The plan involved them splitting into two groups. Jones and Michela would distract the Unnamed with conversation at the viewing lounge. While they did so, Damien and Alex would access the Register and attempt to pilfer whatever information they could. Ideally, the roles should be switched, since Alex found it easiest to engage the Unnamed. But none among them, except for Alex, had any technical proficiency. The excitable engineer was needed just to bypass the security shutters.
“Wrong, so wrong,” Alex alternated between brushing back his greying hair and fiddling with the control spheres of the Register. “Everything we thought we knew. Wrong. All wrong!”
“What now? Are you capturing anything at all?”
“Our entire understanding of time and relativity. A complete mistake,” Alex’s dazed eyes went wide and he gapped at Damien. “Don’t you realise what this means? We would never achieved their level of technology. Our race would have been trapped on Earth till our final days. Till …”
Damien heard no more beyond that. Over the past week, he had learnt to shut off whenever Alex turned fanatical. Glancing at his watch, he saw that they still had another half an hour before having to appear for dinner. But with the minimal progress Alex was making, the way he kept getting distracted too, things were looking grim. He was just about to snap when the security shutters activated, sending both of them into a panicked scuttle to behind the Register. Moments later, Jones sauntered in, looking flustered. He easily found the two of them, and stood looking annoyed with his arms tightly folded.
“I trust it’s done?”
“What are you doing here?” Damien hissed. “Close that thing! Are you out of your mind?”
“She’s keeping it occupied. They are discussing philosophy.” He slapped at the shutter controls without looking. “Great topic. The therapeutic benefits of art for racial development. How having more statues and more books and more music would make us better people.”
“I’d be curious to know its opinion on that,” Alex had returned to the Register console, the awe back on his face. “It gives me the impression of being artistically sensitive. I suspect their race wouldn’t be too …”
“He’s not getting much at all,” Damien whispered after pulling Jones to the wall. “He can’t keep his mind on the job.”
“Damien glared. “Our agreement. Remember?”
Jones snorted, and retrieved a miniature sphere from his jeans. A holosphere. One of several gadgets used by the alien to provide realistic imageries of civilisations it had visited. “Would this help?” Jones asked coolly after tossing the sphere to Damien. “Reverse engineer it?”
“What good would …” Damien stopped. His attention, for a brief moment, captivated by the default scene of the holosphere. That of a wrecked city smothered by spiralling fumes. “This could be useful. If we could a way to adapt the tech for mass entertainment.”
“You’re thinking of making movies. When before us is the knowledge of an alien race.”
“Movies make money. Money funds the things you do, Jones.”
They didn’t detect the shutters activating again, and reacted according when they suddenly noticed Michela beside them. Tickled, she too tossed a holosphere to Damien. One with the default scene of a shimmering metropolis. Futuristic spires above a sea of urban lights. “He needs all of these back when we alight. But he has no idea how many he has given out.”
“Why are you here!”
“He’s preparing dinner. We’re having French, again. We’re going back to Paris too. He just can’t get enough of it.”
“I suppose he has no clue of what we’re doing?” Jones’ tone was cold. “That’s why you’re here?”
“You know, he’s way smarter than what you take him for. And I don’t mean just with …” She gestured at the holospheres with derision. “Ever consider he doesn’t give a shit about us stealing his stuff? Maybe he wants us to steal?”
“What reason would it have for that?” Damien said.
“Who knows? But he’s not supervising us, is he?”
They didn’t argue further, for they knew they should proceed to the dining cabin, and besides, they had already debated the question without conclusion the whole of the previous day. Once seated at their usual places, they reverted to their expected selves. The awed, reverential, grateful Earthlings the Unnamed thought of them as. Dinner itself was the same as it had been over the past week. The Unnamed’s interpretation of fusion cuisine, or alien ingredients prepared in an earthly style. Like always, this ended up with questionable success. While the h’ordeuvres of Vxarx cacti had an appealing tangy aftertaste, the filet mignon of Ginesea glass-fed bull was simply too gristly for the human palate. Alex could barely swallow any.
