by Don Seeley
© 2010 Don Seeley
"What was he like?"
Mitchell smiled before answering. He took a drink of water, wiped his mouth with his napkin and put the pale blue cloth back on his lap, straightening it with more than credible care. He was enjoying her suspense and was stretching it as far as it could go. The furrow deepening between her brows told him he'd arrived.
"For one thing," Mitchell said slowly, "he stands right up close when he talks to you...and he wears Old Spice."
Ellen grimaced. "Ugh! What a populist hack."
She reached across the small table and touched his hand. "But we're very proud of you. I watched at mom's house. She wanted me to say she thought you looked very dignified."
"Oh? Maybe so. I was pretty nervous."
She'd just arrived from Tucson and had given the cab driver Mitchell's directions to the restaurant. When he got the invitation yesterday morning he asked if Ellen could attend, but was told by the White House Social Secretary that only members of the team that made the discovery were permitted. This time around, fame was going to come to Ellen Campbell vicariously.
"What did he whisper when he shook your hand?"
"He said, 'Welcome to the history books, young man.'
"'No shit!' is what I thought to myself."
Ellen tried to cover her mouth, but still let out a "Ha!" loud enough to turn heads. This was a nice restaurant; as good as they could afford. And although it was a full house, with the usual ambient dining noises, it was not a laugh-out-loud type of place. She was briefly self-conscious as people turned to look. She was also excited that they knew exactly who they were looking at. In fact, Mitchell had been able to get their reservations less than an hour ago, on a late Spring Saturday evening, with just a phone call and the mention of his name.
Two days ago that name had been part of a buzz building among the international community of deep-space astronomers. Now, after yesterday morning's official announcement from the University, his face was destined to be seen in every newspaper and on every television screen in the world: Dr. Mitchell Starks, discoverer of the first extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Last week, the distant star he'd been studying disappeared for close to a quarter hour. He understood what had happened right away; brief occultations lasting a few seconds happened now and then. But to persist this long the object would need to be very big or very close, and headed almost straight at him.
Details had been sketchy at first. But knowing what to watch for, he spotted another, could predict a third and was able to get enough triangulating data from Hubble's wide field camera to confirm the distance, diameter and initial trajectory.
As this new data came in, his first thought—a damned scary one—was that this was the planet killer: a giant asteroid that would collide with Earth and destroy all life. The one that got the dinosaurs was only about two or three miles across. This one might be twice that size. But the real shock came when they calculated the trajectory: it wasn't accelerating as it approached the sun. It was slowing down.
This was too important to keep to themselves. Other institutions were called in under strict confidence to confirm the calculations. But anything contained under that kind of pressure is bound to get out. When he logged in early yesterday morning, more than 200 new messages were waiting for him.
The most important point about the object—the thing that got everyone's attention—was that it was slowing down without a reaction drive. If you're moving forward and you throw something ahead of you, you slow down. That's how it works, whether you're a moon rocket or a kid on a swing. But nothing was coming out of the starship. The most likely conclusion was that it used some sort of gravity manipulating device.
These could be very valuable friends. They could also be dangerous enemies.
After the initial flurry of interviews, talk show appearances and VIP introductions, the work of public relations settled into a benign routine. He was blessed with a comfortably pleasant face, a good voice and he'd given enough lectures to his students and to groups visiting the observatory to know that he was a good communicator and could explain difficult ideas to a lay audience. He also felt a sense of ownership towards his discovery and knew that if he didn't take some sort of action he'd be swept aside by the inertia of events. So, he accepted every invitation to talk about the discovery and used his old and new connections to keep abreast of the growing body of information building up about the approaching object.
This morning he was scheduled for a remote interview by Janice Bell of the Today Show. He would be using the observatory's videoconferencing equipment but the show's producer had been emphatic about setting it up in the office he used when working on the mountain. That meant the support staff had been busy since the middle of the night to get everything hooked up and debugged. He knew he owed them big for this and would need to come up with something special to make good on it. At places like Kitt Peak the researchers depended on the technicians the way a surgeon depends on their operating room staff. Everyone knows who gets the credit, but everyone also knows who makes it possible.
With five minutes to go Mitchell washed his face with cold water and had a last drink of his coffee while it was still warm. He took out the small mirror he'd learned to keep close at hand and made a final check of his hair, teeth and clothes.
Three, two, one...
"We're back now and joined by Dr. Mitchell Starks speaking with us from his office at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. Hello again, Dr. Starks. It's been nearly two weeks since the world learned that company was coming. What's being done to prepare for their arrival?"
"Well, Janice, we've straightened up the living room and put out a nice bowl of peanuts.
"Aside from that, there are some very sharp people here in the US and around the world hard at work monitoring the approach of the starship and considering the best way to make contact.
"The fact is, we know very little about them or their capabilities and choosing how to say 'Hello' has led to some very spirited debates."
"Can't we just send a radio message?"
"Yes, we could. But even if they had the means to detect it—which is not at all certain—we could be pretty sure they would have no idea what we were saying."
Mitchell understood that she was feigning a touch of ignorance to draw out full answers from him, but was impressed by how well she managed it. She sounded genuinely curious when she asked her questions and gratefully enlightened as he answered. He'd been interviewed enough by this time to be something of a connoisseur and he could see why she had her job on the top-rated morning show.
Mitchell continued, "We're really confronting two problems here: how to send the message and what that message should be. And it looks like a consensus has been reached on both fronts.
"Within the next few days several high-powered lasers, at various sites throughout the world, will send synchronized pulses in their direction. These lasers are extremely powerful. And while they would just vaporize anything they were aimed at on Earth, or even in orbit around it, the transmission will reach the starship as a bright, but ultimately harmless beam of light. We expect this to be understood by them as an effort to communicate and not as a threat."
He did not mention that these same lasers could also make a dandy weapon when it got closer and that, too, was part of the message.
