"Earth is not very important."
"Come again?" asked Arlene. Sears and Roebuck didn't pick up on her hurt tone. They were simply answering my question with unfail- ing honesty. I wondered if all the Klave were like this. "They're not passing value judgments, Arlene," I said. "If the facts offend our pride, it's not their fault."
If looks could kill, my best buddy would have fried Fly on a stick. "Don't patronize me," she said- which was the furthest thing from my mind. "I was surprised, that's all. Why would the Freds produce a ton of damned monsters and flood our solar system with them if Earth is not important?"
"Don't ask me, Arlene. Ask them." We turned to Sears and Roebuck. They said noth- ing. So Arlene carefully repeated her diatribe for them. Boy, did they have an answer.
"Earth is skirmish-zoned. They don't care go to humans. Galaxy is setting for whole game. You'd call galactic diplomacy by other means. No war goes to Earth. Your space is too small. Earth is move in game. All are having you here because you matter. All parts matter to the Klave. Whole game matters to the . . ." He used a word to denote the Freds. There was no English equivalent, and a Klavian word slipped in. To human ears, it was noise.
"Is it only the Klave who fight the Freds?" asked Arlene. Sears and Roebuck understood well enough when we spoke of the enemy. For whatever alien reason, they didn't call them Freds. I hoped I could persuade them to start using all our words if only so I wouldn't have to listen to a sound that put my teeth on edge.
In answering Arlene, they used another nails-on- the-blackboard sound to describe the larger group of aliens of which the Klave formed only a small part. "All here are opposed to %[% body %]*@@+."
"Please," said Arlene, "could you call them Freds? That's a word we can understand."
"Freds," said our new pal. "See, that didn't hurt." I thanked them.
"Sears and Roebuck are real gentlemen," said Ar- lene.
S&R smiled. It was great finding aliens who could smile even if it happened to be their version of a frown (for all we could tell). We didn't ask. We didn't want to mess with it. They were in there pitching. They made another noble attempt in their peculiar English to give us an education in galactic history. I never dreamed there was so much going on behind the attack on humanity. Suddenly the zombies, imps, demons, ghosts, flying skulls, pumpkins, superpump- kins, hell-princes, steam demons, spider-minds, spider-babies, fatties, bonies, fire eaters, and weird- ass sea monsters all seemed trivial in the grand scheme being laid out for us. The monsters we fought were bit players. And why not? Humanity was a bit player in the galactic chess game being played out by the Freds and the message aliens.
And suddenly it was clear why we hadn't been greeted by a brass band and presented with a key to the city when we arrived. We were not big time. But it was also evident why we had been invited. We were in the bush leagues, but at least we were in the game. Turned out it wasn't only the old mud ball that didn't rate star treatment. There were a lot more important bases than this one. I shook my head. I was just a poor old Earth boy on his trip to the big burg. This was the galactic base to me, even if it happened to be in the boondocks.
When I told Sears and Roebuck how I felt, they looked at each other as if they were checking out a reflection in a mirror. Then they said, "You will be informed soon-time about location. You won't go to boondocks, in your words."
They returned to their main theme. Once again I was impressed that the Klave seemed concerned about all life victimized by the baddies. So it made sense that we did rate special treatment from Sears and Roebuck. They were the most noble aliens on this whole colossal alien base, but they looked as if they'd just stepped out of a kid's cartoon.
A cartoon I had somehow missed when I was growing up. Arlene was younger than I was, but she'd seen a lot more popular entertainment. She asked me why I was so culturally deprived. I knew how to shut her up: "I was busy preparing mentally, physically, and spiritually for my role as cosmic savior. I had no time to waste time on frivolous media entertain- ment." That showed her.
I couldn't wait to find Albert and tell him the good news. As soon as Captain Hidalgo was on his feet again, he'd have to be briefed. Our mission was a success, after all. We'd found aliens who didn't want the Freds to occupy our solar system. It might not mean any more to them than a village or town in one of Earth's major wars, but we at least counted at that level. We rated Third World treatment by superior beings.
The little voice in the back of my head suggested that Director Williams would be more amused by this discovery than either Admiral Kimmel or Colonel Hooker would be. Hell, I'd like to see the faces of the human sellouts if they heard where they rated in the cosmic scheme of things.
Then that old mind reader Arlene asked S&R the googolplex-dollar question: "So what are you guys fighting about?"
An hour later, by Earth standard time, we still hadn't grasped what S&R were trying to get across. Their odd syntax wasn't the problem. We weren't picking up on the concepts.
We finally received assistance from an unexpected quarter: Albert joined us; he came swimming through the air. Not really, of course. It only looked that way. The base had gravity zones and free-fall areas. What- ever the Freds could do on Phobos, the message aliens could do better! Albert was simply taking the escala- tor. He had drifted up near the ceiling of our section. Then he slowly drifted down on a transition-to- gravity escalator! That's what it was. He moved his arms and legs as if he were doing the breast stroke, grinning at us the whole time.
I hoped he was over his sulk or pout or whatever it was. I didn't buy the meditation bit. He seemed eager to rejoin his buds. And he'd picked a good moment to meet Sears and Roebuck.