“I do make it a point to eat international, you know,” Michela said while washing down her last failed mouthful with wine. “I patronise an ethnic restaurant at least once a month. Sometimes twice, when I can afford it.”
“I wouldn’t consider fast food as ethnic cuisine, Michela,” Jones said.
“Do you have fast food in your world?” Alex asked the Unnamed.
“We do. The same for all the worlds we have visited. We have long noted that simplification of elaborate cooking heritages is an inevitable process in any racial development. At home, our doctrinators presents this as evidence of the subconscious urge of any lifeform to return to its roots.”
“To return to the times when food is purely, food,” Damien placed down his fork, and pushed aside his plate of glass-fed steak. “Why do you call it that, by the way? The word doctrine often has a negative connotation in our world.”
“An inept translation,” Michela quipped.
“We would hope so,” the Unnamed smiled. “Yet it is not. We do mean it as your race understands the word. For us, indoctrination is not necessarily a bad thing. We have much evidence that proper indoctrination leads to long periods of systematic stability. Many civilisations we have visited crumbled because of ineffectual or lacking indoctrination.”
“So you believe in building machines. You feel the benefits of order shadows all else.” Jones ignored the warning stares of his fellow humans, finished the last of his fillet, and continued. “Is it the case too that free will is not a popular concept in your world? Do you fear those who choose to understand the world, your world, in a different or unpopular way?”
“I would put it as a case of,” the Unnamed maintained its smile. “Our understanding of that concept, and its consequences, being significantly different from yours.”
On previous evenings, similar outbursts from Jones had resulted in the ambience souring, twice even bringing the meal to premature end. Well prepared for another occurrence, Damien and Michela quickly hopped to a lighter conversation topic, while Alex fussed over the serving of dessert. The Unnamed, gracious host as always, played along. Never venturing near the topic of free will again, and even bringing out more holospheres when Alex insisted on knowing more about the rearing of Ginesean livestock. Only towards the end of the meal, while the servatoids cleared the table, did it reveal what seemed to be a hint of its displeasure. It did so as the humans thanked it for the meal.
“Colonel Wu. We were just wondering. Would we be mistaken to say that you are likely to return to your campaign upon the end of our gathering?”
The humans eyed each other. Jones took the question in stride, and replied without looking at the alien. “I see no reason not to,” he said. “When you invited us to board this craft, you called this a learning vacation. I take it to be exactly that. A vacation. One that I admit I’ve learned immensely from.”
“Are you not concerned that your identity and whereabouts is now known?” The Unnamed gestured at Damien, Michela and Alex. “Or have you already worked out an arrangement between yourselves.”
“I’m not going to say anything,” Alex quickly muttered. “As long as you stay away from my country.”
“Maybe Colonel Wu has a way to ensure our silence,” Damien said quietly. “Or maybe, he believes that you have something that would be of use to him.”
He directed that at the Unnamed. Who responded by smiling enigmatically. “You mean things like manipulating your memory? Enforcing your silence? Monitoring you from across pace? While we do have such technologies, we find the use of them comical.”
“So you’re not concerned about us telling the world about you,” Jones said. “We are free to say whatever we want to the world about the past week.”
“Why should we be concerned? We would be in another galaxy. Not to return to this one for a few centuries.”
They stared at each other, the enigmatic smile lingering on the Unnamed’s greyish front. Then it laughed. And invited the humans to view more holospheres about exotic planetary cuisines.
Damien didn’t kick up a fuss when assigned a cabin on the starboard side of the Unnamed’s craft. To him, there were no differences between the cabins. All had the same amenities and the same appearance and features. He quickly came to regret this the next evening, however, when the Unnamed started its habit of hovering the craft over a capital city during the night. For reasons known only to itself, the Unnamed always parked the craft with the port side of it facing the heart of the city. That denied Damien the best view from his room. That also denied him a view that he knew no other human would be able to enjoy, for at least another few centuries.
