Second Contact

– Second Contact –

By John C. Wright

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AND is there care in heaven? And is there love
In heavenly spirits to these creatures base,
That may compassion of their evils move?
There is:—else much more wretched were the case
Of men than beasts: O the exceeding grace!

— Edmund Spenser (1552 –1599)

Table of Contents so far

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1. Unarmed, Unafraid

Miles Langstrom, standing high upon the purple cliff, wondered that he felt such wonder, and such joy. He did not feel the fear he had feared he would.

His armor protected him from the radiation of the second sun, a giant dim blue star, which bathed all the strange world below it with twilight shades of purple, indigo, and silver-black.

The energy pistol was heavy in his hand when he drew it from his holster. Smiling, he let the weapon drop. It fell with dreamlike slowness.

Below his feet there spread the gardens and lakes, arbors and obelisks and domes of the city. The trees were bluish-black helices, tipped with silver, solemn spiral shapes winding thousands of feet into the air. The humble domes of the smaller natives floated in the lakes below, with a few blue-green lanterns hovering above. In the harbor drifted palaces, crowned by circling constellations of their many floating lamps. The polished wood of the palaces had been carved into fantastic soaring shapes of lace which Earth’s thick gravity would have toppled.

Far on the horizon, the peaks of mountains, impossibly tall, blazed acetylene white, burned by the sunlight of the deadly primary star, which, at this longitude of this tide-locked world, would never rise. Rivers of boiling liquid from the dayside of the planet fell steaming from the cliffs of those stark mountains. They ran into the twilight sea amid white uprushing clouds, and the echoes of far thunder.

The radio in the earpiece of his mask spoke. “Langstrom, our instruments detect you’ve dropped your sidearm. Don’t be a fool.”

“Protocol requires the first contact to be made alone, unarmed.” Miles softly answered back.

“Dietrich followed protocol. Now telemetry says he’s dead.”

A second voice chimed in over the radio, a woman’s voice: “Miles, Zverev is right. It’s not as if our species has a great history of successful contact with alien intelligence, you know. This is only our second, if you don’t count the slimes of Bernard’s Star III. And we didn’t do so well with the Ophiuchans. Our protocols were only invented by the Aristotelian  Starship Group for this expedition…”

Zverev, the first voice, spoke again: “You should listen to our Chairwoman. If we lose any more personnel, even one, the Aristotelian  might not make the return journey.”

Miles Langstrom said, “Some of us won’t live long enough to see Mother Earth again, if we proceed on normal drive. But if the natives help us mine and refine more fuel, or build a launching accelerator, our return trip might be less than fourteen years, ship’s time. To do that, we need to educate them and cooperate with them. To do that, we need to speak with them. When you go to speak, don’t go armed.”

The Chairwoman’s voice: “Are you so sure these sealmen are the pacifists Dietrich made them out to be? We never had a good explanation for those strata of previous civilizations buried under the rock…”

“I’ve decided.” Miles did not say what he had decided: that if he did not succeed, he did not care whether he came back. Mankind had been alone for too long.

“We are going to cut you off, then.” said Zverev. The native’s primitive crystal radios might give them a clue as to the orbit or location of the Aristotelian  if the giant ship kept radio contact with Langstrom. So far from home, beyond the reach of any possible aid or rescue, the stockholder officers of the Aristotelian  had voted to take no chances. “Any last words?”

“If I do not return, tell mankind that I was happy to spend my life in this high cause; to find our kindred spirits in all this wide and endless night among the stars. To find companionship.”

He stepped boldly from the cliff then, arms wide, and fell slowly down through clouds of mist toward the garden lakes.

*** *** ***

2. Sorrowing, Mourning

Miles Langstrom glided along the path, touching the ground with his toe every few feet or so. To either side, complex tangles of interlocking spirals grew, shining in colors of deep rose, midnight blue, and black. Some had flowers like unicorn’s horns, pointing toward the blue sun; other had long filmy streamers which danced in the breezes. The second sun orbited the unseen first sun, and consequently, like Earth’s morning star, was never far above the horizon. It was always dusk or dawn here.

