.
“Nice to see you again, Hallman. The cameras are in place, and we’ve got the tubs lined up. Everything’s ready.”
He looks far from the nervous wreck I remember from the throng of journalists and soldiers outside the Ionian landing site in Istanbul. We shared a few words then, both laughing when we learned that our editors thought us ‘expendable’. I’ve never forgotten how pale and shaky he looked when the Ionians singled him out as their press liaison. Now the Turkish sun has given him a tan, and he’s put some muscle on his arms. I can’t help but notice the bulging chest beneath his shirt, but even that pleasant diversion doesn’t alleviate my fears.
I follow him into the suite. The obligatory tubs of water, four feet tall, take up nearly a third of the room. Another third is given up to a multitude of cameras and lights. The cameras run on remote; my production company doesn’t want too many people in the suite. Square in the middle stands an armchair, comfy-looking without being laid back, and a glass table with a vase of white lilies, a symbol of earthly innocence.
My nervousness must be obvious, because Milliat puts a hand on my shoulder. “Calm down, Hallman, we’re not laser fodder in a game of ‘Ion Invasion’.”
“Well, as long as they didn’t bring the cookbook,” I say. There have been persistent rumors that the Ionians leave the landing site at night and abduct people for murder, snacks, rape, and freak experiments performed in their secret labs. None of the previous interviews have confirmed or refuted the rumors, and Milliat has refused to comment, pleading neutrality as a mediator.
Now he waves a hand at the glass table and grins. “Don’t worry. No dip.”
My eyes flicker to the door between our suite and 1501 as soon as it rolls open. Three Ionians enter, warbling along on their octopi tentacles, leaving a trail of slime that smells surprisingly pleasant, perhaps from some kind of off-world flower infusion. Their upper bodies, sleek and slick-skinned, further mark them as an aquatic species, but their ellipsoid heads and facial features are anything but fish-like. Two round orbs, milky white except for about fifty black pupils, protrude from the top of the head. Their ears are much like those of an elephant, huge, skinny and flexible, but with gills at the root. Mouths filled with razor-sharp triangles open every now and then, as if they’re gasping for breath.
I’ve seen them on TV, of course, but standing so close to them I find myself paralyzed with fear and fascination.
One by one they slip into the pools, wetting their gills before turning to face me and the sharp camera lights.
“We are Immo, Dimmo, and Pimmo,” the leftmost says in surprisingly fluent English. “Ask your questions, Earthman.”
I follow Milliat’s example and bow to each of them. Then he backs out of the light, his role as liaison completed, while I sit down by the ridiculously superfluous glass table.
And my mind has gone blank. The cameras are running, and all I can do is gape at the three aliens. Diplomacy! my mind cries. My voice can’t seem to generate a sound. I kick-start it by clearing my throat.
“Well, first off, I think a lot of people would like to know what you think of Earth.” There, an open question on behalf of mankind. Diplomatic, vague, and a potential opener for all kinds of follow-ups. Just like I’ve practiced with the network consultants.
“Milliat said you would ask us real questions,” Immo says.
If I read his expression right, he’s annoyed. I remember the cameras and try not to squirm, even as I’m convinced my expression will be posted all over the web under the label ‘Hallman wetting himself’.
“Ask.” The order from Pimmo is unmistakable, and I realize then and there that all my prepared questions mean nothing now.
“Are all Ionian names so alike?” I wonder out loud. The people following the transmission in the broadcast truck must be laughing their butts off at my incompetence, but it’s the best I can manage.
“Yes, of course,” Dimmo says. “How else would you remember what we’re called?”
I snap my mouth shut. Do they really think humans are that thick? Maybe I can’t pronounce their names in their original language, but I haven’t had a chance to learn it, have I?
“But what do you call yourselves?” I ask. “Supposing you have something as earthly as names?”
“Ionians,” they say in unison. They dip their gills again and return to stare at me with those milky eyes. The movement is synchronous to a fault.
This is impossible. No race is that homogenous. If the laws of evolution on their home planet are anything like those we know, differences and mutations are facts of life. Unless, of course, they’ve completely suspended variety by genetic treatments, in which case there’s a real chance they see themselves as the pinnacle of evolution.
And what would that make them think of us? But that’s dangerous ground, so I change tack.
“If you’re so alike, how do you, Immo, know the difference between yourself and Pimmo?”
“Would you like it better if we were different?” Dimmo asks.
The question presupposes that humans like nothing better than clichés, and I feel annoyance rising in me. “Of course,” I say with emphasis.
“But are you not human?” Immo says.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t like variety,” I say defensively. “You’ve probably heard I’m homosexual. That’s not the norm on Earth, but that doesn’t mean I mind being different. We can’t all be part of the big stew of white-shirt homeowners with cars and lawns and super-consumer children.”
“You don’t want to be like them?” Dimmo asks. “To be one with the homeowners?”
A dozen memories explode into my head. From school, from college, from church. I’ve always been on the outside, always strayed from the beaten path. Nothing in life has hurt me as much as my old vicar verbally throwing me out of his church during a Sunday sermon, denouncing me as a God-damned sodomite. But that doesn’t mean I would have chosen to fake a straight life instead of living a difficult gay one. And I realize I’ll only be truly God-damned if I give my viewers the impression that I’ll bow to a bunch of aliens’ misguided concept of normality.
“There’s more variety in the human race than you can ever fathom, even if you and your triplet brothers stayed here your entire miserable lives. If homogeneity is what you want, you came to the wrong fucking planet.”
