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With Blood They Wash in the Money

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"What happened in the Second Advent--on Laterre?" asked Suur Moyra.

"I will skip the details. It was not as bad as Tro. But in every cosmos they visit, there is upheaval. The Advent lasts anywhere from twenty to a couple of hundred years. With or without your cooperation, the Daban Urnud will be rebuilt completely. None of your political institutions, none of your religions, will survive in their current form. Wars will be fought. Some of your people will be aboard the new version of the ship when it finally moves on to some other Narrative."

-- Anathem

 

When the Daban Urnud made contact, BLI was waiting for them.

---

Six months earlier, the tech lead for BLI Earth had alerted Korse to the presence of an unusual object in orbit, directly on the path of their proposed satellite launch. He’d been ready to dismiss it as yet another one of the man’s meaningless fixations until he noticed its precise trajectory.

“It’s in a polar orbit?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s the oddity!” Coulton was clearly excited. “The odds of a naturally-occurring body being in a polar orbit are so minuscule as to be nonexistent, and the only reason any entity would put a satellite in that orbit is--”

“Because it affords an excellent position to observe all activity on the planet. I have read your proposal.” Coulton looked abashed at having lost the opportunity to talk at length on the subject. He probably had a full lecture planned, complete with a demonstration of spherical coordinate systems constructed entirely of the objects on Korse’s desk.

But Korse liked the objects on his desk where they were. He was running a corporation, not some sort of monastery for research scientists.

“Whose is it? Does it look governmental? Or worse--” he leaned forward and laced his fingers, forcing Coulton to look him in the eye, “--is it Google?”

Coulton shook his head. “The mass data alone effectively rules out a terrestrial origin. It’s far too large to have been launched into orbit. It would have to have been constructed in space, and we’d have noticed that. And....” he paused, hesitant. “If you turn to page 15? Look at the spectroscopy.” Korse gamely turned to page 15, only to find a mess of tables and line charts that would make Edward Tufte cry. How often had he told Coulton that an effective presentation required fucking synthesis? He glared until Coulton coughed up an explanation. “I’ve never seen spectra like that. In fact, no one on Earth has ever seen spectra like that--it doesn’t match any known elements.”

“You’re saying this thing doesn’t come from Earth? It’s some kind of alien satellite?” Just his luck, his top researcher was coming up with theories that sounded like they came out of one of the fucking comics Gerard was always doodling back in art school.

“I’m saying it didn’t come from anywhere in the observable universe. Sir.”

---

Korse put Coulton in charge of a dedicated task force to investigate the object, but he brought Lewis on as project manager to make sure he got intelligible reports on a regular basis.

And the results were striking, to say the least. Over the next few months they reported revelation after revelation. Once Lewis processed the spectroscopy reports into something human-readable, even Korse was impressed. When she sorted and arranged them, it became clear that the chemical makeup of the ship (for it was by now clearly a ship) was even stranger than expected. Coulton had told him the ship was composed of elements not from this universe. By the time Lewis was done with the data it was clear that the elements came from at least two separate universes, each chemically incompatible with this one and each other.

Lewis’s theory was confirmed when they identified two glyphs on the face of the ship, each consisting of a simplistic representation of a different planet as seen from space.

At that discovery, Coulton had positively bounced out of his seat. “A kill count?”

But Korse disagreed. There was a reason he’d studied art as well as business--he’d always been fascinated by the intricacies of data visualization. The glyphs might be potentially chilling, especially when paired with the nuclear reactor they decorated, but if they were intended a crude kill count, they’d use less detailed iconography. No, the person who selected those glyphs was planning more than a simple burn-and-pillage. They were here to talk. And, potentially, to sell.

Korse appreciated any minds that could convey so much with a spare set of vocabulary, wherever they came from. And so he set up a second team to create a response as eloquent. Underlaying the world’s communication system with a code meant to be noticed and understood only by extraterrestrials was not an easy task, but that is why Korse employed the best minds in the field.

---

Which brought Korse to this day, and this conversation with Prag Okeb. He’d spent the last two weeks reviewing the cultural and technical briefing materials she’d supplied, and so was relaxed as he made the final preparations on his videoconference system. It might be a negotiation with outer space, but it was still a negotiation.

Still, he was startled when the robed woman’s image appeared on the wall of his conference room. He’d prepped for the occasion by viewing anatomical sketches, but nothing could have prepared him for the sheer uncanniness of a face that looked almost like a human’s and at the same time radically unlike it. Gerard, he knew, would be able to catalog the minute differences between Okeb’s face and a human’s--the length of the jaw, the angle between the cheekbones and the ears, the shape of the irises in her wide-set eyes--but Korse had never particularly excelled at figure drawing, even in art school.

