Table Manners

(This is the final part of the a three-part story. Part one is here. Part two is here.)

     Tybalt sat in the back of the room as the meeting entered its fourth hour. The diplomatic and scientific staff were poring over every detail of their first conversation with the Garshan, trying to extract whatever meaning or implication they could. Every word and motion of Earth Ambassador had been broken down repeatedly to see if any new information could be gleaned. Anansi had churned through the data a dozen times with all manner of new algorithm.
     So far, the only thing they agreed upon was that the Garshan were secretive, although even that word was disputed, with most of the diplomats favoring “reserved”. The semantic analysis insisted the Garshan were friendly while the body language analysis sensed they were hostile. And every time it reached an impasse, the staff turned to Tybalt and asked what he thought since he was there and wasn’t on anyone’s particular team. And then they immediately ignored whatever he said.
     He was relieved when Madsen entered and took a seat quietly behind him.
     “Still no conclusions?” she asked him.
     “Of course not. There’s not enough information to draw conclusions.”
     The argument was now circling back to the body language analysis.
     “We knew alien life might not be like us,” said Madsen.
     “Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting a giant spider.”
     “It’s not a spider, you know.”
     “I know. I saw the analysis of the tissue it left behind. Biology is very different from ours. If they ever ate us, they’d probably get violently ill. Still … if it looks like a spider ….”
     “Do they act like spiders?”
     Tybalt paused. “I don’t know. Sometimes it moves like a spider. Other times, it looks at you and you sense a deep intelligence. But … they’re just off. It’s hard to get a good read. Nothing they do – attacking us or embracing us – would be a surprise at this point.”
     He paused.
     “We didn’t really learn a lot about them. They seem reluctant to reveal anything and Okafor doesn’t want to push them.”
     “Then maybe you’ll have to.”
     “What do I ask them?”
     “Maybe something less technical. Something more personal.”
     “That seems unlikely to work with such a reserved species.”
     She shrugged. “When someone is reserved, sometimes the best approach is to bash down a wall.”
     She left. And as she did, Tybalt thought about how he’d first gotten to know her. Everyone had been reticent with him. But Madsen, after some polite chit-chat, had just flat asked him what his role in the Brotherhood was.
     “Observer? Archivist? We seem to have those. You must be a Mystic.”
     Before he’d known it, he’d been telling her about the early days of the Brotherhood in the depths of the lunar colony, a story he had not shared with anyone in decades.
     He looked down at the computer in front of him, which had an image of the ambassador. And he pondered.

     Ambassador To Earth was not alone during the next meeting. It brought a second couch out and a second, even larger, Garshan settled onto it.
     “This is Captain,” said Ambassador. “It is … the commander of our vessel and the oldest among our crew.”
     Okafor nodded his head to Captain and the other humans followed suit. It seemed to appreciate the gesture, its mouths forming twin circles. Tybalt did not hear anything behind him but knew everyone was wondering what Captain’s presence meant. He glanced quickly at Okafor, who gave him a very subtle shrug.
     “It wanted to … look at you. We discussed our meeting yesterday and decided that you are … friendly enough … that we can move to the next stage of meeting Captain.”
     Tybalt almost blurted out a question but sensed Okafor’s quick shake of the head.
     “Shall we begin?” asked Ambassador
     Okafor began with some rather modest questions about where the Garshan had travelled and received, for once, straight answers. Ambassador was able to identify a dozen stars they had visited by human names and noted a colony they had left on Tau Ceti. All the while, Captain sat quietly, its multi-faceted eyes drifting from one human to the next. Tybalt almost shook when the eyes fixated on him for what felt like a very long time.
     The answers seemed to encourage Okafor, who pushed what the diplomats had identified as the second line of questioning – this about Garshan biology. Ambassador to Earth knocked down those questions instantly, saying they were not yet ready to share such information. It was at this point that Tybalt, silent so far, mulling over Madsen’s words, leaned in and spoke.
     “Do you believe in God?”
     He heard a gasp from Okafor and could sense the diplomatic staff having a fit. The question hung in the air for a long time. Tybalt wasn’t sure if the Cthulhu was having problems with translation or the Garshan was having problems with the answer.
     “We are … familiar with the concept.”
     Tybalt started to speak again, then waited. Something in the creature’s body language said it was contemplating a longer answer. He realized that both he and Okafor were holding their breath.
