The transport entered orbit every third revolution, adding to the planetary waste as reliably as a toilet flush. Looking down upon the steaming refuse piles, I knew at once how it would smell on the surface and brought together the teeth of my suit zipper with a single pull.
“Is that the horse?” I asked, having made landfall. It was smaller than I’d imagined. Hardly worth the trip. Then again, the wapis all looked diminutive in stature, an advantage, probably, in their waste-picking endeavours.
I’d been told to have patience, never my strength.
“Show me,” I commanded.
One of them must have flicked a remote, because the beast began a clumsy yet unmistakable canter, its hooves stirring up a vapor trail of polyethylene. There was something grotesque about its rusting body and, sensing my reaction, the wapi operator brought it to a halt beside a styrofoam mound.
They weren’t supposed to have this creature. They weren’t supposed to have any concept of extra-terrestrial life at all.
“Impressive,” I said, half meaning it. “Did you make only the one?”
The elder’s skin looked as though a thousand peppercorns were about to burst loose. Perhaps she’d been chosen because she was so hideous. Even so, neither of us blinked.
“One only,” came the reply.
Was the changed word order a grammatical sleight-of-hand or a sign of subnormal vocal acuity?
Pretending an attack of dizziness brought on by the foul air, I typed into my wristset. Two seconds later, the data flashed up: her brain’s left hemisphere was underdeveloped, especially around the inferior frontal gyrus. The latter, then.
I was about to follow up, but she beat me to it.
“Grass. Send grass.”
I blinked. “Come again?”
“Grass seeds,” she lisped. “Send us. Making green.”
“That’s not in my remit. I’ll need to ask permission.”
A cavernous belch exploded from her lips.
I felt my head spinning, this time for real. My suit detected the issue and shot a mild amphetamine into my bloodstream. Then it hit me: the wapis intended to barter the horse in exchange for something they’d never seen, nor heard tell of before. How could they possess words for either?
At that point in my career, I knew when I’d hit on the right question and, more important still, how to tuck it away out of sight.
After loading the astrolift, something angular jabbed me in my pocket and, reaching inside, my fingers grasped a crude horse figurine. One of the wapis must have slipped it in as a keepsake, another sign that they’d developed complex needs. Well, if anyone ever waded through my report, they’d find a resounding recommendation for planetwide eco-restoration (chapter 7, paragraph 49, footnote MMCDXIX, to be precise).
“Of course, that’s not going to happen,” were my superior’s first words on the subject.
It felt good to be in a clean, pressed uniform again.
“I mean, can you imagine the cost?” she asked, fixing me with a knowing smile. “Our budget is stretched thin as it is.”
“It’s asking a bit much,” I replied, poker-faced.
“If we had the financial resources and if we had the transport capacity then I guess we could consider it. But the business wouldn’t end there, would it?”
“I don’t imagine so, ma’am.”
“Next thing we know, the alien rights lawyers start filing lawsuit after lawsuit. You know how that goes.” I knew. I also knew what was coming. “Say, that little hideaway on Alpha Minor has been on your mind a while now, hasn’t it?”
“I think about it,” I answered, playing along. “Now and again, ma’am.”
“Why not head over there for a spell? You’ve earned it.” She put her hand on mine. “Or should I say, we have.”
I blushed. “What about the horse?”
“Oh, that. Industrial waste. It was incinerated yesterday.”
She’d thought of everything.
“And the wapis?”
“We’ll double their protein allowance.”
So far, we were both on script. But something in me had already veered off a little.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, sensing it. “You really are concerned. No wonder you’re so good at your job! But, honestly, suppose we sent the seed. Then what? They’d have to sow, water, fertilise, and goodness knows what-all. Can you see that happening? Best guess, they constructed that horse from an old blueprint and the result triggered a recessive memory or two. Chances are, they’ve already forgotten it.”
As always, there was no arguing with her. Besides, she had a point. What difference would it have made if the wapis’ shacks were surrounded by grass instead of plastic?
She slipped her arm in mine, content with the way things stood. Perhaps she’d come knocking on my door again tonight, top button undone.
Halfway out, though, it was like a hidden muscle, already knotted, had gone into a full-scale cramp. Unable to cross the threshold, I remained transfixed, wondering what would come next. I’d have to muster my defences quickly.
But perhaps it wouldn’t come to that. Perhaps she wouldn’t turn the full force of her antipathies on me.
Turns out there are questions you can tuck out of sight, and others you can’t.
“Demotion by two grades,” she snapped, whipping her arm away. “That’s for starters. After that? Say goodbye to pension benefits, club access privileges, second youth sponsorship, the works. Oh, and this.” She took off her ring and handed it to me. “Unless you’d care to think twice.”
So there it was. Part of me had always suspected.
Taking the model horse from my pocket, I stared down at two objects, one in each hand, then looked back up, opened my mouth and heard the answer both of us knew would come.
Perhaps I was sentimental. But there are different kinds of sentimentality.
Possibly I’d grown used to routine. But I knew what was most important for me.
Daniel McKay teaches at Doshisha University, Kyoto. He is no good at writing catchy bios, preferring instead to horse around and watch the world go by. He neighs objectionably when politicians make asses of themselves, but, against the odds, does not believe the world is going to hell in a haybasket.