Here and there among the gardens, shaped like seashells, stood obelisks of the aliens. These were structures of metal and enamel, made of many wires and interlocking plates of piezoelectric ceramic, rising in even spirals like the trees. Some obelisks were so complex, that they seemed woven, not forged.

The different elements of the obelisks heated and cooled at different rates during the long twilight day, to produce different patterns of heat, of magnetic flow, and of mild electric charge across their surfaces, which the selchie could perceive. They were objects of veneration among the selchie; but whether they were aeolian harps or barometers, clocks or astronomical instruments, artworks or idols was not known to the crew of the Aristotelian. When the wind blew by, they hummed with soft sad chords.

Several of the obelisks he passed had been damaged or discolored. He approached none of them too closely; the instruments on his epaulettes detected poisonous swarms of microorganisms hovering around them.

As Miles continued, he noticed two strange things. First, the garden paths and canals of the city were deserted. Second, several of the eggshell domes had been broken, their lacy carven segments shattered as if by explosions of internal pressure. His instruments detected high poison concentration in such spots as well, and he dared not approach.

Miles Langstrom came to an arbor near the lakeshore. A circle of spiral trees surrounded a pair of obelisks. Between them floated a native, who turned with sad eyes to contemplate Miles as Miles stepped into view.

The native was fifteen feet from whiskers to tail, covered with silky black fur. The palms of its hands and of its hindpaws were silver-white. Fans of membrane, the color of mothwings, opened from the tail which the creature lashed slowly back and forth in the air, keeping itself aloft. Its head was sleek, like the head of an otter. Above its huge dark eyes rose two strands of silver, which slowly swayed overhead. These tendrils detected magnetic flux, and they, not the infra-red seeing eyes, were the primary sense organs of the selchie. Miles wondered what he looked like, seen as a magnetic aura.

Miles spread his arms, palms open. The selchie folded its tail and came to rest on one of the obelisks.

“Do not be afraid. I intend you no harm.” Miles spoke into his mask. The computer in his shoulderboards emitted long, ringing chimes of the selchie nonaquatic spoken language. Heating elements in his chestplate created a pattern of warmth across his chest, showing a peaceful and calm sigil, painted in infrared.

The creature curled into one of the spiral segments of the obelisk. It regarded Miles with deep grave eyes, and, opening its mouth, showed its white, sharp teeth. It sang a low, winding, single soft note.

The computer translated this as “I sorrow; I mourn.”

The infrared cameras in his goggles showed the alternating pattern of stripes and shimmers which washed from the creature’s sleek fur. This was translated as, “Would that we intended none to you.”

There were also emotion indicators the computer could not translate, as the heat patterns of the obelisk were distorting the infrared colors of the selchie’s pelt.

The selchie threw back its head and howled. The computer said, “I sleep! I die! I am become death!”

Its fur puffed up, its body swelling horribly. Miles threw himself in a long slow shallow dive across the arbor toward the water. There was a rush of wind as the selchie exploded into a cloud of poisonous spores. The creature vanished into a fountain of golden blood, and each gold blood drop became a needle-shaped spore of flying poison as the fountain rushed out in all directions.

The spores were everywhere, flying into the grass, spinning up into the foliage overhead. Groups of them turned and flew into the trees, and began boring into the hard outer substance. Another swarm turned and dove at Miles, with clusters striking him in the leg and chest, and vibrating into the metal plates. His poison alarm rang wildly until a set of spores bored into its circuitry and silenced it.

When he sank below the water, the spores became sluggish, and turned into a clinging slime. He was able to scrape them away with an alcoholic sponge from his medical pouch.

In the water around him, falling like languid snow flakes, were more spores. He turned and dove for the depths.

