Cultural Exchange - Chapter 1 - Therrae (Dasha_mte) - Transformers (2024)

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

Eddie was the only one on her committee who wasn’t nuts.

Roberts was obsessed with his own ego and one brilliant idea he had had half a century ago. Murray obsessively micromanaged, frantic and anxious about everyone’s competence, including her own. She continually revised and reorganized any project she supervised. Previs –cringeworthy Previs whom everyone avoided – was a famous genius, but a maniac even when he took his medication, and he had the embarrassing habit of going off it in the field and having to be picked up by his grad students at the police station. It was only a miracle nothing so far had been above a misdemeanor.

Eddie – Dr. Brewster – was ancient and bitter, but solidly sane. He’d actually been harder to manage then the crazy ones: he hadn’t been too distracted by his own issues to actually pay attention to her thesis. His questions were always relevant and his critiques were always – irksomely – right.

He only asked two questions during the defense. They were the hardest questions, but they were topics he had harped on all along, so she was prepared, at least. When it was over, he didn’t come out for drinks with the others in the traditional celebration. He passed her a postit demanding a meeting at his office early the next morning.

It had seemed unfair. He wasn’t the boss of her any longer. Still, it would have been too ungracious to refuse. She felt a bit put out, though, until Eddie had announced that she had a job interview.

“What?” And then, “Really? Where? Adjuncting?”

“Applied.”

She’d thought of applied, of course. Washington DC wasn’t that far away, and that referral company had a poster up in the department. It wasn’t like there were so many teaching jobs available, not good ones….and the chance at travel, well, she was young, unattached. Now was a good time to see the world. But even applied jobs were fairly hard to get. You didn’t go into anthropology because you wanted to get rich. And here was one offering an interview her first full day?

“Wow,” she said, because she had to say something.

“It’s for the Department of Defense.”

She blinked, feeling shocked and a little offended. “Defense?” You didn’t study people so that your government could more easily make war on them. It was wrong and scary, and professionally, anyone who had the DOD (or CIA or DHS) on their vita would have to justify that for the rest of their lives.

Assuming they could justify the work to themselves.

Eddie looked at her hard. “They wanted me for it. An…advisory position I’d been doing… they need someone on site. I’d…” he leaned forward. “I would give anything to take it on, but I’m too damn old.” He made a face, and Kim remembered that he’d spent half of last term in on leave recovering from a bypass. “They asked for a recommendation.”

“Oh.” She said, thinking. “Thank you.”

“You should. This is the chance of a lifetime.”

“What is it?”

He grinned a bit nastily. “I can’t tell you. Classified. And you aren’t the only candidate being considered.”

For a moment she felt pinned. She didn’t want to offend him. She didn’t want to put him off. But – “There are ethical questions.”

“There are?”

“Well, I can’t be a…a spy for some country we’re going to invade.” She realized, with a surreal sense of not quite déjà vu, that one of her informants had point-blank asked her if she was spying for the government once. She had laughed….

“They’re allies,” he said after a moment. “An immigrant population living here in the US. There are some…problems with …adaptation. Cultural problems. Your specialty.”

“Oh,” she said. She thought of Iraq. She thought of Afghanistan. She thought about immigrants who couldn’t go home because they had bet that America was their best chance to end terrorism and totalitarianism. Helping people like that --That would be honorable work. Even if her work wound up classified and un-publishable, it would be worth doing.

Another thought made her squirm. “I speak Spanish and a little Russian,” she said.

“Not a problem,” he said. “They won’t care about that.”

Oh. Well. Translators, then, most likely. They would speak English, obviously. “Okay.”

He slid a folder across the desk. “The interview is in Nevada. Day after tomorrow. Uncle Sam is buying the plane ticket. They’ll expect that packet to be filled out by the time you get there; security check. Tell them the truth.”

“Oh,” she said. “Right. Thank you.” A security clearance? She had never, ever, imagined she would need one. She might have trouble getting one; she’d spent the last two years in the company of foreign nationals, some of whom had questionable pasts or contacts. Still, the government must know that: it was the expertise they were considering her for.

***

She was met at the airport by a very polite, very young soldier in uniform. He drove her to a military base where she was met by a very large, very solid man in a suit who introduced himself as “Bill.” She thought about security and intelligence and wondered if it was his real name.

He took her packet – the vast security questionnaire – and passed it to another man in a suit. He gave her another packet, “compensation and benefits, you probably want to look at that before you make any decisions, although nobody’s argued with it yet,” and led her along, stark echoy corridors and up narrow metal stairways.

“We’ve had six candidates so far. None of them panned out. “

“They didn’t want the job?” though she didn’t think that was likely.

“The guy making the decision is picky. Although, to be fair, the requirements are very specialized.”

Kim took a deep breath. “What requirements?”

Bill paused. “I can’t get into that right now.”

Oh. “Who is making the decision?”

“Actually, the community leader of the refugee population. You would be getting paid by us, but the position is working for them. Frankly, we don’t have any say in who gets hired.”

“That must be frustrating,” she offered, making conversation, wondering how much resentment the job was causing. Was what people said about government turf wars true?

Bill shrugged. “If it keeps them happy. Hell, it’s cheaper than the components for a fusion generator.”

That was probably a joke. If it was, Kim had no idea if it was funny.

“Can you tell me -- ”

“I can’t tell you anything, unfortunately. After the interview, if you satisfy the big boss, we’ll be able to give you the basics. As I said, we’ve interviewed six already. We’ve got an eighth on the list, but he doesn’t look promising. If you don’t pass muster, we’ll probably have to start over.” He sounded put-upon.

