a tale of the Human Extinction Agency
by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
When did I first believe it? During my first visit to the Human
Extinction Agency. Sure, I heard the news reports, same as anybody
else, but I wasn't paying attention more than half. I thought
it was an ad campaign for some new movie, maybe something like
a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. So I decided to drop
in on the local "HEA office", where I figured I'd score some loot,
free tickets or whatever, you know?
Then I saw my first Nacalite...
It was well done. Very well done. And if it was a movie, I would've thought ILM had outdone themselves. So alien a species -- I mean, they aren't even the same phase of matter as us, okay? An honest-to-God gaseous life-form, like something out of Star Trek... But it wasn't -- couldn't possibly have been -- special effects. It was real life, right there in front of my face, and it scared the hell out of me.
My memories of that first visit are pretty indistinct -- I think I was in shock during most of it -- but I'm pretty sure I talked to a few of the Nacalites (I remember wondering how does a living cloud generate sound, anyway?)... and I sort of remember walking out of the place, dazed, carrying a thick file folder of HEA propaganda and such under one arm.
Took me a couple of weeks to fully accept the reality of the situation: that an extra-terrestrial species had appointed themselves caretakers of my homeworld, that they'd had enough of human-caused disruptions to Earth's biosphere, and that they were going to dispose of my species via a five-year program of transforming every last one of us from human to animal. But once I got my head straight on it, I did what I usually do when something terrible happens -- I got mad.
You could call it the secret of my success: my inexhaustible, inextinguishable, eternal rage. It was rage that kept the local bullies too afraid of me to pick on me in third grade; rage that made me one of the most valuable linebackers on the high school varsity team; rage that I choose to feed into my sculpture and flat artworks, instead of firing randomly into the crowd.
Oh yeah, I was angry. Rat bastard hypocrites, passing judgement on an entire sentient species as if none of their oh-so-fucking-perfect kind had ever caused any harm to anything! And they condemned all human beings for the sins of some -- "guilt by association" raised to its logical extreme, never mind such inconvenient obstacles as ethics and justice and morality. Worse, how dare they presume to punish us for violating a batch of their goddamn laws that we had no goddamn way of knowing about, exactly and precisely because they went so goddamn far out of their goddamn way to ensure our goddamn ignorance!
Somewhere along the way, I swore to myself that I'd make those stinking gasbags pay for everything they'd ever done, and ever would do, to my species. They'd pay through their nonexistent noses, at a compound interest rate no loan shark would ever have the balls to charge. But... how? Nothing human could affect them, at least not in any way that interested me; then again, I'd bet my life that their own toys could mess them up real good. Yeah, what I needed was to get my hands on some of their technology, preferably while I still had hands. Okay, the gasbags didn't seem to actually have anything I could recognize as machinery, but they had to have something, damnit -- they were extraterrestrials, for cryin' out loud! They had an interstellar culture! They had to have something, and I had to be able to figure out how I could grab and abuse whatever-it-was; there had to be something I could do about it... had to be. Because if there wasn't, I might as well volunteer for the total makeover right here and now, on the spot. Had to be something. And then... and then...
Well, I'd just have to raze that bridge after I crossed it.
I spent a fair chunk of time in and around the HEA over the
next few weeks, ostensibly to familiarize myself with every aspect
of the damned extinction process that affected me. I also had
a hidden agenda, that being to observe the gasbags up, close,
and personal. Whoever it was who first said "know your enemy",
he surely knew what he was talking about! I was courteous and
polite, at least on the surface -- I kept my rage hidden down
underneath, where it would not be noticeable from the outside.
I've had a lot of practice doing that. My facade didn't make any
My studies (that phase of 'em, anyway) ended when they kicked me out, forbade me from returning to any HEA office. Seems that the gasbags are some kind of racial empaths -- something to do with not having solid bodies, hence being more vulnerable to non-material influences -- and golly gee whiz, it turns out that a few of the local gasbags had been... let me see if I can remember the exact quote... "adversely affected by protracted exposure to the human's peculiarly raw and intense emanations of hostility". I was glad to hear it; hating is something else I'm good at, and I found it a comfort to know that my temper could do what no bullet was capable of. Of course, the gasbags weren't stupid. Too bad they wouldn't allow me to rage at a large enough group of them, for a long enough time, to make any significant difference...