     “We know of species that believe in this. We know of species that do not. It was not a concept that occurred to us, although our species does have beliefs that are … adjacent. So we are contemplating it.”
     “Contemplating it?
     “It is a very profound idea and we must think about it for some time.”
     “How long have you been thinking about it?”
     “About four hundred years. But … I suspect your species is also thinking about it, is it not?”
     “Yeah, I suppose we are. We have many religions on Earth. There was a long time when they didn’t get along. Then a more alarming time when they did get along in a very bad way. But now we seem to be comfortable with different beliefs.”
     Ambassador waved its legs. “We too have many different … strains of thought. And they have caused conflict in the past. Does your species believe in …“
     The Cthulhu took several minutes to translate the next concept.
     “ … life after death?”
     “Some do. Some don’t. We have no proof one way or the other.”
     “Ah. This is another concept that did not occur to us until we met other species. We met one – the Mozon – to whom it never occurred that there isn’t life after death. They regard it as proven as gravity.”
     It paused. Then Captain spoke. Its voice was different from Ambassador’s. Slower, more ponderous and, Tybalt could hear over the translation, deeper but more melodic.
     “Does your species have a concept of … honor?”
     Okafor stepped in quickly. “Our translator brought across a word that has many meanings to us. Could you be clearer?”
     Captain’s voice deepened, like the rumbling of cellos and bases. “Do you … sacrifice the individual for the greater good? Do you regard falling in a cause to be … good?”
     The Cthulhu had taken several minutes to translate Captain’s words and Tybalt could sense it was still not quite sure of them.
     “There are many humans who have given their lives for the greater good. There are many who live their lives helping others.”
     “You have some experience in this?” asked Captain.
     Tybalt paused. “A long time ago, we had a war. And I fought on the side I believed in. And long before that, I was part of a struggle on our Moon. And … this journey itself was risky. We’ve just begun to reach out into the stars. There are thousand ways this ship could have been destroyed before it got here.”
     “So why did you take that risk?”
     The Cthulhu was taking a long time with the translation, as though the Garshan and human words were not quite the same. Adjacent, but not identical.
     “Because after the war I was … looking for something. And I realized, when the pictures of your probe came back, what I was looking for. This, right here. Meeting another species and being able to talk to them.”
     “And you would sacrifice yourself for that?”
     “I’m not looking to do so. But I would risk it, yes.”
     Captain settled back and exchanged a look with Ambassador. They both gripped their couches tighter.
     “Would you like to come aboard our ship?” asked Captain.
     Okafor and Tybalt glanced at each other. Before Okafor could quibble, Tybalt leapt in.
     “Uh … we would be honored to come aboard your vessel.”
     “We understand you will need some … preparation in order to breath aboard our ship.”
     “Yes, of course. When would you like us to come aboard?”
     There was a brief pause.
     “You do not wish to come aboard?”
     “We do. But when?”
     It tittered and grasped the couch.
     “We have invited you.”
     Okafor suddenly realized and leaned into Tybalt
     “Culture. It’s a context the Cthulhu struggles with. When they extended that invitation, they meant right now.”
     Tybalt nodded. “I had the same thought.”
     He turned back to Ambassador Earth. “We will need to acquire breathing apparatuses. Then we will come aboard.”
     “Ah, now we understand. We will wait while you prepare.”

     The diplomats and scientists were going through what should have been weeks of preparation in minutes. The scientists were injecting both of them with immune boosters, covering their skin with a transparent layer of plastic and warning them against touching or eating anything. The diplomats were telling them to not say or do anything. All of these was happening under the watchful eyes of Ambassador Earth, which occasionally let go of its couch and floated around the airlock in a way that sent chills down Tybalt’s spine. It was almost like it was positioning itself in a web.
     “Will you walk into my parlor …” he mumbled. Okafor glared at him.
     “Would you be interested in visiting our ship after we visit yours?” asked Tybalt.
     Ambassador Earth hesitated, flexed its legs. Its mouths made circles again. “Yes. We accept the invitation.”
     “Do you need to take any precautions against us bringing pathogens over?” asked one of the scientists … Kell, Tybalt thought his name was.
     Ambassador Earth seemed puzzled by this. “We do not see any parasites on you. Are they under your … clothing?”
