They were forty-five minutes late getting everyone debarked; Michel, who only took charge when he was too disgusted by incompetence to do anything else, grabbed some humans off the boat and hauled them ashore, with the people complaining the loudest receiving the most unsettling version of the experience.
“Buck up or fuck up,” Michel called to George cheerfully as he passed, a rude slap accompanying his comment on George’s state of mind, which to a Sixer could be smelled a hundred metres away as “distraught but managing”.
Michel put Anh down on the slender, rocky beach before her coloratura squeaking got any louder.
The rehearsal was not optimal, George thought, and now we’re running late.
Someone on shore could be heard to start singing the theme of the Muppets Show, and was shushed.
“Damn Unitarians!” George exclaimed. There were giggles, and more shushing.
George appeared to turn into a lectern, and a sweet-faced old lady with a dandelion puff of white hair walked up to him, and then climbed him as if treating an alien like a staircase was something she did routinely. She faced the natural amphitheatre provided by the trees nestled into the shoreline, standing where she could see everyone. There were forty people assembled. Nobody was laughing now. A child’s voice could be heard saying, “Where’s George?”
“He’ll be back soon,” said his daddy’s voice. “We should try to be quiet.” Jesse, knowing what he did about Sixers, thought that bringing a child was a damned stupid thing to do, but he also knew why George had allowed it.
“Welcome,” the old lady said. She didn’t introduce herself. George’s hair, fully engaged and cooperative for once, made her voice seem to each person standing before her as if she were speaking directly to them from a conversational distance.
“I’ve spent my whole life looking up at the stars and waiting for aliens,” she said. “I never thought I’d find them walking down my street. What would be the good of thinking that? Any aliens who came would want to talk to the humans who run this world, or pretend to, or claim to; not the people who live in it without wanting to be boss. We’re fortunate, in this meeting, to be able to think of ourselves as being somehow of equal status.”
“You’re not!” Michel heckled.
“Sez you,” said the old lady. People from her church giggled. Unfazed, she continued. “Tonight we gather where the tide and the forest meet; where the salmon of wisdom is sheltered in its first morph as an alevin by the cedars of our home. We gather on the lands of the Coast Salish and their kin, who share it with us without ever having given over their collective bond to it.”
“At the end of the ceremony, we will share food and stories, and drum, and sing, and dance. Let us hold each other close as sharers of a great and troubling secret. Let us create in ourselves a space for awe, and wonder, and the questions that are our bridge between knowing and unknowing.”
She stepped down and took her place among the group.
Out of sight in the trees, Jesse heard a chorus of men’s voices, singing. It resonated in his chest. He could feel tears springing into his eyes, and laughed inside, wondering why he couldn’t save some for later, as he thought might be required. Women’s voices, sweeping upward, sang, sometimes in harmony, sometimes with a staccato pulse. There were words, but Jesse couldn’t understand them.
The illusion was perfect. The celebrants turned as one and saw a line of hooded and cloaked figures approaching them, walking slowly in time with their singing, and carrying torches.
“Who are they, daddy?”
“They aren’t really there, Paolo,” his daddy said.
The singing grew louder and lower, and stronger, but never moved faster than a slow walking pace, with spaces for silence that made the singing seem like an act of defiance, although against what, Jesse could not say. He hadn’t come to understand, though; he had come to witness.
Each of the phantoms drew nearer and nearer. With a reflex as old as humanity, the crowd moved to face them and to put the children and the elderly in the middle.
The song ended on a long chord woven across their shared space as a protective canopy. The phantoms, moving as one, threw their torches into a pile, which blazed into a bonfire and then died back into embers and sparks. Each phantom was touched by a spark and like a spark blazed upward and vanished.
While everyone gasped, looking as the phantoms flew up into the trees, a simulacrum of Kima crawled out of the embers.
Almost everyone gasped again at how the embers shone through her almost transparent body, before realizing that it wasn’t truly Kima.
“She’s in the water with Michel,” Jesse whispered.
“I’m the oldest person here,” she said. Her voice was still quite mechanical, but Michel had been coaching her and her prosody had improved. “I’m so old I don’t know how old I am. This sometimes happens with humans too. You can be so old you survive everyone who could tell you the truth, and lose the papers that prove it, if you ever had them.” She gestured with one arm toward the ocean.