The five days immediately following my "eviction" were the most productive of my career, bar none. Not that it should come as a surprise, but art is what I do instead of mass murder when I'm really torqued off, okay? I hadn't learned anywhere near enough about the gasbags to base any plans around, and the fuckers had just stomped out of existence any hopes I had of learning enough to make any difference while it still could make any difference, and so I drained off my rage into finishing a half-done hardwood plaque, a thick sheaf of detailed studies for a larger sculpture, 15 pencil roughs, 7 acrylics of varying sizes, the final 6 masks for a 10-color silkscreen, and the preliminary wax form of a brass pendant.
Late in the fifth afternoon, I was putting my tools away when a visitor interrupted me: "Andrew Aikens Tesla?"
Surprised me, it did. All the more so because "it" was exactly right -- my unexpected guest was a gasbag, which I knew because I'd learned to recognize the subtly inhuman overtones of their voices. I didn't allow myself to show any sign of surprise; my years of experience concealing molten rage beneath a cordial mask paid off. I kept my face neutral as I methodically emptied my hands and turned to face the alien. Some momentary disturbance passed over/through it when my eyes locked onto its gaseous form, something that went by too quickly for me to do more than note its passage.
I kept my voice level, almost toneless. "What do you want?" I asked it.
"Andrew Aikens Tesla, my name is *?. I am a scholar in a field whose designation may be rendered in your language as 'high-energy psychistry'. My specialty is the biological effects that are engendered by highly intense emotional energies. I am here because we have observed a remarkably intense focus of emotion, whose emanations can be detected at a distance of 42 kilometers, and --"
"You're here to study me," I interrupted. It wasn't a question, not when the gasbags had already let me know that my emotions were pretty damned hot stuff by their standards.
"Yes," it said. I didn't let it get any further.
"And if I don't want to be studied?"
"In that case..." It paused, as though collecting its thoughts, for a moment. "You would not see me again. It would be unethical for me to act otherwise."
I laughed, good and loud and cynical. "So you gasbags are gonna wipe us out, but at least we can rest assured that all of our ethical prerogatives will be fully intact all the way down the line, is that it? Gosh-a-rootie, I am so amazingly grateful for that!" Something like a slow whirlpool formed and dissipated in the gasbag's substance as I spoke.
"I... see," it said; if I was interpreting its tone correctly, it was puzzled, unsure what to say or do. Like I cared what it did, after its buddies in the HEA had... forbidden...
"On the other hand, suppose I do agree to let you do your thing. What's in it for me?" Let's see how much I really know about gasbag thinking -- can I get him to believe it's his idea?
"You ask what benefit you may derive from my actions?"
"Damn right. You're going to acquire all kinds of data from studying me, in return for which I get the pleasure of seeing my species go extinct at your hands, or at least whatever you use in place of hands. Not exactly a fair exchange. So you want to study me before I cease to exist? Okay, fine. Like I said: What's in it for me?"
Its substance roiled slowly, looking much like a lab demonstration of convection cells in boiling water, for a while; I figured it was lost in deep thought. I put away the remainder of my tools. It finally said, "Your desire for reciprocity is both interesting and valid. Inasmuch as the benefit I will derive from you is information regarding the human species, I believe an equitable item of exchange for me to provide would be information regarding my species. Would you regard this as acceptible?"
I looked ceilingward. "'This' being a mutual exchange of information about our two species, just between you and me..?" I paused, as if thinking about it myself. "Yeah, I agree."
We spent the next few minutes working out details of the agreement -- *? would show up once a week, I'd get at least an hour to ask it questions, blah blah blah -- after which the gasbag left.
The next week passed in the usual way; delivering finished products
to clients, drumming up new commissions, replenishing expended
supplies, and so on. My routine was an indicator of normalcy that
I was damn well going to hold onto for as long as I damn well
could. Within the next five years, the gasbags' program of genocide
would wipe every specimen of homo sapiens off the planet -- and our social structures, monetary systems
included, were scheduled for dismantling a couple years before
the ultimate deadline -- but this was only couple months into
the first stage, early enough that human society was still mostly
intact. Thank God for small favors.
