(This is Part Two of the a Three-Part Short Story. Part One is here. Part Three will be posted in the next few weeks.)
Tybalt squinted through the eyepiece of the telescope, trying to discern the structure of the distant alien ship. But all he could see was a fuzzy dot against the bright background of the star.
“It looks so tiny,” he said.
He glanced over at the display, which showed the maximum zoom from one of their probes. On this image, he could clearly see it was the same ship that Icarus 7 had spotted at Lalande. Every time he looked, he felt the unreality of history moving beneath his feet. Icarus’s images had rocked a planet. How would the real thing change them?
It was in orbit around a sub-Jupiter gas giant orbiting close in to the white dwarf Sirius B. They had now detected at least five planets in the system and designated this one Sirius Bb. But a crewman had given it the informal name Prometheus. The alien ship, which also had a nickname – the Horseshoe Crab — had been in the same high orbit since being spotted.
“Do they know we’re here?” he asked Chin.
“Not that we can tell. They haven’t done anything. But I’m pretty sure they can see us. We’re still at full thrust.”
“How long until we rendezvous?”
There was a throat clearing from one of the diplomats. Physically, he looked the same indeterminate age as anyone else, but his bearing was older and experienced. Tybalt glanced at his breast and saw the name “Okafor” and an insignia for the Congo.
“We will be cautious. Protocol is to go into a wide orbit and slowly spiral in, giving them as much chance as possible to see us and communicate with us. Only then, will we join them in planetary orbit.”
“That could take months,” said Tybalt.
“Years,” corrected Captain Chin.
Okafor cleared his throat again. “The last thing we want to happen is for our first contact to end in a provocation. Misunderstandings can lead to death.”
“But …” began Tybalt.
“These things were decided decades ago. We will stick to protocol.”
Okafor and the other diplomats left the bridge. Tybalt looked to Chin for support but she shrugged.
“It’s out of my hands. Once we spot them, legally, he is in charge.”
Tybalt groaned. “I supposed he’s right. Can I go back to sleep until we do something affirmative?”
The Archimandrite now felt like a different vessel. When they turned from Lalande to Sirius, they were automatons, quietly following the routines of running the ship, keeping themselves alive and engaging in the brief glimmering comforts of entertainment or sex. Tybalt’s memories of that time felt like they were in black and white.
But now he heard crew joking around and laughing. He saw couples holding hands and taking quiet moments together. Living color was returning to the Archimandrite.
A few weeks passed as they arced in toward Sirius, awaiting a signal from the alien ship. But no one seemed to mind the wait. Computer-synchronized game hours and movie nights appeared on the schedule. One of the crew began organized a concert. Captain Chin was in the Garden more often than not, chatting with the crew. The conversations were never far from the alien ship. But it was not the only thing that was discussed.
He and Madsen were now spending more time talking or reading or synching. After duty, they would lie on their backs in the Garden and look up at the artificial sky, wondering what the aliens would be like and what they would do once they returned to Earth, flush with decades of accumulated backpay.
“We’ll be famous,” she said. “First humans to meet an alien species.”
“Rich and famous. Hard to trust anyone after that.”
“Hmm,” said Madsen, leaning slightly into him. Tybalt was trying not to think about their journey home. He wanted to be content in the moment: on the ship, arcing toward a historic rendezvous, lying in the cool grass with Madsen. He couldn’t remember so peaceful a time as this. From the Lunar Strike to the Revolt had been a long century of struggle. And yet, his mind dwelled on the uncertain future.
“Quit overthinking it,” said Madsen one night when he opened up to her about it. She gently touched his face. “The things you’ve seen, the things you’ve done, the people you’ve lost. It’s in the past.”
“Enjoy being under my own vine and fig tree.”
She shrugged and pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “In this moment, yes.”
The message came with the suddenness of a thunderclap. Tybalt, Madsen were on the bridge, the conversation veering between the re-stressing of the fusion drive and how much longer the ship could sustain a fully active crew. Madsen has calculated they would need to start refreezing people within a few weeks at most. But suddenly into this gloomy discussion came a noisy eruption from the comm station.