"As you've probably heard, the starship uses a device which seems to interact in some way with gravity. The spacecraft—or more precisely, where the spacecraft is—has been under constant observation for quite a few days now and we're learning a little bit more about it.
"Of course the big news this week is that the deceleration isn't constant. When we track it over an extended period of time, we can predict its destination very accurately. But within those longer periods it was discovered to be making small and regular fluctuations. This was learned because, as more and more observers monitor it, we've been able to build up a clearer view, so to speak."
"How do you mean?" She fed him some more line.
"The fact is, we can't see the actual ship at all. Its surface is as black as space and the only way we can tell it's there is by what it blocks from sight. We couldn't tell very much from my first observations because they were from only one point of view. It wasn't until Hubble provided a view from a slightly different angle that we could start to tell what we were dealing with. Now that literally hundreds of sites are watching it, nearly to the exclusion of all other research, we are getting very accurate information about its path. And that is how our colleagues at Siding Spring, Australia, were able to detect a pattern in the variations."
"Prime numbers, right Dr. Starks?"
"Right, Janice. But that's not really such a big surprise. You see, they have the same problem that we do: what to say and how to say it. And you've got to hand it to them. That's a pretty good way to do it.
"This works for them because, in the act of slowing down—which they need to do anyway—they can gauge the sophistication of the inhabitants of Earth. First, that they're seen. Second, that they're decelerating. And third, that the deceleration contains a message.
"That takes care of how. As for what, math is often referred to as the universal language for good reason. That sequence of primes is going to be understood by any society with even minimal development of a scientific or engineering culture."
"So, will the lasers send back the same message?"
"That's one consideration. But other people weighing in on it suggest some sort of transformation, like sending the square of each prime. Or sending a different numerical sequence, like the Fibonacci series, where each number comes from adding the previous two: 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on."
The clock on the monitor showed that his time was just about done. He paused to let her wrap up.
"If I could ask you one last question today, Doctor. Is there any progress toward finding out where they come from?"
"I'm afraid not. They aren't hiding where they're headed, but I think they are being a little circumspect about where they come from. I suppose that's understandable. We'd probably do the same thing in their situation. Ultimately, I guess, we'll just have to ask."
"That's all the time we have today. Thank you very much for speaking with us, Dr. Starks."
"My pleasure, Janice."
Looking away she continued, "We'll be right back with Tom Crowder's weather after these messages..."
The feed from the studio switched from Janice Bell to the producer Mitchell had spoken with on the phone yesterday. They made polite greetings to one another and the producer asked if he'd be willing to talk again next week, or sooner if something important came up. Mitchell agreed, they said their goodbyes and the screen went dark as the feed ended.
Mitchell looked around to the door of the office where Ellen stood smiling, quietly clapping her hands. He hadn't expected to see her until this evening but was glad she'd made the forty mile trip up from the city. With all the travel he'd done lately, they hadn't spent any real time together since the trip to Washington following the announcement.
They left Mitchell's Jeep in the parking lot and he rode along as she drove back down into Tucson. They had only been on the road for a few minutes when his cell phone rang. He looked at the screen: Area Code 202.
"Hello? Yes. Yes, of course...I appreciate that. Would tomorrow afternoon be alright? Oh...that'll be fine. I'll watch for him. Goodbye."
Ellen looked at him, arching her eyebrows.
"Tom Leiber wants to talk to me tomorrow. In person. A driver's going to pick me up at home in the morning and bring me to the airport."
"Wow. Air Force One?"
"I have no idea," he said. "Probably not, but I think they call it something else when the President's not on board. For an astronomer visiting the Chief of Staff, it's probably just 'The Big Plane with the Presidential Seal.' I expect I'll be taking the proverbial first available military transport instead."
He imagined an old C-47, the military version of the DC-3, coughing smoke and sputtering as the chipped and scarred propellers began to spin.
Ellen called the reference desk at the university library to say that she'd be taking the day off. That taken care of, they spent the rest of the day together enjoying the unseasonably cool weather and each other's company. They strolled around Reid Park and the university campus, interrupted now and then by his phone.
Ellen dropped him off at his apartment as the evening sky grew dark. The Jeep would be fine left up on the mountain, but he gave her the keys anyway. They held each other for a long time by the door, then he kissed her goodnight and went inside.
When the black Lincoln arrived at nine o'clock the next morning, Mitchell was dressed in a dark blue suit and had packed his laptop and a few necessities in a rolling carry-on bag. The driver asked to see his identification, returned it and put the bag into the car's enormous, carpeted trunk. He held open the back passenger door and Mitchell got in, the door closing as he sat down.
The driver went southeast to Davis-Monthan rather than the civilian airport. At the security gate he showed a pink sheet of paper to the sergeant on duty who read it quickly, handed it back and passed them through with a snappy salute. The car drove directly onto the tarmac and parked close to a sleek blue and white business jet with the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" written above the windows of the fuselage. The Air Force emblem was on the side of the engine facing them and the registration number was printed in block letters on the tail below a decal of the American flag. The door was open and the turbines had been started.
The driver took his bag from the trunk and handed it to another, much larger man, wearing a light blue officers shirt with silver insignia pinned to the dark epaulettes. As the man disappeared into the plane, the driver opened the door to let Mitchell out and wished him a pleasant flight. The air was rich with the smell of jet fuel and the loud, high-pitched whine of the turbines.
As he reached the top step of the access ladder and his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of the elegant cabin, he thought to himself, "This is going to be much nicer than a C-47."
The man who had taken his bag now directed him to a seat. He had a major's oak leaf clusters on his shoulders and the name 'SMITH' in white on the black tag above his right shirt pocket.
"Please put on your seatbelt, sir," he said, "we'll be leaving immediately. Once we're cruising I'll come back and see if there's anything you need. It's a four and a half hour flight," he continued, "but we have a small galley and I can probably find something that will suit you.
