This one’s sci-fi, one of my favourite genres. I always liked the writings of the “big three” sci-fi authors—Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke—because they didn’t focus just on some amazing future-tech, but also because they tried to address social issues that might arise in the future. I think that’s where their strength came from, as these kinds of issues are something we can relate to nowadays.
Javier spotted the waitress returning. Rosalita? Yeah, that was her name. She had these wonderful red lips and a thick black braid, billowing with the breeze. And she had a beautiful smile.
Yeah, Javier knew all about waitresses. They had to be friendly, to act interested, all for the sake of The Tip. But still, he thought Rosalita meant it. Maybe he’d ask her out afterwards. Take her to dinner tonight. Yeah, he’d do that. She’d probably politely decline, laugh it off, but Hell. He’d kick himself if he didn’t at least try.
And he could be pretty persuasive. After all, who wouldn’t want a free dinner.
Uh oh. Rosalita, apparently.
Her beautiful smile vanished as she approached, turning into an ugly open-mouthed stare. And her eyes drifted from Javier to his companion, Carlos.
Shit, that was it then. Javier had seen that expression before. No way she’d want anything to do with him now. He stifled a grimace as she slowed her approach—nearly stumbled, really.
“Uh,” she stammered. Where was the sweet voice now?
“Thank you,” Javier said, reaching for his espresso up on her tray.
Rosalita looked down at him, mouth moving up and down like a fish, and then back to Carlos.
“Uh,” she mumbled again. “Do you…? Um… coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Carlos said. His voice was arguably warm, but there was a peculiar vibration to it, a buzzing.
Rosalita said nothing. She just covered her chest with her tray and backpeddaled, staring. Staring with disgust.
“God,” Javier said when he thought she was out of earshot. “I’m so sorry. I… God, some people are just—”
“—It’s all right,” Carlos said, tone still warm. Reassuring. In control.
“No, it’s not. Not after all you’ve done for us. I just—God! Why can’t people see that?”
“It’s an entirely natural reaction,” Carlos said. “And please believe me, I am not offended.”
Javier shook his head, rubbed his eyes with his palms. When he looked around the rooftop cafe, he saw all the other patrons were staring at them. All of them. God, why didn’t he notice it earlier. Why did people have to be this stupid? This intolerant?
“I’m sorry,” Javier said. “This was a bad idea. I should never have dragged you out here.”
“Nonsense,” Carlos said. He touched Javier’s hand affectionately.
Javier looked up at his companion. At Carlos. Except of course that wasn’t really his name. It was his Spanish name, his Earth name. It was much easier for Carlos’ kind to learn the speech of man than the other way around.
And as Javier looked at him, he got the sense that Carlos was smiling. Not actually, of course. He didn’t have lips. Didn’t have much of a recognizable mouth. His people most resembled insects of some kind—beetles, Javier thought. Only they were big, nearly a meter tall.
And they were beautiful.
Could a beetle be beautiful? Well, Javier thought so. It was their colour. A pale blue, accented with a rich violet at the joints. Then there were their clothes, the faintly glowing strips of cloth that adorned their bodies. Each was a different colour, shimmering in the light as though it was under water.
“You are my friend,” Carlos said, cocking his head to the side. That wasn’t one of their habits, but Carlos was an expert student of humanity and did all he could to mimic human mannerisms when dealing with his subjects.
“I would not miss this for the world.”
A smile tugged at Javier’s lips but lost out to a bitter frown.
“I just wish more people accepted…”
“—Generational, yes,” Javier said. “I know. I know! It’s always been like that here. You can’t get anything done until the old guard dies off. God, it’s so primitive.”
“Not at all,” Carlos said. “Our people are much alike in this regard.”
Javier snorted, chuckled.
“It is true,” Carlos continued, shrugging two of his eight… appendages. “There was resistance in the Confederacy to making first contact with your world. Those of us who are here now are the scientists, the explorers, the… hmm… humanitarians. Just like you.”
Javier grinned and then scowled. “Don’t do that, Carlos. Don’t, don’t flatter. It’s not a good habit.”
“As you wish.”
Javier grabbed a packet of brown sugar and poured it into his espresso. He stirred it, blew on the coffee, and took a sip.
“Was there really resistance?”
“Yes,” Carlos said. “Some was mundane politicking, claims our resources were spread too thin. But there were also arguments put forth—good arguments—that your species was too primitive. Pardon me, that was rude.”
“No,” Javier said, his brows rising. “Compared to you, we are. Space ships, faster than light travel, medical immortality, transforming the atmospheres of entire planets to better suit you… no, we are primitive compared to you. Ants.”
Carlos made a strange warbling noise.
“What was that?” Javier asked.
“It was laughter,” Carlos said. “The irony of your words is not lost on me. Our appearance reminds you of insects, culturally and intellectually stunted animals that roam your world. And yet you call yourself an ant in comparison to us. It is amusing.”
Javier chuckled. “If you say so.”
“I do. You know I am a xenosociologist, correct? I spend my life studying alien creatures, such as humanity. One of the greatest metrics of success is humour.”
Javier raised an eyebrow.