The cove vanished; Kima and Michel completely cut off the celebrants’ view across the water, and replaced it with an enormous, marvellously detailed projection of the sea bottom.
“The first thing that I remember that ties me to human history is an earthquake.” Strange music, discordant and jaunty and somehow ominous, began to play. (author’s note: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/music/) “I was swimming in the ocean, not knowing that I would be two kilometres from the epicentre of an earthquake that would be felt from Syria to Italy.”
They watched the chaos on a projection the size of a building, and felt in their bones the wrenching roar of the earth tearing itself apart. Paolo hid himself in his daddy’s coat and sobbed, but could not be heard over the clamor. Half a dozen people put their hands over their ears. The rumbling died away.
“I was lucky to be where I could not be crushed by an underwater avalanche,” Kima said. “I wanted to know what had happened. The first time I went to dance at the shore, which was in 1825,” and now the projection faded out and revealed a rocky beach in the Mediterranean, “I met my people for the first time and learned that if I wanted to understand the world I lived in, I would have to learn a human language.”
There was brief tableau of perhaps half a dozen landmorphs and a dozen watermorphs frolicking in the water at sunset.
“Are they …?” Colin muttered.
“Best not to ask,” Jesse muttered back. “It’s not like we can tell – holy jeez!” he said, louder than intended. The tableau had shifted again. Kima was climbing up the anchor rope of a sailing ship and stealing glimpses of books about astronomy and navigation and natural history, all in Greek. The perspective shifted with the rocking motion of the boat.
“Oog,” Colin muttered, and looked away. If he wasn’t driving, he got car sick very easily.
Kima’s voice reached them without effort. “I didn’t know George and Michel then. They hadn’t been born. I met their mothers, and their fathers. Phokas taught me Greek and the Greek alphabet. It took a couple of years, but I became literate in a human language for the first time, and started to learn. Something shifted inside me as I read.”
“I learned more and travelled the world looking for knowledge. I met Michel, and through him I met George and the three of us agreed to share what we learned about humans and science. We weren’t very careful about how we did it. Humans got hurt.”
“I’m not sorry, they were bad men, and you’re not getting a phoney apology,” Michel yelled. He wasn’t amplified, but it didn’t matter. He could bellow like a mythical beast.
“We wouldn’t expect it, Michel,” Jesse yelled back.
“You two be quiet now, you’ll get your turn,” Kima said, irked. “George and I intend to apologize to all of you for hurt we’ve caused to humans. If we don’t then we’re just oppressors with a good backstory.”
There was a pause.
“I don’t remember that part,” Kima said.
“Sorry,” George said. “I should have taken it out again.”
Colin and Jesse and Anh, shoulders shaking, made little gasping noises. Their suppressed giggles were promptly drowned out.
“That isn’t what I wanted to say, that isn’t it at all!” Kima said, very loud. The quiet water of the cove appeared to boil and foam, and a large, red and orange bouncy-castle version of a cuttlefish popped up out of the disturbed waves like a cork, leaving the water entirely and then settling, off kilter. The eyes swivelled. Paolo could be heard stuffing himself into his father’s coat again.
The giant cuttlefish addressed George and ignored the humans, and Michel, relishing the opportunity, assisted her.
“It was humans who gave me back the science and mathematics that are the birthright of our species. It is humans who are helping me understand what my body is made of. Humans are teaching me that each of us is a song.”
An immense rubber sword fell out of the sky into the inflated cuttlefish. It exploded. A thousand parachute flares leapt into the sky above the celebrants, pushed by the flailing, deflating arms of the cuttlefish, and accompanied by a cracking noise and a hissing of red sparks over the water.
“Who the hell’s the art director?” Anh muttered. “This’s nothing like the storyboard.”
George’s voice, much quieter, said, “Show them.”
The parachute flares vanished when they fell to three metres above ground, which was a relief, because they looked all too real. They were replaced by sheer blackness – a blackness so dark that after the brightness of the flares it felt like being shoved into a cave.
A yellow star appeared in the middle of the screen. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, until, using the latest research satellite data in an incredibly detailed false colour view, it consumed the screen.