Below him, he saw the shining towers of a vast metropolis the Earthmen had not guessed was there. Their instruments had registered the structure of metallic coral all about it, but not these minarets and colonnades, fantastic, high-arched domes, cupolas and pagodas. Everything was built to a gigantic scale, made or grown of corals and silvery fibers, or plated with polished gold. The sunken city was built along the edges of an underwater cliff, and, down the along the cliffs, like frozen water falls, ran roads of gold down and down into still deeper depths.

There was no movement on the streets below. Lights shined out from portholes and gateways, but no creatures were visible within.

On infrared, the roadways were woven with a dance of interlocking patterns of heat and cold, many of the same patterns they had recorded in the obelisks above, but more intricate and delicate. Whatever were the strips of gold material which wound from tower to tower, they were not roads.

From the spiral of a towertop far underfoot, a selchie arrowed upward, his body one taut line of sleek grace. Its pelt was a pattern of dappled gold; its cat-whiskers and tendrils were longer than others Miles had seen. The eyes stared up at Miles, dark, strange, unfathomable.

Miles’s hand grabbed for his holster and found it empty.

Then, in a spasm of shame, he pulled his hand back up. But he put it on the activator which controlled the tiny water-jets built along the spine of his backplate. He was sure his motors could allow him to flee through the water faster than any selchie.

The golden selchie came even with him in the water, and hung, floating, about forty feet away. It stared, whiskered nose twitching, long tendrils lifted.

He thought: to where would I flee? It would be safe back aboard the ship. It would have been safer never to have left Mother Earth at all. He had not braved the void for the sake of being safe.

He took his hand away from the control. He opened his arms toward the selchie and spread his fingers. His spoke through his computer in the sonar language. “Friendship.” he said.

The creature held up its palms, spread its webbed fingers. “Friendship,” it said, “If you will have us. Come! A place has been prepared for you.”

The selchie made a supple turn and sped toward the surface, surrounded by a cloud of bubbles.

They came up into the interior of a floating dome. The interior of the dome held a trellis of airy platforms, overgrown with plants of purple, silver, dark blue. An open latticework of carven and enameled roof beams reached out from each wall to support the platforms. Some of the beams had delicate webs of wire or sculptured organizations of glass and silver sculpted across and around them. From the very apex of the dome ran streams of crystal water, falling from one platform to the next through a series of bowls and seashell funnels. The fountains fell with sinuous slow grace in the low gravity. On infra-red, the dome was lit with crisscrossing beams and sheets of color, framed by the coolness of the falling waters. To human eyes, the interior was shadowy and vast.

Uttering a set of ringing chords, the selchie gestured upward. “This is our place of Judgement.”

*** *** ***

3.     Memorial, Oblivion

The selchie opened his tail as he rose from the water, and sailed upward to a large central platform. Miles followed in smaller leaps, flying from roofbeam to roofbeam.

He lit on the platform. There was a small garden here, webs of trailing spiraled vines, and flowers floating in wide silvery bowls. Some of these flowers were bioluminescent, sending out a clear buttery light which was doubly reflected from the polished surfaces of the bowls. A half circle of such bowls stood on tripods around a wooden frame woven with flowers.

Attached to the frame, beneath a sheet of delicate gauze, was a polished human skeleton. Hanging from slender threads all about the frame were tall, thin, crystal vials containing fluids and organs of human anatomy.

Miles shuddered, overcome. He thought of Dietrich’s gestures, odd habits of speech, sudden flashes of anger, wry jokes, painstaking habits of research. Dietrich had been born aboard theAristotelian  shortly after the launch of the gigantic starship, and Miles had been a teenager when he signed aboard. Twenty-three years they had been together during the long flight from Mother Earth, and another five years studying the selchie world before attempting the First Contact. Dietrich had won (or lost) the lottery to be the man history would recall as the first to meet the selchie. Miles remembered Dietrich as a man unflinchingly brave. No more. Dietrich was nothing any more.

Am I next? Miles wondered. To his shame, he found his eyes stung with tears. He shook his mask, unable to wipe his eyes.