The room looked almost civilian. There was a carpet on the floor, a sofa, a coffee table. At the back of the room was a sink and coffee maker and a box of donuts. On the opposite wall was a computer. The screen was black, but the little blue light showing the camera was on.

Bill showed her to a seat on the couch and offered her coffee. Kim hated coffee, but she had learned to drink it in shabby apartments and church basem*nts and the break rooms of dry cleaners and hair salons. She asked for milk and sugar, determined not to flinch if it turned out they only had powdered soy ‘creamer.’ Bill had actual cream.

Then Bill sat beside her on the sofa, set his own black coffee down, and picked up a clipboard. “Com check,” he said.

“Com check,” came the answer from the computer across the room. “Good afternoon, Dr. Montgomery. It is a pleasure to meet you.” The voice was unaccented, very deep and very polite. She smiled and tried not to look disconcerted.

For a moment she tried not to think of old television, and then reconsidered. “Well, this is very ‘Charlie’s Angles.’” She turned to Bill. “I guess you must be what’s-his-name… Bosley?”

Bill turned his head to address the camera. “That is a reference to an old -- ”

“I have located the reference,” came the even, patient response. “It is ... almost apropos to this situation.” He paused. “I apologize, Dr. Montgomery, for the limited communications medium. I realize that this is discourteous. Unfortunately, it is the best choice at the moment.”

“That’s okay,” Kim answered, wondering if it was a security measure or some limitation of technology. Skype went everywhere, didn’t it? But that might not be secure. Or they might be speaking from a war zone. Was the refugee population still in a hazardous situation making do with cell phones or something? She bit back all the questions she had no right to ask.

“If we’re all ready,” Bill said, “I’ll start with the basic questions. Can you tell us a little bit about your most recent research?”

“Well, I’ve been working with immigrant communities in and around Boston. Mainly my focus was the role of community organizations and religious institutions in the transition to, well, coping with living in the United States.”

“Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into this area?”

“Well, my step mother is Puerto Rican. Which isn’t quite the same, since they are already citizens, but culturally the same sort of issues emerge. It got me interested.” This was an area she had discussed many times before, at parties, in class, a couple of times at conferences. She talked about her research questions, she talked about her data, she confessed in the funniest way possible the biggest mistakes she’d made during participant observation.

Bill seemed a little bored. It would worry her, but he’d done this lots of times already, and clearly he wasn’t interested in ethnography anyway. She told her best stories. She kept her answers brief. The interview was going all right.

And then, about twenty minutes in, the person watching through the computer asked, “The allegations against Napoleon Chagnon: in your opinion was there any merit to them?”

For a moment she froze, horrified and uncertain. “No!” she said as soon as she could answer. “There was no actual evidence against him and no motive! And nothing to be gained from – “she found herself gagging on the description of the allegations. “No, I do not believe he did it.”

“You do not believe he deliberately spread measles?”

“Absolutely not.”

“You do not believe he gave them guns?”

“Oh.” She pressed her lips together for a moment. “He admitted to that. From the beginning. And, yes, there are ethical arguments that say it wasn’t the best idea…but it was a useful technology, they were using them for hunting, and their neighbors had them. They would have gotten them anyway.”

A pause, then, “It was a technology for which they had no precedent, their culture was not prepared for the implications.”

“No, that’s true. But my culture has had the things for hundreds of years, you can’t say we use them well. The technology exists. The Yanamami made a decision. It was their decision, not ours. They asked him and he said yes.”

Bill winced and flipped the pages back on the clipboard. Well, that’s done it, Kim thought. She had given the wrong answer. The interview was over.

The voice from the computer connection said, “Have you read Malinowski’s private diaries?”

Halfway to thanking them for their time, Kim’s head snapped up at the question. “Um. Just excerpts.”

Bill’s eyebrows were raised slightly. He set the clipboard down and picked up a tablet computer and called up the ‘keyboard.’

“What do you think of his attitudes toward his work?”

This was familiar. Students had asked her this. She shrugged. “I think when you use your self and your life as your data collection tool it is going to be very personal. Sometimes you are going to hate yourself and everything around you. And everyone. For all kinds of reasons. It’s normal. With practice you can still get the data, though. You can do the work.”

“You don’t think emotions cloud perception?”

“You can try very hard to avoid that. It helps….Look, I admit. Sometimes it goes wrong. It doesn’t always work. There has been bad ethnography. I had days when I did it. You just…try harder. And you keep trying.”

Bill made a little grunt at some message from the tablet and set it aside.

The patient, polite voice said, “In your opinion, which was a better movie, Independence Day or E.T.?”

Kim assumed that question was meant to throw her off…or maybe to make her feel more comfortable and off guard. There wasn’t time to suss it out, though. She just answered it. And then next weird question, too: “Why is blue for boys and pink for girls?”

And the next, “Are you uncomfortable around rapidly changing or highly advanced technology?”

And then it was back to ethnographic methods….and anthropological theory….and then, “What is the difference between a wig and a hat?”

“A…what?” Kim repeated stupidly.

The computer screen blinked to life with a picture of George Washington. His usual white pony tail was CGIed out smoothly and replaced by a Cher bouffant. And then that changed to a cowboy hat.

“Well…” she said. This was a test. They were seeing how patient she was or how well she explained things. “A wig is supposed to look like hair….”

