« Chapter Nine | Main | Chapter Eleven »

December 08, 2004

Chapter Ten

 You think of the human race meeting the first alien species, and you think of Close Encounters or The Day The Earth Stood Still: big production numbers involving scientists, government officials and a lot of background music. The fact of the matter is the first human contact with aliens happened on the phone. It's a letdown if you're into grand scale entrances, but in retrospect, I find it comforting, and, now that I think of it, indicative of the Yherajk: they were dying to meet us, but they're polite enough to make sure they're wanted.

At the time, though, I thought it was a crank call. Of course; who thinks aliens are going to use the phone?

The phone call came at about a quarter past eleven. I'd just gotten back from the premiere of Call of the Damned; I skipped the after-party because I didn't want to have to tell anyone what I had really thought of the movie. Elise was in Richmond, Virginia, on her book tour -- I remember her leaving a message and telling me she was thinking we should get a horse farm out there for when we retire. I mean, really -- what the hell am I going to do with horses? But she's a horsy type. Never got over it as a girl.

I was sitting in my lounger with my second beer, listening to Fritz Coleman talk about one of those annual meteor showers. Persieds or Leonids. Can never remember which is which. Fritz was going on about it when the phone rang. I picked it up.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi," the voice on the other end said. "My name is Gwedif. I'm a representative of an alien race that is right now orbiting high above your planet. We have an interesting proposition, and we'd like to discuss it with you."

I glanced over to the LED readout on the phone, which displays caller ID information. There wasn't any. "This doesn't involve Amway products, does it?" I asked.

"Certainly not," Gwedif said. "no salesmen will come to your door."

Thanks to the beer, I was just mellow enough not to do what I usually do with crank calls, which is hang up. And anyway, this one was sort of interesting; usually when I get random calls, it's some wannabe actor who's looking for representation. I was bored and Fritz had given way to commercials, so I kept going.

"A representative of an alien race," I said. "Like one of those Heaven's Gate folks? You following a comet or something?"

"No," Gwedif said. "I'm one of the aliens myself. And we passed by Hale-Bopp on the way in. No spaceships that we could see. Those people didn't know what they were talking about."

"Actually one of the aliens," I said. "That's new. Tell me, does this bit work with other folks? I mean, I'm loving it, personally."

"I don't know," Gwedif said. "We haven't called anyone else. Mr. Lupo, we know it sounds unbelievable, but we figured this was the best way to go -- cut the ooh-ah Spielberg stuff and get right to the point. Why be coy? We know you like to get right to business. We saw that PBS documentary."

You remember that thing, Tom -- they had a film crew from KCET follow me around for a week about a year ago, when I was putting the Call of the Damned package together over there at TriStar. They actually ran it in a theater before they ran it on TV, so it'd be eligible for Oscar consideration. I'm pretty sure they can write off any votes from the TriStar suits; the documentary makes it look like I rolled them. Well, maybe I did.

Anyway, the 'aliens' saw it, and thus, the upfront phone call. And now they wanted to arrange a meeting. By this time I had drained the second beer and had gone to the fridge for a third. So I figured, what the hell.

"Sure, Gwed -- you don't mind if I call you Gwed, do you?" I said

"Not a bit," he said.

"Why don't you come on over to the office sometime next week and we'll set up a meeting. Just call the front desk and ask for Marcella, my assistant."

"Hmmmm, that'd be sort of difficult," he said. "We were kind of hoping we might have a chat tonight. There's a meteor shower going on."

I didn't really understand that last part, but I figured it was par for the course when you're talking to 'aliens'. "All right," I said. "Let's chat tonight."

"Great," Gwedif said. "I'll be down in about fifteen minutes."

"Swell," I said. "You going to need anything? A snack? A beer?"

"No, I'm fine," he said, "though I'd appreciate it if you'd turn on your pool light."

"Well, of course," I said. "Everyone knows to turn on their pool light when aliens drop by."

"See you soon," Gwedif said and hung up.

I hauled myself out of the lounger, clicked off the TV and went to the sliding glass door that leads to the pool area. The pool's light switch is right by the door, so I clicked it on as I headed out the door. You've never been to our place, Tom, but we have a huge pool -- Olympic-sized. Elise was a swimmer at UCSD and still uses it to stay in shape. I wade around in the shallow end of the pool, myself -- I float better than I swim.

