“Don’t worry about me.” Whit hoped his forced smile appeared relaxed. “I’m too old and stringy for them to decide to serve mankind.”
The deadpan expressions of his fellow crewmembers betrayed how nervous everybody was … including him. It wasn’t every day that an alien species tried to communicate with them.
Except for the past five days, that is. When one of their interstellar ships came within visual range of a vessel not belonging to their fleet, word spread like wildfire. At least, that was the way his late wife Sunny would have described it, since as a historian she liked using those obscure phrases.
Within hours after encountering the first craft, a second one showed up. The first vessel departed, and the second one – twice as large as any in the fleet – proceeded to play something of a cat-and-mouse game with the ships.
“They’ve finished going belly-up again and are making their final approach.” The technician was probably the only one whose attention wasn’t focused on Whit.
Whenever it approached, the craft would roll enough to show its underside. This mystified the crew for the first couple of days. When one of the agriculturalists pointed out it reminded her of a dog rolling on its back to show submission, the idea proved intriguing.
After the first couple of days, what appeared to be robots began crawling about a specific area on the hull of the alien craft. They built a tubular extension, mere meters in diameter and about ten meters long, matching the configuration of the portals on the fleet ships.
“How is their alignment with our portal?” the captain asked the technician.
“Their trajectory is immaculate.”
Yesterday, the aliens sent shockwaves through the fleet by communicating with all the ships.
Once upon a time humanity believed a fallacy that intelligence denoted benevolence. Experience, which Whit had plenty of, proved no correlation between the two. When the fleet received text in the universal code they used, all the specialists admitted the aliens were first to figure out how to communicate.
The language use was stilted, but the message was an invitation. Assuming the interface they’d constructed was adequate, would the humans like to send over representatives and begin establishing an accord?
“Almost there….” the technician murmured.
The ship shuddered slightly, but nobody would have spilled any drinks if they’d decided to send off Whit with a toast. Considering the vessel was a behemoth, the minor rattle made its navigators’ piloting skills quite impressive.
That still wasn’t proof against the theory they wanted to discover if humans were tasty.
“You’ll never be alone, Whit.” The captain placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I know it sure feels that way to someone about to make history, but our prayers are with you.”
Make history? His wife would have liked to witness this, but his status as a widower was one of the reasons he volunteered to possibly make the menu.
“Thank you.” It seemed prudent to keep any further entree cracks to himself. “I’ll just try not to screw things up.”
Well wishes followed him into the airlock. The door behind him closed as he stepped across the cargo area used for passenger transfers. Multicolored lights above the next doorway flickered, displaying how much breathable air filled the alien pod.
Seemed like a good reminder to draw a deep breath and calm his nerves….
Despite his age, or rather, because of his experience, he participated on one of the committees that discussed how to respond to the invitation. If they sent somebody, that person should meet certain parameters: Older, although not elderly and frail; no dependent family; and widower, which also implied male.
Upon his realization he fit the profile, Whit volunteered … which was another criteria they established.
All the lights above the door flashed to green, and the polymer panel retracted into the wall.
His heart began thumping against his chest and his stomach rolled. He’d been in plenty of tight spots before, but meeting aliens for the first time still presented a handicap. He might not be able to read their expressions as well as he did with his fellow man. For all he knew, blowing a raspberry was a friendly greeting.
When Sunny passed away less than a year ago, he hadn’t expected it. She’d always been spunky and vivacious, laughing at his jokes when others might groan. One morning when she awakened, she complained for the first time in her life about feeling too tired to arise.
He signaled for a doctor to report to their quarters, and then Sunny assured him she felt better. Immediately afterward she drew her last breath.
So little warning….
This open doorway was no competition for the despair that descended upon him then, but it reminded him of that loss. For many months he’d coped with the first occasion of all events that now passed without her. The first year was supposed to be the hardest….
Whit drew another deep breath. If his wife still lived, somebody else would be standing in his place. And precisely because he missed her was one reason he decided to volunteer for this role.
It wasn’t death that frightened him. It was exactly how he got there that proved a bit worrisome. And then there was the matter of keeping the fleet safe.
He passed through the doorway. Lights all over the wall and ceiling flashed on, startling him. Whit proceeded at a saunter as he slipped into his practiced scrutiny.
The instruments and panels presented a bizarre blend of familiar and enigmatic. Geometry prevailed, with round tubes and rectangular frames bordered by lights of differing colors. Some seemed to be purely for illumination, while others formed incomprehensible configurations that occasionally cascaded vertically against their backdrops.
It seemed prudent to continue heeding his mother’s advice and keep his hands to himself.
