Excerpt for Star City by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


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STAR CITY

Star City – Book 1

Copyright © 2017 Edwin Peng

Cover Art & Copyright © 2017 D. Robert Pease

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Published by Evolved Publishing LLC at Smashwords

ISBN (EPUB Version): 1622535928

ISBN-13 (EPUB Version): 978-1-62253-592-7

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Editor: Emily Gerren

Senior Editor: Lane Diamond

Interior Designers: Lane Diamond, with Images by D. Robert Pease

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eBook License Notes:

You may not use, reproduce or transmit in any manner, any part of this book without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations used in critical articles and reviews, or in accordance with federal Fair Use laws. All rights are reserved.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only; it may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to your eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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Disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or the author has used them fictitiously.


STAR CITY

Don’t miss these great prequels to the novels.

Links for the full series are available HERE.

Short Story I: The Announcement

Short Story II: The Test

Short Story III: The Meeting

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Book 1: Star City

Book 2: Friendship Village (Coming November 2018)

Book 3: Embassy Town (Coming November 2019)

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www.EdwinPeng.com


We’re excited to offer a Special Sneak Preview at the end of this book: the First 3 Chapters of THE TRACE by Adelaide Thorne, the first book in the thrilling “Whitewashed” series of young adult sci-fi adventures. Just click on the link below the image to check it out.

Special Sneak Preview: THE TRACE by Adelaide Thorne

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OR GRAB THE FULL EBOOK TODAY!

FIND LINKS TO YOUR FAVORITE RETAILER HERE:

The WHITEWASHED Series at Evolved Publishing


For our future doctors, engineers, scientists, journalists, diplomats – and starship captains.


Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright

Books by Edwin Peng

BONUS CONTENT

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Acknowledgements

About the Author

What's Next?

More from Edwin Peng

More from Evolved Publishing

SPECIAL SNEAK PREVIEW: The Trace by Adelaide Thorne


Emma Smith checked her phone for the thousandth time, but still found no calls from the State Department. Their email had said two officials would come to the Smiths’ house at nine; that had been ten whole minutes ago. She paced back and forth across the living room carpet, trying to determine why they were late. Their flight shouldn’t have been delayed on this perfect August morning in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Emma walked to the living room window and twisted the plastic wand to let some sunlight through the blinds, and watched as the Petersons, their neighbors across the street, hitched a boat to their SUV. She wished she could have joined them and their kids for a fun summer day at Branched Oak Lake, but she had more important concerns.

Forty-eight days ago, Emma had clicked the “SUBMIT” button on the internship’s application website. She had little doubt the State Department had chosen her. Sure, she hadn’t received the official word yet, but why else would they have asked to meet at her family’s house?

Time for plan B!

Her best friend, Tanisha Freedman, had promised to spy for her at Lincoln Airport. During the summer, Tanisha helped her mom at the car rental kiosk. One, two, three excruciating rings later, she answered.

“Nisha!”

“Emms! I was about to text you. My mother just rented a couple of SUVs to a bunch of government guys.”

“Great!”

“They also asked for directions to your house.”

“Fuck yeah!”

“Emma Smith! Watch your language, young lady!”

How could Mom have heard me? Isn’t she searching for her necklace upstairs?

Emma swore her mom had bat-like ears, specially tuned to her misbehavior. Or, perhaps the contractor who’d built their home had used cheap Chinese drywall.

“Thanks, Nisha! I knew I could count on you.”

Mom walked downstairs and stepped into the living room. She had donned the purple pantsuit she always wore to PTA meetings, and the sparkly emerald necklace Dad had given her for their twentieth anniversary.

“You found it,” Emma said. “The necklace matches well with the pantsuit.”

“Don’t try to change the subject. Stop swearing and be patient!”

“It’s hard to be patient when my whole life is gonna change today.”

“Emma, remember what I said about—”

“—counting my chickens before they hatch. You and Grandma have told me that a thousand times! I’m sure my chicken has already pecked through most of its shell.”

Mom chuckled and reached for a book before sitting on the couch. Saturdays during the summer, with no papers to grade and no Huskers football game to prepare for, she could relax.

Dad joined them in the living room a few minutes later. He wore a green tie that his green dress shirt rendered invisible. “Honey, does this tie look okay?”

“I thought I picked the blue one for you,” Mom replied.

“Yes, but—” He stopped and turned when Emma’s phone rang.

The number had a 202 area code. She hurried into the dining room as her parents flirtatiously argued over Dad’s ridiculous color-blind fashion sense. “Hello!”

“Good morning, Ms. Emma Smith,” a deep voice said. “I’m Dean Hull, from the US Department of State.”

“Wow! I mean, it’s great to hear from you, Director Hull.”

“We will arrive at your home in ten minutes.”

“Great!”

She had expected the State Department to send a couple of low-level flunkies, not the director himself. She tucked her phone into her back pocket, straightened the collar of her Huskers polo shirt, and returned to the living room to find her parents locking lips like smitten teenagers.

“Excuse me!”

They broke apart and looked embarrassed.

“The State Department’s coming right now! Dad, forget about the stupid tie. You look better without it.”

“See? My little girl agrees with me.” He ripped off the tie.

“Emma, it’s only a part-time job,” Mom said. “I know you’re excited to do cancer research again, but maybe you’re overreacting.”

“It’s not any old internship. This is so crucial for my future biomedical engineering career,” Emma protested. “Do you know how many thousands of UNL freshmen I beat for this chance to work with the Ba’ren?”

“The space aliens?”

Emma rolled her eyes. “Yes. Dr. McCune’s collaborating with a Ba’ren doctor. Remember, I told you about this.”

“I thought you were interning with Professor Chen. The Lincoln Journal Star mentioned he was working with the Ba’ren,” Dad said. “And don’t you roll your eyes at us again!”

“Dad, that’s another internship I applied for. Professor Chen’s a mechanical engineer. His work has nothing to do with cancer. Every UNL professor who wants tenure is claiming his or her research is somehow related to the aliens.”

“Could being around the Ba’ren be dangerous?” Mom asked.

“I’m sure the government won’t let anyone hurt us.”

People around the world were losing their minds over the fact that humans weren’t alone in the universe. Emma, on the other hand, sought to make sweet lemonade from extraterrestrial lemons. She excelled in languages, math, and biology, the subjects specifically requested by the State Department. Furthermore, Emma had spent the last two years pipetting and doing other menial—but crucial—tasks in Dr. James McCune’s osteosarcoma lab.