“He’s doing it to impress me, you know,” Michela said while sipping more wine. Her room faced the desirable direction, and her cheeks were a rosy flush from the beverage. “He’s such a gentleman.”
“Why do you insist on calling it a he? It doesn’t even speak with a male voice.”
“He doesn’t speak with a woman’s voice too, does he?” She rose from the ottoman and sidled to Damien. “I think that despite all his knowledge, all his technology, he’s just a little boy inside. Proud of his toys. Eager to show them off. In a good natured kind of way, of course.”
“The colonel seems to think we’re going to receive a terrible surprise at the end of this vacation.”
“Does he? That would so be the kind of outcome he would convince himself with.”
Damien didn’t respond. His mind, for the moment, back to understanding the controls of the holospheres spread before him. Presently Michela asked, her tone hushed and solemn. “So how much did we get today? Anything useful?”
“Barely anything, according to Alex. I think he’s lying. Man’s not as bumbling as he seems to be.”
“That would be Jones’ fault. For alarming our poor engineer friend with all this talk of war and revolution.”
“It’s not only that.” Damien’s fingers finally stopped twiddling. And for a moment, he savoured his success in getting a holosphere to play a sequence in reverse. “Jones has a point. It didn’t gather us as some random sample of humankind. It’s not just flaunting its technology. It wants us here for a reason. We are on this ship for a specific purpose.”
“Aren’t you being paranoid as well.”
“Why shouldn’t I? Are we not floating above Paris, in a ship undetectable by human radar? Feasting on extra-terrestrial meat and bread?”
“I think you men take everything too seriously.” Smiling, she placed a hand on Damien’s shoulder, and scratched at his neck. “And then you get suspicious. And angry. Then you start wars. That’s the problem with our race, isn’t it?”
“There’s also that question of …” Damien caught her hand. “What’s the statistical likelihood of a random group of strangers knowing each other intimately?”
“You mean like us?”
“I rephrase. How likely is it for a randomly picked subject to know more than one other person in her group? Intimately.”
Her hand withdrew, and for a few seconds, she was silent. “I presume he told you.”
“I don’t need him to confess. I’ve seen the way the two of you looked at each other. I regret to say you’re both not very good at hiding secrets.”
She returned to the ottoman. Sat heavily on it and stretched. “There’s no big secret. No need to get more paranoid. I got to know Jones when I did a term at HKU. He was a junior. A girlfriend introduced us. After he got kicked out for … doing what he loves doing, I attended a talk he gave on the streets. For whatever reason, he thought it would be a good idea for us to remain in contact. I always thought he just needed me to promote his cause back home. We corresponded for a few year, mostly by email. That lasted till he went underground. If you need to know, I never raised a cent for his group, nor found him any other follower. I always felt he fought for a lost cause.”
“In that case, you guys were just reminiscing about old times, when you locked yourself in his cabin.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You never struck me as the jealous type.”
“I simply find it prudent to know what everyone is up to, when floating in an alien ship.”
“Dammy, Dammy.” She came to him once more, and kissed him gently on one cheek. “You need to stop being such a control freak. It’s very unappealing, if you’ve not noticed.”
“I detest that description.”
“You know, Jones’ not too different from you,” she whispered into his ear. “If you must know, we were discussing what to bring away from this ship. Unlike what Alex and you suspect, we are not interested in weapons. That’s just Jones’ way of fooling Alex. I can also confirm there are none on this ship. It, is too smart to have things like weapons lying about with us on board. Don’t ask me how I know though. That, I’m not going to share.”
“So what are you interested in? The cloaking technology? Galactic travel? Interstellar gourmet recipes for inedible beef?”
“I think you already figured that out,” she smiled and moved to the doorway. She also glanced meaningfully at the scattered holospheres next to Damien. “Jones’ not the violent revolutionist you take him for. He’s pretty shrewd. And patient. Believe me when I say both of you would get along fine when working together. But first, you have to put aside your petty male differences. If you ask me, that’s just silly. And stupid.”