2) Immigrant Processing
Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use
first to shrink wrap people’s minds
and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
~ Arundhati Roy
“Move it along,” the next security officer ordered. The sounds of their ship being torn apart echoed through the short airlock and into the connecting port of the security vessel. Assuming the lead role, Al led the others as they were directed through the airlock and into the ship.
“What do you think we’ll—” Xi whispered in English from behind.
“Please, speak Tandori,” Al insisted, speaking in a normal tone. “We’re here now, we’re not going back, and we don’t want them to think we’re hiding anything. All our cards are on the table, so let’s be honest in our approach.”
Once through the airlock, Al stopped to help the others through, to the consternation of their guards, but he insisted. Once everyone was safely across, they continued again. Since the nearest guard was waiting down the hall, Xi tried again.
“What should we expect?”
“You know as much as I do, but anticipate suspicion, skepticism and doubt. It’s up to us to convince them we’re legit. Our future depends on it.”
Since the walls were black with largely meaningless designations—indecipherable, despite their ability to read Tandori—Al doubted they could manage it back on their own. The surfaces curved, with varying grades, rather than the smooth galleys and corridors they were familiar with on their own ship.
Motioning them towards a small room, another guard waved a hand by each of them, his ring glowing in different colors. From the way he responded, Al was sure he was being briefed on much more about them than was apparent.
‘His ring is transferring data from our nanobots, which he’s passing on,’ Zita informed him, ‘though it’s apparently having trouble deciphering the feedback from our older devices.’ As their communications officer, Zita’s augmented talent was telepathy. They hadn’t tested the extent of her range, but she was able to communicate with Lamar and Mui when they worked on the exterior of the ship during their voyage.
‘You can hear the exchange?’
‘No. Xi recognized the responses. Eli’s providing the likely details. There are some telltale indicators, even across such disparate species.’
‘We’re not sure they’re different species yet, though I’m growing doubtful we’re even partially Tandorian.’
Once sure they were searched, the guard led them into a large room containing three tables staffed by unarmed administrators—two females and one male. They were the same species as the security officers, looking equally as fierce.
“Who’s the Alpha?” the woman at the first table demanded.
“I am,” Al said, stepping forward. “My name is Al. I’m the ship’s commander. I speak for everyone here.”
She glanced at him oddly, his speech as bizarre to her as hers was to them. “You’re an Intuit?”
“I am, and I was the one who directed us here.”
“Go to the furthest table,” she instructed, pointing with one of her dagger-like fingers on one of her four arms. “You’ll be handled separately. It will take time to process the others.”
The communications were tricky. Though each of the humans spoke Tandori, their understanding of its nuances was rudimentary. Most of their knowledge came from their nanobots, which triggered specific regions in the brain associated with English words, forming rough translations within their minds. They actually heard both languages simultaneously, though it didn’t help decipher phrases which didn’t correlate. Especially since the language had changed so much over the intervening centuries. Concepts such as distances, time and facial cues operated the same way, triggering responsive cells in their own brains, making it seem as if they were their own thoughts. If they thought about the techniques too much, they’d develop headaches so bad they couldn’t hope to fathom what was being said. However, hearing both languages at the same time aided the learning process, so the longer they conversed, the better their understanding of the language became.
Al glanced back. Betty and Xi were looking pleadingly at him and the others looked worried as well, but he motioned for them to remain calm before he set off for the far table. Ivan and Kaci, Lamar and Mui, and Delilah and Gary were directed to the second table, while the rest remained at the first.
When the officer behind the desk glanced up at him, Al noticed he didn’t defer to him the way those in his crew did. He doubted his rank affected anyone else as it had them. He guessed it was strictly group rather than status based. Or at least, it didn’t affect security officers.
“Describe where you’re from.”
“We’re from a small planet called Earth, almost two-hundred and forty light years distant. Our ship and its original crew—”
“I’m not interested in your personal histories. I’m evaluating your value, knowledge and skills so we can categorize you. Where’s the rest of your crew?”
“This is our entire team,” Al stated.