Even her big brother’s extreme nerdiness had proven useful. Growing up with Liam had turned Emma into a major sci-fi fan. She had watched enough fictional first contact scenarios to know what to do when encountering real aliens.

Sparky, their beagle, loped into the front yard and started barking as two black SUVs pulled up to the curb.

“They’re here!” Emma shouted.

She and her parents stepped onto the front porch.

One SUV disgorged two men and a woman dressed in dark suits, with earpieces in their right ears and gun holsters on their belts. Three more men in suits emerged from the other vehicle.

Finally, Director Dean Hull stepped onto the hot pavement, exchanged some words with one of his bodyguards, and strutted to their front porch. “Emma Smith, I presume?”

She nodded and vigorously shook his hand. Director Hull was shorter than she’d expected. Short brown hair surrounded a large bald spot on his head, but he looked sharp in a black three-piece suit.

She gestured to her parents. “This is my father, Michael, and my mother, Jennifer.”

“Great to meet you. I’m Dean Hull.” They shook hands, and then the director patted Sparky. “I’m sure Ms. Smith has told you all about the BACRP.”

Her parents’ blank stares made Emma wish Scotty would teleport her somewhere far away.

“Well, then, I can enlighten everyone if you’ll allow me inside your lovely home.”

“Certainly,” Dad replied.

Two dark-suited G-men followed them in.

Dad ushered Director Hull to a seat at their dining room table.

“I’m the first Director of the Bureau of Interstellar Relations,” Hull said. Her parents still showed no sign of recognition, so he went on. “I work for Dr. Clara Emerson, the Under Secretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs.”

“Aha! Now I remember you,” Mom said. “You were on that NBC Primetime special last week.”

Director Hull smiled.

“You deal with the aliens?” Dad asked.

“Yes. I’m afraid Under Secretary Emerson tends to hog all the limelight. Meanwhile, we lower pay grade guys do all the actual work.”

Emma winced. She thought Dr. Emerson was doing a great job under such unprecedented circumstances.

“First things first. I know Ms. Smith is dying to see this.” He handed an official State Department envelope to her.

She ripped it open, her heart pounding, and read the letter.

“Congratulations! You are now officially a student ambassador,” Director Hull said.

“Wait. Student ambassador?” Dad said. “I thought Emma was only assisting Dr. McCune with his cancer research.”

“That will only be part of her duties.” Director Hull presented a pair of BACRP brochures to Mom and Dad.

Emma leaned back in her chair and sighed. Her parents should have been a lot more excited.

“She’ll also help the Ba’ren adjust our society.”

“Really?” Mom asked.

“The aliens sent ambassadors to the major world governments, with gifts to jump-start diplomatic relations. For the United States, they offer a potential cure for childhood osteosarcoma.”

Everyone had followed the aliens’ diplomatic delegations to Earth. The Ba’ren had landed in Moscow, Paris, Abuja, and Brasília before finally coming to Washington, D.C. The live coverage of their arrival had been the second-most watched TV event that year, behind the Super Bowl.

“The State Department selected the University of Nebraska to implement the first human trials,” Director Hull continued. “The Lincoln and Omaha campuses will host the Ba’ren Cancer Research Project—BACRP for short.”

“Aren’t the aliens curing childhood leukemia?” Mom asked.

Director Hull smiled. “No. Several news networks made a mistake in their coverage. The drug, which they dubbed ‘Compound 8128,’ is only for late-stage childhood osteosarcoma.”

“The BACRP might be the best thing to happen to our state since Tom Osborne,” Dad said.

“Why did the government select Nebraska?” Mom asked. “Why not host the aliens in a big city like Los Angeles or New York?”

“The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha operates one of our nation’s best pediatric cancer wards,” Director Hull replied. “Also, Nebraska’s congressional delegation excels at bringing home the bacon.”

Dad chuckled. “If the president is going to rack up more government debt, he might as well spend the money here curing kids with cancer.”

“What does all of this have to do with Emma?” Mom asked.

“The aliens’ BACRP delegation includes two college-aged students,” the director explained. “We need to complement them with our own pair of students. That’s why the State Department asked for the best University of Nebraska freshmen.”

“So my daughter will study with the Ba’ren,” Mom said.

Emma didn’t like the frown forming on her face.

“Come now, Mrs. Smith,” the director implored. “Surely you don’t think the Ba’ren are evil aliens, like in those silly sci-fi movies?”

“But—”

“As far as first contact scenarios go, this was the best we could’ve hoped for. The Ba’ren want to establish peaceful ties and trade with humans,” he said. “It’s in America’s best interest to build relationships between our respective students and scientists.”

“If you put it that way, it would be an honor for both of our kids to be serving our country.” At last, Mom agreed.

“Definitely,” Dad added. “I know this internship means a lot to her.”

With that, Emma knew Director Hull had won her parents’ approval.

“To make this formal, Albert Savio is here with the paperwork.”

A tall black-haired man joined them at the table. He introduced himself as a State Department lawyer. Mr. Savio opened a thick manila envelope and began stacking page after page of legal documents in front of them. “This is the main BACRP contract. Make sure you and your parents read it in its entirety.”

“I’m eighteen already,” Emma protested.

“I know, dear, but we should look carefully at this,” Dad said.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Smith. You have five business days to approve the BACRP contract,” Mr. Savio explained. “However, all three of you need to sign this confidentiality agreement immediately.” He pulled out three copies of a document covered with fine print.

“We’ll announce the student ambassadors at the White House dinner next week,” Director Hull said. “Meanwhile, we request that none of you reveal her selection.”

Emma’s eyes stretched wide. “Why?” She wanted to tell Tanisha and Olivia Johnson right away, and she had promised Joyce Wang an exclusive interview for the Mizzou school newspaper.

“You mean we can’t say anything to anyone?” Mom asked. “Not even our relatives?”

The director nodded. “That’s right.”

Mr. Savio added, “This secrecy is for your daughter’s protection. We do not want our student ambassadors to be swarmed by the press until we’re ready.”

“Good idea,” Dad said. “We don’t want reporters camping outside our home. I remember what happened to that unfortunate Des Moines lady.”

Emma had to agree. The media were desperate for any Ba’ren-related story. During their brief visits to Earth, the aliens had only met with government leaders, and had rarely appeared in public. Ordinary folks knew so little about them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Des Moines Fox TV affiliate had received a tip that Under Secretary Emerson was operating a “secret alien facility” at the outskirts of town. They’d made a huge fuss of broadcasting live as their reporters investigated the building. Unfortunately, a farmer with the same name owned the place. This Clara Emerson, armed with a shotgun, charged at the reporters. The retreating film crew crashed their news van into the farmer’s truck and nearly killed her two children. The half-dozen court cases hadn’t been resolved yet, but it looked like the station would be on the hook for millions of dollars.