“It’s them!” shouted Chin. It was the first time Tybalt had ever heard excitement in her voice. She immediately sat at the comm station and began assessing the data.
“Same frequency as the probe. Coming from Prometheus.”
Her voice calmed as she looked at the data on her screen.
“It’s the exact same message that was broadcast by the probe at Lalande,” said Chin. “But on a tight beam from orbit.”
“They’ve spotted us,” said Tybalt. He could hear other members of the crew climbing up into the bridge.
“The spotted us weeks ago,” said Madsen. “They probably just realized what our trajectory was – long orbit instead of straight in.”
“They’re telling us not to mess around,” said Tybalt. “To come straight to them.”
He looked around and spied Okafor, who had just arrived. The diplomat sighed. “That does seem a reasonable interpretation. They know we’re here. And they know we followed the message. How long will it take us to get there if we make a course adjustment?”
“Two months with a strong burn and slingshot,” said Chin much too quickly. She blinked. “I … have that course plotted every morning and placed on standby, just in case.”
“We’ll discuss it among the diplomatic staff before making it formal,” said Okafor. “But I would suggest having that course ready.”
They lost another couple of days while the diplomatic staff discussed the situation. Tybalt sat in on the first few sessions but eventually left because he was exasperated. The decision was obvious; but everyone in the room had to prove how thoughtful and intelligent they were by dragging out the debate for as long and is as many directions as possible. Tybalt could almost feel the orbital window closing that would let them rendezvous within weeks instead of years.
The only interesting discussion was the first half hour, when they discussed whether the signal was a misinterpreted warning to stay away. Or whether the aliens would attack them. But Tybalt pointed out that the Lalande probe could just as easily have been a bomb. And Okafor reminded them that while the details of the message were debatable, the gist – come to Sirius – had been spelled out as plainly as possible. It was literally the first thing the Cthulhu Protocol understood.
“It was as clear as a dinner invitation,” he said.
Once the course was a decided on, they had two-day-long four-G burn to hit the now tiny window that would bring them up to Sirius B within ten weeks. Tybalt spent most of the time in his bed, pressed deep into the acceleration cushions, only staggering out occasionally for food or the restroom when they would get two-hour breaks at 1.5 G. Even the veterans spacers struggled with the intense acceleration. Two were badly injured by falls.
But now it was gone. The ship was in freefall for a few days so that they could detach the shell and send it to scoop up fuel from Sirius A. After two days of crushing acceleration, it felt like luxury.
Tybalt was flipping through the photos of the Icarus probe again when Madsen tapped on his open door.
“Suit up, sir. We’re going EVA.”
“You don’t need me out there. I’m not crew.”
She looked up at the ceiling. “Did that sound like the beginnings of a debate? Maybe I missed something.” She considered for moment. “No. No, I’m pretty sure that was an instruction. ‘Suit up, sir. You’re going EVA.’ Yeah, not quite an order since you’re not military. But an instruction from a crew member who outranks you.”
Tybalt put the photos down.
“Well, I guess I have no choice.”
“Theoretically … maybe.”
“But in practice?”
“Nope,” she said with that slight twitch to her nose that was the equivalent of a smile. “None at all.”
Tybalt stepped tentatively out of the airlock. He was keenly aware that it exited into the bell of the fusion drive. He shuddered to think of the energies that had been pouring through that space just a few days earlier.
He secured his line and drifted out, maneuvering clumsily until he could grab the handhold on the edge of the shell. He looked back to check for Madsen. He couldn’t see her face through her dark visor but knew she was grinning at him as she shot effortlessly through the exhaust bell and caught a hold next to him.
She nodded and Tybalt pushed away, drifting astern of the ship. The shapes of Sirius A and B slowly rose above the shell’s horizon. Sirius A was directly ahead, bright and white. Tybalt could see they were going to pass close, enough to whip them around toward Sirius B, the smaller fainter star up and to the right of Sirius A, with another assist from the hot Jupiter on the far side of the star. Close to Sirius B was a faint but much larger body — Prometheus. Tybalt squinted but knew the alien ship was far too small to make out.