     “No, we mean microbes. Bacteria. Viruses.”
     “Ah, yes. We have found from experience that … creatures that feast on your type of alien do not enjoy us. And our exoskeleton is a shield against all but the most focused pathogens.”
     “What about recording devices?”
     It took a while for the Cthulhu to translate this.
     “Ah, I believe I understand. Yes. But you may only record video and audio. Nothing …” again a long translation pause “ … that would look into our minds.”
     Tybalt glanced at Okafor.
     “Do you mean your computers?” he asked.
     “Ah. Yes. Our minds and our … other minds.”
     Finally, the engineers and scientists nodded and withdrew behind the Archimandrite’s airlock. Tybalt took a deep breath and then opened the seal separating the two ships.
     He immediately felt a flood of panic. The alien air smelled like a charnel house. He had to bite his lip to keep from running. He glanced at Okafor who nodded at him and blinked his eyes.
     They strode forward but Ambassador Earth extended a claw toward Okafor.
     “Perhaps we were unclear. Our invitation is to only one of you. This one.”
     Okafor stood stock still and Tybalt couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. The man had spent his entire life preparing for this moment.
     “Mr. Okafor is an expert on relations with alien cultures. Having him accompany us, at least for a while, might make our interaction go more smoothly.”
     Ambassador Earth hesitated and its body shook. It seemed to talk to its fellows on the ship for a moment.
     The airlock into the Garshan ship irised open and the smell of decaying flesh grew even stronger. Tybalt and Okafor glanced at each other, then floated in behind Ambassador Earth.

     The ship was like a hive, with gray walls lit with sickly green lights, corridors leading in every direction, curving back almost haphazardly. It was startling contrasted against the clean linearity of the Archimandrite. Tybalt almost jumped out of his skin when another Garshan suddenly popped out of one of the tunnels. It regarded them curiously, spoke quietly to Ambassador Earth in their musical language and then skittered off, its feet clinging to the walls even in freefall.
     “How many Garshan are aboard this ship?”
     “30,” it replied. “Give or take. We have a new brood that will hatch in a few days time.”
     “You have children on board?”
     “Of course. Our ship can not accelerate as yours can. These journeys take more than a lifetime. I have never seen a Garhan planet and almost certainly never will. I have only seen the uninhabited planets we explore and the inside of the ship. Our species is constantly renewed by new generations. We do not .., extend our lives as other species do.”
     “You don’t see the value in living longer?”
     “No. It is a recipe for racial stagnation.”
     Tybalt thought about this for a moment.
     “Do you not fear death?”
     “We avoid it. But we still believe in giving way and rejoining …” the Cthuhu took a long time to translate “the collective mind.”
     “Collective mind?”
     Ambassador turned to him. “it is our belief – or some of our belief – that we are all part of one whole. And when one … dies … his consciousness passes to the whole … to be reborn again.”
     “We have beliefs similar to that.”
     “Then why do you fear death?”
     “We’re not sure. It’s a belief. We have no proof that there is anything beyond.”
     They slowly floated down the corridor, Ambassador Earth’s legs beating in the air rapidly, like it was scuttling. Tybalt got the distinct feeling they were descending, falling down into the heart of the ship, being swallowed by the green-gray corridors.
     They emerged into a large space at the center of the ship. Tybalt had to again steady his nerves – enormous Garshan were skittering all about, some occasionally stopping to consider the two humans. They went across the floor, across the ceiling, over the walls, disappearing into corridors and popping out like trap-door spiders. It was as though he had fallen into a nest.
     At the exact center of the ship was a glowing green sphere. Around it were arrayed pylons that, as far as Tybalt could tell, kept it in place. Within the sphere, smaller glowing balls moved about. And Tybalt could just make out tiny Garshan inside the bubbles.
     “The brood tank,” said Ambassador Earth.
     They stood there for a moment. The quiet movement of the globes was hypnotic.
     “Judging by your appearance and ….”
     The Cthulhu paused a long time.
     “… sexual dimorphism, we assume you humans reproduce sexually. Male-female. Internal gestation.”
     “Yes. You’re familiar with this?”