“Once we go public,” the director said, “a press secretary will help you handle the media. Remember, Ms. Smith, this blackout applies to social media as well.”

Emma exhaled deeply. “All right.”

She and her parents signed the agreement.

“Regarding security, we have a pleasant surprise.” He waved his left hand, catching the attention of one of his bodyguards.

The woman went out the front door and, a moment later, brought in a familiar face.

Mom leaped up, tipping over her chair as she called out his name.

“Is that really him?” Dad asked.

Liam wasn’t supposed to return home until his tour of duty was over in three more years. Instead of his Air Force uniform, he wore a dress shirt, tie, and black slacks.

Emma hugged him.

Dad slapped his back. “You aren’t wanted for desertion, right?”

“Don’t worry. I got my honorable discharge due to this sweet new State Department gig.” Liam grinned at Emma and sat next to her.

Director Hull stepped back into the fray. “Mr. Smith’s unique qualifications make him the State Department’s newest Security Technical Specialist. He’ll help keep all BACRP personnel safe here in Nebraska.”

“Does that mean you can stay?” Mom asked.

“Yes, I’ll be home for good.”

Emma grinned. She knew her parents were now absolutely convinced that the BACRP was a wonderful idea.

Director Hull extracted another bundle of documents from his briefcase. “Meanwhile, Ms. Smith has some homework before the D.C. trip. Make sure you read everything, and follow our instructions.” He shook her hand again. “I wish you the best of luck. The State Department and our entire nation are counting on you.”

Sepporinen slowly paced through Corridor 4. Starcraft 2 was an older fusion-powered vessel with spacious interiors, yet he constantly had to dodge diplomats and their luggage robots. They must have been members of the delegations to Malaysia and the Argentine Republic. He smelled their excitement and joy at finally going to Earth, sentiments he did not share.

Sepporinen accessed the Link with his neural implant. The map of the Diplomacy Sector appeared on his cornea lens, indicating that he must turn left at the next Corridor. A couple of near collisions later, he arrived in front of the office of Prana’i, the newly appointed Assistant Ambassador to Nebraska.

This was the last place in the universe he wished to be, but he had already delayed this meeting for too long—it was unwise to appear lazy to the executives of Earth Mission’s Diplomacy Department.

Gathering every gram of willpower, he placed his left palm over the smooth aluminosilicate scanpad.

“Welcome!” the door merrily announced. “Sepporinen, Earth Mission Citizen 6863, you may enter.”

He clenched his left fist and resisted the urge to punch the scanpad. This door only required a simple diode display to verify Sepporinen’s identity. Instead, Prana’i had programmed it with a complex voice output and an advanced emotional algorithm. Typical, that a diplomat would waste time and effort on such unnecessary features.

The interlocking pieces of the door, made from blue-tinted amorphous steel, pulled apart from the center to form a circular opening. The door reassembled itself after he stepped through.

Prana’i sat behind a gigantic table made from an unfamiliar, bitter-smelling wood. The Assistant Ambassador’s brown- and white-spotted skin matched his official portrait on his Link profile, though he unexpectedly kept his hair cut short and dyed light brown.

Sepporinen stepped forward, extended his arms, and intertwined his fingers.

Prana’i nodded, acknowledging this gesture of deference. “Sepporinen of Intukoto, we finally meet in person.”

He managed a small smile, pleased that this diplomat had at least used the correct naming convention of Sepporinen’s Saamaa culture. “I come to accept my appointment.”

“You smell like you do not want to be here.”

Sepporinen strained his facial muscles, trying to maintain his composure. “Adult, I am honored to serve.”

Prana’i waved his left hand. “Save your breath. There is no point in trying to deceive me. As an experienced diplomat—not to mention the father of two children—I smelled your deception many kilometers away.”

Sepporinen used his neural implant to check the Assistant Ambassador’s public Link profile. One of the holograms featured Prana’i with another male Adult and two Children, a male and female, all wearing loose-fitting Harapp clothing. He had been silly to think he could fool him. “I despise my conscription. I joined Earth Mission to mine asteroids, not to talk with humans.”

The Assistant Ambassador stood up and tapped the table with his right palm. “Do you know what this piece of human furniture is?”

Sepporinen wiggled his left hand, indicating he had no idea. Perhaps this was a test to investigate how much he had learned about the humans. If so, he would fail. He had only attended a few courses offered by the Sociologists on human cultures, and had made it a point not to learn a thing.

“This is a desk. In the humans’ Western culture, it is where one would do deskwork. Desks also serve as status symbols,” Prana’i explained. “For instance, the Oval Office contains an impressive partners’ desk from which the American president addresses the nation.”

Sepporinen did not understand the reason for the diplomat’s babbling.

“I fabricated this piece of furniture as soon as we entered into Earth’s orbit,” Prana’i continued. “It is but one of the many ways I am learning about our hosts’ cultures.”

Sepporinen connected to the Link with his neural implant again. A few moments later, he found the latest Diplomacy Department budget. Prana’i had paid a materials engineering guild five hundred thousand Ba’pana to replicate mahogany wood.

How could Ambassador Wathanda let him waste the time of so many engineers?

“I am a mining engineer, not a diplomat. My talents are better utilized working for the Eutecsis Guild.”

“Both the Diplomacy Council and the Section Court disagreed when they denied your petition.”

“That is not the end of it.”

“Of course, you retain the right to appeal to the Central Court, but I guarantee you will lose.” The diplomat leaned forward, placing both of his palms on the desk. “Sepporinen, the Diplomacy Department will not relent. You will be punished with recycling duties if you continue to refuse.”

Sepporinen did not understand why the diplomats were so keen to use him, even to the point of applying the full extent of Earth Mission Charter’s Conscription Clause. He had already served twenty days maintaining Starcraft 4’s organic recycling plant after the miningcraft incident with Arnbejoerg. He did not want to repeat that experience.

“I am not a doctor or a biologist,” Sepporinen said.

Prana’i raised both of his shoulders toward his ears.

A quick check of the Intelligence Department’s database told Sepporinen this was the human body expression called shrugging.

“That is a cause for concern if you are treating patients on Dituyuvi. However, every Ba’ren Juvenile knows as much about biology and chemistry as the typical human medical school graduate.” The Assistant Ambassador took a couple of short breaths. “I am puzzled by your persistent opposition. I thought you, as a Saamaa, would be ecstatic to work for Ambassador Wathanda.”

