Humor Science Fiction

As Wise as Serpents

By Stephen Dedman
Jan 21, 2019 · 3,367 words · 13 minutes

Caution Tape at the United States Capitol

Photo by Andy Feliciotti via Unsplash.

From the author: Why did a previously friendly alien ambassador to Washington DC suddenly kill two men?



by Stephen Dedman

            My father's parents were Boers (you can spell that any damn way you like) who fled South Africa just ahead of black majority rule.  My mother was the first Australian Aborigine to be granted refugee status as a member of a politically persecuted minority.  It gives me the sort of perspective an anthropologist should have.  It also makes me socially unacceptable almost anywhere, which is why I wasn't at the Mall when it happened; that, and the fact that Vpokga(ro)tjj speaks better English than the President.  Besides, protocol always bores the shit out of me.  I wasn't even watching it on the Lo-V, and when the phone rang, I was so thoroughly otherwise engaged that it took me half a minute of Tai Chi to disengage and grab the handset (no-one in their right mind keeps a videphone by the bed).  "Sara van Elven.  This had better be good."

            There was a horrible silence at the other end, then I heard Pastorelli mutter, "Uhhh....  no.  It's bad."

            I gestured to Jerry, who began collecting my clothes from underneath Evan, who miaowed indignantly.  "What is it, Lui?"

            "The reception for Vpokga(ro)tjj..."


            There was another horrible silence, then, "She shot the Secretary of State and the Director of the N.S.A., and she won't tell us why."  He paused, and then added, "And the Lagva slowboat arrives in four days.  If we haven't found out why before then..."

*    *    *

            The Lagva have faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity (apparently the two go together like politics and corruption) and pocket antimatter power plants.  They've also never invented television, which I regard as irrefutable proof of their superior intelligence (the more traditional explanation is their poor eyesight:  the chlorine they breathe can cause bizarre visual distortions), and also meant that no-one on Earth really knew what they looked like until Vpokga(ro)tjj landed.  It turned out they resemble humans almost as much as spiders do, if you know any spiders that stand about seven feet long.  They are bilaterally symmetrical, with distinct heads, necks and torsos, six muscular-looking legs (any three of which can serve as arms, gravity permitting), one mouth complete with lips and something like teeth, one mouth without, three eyes, and dozens of strategically placed ears.  What the Hell, I've seen uglier people (usually standing outside nightclubs), and Vpokga(ro)tjj had been a paragon of civilised virtue from the moment her shuttle had landed until she...  "Why was she armed, anyway?  I mean, isn't she supposed to be an ambassador?"

            Pastorelli tsked.  "The rule against ambassadors carrying weapons may not be literally universal, Sara.  It actually seems to have been part of her gauntlet...  or boot, or whatever you choose to call it...

            "And it may not have been a weapon at all.  It may have been a signalling device, a high-tech equivalent of a flare-gun -"

            "A message laser."  Okay, so I read Sf when I was a kid, and writers still come to me for advice.  "Or a reaction pistol.  Or a Swiss Army knife.  Hell, if they exhaled at us, it'd be a hostile act.  Sorry, Lui; I don't think too well at this time of the morning."

            He shrugged, very slightly, and we drove on for a while in silence:  like most Italians, Lui feels it's bad manners to talk with his hands full.  "Don't tell me no-one was expecting violence."  He grunted.  "Not even the professional paranoids?"

            "There hasn't been a real war since last century," he evaded.  "I guess it slipped our mind.  Besides, if it came to a fight between Earth and the Lagva mothership, how would you bet?"

            "I hope the whole thing's taped?"

            "Of course."

            "But not broadcast?"

            "There was a seven-second delay on the broadcast; they managed to lean on the switch as soon as the shooting started.  Everyone who was there has been sworn to secrecy or kept under wraps, so we may actually have three days before it gets out...  though I wouldn't bet on that, either."

            "Were you there?"

            "Yeah...  I tried to get you an invite, but -"

            "Forget it.  It wouldn't have been my sort of party, even without the two corpses -"  Lui grimaced slightly.  "More than two?"

            "Three shootings; the third is still alive, but only just.  He was further away, and the beam left a hole in his chest twenty centimetres wide and two deep."

            "Who was he?"

            "Aleister Ponzi.  Ad man."

            "What was he doing there?"

            "He ran the last two winning Presidential campaigns."

            I digested this.  "So, would it be reasonable to say that Vpokga(ro)tjj shot and killed three of the most powerful men in America?"

