by Patricia Russo
Oh, man. What do you say to your best male friend he’s just suffered a traumatic amputation of the genitalia?
I tried, "Well, at least Carlton University’s going to pick up your tuition for the next three years. Grad school, too. That’s something."
Ryan gave me a disgusted look.
He had a private room on a private floor in like a private wing of the hospital. It looked more like a ritzy hotel suite than a hospital room. There was even a thick, cream-colored carpet on the floor. If it weren’t for the IV stand and Ryan’s drawn face, it would’ve been easy to forget where we were. Carlton U was picking up the tab for this, too.
Ryan’s sister sat in an armchair next to the bed. For some reason she kept patting his hand, like that was going to help. She said, "He’d get more if he sued."
She was right, of course. But Ryan couldn’t. He’d had to sign about fifteen different wavers absolving the university, the board of trustees, the city, the state, the federal government, and the United Nations of responsibility for any perceived or actual physical, emotional, spiritual, or chromosomal damage resulting from his exposure to the Lorr-ul before they’d even let him into the orientation sessions. I know because I tried to get into Bachman Hall, too.
I got cut the second day of orientation. Probably because one of the instructors overheard me referring to it as the Bug Asylum.
"I bet you’re glad they’re keeping it out of the news," I said.
Ryan turned his head slightly, but said nothing.
"I think people should be warned," his sister muttered.
I said, "They’re afraid that people might... that it might prejudice people’s opinions."
Ryan finally spoke. "It’s really not on the news?"
"Not a word."
"So much for the first amendment," said his sister, bitterly. "So much for people’s right to know."
Ryan and I had been friends since kindergarten. I’d never much liked his sister, though.
I tried to change the subject. "When are your parents coming?"
Ryan’s folks hadn’t wanted him to try for a slot in Bachman Hall. They weren’t too thrilled about him going to Carlton U to start with.
You know those polls they run every week, where you call a 1-900 number to register your opinion about aliens? Like on Inside Edition or Hard Copy? As far as I know, Ryan’s parents don’t actually phone in votes, but if they did they’d be counted in the 17% or so that always declared they were Highly Negative about our buggy visitors.
I remember a headline I saw a couple years ago, when Carlton first agreed to let five of the Lorr-ul enroll as undergraduates: Aliens Invade Our Schools.
When the Lorr-ul had first made contact, it was: Aliens Invade. When they first started buying stuff (mostly musical instruments & hand-woven carpets, for some reason), it was: Aliens Invade Malls. Any time they met with national leaders, it was: Aliens Invade Politics.
So I could understand the university and the government not wanting this to get out.
A couple of times, I’d seen a Lorr-ul on campus. They were housed in Bachman, with the humans who’d passed the screenings & interviews & psych tests, but they had to walk to and from class like everyone else. No matter how many times you’d seen them on TV, encountering one in the flesh was startling.
The feelers and fuzzy things around their mouths didn’t bother me much, or the segmented thorax and pinched-in abdomen. When they wore clothes you hardly even noticed the shape of their bodies. But the eyes got to me. You know what I mean. They look like someone took a tennis ball, sliced it in half, and stuck one piece on each side of their head. In rotating sockets no less.
Ryan insisted that you got used to it after a while. He also claimed that his roommate, W’sann-ar, was a really cool guy.
"Dean Simmons was here this morning. Made him sign a bunch of papers."
"A non-disclosure agreement," Ryan said.
I wasn’t surprised. I’d had to sign the same thing before they let me up to his room. Stupidly, I asked, "Does it hurt?"
He looked at me, and I knew that a man would never have asked that question. "Yeah," he said, after a moment. "But they’re giving me stuff."
The university big shots had been thrilled when W’sann-ar invited Ryan home to meet his family. Home being the Lorr-ul compound in Stockton, CA, where the first ship landed, not their planet, umpitty-ump light years away, of course. Still, Ryan was the first civilian human being invited there, and the first human being of any sort asked to a party. Some big holiday of theirs was coming up, and W’sann-ar asked Ryan to attend the festivities.
"Why did you get naked?" I asked, before I could stop myself.
Ryan glanced at me, then up at the lighting fixture in the ceiling. Then he sighed, softly. "Everybody did. It was the custom. The head of the anthro department briefed me before I went. He said, just do what they do. If I refused, the Lorr-ul were apt to be insulted. You know, I’m not really allowed to talk about this, except to the government shrink."
"I understand," I said. It wasn’t like I wanted to hear the gory details, or anything.
"If I were you I’d tell the world," his sister said. "People have to wake up, see how dangerous these Bugs are. Do something about them before it’s too late."
"No," Ryan said. "You’ve got it wrong. They didn’t mean any harm."
His sister stared at him, shocked. "I can’t believe you’re defending the creatures who did this to you!"
Ryan pursed his lips, tightly, like he wasn’t sure if he should say any more. His glance went up to the light fixture again. Rapidly, he whispered, "It was just a game. A prank. Something they do when they get drunk."
"You mean it was an accident?" I asked.
"No. Not exactly." His lips thinned again. "It’s just something they do."
"You’re kidding," I said. "It’s like a Lorr-ul custom?"
"Yeah. Sort of. See, it’s no big deal to them. They were all real surprised when I... started screaming."
"You can’t repeat any of this," Ryan said.
"I know," I said. "But you’ve got to tell me ? how come it’s no big deal to the Lorr-ul?"
"Because theirs grow back," he said.