Igms issue 4, p.2
IGMS Issue 4, page 2
We had refilled our fuel tanks by using electricity from our nuclear power plant to derive hydrogen and oxygen from seawater, and we would need to do so again before leaving, so we selected a coastal city as our destination and began our suborbital flight toward first contact.
"How you think they look?" asked Gianni Cacciatore, our climatologist, a few minutes after we launched. "If they are gray humanoids with bulging heads, they greet you as an old friend, ehi, paesano?"
There was Italian ancestry on my mother's side, so he'd taken to calling me paesano, countryman. At least it was better than Ambassador. I couldn't avoid talking to him, since we were strapped into seats next to each other for the duration of the flight. "Look, that Ambassador thing is getting about as old as someone asking you to go do something about the weather instead of just talking about it."
He thought a moment, then laughed. "Buffo. But what you think? I want to say, you are the only that knows something of the research of everyone. You have the grand picture."
It was a good question, actually. Our only pictures of the Auroran cities came from the Orbital Module, and its orbit was too high up to show individual Aurorans as anything more than a few pixels. In order to avoid any possible contamination, our initial landing site had intentionally been far from any sign of Auroran civilization. So none of us knew what an actual Auroran looked like. I'd discussed the issue with the biologists but hadn't written it up because it was pure speculation.
"Well, based on the animals we've discovered so far, the Aurorans are probably bilaterally symmetrical, although it could be quadrilateral. Since they have a civilization, they must be tool users, which means they must have something like our arms and hands, though it could be tentacles with claws for all we really know. They must have a way of getting around, so legs are probable, but we can't really know how many. Or maybe they move like snakes or snails." I sighed. "What I'm basically trying to say is that there are so many possibilities that we haven't got a really good idea of what they will look like, but they probably will not look as much like us as the stupid fake alien in that photo does."
He nodded. "Interessante."
I shifted the conversation to some of the unusual things he had discovered about Aurora's climate and thus kept myself occupied until our pilot, Zhao Xia, announced that we should prepare for a jolt when she activated the engines to slow us for landing.
The LM's cabin was mostly silent as we watched the ground grow ever closer on our screens. When we touched down, there was some clapping and cheering, though not as much as there had been the first time we landed.
Commander Gutierrez's firm voice came over the intercom. "I'm sure the Aurorans nearby must have seen us coming, and some of them will probably arrive soon. Those who were chosen for the first contact party please prepare to exit the ship."
I had demanded to be included in the party, and Gutierrez had refused. Although it seemed unlikely, there was no way to be sure the Aurorans would not react with xenophobic violence, so she had decided to send only two people: Singh, because of his xenobiological expertise, and Tinochika Murerwa, because prior to becoming an astrophysicist he had seen combat while serving in the U.N. Special Forces.
My arguments in favor of freedom of the press did not persuade her, but I made enough of a fuss that her superiors on Earth had ordered her to include me. I don't know why they overrode her; I suspect the real reason had nothing to do with freedom of the press and everything to do with the fact that the United States shouldered forty percent of the cost of this mission, and U.S. politicians wanted an American involved in the biggest news to come out of it. It didn't matter why -- I was in.
Singh, Murerwa and I gathered our equipment and entered the airlock. As the pressure equalized, I said, "Good luck, Singh," because he was the one in command of our little party.
We climbed down the ladder and started preparing for our hosts to arrive and greet their unexpected visitors.
Murerwa looked over his shoulder at the videocam I was setting up on a tripod. He let out a deep bass laugh. "Planning to get a picture of yourself shaking hands with a real alien?"
"Yes." Somehow I felt that getting a real picture would be my compensation for all the grief I'd taken over the fake one.
After a very long five minutes, something came over a small ridge east of us. As it got closer, I began to make out details of its physiology. It looked like a scaly brown headless camel with four tentacles instead of a neck. As it got closer, I could see a wide opening between the top and bottom pairs of tentacles that I presumed to be its mouth.
It stopped about ten meters away from us. It wasn't very large; although it certainly weighed more than me, the hump on its back only came up to about the middle of my chest. As if responding to that thought, the hump rose a few inches on a thick stalk, and the creature seemed to stare at us out of two glossy blue-black openings on the front of the hump.
Singh said something in Hindi that I didn't understand.
"Is it one of the Aurorans or just an animal?" I asked.
"I think it's sentient. It's wearing something like a tool-belt around one of its forelegs."
Now that he pointed it out, I saw the belt, which appeared to be made of a thick woven fabric. And one of the tools was undoubtedly a hammer, even if I wasn't sure what the rest were.
We stared at him while he stared at us. Now we knew what an Auroran looked like.