The selchie took a strand of silver wire from a web, tied it to an ornament projecting from the roofbeam, and touched it to the gauze draped over the skeleton. It made a sound of windchimes as it spoke. The computer translated: “Sorrow carefully if you see what creates pain. Remember ignorance, and ask of what you see.”

The creature touched the roofbeam again. The gauze crackled; little sparks, like fairy-fire, trembled through the cloudy fabric.

The instruments in Miles’s armor detected changes in magnetic patterns around him. Miles realized that the creature thought the gauze was opaque, and was trying to create a magnetic image of what the dead body had looked like in life.

Careful, thought Miles. “What am I seeing?”

“Sorrow and shame,” came the reply. “We have no word for this. Imagine that one should die in the midst of a great fire, so that all his seed were burned away, and no memory of his would ever come again into the world. You do not return in the memory of your children after your first body dies. This…” (pointing with a whiskered nose toward the skeleton) “… is another one of you, who came to us, and was murdered.”

Miles double-checked the computer’s translation. Text comparisons appeared on the inside of his goggles. The golden alien had said ‘murdered’, not ‘killed’.

The translated comments continued. “We have examined all his cells,” the selchie said, “But you store your memories only in a few cells, not everywhere throughout the body, and we could not restore him to life. Forgive our failure; your life is not as our life.”

It was referring to the explosion of poisonous spores. The biology team of the Aristotelian  had long ago discovered that the explosive dispersion of spores was part of the selchie reproductive cycle. The spores entered the living things around them, and created a set of neurochemical changes which poisoned incompatible creatures, like humans.

“Your memories are carried in the spores?” asked Miles. “Your personalities?”

“Yes. But they do not overcome our children until adulthood. If we are murdered, the seed is angry, and the memories are more swift, and do not permit the two memories gracefully to intermingle. We do not murder as you murder. We do not fear what you fear.”

The selchie withdrew the wire, and touched an ornamental bulb on the roofbeam. The bulb was hollow, translucent, with an electric wire coiled inside it. The bulb began to glow with a faint ruby light. “We have examined the structure of your brother’s eye, and made this gift for you, to allow you to see according to the size of light-waves pleasing to you.”

The creature touched another part of the roofbeam; a group of vacuum tubes, like Christmas lights, lit up. “Your brother also had an ear who was his friend, carried in the seashell he wore around his head. We have made an engine to please this ear.”

Miles heard a faint static crackling in his earphones, and then, a faint echoing recording of his own voice, speaking in English “… tell mankind that I was happy to spend my life in this high cause; to find our kindred spirits in all this wide and endless night among the stars. To find companionship.”

Miles put his hand to his earphone, and shut it off. “Am I to be murdered?”

The creature was silent for a while. On infrared, Miles could detect flickers of heat trembling through the selchie’s coat, but in patterns too faint and broken for the computer to recognize. Finally the golden creature sang a rippling wash of chimes and deep humming murmurs.

“That would not be wise. Your life is not as our life is, and we cannot restore your life to you once you have lost it. We are to create friendship, you and I. This requires that you cannot ask me to do you any ill.”

The selchie continued: “Friends aid and strengthen each other, share speech, exchange gifts, return lost things. We cannot return your brother, but I can return your murder instrument. We have no such instruments, since we do not practice murder, but the use of the device can be deduced from its construction.”

From beneath a fold of cloth it brought out the weapon Miles had cast aside, and pointed it toward Miles.

*** *** ***

Judgment, Compassion

Miles stared at the weapon barrel. He did not move.

A moment passed.

The creature sang a series of low, languid chords. “I have displeased you. Perhaps you cast this instrument aside, to rid yourself of it, and do not wish it returned.”

Miles drew a shaky breath, reached out, and tilted the barrel so that it was not aiming at him. Then he gently took the pistol from the selchie’s slender hand, and put it in his holster. Relieved, Miles leaned against a roofbeam at his back, and sat.

Miles noticed the selchie trembled all over when Miles’s fingers touched it. “Are you in pain? I’m sorry. I did not mean to hurt you.” Miles said.