     The Garshan flailed its limbs. “In other species, we have seen this. Not on our planet. Each of us contributes material to the brood tank. Young eventually form. And then …”
     As they watched, one of the attendants reached in and pulled out a delicate green globule. It laid it on the floor, where it rolled slightly, the tiny Garshan inside flailing about. It almost looked cute.
     And then the attendant brought down a claw on the bubble, smashing it with a hideous crunch. They heard a brief musical cry from the bubble. And then the attendant turned back to the pool.
     “What … “
     “A typical brood will produce hundreds of eggs,” said Ambassador. “We do not have room for more than a few. So we will periodically purge the brood tank of offspring that are inferior. Only the most genetically robust will be allowed to hatch and survive.”
     “But that’s … “ began Tybalt. He caught Okafor’s eye, who shook his head. He looked back. The crushed remnants of the embryo Garshan were floating back into the brood tank.
     “I see your species is again like those we have encountered: you produce in small numbers, not in masses. It is a strange morality you have: preserving the genetically wounded. It is a recipe for evolutionary stagnation.”
     “We have control over our genetics.”
     Ambassador twittered for a moment. “Controlling genetics is also a recipe for stagnation or even error. You think you know what traits are better. But only nature can truly judge.”
     “And you spoke of belief. It is our belief that it is … cruel … to bring a being into this world in a defective shell. All killing them does is give them another chance at a suitable body.”
     “We definitely don’t believe in that.”
     “As we said … we are unusual in many regards. Other species share your beliefs.”
     They were quiet as they contemplated the hypnotic pulsing brood tank.
     The Garshan twittered among themselves.
     “Mr. Masune, we have … a request.”
     He turned to Ambassador.
     “Would you be willing to be a …”
     Here the Cthulhu took a long time to translate. The Garshan twittered nervously while it do so.
     “Ambassador … gift … representative to us?”
     Tybalt look at Okafor, who nodded slowly.
     “I think so.”
     “And I would, of course, be a … gift … to your people.”
     “Of course.”
     There was a burst of activity from the Garshan in the chamber. They moved around and many legs flailed. Tybalt had to bury his impulses. He realized he was seeing the Garshan delighted.
     “Then we will return you to your ship. And you will come back … unaccompanied? It is our way of doing these things.”
     “Of course.”
     Tybalt looked around. After spending years aboard the Archimandrite, he was eager to look around. He was sure their team would be very interested in the ship’s systems. But something in Ambassador’s tone bothered him. The musical chattering that played underneath the Cthulhu translation had taken a deeper and slightly darker tone. And he noticed that the eyes of all of the Garshan were on him and their mouths glistened.
     He shuddered.

     The scientists were in the middle of a tremendous row when Tybalt returned to the ship. They were so deep in the argument they didn’t even notice the returning diplomats.
     “What’s going on?” Tybalt asked Madsen.
     “It’s the same argument from before,” she replied. “The body language analysts insist that the Garshan are hostile. The linguistic analysis insists that they are friendly.”
     “Well, shouldn’t we place our faith in the linguistics? After all, the Cthulhu is designed to think like an alien species. That’s how it translates.”
     “Don’t say that too loudly. The body language analysts will hit the roof again.”
     Tybalt cleared his throat. The row stopped and the scientists all stared at him.
     “Well, we returned safely. Doesn’t that indicate they’re friendly?”
     The argument erupted again, only now directed at him and Okafor. The body language scientists were especially interested in how the Garshan culled their brooding tank, asking them to describe every detail of the way the egg was crushed, every nuance of how the Garshan’s body had moved. Their speech had been recorded by the Cthulhu, of course, but the linguists wanted to know about expression and gesture that accompanied.
     “You have our recordings,” said Tybalt.
     “But we weren’t there,” said Kell. ‘It’s not the same. You may subconsciously pick up nuances that no recording can.”
     “Isn’t all of this meaningless? We don’t have to sit here and analyze everything. Can’t we just take them at their word?”
     “Their word is in their language,” said Muggins, one of the linguists. “And we’re not entirely sure that their word means the same to us.”
     “That’s why the body language is so important,” said al-Bey. “It is independent of translation. Their body language is that of being poised to attack.”
     “Couldn’t that just be culture,” said Okafor. “Maybe they are defensive by nature.”
     “This isn’t defensive, it’s aggressive.”