“Not if I will be on Earth.” Normally, it would have been an honor for Sepporinen to serve his Second Mother, but these were abnormal circumstances.

“We dislike many things about dealing with humans. However, it is your duty to adapt and follow orders.” The Assistant Ambassador picked up a long titanium collar that had been lying on his desk. “All members of our Exploration Mission have to make sacrifices, great and small. For instance, I will not wear this when I return to Earth.”

Sepporinen gazed at the large ashok inscribed on the collar, a symbol of auspiciousness for Prana’i’s Harapp culture. It was traditional for every Harapp diplomat to wear something inscribed with the symbol.

“The Sociologists explained that the ashok resembles one of the most well-known signs of evil to humans,” Prana’i said. “Therefore, the Councilors banned its use for all diplomats.”

After another search of the Link, Sepporinen found the relevant Diplomacy Council ruling. “Why not simply explain this symbol to humans?”

“Unfortunately, humans often draw conclusions too quickly, and refuse to change their minds even if they are wrong,” Prana’i replied.

Sepporinen felt a sudden emptiness in his head—his Link connection had been severed.

The Assistant Ambassador held up a tiny black blocker. “Get accustomed to living without the Link. We all must disconnect once we land on Earth.”

The Harapp passed Sepporinen a slate, which he reluctantly accepted.

“This is your commission,” Prana’i said. “Congratulations. You are now an Assistant Aide.”

Assistant Aide: the lowest position in the Diplomacy Department.

“I understand you just became a full Eutecsis Guild Member,” he continued, “but being a peacemaker brings greater prestige.”

Prana’i did not recognize how important asteroid mining was to Ba’ren exploration missions. Sepporinen would lose the honor of becoming the youngest mining engineer to prospect an undeveloped solar system. That was the primary reason he had competed against—and beaten—thousands of other Juveniles to obtain his place in the Earth Mission.

“Do you, Sepporinen of Intukoto, vow to perform your Diplomacy Department duties to the best of your ability, for the benefit of Earth Mission and for all Ba’ren?”

Sepporinen retracted his fangs underneath his lips and slowly raised his clenched left hand, pressing his right hand over the slate. “I do so vow.” The device glowed yellow, recording his affirmation.

“Now, this is for you.”

Prana’i gave him a thin paper envelope that smelled like zwuy feces.

“Your admissions letter is inside. Congratulations again. You are the second Ba’ren student to attend the University of Nebraska.”

“The second?”

“Sahanish’s acceptance letter was signed first. Anyway, there are medical procedures you must undergo, as well as....” The Assistant Ambassador prattled on and on about the required preparations for the diplomatic mission to Nebraska.

Sepporinen detested this part of his new assignment the most. He could not be a great representative when forced to interact with thousands of juvenile humans. He left the office before Prana’i finished rambling. There was no escape from his grim fate.

Emma was no stranger to Misty’s Steakhouse in downtown Lincoln. After the hostess showed her family to their table, Emma selected her favorite appetizer: the spinach and artichoke dip.

Liam devoured half a dozen crab cakes while they waited for their entrees.

Her family came here for major celebrations, like Liam’s UNL graduation and her parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. Now, they were honoring Emma’s achievement.

The spicy, smoky scents followed their server from the kitchen. Emma sliced off a piece of her filet mignon, and it melted into a pool of deliciousness in her mouth. Victory tasted great.

“You better enjoy this meal,” Liam said. “It might be a while before you can eat such tasty meat again.”

“What—” Emma swallowed her bite. “—do you mean? Won’t the White House serve steaks or seafood at the fancy welcome dinner?”

Liam shook his head. “Didn’t you read your State Department info packs? The Ba’ren are vegetarians. There won’t be any meat at BACRP events.”

“Really?” Dad sounded disappointed as he cut into his prime rib. “I thought we could invite them to our Labor Day barbecue.”

“The aliens are vegetarians? They look like they’ve evolved to be carnivores,” Emma argued. “Ba’ren have eight huge canine teeth, and their skin is striped or spotted, like tigers or leopards.”

Her brother shrugged. “The Ba’ren evolved on a completely different planet. We can’t expect the same rules that govern Earth life to apply to them. Maybe their sharp teeth were meant to tear through tough veggies.”

Emma had only read the first dozen pages of the info pack on Ba’ren culture. She always sought to finish her assignments early, but she’d been too preoccupied with text messages and the Internet for the last three days. Her selection as a student ambassador had leaked barely twenty-four hours after Director Hull’s visit.

“Damn... I’ll need to look for places that serve vegetarian cuisine,” she said.

The only BACRP assignment she’d completed was compiling a shortlist of local restaurants for the Ba’ren to visit. Perhaps she could take the aliens to Lincoln’s Haymarket District. She recalled the Indian restaurant next to the Ivanna Cone ice cream shop serving vegetarian options.

Liam lifted his bottle of beer. “Also, the aliens don’t drink alcohol.”

“Now that is something I can agree on with the Ba’ren!” Dad proclaimed.

“I second that,” Mom said.

“There’s nothing wrong with drinking a couple of beers while enjoying a Huskers game,” Dad continued. “But too many young people overindulge.”

Emma tried to stop shaking her legs. Dad’s lectures against the sins of alcohol addiction had grown more uncomfortable after what happened during her trip to Paris. She desperately needed a change of subject, so she tapped Liam’s foot underneath the table.

Fortunately, he took her cue. “Sis, why didn’t you study more on the Ba’ren? You spent all afternoon chatting on your phone.”

“Everyone I know wanted to talk with me about meeting the aliens,” she replied. “Good thing Director Hull let us out of that confidentiality agreement. He said that my social media presence is giving the BACRP good publicity.”

“That’s great!” Mom said. “I can’t wait to tell the other teachers tomorrow how proud we are.”

Emma started to slice another piece of filet. “I also did several interviews with Joyce. She said....” A dozen pedestrians outside the steakhouse window caught her attention. “What the heck?”

One young man pointed a finger at her, and the crowd burst into excited chatter.

Liam frowned. “I think you just made some new fans, Emma.”

She and her family tried to return to their dinner, but only a few minutes later, a short brunette in an elegant green evening gown scurried to their table.

“Emma Smith, I’m Elizabeth Bly, from the Lincoln Journal Star. Could you answer a few questions about the Ba’ren?”

