“As per the agreement, our colony will be mining beryllium only. Any secondary products will be turned over to your people – with a small fee for the processing of course.”
Beryllium’s quite rare, in the Universe as a whole. In some ways it turns out that Earth-like planets are probably less rare than beryllium. This one was pretty typical. When the terraformers were finished, it would almost be a carbon copy, except that the continents would look funny compared to home. We could afford to lose the 400,000 tonnes of beryllium that the X’ would mine. It was an excellent deal. The X’ were past masters of extracting minerals. They could probably extract the beryllium without digging anything else up if they really wanted to, and it was only the beryllium they really wanted.
Nobody really knew what they did with all the beryllium they collected – ate it for all we knew about them. There were some who said we shouldn’t let them have it, particularly if they were that desperate for it; others said we didn’t need it, so why shouldn’t we capitalise on the fact that someone else wanted something that would potentially be a bit of pain for us to sort out. Berullium used to get used for all sorts of things, mainly as an alloying addition, or in on of its mineral forms such as the semi-precious beryl. It got used in missiles, super-duper special air-frames, X-ray equipment and all sorts of other things but, with the exception of beryl, we’d found better ways than using an element that was a pig to extract and a pain in the…in the…neck to process, let alone recycle at end-of-life. No, we were better off without it.
Without a doubt, the X’ would make back the fees that they paid for the right to set up this mining colony. We’d probably get offered more than we really wanted in purified elements, but the X’ seemed to produce everything at six-9s purity and whatever they produced, we’d end up using or we could sell it at a premium on the galactic market. For example, another element that isn’t used very much anymore – by humans at least – is gold. 24 karat gold was a touchstone for a long time, but even this was only three-9s pure. To go from 99.9% to 99.9999% pure takes so much effort that nobody bothers very much. But the X’ can turn out that without blinking. So, they’ll charge a “processing fee” and we’ll get the materials that are going to help us turn this world into a home.
And that’s where I come in. The X’ are pretty tame as far as aliens go: they’re basically humanoid, sensory appendages aren’t too wacky, no tractomorphic limbs, but the semi-prehensile ears are slightly disconcerting. It would be a mistake to assume that they are human though; it would be a mistake to ascribe human priorities to their thought processes. I like to think that we’d have included this in the contract anyway, but they always insist that we provide a team of inspectors. What they don’t specify, but which we learned to be a priority after the first time, was that you need to have a few X’ specialist xenologists on the team. They really don’t think the way that we do – or perhaps that should be the other way around: we don’t think like them.
There were a couple of points during my university years when I wondered if I’d made the right choices, whether I’d studied myself into a dead-end. The X’ were something of curiosity. On the face of it, we had lots in common, but they never seemed to want to talk to us. Then we started to colonise planets which were rich in beryllium, as rich as any planets could be, and that’s when real first contact, or perhaps I should say first negotiations began.
Which is why I find myself here today. If you were to ascribe a human drive to today’s visit, you’d say that they wanted to show off, that’s the only possible explanation for this demonstration of their engineering prowess, their elegant architecture, their overall better-than-human colony, right? And this is why I’m here. There’s a small group of us who can at least make an attempt at talking to the X’, trying to meet them half-way. We don’t really understand them, and they don’t really understand us. Let’s say it’s a religious function – it isn’t, they don’t have religions in the same way that we do, but it’s a useful shorthand – it’s not something that they’re doing because they want to, it’s something they have to do.
I’d done this enough times that I’d got the measure of it, without becoming blasé. One of the things that the older generations of diplomats had impressed on us newbies in the Xenoc department was that it didn’t take much for things to go south fast. There were frequent reminders of the events on Ross 128c – events that are still classified, so don’t ask me for the gruesome details.
Today was not to be a day when things went wrong, and to be honest we’ve yet to see something that knocks the X’ out of their urbane rut. The Engineers did their thing, the scientists did theirs, and the Security people made a show of ensuring that the only thing the X’ really were taking was the beryllium that they’d done the deal for.
My turn: show time.
I’ve said that the X’ are similar to humans: this extends beyond physiognomy. They share a – not belief exactly…acknowledgment?: they think in terms of the ancient elements of air, wind, fire and earth and so there is only one way to end this review:
“Is coffee not the summit of perfection? Is the drinking of coffee not to be at peace with the Universe?”
“There’s probably some truth in that!” I grinned, ruefully.
© David Jesson, 2018
“Oh Muuuuum … that’s gross!”
“Someone’s got to deal with our waste product Michael and, because it’s such a nasty job, the pay is good, really good.”
“But still Mum … groooossss!”
“Sweetheart, I think it’s time we had the chat”
“The one about your father …”
“How did we get from you shovelling poo at work to my father?