"When we land you'll be going straight from Reagan to the White House. I'll let you know when we're getting close, so you can freshen up first."
Mitchell smiled. "Thank you. I appreciate the help," he said, but once again had the feeling of being swept up by events out of his control.
Five hours later the car he was in pulled up to the West Wing of the White House. Two staffers quickly ushered him through the entrance, across the lobby and down a short hall to the Chief of Staff's corner office, where Tom Leiber met him at the door and introduced himself.
"Welcome to back to Washington, Dr. Starks," he said, vigorously pumping Mitchell's hand. Leiber had the lean aggressiveness of a triathlete and gave the impression of someone with infinite reserves of energy. He directed Mitchell into his office and towards a massive desk of dark wood. He pointed Mitchell to a chair and then walked around to the other side to sit facing him. The desk had been cleared and Leiber's face was reflected in the glass top as he looked across it.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice. The President and I watched you yesterday morning on the Today Show. You've been making a good impression on just about everybody. You certainly couldn't have prepared for something like this and you've handled it very well."
"Thank you for the compliment," Mitchell replied, wondering who the exception was.
"You're quite welcome. The President asked me to bring you in so we could discuss having you update and advise him on matters related to the starship."
It took a few moments for the meaning of the words to sink in.
"That's very flattering Mr. Leiber, but, ah, what about Dr. Cathay?"
Andrew Cathay, Molecular Geneticist and Nobel Laureate in Medicine, was the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, more commonly called the National Science Advisory.
"Dr. Cathay advises the President on a broad range of issues. You would act as his Deputy with this specific responsibility. I've discussed this with him and he strongly endorses the idea."
Mitchell already knew he was going to accept. Leiber probably did as well. But this was going to be very disruptive and the two men spent the next hour discussing the details of expectations, salary, relocation and the like. When they finished, Leiber called someone on the phone and spoke momentarily. A few minutes later the intercom beeped and a woman's voice told him they could go in.
Leiber led the way out of his office to a closed door at the end the L-shaped hallway. He opened the door and held it for Mitchell, who walked past him onto the navy blue carpet of the Oval Office.
The meeting with the President had been a brief "welcome to the team" pep talk and by six thirty he was looking out across Lafayette Square from a fifth floor window at the Hay Adams Hotel, waiting for Ellen to pick up the phone. She answered after the fourth ring, sounding winded.
"Oh, Mitch, I'm so glad you didn't hang up. I was out in the garden and didn't think I'd get to it in time.
"So, what did he want to talk to you about?"
"They want me to work here. As an adviser to the President...I don't see how I can turn it down."
Ellen wasn't surprised by the answer, but it still took a few seconds for her to respond.
"No, I guess you can't. How long before they want you to start?"
"He asked for Monday. I told him I'd need time to get someone to take over my students and I put him off for a week. I'll be back in Tucson tomorrow around 2pm. Why don't we talk about it then."
"Okay...call me when you get in. I love you. And I'm very proud of you."
After they said goodbye he hung up and went downstairs. He walked across the square and then south past the White House, brightly lit in the darkening twilight. He continued around the Ellipse and, finally, back toward the hotel. As Mitchell walked, he thought about the starship and the message about to be sent. One way or another, in just a few days, the world was going to be a very different place.
He arrived in Tucson at 2:30pm and called Ellen to let her know he was back, then he called his department chair at the University and broke the news. Ellen picked him up at his apartment shortly after eight.
It was still too hot to walk so they drove the half dozen blocks to Caruso's. Neither spoke much during the meal. Mitchell picked at his shrimp a bit and finally he said, "If I don't do this, it's going to pass me right by; I'll be watching the parade from the sidewalk.
"I can't even tell you how long it'll be for. Right now the ship's just a speck in the stars. By tomorrow, who knows? They could be giving us the secrets of the universe or blasting us with mind control beams. Either way, I've got to give it a shot."
Ellen nodded, not looking up from her plate. "I know," she said. "I'm not saying don't go. It just feels like I'm squaring up against some deus ex machina. How do I fight that?"
Mitchell didn't have an answer.
After dinner she brought him back to his apartment, but wouldn't come in. She gave him back the keys to his Jeep and kissed him good night. It would be hours before he fell asleep.
The next morning he shared a ride up to Kitt Peak, where a "message watching" brunch had been planned. Monitors were set up to follow both the live television coverage and a private network that was coordinating the transmission.
At 1630UTC the message was sent: the first ten Fibonacci numbers. It would take the light about 30 minutes to reach its target, and since the fastest response couldn't come any sooner than an hour, the crowd moved over to where a food line had been set up.
While coffee, fruit and pastries were being consumed as only underpaid academics could consume them, theories were being discussed about the type and likelihood of a response.
"Gravity waves," insisted one researcher around a mouthful of bagel, "just you watch. Every gravity experiment in the world is gonna to blow a gasket by the end of the day."
"No," countered another, "too obscure. They'll just keep doing what they've been doing and fiddle with their decelleration rate."
As the hour drew to a close, the food was left behind in favor of the monitors as the crowd once more coalesced around the screens. The hour passed. The next quarter hour was doing so as well, and the discussion had turned to the possibility of no response at all when the monitors suddenly started pumping out lines of data. The spectrograph showed a hard spike at 532nm: coherent green light. The sequence of pulses started to display on another monitor: 3,1,1,0,3,7,5,5,1,5... Hardly a minute had passed before a second-year grad student Mitchell recognized from Planetary Sciences called out the answer: pi, in base 8.
Mitchell woke the next morning to the sound of the phone. He turned and reached across toward the nightstand. As he tried to sit up, he realized that sometime very soon he was going to throw up. Making a conscious effort to get through the call, he said hello.