“It’s funny,” he said. “You can’t really grasp the vastness of space until you see a star system from this perspective.”
“It’s all just maths until that point, isn’t it?” replied Madsen.
“Prometheus looks bigger than Sirius B,” Tybalt noted.
“Bigger in size,” came the voice of one of the astrophysicists — Vronsky. “Way smaller in mass.”
The shell of the Archimandrite had been blasted black and friable by trillions of miles of relativistic travel. In one part, the shield was almost entirely crumbled, leaving a ten foot crater in the strongest material ever made by humans.
“Meteor,” he heard over the com. “Thought we hit something two light years back when our course jittered. Might have been the size of a fist.”
Tybalt turned to look at Madsen. Her suit swiveled to look at him.
“How close did it come to breaking through?” asked Tybalt.
He couldn’t see the response but could hear the shrug. “Double the size and it would have punched through and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Tybalt wondered what materials and techniques Earth had developed in the half century they’d been gone. If the shells weren’t improved, they would be losing a lot of deep space ships. It could only be luck that none had been lost so far.
“So far as we know,” he thought.
Every now and then the shell vibrated as its moorings were released. Soon the Archimandrite would emerge from the cocoon: slender, pristine, unmarred by the light years of travel. And vulnerable. The ship was armed but she was losing the shield that had protected her for the last 30 years.
“Everyone check their lines, check their partner’s lines,” came the voice of the Deck Officer. “If you drift off with the shell, we aren’t going to be able to rescue you.”
Tybalt and Madsen checked themselves and each other. They moved toward the fault line between the halves of the fusion shell. Presently, the halves began to drift apart. Tybalt felt a vague panic as the world split beneath him. Then a gentle nudge as the maneuvering thrusters fired.
Madsen pulled him down into the vast chasm opening beneath them. He had a brief moment of claustrophobia, wondering if the shell would come back together and crush them. But the walls continued to move apart. The Archimandrite glittered white at the bottom of the twenty story fall.
He began reeling the line in, remembering Madsen’s entreaties against going too quickly. The sensation of falling remained but it was slowly fading as the sections of the shell drifted away, opening up a larger and larger space.
By the time they touched down on the surface of the Archimandrite and began to inspect her, she was well clear of the shell, a slender elegant ship arrowing her way through an unfamiliar stellar system. The shell itself was re-assembling to scoop up hydrogen from the star and then drift out into a long orbit.
Tybalt looked again at Sirius B. That would have to wait until they were up close before the alien ship was visible. But he now felt very exposed. Their ship would be coming along a fast trajectory. Without the shell, they’d not only separated from their armor but most of their fuel as well. If the aliens had any hostile intent, a re-directed asteroid would be enough to end them.
“They haven’t moved,” said Tybalt one night on the bridge. “We’re having to make all the course adjustments.”
He thought for a moment.
“Maybe they don’t want us to know what method of propulsion they’re using.”
Okafor shrugged. “Possible. Or this just may be what they expect based on whatever culture they have. We’re going into a situation with no cultural markers, no ethics that we know of, nothing to anchor our responses into. It’s best to follow their lead.”
“If they have any hostile intent,” said Chin, “Our orbit is putting us right on a plate for them.”
Everyone nodded. The point had been made many times, mostly by Chin as a reminder of what the delay in changing orbit had forced them into.
“Whatever weapons technology they have is probably well beyond us,” said Okafor. “No matter what we do, they can have us for lunch … if that’s their intention. But our job is to make contact. At whatever the cost.”
He left the bridge.
“Is there any way to warn Earth if something does happen to us?” asked Tybalt.
Chin nodded. “The shell is doing more than refueling. It’s watching from a safe distance. And it’s got enough of Anansi in its computers to recognize any hostile act. If it does, it will fire a warning probe back to Earth on an orbit too far away and too fast for the … enemy, I guess … to intercept.”
“You’ve covered all the bases, then.”
“This is First Contact, Tybalt. We don’t even know how many bases there are right now.”
