by Wendy McElroy

Kira filled the doorway, her oval body rippling slightly as her bone structure swayed beneath the translucent skin. He had come to recognize this as a sign of impatience, like drumming your fingers on a tabletop. "Martin," she said finally, pulling his attention away from the computer screen before him. "Martin, I am worried about you."

What now! He grimaced and hit PAUSE on the video. "What's up Kira?"

"I am worried about your death wish, Martin."

One, two, three, four . . . then calmly, "I don't have a death wish, Kira. If I had a death wish I would have killed myself some weeks ago when you started this whole thing."

"All humans have a death wish. Freud is quite clear on that point. He says, and I quote..."

As she quoted, Martin vowed to himself again, "...first thing back on Terra, I'm going to skin whoever sent up those psych books. This is supposed to be a cultural exchange, a breakthrough of communication, not psychotherapy. With a strict Freudian, yet!"

"...unquote. Which leaves me in a dilemma Martin. Martin?"

"What? Oh. A dilemma."

"Yes, As I understand it, the only thing that keeps you alive is the repression of your death wish and, yet, repression is almost a synonym for dishealth. If I make you healthy Martin, are you going to kill yourself?"

He had been sitting on the edge of his nerves all week. He forced a long, deep breath and shook his hands to increase the circulation. Kira watched this intently. "Look, let me explain this again. There is no death wish. Human beings scratch and bite for survival. Of all the species in your videoscope" he patted a machine in front of him protectively, "we have one of the highest ratings on that score. Humans now occupy over one-tenth of all habitable planets in this system. And whereas," another deep breath, "a fine case could be presented that we are out to kill one and other, there is no evidence whatsoever that we are out to kill ourselves."

"According to Freud, neurotic blindness often accompanies ..."

"Freud was wrong, goddammit!"

"Freud was a great human being, Martin."

"And Ayn was a great Tarian, but that didn't stop her from claiming that Taria orbited your sun because it was being chased by a large lizard."

Kira acknowledged that he had scored a point, but . . . "Without Freud I never could have understood Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello . . ."

"Yeah, Yeah. Look, I'm in the middle of a fifth period sky lyric and I still have to make finishing touches on the hologram of Twelfth Night for the Shakespeare series. So, why don't you go and read some more? --anything but Freud!"

Kira clucked lightly. "All right Martin." She glided out after quoting a passage from Shakespeare -- "Goodnight, sweet prince . . ." -- a habit that was now the rage on Taria. She paused for a second in the hope that he would respond with a quote beginning with her last word, but Martin did not know how to play.

The problem with the Tarian mind, mused Martin, was that it wasn't serious; it danced on the surface of thought. Even the Tarian version of fiction was nothing more than stylized accounts of history told from two perspectives -- no attempt to interpret motivation or extrapolate. Tragedy, satire, drama which depended on the contradictions of man simply did not exist. There were flights of fancy called sky lyrics or there was history. Perhaps it had been a mistake to start with Shakespeare; it was such a short leap from Othello to Freud.

"I hate Freud," he muttered.

Twelfth Night was only a moderate smash hit. As Kira explained, it wasn't true to life. (What do you know about human life? he almost snapped back.) Even more distressing, Malvolio was the most popular character. (Malvolio? He's there for comic relief.) It was felt he came closest to capturing the essence of man.

Martin spent the next day going through questionnaires from the production. These forms, meticulously filled out by a cooperative Tarian audience, were processed and analysed to gauge the impact level of the program and to get a tighter bead on Tarian responses. (Cultural exchanges commonly proceeded political alliances as a means of assessing the approach a species is likely to take in negotiations and war. Of course, the species also evaluated mankind.) The questionnaires for Twelfth Night read like essays on abnormal psychology. A trip to a video-central confirmed his worst fears; texts on psychoanalysis were being mass marketed.

That evening Kira returned, clucking for admittance at the door panel. "To thine own self be true," she greeted.

"A stitch in time to you too."

"When you have some free time Martin, I would like to check out your body armor."

"My what?"

"Your body armor: the layers of chronic tension stored in your muscles in order to keep your emotions in check. Although Reich is quite informative, a first-hand appraisal would be invaluable."

He unzipped his shirt to expose hair, pale skin and a blurry tattoo. "Look. Flesh and blood. No armor. Flesh and blood."

She accepted this as an invitation and prodded his chest with a thin limb extended from her center. "Your chest segment is pliable, but your jaw looks very bad. You are storing a great deal of anger in your jaw, Martin."

