The Maker of Faces
It was good to feel the new sun on his new skin. It was hard to say that it felt exactly the same as without the synthetic skin; after all, this was not the same sun. But the feeling was pleasant.
Maringa Ka-Mpurwa regretted that the eyes could not filter the sun, and he had to wear glasses. But, he reminded himself, the eyes were not his work. Only the skin. And the skin was perfect.
The skin was all he wore as he lounged on a flat rock, on a hot, dry part of the planet. Behind him, carefully hidden among the boulders, was the skyfighter that had dropped them from the mothership. Below, in the valley, the young males of the sentient bipeds native to this planet herded large quadrupled mammals. Ngombe, they were called in the language of this group. It was a very hard name to say. Maringa preferred cattle, a word from another, more widely-spoken language of these bipeds, these humans.
He cared little for the flesh of cattle. But the milk was delicious. Maringa was hoping human females would appear, to fetch water at the stream. They would then retreat into the bushes in pairs with the males, leaving the cattle unattended. Maringa would climb down the hill, and drink his fill.
"Someone wants a drink!" said Dhiyen. Her shadow came over him.
"We all know what you crave for," said Maringa, without looking up. "And it is not food."
"Think of it as testing all the, um, features of this skin!" she said, squatting beside him. She looked down ruefully. "Alas, today is not the day I test that feature either! Mothership has just called. Djoneh is convening another emergency conference! One hour."
She rose. "Damn military! If it wasn't for me, Djoneh would still be trying to figure out where to land on this planet!"
Maringa sighed. At this stage of their professional relationship, he understood how crucial it was to share her opinions. However, he also knew that as only a Business assignee to Science, and especially an assignee to Dhiyen, it would not do to be particularly critical of Military. Military was still very close to the Leader. Dhiyen was also very close to the Leader.
He cast one last wistful look at the cattle, and followed Dhiyen to the skyfighter.
In his private quarters on the Mothership, moored off the dark side of Earth's natural satellite, Djoneh Ka-Numma, Commander of the Expedition to Earth, held one of his Strategic Review Conferences. He wore his skin. Maringa, who had personally designed it for him, was still to get used to his new appearance. From the little he had learnt so far of human cultures, Djoneh looked nothing like the shrewd warrior he was. A human would see him as a mild-mannered, avuncular figure. Still, that is the appearance he had chosen.
Only Dhiyen had stayed true to her character. Her human skin projected what was considered alluring and desirable among humans. Maringa was not yet inclined to agree with humans. Of course, Dhiyen was yet to be deterred by a male not finding her desirable.
Maringa and Dhiyen sat apart from Djoneh and his military types. Most of them wore their skins.
"I have received word from the Home Planet," said Djoneh. "Anthropology has made a startling discovery about the human skin. It has the same function in human society as our crests. It separates them not only into nations, but social groups even within the same nations."
Confusion rang out in barely audible hisses and exchanged glances. Of course, these were soldiers, not given to elaborate demonstrations of emotion.
"Whatsmore," Djoneh said, "Maringa has assigned to us the racial features of a group that has, in its recent history, been subjugated by others."
"I chose the features that best suit our anatomy, Commander," said Maringa. "That dark skin retains heat."
"The dark skin will defeat its primary purpose for us!" said Djoneh. "In order to appear acceptable to the dominant nations, we shall need to present most of those of us who will interact with humans as pale-skinned. Even among the dark-skinned population, we would be more acceptable this way. And this too is how they have imagined what beings from other planets will look like."
"It doesn't make sense!" said Dhiyen.
"The Leader has read all the reports, and ordered that Maringa begin to create new skins for all contactees. He wants to know how soon it can be done."
Maringa asked, "Does the Leader consider his order a new contract for my firm?"
"Of course, you will be paid," said Djoneh, bearing down on Maringa. "This should work well for you, then. How long will it take you to make the necessary adjustments?"
Maringa stared at the portrait of Bwudwu, his grandfather, founder of Mpurwa Bio-Technology. It was Bwudwu who had pioneered the imitation skin, from his own mother's study of the moulting process. But it was Maringa who had perfected it, taking as long as the fifth anniversary of the announcement of the plans for the invasion of Earth to develop that complexion that was now considered problematic. Five painstaking years to create the right polymers that would adapt a perfect imitation of human features.
Except humans had an understanding of what was perfectly human that did not make sense at all.