The excitement on the Archimandrite was close to boiling over. It was a long three weeks as they swung around Sirius A. The aliens remained silent the entire time, not adjusting their orbit at all. But Tybalt could feel their eyes – or whatever organ they had – on them. The Archimandrite was being watched just as intently as she was watching the other ship.
The long arc did mean they got to finish their survey of the system, cataloging the few planets and many asteroids that surrounded the double star. The astrophysicists barely slept, taking advantage of being so close to a binary to study every minute aspect of the interaction. They had been awake for over a year, studying the circumstellar material. Now they were working almost non-stop. When they whipped around Sirius A, the astrophysicists didn’t sleep for three days, constantly adjusting telescopes and firing probe after probe into the star.
Prometheus swelled larger and larger in the field as they closed in. It still looked bizarre to Tybalt: a massive beige planet orbiting the tiny bright white dwarf. It has a bright band on the equator where Sirius B passed over. And three moons and a faint dust ring were clearly visible.
“It’s a whole new world,” he said to Madsen. “Even if they weren’t here, it would still be incredible.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I’m glad we’re not chasing them to another system.”
Again, the excitement built. Again, the alien ship waited in an orbit she might have occupied for centuries, not having made a single adjustment.
When they finally achieved orbital insertion, Chin had to ban all non-essential personnel from the flight deck. It was getting too crowded with impatient people looking at the controls, looking for the ship, asking how much longer it was going to take. But matching orbits with the alien ship was a slow delicate process and Chin was happy to take her time and get it right. She also had to coordinate the return of the shell, having replenished itself from Sirius A’s corona and now looping on a long orbit to meet them anywhere from a few months to a few years into the future, depending on their needs.
Slowly, the Horseshoe Crab came closer to the horizon until it was in visual range. At first, a mere speck that Madsen had to point out to Tybalt. And then it grew to fill the screen. And still it didn’t move, didn’t contact them. With a few hours to go, Chin observed a tiny orbital adjustment but couldn’t discern any propulsion system.
Finally, they were lined up, a few ship’s length away from each other, sharing the same orbit. Still, no contact.
“All right,” said Okafor. “It is the opinion of the diplomatic corps that they are waiting for us to say something.”
“But what?” said Chin. “We barely know any of their language.”
“We will broadcast to them the same message they sent to us. Hopefully our meaning will be plain: ‘we heard you. And now we’re here.’”
“Very well,” said Chin. “This is your arena.”
Okafor flicked a switch and they sent the first message. The sounds played over the speakers. To Tybalt, it sounded like the roar of a monster.
The response took a while. But then the computers lit up. Walter heard what sounded like chords of music being transmitted. First the aliens, then the humans, then the aliens, then the humans. Each time, the aliens said something, then the humans responded back.
Then it began to diversify. The sounds became more complex. And now it seemed like the humans were answering the aliens and the aliens were answering the humans. It was becoming a musical conversation, the building of a complex symphony.
“Right now,” said Okafor, “the computers are just talking to each other. Establishing the basics of communication, sharing things like geometric identities and trigonometric calculations.”
“The one way all races would have to think alike.”
“Perhaps,” said Okafor. “We certainly hope so.”
After almost an hour, Anansi stopped processing.
“They are ready to communicate with text,” it said.
“So,” said Tybalt. “What’s the first thing we say?”
Okafor typed onto the computer. Letters appeared on the screen.
WE ARE HUMANS. WE ARE FROM EARTH. IT IS THE THIRD PLANET OF THE STAR SYSTEM SOL. WE COME IN PEACE.
A minute passed while the computers talked to each other. And then.
WE ARE GARSHAN FROM THE FIRST PLANET OF THE STAR SYTEM RAIKAN. WE RECEIVE YOU IN PEACE.
“Raikan? Do we know where that is?”
Chin shook her head. “We’ve given them a star chart to our home. They have yet to respond.”
“Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” asked Tybalt.
“They saw Icarus,” said Okafor. “They know where we’re from.”
“But they’re not going to tell us where they’re from?”
“Apparently not. Not yet, at least.”
WE FOUND YOUR MESSAGE AT THE STAR SYTEM WE CALL LALANDE 22185. WE HAVE COME HERE TO MEET YOU.