If she found his own appearance as uncanny as he found hers, she showed no sign of it. “Korse,” she greeted him simply.

“Prag Okeb,” he nodded in return. “I’m pleased to meet you at last.”

“The pleasure is mine as well. I believe that this meeting has enormous consequences, for my people as well as yours, and I look forward to a long future of mutually-beneficial cooperation.”

“I too look forward to such a future. I’m delighted that you’ve selected BLI as your delegate to the rest of our world, and I only hope that we can meet and exceed all of your expectations. I have to admit, I am thrilled to be the first human being to talk to an alien. ”

At that she laughed, a breathy infectious noise that reminded him of long New Jersey summers before he’d become a successful businessman. “You and I both.”

Come to think of it, her laugh was eerily comforting, especially coming from an alien. “I have to say, I’m very impressed with your command of English. How long have you been studying it?”

She grinned, again a surprising act in a non-human. “The last several months in orbit of Earth have given us all an excellent opportunity to watch television. It’s been quite instructive.” She folded her hands and settled her face into a more serious expression. “Let me be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Korse. I am very nearly as new as you are to first contact with a different Narrative. I’ve studied the records of the Troän Advent in detail, but the fact remains that the entire business was a fuck-up of the first order. I am determined to make this Advent run more successfully than the last one.”

“Yes, the records you shared were... quite clear on that point.” He closed his eyes briefly to block out some of the more visceral images from the written report. “But my Internal Strategy team has run several simulations, and we agree with your basic assessment. If you’ll pardon my saying so, the Urnudans stumbled onto Tro with no understanding of the Troän culture and the resulting fallout was an inevitable consequence. BLI can provide you precisely the insight for Earth that you lacked for Tro, insights you can’t get from watching television alone. Further, as the primary players in the news and entertainment industry, we can ensure that humankind--sorry, Terrankind--is prepared to welcome you with open arms.”

“I’m delighted to hear that! I’m sure that between the two of us, we can ensure a peaceful merger of our cultures. But of course, I’m sure you also want to know what I’m prepared to offer BLI in exchange for your help.”

“I would much rather think in terms of the services we can offer you in bringing Urnudan and Troän technology into the market smoothly. Our patent and product development teams can help you set up a business for only a very small share of revenue. Your technology is... revolutionary. I fully expect it to reinvent entire industries within one or two quarters, and even a small cut of that would delight my shareholders. The medical technology alone--”

She chuckled again and smiled warmly. “Of course, that depends entirely on whether we’re able to overcome the... minor obstacle of adapting our tech to work with human biology. It took years for the first Troän to be able to make use of the hyperbaric regeneration system, even with a Troän source of oxygen.” She pursed her lips and then visibly relaxed them. Preparing to make a hard sell? “In our experience, the adaptations are significantly more successful when we work with children than with adults. Would BLI’s R&D teams be able to help on this front?”

So that was what she hadn’t shared yet. A month ago her easy confidences had set off warning bells. He’d been sure she was hiding something. But after the openness with which she’d shared the horrors of Tro he didn’t think there was another shoe that could drop.

It turned out there was.

Years ago he’d been in love with a beautiful boy, a boy who wanted to change the world. A boy who drew and sang and smoked and fucked with the same intensity, who’d demanded the best of himself and of Korse. Who’d looked at Korse with wide betrayed eyes when he went directly from art school to HBS, and who’d stopped speaking to him when he started working at BLI.

Did Gerard know that he’d be faced with a choice like this? Had Gerard seen the shadow of this when he walked away?

If he didn’t give Okeb what she asked for, would she shrug, smile warmly, and turn Earth into a smoking ruin like Tro? He knew exactly what the Daban Urnud was capable of. She’d made sure he had.

“It will be difficult. There are many restrictions about using children as research subjects. But I think we can manage it.”

“Oh, excellent! We’d be happy to help provide security at the research facilities. My Dracean Honor Guard is ready and waiting to ship down to the surface on your say-so. Of course, we need to keep them from causing a panic, but I’ve got some excellent ideas for ways to obscure their facial features.”

This was it, then. This was his decision. He’d call Mona at S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W and tell her to prepare for some new patients. He’d put scouts out for children on the fringes of society, children who wouldn’t be missed.

They’d be part of the first wave of the future. They’d be making history. They’d be saving the world. Just... not in a way that Gerard would ever understand.

Okeb smiled again at his tight nod. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”