His soft footfalls on the textured floor were the only sound to reverberate through the pod. Since the air had been provided from his ship, no aroma stood out … which itself seemed odd. Shouldn’t it at least have, as Sunny would have called it, that new car smell?
His heart jolted again when a band of blue light, surrounding a screen or window at the end of the pod, flashed on. Its luminescence pulsated as a shield lowered … revealing another being standing behind it.
He immediately noted the characteristics they shared: bipedal, although the lower frame of the window concealed what was below its waist, with two arms and one head. Its clothing appeared to be draped about its form, and was accented with swirling green and yellow designs.
Its broad, ruddy face was lined with plump wrinkles, reminding him of an overripe bell pepper. The eyes were dark, the nose flat, and thin lips stretched from cheek to cheek.
The being raised its hands, each with five fingers, palms forward.
Was it possible? Were the actions of showing their belly and raising hands really universal expressions of meaning no harm?
Whit mirrored the alien’s stance. The corners of its mouth curled upward but the lips didn’t part.
He smiled back, also refraining from teeth disclosure. It felt as forced as his earlier attempt to fake ease. This was no time to reflect on those enduring alien probe jokes.
The being spoke. Its mouth moved in an understandable way, but the speech that transmitted into the pod was undecipherable.
A screen below the window vertically scrolled the code used by the fleet:
Welcome. We do not recognize ***** the ***** people we discovered. ***** are small. Why are ***** here?
Whit returned his attention to the alien that stood a full head shorter, and would have wondered what profanity had just been used if their original invitation hadn’t displayed the same stuttering. They did appear to have problems with the pronoun you, but other gaps weren’t as obvious.
Lord knew what all got lost in the translator, but assuming it worked for both languages, he might as well answer the question.
“We have been traveling for generations. You are the first … other people … we have met.” Ah, maybe that explained one of the stutters. “We found you by chance.”
The readout cooperated with spelling out an estimation of what it translated. His associate’s expression, a deepening of the wrinkles, revealed little of how well his statements had been received. After a few seconds passed, the being returned its attention to him.
Why do ***** travel?
This was starting to feel like an interrogation, which didn’t surprise him. After all, his fleet was the trespassers, and perhaps these friendly aliens were just as wary of them.
That answer was long and complicated. “How much do you like long stories?”
Its wrinkles deepened again, and then its head bobbed once.
***** are strangers. Why are ***** here?
Well, he couldn’t argue with that. Whit drew a deep breath, sorted his thoughts, and then tried to explain. How well would the translator cope with the concepts of suppression and coercion and war … or defiance and liberation and compassion?
With his experience in giving reports, and marriage to a historian filling in any gaps he might have otherwise, his explanation sounded cogent to him. The readout confirmed it looked like he used some profanity.
His associate’s wrinkles pulsed throughout the monologue, and then it gazed at him again.
***** left ***** problems?
Even without missing words, that question wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Thoroughness and accuracy were still important to him, so he didn’t want his reply to sound misleading. But if he told the truth, would that somehow condemn all of humanity to an end they’d been avoiding?
He had spoken the truth for too long to change that now.
“No. Some of them came with us. We are not … perfect. Having to rely on each other in the confines of space has kept the worst of our behavior at bay, but lies and theft and even murder are still part of our behavior.”
Not only did its wrinkles pulse, the alien’s eyes bulged slightly. After a couple of seconds, it looked at Whit … and smiled.
For all he knew, it was pleased to have some new recipes to try out.
Before people can be strong, must ***** know weakness.
Whit stared at the readout. Despite most of the words being present, he still wasn’t certain what that meant. Did the alien just declare it was now confident its species was strong enough to run weak humans out of this part of the galaxy … or worse?
All his decades as a crime investigator welled inside him. If he just screwed things up, it was up to him to keep the people on the ship – including his children and grandchildren – safe. They might have to make a run for it, and leave him behind….
I will tell about us.
Whit stared at his associate’s face despite not figuring out the cues. “What do you mean?”
***** we share. It is my turn.
The readout appeared to be sprinkled with profanity again, but he followed a narrative about geological turmoil and deception and seeking. Interesting … sharing its own tribulations stirred a sense of trust in him.
“I suppose nobody is perfect.”
The alien smiled.
They discussed a few more matters about expectations and the future, and then agreed to withdraw to their own people and arrange another meeting. As he returned to the ship, he noticed a slight trembling in his fingers. Adrenaline aftereffects….
The crew’s greeting was hearty.
“Everything looked well from this end,” the captain said. “But how would you describe it?”
The smile that sprang to his lips was spurred by more than relief. Even though Sunny wasn’t here to share this event, she would have been pleased their descendants might actually benefit from it. He heard her laughter in his mind’s ear.
Here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the word is Interface. Lots of possibilities with that one, so be sure to catch the other submissions!