“I’m sorry, miss, but we’re eating right now,” Dad replied. “Couldn’t you wait?”

“Yes, but—”

“Not you again!” The tuxedoed manager sprinted to their table and grabbed the reporter by her arm. “Out!”

“There’s no need to do this!” the reporter said, trying to shake him off.

“This is a private establishment!” the manager shouted. “You can’t sneak in here after what you wrote about us!”

Everyone in the steakhouse stared as he dragged the reporter onto the street.

“They warned me this could happen,” Liam mumbled. He tapped a quick text message on his phone. “Ten minutes, Emma. Be patient for ten more minutes.” Then he gestured to catch the waitress’s attention, and took a couple of C-notes from his wallet. “Can you please box up the rest of our food? You can keep the change.”

“Son, we’re not done yet.”

Liam pointed at the crowd outside. “Dad, I don’t want sleazy tabloid reporters to film us eating. Or worse.”

The exasperated manager waved his arms in vain as more and more spectators piled up on the sidewalk. Many were taking photos with their phones.

“Why can’t they let us eat in peace?” Dad said.

“Honey, lower your voice,” Mom murmured. “We don’t want to attract any more attention.”

Their fellow diners were already exchanging whispers, and some left, clearly wishing they could eat their meals in peace as well.

After the longest ten minutes of her life, Emma breathed a sigh of relief as a man and woman wearing dark suits and State Department ID badges barged into the restaurant.

Liam stood up and waved. “Thank God they’re here!” He sighed.

The suits strode forward to their table.

“I’m Special Agent Luke Ward, from the BDS,” the man said. “This is my colleague, Special Agent Amparo Rodriguez.”

“From who?” Emma asked.

“The Bureau of Diplomatic Security,” Liam replied. “Remember, I work for them now.”

“We’re here to escort you back to your house,” Agent Rodriguez said.

“Is this necessary?” Mom asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Agent Ward said. “We didn’t anticipate your daughter’s selection would generate this much publicity. Ms. Smith, we’ve already discovered sixteen online death threats against you, with ten coming from within Nebraska.”

“What?” Mom tugged her hair.

Emma knew some people in this country and the rest of the world distrusted the Ba’ren, but she couldn’t believe so many—especially from her home state—would threaten her.

“I’m sure most of them are typical childish Internet trolling. The president and Under Secretary Emerson have received hundreds of death threats daily since they began negotiations with the Ba’ren,” Liam said, chuckling. “My favorite was a West Virginian who accused the under secretary of being a ‘femi-Nazi socialist traitor.’”

Nobody else laughed.

Agent Rodriguez broke the tension. “All joking aside, the State Department takes threats to its employees seriously. The ATF did report large increases in gun and fertilizer sales in the Midwest after the aliens arrived. Everyone with Internet access already knows you’re here. We don’t want to take any chances.”

“Very well. Let’s go home, kids,” Dad said, shaking his head.

Emma took one last glance at the crowd outside. This student ambassador gig might not be quite as fun as she’d anticipated. Hopefully, all this hoopla about her would die down once real Ba’ren arrived in Nebraska.

Starcraft 2’s primary shuttleport offered the best view in the entire Earth Mission Fleet. Sepporinen lay on the floor of the tallest walkway. Above him stretched the three-hectometer-wide observation dome made from transparent cubic carbon.

He spotted several of Earth’s natural wonders. The Indonesian rainforests shone bright green between what the humans had dubbed the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These islands no doubt held millions of yet-to-be-discovered species, though profuse forest fires ravaged the area. To the south, in the Australian deserts, a giant dust storm blew huge amounts of sand toward the east, reaching the once-sparkling Great Barrier Reef, now suffering under human mismanagement. Sepporinen then tilted his head, straining to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas.

“Move aside, Assistant Aide!” an electronic voice shouted.

Sepporinen jumped up and leaned against the railing as a large porter robot, carrying crates of shuttlecraft rations, wheeled through the walkway and nearly crushed him.

During most of the voyage to Earth, this shuttleport had been empty. After waking from hibernation, Sepporinen had spent an entire day here gazing at Jupiter while Starcraft 2 used the gas giant for a gravity assist. Now, it was the busiest section of the spacecraft.

Below the walkway, all eight bays were fully occupied. One held a transfercraft that had just arrived from Starcraft 7. A quick check with the Link told Sepporinen the spacecraft carried an Assistant Ambassador and a hoard of botanists, bound for Mumbai. Other diplomats boarded two shuttlecrafts, no doubt leaving for Earth. Robots swarmed around five more shuttlecrafts, preparing them for future diplomatic trips.

“Hey, what are you thinking about?”

Sepporinen turned around to spot Arnbejoerg behind him. Not long ago, he could have smelled her from many kilometers away. Now, things had changed between them. Still, Arnbejoerg might be the last friendly Ba’ren he would see for some time.

He forced the frown off his face. “I am pondering the ten thousand different ways I could die on Earth.”

“Oh, Seppo, you can be so melodramatic!”

Instead of taking Sepporinen’s offered hands, Arnbejoerg reached around his shoulders and gave him a tight hug. He could never understand why the customs of the Suavi and the Saamaa cultures differed so drastically, despite originating from the same region of Dituyuvi. A Saamaa would never dare to be so physically close to someone she was no longer courting, or continue to use his nickname.

“I thought you would be too busy to hang around this shuttleport,” Sepporinen said.

“I am. In fact, we are still working double shifts until we can train more pilots.”

Sepporinen wiggled his tongue. The Transportation Department had discovered that the debris left by human space flight was significantly denser than expected. Furthermore, Earth did not have a unified orbital control authority. Arnbejoerg was one of the few shuttlecraft pilots certified to work in such hazardous conditions. Since the major space-faring nations had done nothing to decrease the space junk around their planet, conditions would only worsen. The Prophecy Department estimated that if humans continued to be so irresponsible, they would not be able to launch anything into orbit in twenty years.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked.

She laughed and pointed at the new Diplomacy Department emblem on his uniform’s sleeves. “You are so silly! Do you not know? I will be the pilot for your flight to the United States.”

Sepporinen shortened his breath.

“Were you so angry with your conscription that you did not bother to review the shuttlecraft flight specifications?” Arnbejoerg asked.

He grunted, feeling embarrassed. “Um... yes.”

“Why are you so resistant?”

“Is it not obvious? Who knows how long the diplomats will force me to stay in Nebraska and away from my mining guild?”

She scratched her chin. “You are worried about that?”