President Washington was now wearing a clown’s rainbow afro. “This does not resemble human hair.”

My God. Could they come from a culture that didn’t wear hats? Who didn’t wear hats? People from rain forests, maybe, but that wasn’t her specialty. “No…noooo. That sort thing is a…comment on human hair. A wig can be an improvement on actual hair, or just a replacement, or a shortcut to fashion, or a…mockery of the real thing.” It occurred to her that if this was an actual question, she must be speaking to someone for whom English was a second language. Was she being clear enough? “The purpose of most wigs and some hats is purely symbolic, not practical.” If he – whoever he was – really didn’t know, though, if English was a second language, then where was the accent? The voice was perfectly modulated and spoke without hesitation.

“The intent behind this is humorous?” The clown wig was now on a clown.

“Yes….and maybe social commentary…. It depends on the clown…. It’s not my specialty.” What kind of person knew enough about anthropology to ask about Chagnon, but not enough about Western culture to understand a clown? No one. This was some kind of test. Kim briefly pressed her palms over her eyes, whishing she could run her hands through her hair. Her hair looked nice, though, and she had makeup on and so she straightened her shoulders and tried to look composed.

Apparently that was a failure. “You are finding this conversation difficult,” the voice observed.

“I expect you are trying to make it a little difficult,” she said.

Bill laughed. He stood up and refilled her coffee. “I wish you wouldn’t use George Washington,” he said in the direction of the computer.

“Using a historic figure does not isolate the issue from current contexts?”

Bill shook his head, not a negative so much as a slight scolding. “That historical figure was our first president.”

A pause. Then, “I apologize. I hope you were not offended, Dr. Montgomery.”

“No. I’m fine.” She was too confused to be offended. She took the coffee Bill offered and set the cup down.

“May we continue with the interview?” At her nod, the voice continued. “What would your response be if you met an alien?”

Kim glanced at Bill. He was fiddling with his tablet again. “I probably already have,” she admitted. “I didn’t ask about that. It’s none of my business. I don’t work for ICE. It’s not my job to enforce those laws. It’s not my right.”

Bill gave a startled laugh. Kim scowled and continued – she probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but she was irritated – “But my sympathies are for the desperate people working for practically nothing at thankless or dangerous jobs, not the slavers who hire them.”

“What does….ah.” The voice paused. “We have misunderstood one another.” The screen flicked on again, this time showing a clip from The Day the Earth Stood Still. “If you met this kind of alien?”

Was he testing her geekiness or her xenophobia? Or was this question just to weed out the flakey? “That kind of depends on what they were here for, wouldn’t it? Like everybody else, I dream about cool aliens asking us to join the federation or whatever. Somebody completely different, that’s the ethnographer’s dream, isn’t it? But it isn’t very likely.”

“It isn’t likely that there is other intelligent life in the universe?”

“It isn’t likely that they would get here…or if they did, that it would happen in my lifetime and not….millions of years ago or millions of years from now. Why? Do you think we’ve got a shot? At meeting someone else?”

“I am quite certain of it.”

Bill tapped franticly on his tablet.

Kim nodded and kept her expression nonjudgemental. Informants had said much weirder things to her than confessing a fervent belief in aliens. If it had been that kind of interview she would have followed up and asked why he thought so, but she was the one who was supposed to answer the questions.

“In chapter four of your dissertation, you discuss the role of language in identity production. I have a few questions.” And so it continued. A few questions about her own research, one about health policy, one asking her to explain a joke from a comedy news show the night before. The topics seemed to rotate almost randomly. On the heels of her answer to a question about sports metaphors, the voice addressed Bill. “Dr. Montgomery is an acceptable candidate, Agent Fowler. Please commence the negations.”

“Now hold on a minute,” Bill protested. “We haven’t finished the security check. It’ll take at least a week – “

“The results of the background check have been sent to your web interface. I am quite satisfied.” He sounded definite, as though there were no one else to please. “I believe there is a great deal of paperwork. It will be possible to meet with her this afternoon.” The blue light on the camera turned off.

Bill sighed. “That’s it then. All right. Let’s go start the paperwork.”

“Wait, what? I’m hired?”

“Do you know what G13 is?” She didn’t . “You’re hired if you sign the confidentiality agreements.”

“Oh. Um. What’s confidential?”

“Everything. If you’re lucky, you can publish in about twenty years. Maybe.” He smiled. “I guarantee, it’ll be a best seller, though. When it comes out.” He chuckled and headed for the door, not looking to see if she was following.

The paperwork – actual paper, the kind you signed over and over – took two hours. The staff – in uniforms, but still with a ‘secretary’ vibe under the floppy cammo clothing – was polite enough. They gave her more coffee and a powerbar. Bill and several men in uniforms (the kind with little glittery bits on the collar and damn, apparently Kim was going to have to learn to read rank insignia) drifted in and out, looking her up and down before continuing on.

She found a form explaining G13. Her eyes bugged out.

She found the station assignment: location was referred to in code, duties said only ‘ethnographer’ and ‘cultural attaché,’ and the incidentals list included ‘living on site’ and ‘providing own food,’ ‘no unapproved technology,’ ‘twenty-four hour call.’

It was a two year assignment, extension possible. That was a frightening amount of job security when you considered that last week she’d been expecting to spend a decade as contingent faculty.

The confidentiality forms took the longest. They were long and absolutely strict. They would lock her away for decades if she told their secrets….