The moment Albert touched down, he took out a little purple ball and squeezed it. A duplicate of Albert appeared. I'd seen those toys before. We thought we had virtual reality on the old mud ball. The doppelganger matched Albert's movements per- fectly.
"What's this about?" I asked. "Trust me," he said. "I'll tell you later." For the rest of the time he was with us, his three-dimensional image aped his movements a few feet away.
Arlene shrugged. So what if Albert was playing games to deal with his boredom? She made the introductions: "Sears and Roebuck, I'd like you to meet another member of our team."
The Magilla Gorilla faces grinned more widely than I thought possible. Looked as if their heads were in danger of splitting open. "We encountered these unit in times going before," they said.
Well, I'd be dipped in a substance they recycled very effectively here at the alien base. I may have judged Albert's meditations too harshly. He waved at S&R, and both of them waved back.
"We're discoursing the wordage but not reaching home plate," said S&R.
Albert helped himself to a glass of water from our table. "You must have asked them for background," he said.
Arlene playfully pulled at Albert's sleeve. He seemed very comfortable in the shimmering robes he'd selected. The designs looked slightly oriental to me. "Have you talked to them before?"
"Yes." "Do you understand what the war is about?" she asked.
Albert sat in one of the chairs we'd vacated. "Near as I can make out, they're having a religious war." S&R had mentioned diplomacy. It would have been nice if that word had registered on Arlene. She snorted when Albert said the r-word. "I'd expect that from you," she said with disdain.
"Arlene!" I jumped in. "It's all right, Fly," Albert jumped right back. "I can understand why Arlene would react that way." "Excuse me," she interjected, but despite the words she didn't sound polite. "Please don't talk about me in the third person when I'm right here."
Albert wasn't in a mood to back off. "We've been doing that with Sears and Roebuck, and they're right here."
The man had a point. S&R politely waited for one of us to address them directly. Otherwise, they didn't budge and didn't make a peep.
Albert regarded Arlene with a strong, steady gaze I'd never noticed from him before. I definitely needed to rethink my views on meditation.
"Arlene," he began softly, "it might not be possible for us to understand why these advanced beings are in conflict. They have such advanced technology and powers that they can't possibly need territory or each other's resources. The war is some sort of galactic chess game. It may not be possible for us to grasp the root reasons for the war. I think the best we can hope is to make a good analogy. With my beliefs, the best I can do is compare the situation to two different branches of the Southern Baptists, or, say, the Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. From the inside, there is a huge chasm. From the outside, the distinctions may seem insignificant. If you find my analysis unac- ceptable, we will say nothing more about it, but I would like basic courtesy, if possible."
For the first time in their relationship, Albert gave it to my best buddy good and hard. At least, it was the first time I ever noticed. Albert allowed himself to use a patronizing tone. I thought Arlene had it coming. Apparently so did she. "I'm sorry, Albert," she said. "Your explanation helps. You know how impa- tient I am, but that's no excuse to be rude." "Thank you," he said.
This seemed like a good time to pick up the ball and run with it. "Sears and Roebuck," I addressed them. "Yes?" they replied.
"Did any of the conversation we just had help, uh, clarify the problem? Unless you weren't listening, that is. We weren't trying to have a private conversation right in front of you."
"Private?" "Well, you know what I mean. Private! I mean, you have such a large English vocabulary . . . however you picked it up."
"Free-basing," they said. We all did a big collective "Huh?" So they tried again: "Data-basing. We draw on large dictionary stores. Private is the lowest rank in the Earth army."
"Yes, well," I floundered around. "We'll return to that subject at a later time." I stared at their comic faces. They stared right back. "I've forgotten what I asked you," I admitted.
"Religion unclear going to object-subject," said Sears and Roebuck. "We are sorry we fail the expora- tion."
"Explanation," I corrected them without thinking about it. Jesus, I was becoming used to their sen- tences. "I don't mean to criticize you," I continued, "but we're not getting anywhere. Thanks for trying to explain."
"Criticize," said S&R. "Movie critics. Book critics. Art critics. Science-fiction reviewers ..."
Albert saw the direction before I did. "Is that it?" he asked, eagerly. "Do you have aesthetic differences with the Freds?"
"War going on to hundreds of thousands of years," said S&R. "Go to planetary systems change. Different races are subjects, objects."
"How did it begin?" asked Arlene, suddenly as enthusiastic as Albert.
"You call them books," said S&R. "The Holy Tests."
"Texts," I did it again, almost unconsciously. "Texts," they said. I felt like giving them an A-plus. "Books are twelve million years old. The Freds disa- gree with us."
"With the Klave?" I asked. "All of us. Not only Klave-us, but all that are here us. We bring you for going to the war."
"Literary criticism," marveled Arlene. I wasn't about to forget that she'd been an English major for a while.
Albert clapped like a little kid who'd just been given the present he always wanted--understanding. "The two sides are literary critics, conquering stellar sys- tems to promote their own school of criticism. I love it. It's too insane not to love. What is their primary disagreement over the twelve-million-year-old books?"
S&R gave us one of their best sentences: "The Freds want to take the books apart."
Arlene screamed, but it was a happy kind of scream. "Oh, my God," she said, "they're deconstruc- tionists!"

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