*? appeared on my doorstep, accompanied by a subtle, shimmery visual effect, at the appointed time. What the heck, that would do for my first question... "Nice entrance, there. What's the secret?"
It demonstrated convection cells for a moment -- I hoped I'd caught it off guard. "I greet you, Andrew Aikens Tesla. In response to your query: I cannot tell you the answer."
"Really? Well, isn't that special. Great way to start off the exchange of knowledge there, friend."
Alternating bands of yellow and yellowish orange appeared in its substance -- embarrassment, perhaps? "Your observation is correct. I... regret that I am forbidden to provide you with certain classes of information, one such class being modes of transport unavailable to humanity."
I nodded. "Sure -- if any of us humans actually got the means to escape your program of extermination, I'm sure it would just ruin your whole day." A short pause, which I cut short before *? could respond. At least he didn't make up some bogus false "answer"... "Anyway, I've got another question for you: Just how long have you gasbags been lording it over this planet?"
"We have had observers stationed here for approximately 6,000 Tellurian years, as nearly as I know." It sounded puzzled. "Was this not documented in the data we have distributed through the Human Extinction Agency offices?"
I smiled a nasty smile. "Sort of. You guys claim you've been around since just before humans existed, which means tens of millenia if you're talking the emergence of homo sapiens, or else a few million years if you're counting our earliest proto-human ancestors. Oh, and you also kind of implied that you're reponsible for wiping out the dinosaurs, which would mean you've been hanging around here for tens of megayears. So you can see where I might get confused."
*? floated there, its substance calm, as I spoke, then it replied: "Yes, I can see that, perhaps more clearly than you might expect. It would appear that the methods your people have developed for determining the age of ancient events are less accurate than one might desire."
"Less acc -- hold it," I replied, and it was my turn to be confused. "Are you telling me that all of those events took place less than 6,000 years ago?"
"I had not explicitly stated so, but yes, your inference is a valid one. May I ask --"
"You may not," I interrupted, learning exactly what a reeling mind felt like. "You... so you gasbags have lurked around here for longer than the human species has existed?"
"That is correct."
"And for all we know, you could've been messing with us all along, right from the word 'Go'."
"We Nacalites would never 'mess with you', as you put it! It is our highest goal to live in harmony, never to interfere, with other lifeforms!"
"Of course I believe you," I said with deep sarcasm. "After all, it's not like you gasbags wiped out the dinosaurs or anything, right?"
"That was... a regrettable necessity," *? said. Thin, pastel lines weaved through its cloud-like substance as it spoke. "The reptilian forms had attained a dominance which threatened to distort your world's biospheric relationships for all Time to come; such imbalance demanded correction."
I frowned. "Hold it again -- what 'distortion'? What 'imbalance'? I thought the dinosaurs were part of that Balance of Nature you guys go on about..."
We spent the next couple of hours discussing gasbag philosophy. No doubt I didn't grasp a lot of the subtleties, but as far as I could tell, the Nacalites believe that Nature is intrinsically unstable, and that the purpose of sentient life is to provide active guidance to Nature, doing whatever is necessary to shove Nature back into place any time it gets out of whack for any reason. Basically, they see themselves as cosmic overseers, caretakers. Something about that concept bothered me, for some reason I couldn't put my finger on.
After I called a halt to the proceedings, *? said its goodbyes and vanished, its exit as cleanly mysterious as its entrance. It'd given me quite a bit of food for thought...
Time passed. It usually does.
I lost one of my clients in the next week. Seems that the gasbags reserve the right to finish you off at any time, if they think you've been a naughty boy. Cutting to the chase, as it were. They call it "forfeiture", a conveniently sanitized term for an act that's not so very different from murder, and the gasbags caught Harry posting a whole lot of rather persuasive anti-gasbag essays to USENET. Freedom of speech? Kiss it goodbye, and maybe you were expecting different from a gang of aliens who'd made it their business to erase the entire human species?
Can't say Harry's fate surprised me; he was outspoken, almost to a fault, and in my view he'd always depended on his wealth to shield himself from the consequences of his truth-telling.