Wow, she really, really hoped nothing really ugly was going on here. Or that nothing ugly would go on. Was she the sort of person who could go to prison for ratting out – oh, god, what? fraud? human rights abuses? War crimes?

How bad could it get?

How brave was she?

Bill paused, looming over her shoulder. “Something wrong?” he asked.

Kim swallowed. “You know what I’m getting into?”

He nodded. “Yup.”

“Am I…going to regret it?”

He grunted, almost smiling. “Nope,” he said.

She glanced down at the paperwork. “Just who is it I’m working for? What is this?”

“You know that polite guy who asked all the hard questions? You answer to him.” He made a face. “First rate pain in my ass, but…fair. He won’t ask you to do anything unethical, if that’s what you’re worried about. And no, we’re not invading his country.” Then, as an afterthought, “No sexual harassment. Don’t worry.” He nodded to himself and walked away, clearly busy.

Kim blinked after him for a long time. Whatever she was worried about, it was the wrong thing.

Kim finished the forms. Bill collected them and passed them off to a clerk before leading her out of the building, across a parking lot and into another building. This one had a lot of exposed ductwork and overly-wide doors. They wandered through a maze of hallways and then up three flights of stairs, down another corridor, and into a surprisingly normal-looking room. Like the interview room, there was a carpet on the floor, a comfortable sofa, a short table with business chairs.

Bill opened a door on the other side of the room and motioned her to proceed him out. There was a single step up, onto a wide – not another corridor, some kind of balcony overlooking a huge space. Over the railing, the far wall was a football field away…and the ceiling…Kim’s head tilted up and up, a couple of stories at least…and down, it was hard to judge, but at least two or three stories down, too….

“Is this an…airplane hangar?” she guessed. Her heart sank. The army had hidden away their displaced community in an airplane hangar? Not in a hotel or even a military barracks, but…this? There wasn’t even any sunlight.

If Kim looked over the side of the balcony, would she see row after row of sad little cots? Or had they set up tents to mark off this huge, drafty space?

She thought miserably of Eddie, who’d worked with the Hmong in California and the Vietnamese in Oklahoma City, allies from a failed war brought to a new home. Had he known about this?

Unsteadily she took slow steps forward and steeled herself to look over the side. There were no tents below, no beds, no crowds of people. There was nothing but the tractor half of a tractor-trailer. She looked back at Bill. “What’s going on? I don’t get it. Is this the right place?”

Bill came to stand beside her at the railing. He pointed down. “This is the right place. Just look.”

There was a grinding sound and a series of sharp clanks and the trailer split into several huge pieces and exploded. Slowly. Glittering. Spinning. Startled, Kim stepped back. And back again, stopping only when she felt the wall behind her. She could still see the slow explosion, though. It was rising slowly, folding and unfolding, splitting and whirling and re-attaching.

Are you uncomfortable around rapidly changing or highly advanced technology? She only had time to realize that everything she had worried about had been wrong.

The scrape and grind and snap and clank of that strange explosion echoing off the distant metal walls – and then it was done, and she realized that there was face at the top of the origami-folded metal. The face was just above her own eye level, huge and looking down at her with glowing eyes. The voice from the interview said, “Dr. Montgomery, I apologize for startling you. I regret that full disclosure was not possible from the beginning.”

If she had not been pressed against the wall behind her, she would have fallen. She glanced at Bill. He looked smug and not the least worried. Kim swallowed. Her terror was already dissolving into a kind of giddy wonder. What would your response be, if you met an alien? He had told her, he had tested her. “Klaatu barada nicto,” she croaked.

The giant face less than ten feet from her emitted a sound very like a laugh and said, “It is too late to ask you to take me to your leader.”

She meant to laugh, but the only sound that came out was a squeak. Kim gulped and pointed at Bill. “According to him I work for you.”

Chuckling, Bill clouted her across the shoulder. “Dr. Montgomery, this is Optimus Prime.” He smirked. “You’ve already met.”

“However, it has not been established that you are working for me.”

Kim felt a wave of disappointment. “I signed the paperwork….” She protested weakly.

“I would not hold you to agreements you made while not in full possession of the facts. You are free to reconsider.”

No. Never. Aliens! Aliens who spoke English and were willing to participate in ethnography. But it would look foolish and over-eager to protest that she was ready now, so she only nodded and tried to look reasonable.

“Well,” Bill drawled, “I’ll leave you kids to get to know each other. “ He chuckled. “I’ve got a briefing. Call me when you’re done, Prime.”

And then the door into the regular room was shut and Bill was gone. Kim realized her neck was sore from tilting her head back. Her legs were weak. “Wow,” she said.

“You are disconcerted.”

“Well, yes. A warning would have been nice!”

“We had been providing documentation in advance, but it never truly prepared new personnel. And since rumors of us began to surface on the internet, the advance materials were greeted with disbelief.”

Kim laughed, once, sharply. “They thought you were a hoax?”

“And it embarrassed them when they were introduced and discovered otherwise.”

“Not a help, then.”

“No.”

She continued to look up at him. It was dizzying.

“Would you like to sit down?” he asked.

Kim nodded and stepped to the edge of the catwalk. If she swung her legs off the side she found she could rest her arms on the middle bar of the railing. “Thank you.” And then, to be polite even though the question might make no sense, “are you quite comfortable?”

The mammoth head –it was nearly as tall as she was-- turned. “I meant there is a sitting area over there.”

“Oh.” Her voice squeaked again. “This is fine. Can I ask you -- ” And then a wave of horror washed over her. “What can’t I ask you?” she gasped.

