“What a beautiful day!” Kston said in his thin, lisping voice. “How pleasant to be at peace with the cosmos, and to enjoy the companionship of good friends! How wonderful it is to be alive on such a day!”
That was five seconds before the car hit him.
President Johnny Ciano, who was walking across the plaza with the little Dorrinian diplomat, saw the speeding vehicle first. It registered at the edge of his vision as a silver-blue shape which was changing its position with unusual rapidity, and the instinct for self-preservation—ever strong in his family—prompted him to check his stride. The car had swung off the street which formed the plaza’s southern boundary and was hurtling between an ornamental fountain and a soft drinks stand at over a hundred, its magnetic engine emitting an angry whine.
Ciano’s immediate thought was that the vehicle had gone out of control, then he made out the figure of his own cousin—Frankie Ritzo—crouched over the steering wheel, his eyes gleaming like miniature versions of the car’s headlights.
The fool! Ciano thought, turning to warn Kston. The grey-skinned alien had moved ahead of him, oblivious to all danger, and was still prattling happily about the joys of existence when the car swatted him skywards in a parabola which would have cleared a large house. At the top of its trajectory his body struck the outflung arm of a bronze statue, one of a symbolic group, bending it to an unfortunate position in which its owner appeared to be fondling the left breast of the Mother of Creation. Still spinning, the alien’s compact form came down on a marble bench—converting it to a heap of expensive rubble—bounced twice and rolled to a halt amid a knot of elderly female shoppers, several of whom began screaming. The car which had initiated the grotesque sequence slewed its way across the plaza and disappeared into a narrow street on the west side.
“Holy Mary,” Ciano sobbed, running towards the fallen body. “This is terrible! Send for a priest, somebody.”
“A priest will be no use for this job,” Kston said, springing to his feet and picking up a piece of the shattered bench. “Unless, of course, your clergy also serve as stone-masons. Forgive this humble being for not being familiar with human…”
“I’m not talking about the bench.” Ciano gaped at the diplomat’s grey hide which was unmarked and miraculously intact.
“The statue, then.” Kston looked up at the metal sculptures. “This humble being considers that the arrangement has been improved. It’s more symbolic than ever, if you know what this humble being means.”
“I’m talking about you, Kston—I thought you were dead.”
“Dead?” Kston closed one eye, which was his way of showing puzzlement. “How could this humble being die while he is still young?”
“That car was doing at least a hundred when it hit you. I don’t know what you must think of us, Kston, but you can rest assured that no effort will be spared in the search for the driver. We’ll find him no matter how long it takes, and when we do…”
“But this humble being thought your cousin was joining us for lunch?” Kston said mildly.
“My cousin?” Ciano felt both his knees partake of a loose circular motion. “You saw the driver?”
“Yes. It was your cousin Frankie, the Secretary for External Affairs.”
Ciano stared numbly at Kston, and then at the shoppers who had sorted themselves out and were beginning to take an interest in the conversation. “Let’s move on,” he said hastily, his brain racing as he tried to think of a way out of the situation in which his cousin’s assassination attempt had placed him. Ritzo’s lack of finesse had always made him something of an embarrassment to the government of New Sicily, but with this latest piece of crassness he had become a downright liability. Ciano made up his mind that Ritzo would have to be sacrificed, that he was prepared to go as far as a public execution if it would save the top-level talks.
“Are you positive it was Secretary Ritzo?” He made a last effort to save his cousin’s life. “I mean, there are lots of cars just like that one.”
“It was Frankie, all right.” Kston showed his slate-like teeth. “This humble being can see why you put him in charge of External Affairs. It is rare for anybody to show such consideration for a visitor. His car obviously was not designed for playing boost-a-body, and yet he went right ahead and boosted this humble being. He just didn’t care how much damage would be done to his vehicle…and this humble being finds that really heart-warming. Don’t you?”
“Aw…ah,” Ciano said. Even to his own ears the comment seemed to lack incisiveness, but for the moment he was unable to improve on it.
“It’s obvious that Frankie has studied Dorrinian customs and has learned that boost-a-body is one of our favourite games. It was a nice diplomatic gesture, but…” Kston smiled his dark smile again. “This humble being is afraid it doesn’t change his mind about our heavy mineral deposits.”