“Sol,” George said. The point of view flew past Mercury – rendered in false colour – and Venus, a cloudy blob. They came up to Earth from the dark side of the moon, speeding over the surface at such a low altitude Jesse felt like he could have stuck out his hand and scooped up moon dust. Then the point of view halted in a stationary position from perhaps a thousand kilometres above ground. Every satellite currently orbiting Earth, including dead and damaged ones, was picked out and named, with the nationality and ownership marked with little flags. Some of the tags were red.
“Everything marked in red is in a decaying orbit and a risk to Earth,” George said calmly. “I intend to take out the orbital trash.”
The point of view showed George, in his Sixer form, humming a English music-hall tune (Finck’s Gilbert the Filbert), bouncing between the satellites like a pachinko ball and knocking them out of orbit, away from earth. Some of them crashed into the moon, making little screaming noises as they did so. The rest got shoved toward the sun.
“But what I really want to do,” George said, in the same warm, conversational tone, “Is to prevent this from happening.”
They saw George’s reconstruction of the Chelyabinsk Event in three quick vignettes; from orbit, from 20 kilometres above Russia, and, in the most eye-popping special effect any of them had ever seen, riding the superbolide down through the atmosphere at 69,000 kph until it exploded with a flare that was, briefly, brighter than the sun. The ground shook. Paolo sobbed into his dad’s shirt.
“Will you help me try to prevent this from happening?” George asked.
“I will,” said the old lady.
“We will,” said the other Unitarians, who were used to liturgy on the fly.
“We will,” the rest echoed.
“I will,” Paolo said, hiccupping, officially becoming the cutest little un-indicted co-conspirator.
“I pledge my aid to you for as long as I am on earth and alive,” George said solemnly.
“I pledge my aid to you for as long as I am on earth and alive,” Kima said solemnly.
“Whatever, as long is it’s not too inconvenient,” Michel said.
“Figured,” Colin muttered. A couple of other people giggled, mostly to release tension.
“There’s food and drink. Let’s eat together to seal our commitment,” George said. The three aliens stood together, half in and half out of the water. Michel dragged Kima’s bucket up to the food service table, and started to laugh. She was herself, but had perched a ludicrous virtual chef’s hat on her ‘head’ and was now turning filleted salmon into sashimi and offering it up on the end of her very sharp knife. There was vegetarian stew and rice, steaming hot; various kinds of classy finger food, and Jesse, wasting no time, broached the ale keg and opened the tap.
The dancing and drumming began; George sang, which amazed everyone who hadn’t heard him sing before. People talked, ate, laughed, wept. Kima, after she was done with the salmon, shook everyone’s hand. George hugged some people, cuffed some people, and turned himself into playground furniture for Paolo with a short but sincere apology, which Paolo accepted with aplomb. Michel wandered around and showed everyone the gold coin Kima had given him.
The Sixers formed a receiving line, and greeted all the celebrants by name, and thanked them personally. Michel managed to be civil to everyone, which established, as Anh commented to Avtar sotto voce, some kind of record.
By midnight, everyone was a blend of stuffed, drunk and exhausted, and the cleanup began. The Sixers and the Midnite Moving Co. boys loaded everything onto the lighter in less than half an hour. The tide had come up and Sparrow moved the boat closer to the shore. As they were boarding, some getting piggyback rides from George and Michel (who would flip them over the railing in a variety of scary ways – without hurting them), others climbing up from the lighter, George addressed everyone, “Thank you all for coming.”
“When is O-day?” a woman’s voice called.
“Soon,” George said. “Soon.”
“You guys live for hundreds of years, George; soon’s meaningless,” Jesse said.
Lights flickered across George’s midline. “Less than two years,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then. It means a lot to me that I have your help, and trust.”
“And they’ll have the babies, too,” Michel said, in Greek. “If you two ever manage to get busy.”
The Midnite Moving Co. is a prequel to the Upsun trilogy in which Jesse and George run a moving company which specializes in getting victims of domestic violence and landlord harassment into safer accommodation. Jesse’s doing it to pay his rent, but as he gets to know George, he starts to wonder who his secretive and unusual partner really is. Their story continues in the Upsun trilogy.