Monday, March 8, 2010

First Contact

(1) The Great Beyond

It was during simulated midnight when the good ship Josephine Baker powered down above 61 Cygni B II and Barstowe told them it was going to be just like that film Alien.

“I’m telling ya,” he said from the secondary Nav interface. “Strange radio transmission, little backwater planet, us…we’re gonna get all kinds of chomped upon.” Barstowe had this theory, and by now all 96 of the Baker crew had heard it. His theory was the movie Alien, and Star Wars and Star Trek and what-have-you, on and on, these movies were all part of a conspiracy, going back two centuries, to the 1940’s. They’re preparing us, Barstowe would say, desensitizing us to the prospect of alien life because they know its’ out there. They know who we’re dealing with.

Someone would inevitably point out that humans had been in space a whole century now and nobody had heard so much as a rustle in the proverbial trees (the actual, literal trees also being absent) with respect to alien life.

Greer said nothing. The only thing more useless than whatever it was Barstowe was on the ship was Greer. A thousand ships in the competing navies of Earth and not one jot, not even the barest suggestion of extrasolar life. There was nobody onboard less useful than the ship’s Theoretical Anthropologist.

The planet was a gray, hulking rock, a little larger than Earth but less dense according to the screens. Only the thinnest of atmosphere blanketed the place. There were books, whole volumes dedicated to what might be out there while silent ships a thousand strong surveyed the stars, alone. Haltham Greer had begun to suspect his life was one long, boring joke.

"We even have a Vasquez,” Barstowe joked, pointing at the ship’s geologist.

“Pipe down.” Captain Ching. “Besides, Vasquez was in Aliens, not Alien.” Didn’t that just shut Barstowe up. Finally. In the ensuing quiet the control deck’s crew shifted attention to Lieutenant Chandrasekhar at the comm cowell. His headphones on. Scanning through frequencies, through flavors of oscillation. Searching.
Sixteen years ago an imager probe traveled through 51 Cygni, picking up faint radio waves, possibly artificial. The good ship Josephine Baker was dispatched eight years later.

“I’ve got something!” Chandrasekhar announced, and there was a feeling on the control deck as though the air had gone out. Tense. Waiting. “Coming from the planet below. It’s very faint, but…could be artificial.”

“Confirm, Lieutenant,” Ching said, her voice tight with the anticipation they all felt. “Is this the real thing?”

“I don’t know how else you’d see a radio source like that.

There was another long moment of silence and then a deafening cheer. They’d found life. They were sitting on it.

Haltham Greer hated Jeremy Barstowe. The man was crass, aggressive and totally at ease with himself in a way Greer desperately envied. Ching rode in the liftcar with them to the hangar deck, detailing their instructions. Greer was to lead the operation. “After all, Doc” she said, “You’re our boy.” Barstowe, Vasquez and two grunts would fly down with him in a minnow and scout around. Whatever civilization that might be there had to be subterranean; the Baker could find no trace of them on the pitted, cratered surface of the planet.

“Good hunting,” Ching told them as the minnow left Baker’s hangar deck and angled its way down to the planet. “We’ll be awaiting your signal.”

A half hour later they landed and Barstowe immediately began giving orders. “Doc, you and Vasquez scout to the north. Al-Hamidi, Huang and I will establish a perimeter.” Greer didn’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved at Barstowe for this. He wasn’t a leader, after all, right? He was a scientist, and frankly the responsibility for those people’s lives—not to mention the billions AstroCorp had spent on the Baker—made his stomach churn. Still, Barstowe just marched in wherever he felt like. This could be the most important day in human history and already it was off to a rotten start. Greer was absorbed in this line of thinking when he realized that Vasquez had vanished without a trace.

(2) A Hole in the Sky

It should have been to the interval. To the interval would have offered a perfect, bitter irony. Sub-Hierophant Chttk of the Northern Warrens (Divided) moved quickly through the detention block. He scented his apologies for his brusqueness to the guards. Thirty-four seasons nearly to the interval, and here he was standing next to one. An alien. A Heavensent. A nightmare angel.

And what a creature, too. Flat, with only four limbs and what was apparently a swiveling head, all bound up in a carapace. One of the invaders was dead already from a pierce in its carapace. “They bleed air” was the rather baroque description radioed during the encounter. Two creatures captured, the so-called air bleeder being dissected now.

Of course Chttk’s disciplined scientific mind, well divorced from the heat of the moment of actually meeting one of these creatures, took the carapace for what it was. The angels could not breathe the thin air of Up Above either.

The creature stirred, and spoke. At least Chttk thought it spoke. Its voice, if it could be called that, was slow and soft like stones falling on moss. How could it see with a voice like that? Chttk sounded a greeting. In the name of Peace. In the name of Understanding. Please identify yourself.