That earned her a long (puzzled?) look. “What you …can’t ask me?”

Kim closed her eyes. There was no advance preparation here. No warning. Who knew what giant aliens – giant robot aliens? giant cyborg aliens? -- might find offensive or blasphemous? Chagnon hadn’t been able to get his informants to tell him their names. Marcy, working up in New York with the Iroquois, kept frustrating her hosts by asking direct questions. Kim herself had not brought up the topic of Green Cards in the field. It was hard enough to follow the rules when you knew them in advance….She groaned. “What topics are forbidden? I’m sorry, asking that may force you to discuss it.”

“Why would topics of discussion be forbidden? Is this a security concern?”

“No. I mean. I mean, what would be offensive...or private…?”

“Ah,” he said. “No. Curiosity is not offensive. I cannot promise that information on all topics will be disclosed, but the question itself will not offend.”

She nodded to show that she had heard him.

“You had a question,” he prompted patiently.

She had a thousand questions. She couldn’t remember the last one. “Your name,” she blurted. “What is it in your own language?”

He bowed his head.

“A bad question?” she suggested. Already?

“No. Only an unusual one.” His face moved – almost – into a sort of smile. “One none of the liaison staff ever thought to ask. I am afraid that the answer is more complicated than you anticipate.”

“You’re free not to answer,” she said automatically. “You’re free not to answer anything – research is voluntary -- ” Oh, god. Ethics! But there wasn’t a ‘human subjects review’ process for aliens! And no one even qualified to judge if human ethical standards would cover the health and privacy of …. The thought died as she stared at the humongous creature before her. What was he, anyway?

Oblivious to the culture shock exploding just before and below him, Optimus Prime was continuing. “In Core Unicode, this is my name.” He emitted a small click and suddenly the air before Kim’s face leapt to life with a string of unevenly spaced red dots.

“Oh,” she said.

“In Glyphs, which are more commonly used for conversation or for non-electronic communications, this is my name.” Now there were two complex figures hanging in the air before her. They swooped like Japanese characters, but connected internally in a way that put her in mind of a South-Asian cursive. “This is the name I was given.” One of the figures grew larger. “It expresses the desire that I would reach my full potential and the hope that that potential would be worthy. Some humans name their children similarly.”

She nodded.

The second glyph expanded. “This is the title, Prime. Perhaps this is not the time to try to explain the subtleties of that.”

“Yes, all right. Later.” She tried to think about what she had just seen. “That first, that was binary, wasn’t it. Ons and offs.”

“Correct.”

“So…are you a machine, then? Do you really…think in binary?”

“Ah,” he said, leaning closer and lowering his voice. “The phrasing of that question could be considered offensive. And the answer is—again--complicated.”

“Sorry,” she said, resisting the urge to hide her face. Reality had far outstripped her ability to even guess what she was supposed to worry about.

“No offense was taken, Dr. Montgomery. It is the comparison to the machines of your planet that could be construed as insulting. We are machines, but we are not completely ‘built’ in the way that you think of it. We are not programmed or controlled externally. We are independent, self-aware, feeling, living beings. You are organic life composed mainly of carbon, calcium, hydrogen, and oxygen. We are cybertronic life composed mainly of iron, silicon, and carbon. We are quite different from you in many ways, but we are alive.”

She leaned back on her palms so she could stare up at the face that was only about five feet above her now. “How many of you are there? Here, I mean. In the community.”

“On this world there are only fifteen of us.”

“That’s hardly any,” she said, surprised.

“It is a great many if you are trying to conceal them from the general population.”

“Oh,” she laughed once. “Yeah. You’re…huge.”

“Currently, I am the tallest. The shortest is slightly smaller than you.”

“Oh. Well. I guess going to the mall is pretty much out?”

He didn’t smile at that. She thought that perhaps he didn’t get the joke but perhaps his mind was on something else. The next thing he said was, “My people are not the only Cybertronians here on earth. There is another faction here, pursuing their own goals. They do not consider human rights as a priority or recognize human claims to planetary ownership.”

Oh. She hadn’t thought. She hadn’t had time to think. Allies, Eddie had said. She would be studying a community of military allies. But when she’d seen this huge, impossible, beautiful alien she had not stopped to ask ‘allies against what?’ A brief, nearly-hysterical giggle escaped. “So they’re here to …eat us? Steal the water? The women?”

“You’ve watched a great deal of science fiction,” he said. “Given how surprising this all must seem, I can understand you bewilderment. However. This is quite serious. The Decepticons are pursuing a rare energy source which your people are not aware of and cannot use. They remain in hiding because if their location were known, the military organizations of Earth would be … decidedly inconvenient for them.”

“Oh.” She swallowed. “How many of them are there?”

“They have been very quiet for the last two years. We are unsure of their numbers. Perhaps….thirty?”

Kim closed her eyes. Two to one odds. Oh, but wait, the military could make their lives inconvenient. There was nothing to worry about.

“Why have they been quiet?” She asked when she could think clearly enough to participate in their conversation.

“We don’t know. Their leader is missing.... The decepticons here may simply have no place to go or no one who can organize them into an effective plan. We are hunting for them.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Perhaps…now would be a good time to discuss the position?”

This position. Her position. She nodded. “What exactly do I need to do?”

“It will be necessary for you to live in the community and provide your own food. There are facilities suitable for humans. The plumbing works.”

Plumbing. How very practical. “Will I need to bring all the food in advance? For how long?”