Not this time, poor bastard...
Partially-transformed victims were becoming more common. At this stage of the game, the alterations were basically cosmetic stuff like patches of fur and reshaped ears, really nothing that would look out of place on the set of a sci-fi TV show. Seems that the gasbags, in their infinite mercy, had given us ten whole months to choose the form in which we'd spend the rest of our abbreviated lives; they certainly didn't discourage people from making that choice prematurely, however, and a small (but growing) fraction of the populace at large had already taken the first step. Not me! The gasbags might be able to turn me into God knows what, but they sure as Hell couldn't make me like it, and I'd be damned if I were going to give up while there was still any possibility of beating the gasbags.
*? surprised me, the next time we met, by asking about just this point. "May I inquire as to whether you have selected your final form?"
"Nope," I lied. "According to you guys, I can choose any critter on the face of the planet, and maybe even some of the ones that're currently extinct, too -- and that's one Hell of a lot of options. You got any idea how many thousand species there are of beetles alone?" This was a lie, because really, there's only one species I'd ever seriously considered: Wolverine. We're talking about a predator whose only natural enemy is homo sapiens, okay? No other beast hunts them, and nothing walks away happy after messing with a wolverine.
"Given what I know of your psyche, it strikes me as improbable that you would select any insect species," the gasbag replied. "I suspect a large carnivore of some type would be more to your liking. In any case, your point is well taken. Even now, a more than adequate selection of Earthly species have not yet succumbed to human depredations, and I applaud the care with which you approach this most important of the choices in your life."
"Gee, thanks. Why do you care what I decide, anyway?"
"Because I have asked for, and been granted, the responsibility of performing your metamorphoses. It will be an unprecedented opportunity to gain knowledge of your psychodynamics, and I would be grateful to know how much time you will give me to make the relevant preparations."
"How much time I'm going to give you?" I asked in disbelief. "Buy a clue, pal! In case you weren't aware, I like being human. I don't want to be changed into anything else. And I fully intend to take advantage of every loophole I can find, to delay my transformation for as long as your bureaucracy can be manipulated into allowing. Does that answer your question?"
"It... does," *? said slowly, after a short pause. I tried to read its color shifts, its "body language" if you will; it was... I don't know, disappointed? Regretful?
"Wonderful. Now I've got some questions for you, starting with: What sort of government do you guys have?"
"Nacalite society handles its affairs..."
As a matter of fact, I do have friends. Sure, professional relationships are all well and
good, but I've always found that I need more than that in the
way of human contact. That's why I eat at Joe's -- and yes, damnit,
that is what the place is called, and the proprietor's name is Joe. I like his sense of humor, and the sandwiches aren't half
Anyway, lunch at Joe's is an important part of my daily routine. Just imagine my surprise when I walked in for my usual, waved to Joe at his grill, and did a triple-take when I noticed where his ears weren't any more.
"Oh, shit..." I said, louder than I'd intended.
"They got me, Andy," Joe said in his best John Wayne impression without even turning his head in my direction. Then, in his normal voice: "Siddown, your garlicburger's almost done." Like I said: Daily routine. Except...
"So... ah... what's the deal? I wouldn't have expected you to..."
Joe smiled at me. His eyes had shrunk, the fu -- hair on his head looked very much like an all-over buzz-cut, and his ears weren't visible at all. "I didn't. And if you want details, stick around; I figure the rest of the crew'll appreciate the story, and I'm only gonna tell it once, thanks."
I took the hint. It was a lot more enjoyable to focus on my double cheeseburger with a quarter-clove of crushed garlic kneaded into each patty. As usual, the cola, fries, and milkshake were pretty good, too.
"Still trying to repel vampires?" I didn't need to look; it was Harriet Adams, another of Joe's regulars, assistant manager for a local bank and a devout fan of horror movies.
"Hey, don't knock it --"
"Joe!" she cried in dismay, no need to ask why.
I held up a hand and spoke before Joe could: "Yeah, I know. He's not talking 'til the gang's all here. But in the meantime, lunch awaits, hm?"