            "Probably the three most powerful," replied Pastorelli, glumly.

            It's coincidences like that that took the stigma out of paranoia.  It just had to be a coincidence.  Didn't it?  "How much do the Lagva know about us?"

            "I don't know.  They've been listening to our radio broadcasts for a century now, and television and holo-V...  but none of the three victims were...  visible.  Not like the president; I mean, he gets the job because he looks good on holo-V, everyone recognises him, the Secret Service expects him to get shot at occasionally, it's part of his job description.  Touhy, Maledon and Ponzi..."  He shook his head.

            "Did Touhy say anything before...?"

            "I don't know.  I wasn't close enough to hear, but I think there was a mike in his tie-pin.  You'll have to ask Sergei."

            I lent back in the seat and smiled for the first time that morning.  Sergei Ivanovich Arseniev had been one of the last great spymasters before the latest collapse of the Russian empire put an end to a promising part-time career as Moscow's cheapest and most discreet source of anti-viral software, old issues of Xxxenophile, and tickets to anywhere.  The rumour that he is still wearing the same suit thirty years later is untrue; he was wearing Levis and a fur hat and posing as an American tourist, with a photograph of Dan Quayle in his passport.  I've known him socially since he came to one of my lectures on Navajo dialects; he is gluttonously curious, has an amazing knack for languages and the best memory I've ever encountered, and would probably be Deputy Director of the CIA by now had his boss not mysteriously recovered from a heart attack in '27.  I wasn't any more confident that we could solve this fuck-up, but at least I might enjoy it.

 *    *    *

            They were keeping Vpokga(ro)tjj at the Little White House; I don't know where they were keeping the Vice President.  The guard at the gate didn't like my jeans and NARAL T-shirt, and I spent nearly a minute talking into his tie-clip before Sergei came to my rescue.  "Sara!  Wonderful to see you!  How is Evan Jellicle?"

            "He's fine."  Sergei breeds cats in his spare time - mostly snow leopards and Siberian tigers.  "How's Vpokga(ro)tjj?  Is there anything left to ask her?"

            He smiled, sourly, and led us down a corridor crowded with Ph.Ds in thousand-dollar suits.  "Oh, we've asked, but she still won't talk.  At all."  He used the Lagva pronoun for 'adult female, not pregnant, sexual preferences none of your goddamn business'.  All that in two syllables; the Lagva are very good with pronouns.  "It would help if we knew her name - Vpokga(ro)tjj just means 'pilot of single-occupant craft' - but presumably they have a tabu about giving their names."

            A well-known astrophysicist sniffed at us as we passed.  "This is a highly advanced race; do you honestly think they -"  I shut him up with an obscene suggestion, and reminded him that everyone had tabus.  He blinked, and then agreed with me.  I kept walking, hurriedly; Sergei has a stride like a Martian fighting machine, which probably isn't why his ex-wives call him 'Tripod'.  "Of course, that really could be her name, but I'd hate to think what it says about their society.  I've met lots of Smiths, Coopers and Fletchers, but none of them made horseshoes, barrels or arrows...  and I've never met anyone named Programmer or Astronaut."  He shook his head.  "I've tried talking to Vpokga(ro)tjj in Lagvan, but even if I'm saying what I think I'm saying, I probably sound like a two-year-old with a cleft palate."

            "Sergei, you once made a skull confess!"

            "Yes, but that was a human skull.  Besides, that took hours; here we just get half an hour to talk to her before some other expert butts in.  I wasn't at the reception, either; they just called me out of retirement this morning.  It took me twenty minutes to find my tie."

            "You shouldn't have bothered.  How did they get her here?"

            "Six Secret Service agents picked her up and carried her to a van," answered Pastorelli.  "She didn't put up any resistance.  She's now in a sealed case of shatterproof glass, still wearing her suit; apparently, it has food and air, sorry, chlorine, enough for the four days until the slowboat arrives."

            "If she's tried to contact the others," added Sergei, "it hasn't been by any method we can detect.  Neutrino beams, maybe, or subspace radio.  Personally, I don't think she's uttered a sound.  She may be too embarrassed."

            "What leads you to that conclusion?" asked Pastorelli.

            "Anthropomorphizing," he replied.

            "Fair enough."