Or rather, we thought we did until more creatures began coming over the hill. Some came on four legs, some on two. I was fairly sure I saw one with eight. Some had tentacles; others had jointed arms with hand-like appendages. All had scaly skins, but some had patches of fur that appeared to be part of their bodies, not clothing, and all had heads similar to the hump on the first one, though it didn't seem to be in the same place on the different anatomies. Some were bilaterally symmetrical, but some were not -- I spotted one that had anemone-like tendrils on one side and a crab-like pincer on the other. And of the fifty or more arrivals, there didn't appear to be more than a handful that looked like they belonged to the same species.
As the crowd grew, they began singing to each other. At least that's what it sounded like to me; wordless tunes that harmonized rather than creating a cacophony.
Then one of them said some words, and the others silenced almost immediately.
"Did you catch what he said?" asked Singh.
"Sounded like 'Alla Beeth' to me," I answered.
A voice in the crowd repeated it, and suddenly all of them were chanting, "Alla Beeth."
They didn't stop chanting until the soldiers showed up. Their civilization might be very different from ours, but a sword still looks like a sword, even if it is strapped to the waist of a tentacled reptilian centaur.
The soldiers sang to the crowd, and the crowd quieted down, parting in the middle to allow the half-dozen soldiers through.
Their leader trotted forward through the buffer zone the crowd had left around us, and stopped about two meters away. His wide, expressionless eyes looked at each of the three of us in turn. Then he edged sideways until he was standing in front of me. Slowly he drew his sword.
I bravely stood my ground to show the aliens that humans were not intimidated. Or else I was frightened into immobility. Either way, the result was the same.
The leader bent one of his forelegs and sort of knelt on one knee. He placed his sword on the ground, looked at me, and said, "Alla Beeth."
The crowd took up the chant once more.
Murerwa laughed again. "Looks like you've been chosen as the first ambassador to Aurora."
The failure to include a linguistics expert on this mission is not as unreasonable as critics of UNSA are claiming. The evidence showed a high likelihood of a planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, but before the Starfarer arrived there was not a scintilla of evidence for a sentient, civilized lifeform in this system. Earth has had an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere for perhaps 1.5 billion years.
Iqrit Khadil was the first to bring up religion. During a lull in mess hall conversation as the crew ate dinner the night of first contact, he said, "I do not think it can be merely coincidence that one of the two words we have heard these aliens speak is Allah."
"You can't be serious!" Rachel said.
"Why not? These primitives obviously seemed to think Jensen was a god, or a messenger sent by a god. And though they seem to communicate among themselves by singing, they knew to speak words to us. And one of those words was Allah."
Rachel's knuckles tightened around her fork. "All right, O wise one, then what does 'Beeth' mean?"
Khadil shrugged. "Maybe it means messenger. 'Allah Beeth,' messenger of Allah."
I almost said that if I was anyone's messenger, I was the Washington Post's, but several people began talking at once.
Rachel pounded the table with her fist until everyone turned to look at her. "First of all, we don't know how the words are divided, or even that it's more than one word, or even that it's a word at all. Maybe the first word is Al, but they're really just mispronouncing El, and so they're actually referring to the God of the Jews, not the God of Islam." She raised her voice over the beginnings of objections. "But coincidence is the most likely explanation. If we are going to speculate based on the idea that they spoke to us because they have seen humans before -- which I find hard to believe -- then there are other reasonable explanations. For example, they were trying to say the first two letters of the alphabet. Everyone here is familiar with the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta. In Hebrew, they are aleph, bet." She turned to Khadil. "What are they in Arabic?"
"Alif, ba." He nodded. "I spoke too soon. I was just excited to hear what sounded like 'Allah.' But it is most likely a coincidence."
During the rest of dinner I thought about what Khadil and Rachel had said. Coincidence. The possible meaning of the words didn't really matter to me. But if the Aurorans communicated through song, why did they have words to use with us? And why only two words?
I tried to avoid wondering why their leader had chosen me to bow to, but I wasn't very successful.
Imagine if eating an octopus in a certain way would allow you to grow tentacles on your body. Or if by eating a horse, you could replace your two human legs with four horse legs. According to Singh and Zalcberg's observations of our newfound friends, that is essentially what the Aurorans can do: manipulate their own bodies by absorbing an animal and using its genetic code to recreate some aspect of that animal's body. The wide variety of body shapes and parts among the Aurorans comes from deliberate change, not from their inherited genes.
Within a few days, the Aurorans remedied our failure to bring a linguistics expert by providing one of their own. His name was a short trill that most of us could not reproduce, so someone called him Mozart. I pointed out that, given "Beeth" was one of the two words he knew, Beethoven might have been more appropriate, but by then the name had already stuck.