The creature sang out a rippling series of glissades. The golden selchie writhed into the air in a graceful flip, landed again, and shook itself all over like dog. It actually wagged its tail. “The most beautiful things of our world come from the storms of light when the hidden sun sends fire to dance high in the wind. At our northern pole the lights are strongest, and form high arcs and swirls of great beauty. Another beauty comes from those of us who practice hidden virtues; the energy of their bodies’ spirits shines like ripples in the water. But the members of your race I have seen are more beautiful by far than all these things. I can see your soul like a column of fire along your spine, and surrounding your head with a great light. When we touched, part of the light was made more clear. You must be a race of great joy, to have bodies so beautiful.”

“You perhaps are seeing the energy in my suit.”

“No. It is yourself.”

Miles shut the valve at his wrist and took off his gauntlet. His hand felt strange in the low pressure of the atmosphere, but his hand should suffer nothing more dangerous than sunburn, or some low-pressure bruises. The biology tests indicated the two races were not allergic to each other. He extended his hand toward the selchie.

“This is myself.”

The creature put its head near the hand, and lifted the golden tendrils which were its magnetic sense. The selchie cooed with pleasure, like a cat purring, and touched its head to Miles’s hand.

Miles could not resist the impulse to pet the creature. Its fur was wonderfully soft to the touch, and was mildly warm in some places, pleasantly heated in others, and the alternating zones of heat rippled and moved beneath his fingers. His hand tingled with pleasure.

“Your engines are steady lights.” said the selchie. “It is yourself, the colors of the living light within you, I find beautiful.” The selchie by now was curled up at Miles’s legs like a giant cat. It raised its whiskered face and stared up with deep, solemn eyes. “Your face is hidden behind a black shell. I ask you to show me your face.”

Miles said, “There my be danger. Your air is not quite like my air. What is inside my suit my hurt you when it comes out; I cannot breath easily your air.”

“I wish to create a friendship; it would please me to see your face. I will endure the risk.”

Miles said, “First, you must tell me how the one you call my brother came to be murdered. I must know if there is any danger for me, or others of my kind. Among my people, murder is a cause for great sorrow, and unspeakable pain. We cannot engulf the murderer in the memories of his victim as you can. Our laws and customs forbid murder. We visit terrible punishments on those of our people who offend this law.”

“All the people of this city have destroyed themselves out of anguish and remorse for the death of your brother. I only was left alive to speak with you. Yet we think that this is not punishment enough to restore what was lost. All the members of my people throughout all the lands and oceans of our side of the world stand ready to destroy themselves if that will please you, and satisfy justice.”

“No!” Miles wondered if the offer were serious, or if this were a metaphor, a religious or poetic sentiment. He wondered blankly what kind of creatures could contemplate racial suicide to expiate the guilt of one death. He said, “Do not be so quick to destroy yourselves. Remember that you are ignorant of what we humans are. Ask before you act.”

“I ask this: what is the greatest evil of your race?”

“War.” said Miles after a moment’s thought. “We murder each other in great numbers when greed and passion are not checked by reason.”

“Just so. Among us murder is a small thing. Those ancestral memories which committed murders in time far past have been forgiven or forgotten, since murder victims spread their spores and memories so much more swiftly. We do not war. Instead, we reach back into our ancestral memories till we can find a common ancestor with our rivals. That ancestor, being one, makes a bridge of friendship between the two who otherwise would fight. To fight, we disperse ourselves into our rival’s lands and die, so that, in a few generations, that land is embraced by all our memories. Our greatest evil is one I suspect you do not have. We are cautious, too cautious to know new things well.”

“Cautious? When all of you are willing to die to earn my goodwill?”

“Each of seven ages of past time were ended when we all dispersed to seed. Seven times, our young grew up from scattered spores, without the pressure of adult memories to guide and to restrain them. Seven times, the youth found the world refreshed, and all the old works washed away. Those times were times of great adventure, daring, and new thought. Years passed by, and the ancestral memories returned, bringing with them the strength, but also the slow caution of great age. Each time the new learning was added to the old, and we were greatly advanced. These simple rustic lives you see we lead here now we lead because we have only begun to wake recently from our last age, and we have yet to remake the ancient great engines and machines of our old science.”