            "The spies" (all security and 'intelligence' people and plain clothes cops were 'spies' to Sergei) "think she hasn't fought back because she doesn't like the odds, or because she needs to conserve power.  Personally, I think both schools of thought are full of shit, but I haven't any better ideas.  Sara?"

            I glanced around the corridor, at the suits and other uniforms.  "These experts..."


            "Were any of them female?"  There was a momentary silence, and then Sergei shook his head.  "None that I've noticed.  This is Ultra Secret, and..."

            "When can I have my half an hour?"

            "She can have mine, if it's quicker," said Pastorelli, before Sergei could answer.  When I opened my mouth to protest, he added, "Purely selfish motives.  It'll give me time to think of something."

            Sergei grinned, and told us to wait where we were.  "Thanks, Lui."  I whispered, as soon as he was gone.

            "Don't mention it.  If that bastard can't get her to talk, what hope have I got?"

*    *    *

            I watched the holotapes of the reception, and the autopsy photos of Touhy, Maledon and Ponzi.  I didn't notice anything that would have caused me to pick them out of the crowd, but then, I'm not a Lagva.

            Vpokga(ro)tjj was reclining on cushions in her glass-lined room, looking remarkably like the Sphinx at Gizeh - except that her eyes, mouths and noses were in the wrong places, of course.  "My name is Sara van Elven," I said.  "Is there anything I can do for you?"  There was no reply:  for all I knew, she might have been asleep, or catatonic, or dead.  "We can fill the room with chlorine, if you want to open your suit..."

            "No," she replied, in a voice she must have borrowed from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Probably Hamlet's father.  "Thank you."


            "No, thank you."

            Two essentials down, and one to go.  "Something to read?"

            This time, she actually moved.  "Would that be possible?"

            "Sure.  Whatever you want.  We're only a few blocks from the Library of Congress."

            "Library, I understand," she said, "but Congress - this is method of reproduction?"

            "No.  This is the opposite of 'Progress'.  I can have them bring in a terminal - which is a small computer linked to a larger computer, not a life expectancy - with access to everything they have."

            She looked at me as though she wanted to smile, but didn't know how.  Cautiously, I smiled back without showing my teeth (it's considered gauche or aggressive in many cultures, even some human ones), and no-one shot at me.  So far, so good.

*    *    *

            "You're sure she could see you?"

            "Yes, but I don't know how clearly.  Does she seem to be having any trouble reading?"

            Sergei shook his head emphatically.  "She's devouring the stuff, and following a fairly consistent pattern.  She starts each train of thought with the encyclopedia, and follows it through to a greater or lesser level of specialisation, then returns to the encyclopedia.  She started with a broad outline of human history, then the history of science, then back to the encyclopedia, then onto human physiology, then psychology and mental disease...  at the moment," he glanced at the monitor, "she's reading medical texts on parasitology."

            I sat up.  "Parapsychology?"

            "The study of parasites," said Sergei, flatly.  "I suppose there is some similarity between the two fields...  Anyway, according to this, she's spent the last half a minute staring at pictures of tapeworms."  Pastorelli and I glanced at each other.  "I don't understand it either," Sergei added.  "It certainly doesn't apply to Touhy; he had a gut like a zeppelin.  Maledon worked out like a maniac, and Ponzi had a black belt in hypochondria.  Hold on..."  He looked back at the monitor.  "Now she's reading a biology text on classification of animal species...  and according to this, she's gone from tapeworms to lampreys to snakes."



*    *    *

            The Lagva had been careful (or so it appeared) not to tell us anything about their biology, technology, or history, but they had given us a phonetic Lagva-English/English-Lagva dictionary, which made fascinating reading.  The most important concepts in a culture are almost always represented by the shortest words.  They're either old words, or words we use too often to bother with more than two syllables - which is why the automobile became the 'car', the telephone became the 'phone', the oral contraceptive became the 'pill', and a variety of weapons became 'guns'...  or they're both, like 'sex' or 'food' or 'war'.

            Sergei was good with languages, though he didn't know linguistics (which is rather like the difference between being immortal and being licensed to practice medicine), but he quickly understood what I was looking for.  "One of your more forgettable politicians, when I was a boy, claimed that the Russian language contained no word for freedom, and therefore we were a race of slaves and slavers."  Pastorelli, who knows no Russian, nearly dropped his coffee cup.  "He also claimed that trees caused more pollution than industry," Sergei continued.  "He was wrong both times, of course, but he had a very good advertising company."