“I need a drink,” Ciano mumbled. He escorted Kston across the street and into the hotel, owned by his uncle, which had the catering contracts for the Department of Trade. They went straight into the VIP bar, a large room decorated in Earth-style traditional, complete with a high-mounted television set showing sports programmes. Ciano ordered two triple whiskies. While the drinks were being served he covertly examined the Dorrinian, whose physique could best be described as pyramidic humanoid. The grey-skinned body grew steadily wider and thicker from the top of a bald, pointed head to the short, immensely powerful legs which ended in slab-like feet. Kston was nude, but this condition was acceptable to human eyes, partly because his genitals were internal, partly because his smooth hide created the impression he was dressed in a one-piece garment of supertuff.
Ciano examined that hide carefully while sipping his drink and was unable to detect the slightest sign of lacerations or bruises resulting from impacts which would have burst a human body like a ripe tumshi fruit. He guessed that the high gravity on Kston’s home world had led to the evolution of incredibly robust inhabitants; and from there his thoughts went on to the fact that Dorrin was also the only planet in the local system with an adequate supply of elements heavier than iron. Proper development of New Sicily was impossible without access to those elements, but the Dorrinians were adamant about refusing mining rights.
“Listen, Kston,” he said, adding generous quantities of warmth and sincerity to his voice, “there must be something here on New Sicily that your people would like to have.”
Kston blinked to signify agreement. “Indeed yes. Sulphur in particular is prized by our chefs as a condiment, but our supplies are almost exhausted.”
“Then we should be able to work out an exchange deal.”
“This humble being fears not. The word ‘exchange’ implies the existence of two parties, each of which is the sole owner of a commodity.”
Ciano weighed up the comment and failed to see its point. “Well?”
“Well, the Dorrinian viewpoint is that, as this planetary system was our home for millions of years before the first ships arrived from Earth, every resource of every planet in it automatically belongs to us.” The alien diplomat experimentally squeezed the chromed steel rail on the edge of the bar between finger and thumb, producing noticeable dents in it. “We don’t feel disposed towards trading our own property in exchange for our own property.”
“But you didn’t have the necessary space technology until we gave it to you.”
“It would have been developed,” Kston said matter-of-factly. “In any case, this planet is more than adequate recompense for a little technical know-how.”
Ciano smiled to conceal a pang of irritation and anger. The Dorrinian made a great show of being humble and sweetly reasonable, but underneath he was a stubborn and bloody-minded monstrosity who deserved to be fitted with concrete boots and sent for a walk on a riverbed. The trouble was, Ciano was beginning to suspect, that were he to arrange such an excursion the alien actually would go for a submarine stroll and then come up smiling.
Taking a hefty swig of his drink, Ciano saw that Kston’s attention had been drawn by a burst of cheering from the television set behind the bar. A heavyweight boxing match was in progress on the screen and the ringside crowd was erupting with excitement as one of the fighters, a giant in blue shorts, moved in for a devastating finish. He drove his opponent on to the ropes with a flurry of body blows, stepped back and caught him on the rebound with a right cross to the chin which landed with such leathery finality that, in spite of his preoccupations, Ciano winced in sympathy. The recipient went down on the instant, obviously unconscious before he hit the canvas, and lay like a side of bacon while the victor danced around him.
“This humble being fails to understand,” Kston said. “What is happening?” Ciano put down his empty glass. “It’s a sport we humans call boxing. The idea is to…”
“The general idea is clear—we have a similar sport called dent-a-body—but why is that man pretending to sleep?”
“You mean you don’t…?” Ciano was wondering how he could explain the effects of a knock-out blow to the likes of Kston when his thoughts were diverted to a more serious problem—namely that of staying alive. A door at the rear of the large room crashed open, there were shouts and screams of panic, and in a mirror Ciano glimpsed his cousin Frankie—the Secretary for External Affairs—brandishing a demolisher. Ciano dropped to the floor with reflexive speed and crouched there, praying and swearing with equal fervour, while the weapon created its own version of hell. Blinding laser bursts seared the air and from the gun’s multiple barrels, firing at the rate of a hundred rounds a second, came sprays of high-velocity bullets—some of them explosive, some armour-piercing—converging on the sites of the laser strikes. For a brief moment Ciano saw the stubby outline of the Dorrinian at the terrible focus of the destruction—limned in radiant blue fire—then there was comparative silence, the only sounds being those of tinkling glass and fleeing footsteps.