Nothing. Not even a change in the thing’s posture, really, just more slow dull sound. Chttk remembered the day, thirty-four seasons before, that Kyrrkyr broke through the wall of Up Above. He was driven mad by that great expanse above the ceiling of the world. The hole in the sky. It was all he said, when he returned. Great vastness, so that he could not see a higher ceiling above. Simply an unending airless plain, beyond glimpse of sight. There was nothing above them. Nothing.

So where did the creature come from?

More noise now, a frantic call from General Vllst, two more creatures sighted in the south warrens, attacking with some kind of heat weapon.

(3) The Walls of Heaven

Jeremy Barstowe was breathing hard, hunched behind a wall, waiting for the laser to cycle up. Aliens. Real, honest aliens. He let it sink in for the first time. He wondered wildly at the implications of, say, his belief in Jesus. Did Jesus preach to the moles? Was there a Molechrist out there? Betrayed by blind mole Judas, in the dark?

They were blind, yes, and totally eyeless, but they could see like bats, which meant (a) he only had a chance if their back was turned and (b) just about every surface was covered in a frieze or bas relief of something. Not that the words “frieze” and “bas relief” were of easy retrieval in Barstowe’s brain.

Greer was nearby. The guy could barely hold his gun. So much for a fancy degree in fake aliens. Barstowe had that degree, surely. He’d seen Alien a dozen times. He hissed at the “scientist” to get over here. “Greer! Greer we gotta beat feet back to the minnow. Come back with reinforcements! The cavalry.” His breathing was still labored. They should have been awakened weeks before, from cryo.


“Why, what do you mean, why? Because everybody is dead.” What this was not time to do was nurse some sort of existential crisis, Barstowe had a pretty good bead on that.

“Why do they listen to you and not to me? Did. Why did they listen to you and not to me? I’m smart, I have qualifications.”

“Are you going to make this about you now?” Barstowe said. He looked over the low wall, casting about with his AstroCorp flashlight. The moles must be regrouping. Tough fuckers, but lasers they do not have. “We have to go.”

He was altogether surprised when Greer shot him from behind, in the head.

(4) Conssions of a Theoretical Anthropologist

Vasquez is dead. So are al-Hamidi and Ng. I can only surmise that if Barstowe is not, he soon will be, at the hands of the moles. His term, not mine. It’s all gone a bit wrong, I’m afraid. I’ve nearly got the minnow working, and I’m gone. Back to the good ship Josephine Baker. I’m leaving this. My confession, and my warning, for those who may come after us.

61 Cygni B II is inhabited by a race of blind, mole-like creatures living in an ecosystem a mile beneath the planet’s crust. Somehow, life evolved from the underground seas and lava vents. Algae provide oxygen at a level which is agreeable to the moles but unfortunately toxic to humans. The moles live in a large network of caves and lava tubes. Vasquez fell through a fissure, a weak point in the crust, the source of our radio transmissions. She was probably dead by the time the moles found her.

They are quite intelligent. They have carved great cities from the rock. They have weapons, too. Their speech is based on the same supersonic frequency they use to echolocate. All our attempts to communicate with them so far have failed. I am not optimistic for future attempts.

I’ve run the tests. I know every vagary of every simulation. I know what will happen if Captain Ching finds out the truth. That we are not alone. The moles will not survive us.

That’s why I did it. Why I will do it. Why I must. Imagine your whole life spent in a cave, never seeing sky. Imagine you and your ancestors, spreading back to the dawn of time, never even having words for the sun and stars. Imagine breaking that wall. Or worse. Imagine seeing it broken by something else.

Barstowe was right: we’ve been telling ourselves stories of what it might be like out there. The moles haven’t. Not once. Not ever.

The Minnow’s engine backfire should be enough to fuse together the small hole in the rock we found. I’m leaving this recording device behind. Officially, my report will read that the radio source was due to a decaying element in 61-B2’s core and that a caving mishap killed everyone but me. Should you find this, you’ll know I am a liar. Know however that I did this all with the best of intentions, for Earth and for 61-B2, which I would like to rechristen Barstowe’s World, in honor of my good friend Jeremy Barstowe, who gave his life in the quest for understanding between human and alien.

If you have landed here I beg you, turn back. Barstowe’s World belongs to the moles, not to us.

(5) As Above, So Below

Geonauts confirmed that the fissure opened by Kyrrykr to Up Above had been closed. At Chttk’s orders, no attempt was to be made to pierce the Wall again. It was decided at the High Council that the events of that terrible interval be carved over. Rumors would persist, of course, too many people saw the strange figures for rumors not to persist. But there was no reason the Church’s overall plan could not incorporate them. Eat your blooms, Chttk imagined countless mothers intoning to their broods, or the Nightmare Angels will come for you.

They must have come from another cave system, somewhere across Up Above. Vllst agreed at this, and already had begun to lobby for the expansion of the military. More expeditions into the South Tunnels was clearly called for. What they would find would be anybody’s guess. In the meantime the Nightmare Angels would fade, be replaced by predictable worries about the economy, polar fever vaccines and the possibility of war with the Jtmpr Barbarians. They would become a story. The nation would march on.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea, just in case, to start telling stories.

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