“I sacrificed such great time and effort to be reinstated as a member. Remember, my devotion to the Eutecsis Guild was the main reason we stopped courting.”

The Suavi still did not understand. “You do not appreciate how lucky you are,” she said. “Thousands of Ba’ren are desperate to trade places with you.”

This was true, and it made the diplomats’ decision smell especially suspicious. The unexpected delays in establishing regular Earth landings had caused great consternation for many Ba’ren. The waiting lists for trips to Earth had expanded as fast as a supernova. The diplomats had their pick of many more enthusiastic and qualified candidates, yet they had applied the rarely used Conscription Clause to select him.

“I may never become the best mining engineer in this star system, but I do admit this assignment has some benefits.” He pointed at the landmass the humans called the Indian subcontinent. “I look forward to stepping onto a habitable planet again.”

Unlike most Ba’ren who served on these Exploration Missions, Sepporinen never felt truly comfortable living in the starcrafts’ artificial gravity and atmosphere. On Earth, unlike the other planets in this solar system, he could experience Dituyuvi-like conditions. The gravity of Venus was the only positive feature of an otherwise inhospitable planet, while they’d quarantined Mars to prevent contaminating any potential lifeforms.

“I enjoy living aboard our starcrafts,” Arnbejoerg said. “Nothing feels better than returning to my bunk after spending a day cramped in a tiny shuttlecraft.”

Sepporinen bent his head forward and looked away from her. He knew he should have been thankful, not resentful. Countless Ba’ren over thousands of years had made sacrifices to make these journeys across the stars possible. Many had paid the ultimate price, offering their lives for the betterment of their descendants.

His training session in the old miningcraft still haunted him. He and the other mining engineer candidates had spent two days in a toxic atmosphere, relying on antique lung implants to breathe. It had taken several centuries for the Ba’ren to perfect air purification on starcrafts.

“I had better eat and nap,” Arnbejoerg said. “My previous flight delivering Assistant Ambassador Kisesawchukk to Ottawa was delayed, and the Diplomacy Department refused to give me more time off before the next one.”

Sepporinen was about to raise both his arms to bid goodbye, when a clever idea formed in his head. “Can you do something for me?”

“What?”

“My contact with the rest of the Earth Mission will be limited when I am on Earth. Can you keep your nostrils open and tell me if the diplomats conscripted anyone else like me?”

“Like you in what ways?” she asked. “Should I check if any of my passengers are brown-striped Saamaa, extremely stubborn, and know the exact number of spots on my skin?”

He cringed. “This is not funny. If what I fear is true, our entire plan for human contact is at risk.”

Arnbejoerg pursed her lips, clearly amused.

“Simply check if anyone else was forced to serve the Diplomacy Department,” he explained.

Most of the Ba’ren in the Earth Mission were enthusiastic about establishing relations with humans. Some—like himself—were at best ambivalent, and at worst against the entire enterprise. Their numbers had grown as the starcrafts traveled closer to Earth, and their knowledge of humans increased.

“I will do as you ask, but I think you are being too paranoid,” Arnbejoerg said. “Meanwhile, please enjoy your time on Earth. What is the worst that could happen?”


The White House’s State Dining Room wasn’t as large or stately as Emma had expected. Plain white paint coated the walls, and the tacky, floral-themed curtains surrounding the windows looked like some cheap stuff from Walmart. Hundreds of well-dressed, important people rubbed elbows in the cramped space as they waited for the BACRP dinner to start. She wondered if D.C.’s fire marshal would barge in and declare they were exceeding the room’s capacity.

“What’s wrong?” Mom asked.

“Nothing, really. I just thought the White House would be larger and fancier,” Emma replied.

“Me too, but I’m not complaining. And neither should you.”

Emma agreed. The less-than-palatial White House shouldn’t have irritated her. After all, this grand finale to their trip represented her first official duty as a student ambassador.

The State Department had given her and her parents a grand VIP tour of Washington, D.C. After receiving her official State Department ID badge at the Harry S. Truman Building, she and her family had enjoyed a morning at the National Air and Space Museum, which featured models of the recently refunded Constellation Project. The New York Times and VICE reporters associated with the BACRP, Alethea Jones and Kenneth Moscas, had interviewed Emma during lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl. In the afternoon, the Smiths had met the president in the Oval Office after an exclusive White House tour.

“Emma, aren’t you supposed to meet with the under secretary before the dinner starts?” Dad asked.

“Yes, but I don’t know where she is.” She grabbed the edge of their table and stood on tiptoe, but couldn’t spot Dr. Emerson among the well-heeled crowd. She plopped back into her seat and drummed her fingers on the table cloth. At the very least, she could continue practicing the Ba’zek greeting. “Hojhe Sahanish a zuk. Hojhe Sepporinen a zuk,” she repeated to herself again.

A tall boy in a dark blue suit approached their table. He smiled and extended his right hand. “You must be the other student ambassador. I’m Chad Walker, from Omaha.”

She stood to shake his hand. “Emma Smith, from Lincoln.”

Illness had supposedly kept Chad from the D.C. tour, but he didn’t look sick at all. In fact, he looked just fine, as in U.S. Men’s Olympic Swim Team handsome. Bulging muscles sculpted his six-foot-tall frame.

“What were you mumbling?” he asked.

“I’m practicing greeting the Ba’ren students in Ba’zek,” she replied. “Hojhe Sahanish a zuk. Hojhe Sepporinen a zuk.”

He shook his head. “Don’t you mean hojhe Sepporinen a juw?”

“Are you sure? Let me check.” She unzipped her clutch and took out her phone, but still couldn’t get online. There wasn’t even an old 3G signal. “You gotta be kidding me.”

“I can’t get any signal either,” he said.

“Really?”

He leaned forward, making an entire menagerie of Neoptera flutter in her stomach. “The White House jammed cell signals for security. I overheard Mr. Hull complaining about it to a Secret Service agent.”

Emma supposed there was a valid reason for cutting them off from the rest of the world, but this felt like government censorship. Doesn’t the State Department want their student ambassadors to share our first meeting with the aliens?

“Thanks for telling me, um, Mr. Walker.” Urgh! She always tensed up when she got close to tall, athletic boys.

“Mr. Walker is my father. All my friends call me Chad,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll get to know each other really well this school year.” His lips turned up in a way that made her heart race.

She mirrored his smile, pleased that her favorite perfume could still bring out flirting from boys as handsome as Chad.

Chad and his parents joined their table. Mom and Dad hit it off with the Walkers. Mr. Walker had grown up in Lincoln and still had family there—in fact, a couple of Chad’s cousins were freshmen at Lincoln North Star High School, and Mom was slated to teach them history next year.