“We have been situated in a military base about twenty miles from the nearest town. You will be able to ‘go shopping.’ You will not be deprived of contact with other humans. Your time will be spent observing and having conversations much like this one. It will be very classic ethnography: deep hanging out.”

Deep hanging out. “That’s…that’s Geertz. And before, that was Malinowski. If you know this stuff, what do you need an anthropologist for? I don’t understand.”

There was a soft hiss, like a sigh. “We have tried explaining ourselves to your authorities and to the soldiers assigned to work with us. The results have been…disappointing. Contact has been limited and the attitudes of those assigned to work with us…strategic. Distrust and circ*mspection on the part of those entrusted with defense promotes survival, but not understanding.” He waited expectantly.

“But I’m a civilian. And all I’ll care about is learning about you. And I’ll tell them.”

“And, eventually, if the need for secrecy is determined no longer necessary, everyone else. I believe a relationship between my people and yours would be mutually beneficial.”

“Oh.” Someone had to explain the giant aliens to the entire world. No pressure there, she thought.

“And we would benefit from having someone to consult about human symbols and idioms.”

“Not hardly, not if you are quoting Geertz.”

“Nowhere does Geertz explain the difference between a hat and a wig. Questions that have not been asked before must be put to someone. Besides, while I am intrigued by the work of Mary Douglass, I do not understand it.”

“Oh. So. We’ll…talk about that, then?” she agreed faintly.

“And perhaps you could explain the disagreement over Chomski’s linguistic theory?”

“Right. Yes. I’ll…I’m not a language specialist, but I can look into that.”

The door behind her opened and Bill came out, his feet making the metal catwalk she was sitting on vibrate. “So, are we good? Have we finally got one?”

She spent the rest of the day and half the night reading files in a little windowless room buried deep in the army base. Paper files: ‘non-electronic representations.’ Regular computers were too vulnerable to attack by the enemy.

The enemy. And, dear God, what an enemy.

Early the next morning she was on a plane back to the east coast with a map, a list of recommended supplies, and instructions to show up outside of Jasper Nevada in two weeks.

Chapter 2

It was the job of a life time, but the hazards wouldn’t be dysentery and giant bugs, but Giant Alien not-Robots who were trying to kill her informants and didn’t care about human collateral damage.

“My superiors are ambivalent about your presence here,” Bill had said on the way to the airport. “Some of them have very high hopes about getting some intel on what makes these guys tick. Sorry.” He winced at the pun. “Most of them don’t like a civilian mucking around in our business. Particularly a civilian anthropologist.”

“Should I be worried?”

“Nope. Because mostly you’re there to keep the Autobots happy. They want a civilian to do cultural explanations and crap, fine.” He grinned tiredly. “Whatever. You’re a hell of a lot cheaper than their spare parts budget. We’ll keep them happy.” He paused then. “The real issue isn’t now, it’s ten or twenty years from now – I hope – when we go public or get outed by some disaster we can’t cover up and somebody has to explain giant droids from space to John Q Public, if you know what I mean. Hopefully that day is a long way off, which means all the people you and I have to deal with now will be long retired anyway. So don’t sweat what anybody thinks of your work now. To the humans, now, you are mostly a political concession.”

Humans , he’d said. Because some of the people he worked with were humans and some weren’t. Army, US Intelligence, State Department, it didn’t matter because they were all humans (and, apparently, mostly annoying paper-pushers who had to be humored.)

She should have asked him for his personal impression of the Autobots. She should have asked him if he’d ever seen a Decepticon. She should have –

There were a lot of things she should have done, she reflected, driving through Ohio. She’d been too shocked and overwhelmed to think straight.

It was in Ohio that she started looking at cars. Really looking.

They could disguise themselves as cars and move freely through human society. At least the part of human society that happened on roads. They could be anywhere, while the humans drove right beside them, never noticing.

Except that they couldn’t go anywhere, could they? They could only go where cars could go: not into churches or shopping malls or movie theaters. The wouldn’t fit inside someone’s home. They couldn’t walk through an arts festival or a fall carnival. If they came to Boston they would spend most of the visit sitting in traffic or cruising for a place to park. What a weird image the must have of us, she thought.

In Indiana she noticed the ambulance. It stayed on 88 for a very long time, behind her, no lights or sirens. As fifty miles turned into one hundred, ‘noticing’ turned into ‘curiosity.’ One of Them turned into an ambulance. The folder had included a photograph.

She hadn’t looked at it closely. She couldn’t tell one ambulance from another: They were white, boxy, and decorated with a caduceus and the word ambulance backwards and forwards. She had never given that much thought to cars. She worked in an urban area; most people walked or took the bus.

When she turned off for a rest stop, the ambulance turned off too. Odd. But probably not an alien.

She wondered what would happen if she went over and introduced herself. Probably the EMTs inside would laugh at her.

She wasn’t sure anymore, though.

By the time she stopped for the night somewhere in the vast suburbs of Chicago the ambulance was gone. In the morning there was no sign of it.

All across Illinois she looked, not just watching out for rescue vehicles, but looking at every car and truck and motorcycle that hovered for a more than a few minutes in her rear view mirror.

They probably weren’t out there, but they could be. What was it like to drive through the teeming masses of human transportation, never showing your true self? Was it lonely? Or were they…afraid?

It was a disguise, the files had said. They scanned vehicles and changed their own physiological structure. Did they miss the bodies they had had before, on their own planet? Did they feel like a different ‘person’ when they changed shape?

