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In The Service of Aliens

Norma frowned at the panel that displayed her name; Norma Hollister (Personal)— Communications Center. It was only her second personal message in the six years since she’d transferred to Leefan-four and to this job, where she provided translation services between the native Leefans and the Humans aboard incoming freighter ships. Although a translation mechanism was available, the machine often failed to transcribe the subtleties of the Leefan’s touch-based language. Both species preferred the live translation could provide.

She punched up the details of the transmission; William Hollister (General, Ret.)—UES Freedom. Local Transmission, Priority Alpha.

Ivy-like tendrils of dread snaked up her spine. She gasped. What was her father doing here? Someone at Fleet must have notified him that she’d requested a replacement translator. Was he here to stop her from participating in the Chuechah ritual?

Local Transmission. He was within the Leefan solar system, probably on the Fleet ship escorting the incoming convoy. They were due within the week, and a message now correlated with their expected arrival through the Fold Gate at the edge of the solar system.

She placed her finger in her ear and pressed the button on her implanted transducer chip, turning it on. The hum of electronics invaded her hearing. Andrew’s Syndrome had destroyed her hearing before she was six years old. The implanted transducer returned it by converting auditory wave energy into bioelectrical energy and fed the signals directly into her brain. She only used it when communicating with Humans since she didn’t need it for the Leefan’s touch-based language.

Taking a cleansing breath, she tapped the connect button on the panel. The display pixilated twice before her father’s image took shape. His hair had turned gray at his temples, but the rest was still jet-black and worn in the flattop cut she remembered.

The last time she’d talked to him was six years ago. He’d broken the news that her mother was dying in a brief, unemotional manner, typical of his military nature. Further, he’d lost his temper when she refused to quit her job that she’d just started. He’d put his military career before family, but when she did the same, it was unacceptable. The ensuing argument drove the wedge between them even further.

Service, she reminded herself. She put on her diplomatic smile and asked, “Good afternoon, General. What can—?”

“What in the hell happened to your hair?” he interrupted.

Norma sighed. Priority Alpha signals, although sent through folded space, still had a ten-second delay from out at the edge of the solar system where this ship probably was. If he didn’t follow proper long-range communication procedures this was going to be a frustrating conversation. “Sir, what may I do for you?”

After ten seconds, he said, “You can tell me what happened to your hair.”

He didn’t have a frame of reference to understand. The humidity in this village was horrendous, and during her first year here, her hair was constantly drenched and had developed some sort of fungus. She’d learned that having none was easier. Additionally, the Leefans were hairless, and being bald helped her fit into their society. She finally answered, “It’s the local custom. How may I help you?”

Another ten seconds. “I heard you’re coming home. I’m your ride back to Earth.”

She stared at his image. Everything seemed normal, then she realized he hardly blinked. He was hiding something, and she suspected what it was. He knew about the Chuechah ritual.

There was no sense in prolonging this conversation with him. “I won’t be going back to Earth.”

The ten seconds dragged before his reply came. He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Is that so?”

She recognized the tactic from her childhood—him trying to gain a negotiating advantage, waiting for the moment when she would reveal too much. Not this time, she decided. “You won’t understand this, but here it is. I have a new home now. I belong here. The Leefans are my new family. The only family I’ve had since Mama died.”

“I’m still your father! You’d rather stay on that god-forsaken Shroom planet?”

Norma held her temper. “They have a name. It’s Leefan.”

“I don’t care. You’re leaving with me.”

“No. They’ve accepted me into their order of service. Next week I’m going through the Chuechah ritual.”

“Ritual?” He leaned forward. “What ritual?”

Anger flared in Norma’s stomach. Her fists clenched almost instinctively. The tricks he’d used countless times while she was growing up were still working; making her reveal what she didn’t want to. She urged herself to relax. She closed her eyes, took a calming breath, then stared at him. “You wouldn’t understand, but it’s an honor to be chosen.”

“Explain it to me.”

“Turn around and go back home, General.”

“Fine. Before I do, why don’t we get together after your ritual? We could celebrate your newfound honor.” He flashed that smile—the exact one he’d always used for the moment when he’d trapped her.

Why am I putting myself through this? She smiled back, trying her best to mimic his own smugness. “You know that isn’t possible. I’ll be dead.” She punched the disconnect.

His expression changed to one of surprise an instant before the image pixilated and vanished. Her dread shot up her neck and tightened around her head. She’d made a horrible mistake. He hadn’t known about the ritual after all, and she’d just told him.

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