"Mitch! You lucky s.o.b., what's this I hear about you going to Washington? I hope you're not gonna be like those New Bedford whalers and leave my sister waiting for years on the parapet for you to get back."
"ung. g'morning rick." Mitchell couldn't work up the energy for capital letters. "i really don't think this is a good time to talk. i promise she won't be walking the parapet long."
"Mitch, bro, you sound awful. It must've been one helluva celebration. Go swallow a raw egg or something; I'll talk to you later."
One hundred and twenty-two days after it was discovered, the huge spherical starship came to rest in orbit far above the landing site. A smaller spherical vessel separated from the parent ship and slipped silently down through space and into the atmosphere. Its destination wasn't any of the world's great cities: not New York, London or Paris; Beijing, Tokyo or Sydney—though representatives from each had made increasingly desperate pleas for the honor. Instead, the location for the historic first contact was tiny Nikunau, in the Kiribati Islands. An independent nation closest to the convergence of the equator and the antimeridian.
The island, 270 miles southwest of that imaginary intersection, was deemed large and developed enough to accommodate the accredited delegates coming from around the world, while still remote enough to give a sense of safe isolation and political neutrality.
The quarantine chamber that would be shared by the aliens and humans was built in the center of the northern lobe of the ten mile long coral atoll. The chamber itself was reasonably small: two suites of rooms separated by, and joined to, a central common area. Altogether the arrangement formed a square, two hundred feet on a side. A long corridor projected out three hundred feet from one side of the structure, where it joined a low, circular concrete pad, shaped like a very shallow bowl. This was the landing area: the place where the approaching black sphere would soon complete its journey and make contact with Earth.
Mitchell looked out the small oval window and watched an endless flow of water pass beneath the port-side wing of the plane. A thousand miles from Brisbane to Noumea, eight hundred and fifty more to Suva and finally a long, long twelve hundred miles to Nikunau. The past week in Australia had been exhausting. Meetings with delegates, scientists with expertise in a dozen disciplines, support staff, politicians and diplomats from more countries than he could remember. Then, back to his room in the US Consulate to write his reports to Dr. Cathay and the President, distilling hours of discussion into policy recommendations.
His attention was brought back to the present when he felt the plane begin to descend. He picked up his iPad and slid it into the outer pocket of his carry-on, collected his garbage and tried to prepare himself for the next few hours and days.
When the tires finally made contact with the concrete, he felt his body push hard against his seat belt as the pilot decelerated rapidly on the short runway. At the end, just yards from where the surf sprayed up through piled rocks, the plane turned back around the way they had come and taxied to the cluster of low buildings a hundred yards away.
The transition from the cool, conditioned air of the cabin wasn't as bad as he'd expected: probably somewhere in the mid-eighties and not terribly humid. The sky was beautifully blue and decorated toward the south with billowing white clouds; the salty, organic smell of the ocean was a refreshing relief from the sterility of the plane's cabin.
A local man in a light blue shirt with red epaulettes and a Kiribati Islands Police patch directed the delegation to several dark green, open-topped Land Rovers waiting just north of the closest building. Mitchell climbed into the back seat of the nearest one and was joined a moment later by a Stanford linguist who was leading the team chosen to analyze the alien language. Constance Cromwell was originally from Bristol, England, but came to Stanford after completing her Doctorate at Oxford. Mitchell had met her two or three times in the past month. She was easy to remember, not just for her alliterative name and her straight, coppery hair framing a deceptively serious face, but also for her intellectual brilliance that was nothing less than startling.
"Nervous?" he asked her.
"Oh, God!" she said, "I don't know whether to laugh, cry or just shit myself! Can you believe it?"
"Absolutely! Last night I think I had every possible variation of a nightmare where I personally start an intergalactic war. I just hope that if they're as nervous as I am, they can function on less sleep than me."
Constance looked up high into the sky above them and asked,"It's getting pretty close to time, isn't it?"
Mitchell looked at his watch. "Soon. Very soon. Less than an hour."
The flight had cut it close, he thought, but it only took the caravan another twenty minutes to reach the landing site and before long they were climbing out of the trucks and walking toward a large, open-sided tent that had been erected over more than a dozen rows of seats facing a very large video panel. The Primary Delegation had arrived the day before and, according to plan, were in the central meeting area of the isolation chamber waiting for the guests to arrive.
As Mitchell entered the tent with the others, he saw several members of the contact team on the monitor, standing in the meeting room and talking quietly to one another. Inside the tent was the sound of nervous chatter as the arrival time drew close.
Mr. Teatao Tong, President of the Kiribati Islands, stepped in front of the video screen. Another man, in white shirt and pants and holding a video camera on his shoulder, stood about ten feet away. A moment later the image on the screen switched from the view inside the chamber to that of President Tong.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very happy to inform you that the craft is now in sight above us and will be landing momentarily. If you wish to step out of the tent, please do so in a manner consistent with the occasion."
Everyone apparently so wished. And if the manner of doing so was not Mankind's finest moment, it was, at least, accomplished quickly.
As he stepped back into the sun, Mitchell looked up and saw a small black dot; a speck directly overhead. It seemed frozen in place and only after staring at it intently could he see the size slowly growing. As it came closer, the apparent motion increased rapidly and in just a couple of minutes the time had arrived.
The landing craft was nearly unmarked: a non-reflective black sphere. It was so black that it was difficult to see the curvature of the surface even near the edges. Here and there, scattered around the object, were shiny black protrusions and portlets and it was only by these that its shape could be determined.
As the craft descended the last hundred feet to the landing pad, Mitchell felt a weird push throughout his body. From the reactions around him, others did as well. It wasn't strong enough to be frightening, but it was completely unlike anything he'd felt before. This was apparently an artifact of the gravity drive and it quickly faded as the craft made contact with the pad.
