“So did we, until maybe fifty years ago,” Joe said. “Then they started showing up every so often, traders mostly, but archaeologists, too. They only have a few planets now, and they’re interested in their glory days.”
I shivered a little. “Where’s their homeworld? Do you know?”
“About as far from here toward galactic center as yours is away from it.”
I shivered again, not a little this time. If the Foitani Empire had reached across thousands of light-years, how big had that war been? How many more dead worlds lay inside that sphere? More than I wanted to think about, I was certain. Not even humans were stupid on that scale.
I found myself walking back toward the Foitan. Tequila always makes me reckless. “Excuse me,” I said. “May I buy you another of whatever you are drinking?”
The Foitan had a bug by its ear. It looked like a Rapti bug, which meant it ought to handle Spanglish. It did. The Foitan said something in a language I didn’t recognize, but my own bug did. I heard, “Thank you, if I may do the same for you.”
I waved to Joe, pointed at my beer and the bottle in front of the Foitan, held up a finger. Joe waved back; he’d seen me. “May I join you?” I asked the Foitan, nodding toward a chair across from him.
By the way of answer, he pushed the chair out with his foot so I could sit. My legs wouldn’t have been long enough for that, but then, what I could see of the Foitan was a lot bigger than I was. He looked more or less humanoid, but only the biggest battleball players would have seemed like anything but children next to him. His face reminded me of what people might have looked like if they’d come from bears-blue bears-instead of apes: nasty, brutish, and tall, you might say. Actually, that’s not fair. He was pretty impressive.
“My name is Naplak Naplak Kap,” he said.”I have not seen your kind before. Is it polite to ask what you are called?”
“I’m Walter Harbron,” I answered. “Walt will do.”
“Walt,” Naplak Naplak Kap said gravely. Just then Joe came over with our drinks. I took a pull at my beer; the Foitan half-emptied his new bottle. “Walt,” he said again. He studied me. His eyes were large. They didn’t seem to blink. “May I ask about your species? I do so only from curiosity and mean no offense.”
“Yes, go ahead. May I ask about yours as well? I’ve never met any Foitani before; I’d like to learn more about you.”
Naplak Naplak Kap’s shrug was massive. “I came to this world to learn more myself. I am by profession a recoverer of the past, and we Foitani have much past to recover. What does your race call itself, and why are you here?”
“We’re humans. As for me-” I shrugged. “I travel from star to star. I buy things, I sell things: sometimes material things, sometimes information. I haven’t starved yet.”
“Ah. Profit.” The bug’s flat translation didn’t give me any feel for how Naplak Naplak Kap felt about profit. Then he rumbled, “Humans. Yes, I’ve heard of you people. You’re widespread these days, aren’t you?”
“We’ve done well for ourselves.” I shrugged again. I didn’t want to tell him that humans ranged as widely now as his folks had at their peak. Sure, we’re just one species among many, but I still didn’t want him to take it the wrong way. He was too big to risk riling.
“Humans,” he repeated, this time, I thought, more to himself than to me. Suddenly he seemed to remember I was there. “Excuse me. I seem to recall something about your species in a data base from our ancient days that the Raptics showed me. My computer did a better job of reading it than the locals could. May I check?”
“Go ahead,” I told him. (What was I going to say?)
His computer looked like a computer-not like what we build, but it couldn’t have been anything else. He talked with it in a language my bug couldn’t handle. I suppose it was his own. He finished his bottle, almost absentmindedly.”Yes, here we are,” he said at last.
He spent long enough reading that, had he been a human, he would have been a rude one. Every so often he’d grunt. I didn’t know whether he was surprised or angry or curious or what. Finally I got bored waiting. I said, ”May I ask what your records show?”
Once more, it was as if he had to remind himself I was sitting with him. “Oh, yes, of course. I apologize.” He put the computer back out of sight; by the way he fumbled about, my guess was that he wore it in a belt pouch. Then his eyes found mine again. “According to this data base, your species should not exist.”
“We’ve tried to do that to ourselves a few times,” I said, laughing. “Hasn’t worked yet.” I drank some more beer. It was good. I could feel the chair pressing against my behind. “I’m real enough. We’re all real.”
“But you should not be,” Naplak Naplak Kap said. He didn’t have much in the way of a sense of humor. Whether that goes for Foitani in general I couldn’t tell you. “Let me explain.”
“Go ahead.” I nodded. (One more time: what was I going to say?)
“You know we once ruled in this part of space, yes?” (I nodded again.) “We explored farther yet, and once we touched on what I think must be your world.” He dug out the computer again, did some quick figuring. “In the coordinates the Raptics use, the location of the planet’s star was-”
I pulled my own computer out of my pocket, turned Raptic numbers into my kind… and felt my jaw drop. Those numbers worked out to just over a light-year from Sol. I rubbed my nose, which was starting to get numb. I said, “I guess that has to be my star, but the location’s not quite right.”
“You forget,” Naplak Naplak Kap said, “these records are 28,000 of my years old.”
I felt like an idiot (not for the first time). Stars didn’t move fast, not compared to light, but they did move, and in umpty-ump thousand years Sol had gone a good ways. “Yes, I did forget,” I said numbly. “Tell me about my savage ancestors.”
“They were,” Naplak Naplak Kap said. “They were vicious, too, and clever. One tribe managed to kill a Foitan despite his armor and weaponry, and was in the process of roasting him when my people took vengeance-from the air, at long range. We had learned.”
“And so?” I asked. (What I wanted to do was cheer for those poor doomed cavemen.)
“And so we decided that even savage humans were dangerous, and that they should not be allowed to live to develop technology: we decided to destroy them.” The bug in my ear put no expression into the words, which made them doubly chilling. Naplak Naplak Kap went on, “My species, it appears, did this often enough to have developed a protocol for it. We knew what we were about, I assure you.”
“Go on,” I ground out. Humans weren’t innocent of such things, not while we were still on Terra and, sadly, not always after we got off, either. But having someone calmly talk about strangling us in our cradle-
“We prepared a respiratory virus genetically tailored to ensure that your species would not become immune to it, then disseminated it widely throughout your planet’s atmosphere. In a few generations, you should have disappeared, and your world would have been there for the taking. But our own Suicide Wars started soon after, so we never went back.”
“And we never died out.” I felt like crowing.
“So you didn’t.” Guessing aliens’ expressions is a fool’s game, but Naplak Naplak Kap’s seemed to say he thought it was my fault. “So far as I know, yours is the only species of which that is true.”
In the middle of my triumphant chuckle, I sneezed three times in a row.
“My bug does not translate that noise,” Naplak Naplak Kap said.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just a cold…”
I looked at Naplak Naplak Kap. He looked at me. Then I waved to Joe and bought him another drink. (What was I supposed to do?)