"Now you see why I proposed to the Leader that Science take charge of the invasion!" said Dhiyen, storming into his room. "It was us who discovered this planet, and painstakingly compiled an inventory of all its resources! If all the other scientists had backed me, we would have our way."
"Your way, you mean, Dhiyen," Maringa reminded her. "The rest of us were not thinking conquest. Capturing a comet for its water is still a viable option."
"Our system is out of comets, need I remind you, Maringa?" Dhiyen said. "Even if the Leader had agreed us trying that again, we would have still come this far to get a comet. And now that we are here, we can get food and cobalt. We can get shock troops better suited to the icy wastes of Tshando, a planet that will give us more water."
They had gone over all those arguments before. Maringa had to admit that she was right; only the scientists could ensure that this invasion reaped the most rewards. If left solely to the Military, this mission would only be another disaster, like Tshando.
"Besides," said Dhiyen, sauntering over to the other end of Maringa's office, "This planet has yielded delicacies that we have grown accustomed to."
She opened a glass jar and selected one such delicacy, a palm sized mammalian creature covered in white fur, its tail naked. Its four paws made frantic swimming motions, its tiny mouth uttering a plaintive, nearly subsonic squeak.
From where he stood, Maringa saw Dhiyen in profile. She tilted her head, and, holding it by its tail, brought down the creature into her open mouth. He noted how unlike the mammalian bipeds she was, her mouth was open too wide. When she swallowed, the creature travelled down her neck in a lump.
When she turned to look at him, she was human again, right down to the look of sheer pleasure on her face. There was nothing he could do about how their faces distorted when they ate. The only practical solution was to ensure that the humans never saw them eat.
With the new skins came new personas. Dhiyen changed her name to Diana. Djoneh became John. Barely a rotation after everyone was fitted out with their new skin, they made contact with the primitive mammalian bipeds below. John himself met the closest to a planetary leader they had.
Anthropology reported that it was not necessary for every member of the mission to assume the appearance of the pale-skinned population of human race. For all the hostility and suspicion towards humans of different appearance, diversity was embraced among the various societies. In fact, Anthropology insisted, it would be better psychologically if members of the mission represented this diversity to the humans.
Maringa therefore requested that he be allowed to maintain the appearance he had chosen for himself. He decided to add long hair, which cascaded over his shoulders like thick ropes, and a beard. For obvious reasons, he requested that he be assigned to one of the motherships hovering the land where he had first tasted the milk of cattle. Africa, the land was called.
Maringa had assumed Diana would choose Africa too. After all, it was rich in cobalt. However, she would be in America, the most scientifically advanced part of the planet in military terms.
In the lobby of the great hall at the African Union Headquarters, they gave Maringa a thunderous applause as he was ushered in. He removed his glasses, and smiled benevolently at the hundreds of African dignitaries who had converged in Addis Ababa to receive the Visitors. The scene before him was something of an enigma. Anthropology had maintained that Africa was the least united, least organised of the planet's landmasses. Yet, here was clear evidence of a collective sense of identity.
Dhiyen (Diana, now. She was called Diana) had worked out why these people were more receptive to an extraterrestrial who resembled them in complexion. Part of that collective sense of identity was built around a collective memory of being invaded and subjugated by the pale-complexioned humans. Maringa, although visiting from a distant world, looked like one of them rather than a possible invader.
How ironic, he thought to himself…...
The Secretary-General was introducing him to the heads of state.
"Tell me, sir," said the third president whose hand he had just taken. "I understand that you have all chosen names that are more acceptable to us. Why did you choose Maringa?"
"That is my own name, actually," said Maringa.
The president and his aides looked taken aback, and began to chatter animatedly among themselves.
"Most remarkable!" said the president. "Even across the vastness of space, there is a cultural unity of Black people that manifests in such features as language. In my language, 'ChiMaringa' means 'mask.' The 'Chi' is only a demonstrative prefix, of course."
Maringa was inwardly delighted that his mask demonstrated his genuine amazement so realistically.
"What does your name mean, if I may ask?" the president asked.
"Well, your Excellency," said Maringa, raising his voice a little as a hush descended on the hall, "It is the name of an ancestor of mine, who pioneered reconstructive surgery to help burn victims. It means 'the maker of faces.'"
This answer was greeted by sighs and gasps, and then more animated chatter in groups. Maringa smiled to himself. He had just hinted at the most startling secret about the Visitors and these leaders had been too pre-occupied with an imagined affinity to even suspect.
He wondered if Diana and John were as successful with their masquerade. He had made their masks well.