Biologically speaking, Mozart was neither a he nor a she, but none of us really felt comfortable calling it "it." Since the real Mozart had been a he, we defaulted to that usage for the most part.
Through trial and error, we determined that the Auroran vocal apparatus simply was incapable of making most of the sounds of human languages. Fortunately, Mozart had brought rough sheets of a paper-like substance, inks of various colors, and a collection of clay stamps that could be used to imprint various symbols on the paper. While a few of the simpler symbols bore a resemblance to letters in various Earth alphabets -- X, O, I, T, ”, ›, “ -- there did not appear to be any connection between them and their Earthly sounds, so Rachel's aleph-bet explanation for "Alla Beeth" was a dead end.
Since Mozart understood the concept of written symbols representing ideas, once he got over his astonishment at the interaction between a computer keyboard and monitor, we were able to teach him to use his tentacles to type. We would communicate back by typing and saying words at the same time, so he could learn to associate the text of a word with its sound.
Whoever had decided to send Mozart to communicate with us had made a good choice. After only four days, he had learned enough English to carry on simple conversations, so during my shift for teaching him, I asked him the question that had been bothering me. "Why did your leader bow to me?"
"One of your people with swords. The most important one."
I demonstrated a bow.
The nearest town, which someone had imaginatively dubbed Neartown, was not the place Mozart was from. That was new information, and I felt a little pleased with myself for discovering it. Still, I pressed on to find out more about what was bothering me. "Why did the leader of the close people bow to me?"
I typed it out for him.
"You do not think I am Alla Beeth?"
"Who is Alla Beeth?"
Mozart whistled a staccato tune.
I thought fast. If Alla Beeth was some sort of deity and I denied knowledge of it, I wasn't sure what sort of complications that would cause. "Our language is so different from yours that our name for Alla Beeth may be different too." I hoped that wasn't some sort of heresy.
I felt the tremble in my stomach that I get when I realize I'm on the verge of a major story. "When did Alla Beeth visit your people?"
Fifty years. Their planet's year was more than two Earth years long, so he was claiming a human had visited Aurora over a hundred years ago, back before we'd even walked on Mars.
"Wait a minute." Even though this was being recorded, I wanted someone else with me before I proceeded any further. I commed Commander Gutierrez and asked her to come join us.
After reading the transcript of our conversation to that point, she asked, "Is this a joke?"
"If it is, someone's setting me up. I swear I had no idea he was going to say this."
She nodded, then turned to Mozart. "Did someone tell you to say that Alla Beeth was human?"
Gutierrez typed and spoke slowly. "Mozart, we are the first humans to visit your people."
Mozart let out a long, descending note, and began typing furiously.
Gutierrez and I looked at each other.
I looked into Mozart's shiny black eyes. "I believe you, Mozart." He believed that this Alla Beeth had visited his world, and even if I couldn't believe it was a human, I was sure that something must have visited the Aurorans.
Merging requires much more commitment than human mating, because neither of the Aurorans involved will survive. The larger of the two Aurorans swallows the other whole to begin the reproductive process, then hardens its skin into a thick shell. After about eighty days of cocoon-like existence, four small Aurorans break out of the shell to begin their lives. But their minds are not blank slates. In addition to a genetic heritage from both adults, each new Auroran carries a portion of the memories from the brains of its parents. Some Aurorans can remember events from over a thousand years ago.
The racial and religious proportionality requirements during the crew selection process had been intended to represent all of Earth in our tiny ship. Not surprisingly, the scientific community had undergone a small religious revival when those requirements were announced. So, no matter how recently converted, we had a good cross-section of religious belief on board.
Some of the Christians in the crew backed Cacciatore's theory that the visitor had been an angel; others thought it had been Jesus himself. A few of the Muslims could accept the idea of an angel, but insisted that Allah must have sent the angel. The rest of the Muslims supported Khadil, who insisted that the visitor must have been Mohammed. The Hindus spoke of the possibility that it had been one of the avatars of Vishnu. Rachel, as the only Jew on board, was arguing against all sides at once, while admitting the barest possibility that the visitor was an angel.
Commander Gutierrez mostly succeeded in remaining above the fray. The atheists and agnostics stayed out of it, as did the Buddhists.
As for me? From when I was four years old until I was eighteen, I alternated weekends between my mom and my dad. Sundays with my mom meant going to church; Sundays with my dad meant watching TV on the couch or playing catch in the yard while listening to his old-time music collection. By the time I was fourteen, I pretty much felt that I took after my dad more than my mom, at least as far as preferred Sunday activities went, and my mom eventually quit asking me to go with her.
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