At that moment, all decorum aside, a loud and spontaneous cheer went up from everyone in attendance—and likely throughout much of the world. Mitchell himself was nearly overcome with the wave of euphoric excitement that swept over him. It had happened. Barely four months ago his star gave him a wink. Now, as a direct result of that distant serendipity, he was looking at an alien spacecraft, this hundred foot diameter black sphere, sitting in a concrete cradle right in front of him.
As soon as the ship landed, the flexible end of the causeway leading to the isolation chamber extended and made contact with the black surface. A few indistinct mechanical noises followed and then shadowy shapes moved through the connector into the causeway. There was a brief pause, and then a sudden rush as people headed back to the tent and the video monitor inside.
The monitor again showed the delegation waiting in the plain white meeting room. At a small table to one side, a stenographer sat in front of the translation computer to enter what was said by the humans. In the intervening months since the first communication, a basic symbolic language had been mutually developed and this would be transmitted optically between the humans' translator and whatever device the aliens brought in with them.
The members of the delegation suddenly came alert and the camera shifted to face the opening on the opposite side of the room. Moments later, they waddled in.
Nine creatures with short, pear-shaped bodies entered the room. Each had a small head with a pronounced snout and large, leaf shaped ears high on the sides that pivoted independently to follow sounds. They had two arms and two legs. The arms were slender, with a four-clawed gripper on the end; the short, sturdy legs each ended with a disc-shaped foot about ten inches in diameter. They each wore a jumper that covered their bottom-heavy torso but left their heads, arms and legs exposed to reveal a fine, light brown hair.
As they entered the room they lined up across from their human counterparts. Once they were all in a line, the one in the center, wearing a jumper patterned with pale violet geometric figures, stood stiffly erect for a moment and closed his hands with a pronounced 'click'. The others immediately followed suit. The humans in the room then bowed formally in response.
Erik Pedersen, the leader of the human contingent stepped forward. He was currently Prime Minister of Norway, but before that, he served two terms as the Secretary General of the United Nations. It was his tenure at the UN that brought him global recognition. His skill at finding common ground between antagonists had defused many tense international situations and made him a consensus choice for this role. As he stepped forward, so did the apparent leader of the aliens. Pedersen spoke.
"It is with utmost humility that we, the representatives of the population of Earth, welcome you, our honored guests from beyond our world. We look forward to participating in the fruitful sharing of our knowledge and traditions."
This was mostly for the benefit of the history books. There was no real reason to expect the translation machines to be capable of capturing the nuances of this sort of rhetoric. But with ten billion people watching directly or waiting for a second hand report, a bit of stuffy pretension was understandable. In light of the circumstances, only the least charitable critic would take Mr. Pedersen to task.
There was a brief delay after he finished and the stenographer finished entering the comments. The corresponding translator then spoke in a something like a cross between birdsong and dog howls. Interesting, even beautiful, but thoroughly daunting to those charged with trying to learn their language.
After the leader in the violet jumper spoke, a second alien repeated the statement (as far as the humans could tell) into a device held in its hands.
The human translation machine spoke: "Great need sent us to your world. And great appreciation is given for your welcome. Though great allowance must be made on first meetings, the future repays patience with great benefits."
It was generally seen as a good sign that rhetorical pomposity was not an exclusively human trait. Another positive sign was that neither the humans nor the aliens had dropped dead yet. Now that it seemed likely that each group would survive the day, the teams got to work. One of the first tasks was naming.
Each of the two teams had their personal names associated with an attribute assigned by a member of the opposite team. This would be translated back into the other language as the proper name. The leader in the violet jumper would be called Vy.
Their home world was the closest of four planets circling a yellow dwarf sun. A trio of small moons shepherded a pair of concentric equatorial rings.
Vy's species evolved from plant-preferring omnivores that ranged along the littoral sands of an ocean girdling their world. At times they were predatory, but more often were prey and they evolved accordingly. Their eyes were set forward with a wide peripheral view and their vision was supported by three unfocused, light-sensitive patches on the back of their head. A low center of gravity and wide, flat feet made it easy to outrun predators on the soft sand of their beaches but left them vulnerable if they could be driven into the long shore grasses.
Evolving with the heightened cautiousness of prey, they had a rich sensory awareness of their surroundings. Their hearing was acute. Their eyesight ranged from infrared to ultraviolet.
Like us, their heads had a mouth and nose, but the mouth was only for nourishment; the nose just for breathing and communication. The idea of smell would soon become a source of amusement for them on Earth. They felt odors as an aspect of touch, like a breeze across bare skin. Their fur was not a piled extrusion of dead cells, but a receptive, living extension of the skin below.
The exact nature of the catastrophe that sent the starship here was not explained, but saving the population was out of the question. They were doomed. The best that could be hoped for was to preserve a representation. 100,0008 would leave. 5,000,000,0008 would die. One ship would be built. Enormous, highly redundant and spacious. Representatives from every bloodline were included in those used to build it and those selected to escape. Design took years. Construction took decades. The challenges that were overcome spawned unprecedented advancements in science and technology, none greater than the gravity drive. The last age of their home world was a Golden one. But the ultimate fate was the same.
When it was finally completed, the ship was a masterpiece of resource management. Virtually every photon of light that crossed its path was captured. Virtually every bit of organic matter was reprocessed or regenerated. Waste would be the only unforgivable crime, but stagnation was the greater danger.
Even at the tremendous speed the ship would eventually reach, those inside would share more than five hundred years of bondage to a destiny of deprivation and restraint. And in all that time the Travelers would need to keep alive the passion of the ultimate goal through generation after generation of unrewarded sacrifice. So history was venerated, the future made into religion and the survival of their species validated every choice.
But what were the odds that there would be someone there waiting to meet them? Someone intelligent? Developed? Perhaps not zero; there were contingency plans for this and nearly every other possibility. As they approached the small yellow star, still many years away, and they began to pick up emissions of clearly artificial origin, they understood that diplomacy was going to be their first and most important job.