Another pause. And then.
IT IS GOOD THAT YOU UNDERSTOOD THE MESSAGE. WE SAW YOUR PROBE DIVE INTO THE STAR.
WE WOULD LIKE TO EXCHANGE SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION ABOUT OUR PLANET AND OUR SPECIES.
For several minutes, the comm was dead. Tybalt wondered if it was a problem in translation before the reply came back.
WE ARE NOT PREPARED TO EXCHANGE THAT INFORMATION AT THIS POINT.
Okafor seemed taken aback.
“’At this point’ … is that an accurate translation?”
“Yes,” said Anansi. “It took some time to correctly translate but their negative response is most likely interpreted as ‘not yet’ rather than ‘no’.”
“So it was a negative response.”
“That much is certain.”
“Well, can at least see them?” asked Tybalt.
WE WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN VIDEO TRANMISSION.
This time, the reply was swift.
WE PREFER TO MEET IN PERSON.
AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
WE CAN MANEUVER CLOSER TO DOCK.
WHAT ATMOSPHERE, TEMPERATURE AND GRAVITY DO YOU REQUIRE?
Tybalt was unsurprised that the reply declined to provide that information.
OUR PROBE WILL INCLUDE A BARRIER BETWEEN US.
With that, the link broke. Tybalt looked around the room to see the diplomatic staff sighing with relief and shaking hands. Okafor allowed himself a small grin.
“What are you guys so happy about? We haven’t learned anything yet. We don’t even know what they look like.”
Okafor nodded. “We didn’t start a war. We don’t appear to have angered them. They want to meet with us. That’s about as good a first contact as we could have hoped for.”
He then grinned more broadly. “We communicated with them, Tybalt. We talked to them. However stilted it was … we communicated with aliens. It all worked!”
He sat down and rubbed his temples.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. I’ve been thinking about it since I was a little kid back in Lagos. And now we’ve had a conversation with another species. A species, for all we know, that’s totally different from our own.”
He put his hand on the Cthulhu module. “Whatever happens after this … it worked.”
Over the next day, the two ships slowly drifted closer to each other until their airlocks were about fifty meters apart. Then first the Horseshoe Crab and then the Archimandrite extended tunnels toward each other. More hours passed as each side was pressurized, the Garshan side to just under standard Earth pressure but with an intense oxygen-rich mix.
“We’d function over there,” said Madsen. “But you’d need a breathing mask if you didn’t want to get high.”
The diplomatic corps spent the time debating how they should present themselves. Sitting? Standing? With a desk? Without? The debate ended when the Garshan side of the joined airlock became visible. There was a large black oblong couch in it, its ends pointed along the axis of the tunnel. It was an observation which sent the biologists twittering.
They also had a long debate over who should be present. They quickly agreed on two of the diplomats, including Okafor. And they settled on three scientists: Dr. Ayers, a mathematician; Dr. Maruki, the ship’s xenolinguistic specialist; and Dr. Garcia, the ship’s xenophysiologist. There was a long fierce debate about whether one of the soldiers should be there but the scientists had won that one. But Tybalt extracted a price for siding with them: two of the three members of the Brotherhood had to be present, Hosini and himself. He worried that this might make Madsen sore at him. But she shook her head.
“It’s probably for the best. This is supposed to be a peaceful meeting. We obviously wish we could be in the room but … we’ll be just outside if something happens.”
He noticed a slight hesitant note but didn’t press it.
Hosini was the last to arrive for their meeting and a hush fell over the group when she entered. Tybalt was still somewhat taken aback by her appearance. She’d boarded the Archimandrite as a 16-year-old girl right out of the Mars Guild. And now she was an old lady. It made him think of how much Earth might be changing since they’d left.
The assembled group strapped themselves into zero-g chairs. Their talk died down. The only sound was their breathing. Tybalt realized his heart was racing. Everyone’s eyes fixed on the alien airlock. Suddenly, there was a sigh as it opened.
Tybalt grabbed the chair tightly. What emerged from the airlock looked, for all the world, like a massive spider.