“Frankly, it’s not that big a leap …
“Jan, thank you for talking to us at such short notice.”
“Not at all Principal. You know Michael’s schooling has always been of the highest importance to me.”
“Yes, that’s why we decided to speak to you straightaway, rather than leave this small concern festering.”
Jan groaned inwardly. She’d heard this nonsense so many times before, and she knew only too well what it meant. The underlying message was always present in her interactions with authority here on The Colony.
“Thank you Principal, I appreciate that. Has something happened? When last we spoke, you appeared to be satisfied with Michael’s focus and achievement levels.”
“Indeed we were Jan, but in the last few days … well, it’s like he’s had a complete personality switch.”
“Oh? He’s seemed the same at home.”
“He’s been disruptive in class, not handed in his home assignments, even though the work is already complete in his workbooks. When questioned about it, he said he felt there was no point to it any more.”
“Are you suggesting Michael’s suicidal?”
“No, no, not that Jan. I’m sorry to have startled you. The impression I’m getting from reports of his interaction with staff and pupils is that – for some reason – he believes his future is to become a deadbeat, so why should be bother to put in the work now.”
This time Jan’s groans were all too audible. She covered her face with her hands, fighting back the tears.
“Jan, please let us help you. I know your interactions with authority must’ve been challenging. But here at Colony High, we genuinely do admire you. Your work ethic, your high standards, your impeccable morals … honestly Jan, there isn’t a better parent. And the fact that you’ve done it alone, without support from a partner, from parents, from the authorities, makes us all the more admiring of what you’ve achieved. Please Jan, let us – let me – help you?”
When Jan raised her eyes back to the screen, the other members of Colony High’s governing body had been removed from the conversation. Only the Principal’s face remained on screen. In all honesty, he did look truly concerned … and unexpectedly kind.
“I told him the truth about his father.”
“Ah, I see. That can’t have been easy for you.”
“It wasn’t. But it sounds like I let my personal feelings show through which wasn’t my intention.”
A sound like a cross between a sob and a sigh escaped from Jan.
“Michael previously believed his father had died on the journey?”
“Yes. It seemed like the best way not to pass on the stigma until it was unavoidable.” “That decision’s served him well. He’s fully integrated with his peers and whilst not the model pupil, has long been well-regarded by staff and is even on track for the mentor programme.”
This time, there was no mistaking the sob.
“I shouldn’t have said anything. Why oh why did I let my annoyance and ego get the better of me?”
“There’s no need to be so hard on yourself Jan.”
“Yes Principal, I’m afraid there is. All this year, ever since he found out what I do for a living, he’s gone on and on about it. Calling it gross, ragging me, even making me feel guilty that it might reflect on him. Finally, I just snapped.”
“I suppose there’s no option for you to change jobs?”
“No Principal, there isn’t. In order to live here and to keep Michael at Colony High, I need to earn sufficient credits. Dealing with waste disposal is the only job which pays enough so I earn the same as other two-adult families. If Michael’s father had genuinely died on the journey, the Colony would be providing me with a pension to make up the difference. But as he choose to skip out on me – they don’t. They put me under a lot of pressure to return when they first found out. Truth be told, they’re still trying to persuade me to go – just now they use more subtle means. But you know all this. You’ve always judged Michael and me by a different standard to ‘normal’ families. You pick up on tiny transgressions immediately, stuff other ‘normal families’ get away with. I’m not blaming you mind, I’m sure it’s Colony policy as I experience it everywhere.”
Jan raised her eyes back to the screen. The Principal looked pensive.
“I’ve said too much haven’t I? I’d better start packing; the eviction order won’t be long in coming.”
“Jan, whatever makes you think that?”
“I’ve criticised the Colony. We both know dissenters aren’t welcome. Especially ones who don’t fit the ‘normal’ profile. The fact that it was him who deserted me and that I did nothing wrong doesn’t seem to matter – never has. I still get treated like dirt. Only good enough to handle the Colony’s waste matter. Know what? I chose to come here for a new life, but it seems our prejudices came with us.”
“Jan, this conversation has been private for some time now. There is no reason for its substance to be placed on the record, and I will not be doing so. Let me talk to Michael. I can help him to understand. I’ll tell him about being on track for the mentor programme and I’ll offer to be his personal mentor to keep him there. Colony High values both you and Michael. The Colony needs more people like you, regardless of what a few small-minded individuals in authority think.”
“Yes, but …”
“There’s a change happening Jan. Slowly but surely, good fair-minded people are achieving positions of authority. Thinking is changing, policy will follow. Will you let me help you?”
This time, when Jan looked up at the Principal on screen, she smiled through her tears.
“I will Principal. I will.”
© Debra Carey, 2018