"Damn right it does," Joe said. "What d' you like today, Ms. Adams?"
We -- Joe's regulars, I mean -- weren't the only hungry people in the diner, of course, just the only ones who cared worth a damn about the guy behind the apron. By the time the lunch rush ended, and Joe could safely put up his CLOSED sign, it was me, Harriet, a truly geeky computer jock named Gordon Holst, and a plainclothes cop by name of Alice Forben, in there with Joe.
"I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here --" Joe began, interrupted by my razzing. "I love you, too, Andy. Anyway: Yes, they got me. This is what they call first stage," here he gestured to indicate his newly-acquired non-human features, "and they insisted on doing it first thing this morning, soon as the HEA office opened."
"So the Nacalites do, at times, ignore their victims' wishes when they schedule a session of transformation."
"Gosh, who'd'a thunk it?" I muttered, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.
Joe shrugged. "Guess so, Gordy. Me, I figure they're just embarrassed about how close they came to falling for my first choice. And zapping me now is just their way of letting me know they're not happy."
"Wait -- first choice?" Alice asked; she's usually quiet, but cuts through the bullshit when she does talk. "This is your backup?"
"Yer damn right," Joe said with a shit-eating grin. "I told 'em I wanted to be a Pernese dragon."
Alice and Gordon were practically on the floor laughing when they heard that sentence. And once Joe explained to me and Harriet that a "Pernese dragon" was an oversized, teleporting, mind-reading, time-traveling lizard from a series of novels, we joined them in helpless merriment.
"It's not like they ever actually said that fictional creatures were off-limits, right?" Joe observed, which set off another gale of laughter. After we sobered up enough for him to speak normally, Joe continued, "At first they bought it, hook, line and sinker, swear to God they did! The teleporting threw 'em, but hell, they seem to be able to do it, so they couldn't just reject it out of hand, ya know? And for a couple hours, I actually thought I might just pull it off. I dunno, maybe the time-travel is what queered the deal. They got real inquisitive after I dropped that little bombshell on 'em, let me tell you! So I kept feeding 'em info out of McCaffrey's books, always being cautious with my phrasing so's to dance around the fact that my chosen breed was imaginary. I was doing pretty good for a while there... but they finally asked me, point blank, whether or not there really ever had been any such thing as a Pernese dragon."
"And then..?" Adams asked.
"And then I was stuck. I'd been real careful with my words all along, but I never actually said anything that was flatly untrue, y'know? So when they finally got around to asking me directly... like I said, I was stuck."
"Interesting," said Holst. "And that was, hm, when you were closed on the tenth of last month?"
Joe nodded. "Yep. They kicked me out, I got a notice in the mail a week later, and here I am today: an up and coming duck-billed platypus."
We all broke up again. I mean, really... a platypus, for the love of God? A creature that looked like it was assembled from spare parts by a Creator who must've been drunk or stoned? Crazy! But also practical, because the platypus is a poisonous beast, with little spurs to inject its venom...
We spent the next while discussing the pro's and con's of various animals. By the gasbags' rules, anybody who didn't choose for themself would have an alternate form assigned them at random, and none of us thought much of that option...
Later: I dreamed of fire, a migratory inferno that left destroyed
cities in its wake. My gasbag buddy, *?, flew lead position in
a squadron of blimps that dropped gasoline in front of the blaze.
I rode shotgun next to him. We are caretakers, he assured me, and this destruction is needful. We are overseers; we oversee
the perturbation of your biosphere in order to safeguard it from
At that point, I woke up sweating. Caretakers who acted against their avowed purpose...
That's when it hit me, puzzle pieces finally assembling in my mind's eye: The gasbags were the United States Forest Service, written to a larger scale. See, the Forest Service used to have a long-running PR campaign about Smokey the Bear, "only you can prevent forest fires" and all that, because they'd decided that no forest should ever burn, end of discussion. So nothing burned... and the forests filled with dead, dried-up plant material... and the longer they spent Protecting The Forests this way, the more of this tinder accumulated. And so, whenever a blaze did manage to start, it would be increasingly likely to grow into an unstoppable firestorm. Thus were public lands mangled by a policy we'd created to protect them from damage.