The official stared at Al as if he was lying. “The few of you flew a ship that size across that distance, with no one else helping? I find that difficult to accept.”
“Believe it. The original crew who crashed on our planet eventually died out. They relied on local inhabitants they … recruited for the effort. Unfortunately, without revealing what we were destined for, everyone kept getting killed before making it to the ship. We were the first intact crew to survive.”
“Yeah, it’s a common trait with Intuits. They’re always quick to take unnecessary risks, thinking they can beat the odds, which is why you’re in such high demand despite your many obvious disqualifications. While space flight is difficult enough, we’ve lost most of ours in combat, even though they anticipate attacks.” He paused, considering Al. “What about shifts? How’d you alternate crew?”
“We didn’t. I was on duty the entire journey. We spent the majority of our time learning Tandori, the Tandorian culture and all the science we’d never been exposed to.”
The administrator continued staring at him, unable to process the information. “You flew all that distance without rest? That’s impossible.”
“It’s entirely possible, and we’re the evidence it is.”
“How long did it take you to complete this supposed journey?”
“A little over five months. Which is why I’m so exhausted and thin. I had to address each crisis as it arose.”
“Wait, you traversed that distance in only that much time? Clearly you’re lying. Where did you actually come from, who do you represent, and where did they go once they dropped you off?”
“No one intervened. We’re who we say we are. If we accomplished what no one else has, it was due solely to our being too ignorant to realize it was impossible. Since I realized the time limitations, I pushed everyone so it wouldn’t take any longer than necessary. Our crew works well together, and we’re used to working around each other. As for me, when my Spidey sense tingles, everything else stops: distractions, sleep, exhaustion or love making. Whatever it took, we all kept going.”
“I have no clue as to what you just said.”
Al sighed. “When I get a premonition, it refocuses all my attention. No matter how exhausted I am, I’m one hundred percent focused on avoiding disaster. That way, I could doze in my chair, traveling faster than light nearly continuously, and still react to any emergency we faced.”
The officer grunted, obviously not buying it. “Whatever! You’re each being evaluated separately. Any rejected as being unfit,” he glanced up, sweeping a skeptical glance over the other crew members, “will be summarily denied entry. Those remaining will be assigned other tasks.”
“I’m sorry, I—” Mid-sentence, the intake officer tried to stab him with his dagger-sharp claws, but Al simply stepped aside without pausing in his recitation. “—can’t accept that. We need to remain together. We’re not only all pair-bonded, but we’ve depended on each other, risking our lives together. I can’t abandon them.”
“Nice reflexes, but the choice isn’t up to you. There are millions of previously pair-bonded individuals fighting on the front lines, and others still bonded serving in support duties here on the home planet. Such notions of pair-bondings lasting the rest of your life are antiquated. You’ll go where you’re assigned, or you’ll be eliminated.”
“I understand,” Al said, as a massive electrical discharge shot past his head as he casually stepped aside, “but I want to register an objection and request a reappraisal. If nothing else, since we’re used to working together, we should be assigned the same ship.”
“You’ll go where you’re needed. I’m guessing you aren’t up on the latest skills, and your basic understanding of our culture is minimal. As such, I doubt we’ll have much use of your crew’s services.”
“Pardon me for a moment,” Al said, holding a single finger up as he swiftly stepped away.
As he approached, Etta was leaning over the first table, filling in something on a data tablet and never even glanced up. Al, took her arm, pulling her aside.
“Excuse,” he said, as a heavy metal dart shot out of the ceiling at an angle. If she hadn’t shifted, it would have crushed her skull. What’s more, given its trajectory, it might have injured the others if Al hadn’t moved them aside in his rush to reach Etta. “That’s all I wanted. You can go back to your task now,” he said, turning and sauntering off, leaving her gasping like a fish out of water. Betty, however, flashed him a knowing smile, lightly elbowing Xi in the side.