Could she ask them? Not at first, anyway. Maybe not ever. That might be very personal. Or maybe not.

Perhaps it would come clear from their daily lives. Maybe they would gripe about missing….No, she couldn’t imagine what they might have looked like otherwise.

After wondering for twenty miles about a green hummer, she saw the semi, and she didn’t wonder any more.

Was her driving being judged? Surely in some ways that would be more resonant to them than her professional credentials. Or perhaps this was a greeting ritual. Or perhaps –

But there was no use speculating, was there? Guessing would not work with aliens – it didn’t work all that well with humans – and the eventual truth would probably be something she couldn’t imagine, let alone predict….

She was just over the Iowa line. She took the first exit with a truck stop – the new kind, large, with chain fast food and probably a p*rn store or gambling or whatever. She didn’t look too closely; it was the parking lot she wanted. Well, that and food. It was almost time for dinner.

She parked at the edge of the lot, next to a narrow line of unkempt grass, a median that separated the truck stop from the tiny self-storage lot next door. She went inside to use the restroom and get a hamburger meal, and came out again. The red rig was parked in the truck lot, also next to the shaggy, thinning patch of grass. Feeling silly and uncertain, Kim crossed the asphalt.

The truck was silent, still. That solidified her certainty. The one thing Kim did know about trucks was that diesel engines were a pain to start. Real ones were left running.

The aliens – the Cybertronians – would not run on diesel. As far as the army had been able to determine, their energy production (or perhaps, consumption) had as much in common with digestion as with combustion (and not very much in common with either).

Kim sat on the hard, prickly ground and unpacked her supper. “I don’t know if this is allowed…or if it’s really you. If I’m doing this wrong, or if you actually -- ” she choked out a giggle, “are a truck. You know. Feel free not to say anything.”

Her phone rang. Kim dug it out of her purse and answered it. “This location is discreet. Still, security protocols recommend using a cell phone for public discussions when possible.” It was the voice from the meeting, Optimus Prime. He chuckled. “Also, this will save you the embarrassment of being caught ‘talking to yourself’ if someone comes past.”

Kim swallowed. Hard. She looked up at the truck. It was just out of touching distance. From where she sat on the ground, it loomed. The alien. The alien leader. The most important bit of ethnography in the history of humanity…..

Dr. Montgomery?”

“Hi,” she squeaked. “Ah. Hello.”

Another chuckle.

Kim swallowed again. “So. Spend much time on highway 80?”

Personally, this is my first transit. Last year Bumblebee patrolled Interstate 80 between Salt Lake City and Reno.”

Kim frowned. “So…quite a coincidence then, running in to you just now.”

Not at all. I had Jazz reset the parameters on the algorithms that determine the patrol pattern.”

“Oh.” And then, “Why?”

You are detached to Autobot headquarters. Your safety is our responsibility.”

“My safety,” she repeated. Was driving to Nevada that dangerous? But she didn’t say that; maybe the worry was traffic accidents or maybe the babysitting was only symbolic or maybe – no. It didn’t matter. She was doing it their way, whatever that way was. “I’m really sorry to put you all to so much trouble.”

We were not troubled. These segments of interstate would have appeared on the patrol roster sooner or later.”

“Oh. Thank you.” She trapped the phone against her ear with her chin and began to unwrap her hamburger. She had no idea what to say next.

She was sitting next to a very large alien that looked like a truck and she didn’t know what to say. It was too soon. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t prepared –

Nobody was prepared. Not anywhere. Not for this.

Not that that excuse mattered at all. It was her job to ask questions, and she was just sitting here, her duty, her amazing privilege wasted second by second. Her species was depending on her. Her planet. Even the giant alien who had hired her. They were all waiting for her to open her mouth and do her job, and she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

Kim swallowed the bite of hamburger. It was a hard, painful lump going down. “So. You’re from outer space then…?”

No. I am from Cybertron.” He said something else. Possibly. The sounds slid through her ears and faded without taking a coherent shape in her mind. Then her phone beeped. Surprised, Kim pulled it down and looked. It was an old phone and she didn’t have a data plan on it, but there was a picture on the screen, a single abstract shape.

“That’s the glyph,” she said. It looked like art. “Cybertron. I’ll learn it….” But that was why she was showing her, wasn’t it? She couldn’t learn to speak their language and possibly not to translate the audible parts of it, but she could learn the glyphs. It was part of the job—learn the local language. And he knew that. He knew the job and he was handing her parts of it because he wanted –

She didn’t know what she wanted.

Dully, she took another bite of the hamburger and washed it down with some of the soda. He wanted her to do her job. Her job was to get him talking. “So. Before you said you were on patrol….”

Yes?”

Where did they patrol? And what were they looking for? And did Bill know they were driving around and mixing with the human population hundreds of miles away from their refuge?

But no. This wasn’t an interrogation. She wouldn’t ask about any of that yet. “What is the coolest thing you’ve seen so far?”

Forgive me. I had not categorized that data by ‘coolness.’ I will have to think.” The pause for thought, though, was less than a second. “I was very impressed by the Hoover Dam. It’s quite a feat of engineering.”

She nodded. “I’ve never seen it in person.”

I can recommend it.”

Kim smiled. “What else?”

The Statue of Lliberty was fascinating. To put so much effort and expend so many resources to make a purely symbolic statement…and, of course, the content of the message resonates profoundly.”