I realize that I’ve been shouting, and suddenly all my anxiety comes crashing down on me. I’ve probably just ruined my career, but right now the only thing on my mind is finding a way out of this mess alive.
I jump at the feel of a hand on my arm. Milliat is standing beside me, a big broad smile on his face.
“See, I told you he’d be our man,” he says.
Then he pulls off his face, or rather, a long stretchy mask of organic material that he draws out and out like a piece of bubble gum on the finger of a teenage girl. Finally it tears along his shirt neck, revealing a blue-green ellipsoid underneath. I hesitate to call it a head, but I suppose that’s what it is. The color fluctuates, from the deepest indigo to the pastel light green of my granny’s bathroom.
My stomach spasms with fear. My legs push me back in the chair. And beneath my panic rises the realization that my only human compatriot in the room, my only guide to avoid being eaten, may indeed have the munchies himself.
“It’s time to put our likenesses aside and show our differences,” Milliat says. I look for a mouth, teeth, but see none. And then his words slip through the barrier of dread clouding my mind.
He lifts his still-human hand, points his index finger at Immo, and twirls it in the air. The gesture fits his suit, but the impatient frown that might have accompanied the movements on a human face is depicted instead as a flash of emerald on his forehead or nose or whatnot. I shudder.
Immo, Dimmo, and Pimmo use their tentacles to pull away their uniform faces and fish-chests. Immo collapses into a globule of black egg-shaped flesh pulsing with an inner heat I can feel across the glass table. Dimmo unrolls into a thin, bark-covered branch that reaches the ceiling and curves beneath it, seemingly creeping toward the camera lights. Pimmo’s form breaks away in two pieces, revealing a humanoid being with six fingers and opposable thumbs. He has the kind of huge almond eyes you see in clichéd scifi drawings, and his chest barely reaches above the edge of the pool. Wings are folded neatly behind his back.
“You’re not Ionians?” I ask. The dumb journalist’s first question, but I can’t help myself.
“I am Ionian,” Dimmo says, revealing a chlorophyll-green mouth about halfway up his stem.
“We are Ionians,” Immo and Pimmo repeat.
“We are indeed,” Milliat says.
“But you look so different.” Even as I say it, I look at my hands, white and pudgy and very much different from the lean, tan fingers on Milliat’s disguise.
“I thought you wanted to look beyond the uniform, man-eating stereotypes,” Milliat says.
“Yes,” I mutter. I’m still frightened. Whatever I knew about the Ionians has just been ripped from under my feet by four torn flesh-suits. But I’m beginning to see their reasoning, and my pulse goes down a notch.
“You knew humans were going to have trouble accepting you as you were,” I say. “Erecting stereotypes of yourself as uniform creatures made us less prone to distrust you. Because we would accept a monstrous image, because our animal brains are already geared to dealing with shadows chasing us through the jungle.”
Milliat’s head flashes a soft pea green. “But now that you’ve had three years to get used to the idea of alien visitors, it’s time you put the stereotypes away. You have to understand that Ionians have visited many planets, and everywhere we’ve gone, more Ionians have joined us. ”
“They joined you?” I ask. “You didn’t evolve on the same planet?”
Immo, Dimmo, and Pimmo make what I interpret as alien snickers, Dimmo’s sounding worryingly like an angry parrot.
I realize I’m sweating again. I tell myself it’s just fear of the unknown pumping out from my amygdala, but the questions popping into my mind have an unpleasant edge to them.
“Does that mean you’re planning to turn humanity into your servants?”
“Servants?” Milliat says. “We have never met a race who didn’t join us willingly.”
Milliat’s words bring all kinds of historical tragedies to mind. Communism and Stalin’s twisted ideas of equality, always presented as the will of the people. Experiments conducted by North Korea’s leaders to brainwash their population into obedience. Bewildered people turning themselves into pawns for mad leaders to use and dispose of.
“And how are you going to make us join you?” I ask.
They look–or whatever these creatures do–from me to one another. Into those glares I read impatience with the slow human in front of them. Yes, yes, we are sentient, I want to shout at them, but our minds don’t work all that well under stress, and will you please not assimilate me!
And then I realize I’ve got it all backwards.
I’ve spent my life on the gay periphery of society, struggling against the values of a straight center. Social context has always defined how close to the center I was, and how superior the straight have deemed themselves. But I can’t understand the Ioninans unless I look beyond that constant tug of war between eccentric and normal.
The Ionians are not assimilating anyone. They’re not trying to impose equality or drag anyone towards a social or cultural ideal. To them, there’s no such thing as normality. There is only variation, multitudes, difference, and the complete acceptance that diversity is the greatest social force in the universe.
My head is spinning, and I’m glad I’m sitting down. Everyone in academia has been figuring out how to get their hands on the principles behind interstellar travel. But it seems the most revolutionizing concept the Ionians have brought us is not one of physics, but one of social thinking.
I blink at the camera lights, and realize I have been touched by the four spacemen of transformation.
“Ah what the hell,” I say. “I am Ionian, too.”
As Milliat’s bows to me, his head turns a deep indigo. “Yes you are,” he says.
And I know that I have found an equalizer stronger than death.
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© 2012 Jakob Drud
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Jakob Drud lives in Denmark, where he writes science fiction and fantasy for life and ad copy for money. English is his language of choice because he’s met so many interesting people in the online writing community.