            He found the four-syllable Lagva word for 'war', and scratched his chin noisily.  We'd all been awake for more than thirty hours straight, by now, and things were starting to blur for me.  "All of their technical terms are jawbreakers, too," Sergei continued, "If you're right, that means they haven't had spaceflight for very long at all...  Which is interesting, because their word for 'aliens' is Ar^v, only two syllables...  Of course, there are cultures that insist on long words for everyday concepts, but that only happens if the language comes from the government down, not the people up.  The French still try and fail, Bismarck loved inventing jawbreakers to replace words he considered 'imprecise', and I guess we've all heard of wars being called 'police actions'..."

            I nodded wearily.  The rule held for racial stereotypes, too:  racists tended to use shorter words, probably because they used them more often.  I glanced at the lo-V picture of Vpokga(ro)tjj in her glass room, and part of my mind started wandering back to the Greeks and the Scythians.  It was the first time the Greeks had ever seen men on horseback, and they assumed it was all one creature, the centaur, a man's head and torso and a horse's ass.  The Amerindians, Aztecs and Incas had done the same when they'd seen the -

            Something in my head went clunk!  I looked at Vpokga(ro)tjj, and then at Sergei and Pastorelli.  "Sergei, has anyone else been able to get Vpokga(ro)tjj to talk?"

            "Not that I know of, and I think I would've been told..."

            I stared at the screen again, and then started fumbling through the books for the tape of the reception and the shootings.  "The others have all been male, right?"

            "As far as I know, but...  are you saying Vpokga(ro)tjj won't talk to strange men?"

            "No.  I'm not sure she would even have recognised me as female.  Some of those men are smaller than I am, some have longer hair, some are darker, some have higher voices, some of the military even have bigger busts.  But there's one thing they all have in common..."

            I fast-motioned through to the shooting, and then rewound slightly.  First Touhy.  Then Maledon.  Then Ponzi.  A moment later, I was grinning like an idiot.

            "I don't get it," said Pastorelli.

            Sergei stared... and then his jaw dropped.  "The Power Tie."


            "They're all wearing the same necktie," I said.  "Yellow, with little dark blue scales..."

            "Paisleys," corrected Sergei.  "I've seen Touhy wearing it before, but I never -"

            "Snakes," I said.  "Constrictors.  Lampreys.  Tapeworms.  Parasites.  Neckties."

*     *     *

            The slowboat landed three days later, to be met by a delegation wearing open necked shirts (though I bet most of them crawled back into their neckties as soon as the Lagva's backs were turned).  Vpokga(ro)tjj told us the story of the Gahla'wat, the race of intelligent wormlike parasites that wrapped themselves around their victims' spinal cords and tapped into their brains, enslaving them.  Their own society seemed to be a gerontocracy, enforced by their changing colour every time they shed their skin (the blue-speckled yellow was a sign of very great age indeed) - though some Lagva believed that the Gahla'wat themselves were a genetically adapted slave race of another intelligent species poorly adapted (or too damn lazy) for space flight, and that the colours indicated a particular artificially created mindset.  Either way, the Gahla'wat had conquered dozens of very different worlds that way; only the Lagva (as far as she knew) had been able to resist them.  I suppose a movie version of the whole thing is inevitable; Sergei sold the rights while the rest of us were still marveling.

            I wasn't invited to the landing, of course; I wouldn't even have watched it on the Lo-V if Sergei and Pastorelli hadn't materialised on my doorstep brandishing bottles of vodka.  "Vpokga(ro)tjj said to say hi," said Sergei, as the camera panned across a row of dignitaries all nervously fingering their collars.  "The Secret Service decided it was safe to show her the Smithsonian.  I tried to call you, but you didn't answer."

            "I was asleep.  You should try it sometime."

            "She thinks our superstitions about snakes may indicate that we've encountered the Gahla'wat at some time in our distant past.  She says it would explain our fear of the big constrictors, and our myths about snakes being intelligent or aggressive - the serpent in Genesis, the way cobras are worshipped in India, the Serpent Kundalini...  it's also supposed to explain why neckties, which are just useless pieces of rag, are supposed to indicate our social status and our conformity with a particular class - or a particular school, or regiment, or corporation.  All nonsense, of course."  He stroked Evan, who was curled up in his lap.  "Conspiracy theories always are, and this ancient astronauts crap is even worse.  There's never been an alien race controlling our minds, has there, cat?"

            Evan looked up, shook his head, and purred loudly.


This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.