Seeing an opening, Emma left the table and weaved her way through the crowd. Several more painful peeks on tiptoe later, she finally spotted Dr. Emerson. At least two dozen well-dressed people encircled her, waiting for a chance to talk. Emma waved to catch the under secretary’s eye.

Dr. Emerson stopped conversing with a senator and pointed at her. “Everyone! This is Emma Smith, one of our student ambassadors. If you folks would pardon us, I need to speak with Ms. Smith alone.”

She replied with a hesitant smile, trying not to get nervous with so many of D.C.’s elite suddenly staring at her, and the crowd reluctantly backed off as Emma approached.

“I’m sure you read my last email?” Dr. Emerson asked.

“Of course, Madam Under Secretary.” One would be crazy to ignore any correspondence from Dr. Emerson. The once-obscure political scientist had been widely ridiculed for her Ph.D. thesis on the politics of alien contact. It had relegated her to toiling as a lowly adjunct professor at a crappy Des Moines community college. Now, she served as the president’s hand-picked “Alien Czar.”

“The phrases I sent you and Chad were the only bits of their language the Ba’ren bothered to teach us,” she said.

“Really?” Come to think of it, Emma had never heard a Ba’ren speak in Ba’zek. The aliens always spoke the native language of the country they were visiting.

“According to several think tanks, the aliens believe humans aren’t smart enough to learn their language,” Dr. Emerson said. “That’s likely why they won’t teach us Ba’zek. Of course, they are too polite to say so.”

If this was true, the aliens greatly underestimated humans. Emma had thought French was impossible to learn, but she had become fluent after two years of study. It had been difficult getting those AP credits, but worth the effort when every French person she had spoken with in Paris had understood her clearly.

“What an unpleasant hypothesis,” she said. “I’ll volunteer to learn Ba’zek.”

“Don’t be so sure,” the under secretary warned. “The Ba’ren are indeed an intellectually superior species. Considering how quickly they learn human languages, their hypothesis might be correct.”

Emma crossed her arms. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

Dr. Emerson chuckled. “If you pronounce the greeting correctly to your counterparts, you might change the aliens’ minds. Regardless, it’s important to make a great first impression.”

“My sister always makes a great first impression, Madam Under Secretary.”

Emma spun around to find Liam standing behind her. She threw her arms around him and gave him a quick hug.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “The traffic was bad tonight. All those anti-alien protesters gathering on the National Mall aren’t helping.”

Dr. Emerson glanced at her watch. “Agent Smith, I’m glad you’ve arrived.” She gestured at all the important people dressed in suits and gowns mingling in the center of the room. “Come with me, Emma. I’ll introduce you and Chad to some VIPs before the Ba’ren arrive.”

She couldn’t stop herself from giving Liam a high five before following the under secretary. This night will be so awesome!

Sepporinen yearned to converse with his Second Mother, but he only had time to greet her when he reported to Shuttlecraft 28 at Shuttleport 2.

Her Guard, a Kourou named Farima, and Assistant Ambassador Prana’i had already arrived. Soon the biologists of their Nebraska delegation joined them—Researcher Ngizzida, a green-haired Jemdetnaser, and Assistant Researcher Sahanish, a bald Arzhusix. Sepporinen had encountered the pair once before under similarly trying circumstances.

“Are you ready?” Arnbejoerg asked him.

“Ready for what?”

Her nostrils flared open. “Don’t tell me you forgot about your piloting duties.”

“Oh.” He remembered that Transportation Department regulations required a crew of at least three for a trip to a dangerous planet like Earth. His experience operating miningcrafts must have garnered him co-piloting duties.

He entered the shuttlecraft through its main airlock and followed Arnbejoerg to the flight deck, then sat behind her at the navigation console while Farima began monitoring the heat shield.

They encountered no danger during the flight to the United States’ capital, except for a growing tropical storm over the Caribbean Sea that required an alteration to their flight path. After they landed at Dulles Airport, State Department representatives whisked them away in an armored ground vehicle.

Sepporinen smelled the crowd of human spectators awaiting them as they drove into the White House grounds.

As they disembarked onto the North Lawn, Wathanda exchanged words with a couple of American officials, and they walked together toward the White House.

Sepporinen’s auditory implants struggled to process thousands of voices and sounds from countless machines. The loudest human spectators shouted insulting words.

“What is the point of taking this walk outside?” he asked Prana’i. “Why were we not directly driven in?”

The Assistant Ambassador was not fazed. “We must make such public appearances. How can we gain the trust of ordinary American citizens if they cannot see us? You must learn to—” He turned his head. “What is happening?”

Screams emanated from the crowd. About ten humans shoved against the line of police officers. Some carried large placards, which they began using as clubs. A particularly tall male squeezed through the cordon and charged straight at them, belching a sentence through his handheld loudspeaker before a Secret Service agent tackled him.

“What did that human say?” Sepporinen asked. “He wants us to go to hell and ‘suck’ ourselves?” The dictionary he had downloaded to his auditory implant provided no results for this particular English word. He twitched his eyes to search the Intelligence Department databases, but then remembered he was disconnected from the Link. The psychologists had warned him about Link withdrawal symptoms—he felt isolated from the universe.

“No. The protestor said fuck, one of the many English profanities,” the Assistant Ambassador replied. “The State Department left these ‘curse words’ out of the dictionary they gave us.”

Two more Secret Service agents escorted them into the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room.

Sepporinen was surprised that both the American president and secretary of state performed the Ba’ren greeting gesture well; they raised their hands to an acceptable height. The Ba’ren returned the favor and exchanged the odd human greeting gesture of handshakes.

An ostentatious mechanical clock chimed, indicating the eighth hour, but they remained in the room. The secretary of state apologized for the delay, saying several senators had not arrived.

Sepporinen growled. “Why can humans be ‘fashionably late’? No Ba’ren legislators would dishonor themselves by being tardy to such an important event.”

“Patience, my young Assistant Aide,” Prana’i replied. “Clara Emerson informed us that these senators from the Midwest region are particularly influential. Waiting a few more decidays is trivial—we do not want to insult them by starting the dinner before they arrive.”

Sepporinen continued waiting, longing to speak with his Second Mother. Tonight might be his last chance. The Ambassador would remain in this city, while he would travel many megameters to Nebraska.

Finally, Wathanda took a break after greeting some Californian dignitaries.

Sepporinen stepped in front of the Ambassador and touched his nose with his right hand.