     “You sound very sure of yourself,” said Tybalt. “My problem with this entire discussion is that you all sound way too sure of yourselves. We are dealing with another species. How can you possibly claim to know their intention or their feelings or their attitude at this level of precision? The only thing we have to go on is what they’ve said and done.”
     “Are you willing to bet your life on that?” said Muggins. “Are you willing to bet your life that we’ve translated correctly and understood correctly and they’ve done? We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re providing information.”
     “Then provide it,” said Tybalt. “Don’t insist on conclusions. And the answer to your question is: yes. This is what I came out here for. To find … something other than ourselves. To find that we weren’t alone. And if I get killed because of a misunderstanding … well, I can’t think of a better cause to die for.”
     He stood up.
     “Give us your best advice. But either way, I am going back aboard that ship.”

     “So is this why you’re a Mystic?” said Madsen much later as they relaxed in her cabin.
     “That need you spoke of. To find that we aren’t alone. Is that why you’re a Mystic in the Brotherhood?”
     Tybalt shook his head. “It’s not that formal. We just had to find titles. I’m not an Archivist. Definitely not an Observer. So Mystic was the default.”
     She paused, idly drawing circles on his chest with her index finger.
     “But the first big question you asked them was about God. About spiritual beliefs.”
     “I just thought that was a way of cutting through the BS. We can exchange biology or star charts or history easily. But finding out who they are … what they believe … if belief is even a concept. I was just sitting there and it struck me that this what we came out to know. Not just whether we’re alone in the universe. But whether we’re alone spiritually.”
     “That’s very deep, Mr. Not-Really-A-Mystic.”
     “And now that I’ve gained … something of their trust. Hopefully, they’ll point us to other species. Other planets. This is just the beginning.”
     “There are a lot of assumptions in there.”
     “So far my instincts have proven OK.”
     “They only have to prove wrong once.”

     Tybalt spent the last half hour before his return to the Garshan ship alone in the “observation deck”, the cramped transparent nosecone of the Archimandrite. During flight, it allowed inspection of the inner shell. Now, it commanded a view of Prometheus on one side and the spiky Garshan ship on the other.
     It still startled him, to look over and see the alien ship, so casually real. He kept thinking back to working in a small cubicle on Earth, nearly two centuries ago. He could remember every step of the path that had led him here, if he tried to. Voices stretching so far back in the past that he sometimes wondered if he’d really heard them.
     “First the moon. Then Jupiter. Then here,” he said aloud.
     “Contemplating the past?” said a thin voice below him.
     He looked down to see Hosini at the base of the ladder. He nodded and she floated up, her frail hands holding onto the ladder, until she was just below him. She didn’t speak, as was her wont. She simply waited for him.
     “Do you ever regret not sleeping during the journey.”
     “No. I prefer to keep my mind clear. There was plenty to read. And the stars …”
     She gestured forward.
     “Do you ever regret aging … naturally?”
     She shrugged. “Physically, yes. These days, almost everything is painful or sore. But philosophically … I have no regrets.”
     Tybalt looked her over again. It had been so long since he had seen a wrinkled face or gray hair.
     “Not all the Observers refuse to use the Dailies.”
     She nodded slowly. “We each have our own calling, Tybalt. Just like you.”
     “You may not make it back.”
     “You may not either. You may not make it through today.”
     Tybalt looked at her. She shrugged.
     “We’re out on the edge of existence, my friend. There’s a reason they call it the frontier.”
     “Do you think they’re hostile?” he asked, nodding toward the barbed shape of the Garshan ship.
     Hosini seemed to weigh this for a while. “I do not interpret; I observe. To this point … I have not seen … any act … which would be hostile. That is, no act of violence. This does not preclude violence in the future.”
     She considered.
     “I’ve heard the experts talk about body language and semantic interpretation. I think they are ignoring the obvious.”
     “Which is?”
     “They invited us here. They asked us to come to them. They had a long time when they could have simply shot us from the sky.”
     She laughed. And for a moment, she was the young woman who had boarded the Archimandrite so many trillions of miles ago.
     “That’s as close as I get to interpreting.”
     “Why did you come?” he asked.
     “We’ve had this conversation before, as I recall.”
     “I know. But tell me again.”
     “Because someone needed to Observe a purported first contact. And, according to the order, I was the best of the young purists. It was …”
     She hesitated.
     “An honor?” Tybalt prodded.