Vy was from the 27th generation of Travelers. It was their generation that would finally complete the voyage. It was their generation that had been looked forward to in their literature and celebrated on their arrival. The nascent 27s were watched closely to find the most intelligent and socially gifted. Who chose to step in and settle squabbles? Who were the natural leaders? Who would be selected to represent their entire remaining race to the dominant unknowns when they finally arrived?
At the end of his adolescence, Vy had been chosen along with fifteen others who were considered the most promising to head the landing party. He'd been rigorously trained in history, diplomacy and traditional arts. And when they entered the vicinity of the Destination star, he was told to select those who would accompany him. This was his final test.
There would be just one chance and Vy was their choice.
Mitchell sat under the tent near the middle of the front row of seats, his legs stretched out in front of him as he watched the conversation on the video screen. Vy was explaining their predicament: the descent vehicle could return to the starship, but it was very expensive in energy. The drive displaced the apparent mass of a heavy body in relation to the vessel. When the differential was in favor of the craft, it could move easily in any direction. But when a large mass was dominant, it could only move easily towards the mass. Any other choice used vast amounts of power.
To launch the starship on its journey, immensely strong lasers had been pointed at the construction dock, stationed at the trailing Lagrange point of their home world's orbit. The beams vaporized the dock and provided the energy needed to escape their star's influence. Once clear of their sun, they relied on captured starlight to defer the depletion of their reserves. By the time they reached our system, those reserves were virtually gone. The alien starship was here to stay.
Vy conceded that they were uninvited guests. Before the landing party even began its descent to Nikunau, their leaders had decided that if they weren't welcome, the landing party would return to the starship and await their fate. This understanding was important, he said, because the passenger ferries were comparatively simple gravity gliders and could not return once they landed. There was no Plan B, no alternate location, no next stop on the itinerary.
Assuring the aliens that their welcome was certain, the discussion soon turned to their needs and logistics and Mitchell's thoughts returned to Ellen. Although he'd spoken to her as often as circumstances allowed, the demands and importance of this event superseded every other obligation and he'd been unable to see her for more than a month. He would be here at least until the end of the quarantine period and perhaps longer and he couldn't deny a bit of self-absorbed regret for what he was giving up to be here with 'his' discovery.
Three weeks later they were officially cleared to leave the island. By then everyone—human and alien alike—was more than ready to do so. Tomorrow the landing craft would return to orbit and the gravity gliders would start ferrying passengers down to the agreed upon host locations. In two days Mitchell would be back in Washington. He intended to make it very clear to Ellen that he would like her to be there to meet him. At which time he would also do his very best to persuade her to stay.
The yellow Checker cab turned from Madison onto 4th Street and stopped in front of the East Building of the National Gallery. The rear passenger door opened and Mitchell stepped out onto the curb, returning the billfold to his pocket. He turned and took Ellen's hand to help her out, then closed the door. The cab pulled away as they crossed the sidewalk and broad patio toward the entrance. The setting sun reflected in the glass wall and made them both scrunch up their faces against the glare.
Ellen rummaged in her handbag a moment. "Here," she said, and handed him the tickets. He took them and stuffed them into the pocket of his jacket. They were good for admittance to the show, as well as Kyzyl's lecture beforehand and the reception following. This was one of the centerpiece events commemorating the first anniversary of the Xenies arrival and was Kyzyl's first show of artwork created for a human audience.
Inside the lobby, they crossed to the stairs and went down to the auditorium where Dr. Cathay greeted them as they approached the doors.
"Ellen, dear, it's so nice to see you again! Mitchell told me you'd be joining him this evening."
"I wouldn't miss it, Dr. Cathay."
She had learned a bit about official Washington social life in the past six months and didn't try to attend every event Mitchell was obliged to accept. But tonight was one she was happy to make. Kyzyl was the first Xenie she'd met in person and she looked forward to seeing what he had been up to. Although she considered him a friend and had talked to him many times in the past few months, Xenies were notoriously private and his workshop was closed to all but himself and the very few Xenies who worked with him.
"Did Kyzyl give you any inside information on what he has in store for us?" Dr. Cathay asked.
"Not a peep. And don't think I didn't try to wheedle him, either. He said I'd just have to wait like everybody else. You'd think having a friend from dozens of light years away would give you more pull than that."
"Well, you come along with us and after the show we can confront him on his lack of confidence in your secret-keeping abilities. Just try not to cause an diplomatic crisis."
"I'll do my best, Doctor. Now, quick, while we have the time, how are Stephie and Kevin doing? Mitch is turning out to be a very poor conduit for updates on your grandchildren."
The attendant at the door returned their scanned tickets and Dr. Cathay led them to a set of open seats toward the front of the hall. He was deep into the details of his grandchildren's accomplishments when the house lights dimmed and the museum's Director stepped up to the lectern.
"Ladies, Gentlemen and our honored Xenite guests, we're delighted to have with us tonight an artist considered by many in his culture to be one of the finest practitioners of his craft in generations..."
This continued for a while in typical Washingtonian introductory style, going on far longer than necessary before finally drawing to a close.
"...so please join me in welcoming our distinguished guest, Kyzyl."
The Xenie walked out to enthusiastic applause. He went to the front of the stage and acknowledged the greeting with the stiffened body and hand click that was their equivalent of a bow, first to the Director, then to the audience and continuing to the low lectern set up on the opposite side of the stage.
Kyzyl began talking in the growly whistle of Xenite speech. A few moments later the translator began to talk.
"Thank you so much for being here.
"When I was quite young I learned that the destination we would finally reach in my lifetime was inhabited by a technologically advanced intelligence. You can imagine the shock that must have given my elders when they first discovered it. By the time I was told, they had come to terms with the fact, but I often wondered what type of horrible monsters might live there.
