Once, when I asked my grandfather what Xiniti were like he said, “You know those science fiction stories where an explorer visits an unknown planet, discovers aliens that sneak back to Earth aboard their ship, and destroy the world? That’s what they’re like. At least, if you’re the Abominators. We managed to get off on the right foot with the Xiniti despite that.”
Staring at the Xiniti on the screen, I tried to come up with something appropriate to say. Not much came to mind.
I mean, how do you introduce yourself to members of a race that hunted the Abominators to near extinction, and kept itself occupied by containing their former servants’ competing interstellar empires within one of the galaxy’s spiral arms?
“Hi,” I said.
Haley glanced over at me, waited a moment for me to continue talking, and, when I didn’t, said, “We’re the Rocket, and Night Cat, descendants of the original Rocket and Night Wolf. Thanks for assisting us with the drone.”
The Xiniti directly in front of the screen started moving its mouth, and after a brief wait, we heard it speak. Even if I hadn’t noticed the disconnection between the mouth movements and the sound, I might have guessed the voice was computer generated. It didn’t sound quite right—probably some sort of translation program.
“Greetings, scions and inheritors of the Heroes League. We recognized your vessel, and assisted as much for our own reasons as any desire to give you service. As inheritors of our debt to the Heroes League, we will assist you until such point as we both consider it paid.”
I wondered how well their translation program translated their tone into English. From their looks or Grandpa’s stories, the Xiniti didn’t sound especially formal.
The Xiniti’s lips came together, and I heard a clacking noise that might have been teeth.
They had a lot of teeth.
“That sounds good,” I said, wondering if I should be asking them what they were talking about, or whether that would offend them.
I did remember that Grandpa said something about debts in their culture, and that debts were more important to them than they were to us.
I decided to ask Lee the first chance I got. He knew about the Abominators. Chances were he’d know about the Xiniti.
“We are gratified that you find our arrangement acceptable,” the Xiniti said. “As the one who brought the current quarry to us, you are entitled to share in the results. We intend to collect the drone’s pieces and determine its purpose. Do you wish a copy of our anaylsis?”
While I tried to think of a way to steer my reply toward possibly getting the Xiniti to pass along not just the analysis, but also the actual pieces of the drone, Haley said, “We do. Right Rocket?”
I nodded yes. So much for that.
Anyway, even if they did owe us somehow, I doubted that they’d actively pass us alien technology.
The Xiniti said, “It appears to be a member of a machine civilization that’s sometimes allied with criminals in this vicinity.”
The confirmation felt good. It was better than believing I’d let a sentient being get destroyed out of carelessness.
Not long after that, we turned around, and flew home.
* * *
It was three in the morning before we were back in the HQ’s hangar. We’d been doing a mix of talking and silently waiting for the flight to be over.
The hangar smelled of oil, metal, and musty old basement smell, but after hours of sitting in the jet, it smelled like home.
“What a mess,” I said.
I’d said that, and variations on it more than once on the way back.
“Don’t,” Haley put her hand my shoulder. We were both back in street clothes, and I could feel her touch through my t-shirt. “You didn’t know how this would go. It’s okay. We would have taken the jet into space eventually, and you know something would have happened. At least we didn’t get hurt.”
“I know. That would have been worse.”
Another thought passed through my mind. I wasn’t going to say it, but Haley sighed.
“Now what?” She was frowning by that point.
“I was just thinking about the whole debt thing. Lee’s with us because he owes my grandpa. I’m pretty sure the Xiniti owe the League because they caught the last Abominators. I wondered if the League owed anybody and who’ll come to collect.”
“Nick, you’re tired. I’m tired. Let’s just go home. You can’t do anything about it right now.”
“I know. I wondered. That’s all.”
We took the elevator upstairs, walked to my parents’ house, and, borrowing Mom’s car, I drove Haley home.