     “I felt like it was, yes.”
     “And now?”
     “I still do.”
     “And if the Garshan suddenly open fire on us. Or rend me to pieces.”
     “If that is our fate, I will record every moment of it for posterity, without prejudice or bias.”
     “But no one will know.”
     She looked at him carefully. “I will know.”
     She floated away. But then stopped.
     “One thing to consider: I have not heard these creatures say a word. All I have heard is the computer reporting what they have supposedly said.”
     Tybalt shifted. “So you think there could be a mistranslation? We could be missing something important?”
     “When I was in the convent on Mars, I studied linguistics. And one of the things we learned — an important thing to learn for an Observer — is that some words do not translate. At least … not directly.

     Tybalt waited in the airlock for the Garshan to return. Not only was no one else in the airlock, they had removed any communications or recording devices, even the Cthulhu, at the request of the Garshan. Tybalt felt very naked without it.
     The airlock cycled and Ambassador floated out, with Captain behind it. Ambassador floated past Tybalt without a glance while Captain gestured with its front two claws. It spoke in its polyphonic musical tongue.
     “Here goes nothing,” Tybalt murmured and pushed forward. He descending toward the open mouth of the airlock and felt like prey as Captain moved behind him and cycled it closed.
     Without even a gesture from Captain they descended deeper and deeper into the Garshan ship. Tybalt was keenly aware of other Garshan emerging from the walls and joining Captain behind him. Small Garshan, about the size of cats and looking like overgrown tarantulas, scuttled curiously over the walls, occasionally losing their grasp and flailing toward him. It was all he could do not to cry out and swat them away.
     They emerged into the central chamber with the glowing brood tank at is center. And before it was now an oblong bare table. The surface looked like cool stone.
     Now the chamber filled with Garshan, all thirty of them emerging from their spider holes in all directions. Tybalt had to bite down a temptation to run.
     “I’m sure we look as scary to them as they do to us,” he thought to himself. Then he shook his head. “No, I’m pretty sure we don’t.”
     One of the Garshan gesture with a claw. Tybalt floated forward toward the table. There was a sudden rush and he felt something wet touch his neck. He cried out and tried to turn. But his body went limp immediately. He felt like he was falling toward the center of the ship.
     Two of the Garshan grabbed his body and maneuvered him onto the table. Their claws sliced through his clothing and, in moments, he was down to just the breathing mask. They then spread a thick material over his skin. It burned.
     The remaining ones surged through the chamber, a cloud of clattering limbs and chattering mouths. The musical medley of their voices made their glowing eyes all the more alarming. He noticed that they were frequently bringing their claws to their mouths, many of which had a sheen of liquid on them.
     “It’s like they’re going to …” Tybalt thought. But terror would not him complete the thought. Captain spoke a series of sentences in their language, occasionally gesturing to Tybalt. They sounded formal, rhythmic. Tybalt could almost discern a rhyme structure. Then Captain swept over him and placed a single heavy claw on Tybalt’s belly.
     The Garshan all spoke in unison, with the sound again being tantalizing close to a rhyme. Tybalt desperately wished he had the Cthulhu. Without it, his mind was filling with all kinds of awful possibilities.
     Then it went silent. Captain leaned over him, its jaws opening. Tybalt tried to move but was completely paralyzed.
     There was suddenly a musical chattering. It went on for some time. They music was alternatively frantic, questioning and then sad. And then, suddenly, the language became English. For a moment, Tybalt couldn’t quite make out the words.
     “Mr. Masune,” said Captain. “We must … apologize.”
     “Your ship just contacted us rather frantically. They realized that there was an … error in translation. You see, among our species, this is how deals are consummated. Each side consumes one member of the other. It is considered a tremendous honor to be the … sacrifice.”
     Tybalt tried to speak but still couldn’t move. Captain waved a claw and another Garshan leaned in and touched his neck.
     “The venom will wear off soon,” it said.
     “We thought that you understood this. But your linguistic people apparently finally realized their error. Your computer program …”
     “Cthulhu,” he managed to mumble.
     “Yes. A word that sounds very pleasing to our ears. Your … Cthulhu … had understood the concept for some time but only now managed to convey it.”
