When he heard the urgency in the man’s voice and smelled something burning, Everett sped up his walk until he was not quite running. He hoped the pilot wasn’t too badly hurt. The usual reason for him to be called in was because they couldn’t make heads or tails of what the pilot was saying and they needed him out of there in a hurry so they could get the crashed ship off the dock.
“In here.” The dock jockey, dressed in a dirty heavy-duty maintenance suit, put his gloved hand on Everett’s shoulder. “Watch your head. Hope you didn’t just eat?”
Everett shook his head just as the stench hit him. “Fark….”
“Yeah, now you know what gutted Bramaald smells like,” the guy quipped. “Pilot’s croaked.”
“So why did you call me in, then?”
“He’s got interesting payload. Don’t know what it is. Damn thing shrieks like an animal, but it looks humanoid. It’s definitely alive so we figured we’d give you a call.”
Everett nodded, not altogether happy. Reluctant as he was to establish contact with something scared—and so possibly aggressive—this was part of his job as a low-level diplomat. He’d lived off-planet most of his life and spoke over thirty languages, most of them quite exotic. He knew exactly what he’d done to be given a far outpost to manage, and really didn’t care all that much because they kept him busy and he’d become quite fluent in another four languages in the last year. This part of his job always gave him mixed feelings, though. On the one hand, it was exciting and sometimes gave him the opportunity to meet new species. On the other hand, it usually involved agitated travelers who didn’t always listen to reason, and he’d gotten hurt more than once trying to get some of them to see things his way.
The dock jockey showed him below deck and the deeper they descended, the fouler the smell became. Everett had to breathe through his mouth and occasionally swallow to keep the bile from rising. It was dark and damp inside, and Everett wondered if he was being led to a cargo hold or the inside of a living animal. A blast of steam from the damaged ship’s emergency venting system made him jump, but fortunately the dock jockey was far enough ahead not to have noticed.
Then a heavy door was opened and immediately a gut-wrenching shriek filled the air.
“Sounds like a banshee,” Everett remarked. The other man gave him a compassionate smirk.
“It’s got one head, two arms, and two legs, so it classifies as humanoid. Other than that, it’s all yours. All I can say is we need to clear this dock quick as we can because we’re already down on landing capacity and we have supply ships coming in later.”
Everett nodded. He stopped himself from taking a deep breath just in time to prevent more of the stench from hitting his nostrils, and walked forward. The creature was hunched over in a corner, its curved back toward Everett, and what little light shone into the hold reflected off skin that appeared shiny and smooth. The rest of its body looked grimy and grey-black, as if it had been dug up from an ore mine.
“Hello,” Everett said softly, trying not to startle the creature. He didn’t think the creature spoke Terran, or it would have answered the dock jockey. But he knew the tone of his voice, his body language, and his thoughts were even more important than his words. He waited patiently, and after a while, when the creature didn’t show any response, he knelt down close enough to feel informal but far enough away to run should it lash out.
Show no fear. Balance yourself. Open up your spirit.
Everett heard his teacher, Andala’s, voice in his head. It was easy for her to say that, he thought. She’d done these first contacts for hundreds of years and was so good at it that sometimes it seemed like she could read those creatures’ minds.
Everett looked around. The voice he’d heard in his head wasn’t Andala’s, or his own. It was a voice that didn’t sound familiar. He shuffled a few feet closer to the creature and it slowly turned toward him. Everett felt his heart speed up and hoped his nervousness wouldn’t show.
The creature definitely looked human, with very much the same build as a man. The most marked difference was the large dark eyes that looked at Everett; there was no white in them. The look it bestowed on Everett was one of guarded interest. Everett didn’t read a lot of fear, despite the piercing screams he’d heard earlier. Although the life-scans only showed one, the possibility always existed there was another creature in the shadows that made those sounds. He’d seen more than a few diplomats taken by surprise.
Everett got up from his crouched position, careful not to rise to his full height, and moved another few steps closer before kneeling again. The creature maintained eye contact.
Everett purposely started to signify he’d heard the voice in his head in the hope the creature had projected it to him. He thought he saw a small smile appear on the blackened face. In any case, black teeth appeared between thin lips. But he was still on guard; the now-extinct primates of Earth had bared their teeth as a sign of aggression, not of amusement.
“You spoke to me?” Everett said softly.
The creature didn’t let on if it understood or even heard him. It continued looking at him, its eyes now leaving Everett’s face to travel along his body. Everett didn’t feel self-conscious. He was used to the scrutiny. Some races were not very shy about checking other people out.
Everett slowly reached out his hand and let his fingertips brush over the creature’s skin. The creature flailed as if burned and threw its head back to scream. Everett shivered as the sound tore through him; loud enough to have him clamp his hands over his ears and squeeze his eyes shut. After the shriek faded away, Everett tried again.
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to keep his voice in check. “I won’t touch you again. Don’t be afraid.” He continued holding out his hand, palm facing up, and made sure he didn’t touch the creature again.
The creature was breathing heavily now. Its black eyes moved to Everett’s hand and then Everett saw the fear slowly disappear again.
“We need to leave here. They need to move the ship, and they’re afraid you’ll get hurt. Will you come with me?” Everett figured if he kept talking, he could keep himself relaxed and open and some of it might rub off on the strange black being. Eventually he got up, ignoring his cracking knees, and took a slow step back. Tentatively, the creature moved a little closer, so Everett took another step and then another. It followed, and Everett smiled. Every move he made, the creature mimicked, always at a safe distance, but Everett thought he could possibly walk out with it.
“It’s okay. Come with me. You’ll be all right.”
Just at the moment the creature moved with Everett, the door opened again and the dock jockey rushed in. “We need to leave, man. We need to push this bucket of scrap metal into space so the dock gets cleared, otherwise we won’t have food all next week.”
The sentence was cut in half by the creature’s shriek, and Everett knew he was going to have to start again.
“Just leave and keep the doors open. I’ll try to coax it out, but it’s afraid of a lot of things. It doesn’t like touch or sudden sounds.”
“Sorry, man,” the worker apologized. “I’ll clear the dock and tell everyone to stay out of sight.”
To Everett’s surprise, as soon as the dock jockey left, his charge reappeared. As it watched the dock jockey disappear down the corridor, it seemed more interested than scared.
“Trust me? Do you want to leave?”
It didn’t answer, but as Everett slowly walked out, it followed. Everett didn’t look behind, relying on the sound of the creature behind him to signal its compliance, and he was happy to see the dock was empty. He crossed it and entered the quarantine area, leaving the door unlocked for his charge to follow. The quarantine area was brightly lit, and Everett hoped he’d get a better look at the creature. In any case, the area was empty so there was nothing to startle it. He turned down the overhead lights a bit and only then heard the creature slip inside the automatic doors. The body count inside the room had risen to two, so as soon as he heard the doors slide closed again, he flicked a switch inside his pocket to lock them in so they wouldn’t be disturbed. This was both his favorite bit and his biggest frustration. He had to find out how he could communicate with the creature, and he knew he had to come to terms with the fact he might fail.