He expelled a breath. "This has got to stop. Don't you realize that even if there is some truth in what you're reading, those psychology books only deal with what's wrong in man. Neurosis. Psychosis. You're getting a totally twisted view."

"Reich insisted that everyone was armored."

"But Reich was human. By your own standards, he was a flawed neurotic mess like the rest of us. How can you take his word for anything?"

"A good point," she conceded. "However, Reich's books were banned in America and our research shows a high correlation between books that are banned and books that contain truth." She peered into his face. "Can you lick your nose?"

He started to respond, then simply sat back. "Leave me alone," he said, regretting but not able to control how brusque it sounded. In her own way, Kira had been kind to Martin, even permitting him to touch her young. If only she didn't enjoy psychology so much.

"It is a standard Reichian test to judge the degree of tension stored in the jaw. If you can lick your nose, it means ..."

"Leave me alone." As she turned to go, he added, "If I want to read up on this Reichian stuff, where should I go?"

"Any video-central should have it Martin."

"I was afraid of that."

She exited to the sound of his sigh.

His report to Terran Culture Center was grim. "Exchange in trouble. Perhaps irreparable."

The Center replied: "Cannot reconcile report with Tarian request for more exchanges. Assess motives." Ever since the Alin experience when a delegation was served as gourmet delicacies, the Center was touchy about strange requests.

On schedule, Kira returned the next day. "Excuse me Martin. I don't want to intrude on your space."

Maybe if I don't say anything, he thought, but it didn't work. "There is something I would like to share with you," she continued. "A small group of close friends are meeting tonight to get in touch. Nothing elaborate. We're just going to be where we are." Kira's skin rippled slightly with pleasure like a purring cat.

An obvious thought finally him. "You don't take any of this seriously, do you?" he asked without sarcasm. "I'm like Rubic's cube. You break me apart and shuffle the pieces around like a jigsaw. There are enough theories of human behaviour to keep you happy for years."

"Well . . . it's just a game Martin." Kira's body shaded from its normal translucency to a milky white; a version of blushing, he wondered?

"I'm not accusing you of anything. I just want to know how seriously you take all this."

"How could it be serious? If all the conflicting theories are not games, it would mean that men haven't solved the most basic questions about their own nature. No species capable of reaching another planet could be that backward." She paused, then asked softly, "Did I break any rules in playing?"

"Kira," he said quietly, "the books are 100% serious." Through the awkward silence, Kira's skin deepened to a solid off-white. "I don't have the slightest understanding of some of the most important things in my life," he continued, "Why I married my wife, why I am infatuated with literature or why I lack a sense of humor. My brother, from the same parents and with the same background, detests my wife, is indifferent to art and laughs himself sick at every opportunity. The books are not a game."

"Oh. Well . . ." Kira backed slowly toward the exit. "I see. I mean, this has been a terrible mistake. I meant no offense," she extended a placating limb; or, perhaps it was intended to hold him back. "You must understand that what you are describing is imprisonable insanity." She lingered at the door to assure herself he would not follow, then vanished. He imagined her running, in her fashion, down the hall.

"Exits mankind stage left from Taria," he addressed her absence. "The first species to become a parlor game."

That night, Culture Center jerked him awake with a sharp tingle from his implanted communicator. His supervisor's voice was equally jarring. "What in hell is going on down there!" To him, anything extra-Terran was 'down.' "We've had two delegations in the last hour trying to negotiate a sudden non-aggression treaty and conceding almost all our terms. The Head Tarian Council has officially apologized and politely insists that all humans leave their planet." Martin explained the situation up to Kira's hasty exit.

"My suspicion," he concluded, "is that they consider us to be dangerous lunatics in their midst. From their exposure to Shakespeare, they may consider us homicidal maniacs. They're trying to get rid of us without making us mad."

"Probably so." The voice sounded pleased. "In which case, they've done a good job. The Center couldn't be happier with our treaty. Get packed and report to number B at once." Static took the place of contact and Martin hung up after holding onto the phone for much longer than necessary.

He packed. His spare clothes went into the incinerator to make space for three rolls of sky lyrics he couldn't bring himself to leave behind. Should I video a goodbye to Kira? The only Tarian he really knew was probably hiding in fear until his departure; the thought bothered him. It was like purposely frightening a child. When I think of her, it will make me smile. When she thinks of me, she will shudder. On an impulse, he pulled three tapes from his library and tossed them into a box which he addressed to her before hurrying to Shuttle B.

A few days later, when Kira dared to open the package, she found Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows.

[Originally published 1983 in Pulpsmith magazine.]