The gasbags'd been playing Forest Service for longer than humans had existed. Therefore, no human being had ever seen the true ecological consequences of his actions -- not with the gasbags around, self-appointed "invisible hands" who generously worked to correct all ecological imbalances as and when they occured. End result, whether intended or not: We humans never realized how much of an impact our actions truly had on Earth's biosphere. Good Lord, how could we, when the gasbags' constant efforts ensured that we would never be able to see more than a fraction of the ecological distortions our actions produced? Sure, we messed around like nothing we did would ever make a difference... and why not? Thanks to the gasbags, our actions never did make any difference!
Of course, we might still have realized how our actions affected the biosphere, if only we'd been taught by some other species with a clue about ecology, right? Too bad the only such species around was the gasbags, who went out of their way to ensure that humans would never even recognize their existence, let alone learn anything from them.
But somehow -- in spite of everything the gasbags could do to keep us ignorant -- we were discovering just how massive an impact we could have on this Earth of ours. We were learning not to shit where we sleep. And now... now that we were finally getting a clue... now the gasbags chose to reveal themseves, now they decided they'd better take us out of the game completely.
Now the gasbags punished all humans for the crime of being what they'd made us.
I was too keyed-up to go back to sleep; I picked up the phone instead.
"Hello -- Gordon? Yeah, it's me, Andy. I just had an idea I wanted to discuss with you, and it couldn't wait..."
If Holst had been unconscious when I called, he did a damn fine job of pretending otherwise. Neither of us got any more sleep that night.
Sometimes people like Holst make me nervous. I swear, he's the
next best thing to omniscient; I'd never even heard of the phrase "cursorial hunter", and he tied it in to human
evolutionary history and why the gasbags did it and God knows
what else. And between the two of us, we got it all to hang together
pretty damn well, if I do say so myself...
My gasbag buddy had just arrived -- showtime.
"I greet you, Andrew Aikens Tesla."
"Sure thing. How does it feel to know that we humans are being wiped out for the sins of you Nacalites?"
Russet uncertainty in *?'s body. "Excuse me?"
"Oh -- you want the long version? Right..." I told it about my initial insight, unintended consequences and so on, with four-part harmony and a rising level of anger. It listened in fascination, perhaps horrified, until I finished: "-- nuking us out of existence. Real smooth. So... what d' you think?"
"I, am..." *? said haltingly, then it started over. "I find your theory to be... profoundly disturbing." This was a world-class piece of understatement, if I was reading its evident agitation right. "It would -- if you were correct -- our actions..." Its voice trailed off, fading into incomprehensible Nacalite speech.
"But wait, there's more!" I cried, parodying any number of late-night commercials. *? shut up instantly, and I continued: "Yes, we humans have made a sorry mess of things at times. Killing out of greed or stupidity or shortsightedness or whatever other stupid reason. But still... there's only one species we've ever eliminated on purpose. Only one species that ever became extinct because we deliberately set out to make it so: Smallpox. And don't you dare try to make me feel guilty about it, either. Y' see, smallpox is a -- was a -- pathogenic bacteria. It was a disease that had already killed God knows how many million humans, and would continue to kill God knows how many more. And that, you high-and-mighty alien, is exactly why we wiped out smallpox. It wasn't murder -- it was self-defense!
"But you gasbags, you're not 'extincting' us in self-defense, are you? No, you sure aren't. Care to tell me exactly why the great Nacalite culture has appointed itself judge, jury, and executioner for my species?" Hmmm... interesting. I'd never seen that shade of burnt orange in a gasbag before now. It matched my mood; I was well and truly on an emotional roll now.
"You know our reason --" *? replied, its voice wavering like an old tape recorder with an off-centered reel. I cut him off fast.
"Bullshit! Sure, I know the spiel you gasbags've been giving out. But if you really thought we were so damned guilty, why bother with a Human Extinction Agency? If you really believed we needed to be extinct, why not just kill us and be done with it? All you'd have to do is whip up a human-specific disease germ we got no defense against. We die, the germ dies after its only host goes away, everything else lives happily ever after, end of story. But noooo-ooo-ooooo, you guys would rather set up a convoluted five-year plan which lets you delude yourselves that you're not really committing genocide.