It took a few moments for his mind to clear. As the creature floated forward, he could see that it wasn’t quite a spider. It was even more alarming. The dark gray body was man-sized but one long cylinder, not segmented. It had six legs, each ending in a claw. It had four large eyes, two of which were contemplating him curiously, the other two of which were roving over the other members of the party. Below the eyes were two large mouths. When they opened, he could see ridges that resembled teeth.
“As we thought,” came the translation. “You are very like other species we have met. And not like us. We are not familiar with your facial expressions but, having encountered others like you, we imagine that our appearance is alarming.”
Tybalt’s mind reeled.
“You’ve encountered other species?” he blurted out.
“Yes,” it replied. The Cthulhu took some time to translate the next few sentences. As they waited, Tybalt noticed that the two mouths moved separately, their sounds mixing into a melodic almost musical intonation. It was like it was singing to them.
“We have encountered nine intelligent species. Yours is the tenth. All are different but most are more similar to you than to us. We are beginning to suspect our shape is unusual.”
The entire human side of the room was stunned into silence by what the Garshan had revealed to them.
“Our entire existence just changed,” Tybalt thought.
It was Okafor who finally found his voice.
“We have creatures somewhat similar to you on our planet. But much smaller. We call them ‘spiders’.”
“And you fear them?”
“Some of us do,” said Tybalt. “Some fear them a great deal. Others have no problem with them.”
“Are these ‘spiders’ … “ the translator took a long time. “Aggressive?”
“We are not aggressive. Not to animals we do not eat, at least. And we do not think we could eat you.”
Its mouths opened into wide circles. Tybalt realized this was the equivalent of laughter long before the Cthulhu did.
“They have a concept of humor,” Garcia whispered excitedly. “They makes jokes!”
Okafor spoke up. “My name is Ajil Okafor.” He slowly went around the room, introducing everyone. The Garshan’s eyes lingered on each person but seemed to especially linger on Tybalt.
“Ah,” it said. “Your species has individual names. We have names, in a manner of fashion. But they represent our roles. You may call me ….” there was a long pause. “Ambassador to Earth.”
“Wait, your name is literally Ambassador to Earth?” asked Maruki.
“No. It is Ambassador to Earth.”
Okafor leaned over. “It’s the Cthulhu. It’s translating a proper name. It’s as if its name were Stephen but the Cthulhu translated it to, ‘crown’”
“Our names are … functional. The individual names that you and other species use is still … a bit of a mystery to us.”
“So if someone else took over your role as ambassador, they would take the same name?” asked Tybalt.
“Yes. We are glad you understand.”
“Then how would you tell each other apart? If your names change, I mean.”
“How do you tell each other apart? You all look alike to our eyes, but we imagine you look very distinguishable to each other.”
“So you have no problem recognizing each other, even if your names were to change.”
“Yes, but if someone didn’t know us …”
“Ah”. It twittered on the couch. “We understand. You are another species that has large and flexible social groups. We do not. If we were on our home planet, I would rarely interact with someone outside my brood. So names are not needed. We didn’t have them at all until we met other species.”
“No names,” said Tybalt. “Does that apply to your species as well?”
Ambassador contemplated Tybalt for a while with glinting eyes. It’s mouths made circles several times before the translation came over.
“That is correct. The name ‘Garshan’ was given to us by another species. And we liked it. But before we met other species, we were just … ‘us’.”
The ambassador’s bulk settled onto the couch, the legs wrapping underneath it. It was as though it were capturing the couch as prey.
“You can see why we did not want to share our appearance immediately. We are used to … being alarming.”
“Does our appearance alarm you?” asked Okafor.
“No. You look soft. And we are used to meeting creatures like you.”
“And we all look the same to you?”
“Small differences. Except for …”
It gestured at Hosini.
“Something is different about you.”
“I’m old,” she replied. “Well, we all are. But most humans stop the aging process. My order … my … group … does not allow such things. We think they muddle the mind.”
“Ah,” said Ambassador. “Aging. Another concept we have seen in other species but do not have ourselves.”
“You don’t age?” asked Tybalt.
“We live about forty years on average. And then we … stop. How long do you live?”