     Tybalt thought back to the body language analysts insisting that the Garshan were hostile while the linguistic analysts insisted they were friendly. They had both been right. But it wasn’t hostility the body language analysis had sensed; it was danger. The danger of the Garshan being too friendly. The Cthulhu couldn’t warn them because it had gotten too far into the alien minds; it had seen the sacrifice as a good and friendly thing.
     He found that he could move a little. The Garshan moved around him, causing a brief panic. But then their claws gently lifted him up.
     “We will escort you back to your ship. You should recover your full movement by the time we get there.”
     “Thank you,” he croaked.
     “This is considered … something sacred to us. We are disappointed that it did not happen. But we understand. It appears there will always be a … divide … schism …”
     “… between us and other species. The others are more like you. You will find it easier to get along with them.”
     “Is there any other species you’ve met that practices this … sacrifice?”
     “No. As we said, we are not like other species. Especially when it comes to the subject of mortality. We do not regard death as something particularly to be feared. And so the sacrifice is not seen as a bad thing. We thought … with your talk of your religions … but your species, like most, does fear death.”
     They were ascending up the main spine of the Garshan craft. Tybalt could now move his limbs but let the Garshan gently guide him along.
     “So … what does this mean for our species?”
     “We are … cordial. We are not hostile. But … without this sort of exchange … we can never be true friends.”
     It paused.
     “But we are always glad to meet others. And we are glad that you have finally found that you are not alone. We have known other species for a long time but … as a race, we remember that excitement of the first meeting.”
     Tybalt felt a wash of guilt.
     “So … if they hadn’t realized …”
     “It would have been for nothing once we realized the error. The … victim … must embrace their status.”
     “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.’”
     Captain stopped moving and floated a bit in silence.
     “Yes. That is … perfectly expressed. How …”
     “Shakespeare. Ancient Earth writer. I knew a woman once … back on Earth’s moon … he was kind of her passion.”
     “You must transmit this Shakespeare to us. We are curious to see how he translates.”
     “Of course.”
     The airlock dilated. He saw Ambassador at the other airlock with Okafor, Madsen and several of the diplomats. They looked relieved. But Ambassador’s body language didn’t need translation: it was one of defeat.
     They floated toward the interface of the two ships.
     “It took some time for I and your fellow humans to understand what had gone wrong. They were … quite nervous. Quite a few colorful exclamations that I did not understand. The one you call … Madsen …”
     Tybalt nodded.
     “Was the one who raised our ship and explained the problem. She was quite … emphatic on your behalf.”
     Tybalt looked at Madsen, who pretended to be examining her fingernails.
     “I’ve noticed the translation is a bit faster now that the Cthulhu understands you.”
     “It does. But I am afraid that you never will. Our two species can be at peace. But true understanding … well, we will simply have to keep looking, won’t we?”
     “Wait a moment,” said Tybalt. He went to Madsen and gestured to her waist. She rolled her eyes and pulled out the concealed knife. He pricked his thumb and returned to the Ambassador.
     “How about something symbolic? You can drink some of my blood. And I will drink some of yours.”
     Ambassador reared up on its legs and looked at Tybalt for a long time. Behind him, he heard a collective take of breath.
     “You mean that as a … kind gesture. Not an insult.”
     “No, not an insult.”
     “Then … we … I … accept your offer in the spirit it is intended.”
     It extended a claw and took the knife. It pierced another claw and green blood oozed out. It brought the claw to Tybalt’s mouth and he licked before he could think twice. It tasted sweet. Then he brought his hand to Ambassador’s left mouth. He shuddered as its rough alien teeth grazed his skin.
     “Maybe this is for the best,” it said. “You taste terrible.”
     Tybalt laughed. Ambassador’s two mouths made circles.
     “You are an … interesting species. Perhaps true understanding will always elude us. But we will consider interacting with you again at some point in the future.”
     “’Interesting’,” said Tybalt, “is sometimes a veiled insult in our language.”
     Ambassador chattered. “It is in ours, too. But not today. You are indeed fascinating. And we look forward to learning more about you.“
     Tybalt looked over the creature and then said, “I am glad … you were the first ones we met. It’s good to know that we’re not alone. And that not everyone will be like us. I think … we will learn a lot from you.”
     The Garshan made a strange gesture with its legs. It would take the linguists days to figure out it was a sign of high respect.
     “We are honored to have been the first to meet you.”