"Of course, nothing in my imagination came close to the fascinating reality of humans: creatures startlingly different from ourselves but with whom we share so many similarities, perhaps none more unexpected than our interest in, and attraction to, each others artwork. To whatever source of chance or design we owe our existence, I can't help but be grateful for this bizarre and unlikely occurrence.
"With our arrival here and our gradual assimilation into the routine of your lives, I have been able to travel this world and meet with many artists. I viewed their creations and discussed their methods and motivations. Then, returning to my studio, I began the process of building these experiences into representations accessible to both races.
"Was I successful? Let us take a look and you can tell me."
As they exited the exhibit, Dr. Cathay excused himself to speak with another guest while Mitchell and Ellen joined the reception in the main atrium.
When she caught up with Kyzyl, Ellen squealed with excitement, "Oh my God! That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life!"
Mitchell, still speechless when it came to describing what he just saw, smiled and shrugged his shoulders in agreement. Finally he said, "I think you may have just put every artist on Earth out of business."
They asked about the difference between what they'd seen and traditional Xenie art and about what his next plans were.
"There's a form of sculpture I have in mind," he said. "It hasn't been produced since the Traveling began. It's made of a variety of materials, chosen for the unique ways they react to heat. I think I will attempt to produce this here. Would you be interested in helping?"
The question took Mitchell off guard and he had to replay the last few seconds back in his head to be sure of what he'd heard.
"Um, absolutely." He said, "What can I do?"
"Many things. I have an apprentice—you can call him 'ZB'—who will work with me on its conception and execution, but having a human to help with acquiring materials, a venue and, I've been told, permission to construct, would be very useful.
"Perhaps we can speak this weekend and discuss what I need then."
After they met, Mitchell was given a list of materials and specifications. He was ready to speak on behalf of Kyzyl about acquiring the necessary items.
Once the process was underway, he was surprised at how quickly it all came together. After the success of the National Gallery show, people were eager to be associated with Kyzyl and with Xenies in general. Much of the material was donated in exchange for nothing more than a credit line.
The tower began to take shape. ZB assisted Kyzyl with the design. Human tradesmen did the actual construction. Its full height was twelve meters, close to forty feet, and it was built of intertwining sinuous shapes of various metals, glass and heat resistant plastics layered with fabric, paper and flammable varnishes. The heat was provided by gas burners along the base and electrical resistance heaters inside the sculpture. When it was activated, the outer layers would burn or cook off in a choreographed sequence and the core elements would glow at different specific temperatures. Both infrared and visible light cameras would broadcast the event to a very curious planet, eager to get a glimpse of how the Xenies viewed the world. Three months after they had spoken at the National Gallery reception, the construction of the project was complete.
There was a sharp chill in the evening air as Kyzyl stood at the base of the pillar and looked up. Everything was ready. He looked around at the lights and television cameras and the crowd along both sides of the lawn between the Capitol building and the obelisk of the Washington Monument. He made a gesture and whistled to ZB, standing next to the control panel, who relayed an instruction to the technician in charge of the controls. In a minute or so, when the system was charged, Kyzyl would trigger the starter that would set the outer layers burning.
He heard a quiet hisssss over the background noise of the crowd and felt the touch of sour egg in the air. He looked at Mitchell as if to ask a question. But before either could speak, a cloud of blue and yellow flame blossomed from under the tower, swallowing Kyzyl for seconds as it turned orange and black and climbed into the sky. The collective gasp of the crowd was followed by a shocked silence, filled immediately by Kyzyl's piercing whistle.
Kyzyl was engulfed in yellow flame tipped with green. Mitchell launched himself toward the platform and the terrified Xenie. He hit at full speed and his tackle sent them both flying over the edge onto the grass. The technician who was at the control panel reached them moments later and the two men rolled Kyzyl on the ground to extinguish the flames. The Xenie was only semi-conscious as they stopped rolling him and began to stand up.
That was when the smell hit them.
Ellen sat on the couch in the living room of her parents' home in Tucson. Her mother, still recovering from the previous week's flu, sat next to her, wrapped in a plaid blanket and blowing on a spoonful of hot noodle soup from the bowl Ellen had just brought in from the kitchen.
As the television showed the final preparations for Kyzyl's sculpture performance, Mrs. Campbell asked her daughter about Kyzyl and the other Xenies, about Mitchell's job and, again, when they planned on giving her a grandchild.
"Look. I think it's about to start." Ellen said, deflecting her mother's last question. The camera began zooming out to show the entire column. Moments later, the lower half of the sculpture was swallowed up in a fierce ball of fire. As the flames rose they could see Kyzyl burning. Ellen screamed and grabbed at her mother's arm, knocking away the spoon dangling forgotten between her fingers. In the next moment she saw two men—one of them clearly being Mitchell—tackle him and roll him on the ground.
She was frightened for Kyzyl, but proud of her husband for being first to her friend's aid. Relief was replaced with disbelieving horror as the two men began attacking the injured Xenie. They seemed to be hitting and pulling at it until the camera closed in and she saw the truth: Mitchell and the other man were ripping off pieces of Kyzyl's flesh and stuffing it into their mouths.
Ellen's mother kept repeating "Oh my, oh my," again and again. Ellen said nothing, but suddenly vomited where she sat.
Mitchell was held in detention for three days before it was ultimately agreed that no charges could be made.
While he was being held, a White House staffer had delivered a note letting him know that his position had become untenable and he was being terminated under the discretionary power of the President.
Kyzyl's body had been returned to the Xenites. But not before several emergency workers and D.C. Coroner's Office employees had sampled a bite or two.
ZB was nowhere to be found. He had apparently run off in panic during the confusion after the accident. There were scattered reports of his being seen at one place or another in the following hours, but nothing since.