“We don’t know the limits yet. But some of us have reached almost 200.”
“How exhausting that must be!” it replied.
It fixed its multi-faceted eyes on Hosini again. “But it is not just aging. You are different than the others. You observe. You are tranquil.”
“That is my order. We are Observers.”
“We must discuss this more in the future,” said Ambassador.
Hosini bowed her head.
“Can you tell us where to find these other species?” asked Tybalt. Okafor glared at him.
“In time. Not all have moved into space. Some are very primitive.”
“Have you met humans before?” asked Okafor.
“No.” It replied. There was a very long time where its mouths moved and no sounds came from the Cthulhu. And then it began.
“We have been exploring this area of the Galaxy for about five hundred years. We had picked up radio signals from your star system. Although we did not understand them, we knew that the signaled intelligent life. Our records show that a scout ship did enter your Solar System around the time your calendar would mark as 2009 but did not make contact.”
“What?” said Tybalt and Okafor simultaneously. Behind them, they could hear Dr. Ayers gasp.
“I am sorry. Perhaps the translation is faulty. We believe-“
“No, we understood you,” said Tybalt. “We just couldn’t believe you. Why didn’t you contact us then?”
Another pause as the Cthulhu worked on a long paragraph, translating alien concepts into adjacent human ones.
“We decided not to contact a species that had yet to leave their solar system. It would not be worth it. We have seen species that never did make it into deep space. And, through other races, we know of more. So we left you alone and moved on.
“Besides, your gravity is far too strong for us and your air too poor.”
“If you had contacted us, it might have changed everything. Averted a lot of problems.”
Okafor again grabbed Tybalt’s arm and shook his head. Ambassador unwrapped its legs from the couch and then wrapped them again.
“We decided it was not worth the effort. We only colonize uninhabited worlds. There is no point in talking to a species that has yet to leave its star system.”
Okafor put his hand over the microphone.
“Alien morals, Tybalt. It may not understand what you’re getting at. You may be insulting it.”
Tybalt nodded. Okafor spoke.
“So the probe and the invitation to Sirius … this is standard protocol?”
Again the circled mouths.
“There is no standard protocol for encountering an alien species. We left a message and moved on with our business.”
“And what is your business here?” asked Tybalt. He then winced as Okafor kicked his foot.
“Colonization,” it replied. “We look for planets suitable to our species. Our data indicated a suitable planet both in Lalande and here. Neither, however, will be quite right for us. We will move on.”
“So .. all this time … were you waiting for us?”
“All what time? We do not understand.”
“Well, it’s been many decades since you saw our probe at Lalande.”
“Ah, our ship moves much slower than yours. We can not tolerate the high accelerations you were using. We only arrived two years ago.”
Tybalt’s mind reeled a bit. Had they responded to the probe earlier, they might have reached Sirius before the Garshan and missed them completely.
“Do you arrange to meet with all intelligent life you encounter?”
The Garshan twittered a bit and settled onto its couch.
“We have many questions for you,” it said. “But the … meeting of our cultures must be … careful. There are many … formalities to complete before we will share more information with you.”
“We understand,” said Okafor.
“This must be as disorienting to you as it is to us,” said Tybalt.
Ambassador to Earth looked at Tybalt keenly, its multi-faceted eyes rippling with the lensing of dozens of pupils. Tybalt felt deeply unsettled.
“We will consider what we have learned so far and contact you when we are ready to meet again,” it said abruptly.
“Have we offended you in some way?” asked Okafor. “Your ways are unfamiliar to us.”
The Cthulhu took a long time translating this. The Garshan lifted its legs and wrapped them around the couch again.
“We’re not sure that we grasp the concept you are trying to convey. If we do, then … no, we are not angry. You have not offended us. We simply need to think about what we have learned. It is our way.”
“And ours,” said Tybalt. Again, Ambassador gave him that deep unsettling look.
“We are glad to have met you, humans of Earth. We shall contact you again.”
With that, Ambassador released the couch and propelled itself back to the airlock with its front legs, never turning its back on them. To Tybalt, it looked like nothing more than the wounded Shelob retreating into her lair.