She smiled and returned the Saamaa gesture. “Second Son, we have not spoken since your reinstatement into your Mining Guild.”

He dipped his forehead. Indeed, it had been too long.

“You are still troubled?”

“Yes, Second Mother,” he said. “I do not understand why I was conscripted. My place is with my fellow Eutecsis Guild Members, not here.”

She smiled again. “I warned my fellow diplomats that you are very stubborn, even for a Saamaa. However, the Plenipotentiary Ambassador and the Diplomacy Council insisted on choosing you.”

“Second Mother, I respectfully disagree.”

“Like it or not, you are here. You know our relationship with the dominant human government is too important for us to be distracted. As your Diplomacy Department superior and your Second Mother, I expect your best effort.”

He clinched his nose. “Why are you not the Plenipotentiary Ambassador? You are the most experienced Ambassador we Ba’ren have. That Zisun is a novice compared to you.” He pointed to the ceiling. “You should be safe on the starcrafts, not here among dangerous humans.”

She laid both of her hands on his shoulders, as a parent of the Limmafukko culture would when scolding her children. “You are still young, Sepporinen. When you are as old as I am, you will realize you must do what is necessary for the good of future generations.” She relaxed her grip. “Besides, I have faith that these Americans will welcome our presence.”

He peeked around and saw several more State Department officials waiting to speak with his Second Mother. “Thank you for your words.”

“You are most welcome.” Wathanda pinched both of his shoulders. “Who knows? Perhaps you will find something in Nebraska that will make all this trouble worth it.”

“If you need anything, please let me know,” Governor Ricketts said.

Emma shook his hand, then Nebraska’s governor began chatting with the under secretary. This must have been how it felt to be a politician. She had just set a personal record for the most handshakes in an hour.

“Ms. Smith! Mr. Walker!” Director Hull waved them over. He stood next to the person who had been the most instrumental in helping Emma secure this internship. “This is Dr. James McCune. I believe you already know each other.”

“Of course. Emma’s pipetting skills are legendary.”

She smiled and shook the good doctor’s well-worn hand. Dr. McCune looked a lot healthier and happier than he had the last time they’d met. He stood straight and tall, towering above the director. With his neatly trimmed, curly black hair, Emma thought the doctor looked like a younger version of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The ambiance of the State Dining Room shifted. Chit-chatting and drinking stopped as numerous heads turned toward the door.

“Good. We didn’t start too late,” Dr. Emerson said. “The Ba’ren consider timeliness to be a virtue.”

Two men wearing earpieces and State Department tags came over and whispered into the under secretary’s ear.

“Pardon me, Emma and Chad,” she said. “The Ba’ren have finished meeting with the president. I’ll escort them from the Reception Room. Stay here with Dean and Dr. McCune.”

The men in black cleared a path through the crowd for the under secretary.

“Are you nervous?” Liam asked Emma.

“A little. It’s not every day you get introduced to space aliens,” she replied. “What about you, Chad?”

He shrugged. “What were you and the under secretary talking about?”

“She encouraged me to say the Ba’zek greeting.”

“You’re really doing that? The aliens understand English. I don’t see why we should bother learning their weird language.”

“Greeting foreign guests in their own tongue is a great way to show them respect,” Emma argued.

Chad opened his mouth, but a passing statuesque redhead stopped his words. Her arm was wrapped around one of the pharmaceutical moguls who had come to support the BACRP.

Emma shook her head. Chad was hot, but evidently, he was also shallow.

“They’re here!” a woman shouted.

Several Secret Service agents entered the State Dining Room and asked the crowd to pull back to make room. No one listened; instead, everyone shuffled closer to the entrance.

A few folks in front of Emma parted just enough for her to spot the six Ba’ren.

Her parents gasped loudly.

There was something bestial about the aliens. Their broad-shouldered, multicolored bodies resembled those of humans the way a wolf looked like Sparky. All of them stood four or five inches taller than an average man. Their brightly-colored hair was cut short, revealing small, semicircular ears like teddy bears’.

Both the Ba’ren men and women wore suit coats that looked like the love child of a blazer and a Thanksgiving pilgrim’s costume. Boy Scout-like badges decorated their sleeves. Below the coats, they wore cargo-style pants with zippered pockets. According to the State Department’s second info packet, these were the Ba’ren equivalent of formal dress uniforms. The colors of their clothes were as diverse as the colors of their skin and hair.

Emma wondered if each color denoted a different profession, like the red-shirted operations division ensigns in Star Trek who always died on away missions.

Director Hull leaned forward and whispered to her and Chad, “Remember, you two are only responsible for greeting their two students. It’s a Ba’ren custom for those with comparable ranks to formally welcome each other.”

“I know.” She had reviewed the State Department’s notes on Ba’ren protocol a hundred times.

She recognized their Ambassador to the United States. Wathanda looked taller in person. She wore a mauve-colored suit, which clashed with her khaki pants. Superficially, the Ambassador resembled Tanisha’s grandmother, though Granny Alexandra had never dyed her hair green or painted white spots on her face.

A taller, stern-looking Ba’ren man stood beside the Ambassador. He looked like their bodyguard, as what looked like a short sword hung from his belt. She also recognized the brown-haired, brown-skinned, and white-striped Assistant Ambassador Prana’i. He had appeared on TV three weeks ago, meeting with Governor Ricketts and the UNL President.

Under Secretary Emerson introduced Prana’i to Director Hull. Liam and Agent Ward shook hands with the black- and white-striped alien bodyguard. Then, Dr. McCune greeted their cancer researcher, Dr. Ngizzida. She had green hair, red skin interspersed with brown stripes, and sparkling orange eyes.

Many strange scents, including a pleasant, jasmine-like aroma, floated into Emma’s nose.

“Did you smell that?” she asked Chad.

He raised his eyebrow. “Smell what?”

Before she could hypothesize an explanation, the two alien students walked up to her and Chad. Each wore a dark blue suit, though each contained a different set of patches.

She replayed the Ba’zek words in her mind and swallowed. This is it!

The first, Sahanish, stood several inches taller than her, with yellow stripes on her light brown skin and a completely bald head. She shook Chad’s hands with a warm smile.

Emma turned her attention to Sepporinen. His face was a strange mishmash of white and coffee-colored stripes, and his short blue and white hair looked unlike any she had seen. The vibrant, lively white bore no resemblance to the sickly hair of elderly humans, and the blue was a far cry from Olivia’s bad sophomore year dye job. Both colors looked natural, like a peacock’s feathers.


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