A little over two miles and nine minutes after our cart entered what I decided was rush-hour traffic, we left the perimeter roadway via a ramp marked "R19: Communication". This ramp descended in a lazy curve that led to what could well be called a cart parking lot, where at least 400 of these little buggies awaited their passengers. Orii said it was one of almost a hundred such lots on this level.
We drove into a reserved section and pulled into a slot about sixty feet from the main entrance to the Comm section. Three people, two women and a man, were apparently expecting us, as they came over to us as we switched off. We walked together into the main lobby, a huge oval-shaped domed room about 250 feet along the major axis and at least 80 feet high at the top of the ceiling.
The dome proved to be a large tri-dim projection screen. It was displaying the image of a sunny summer sky with drifting tufts of cumulus and occasional birds winging their way through the air. To all appearances it was a glass bubble through which one could view the passing of the day anywhere on Earth. It was at once beautiful and strangely unsettling.
"I share your feelings," Lin-Erri said softly. "It has a certain intangible aura of out-of-placeness. Perhaps that's what makes it so fascinating and compelling."
"Big girls don't cry," she said. "Besides, I'm in the Army now, and decorum must prevail."
Orii joined me a moment later. "Nothing serious. A little business with MassCom. They'll be with us again later. For now, I guess I'm your guide dog. Where to, Master?"
Around the room were literally hundreds of consoles where headset-wearing men and women engaged in conversation with heaven knows who and where. Many of them nodded acknowledgements as we walked by. Apparently they were all civilians, as no salutes were exchanged. We stopped occasionally to watch particularly interesting images on their visiscreens.
"A perhaps over-simplified description of their work is that they're equivalent to your telephone operators. Although the implants handle a lot of our communication, we still prefer this method for non-critical work and just for the intimacy and humanity of interpersonal contact and companionship. The Infinite knows we're far enough away from home as it is, without allowing computers and implants to separate us still more from each other."
"You know, I'm beginning to see a human side of you folks that I always seemed to miss before. Maybe it's this thing in my head, but you're more real to me now than you've ever been."
"It is, Bob. Until now, you've been an Earthman, and we're Korendians. Despite our best efforts, there's always been that subconscious division, that psychological chasm that isolated you from us. Now you're much closer to us. There's a bridge over that gap and we've met at its crest to embrace each other not only as friends but as true brothers of the spirit."
I had no ready response to that startling display of warmth and love from a man I'd long known as the embodiment of business-like pragmatism and mathematical precision. I had long since come to expect and indeed anticipate his sharp wit and his inevitable jibes whenever things became too emotional to suit his tastes. His candor and openness were both amazing and refreshing.
At this point, we arrived near what appeared to be a briefing session for new-comers. On a viewscreen was what I immediately recognized as the old Plato base with its archaic equipment and facilities. The scene changed to a view of the one-time adaptation chambers. I asked Orii if we might stay for a few moments and listen in. He nodded, and we took seats at the rear of the group. I didn't hear anything, and was about to ask why when he tapped his forehead.
"Oh," I uttered, and within a second the narration came in loud and clear. "...In our initial operations on Earth, Terranoid bodies were constructed for our operatives within the NWDA Compound in Vrell City. As such, although these bodies were Terranoid, they were acclimated to Korendian conditions.
"The first area to be constructed was the adaptation section, seen here. This was necessary so that the bodies could over a period of days become accustomed to the physical conditions on Earth. We simply didn't have the equipment available here at Plato to build these bodies, the primary factor being lack of funding for our new project.
"Our initial budget was quite limited until we demonstrated to NWDA Earth's strategic and economic advantages. With that accomplished, we received the necessary equipment, and all but abandoned the adaptation section, keeping it intact primarily for other races who might wish to use the chambers.
"After this area was decommissioned, we constructed suitable Terranoid bodies and transferred our entities into and out of them as required. This was still a cumbersome and inefficient approach, but it served our needs adequately.
"With the unlimited funding that was made available following the Council directives concerning Earth after the depth of the Omegan operation became known, we designed and constructed a computerized system based on teleportal technology. Although this equipment is now in essentially universal use throughout the Alliance, our research facilities at Plato brought it into being, an accomplishment of which we are justifiably very proud."
Orii and I left the group then, as the discussion turned to their specific roles as new employees at PlatoCom. I asked as we walked, "Exactly how does this new system operate?"
"You've used the teleportals enough to understand the concepts of demat and remat, as your science-fiction writers call them. In this system, however, what goes in one end doesn't necessarily come out the other. In between, the patterns recorded by the transmitting unit are simply stored. At the receiving end, a previously saved pattern is fetched from the data files and the unit builds the body using that pattern."