Al realized this was all a test, not only of him, but of his team’s ability to adapt, not only to dangerous situations, but also to discouragement and bad news. The key, he recognized, was maintaining an even keel without losing his temper or getting excited. He hoped his attitude conveyed the lesson to the others, but he didn’t want to risk warning them—which might send the message that his crew wasn’t prepared for what they might encounter.
“Sorry about that, where was I … oh, yes, I was describing the planet we came from.”
“I’m unconcerned with whatever backwater hell you crawled out of.”
“Although it’s fairly backwards technologically, there’s a multitude of trade goods, agricultural products, artworks and novelties you might be interested in.”
The man glared at him. “We’re fighting for the very survival of the Empire. We can’t afford to run scurrying after every remote rock outcropping. We’ll make a note of it, and if anyone is ever in the region, we may investigate from a distance, but we’re unlikely to invest much effort.
“Now, moving on, can you describe how you’d initiate the formation of a temporal black hole?”
“Uh … I’m sorry, but we’ve never been close enough to one to study them in sufficient detail. We’re still fairly ignorant on that basis.”
“Fine, can you define a Bzeck’s equation?”
“Without knowing who that is, or what he was researching, I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s even assuming I was exposed to it in the first place.”
The examiner marked several items on his data tablet. Al frowned, imagining the others weren’t fairing any better on these technical skill tests.
“How many interstellar battles have you been in, and have you ever engaged the Zssizliq?”
“Sorry, but our combined interstellar voyaging consists of this one trip here. We’ve never encountered anyone else, nor ever met with any other space-faring species.”
Again, the interviewer glanced up at him, his horn-like façade rising in curiosity. “And you still reached here without mishaps, despite having no discernable skills or knowledge? For such an ignorant group, you were incredibly lucky, but then, that’s the lot of you Intuits.”
“There’s a difference between blind luck and skill. While some Intuits may get by on luck, the rest of us survive by recognizing and evaluating dangerous situations.”
Al was exaggerating, as he’d experienced several near-misses which almost got him killed, including the time the police shot him on a public street—invoking a near riot. However, he hoped to impress the agent, convincing him he—and his crew—were worth taking a risk on. After all, if not, they didn’t have many options.
“Don’t worry; we’ll evaluate your skills. Here, take this data card and fill in all the information you can make sense of. I’m not expecting much, but I’m hopeful we’ll get at least one janitorial staff out of this pointless trip to intercept you. Fuel ain’t cheap, especially with full crews.”
“You could always try flying with fewer, better-qualified crews,” Al suggested, twisting the proverbial knife, not knowing which of them he was actually hurting.
As Al stood—there weren’t any seats, not that anything they had fit human physiques—he took a moment to study the progress the others were making.
“Okay, Finder, locate a Tzokein,” Betty’s intake officer demanded.
She tilted her head slightly, a sign she was stricken by the nature of the question, never considering her ability of being any use beyond finding the members of the crew. However, she recovered quickly, something Al was proud of her for.
“I’d try, but I haven’t the slightest clue what a Tsoakestein is.”
The female officer glanced up, more annoyed than chastised. “Good, that makes it a better test.”
That clearly rattled Betty. She’d never found objects before, and the only people she’d ever tracked were those she had a deep connection to, like her crew mates. However, she bit her lip and concentrated. Suddenly, her face lit up and she pointed overhead and to the side—again, the ship wasn’t composed of logical, square levels, but the corriders meandered seemingly erratically. “There.”
“I need something I can use. Give me partents.”
She looked befuddled, then brightened. “It’s 37.3 partents,” she again pointed, not knowing how to give directions in the oddly asymmetrical ship, “over there.”
“What level is it on?”
Al could see her seriously concentrating. It took her a few moments, but her answer was ready. “Level Ak-Sui-23.”
The intake officer shrugged. “Maybe you aren’t as worthless as I assumed.”
Instead of taking offense, or being deterred by her skepticism, Betty was elated to discover there were new and useful dimensions to her ability she’d never encountered.
“He’s, uh, moving at the moment, leaving one passage and entering another.”
“I need specifics.”
“Fine. That direction, between 58 and 62 partents, moving away from us.”