"No, I don't think your kind believes in what you're doing to us. I think you gasbags know exactly what you're doing, and you know exactly how wrong it is. You disagree? Fine -- convince me."
The burnt orange was more intense. The wavering of its voice was faster: "We do not kill without provocation, without reason. That is what you humans do, it is the reason for your impending extinction."
"Ri-iii-iiggghhhht," I said, drawing the sarcastic syllable out like corn syrup. "That's why you're going to agonize over it for the next few years, instead of just goddamn doing the dirty deed. Y' know, that is just the kind of stupid mistake a rookie assassin would make -- giving the victim time to maybe work up a defense, I mean." Without warning, I shifted to a tone of friendly inquiry: "So tell me... exactly how many other sentient species have you Nacalites wiped out already, hm?"
*? was silent. As for me, my mind was racing in several directions at once. Part of me was memorizing the exact hue of its supersaturated burnt orange for use in later paintings; another part was pondering what I knew of the gasbags' history on Earth; and somewhere in there was a part that wondered how and why I'd gotten this irritated, this quickly...
*?'s voice (now fully controlled again) broke into my reverie: "Of all the alien species we Nacalites have yet encountered, yours is the third known to possess intelligence. The other two have long been accepted as valued partners in the larger community of sentient life; what we do to you humans... is an act without precedent."
"Really. And I suppose those other two species are just as... ecologically correct... as you gasbags are?"
"Your supposition is incorrect. One species... was and is inorganic, and devoted to the eradication of conventional life. They sterilized several planets, for which offense we declared war upon them."
The fire inside me cooled. "Sterilized... an entire planet? My God..." Then I thought about the gasbag's words just previous. Confused, I continued: "Hold it -- you declared war on these guys. But you just said they were one of two species..." I felt the blood vessels in the back of my head stiffen. That's not common, but it's a definite sign that my temper is warming up for something big. "Planets. More than one. Sterile. Lifeless. No biosphere left. At all. And you made peace with the things that did it." Oh yeah, the adrenaline rush was in full swing now; it felt like my skin had just shrunk half a size. "Meanwhile, here we are, humans, we're only in the process of destroying our own biosphere... and us, you decide... to wipe out."
My whole body was vibrating slightly, hyper-intense anger plucking at my nerves like Pete Townsend windmilling a guitar. "You're killing every last human being on the face of the Earth. For crimes just a fraction of what you let those other bastards get away with. Just a coincidence that we don't have starships, right? Pure chance that we can't hit you back where it hurts? And you dare... you dare... to make noise about how you gasbags are so -- fucking -- righteous and clean. You DARE to pass judgement on ANYTHING ELSE IN THE GODDAMN UNIVERSE!!"
If *? replied, I didn't hear it -- the rhythmic battering of my heart and blood took precedence over any merely physical sound. At some point, I found a lit blowtorch in my hands. I normally used it for my sculpture, but not now. It spewed high-temperature, high-velocity flame into the air, and I wore a serial killer's grin when I realized that the gasbag was actually afraid of the damn thing. Oh yeah! But... being reduced to an animal right here and now would spoil all my plans, some part of my rage-soaked mind pointed out, much though I didn't want to hear it.
My vision kind of grayed out around the edges, a visual effect not unlike painting a target ring around the gasbag I was staring at. My jaws were so tight that I was mildly surprised to discover that I could force words out of my mouth: first, barely audible, "Get out." And then much louder, "Get out -- or BURN!"
I was an aching mass on the workshop floor when the world returned to me; the torch was cool. The gasbag must have left while I was... I don't know what I was, unconscious? An out-of-body experience? I couldn't remember dousing the flame, lying down, or anything else between threatening the gasbag and waking up. I had a headache the size of Rhode Island, and the rest of me felt like I'd spent 8 solid hours slamming every part of my body into a brick wall. Repeatedly. Bone-deep exhaustion plus massive pain, not an enjoyable combination. What in God's name just happened here? I asked myself. No answers, until I recalled something *? said when we first met: He's studying "biological effects of highly intense emotion". I hope he's getting his money's worth...