"That brings up one helluva question. Why, when I'm on Korendor, don't I fell odd in that body, if you know what I mean. I should think I'd feel as out of my element as Charles Bronson in a ball gown."
"In fact, were you to see your Terran form while in your Korendian alter-ego, you'd probably find it as strange to you as ours would seem to you now. The adaptation to the body is absolute. This is why when you visit Astra-Lari at home, she's every bit as beautiful to you there as she is in her Terran form. Yet, were each of you to see the other in the natural state, your reactions might range from confusion to actual revulsion.
"Physically, we're utterly alien to each other. It's one reason we discontinued making Terran bodies on Korendor. The sight of them was intimidating and distressing, because you towered over us, and because your physiology and facial features were uncomfortably different."
He looked at his reflection in the semi-silvered window of a screening room as we walked by it. "Of course, I'm incredibly handsome, as any fool can plainly see, but on Korendor I'd be as ugly as any other Terran. No offense."
"If I can harp on this a little longer," I continued, "I've commed Astra several times while she was on Korendor, and yet she always seemed perfectly Terran to me."
We happened at that point to be walking through a suite of private comm rooms, and he abruptly asked, "How would you like to see your Korendian self?"
"This is your 'new' Korendian body as of your last replica visit to our lovely little world. So, what do you think?" He looked over at me, and apparently noticed my stunned expression, because he leaned back in the seat and just smiled.
I studied that image for a long time. He was right. It was ugly. It was expectedly short—although Orii told me it was somewhat taller than the average—and solidly constructed for their gravity, which is 3.2 times that of Earth. The eyes were about the same size ratio to the head as ours, and placed at about the same location on the face. They were deep blue, almost indigo, with smaller pupils because of Korena's light being about 1/6 brighter at the Korendian surface than our sun's on Earth. There were no discernible eyebrows (or in fact any hair at all). The skull structure over the eyes protruded more than a Terran's, perhaps to shade the eyes from overhead sunlight.
The ears were smaller in relation to the head than ours, lobeless and distinctly peaked at the top. They were pressed almost flat against the head. The nose was small, with slit nostrils. The mouth was almost lipless, slit-like, slightly narrower in proportion to the jaw than ours. It was curled upward in what on Korendor must pass for a smile.
The head was rounded, with a larger cranial cavity (comparatively) than a Terran's, with concavity in the cheeks that started at the lower jaw and ended in front of the ears. The neck was thick and sinewy, again an effect of higher gravity. The torso was compact and powerfully muscular. The arms and legs were at about the same ratio of length to body height as ours, but were heavier and very well developed.
The hands were proportionate to ours, but with slightly longer fingers and a discernable webbing between the thumb and the rest of the hand. As with the rest of the body, it appeared to be quite strong. The skin was very smooth. It was what we would call "white" in color, but with a "tanned" appearance not unlike what one would see on any California beach.
All in all, the alienness of the body was alarming. It was obviously a product of an environment vastly different from our own. By any Terran standards, it was thoroughly uncomely. Orii must have read the thought, because he interrupted my musings by saying, "You handsome devil. That face and body have set many a young Korendian lady's heart aflutter. You're the Tom Selleck of my planet, you know. What's the word our women use... malimani... it's as close as our language gets to 'hunk'.
"Your brief visit to Korendor in April was reported on Vrell City's visiscreen services—how they found out you were there, I really don't know—accompanied by the image you're looking at that they pulled out of the portal computers. You have quite a following. You'd best wear a beard and glasses next time around."
I stared again at that genuinely unlovely visage, that caricature of a human being that smiled (?) back at me from the screen, and shook my head in utter uncomprehension. Orii laughed heartily at that. "Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder."
At length, I asked him, "Can this thing comm Korendor? I'm in the mood for a quick chat with my lady."
"Just remember that she'll be seeing what you just saw. You'll both be looking at computer conversions." The screen blanked entirely, then lit up with a tridim picture of a familiar living room so many light-years away. Centered in the view was an exquisitely lovely blonde lady smiling broadly at me. She wasn't alone. Six other young women flanked her, three on each side.
Orii whispered, "Remember what they're seeing." Whatever was on their end was obviously pleasing, because her six visitors began with expressions of slack-jawed awe followed by excited chatter, snippets of which came through the comm.
"... My (untranslated), he's REAL!"
"... Malimani-i-i (untranslated)."
"Astra, where are you hiding this (untranslated)?"
I looked at Orii and mouthed "me?" He said in a low voice, "Your Kor image. I told you that you're hunksome." He smiled playfully, and I looked again at the screen. The wallchron behind her indicated shortly after mid-day. The other women were probably co-workers at her home for the lunch hour.