She made a note on her log. “That shifts you from utterly useless, to mildly useful.”
The questions, when Al finally concentrated on them, were thoroughly disconcerting, as everyone had trouble answering them. Whether their knowledge was that lacking, the inquiries were intended to discourage them, or Tandorian science had increased that much, he didn’t know. Even Etta and Theo, who were trained in Physics, or Eli, who’s abilities allowed him to learn more quickly, seemed ill adapted for the questions.
As their resident physicist, Theo was better at deducing information. While much of his understanding of the universe had proven wrong, he and Etta were better equipped to absorb the alien lessons, though already outdated by almost a half millennium.
Xi, however, was having an especially difficult time.
“What do you mean you can’t locate the quchim?” her intake officer demanded.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of one before. I’m unsure whether humans possess one.”
Part of the problem was that, despite their best attempts to brush up on the native inhabitants, it was difficult searching for specifics on Tandorians as the culture was composed of so many different intelligent species. Thus the humans had no clue how to relate one type against their own knowledge. References to DNA were meaningless, since no other alien species had anything similar to human DNA or RNA. Apparently each planet derived their own alternative to a genetic blueprint which was uniquely theirs—and which prevented one planet’s species from interbreeding with another’s. However, the fact the humans couldn’t identify the various organs made Xi job as a physician untenable, at best.
“Locate and give the distance in parsecs to Al-qimrc?”
Xi hesitated, caught off guard on the switch from medicine to locating distant objects. Unlike Betty, who was adept at finding individuals at relatively close distances, Xi came to medical care indirectly through her possession of her healing sphere. She’d developed a career of helping others, not even knowing what her true inclination was. Thus she found herself unprepared on multiple fronts.
“Uh, 183 parsecs in … uh, that direction?”
“Ha! You’re worthless. Your aids aren’t even functional.”
“They are, it’s just your newer readers are incapable of communicating with them. I have no problem using them to administer care to my crew.”
“That doesn’t help us, though, now does it?”
She seemed about ready to cry. Al resisted rushing to her assistance, considering it a sign of weakness at this point. They each had to sink or swim on their own. Feeling frustrated, Al risked a clear violation of protocol, praying it wouldn’t be discovered.
‘Buck up, Xi. They’re trying to undermine your confidence,’ he said via Zita’s telepathy. ‘Show them you’re stronger than their mere words can affect.’
Al was shocked when their testers didn’t respond, but it seemed to help, not only Xi, but the others as well. All in all, it was not a pleasant introduction to Tandorian culture.
When they finally finished, everyone seemingly failing the majority of their qualification tests, they were shown to a cell on a separate floor. Once they entered, the air seemed to shift, as if warmer air was rising between them and the open space beyond the invisible gate. Gary started to reach out to determine what it was.
‘I wouldn’t recommend touching it,’ Theo warned via Zita’s telepathy. ‘It’s some sort of force field. Considering the nature of the security personnel, I’m sure it won’t be pleasant.’
“Thanks, I think I’ll wait for now. I’d rather not demonstrate what roasted human smells like. No telling whether it appeals to them or not.”
“Please, let’s refrain from the insulting jibes,” Al cautioned. “We’re already presenting a terrible image as it is.”
The room was barren, at best. There were seats, which they assumed also served as cots, along the walls. The only sign of a toilet was a single spot on the floor. When Lamar waved his foot over it, it opened to reveal a hole. Since they were desperate, he volunteered to test it. Lowering his pants, he let loose a sample stream of urine, limiting its volume. It accepted it, though they had no idea what became of it, as they couldn’t hear it striking anything. For all they knew, it was transported outside the ship to float indefinitely in space. No one really wanted to further their reputation of imbeciles by asking. Once he finished peeing, he vacated the spot for the women while the men turned away to allow them a moment’s privacy.
Al hugged Betty and Xi. “Don’t worry. We’ll get through this. However bad it looks now, it’s likely to improve once we get though these initial awkward encounters.”
The others took his encouraging words for what they were, though they doubted this was the worst they’d face.