“It is true. Humour is not just a cerebral exercise, but also firmly rooted in culture and tradition. When a xenosociologist understands humour, it understands its subject. So take it from an expert. That was amusing.”
Javier chuckled again. “All right,” he said, raising his hands. “You win.”
He took another sip of his coffee.
“That’s what we are to you, isn’t it?” Javier asked. “A subject. Just something to study.”
“Yes and no. Yes, you are a subject, but no, you are not just something to study. I have told you I consider you a friend, and I meant those words. What we are doing here—why we are in orbit around your world—it’s an exchange of knowledge. We learn from you and you learn from us.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Javier said. “It’s kind of one-sided though, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you study us like scientists, and all our secrets are right there for you. We give you anything and everything you ask for. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind it, it’s a small price to pay for what you give us—and it’s not like we could hide it anyway. But you? You don’t give us anything. You just… you guide.”
Once more Carlos’ face shifted subtly, giving a sense of smiling.
“It makes some people angry,” Javier said. “I know. I know! We’re not ready for interstellar space travel. Fine. But what about cancer? So many of us die of that every day. Why can’t you just give us the cure?”
“It is forbidden. Take heart, Javier. This is not an arbitrary decision and there is a good reason for it. Our purpose on Earth is to bring humanity into the galactic fold, to prepare you for an unimaginably bright future among the stars. Among us, among other species.
“But to just take you there now would be irresponsible. You would not be ready, and the shock would undo you. Answer me this: what good is the galactic citizen that has been spoiled with all the answers? What value does a creature have if it has all the gifts, but cannot appreciate them?”
Javier remained silent.
“Such a citizen would be a tragedy. He would not use his gifts, but would rather abuse them. It would imperil not just him, but all those around him. And so, I hope you understand that we cannot give you anything, but only point you in the right direction. It is up to your scientists to learn the secrets themselves. And believe me, humanity is more than capable of doing this.
“One day, you will sail the stars alongside us.”
“One day,” Javier said. He shifted in his chair. “Is there really nothing you can tell us? Or, just tell me. Just a little thing. You don’t even have to give me all the details.”
“You said we’re friends. Just one question. That’s all I ask.”
Carlos’ wings fluttered.
“I will answer one question,” he said after a pause.
Javier grinned broadly.
Carlos raised one appendage. “And the answer will be vague. I will not divulge any specifics.”
“All right, all right,” Javier said, rubbing his hands together. “Okay, let’s see. Oh! Okay, there’s one that I always wondered about, ever since I was a boy. I think I even know the answer, but… well, you’ve already turned a lot of our laws of physics on their heads, so maybe. At least I’ll be able to stop wondering.”
“Ask your question.”
Javier licked his lips. “Is it… is time travel possible?”
Carlos remained silent for a moment, motionless. Javier leaned in, holding his breath.
“Yes,” Carlos said.
“Yes,” Javier repeated. “Yes?”
“Yes, Javier. Though it defies what you understand of the universe, travel through time—that is, travel backwards through time—is possible.”
“Unbelievable! Is it—do you—can you travel back in time?”
“One question,” Carlos said.
“Please,” Javier said. “I don’t even want to know how it’s done. But please, just tell me.”
Carlos remained silent again. Finally his shoulders shifted.
“It is… complicated. The answer is both yes and no. You will not speak of this to anyone?”
“No, I swear. It dies with me. Um, what do you mean? How can it be both yes and no?”
“We do not possess this technology, but in the future we will.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because,” Carlos said, “our time travelling descendants walk among us. Indeed, they have done so since the dawn of our kind.”
Javier’s eyes widened.
“Just as we sit in orbit of your world, guiding you to join the galactic congress, so too do our future children guide us to join the temporal. And just as we refuse to give you the answers, so too do they refuse to give them to us. It may be hard to believe, but I understand your frustration.”
“Wow,” Javier mouthed, unable to find his voice. He cleared his throat. “That’s… that’s just incredible.”
Carlos shifted in his seat. Was he uncomfortable?
“Does that answer your question satisfactorily?”
“Yes,” Javier said. “Carlos? Do you think… do you think we’ll learn time travel some day? And then our own future children will come back to guide us?”
Carlos sat still, remained silent. Longer than before.
“Yes,” Carlos finally said. “It is possible.”
A beep emerged from his appendage-bound computer, and Carlos fiddled with the device.
“I am sorry, Javier. I am being recalled to the mothership.”
“No, it’s all right,” Javier said. “I understand. Is something wrong? Did something happen?”
“I… do not know,” Carlos said. And it was the first time Javier had heard him mimic doubt. “It is a general recall, for all of us. An emergency assembly.”
“I will speak with you again once I am back on Earth. We can have another coffee.”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
Carlos nodded, and then took to the air. Javier watched him fly off—saw some of his shimmering brothers and sisters in the Mexican sky—and reflected on what he had learned.
Time travel was possible! Maybe, he wondered, one day he’d meet a many-times-great-grandson or daughter, from far in the future. Suddenly his whole world seemed brighter, and the small mindedness of his fellow humans faded out of his mind.