HumanCon December 17th, 2016

"What a joke. I mean come on, they look ridiculous. They cover their faces in this stupid pink make-up, they stick fake ears on their head, and they think they look human."

"It is only pretend," said John. "They want only to be like you."

We hurried across the exhibition hall. It was only fifty meters or so to the VIP lounge, but we didn't stop. Too many darn attendees here. I wish I'd listened to John and taken the time to find the exhibitors entrance.

"I don't see why they have to dress up at all," I said. "Can't they just attend like normal people?"

The conference floor was packed. Probably half of them were dressed up like humans, wearing Earth-style clothes and fake wigs. Some were more convincing than others, but usually they looked like some kind of horrifying ventriloquist's dummy. You could still see their green skin around the edges. Still, they seemed to be impressed by it all; I guess their brains weren't tuned to spot the differences like ours were.

"It is only for fun," replied John as he brushed someone aside. "This is the way, Sir." We pushed past a small group of press and continued towards the roped-off VIP area. I didn't like being out in the open like this, exposed to the mass of fans. The advice they give you is to keep moving. By all means answer questions, pose for photos, but remain in motion. If you come to a halt the crowds will gather around you and you'll be swamped.

I stuck out like a sore thumb here. It was alright for John, he was one of them, he could walk unnoticed. For me it was impossible not to draw attention. There were only around ten thousand humans on the whole planet, and only a hundred of those here at the convention.

We passed a group of Nakzar girls, who turned as one to watch us. They made that weird clicking noise that they did when they were excited.

At the VIP entrance, the Nakzar steward put an arm out to stop us, but quickly dropped it upon seeing John was with a human. John waved our passes and we were through. Tall banners lined the corridor through to the VIP lounge. "Enjoy the day being within HumanCon!" said one. I sighed. A few of them, like John, had managed to get a decent grasp of English. Others still needed a lot more practice.

The lounge was tiny compared to the main exhibition floor, but it was just fine for me. At least back here there were some humans to talk to, and I wouldn't get pestered by these damn aliens all the time. Hopefully they'd have some real drinks here too, not the syrupy muck the Nakzar drink.

"I think we will receive no trouble now, Sir," said John. "We have another hour before the start of things. I will take this time to assist you with..."

"No forget about that, OK? Look, just... I don't know, go see if they have any drinks here."

His eyes closed briefly at the interruption. Probably their way of calling me an asshole, who knows. I needed a goddamn drink.

"Earth drinks!" I called after him.

I hated events like this. Still, it was only two days. I just had to stick it out until then. You could make a lot of money in a very short time working the event circuits, and it sure as hell beat getting launched into space at 3G's. A handful of interviews and it'd be over. Oh and of course, the book signing.

Book signing, what a joke. They'd told me to expect a big line--apparently NASA's Commander Edward Arlington was still a name that could draw a crowd to autograph his book. "His" book, yeah right. The only way I could tell it was mine was because it had my picture on the front. I could read about half of the title. I sure as hell didn't write the damn thing. It had been Julie's idea. She wanted me to be more of a public figure out here. So my agent on Indas assigned me a Nakzar ghostwriter, we did a set of interviews and then the guy did all the work. I haven't read it. I couldn't anyway, I'd have to have the whole thing translated back into English. The publishers back on Earth never even bothered to have that done for an Earth release--the market there is dominated by books about the aliens. Funny how the grass is always greener.

I spotted a familiar face on the other side of the lounge. Commander Fred Warne. Tall guy, big eyebrows. He'd been the pilot on the Wheeler 3 mission, twelfth person through the wormhole. And of course we'd flown together on Wheeler 12. Nice guy, once he stopped talking.

"Hi Ed," he said as we shook hands. "Didn't expect I'd see you here."

"Well you know," I said, "I got this book signing happening. You know how it is, publisher contracts and all that."

"Sounds like they're keeping you busy. Lots of work coming in?"

"Oh sure, I have to keep turning them away. They've even been pestering me to host some TV show."

"Your own show? Well hey, that's gotta be a pretty sweet deal. What, is it like a talk show or something?"

"Oh no, it's a terrible idea," I said. "I'm not going to take it. It's just a kids show, y'know. 'The World Of Earth.' Supposed to teach them about back home, show them what life on Earth is like."

"Not interested then?", he asked.

"Nah, it's a waste of time. It's a low offer. I can make four times that out here doing the convention circuits. It's one of those "public access" kinda things, which means it's going to be low-budget rubbish."

John returned, carrying a small glass. Couldn't come quick enough as far as I was concerned, I needed something to get me through the rest of today. "I have brought a drink for you, Sir." he said.

I eyed it suspiciously. "What is it?", I asked.

"There was a small selection of Earth drinks available. It is tea for you."

"Tea? God dammit John."

"It is not suitable for you? I can return and try..."

"No look it's fine. It's fine really. Look, just... go off and find where the signing is being set up, OK?"

John gave a small bow and disappeared towards some kind of booth in the corner.

"Who was that then?" said Fred.

"Oh that's John. He's my... assistant I guess? Well, translator mostly. The publisher assigned him to help me out with things here. He follows me around like a goddamn shadow."

Fred never seemed to stop smiling. "Must be pretty useful to have a Nakzar on hand who speaks English that well. Back when I first arrived, I'd have given my right arm for a translator that good!"

"He's an idiot. I mean tea, come on. I guess he tries, but he just doesn't get things. They're all like that out here. They try, but they just don't get it."

I took a sip of the tea. It wasn't too bad I guess.

"They don't understand a god damn thing about us."

I hate these signing events. It's the same as back home; tables draped with black cloth, and a big line of people patiently waiting their turn. Except of course they're all green with ridged heads. But apart from that, it's the same deal. They come up and tell me, in their broken English, how much of a fan they are. I reply, maybe in my broken Anplan, and give them a smile. They seem to enjoy it I guess.

The line moved slowly onward. The ones who dress up pick some damn strange outfits sometimes. One guy is dressed as a postman. I didn't ask why. They talk excitedly amongst themselves as they wait. I can make a few words out, you can't understand it properly with all this noise. I tried learning the language, but it's not easy. I mean what kind of language has different forms based on whether you're happy or not. They take photos too, well, at least I think that's what's happening. There's no actual camera--they just draw a rectangle in the air and I guess some device somewhere takes the picture. I can't keep up with all their technology.

This is the 12th year of HumanCon. It always gets big crowds like this, bigger every year. I don't get why they do it. There's something about our culture they just can't seem to get enough of. Even the smallest things, things we just took for granted back home, they seem to find fascinating.

Julie used to say it brought them hope for the future. Not sure about that one right now. Before the wormhole, they thought they were alone too. I guess I can understand how that'd change things. But come on, I mean look at this guy in line here. He's wearing a wig and carrying a goddamn hairdryer. The Nakzar don't have any hair, but someone's told him that we use hairdryers, and so now he thinks we carry them with us all the time. What the hell kind of future is that.

I couldn't wait to get back to the hotel. It wasn't what I was used to back home, but at least I could get some peace and quiet, away from this freak-show. John had been bugging me all day, but I managed to shake him finally. The hotel was one of those traditional old buildings--well, traditional for Indas anyway, all polished red wood and arches everywhere. I knew the lobby would be busy so I took the side entrance instead.

I'd been hoping to get in without having to deal with any more damn attention. I almost did, too. I was waiting for the elevator when some Nakzar kid spotted me. Snotty little thing, probably only 8 or so. He struggled with a backpack almost as big as he was, covered in all manner of patches and stickers. He came bounding down the corridor towards me, every little badge and fob jangling as he went.

His eyes lit up as he looked up at me. He rummaged around in his backpack and produced a copy of my book, and a pen. Bony green fingers offered them up towards me.

"Please?" he managed in his best attempt at English.

I was tired. My fingers ached, my back ached more. If I had to sign one more thing today my fingers might fall clean off. I'd learned enough Anplan to get by, but right now it would have been nice to have had John around to deal with this so I didn't have to.

"Uh... Cannot Do Write Today," I said. I think I got it wrong, probably used the wrong emotional tense. This stupid language, I swear to God. I pushed the pen back towards him. It didn't have much effect. The kid tried again.

"Please write?" he said.

I didn't need this right now. All I wanted was to collapse on my bed with a Scotch. Something in me just snapped. I let out a burst of rage at the kid.

"NO DAMN IT, NO!" I shouted in English. "The signing was earlier, got it? I'm done for today! Right? No more signing, you stupid kid!"

I don't know how much English the kid spoke, but he sure as hell got the message. The kid just teared up and started crying. It was a hell of a sight. The Nakzar cry out of their noses too, and this kid had it nailed. He bawled his eyes out right there in the corridor, snot and tears running all down his face.

As I stood there staring at him, I finally got a good look at his backpack and the patches on it. It was like a tapestry of Earth's space program. He had patches from everything, everything we'd ever done--Sputnik, Vostok, the Mercury project, Apollo, the Wheeler program, you name it. Little plastic models of the Wheeler explorer and the Apollo lander dangled from keychains, and wobbled around as he cried.

The kid ran off down the corridor, wailing as he went. I just stood there as the elevator arrived, my mouth hanging open. What had I become?

I collapsed on my bed and turned on the TV. I didn't really even mean to, it was just years of habit. They were showing an interview with Don Kriegstein, the wormhole guy. Christ, no wonder these kids don't understand us, if this is the best they can show. I mean look at this guy, with his stupid tweed jacket and trousers pulled up almost to his nose. That's a hell of a role model you're setting for these kids. You'd get bored to death watching that for too long. It's not even been dubbed into Anplan, they've just subtitled it.

The room had a minibar, but it was all Nakzar drinks--not bad really I guess, but sometimes you need the real stuff. Luckily I came prepared. I got up and opened my travel bag. I reached into it and pulled out the bottle of 30-year old single-malt whiskey that I kept for emergencies. It was the last one I had. Freight space was limited on the trade ships through the wormhole, and I didn't know when I'd be able to get another one to replace it.

I placed it on the counter and grabbed a glass from the sink. This is what John didn't get. It's not just about the drink, it's just all these little details. Stuff you can't pick up by reading books. I know he tries, but they just don't get it.

At least I only had one more day here, then I could get back home.

I was about to open it. In the background, the interview was still playing on the hotel TV. I could hear old Don still waffling on about something.

"This is why," his voice continued, "it is of such vital importance to educate our children in the understanding of science. Our future is going to depend on how we understand the universe. Too much of our youth is wasted watching television, and too little spent in pursuit of universal truths."

I hesitated with the bottle. Something about that last sentence struck a note. Dr Kriegstein might know a lot about wormholes, but he doesn't know dick about people. There was something Julie used to say... what was it? What's the point in finding a new world if there's nothing worth finding when you get there?

I rang the buzzer on the door to John's room. He looked surprised as he opened it.

"Hello, Sir?" he said. "It is late. There is a problem?"

"Are you busy? I thought maybe we could... uh..." I was never much good at this kind of small talk.

He gave a small bow, then took a step back. "Please Sir, you are to be welcome inside."

I'd brought the bottle of Scotch with me. We sat on the balcony. His eyes glanced at the bottle.

"I thought you might like to try some," I said. I poured us both a glass. "Bet you've never tasted anything quite like this before."

"It is like wine? I have tasted Earth wine."

"Oh it's much better than that."

John eyed the liquid suspiciously.

"Listen," I said, "about the offer NPN made last week--the TV deal..."

"Oh you are not to be worried Sir," he said. "It is a show only for children. I will inform them you do not wish to be bothered with such things."

"No, don't. I've changed my mind. I think I'll take it."

That definitely caught him by surprise.

"If you are sure?" he said. "I shall make the arrangements, Sir."

"But we'll need to make some changes. It can't be subtitled from English; we'll need to do it in Anplan. You can't expect little kids to be paying attention to two things at once."

John titled his head, then spoke: "Is that correct for you, Sir? The language would be hard for you."

"Yeah, well it looks like I'll be needing someone to help me learn the scripts then, doesn't it. Someone who can speak English well."

I don't think I'd ever seen John smile before, but he did. "Perhaps it could be arranged, Sir."

"And stop calling me Sir the whole time. My name's Ed."

We watched the last of the sunlight pour across the steel and glass buildings that lay on the horizon. The elevated rails carried distant cars back to their homes, a stream of tiny red lights winding across the desert. The warm night air carried the faint smell of nas-tree oil from the desert palms. At night-time, you could almost think you were back on Earth. It could be really quite beautiful here sometimes, once the damn dust clouds settled down. A kind of quiet peace. I glanced at John, who was enjoying the scene too. We'd never talked. I didn't know a god damn thing about him.

"John's not your real name, is it?" I asked. "No Nakzar is called John."

"No," he replied. "I am Xairalaita."

"Why'd you change it?" I asked.

He gave a shrug. "I wished only to fit in. It is to honor John Glenn, the famous astronaut."

"Ha!" I laughed. "That's good. Julie would have liked that one."

He tilted his head with that puzzled look again. You could learn to read their body language, given time.

"My wife," I explained.

"I did not realize that you are married."

As I held the glass, my ring clinked against it. I looked down at it through the golden drink. It caught the light beautifully.

"She died last year," I said.

He gave a small nod of respect. "I am saddened to hear this."

"The book was her idea. She loved it out here, you know. It was like a big adventure to her. She thought everything out here was a new beginning. Always something new to discover, she said."

"Perhaps it is never too late to discover new things.", said John. I smiled.

"Cheers." I raised the glass towards him. He looked at me blankly.

"It's a custom," I explained. "You do it too."

He raised his and I clinked mine against it and smiled.

John smiled back. "Cheers," he said.

Written by Richard Mitton,

software engineer and travelling wizard.

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