The selchie continued. “Understand please why I yearn so strongly to befriend you. Listen: Some of our young make their practice to disperse themselves at the first sign of returning memories, since they fear the absorption into the ancestral minds. Some adults drug our children into stupor during all the long years of their youth, so that the ancestors will return as if into vacant dwellings, with no new minds to cajole, no new ideas to fear or fight, and none from which to learn.”

“Who killed my brother?”

“One of those who fear new thoughts dispersed himself; your brother was too near. The seed entered his flesh and poisoned him. We did not understand he would not live again. Forgive their fear; before now, travelers from foreign lands, even from undiscovered continents, could find a common ancestor to settle our disputes, if we reached far back enough in memory. But with you, being of another world, who shall decide between us? Who shall make peace between us?”

“Among my people,” said Miles, “We have peace when all men agree to be governed by laws which apply equally to all. I do not know what law can embrace the both of us. How can the murderer of my brother be punished if his murderer cannot be killed?”

“His children will not be permitted to examine any obelisks which carry reminders of the murderer’s memories. We have many memories within us; without the obelisks, memories go confused and faint. When we tell his children the horror of what he did, they will be adverse to his memory.”

Miles ran his fingers through the soft fur. The alien cooed and trembled.

“Why do you not fear me?” asked Miles.

“You are a race of eternal children, always new, never cautious. If our races can become as one, your innovations will ennoble us. Perhaps we can learn how to retrieve your memories from your dead flesh, and offer, in return for your great bravery, a share of our eternal lives.”

They were silent together for a while. Then the selchie sang again, saying: “I do not fear because I hope for so much. I am also a child; no memory is in me, save mine alone.”

“I also hope. Many years I have lived for nothing but the promise and the hope of friendship.” said Miles. “I shall be your friend. Will your ancestors oppose us?”

“Those who fear too greatly to endure your coming, will disperse, hoping to be awakened in a future time when other hands have solved the problems and done the tasks. Yet we who do those tasks shall multiply greatly by the benefit of your aid, and they will waken to a world make stronger and more beautiful by your friendship.”

“Clever.” said Miles. “Since, if things turn out badly, and contact with us weakens you, your numbers will shrink, and the ancestral memories will waken to rule a small group, and you will have learned your lesson. Is that why you called this a place of judgement? Because you are judging our race?”

“No. It is so called because you are here to judge ours. Do you forgive the murder of your brother? Will you befriend us?”

Miles gently stroked the soft, warm fur. “What forgiveness I can offer, I offer. You seem as beautiful to us as we must seem to you. You asked me who should judge between us, if we are too alien to have a common ancestor. We have in common our reason, our speech, our thought, and perhaps our loves and hates as well. These shall mediate between us.”

Miles continued: “We have met two races heretofore. One a race of monsters, insane, incomprehensible. The other was a race of flower-people we destroyed. Perhaps now my race has found the companionship we have been always meant to find.”

“I am young.” The selchie sang,” But even I know there shall be turmoil and mistrust. Strangers so unlike ourselves, are things greatly to be feared.”

“We shall overcome all this,” said Miles, “Those who are unlike ourselves will provide strengths we lack. I will put aside my fear.”

The music of the selchie’s speech chimed and rang. “And I also.”

Miles Langstrom opened up his mask. The pressure of his suit rushed out from his neck and helmet. His nose and eyes stung from the strange, warm scents. Miles held his breath. The selchie leaned forward, silky hair washed backward by the wind form the suit, black eyes squinting against the alien atmosphere blown into its face, nostrils pinched shut.

The selchie brought its whiskered nose almost to touching Miles’ nose, and looking him eye to eye. Slowly, the selchie raised its paw and touched Miles’ cheek with soft, warm fingers.

They smiled.

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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!