"Hi, mialani," I said, "and good afternoon, lovely ladies." The comment had the expected effect. Some things are apparently universal.
"Isn't he always? Mathematicians have a notorious habit of being correct. A most disturbing trait, to my mind. But then, I've suspected for years that he's descended from a long line of computers.
"Oh, do tell Orii that he's quite a handsome fellow himself, and if he'd forget about his numbers and equations once in a while..."
The women with her seemed enraptured. "As for your charming companions, I wish them love and light," I said using the traditional Korendian farewell. Their expressions answered me.
"Well, hunk, what did I tell you?"
"The credit goes to Kalen. He felt that as your planet's representative to Korendor and the Alliance, you ought to project the best possible image. One part of it was the ruggedly handsome, irresistably virile form you just saw, which Kalen approved after the TransTechs created a composite embodying all the traits that we of Korendor find attractive and respectable in a man. The composite was fed into the portal computers and it looks like you're stuck with it... I should be so cursed."
A nagging point arose then. "If the women with Astra aren't going to be assigned here, how are they provided with Terran images?"
We continued down the hall along a curved section that ended in a room containing, for lack of a better word, small studios for the production of visiscreen programming. Three were occupied with what we call "talking head" discussion panels. They were speaking in Korendian, and I made no effort to obtain a translation. Orii said that they were working on a training series for use on Korendor.
When we reached the far end of this suite, Kalen and Lin-Erri entered through a side door and rejoined us. We left through a double glass door and re-entered the lobby. The sun was setting on the ceiling screen, a glorious panorama of reds, oranges and violets. We stopped for a moment in admiration.
"Yours is a beautiful planet, Brother," Kalen said quietly. "It's sad that your people can't seem to appreciate it as much as we of other worlds do. Perhaps there's more than a grain of truth in your axiom that familiarity breeds contempt. You seem to have little compunction about destroying your natural habitat with pollutants and noxious wastes. Perhaps all of you should be brought out here to see just how small and fragile your little globe really is."
"You sound a lot like our environmentalists," I said without bothering to hide my disdain for the word.
"For example, your intense personal interest in nuclear energy has made you acutely aware that the so-called environmental movement seems universally opposed to exploiting the atom for power. In many cases this has resulted in this resource being delayed or abandoned, with the effect that greater reliance on what you call fossil fuels is required to provide the necessary electrical energy for your society.
"Obviously, this can only increase the amount of combustion products emitted into the atmosphere. There are techniques for removing some of these toxic vapors, but the preferred approach is to replace fossil fuels with those technologies that simply don't produce that pollution, one of course being nuclear energy. The allegedly insoluble problems associated with radioactive waste disposal are political, not scientific. Your science is right now able to isolate them from your environment essentially forever, and existing techniques will only improve with time.
"One of the oddities of this situation is that your people have chosen to accept that out of all your technologies, only those in the nuclear sciences are to be considered untrustworthy. Instead, they choose to place their faith in what we frankly consider to be totally irresponsible opposition to using the atom's immense potential for power.
"If I seem as an apologist for nuclear energy, it is because we use what you could call adaptations of it for our own power, principally fusion and matter-to-energy conversion based on the matter-antimatter reaction. Fission is a relatively inefficient resource compared to these, but until your science grasps the concepts that make them practical, you would do well to refine the fission process and adopt it widely.
"Your scientists and statesmen know well that another world-wide conflict will probably be triggered by intense international confrontation for access to diminishing petrochemical resources, as you call them. I speak principally of oil from the area known as the Persian Gulf. Much of this is used to provide energy that could as easily be generated by nuclear reactors. It is not only to your environmental advantage, but is indeed vital to humanity's very existence, that your nations dispel the irrational fear of the atom and use it wherever possible to provide the energy that a developing world needs."
This long monologue was not lost on me. Now I wasn't certain whether my avid and adamant support for nuclear power was of my own choice, or a concept implanted by our Korendian friends who know that we can't forever continue to rely on burning up our irreplaceable "fossil fuel" supplies while demolishing our planet's delicately balanced ecological system in the process.
I was still contemplating his words as we left the lobby and returned to our vehicle. As the cart wheeled out of the parking area toward the ramp, I decided that for all the effort that the Alliance and the Korendians are expending to save our world from external evils, there's still much that we must do for ourselves, if this insignificant blue ball around an average star on the outerskirts of a run-of-the-mill galaxy is to remain habitable long enough for us to leave our footprints in the sands of the universe.
© 2008 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved