The Eye of God

The Eye of God

by Mary Rosenblum

Illustration by Alan Giana

The coral-reeds’ agitation alerted her. Etienne came out onto the porch of her cottage to watch three Rethe wade through the thick blue-green stems. From this distance, they could have been three tall women, as human as herself. The coral-reeds stirred at their passage, the anxious rasp of their stems like distant whispering—words at the bare edge of comprehension.

She had never expected to see Rethe here. Etienne swallowed, fighting back memories that she had banished years ago. For a moment she entertained the hope that this visit was a mistake, or some kind of minor bureaucratic ritual.

She knew better.

Abruptly, she turned on her heel, and went inside to make tea. The Rethe would drink tea. That much at least humanity knew about them.

Etienne filled the teapot and arranged fruit-flavored gels on a plate. She had bought them in the shabby squatter village that had grown up around the Gate. Vat-grown in someone’s back yard as masses of amorphous cells, the orange and ruby cubes bore no resemblance to apricot or cherries except taste. The plants on this world—or sessile animals that photosynthesized—did not bear fruit. She missed apples the most—crisp and tart after a frost. Vilya had bought her a miniature apple tree in a pot. For their balcony. It was a winesap—a true genetic antique. She had never gone back for it.

Etienne realized that she was arranging and rearranging the gels on their plate, and took her hand away. Outside, the reeds rustled softly. The squatters ate them—cracked their silicaceous stems and sucked out the flesh inside. They turned your urine orange, but they didn’t make you sick.

She had never eaten one. Sometimes Etienne entertained the fantasy that that was the reason for the whispering meadow of the creatures that had formed around her cottage. Anthropomorphism, she thought. A seductive danger, in her profession as interpreter of aliens.

Her former profession.

Angry at herself for this lapse into yesterday, Etienne picked up the tray of tea, gels, and utensils. The Rethe were waiting for her on the shaded porch. Politely. Patiently. They nodded in unison as she came through the door, and Etienne froze. Memory was optional. Life went on for a long time, and yesterdays gathered like dust in the cramped vault of the human skull. You could go to a reputable body shop and have a well-trained tech in sterile greens sweep it all away. Or, for more money, you could have them sweep out only selected bits. Memory could be tucked, tightened, and tailored, as easily as any other part of the body.

She had never chosen to excise Vilya from her memory. Etienne set the tray down on the small table so hard that tea slopped over beneath the pot’s lid. Staring at the smallest of the Rethe—the one who stood at the rear, right on the boundary between shade and searing sun—Etienne wished suddenly that she had done so.

First real contact with an alien species, the Rethe disturbed humanity. Not because they were creepy nightmares or incomprehensible monsters. That might have been easier to take. But they looked utterly human. And utterly female, although each individual possessed three X and three Y chromosomes. Gender was one of the many things about themselves that the Rethe refused to discuss. All humans and Rethe were referred to as “it” in translated conversation.

The small Rethe whose wide face was slashed by sun and shadow looked utterly like Vilya.

Etienne looked down at the amber puddle soaking into the napkins she had laid out on the tray. “Would you care for tea?”

The oldest of the Rethe—at least her… his?… face looked oldest—extended a hand, palm up. A small iridescent vial lay on her… his?… palm.

She, Etienne decided as she scowled at the vial. They were all she, and to hell with their chromosomal makeup. The vial contained a fungus that would infiltrate her ear canal, growing mycocelia through her skull within minutes to interface directly with her brain. A translator, it was a bit of Rethe bio-tech, and as yet incomprehensible. But necessary. Because the Rethe weren’t about to share their language, or waste their time learning humanity’s dialects. The Rethe was waiting silently, her eyes on Etienne’s face, smiling.

Impatient behind that smile. “No need.” Etienne arched an eyebrow. “I was infected nearly two decades ago. As you must surely know, if you checked me out at all.”

The eldest Rethe bowed, still smiling. Dropped the vial into a pocket in her loose robe. “I hope you will pardon our intrusion.”

“You’re pardoned.” Etienne began to fill mugs. “So why are you here?”

“Retirement from public service must provide many benefits.” The Rethe lifted her steaming mug in a small salute. “Not the least of which is the privilege to be rude.”

“I didn’t retire. I quit. Yes, I’m rude.” Etienne sat down in the only chair and smiled up at the Rethe. Waiting.

For several minutes the Rethe sipped their tea, their expressions relaxed and appreciative, as if they had come all this way in the hot sun to savor her cheap tea, bought from the squatters. But their impatience hummed in the air and made the nearest coral-reeds shiver.

At last, the eldest Rethe sank gracefully to the fabbed-wood planks of the porch and folded her legs into lotus position. “I am Grik.” She nodded at the two Rethe behind her. “Rnn and Zynth.”

Zynth was the one who might have been Vilya’s twin. Etienne turned her eyes away as that one sat down. The loose garments that the Rethe wore hinted at solid bone and sleek, thickly muscled bodies. Peasant body, Vilya used to say of her stocky form. Etienne clenched her teeth and made a show of arranging her caftan. “Since I am entitled to be rude, why are you here?”

“To hire you.” Grik reached for a cherry gel. “It is a matter of rescue.”

“I… am no longer a registered empath. As you obviously know. And I retired from Search and Rescue last year.” Etienne offered the plate of gels to the other two Rethe. The one called Rynn declined with a smile and nod. Zynth gave her boss a quick apprehensive look and took an orange cube.

“And I’m not for hire in any case.” Etienne put the plate down on the table with a decisive thump. The girl’s diffident air annoyed her. “I’m sorry you wasted your time coming here.”

Grik lifted her left hand, palm up, tilted it in a pouring gesture.

Etienne interpreted a shrug from the emotional context. As she reached for her mug of tea, she noticed that Zynth had closed her hand into a fist. Orange gel leaked between her white-knuckled fingers, and the reeds rustled at her anguish.

Basic emotion seemed to be such a universal language, Etienne thought bitterly. Pleasure, anger, pain, and fear. Reeds, and humans, and Rethe. Etienne looked at Grik, who was smiling gently.

“Your superior at the Interface Center referred us to you,” she said. “It told us that you were the best empath it had worked with.”

“That was long ago.” It jolted her that he would remember. He had been angry when she had quit to work for Search and Rescue.

“It said it was time someone reminded you.” She shrugged. “I do not understand what it meant.”

Anton. Colonel Xyrus Anton, chief of the Interface Team—the euphemism for the human negotiators with the aloof Rethe. Etienne looked out at the reeds bathing and feeding in the planet’s young hot sun. We need you, he had yelled at her when she had turned in her resignation. We need every edge we can get against the Rethe. We never really believed that we’d meet a species more advanced than us. Not in our gut. Look what it’s doing to us. Our morale as a race is eroding all over the planet. This is a war, and we need to win. “I don’t understand either,” she murmured. “But it doesn’t matter.”

“One of your… creators of art became a friend to one of our people.” Grik went on as if Etienne hadn’t spoken. “Its sincerity was apparently impressive. So that one offered it access to a world we have not opened to your species.”

“You haven’t opened many worlds to us.”

The Rethe did the pouring-gesture again. “The art-creator was lost there in a tragic accident.”

“There are several registered empaths working for Search and Rescue.” Etienne watched the Rethe narrowly. “Why me? We are back to that question.”

“According to your datafile, you are a very intelligent human.” Grik placed her hands palm up on her thighs, her eyes shifting very slightly toward the young Zynth. “Do I truly need to answer this question for you?”

Zynth sat with her head bowed, pale, her anguish an almost palpable mist. The reeds had inched away from her, leaving a semicircle of clear soil beyond her. Etienne knew suddenly who had invited the artist onto a forbidden world.

“You closely control the Gates—allow us onto only a few poor planets. Like this one. Only the culls for us humans, eh? And you won’t transport extraction technology for us—in the name of environmental concern.” Etienne turned back to Grik, teeth bared. “We accept that limitation because you awed us. And because we can’t operate the Gates without you.” She smiled. “If you go to a registered empath, the media will surely find out about this… art-creator. And interview him or her. The grass is always greener in someone else’s pasture, and now you’ve let one of us through the fence. We’re quite an envious bun ...

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