Trying to control the trembling of his limbs, Ciano struggled to stand up, already rehearsing the disclaimer he would have to issue to the news media. I know the preliminary trade negotiations with the Dorrinian envoy were going badly, but that doesn’t mean my family was involved with his assassination. We are men of honour, not…not…
His thoughts dissolved into a confused blur as he saw that Kston was not only still on his feet, but apparently totally unharmed. The alien’s grey hide was, if anything, smoother than before, and the hand with which he helped Ciano to his feet was steady. Ciano began to feel ill.
“This humble being fears that your cousin has gone too far this time,” Kston said.
“You’re so right,” Ciano gritted. “I promise you he’ll pay for this.”
“The expense will be considerable.” Kston surveyed the shattered and smoking ruins of the bar counter. “Obviously Frankie learned about the Dorrinian custom of ablate-a-body—in which a thoughtful host refreshes a guest by scouring off the outer layer of dead skin cells—but it is usually done in special cubicles where there can be no damage to the surroundings. Perhaps your cousin got carried away in his eagerness to be hospitable.”
Ciano nodded, forcing his brain into action. “Frankie always was the cordial type. Look, Kston, can we go back to my office where it’s quiet and get on with the talks?”
“Of course!” Kston showed his dark teeth. “This humble being can’t imagine how you intend to negotiate from a position of such weakness, but he will be privileged to watch you try. Perhaps he will learn something.”
“Hope so.” Ciano spent a minute with the hotel manager, pacifying him by undertaking to foot all repair bills, then returned to his alien companion. “Let’s go—this place looks like there’s been a war.”
“War? Is that your word for ablate-a-body?”
“I suppose you could say that,” Ciano replied absently, his mind filled with the need to get hold of his wayward cousin and talk to him about his activities before something went seriously wrong. Ciano had no moral objections to murdering Kston—in fact, the more time he spent with the obsequious little alien the more attractive the idea seemed—but New Sicily was a recently formed colony, with severely limited military resources, and dared not antagonise the heavily populated neighbouring world of Dorrin. Secretary Ritzo was fully aware of the situation, which made his failed assassinations puzzling as well as embarrassing.
As soon as they were back in the Department of Trade building Ciano handed his guest over to the care of an assistant and went looking for Ritzo. He found him slumped over the bar in his private suite, drinking imported grappa straight from the bottle, his face several shades paler than usual.
“I got the shock of my life when I saw you coming back across the square with that…with that…” Unable to find a suitable epithet, Ritzo again raised the bottle with a trembling hand. “Didn’t I even scratch him?”
“Just about,” Ciano said. “Luckily for you, he enjoys being scratched.”
“I tell you, Johnny, that guy ain’t human.”
“Of course he isn’t human—that’s what being an alien means!” Ciano snatched the bottle from his cousin’s grasp and dropped it into a waste bin. “And there’s a couple of billion more where he comes from. Have you any idea what the Dorrinians would have done to us if by some chance you had managed to rub out their representative?”
“Precisely! And that’s why you’ve got to … What do you mean nothing?”
A look of furtive triumph appeared on Ritzo’s narrow face. “Some egghead in my department finally managed to translate those old Dorrinian books—you know the stuff that’s been gathering dust since the cultural exchange way back in ’22. One of them is a history book, Johnny, and d’you know what?”
“The Dorrinians are total pacifists. Their written history goes back about twenty thousand years and they ain’t never had a war in all that time! These guys are so pacifist that they don’t have no armies or navies. They don’t have no weapons of any kind.”
“Maybe they don’t need them.”
“That’s not it, Johnny. They believe that everything can be settled by talking if they stick at it long enough. One of their conferences went on for over a hundred years—and that was just to decide on the height of streetlamps! We don’t have that sort of time.”
Ciano nodded. “So what do you propose?”