     It floated toward its own ship, then paused. “Before we leave, we will transmit to you our star charts and our knowledge of other races. We think you will find it useful.”
     “Thank you. We will send our charts, although we only know a few systems. And your Captain asked for some of our literature.”
     “We appreciate the gesture. I think you will find other races … easier to understand than us.”
     It floated through the airlock and then turned as it cycled closed. Just before it disappeared from view, it held up its front claws to its mouth. Tybalt couldn’t help but feel it was a kind of salute.

     Tybalt was back in the observation deck, trying to process everything that had happened in that last day. And the last week. Most of the crew were content to leave him alone, being busy enough analyzing the data from the Garshan ship and preparing to return to Earth. Only after a few hours did Madsen approach, silently squeezing into the transparent nosecone behind him. She put her hands on his shoulders and her legs around him. He leaned back into her.
     “It was Hosini who really saved you,” she said. “She wouldn’t say what she thought. But she kept emphasizing that she had no idea what the Garshan had said; only what the computer claimed they said. We rebuilt the analysis from scratch and that was when we realized …”
     She trailed off.
     “The Garshan tell me you were quite worried about me,” he said.
     “I would be worried about anyone who was about to eaten alive by alien species.”
     “So no special … concern … “
     He couldn’t see her face but he could almost hear the roll of her eyes and the twitch of her nose that preceded a very tiny smile. Thus he was surprised when there was a quaver in her voice, as if she were holding back tears.
     “I thought you were going to die. I thought you were going to die all alone in the worst way I could imagine. And I …”
     She stopped. Tybalt took her hands in his, brought them up to his lips and kissed them.
     “You know I feel the same way, Ariadne.”
     There was a long pause.
     “Say it, Tybalt. Say the words.”
     “I thought we agreed that we didn’t feel that way about each other.”
     “Just say it. I want to hear it.”
     “I love you, too.”
     She freed one hand to wipe her eyes. And then her detached tone returned.
     “Was it worth it? Almost getting killed?”
     He thought for a moment.
     “Definitely yes. The biggest discovery in human history and I was there for it. And …
     “… and we’re not alone. Not just physically. Spiritually.”
     He glanced over at the Garshan ship.
     “Someone else out there is asking the same questions we are. They’re looking for the same things we are. We’re not alone. In every sense of that phrase.”
     “Despite what Ambassador said, I don’t think our species are that different,” said Madsen.
     “No. There’s a language barrier. An understanding barrier. But we have far more in common with them than we have in common with say, a dog. And we get along with dogs just fine.”
     “Fair enough.”
     “We’ll see them again,” she said, gazing over at the spiny ship, which was slowly drifting away. “Sooner rather than later.”
     “Is that the soldier talking?”
     “And what about the trip back?”
     Her indifferent tone reasserted itself. But she wasn’t fooling Tybalt.
     “I have to go on duty for the first year. You’re welcome to sleep the entire way.”
     “I wouldn’t mind being awake for your shifts.”
     She patted his shoulder. “It would keep me from getting too bored.”
     She untangled herself from him, then climbed down out of the nosecone. Tybalt followed. Just before she was about to head down to the main flight deck, she turned back and embraced him, hugging him so tight he could barely breathe. He kissed the side of her head.
     Without another word, she drifted back down to the bridge. Tybalt looked up at the Garshan ship. And he had the most peculiar sensation that Ambassador was looking back. He waved to the spacecraft.
     “Until we meet again.”

     The Garshan ship stayed in orbit with them for another month as the two sides slowly exchanges a wealth of information. The humans eagerly devoured every star chart they could while the Garshan kept asking for more human literature. But eventually the comms went quiet and the Garshan went into a transfer orbit to Sirius A.
     The Archimandrite lurked around Sirius B for another few months as the shell made its way back. It fired off its remaining probes back to Earth, each carrying a complete record of their journey. One by one, the crew went back into hibernation, eager to wake up back home.
     The ship fired its engines and moved toward Sirius A to begin the long series of slingshots that would send it back home. As it passed the Garshan ship, the two ships exchanged one last burst of messages, bidding each other farewell.
     Tybalt stood on the bridge next to Madsen as they began one last plunge into the long night.

     The End

Astronomy, Sports, Mathematical Malpractice, Whatever Else Pops Into My Head