Other Xenies around the world had bunkered in their habitats and compounds, leaving only by necessity and never alone.
The Secretary General of the UN, the President of the United States and leaders of other countries hosting Xenie enclaves all tried to apologize for the behavior of a small number of humans in a single, isolated incident. They gave numerous examples of human restraint. They made promises, assurances and guarantees. But the fact was, the Xenies were scared.
Mitchell had been released, but the recognition he'd enjoyed when he first discovered the starship now meant he could not get a cab to pick him up. Twice they had stopped when he hailed, only to drive off after seeing his face. Finally he gave up trying and walked the rest of the way home, head down and collar up, concealed in the growing darkness.
He could hear the phone ringing as he walked to the door of the apartment. He unlocked the door and opened it. He let the phone ring, shrugging off his overcoat and letting it lay on the floor where it fell. He took a bottle of vodka from the cabinet over the stove, opened it and took a drink from the bottle, coughing hard after he'd swallowed. Then, bottle in hand, he sank onto the couch. He was in virtually the same position in the morning when the ringing phone woke him.
"Who is it!?" he asked, hoping to end the conversation quickly. It was Ellen.
"Mitch, dear, what happened?"
It was the "dear" that did it. The hope it implied broke down the fragile wall he'd been building around his despair. He sobbed incoherently for minutes before he regained enough control to go on.
"I couldn't stop myself. Neither of us could. I don't think anyone could have. It was like I had never eaten before; like I was starving; like the greatest food in the world was sitting right there in front of me."
"But Mitch," she said, "that was Kyzyl. My friend. Our friend."
"I know. I didn't think about what I was doing. I couldn't think. It was...incredible. Like bacon, almost, but better. So much better. Like...like some kind of 'super-bacon.'
"Mitch, these are the Xenies you're talking about, not farm animals."
"They're dead, Ellen. Too many people saw it. Too many people know. They may not talk about it, but they'll think about it just as much as I do. And when word gets out, there's not a place in the world the Xenies can hide."
The word did spread. Through chains of rumor and through friends of friends. The official story was that it was an isolated situation brought on by unique events, but as usual, the denials just encouraged speculation. Within a week, in Barcelona, the first of the attacks began. Followed by more in Colombo, Darwin, Honolulu and Miami. Xenies caught alone were being attacked, cooked and eaten. Sometimes by the desperate. Sometimes by the bored or simply by the curious. It had become clear that this was no longer isolated or unique.
Darryl Pidgett eased the tires of his yellow Wrangler across the rocks of the washout, keeping the undercarriage clear of anything likely to do damage. His brother, Dex, pitched side to side as he held the roll bar with his right hand while his left held the rifle barrels, wedging the stocks tight against his thigh.
There'd been a rumor that the runaway Xenie was spotted north of Glady the day before and they had a hunch that if it followed the breaks in the forest, it would hit Shavers Fork before long. And if anyone knew the trails around the Fork better than Darryl, Dex had yet to meet him.
They knew the Xenies liked water and knew they could see in the dark and from the back of their heads, so they'd have to flush-and-shoot in daylight if they wanted an even chance at it. That meant tracking first, then splitting up when they felt they were getting close.
Darryl drove up the west bank trail about two miles before crossing over to the east. He let Dex out there to hike north, while he took the ridge trail to circle another half mile upstream and walk back down. If they were lucky and it was nearby, the noise he'd make on the east bank would drive it south and west and he and Dex would have him.
ZB heard the Jeep long before he glimpsed it through the trees, bouncing along the track at the base of the hills he'd come through last night. He had hoped to spend the day hidden among the low branches along the stream, but now it looked like he would have to move before the safety of nightfall.
He waited for the human in the yellow vehicle to pass and then he crossed the stream, briefly enjoying the flavor of the cool water on his legs and feet. He could move much faster if he stayed in the stream bed, but didn't dare leave himself so exposed. The dappling light through the leaves made his back vision useless for anything farther than a few feet away. In the dense forest he could hear much better than he could see, anyway, even if most of what he heard made no sense to someone who'd grown up in a starship.
ZB moved cautiously through the trees and underbrush on the hillside above the rutted trail, keeping the stream in sight below him on his left. After a couple of hundred yards of slow progress he heard splashing footsteps in the stream, closing in quickly from behind. In a panic, he tried to run ahead and get higher up the hillside. He had only gone a few feet when he saw a human step out from behind the trees in front of him. "Gotcha!" it said, as it raised the thing in its hands.
The shot hit ZB below the left ear as he started to turn. The impact lifted him off his feet and knocked him back. He was dead when he hit the ground.
There were no reporters allowed in the General Assembly Hall. When the doors were closed the delegates were informed that there would be no recording made of the session and they were to take no notes of the proceedings. There would be one item on the agenda: the Xenie problem. In the past month more than a hundred had been killed. But were they murdered? A consensus needed to be reached regarding what the Xenies were, if they should be protected and if, in fact, they even could be protected.
The debate continued for hours before they reached the only possible conclusion.
Mitchell pulled the red paisley handkerchief from his back pocket and raised the bill of his cap. He wiped the sweat off his brow, then bent his head down and wiped the back of his neck. The hot day was finally cooling off as he herded the last of the stragglers up from the pasture into the safety of the fenced paddock. The animals were just too stupid to be left out on their own, guaranteed stupid from the first minute they were born. But he couldn't help it, he'd felt an affection for the creatures since the very first time he'd laid eyes on them, long ago on the island of Nikunau, as they stepped out of the landing craft and into the world of Men.
It was getting late now and the sky was already dark. Mitchell slowly folded the cloth, his hands stiff with arthritis and scarred from decades of farm work. He carefully tucked the square back into his pocket and locked the gate. He paused for a moment, staring up to look at the familiar, silent stars. Then he walked up the path toward the house to have dinner with Ellen.