Kim nodded, her phone pressed to her ear, her eyes on the seemingly-lifeless rig that loomed in front of her. The oddness of it all closed in on her again, but she pushed it away and concentrated on the conversation. “-- the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When one appreciates the difficulties of engineering on your permafrost – and then, of course, after seeing the state of the local roads --

“Wait? What? I mean, you’ve seen the roads in Siberia?”

Yes.”

“You’ve been there? I mean you’ve ‘patrolled’….?”

Yes.”

“But. I mean. How did you get there? Do you fly? Are you a boat too?”

There was a burst of static from the phone. Several seconds later – Just long enough for Kim to worry that the question had been offensive – the answer came. “No. I do not fly, and I am not also a boat. There are other methods of transportation. You will encounter them soon enough.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

An apology is not necessarily. The idea of using your oceans as a direct medium of travel was merely startling.”

“Oh. Not a lot of water on Cybertron, huh?”

No. In addition, the mineral content would make the water unpleasantly corroding. The very idea…. Hm. I have seen your people playing on beaches. The salt water. The…sand….”

“You know, we’re sort of mostly made of salt water.”

Humans seem to find it pleasurable.” He sounded dubious.

“It’s popular.”

Why?”

“Well…I don’t know why other people like it. I like that the ocean is so big and …complex that you can forget everything else and lose yourself in it.”

You…mean that metaphorically?”

For a moment the question didn’t make sense—and then she remembered the occasional person who washed out to sea and drowned. “Yes!”

I think I understand. Thank you, Dr. Montgomery. If you have rested adequately, I believe it is time to resume our journey. You are nearly two hundred miles from the accommodations you have selected for tonight.”

She opened her mouth to ask how he knew where her hotel reservations were, but instead just said, “You can just call me ‘Kim,’ I think. Unless you have a reason not to.”

That is acceptable. We will speak again later.”

She said an awkward good-bye, gathered up her cold hamburger, and got back in her car.

Chapter 3

That night, at a Motel 6 outside of Iowa City, Kim ate granola and oranges in her room while she talked to Optimus about the history of popular music. He had a preference for eighties rock, but was very curious about folk music, ska, and blues. (It turned out he and one of the scouts spent a lot of time on the internet, compiling a database on human culture.)

The conversation ended after about an hour, when her cell battery died. Kim went to the window and looked across the parking lot at the shadow of the big rig.

The smart thing would have been to go to sleep immediately, but she couldn’t help replaying the conversation in her mind. Finally, she gave in to the restlessness and started to write up the fieldnotes—

-- and realized halfway through reconstructing the questions he had asked about blue grass (Kim couldn’t answer them) that while music preferences might not be privileged information, before too long she would be collecting information that was sensitive, and a password protections were going to be about as much a barrier as a sheet of tissue paper to a thinking computer with universal wireless.

Oh, boy.

Five minutes with google produced a list of what she’d need to open her laptop and pull the internal wireless card. She had never done anything like that before, but she had had a roommate who did her own computer service….and it wasn’t like she was trying to do something complicated….

She’d have to keep her notes on an isolated computer and the backup on a thumb drive. Which meant she’d need another computer for everything else. Well, fine. She could certainly afford it now.

The next morning the red and blue rig was gone, but a glistening, new, black and yellow Volkswagen Beetle was parked next to Kim’s car. Even if the picture in the briefing packet hadn’t been especially memorable, the Beetle was far too pristine and shiny to be a real car. “Good morning,” she said, unlocking her passenger door and loading her bags.

Her phone shivered and burst forth with a ringtone that she had certainly never loaded: “Morning has broken” by Cat Stevens. There was no voice on the line when Kim opened the phone, so she just smiled and waved discretely.

The Bug paced her all morning.

Used to the Northeast, with towns that ran one into another and shopping centers practically lining the highways, the last two days of open space and unpopulated land was starting to make Kim feel…unsettled. Jasper wasn’t a very large town. That wouldn’t be a problem if the next town was close, but that was beginning to seem unlikely. Opportunities for shopping might be few and far between.

She pulled off and the Bug followed. It parked next to her and Kim stood next to it, pretending to talk into her cell phone. “I’m sorry. I need to get a few things. I won’t take too long.”

The phone answered with “Baby, we can do it take the time, do it right.” Kim gave a startled laugh.

Inside the store, looking at a selection of tiny screwdrivers, the phone beeped the arrival of a text. “WHY WAS THAT PARTICULAR MUSIC SELECTION AMUSING?”

Kim took a deep breath and debated the merits of openness versus discretion. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss sexual innuendo with an alien in text messages. On the other hand, they had access to the internet: the Autobots were probably experts on all sorts of details of human sexuality.

Possibly also on cats….

She carefully typed out, “THE SONG IS ABOUT A MATING RITUAL. FUNNY OUT OF CONTEXT.”

Bumblebee didn’t continue the conversation, so Kim hurried her shopping. She spent almost six thousand dollars on electronics and then crossed the parking lot to the giant, rural somethingMART and spend several hundred more on a list she’d been keeping of things that might be needed. She’d been holding off until she saw the facilities, but now….

Out here you could drive for several hours without passing even a small town. Who knew what the shopping possibilities would be in Jaspar, Nevada?

She shopped as quickly as she could and got back on the road. The Bug shadowed her for the rest of the day. He wasn’t talkative, though.

The next morning the yellow and black car was gone.

Cultural Exchange - Chapter 1 - Therrae (Dasha_mte) - Transformers (2024)
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