I plopped down into a patio chair and sucked on my beer and thought about what I had just done. I never invite strangers over to the house, even sane ones, and now I had just invited someone who said he was a representative of an alien species over for a chat. The more I thought about it, of course, the more stupid it seemed. About ten minutes of this, I had become convinced that I had just set myself up for some sort of ritual Hollywood murder, the kind where the newscasters start off their stories by saying "The victim appeared to know his assailant -- there was no struggle of any kind," and then pan to walls, which are sponge-painted with blood. I stood up to go back into the house and phone the police, when I noticed a meteor streaking across the sky.

This in itself was no big deal. There was meteor shower going on, after all, and my house is high up enough in the hills that the light pollution isn't so bad; I'd been seeing little meteor streaks the entire time I was sitting there. But most of them were small, far off, and lightning quick; this one was large, close, and dropping its way through the sky directly towards my house. It looked like it was moving slow, but as I stared at it, I realized that it was going to impact in about five seconds. Even if I hadn't been paralyzed, staring at it, I doubted I could have made it into the house. It looked like I wouldn't have to worry about being murdered by psychopaths, after all -- I was going to be struck down by a meteor instead. At this point, some absurdly rational chunk of my consciousness piped in with a thought: Do you realize the odds on getting hit by a meteor?

About two seconds to impact, the meteor shattered with a tremendous sonic boom, the tiny pieces of the rock vaporizing in the atmosphere like a sudden fireworks display. I stared dumbly at the point of the explosion, blinking away the afterimages, when I heard a far-off whistling sound, getting closer. I saw it a fraction of a second before it hit my pool -- a chunk of meteor that had to be the size of a barrel, whirling end over end. The explosion of the meteor must have acted like a brake on its momentum, because if something that size had hit my backyard at the speed the meteor had been going, neither I nor any of my neighbors would have been around to tell the tale.

As it was, it hit the pool like a bus, and I was hit by a tidal wave of suddenly hot pool water. Steam fumed from where it dropped, in the deep end. I regained enough of my senses to wonder how much the pool damage was going to cost me, and if meteor strikes were covered by my home insurance. I doubted they were. Several pool lights had been extinguished by the impact; I went back to the door and turned it off, so as not to have electrified water, and then turned on the main patio lights to get a closer look at the damage.

Miraculously, the pool seemed in good shape, if you didn't count the broken pool lights. The pool water was still bubbling where the meteor had gone in, but even so, I could see enough through the water to see that the concrete appeared to be uncracked. The meteor chunk had come in at just the right angle into the pool; the mass of the water, rather than the mass of the concrete, absorbed the impact. The water level of the pool was a good foot lower than it had been pre-impact, however.

If my neighbors heard anything, they gave no indication -- or the very least, I never heard them if they had. The walls around the backyard are twelve feet high; I had had them built around 1991, when my next door neighbor was a heavy metal drummer. I had gotten sick of listening to his parties and watching him and his women having cocaine-fueled orgies in the hot tub, and it was easier to build the wall than to get him to move. As it turns out, I needn't have bothered; about a week after the walls were up, his wife filed for divorce and he had to sell the house as part of the settlement. George Post lives there now. Plastic surgeon. Nice neighbor. Quiet.

After the water settled down for a few moments, I heard a small crack, and looked into the pool in time to see a thick liquid oozing out of the meteorite remains and floating to the top of the water. The stuff was mostly clear but oily-looking. Space phlegm. After a couple of minutes of accumulating, the phlegm did something surprising: it started moving toward the side of the pool. When it got to the edge, a tentacle shot out onto the patio concrete and the rest of the phlegm hauled up through it. When it was totally out, it launched up another tentacle that waved around for a second, then stopped and shot back down into the rest of the phlegm. It began to slide over towards me.

I can't even begin to tell you what was going through my mind at that moment, Tom. You know those dreams where something horrifying is coming at you, and you're running as fast as you can, but you're moving in slow motion? It was like that feeling: disassociated horror and utter immobility. My brain had stopped working. I couldn't move. I couldn't think. I'm pretty sure I stopped breathing. All I could do was watch this thing work around the patio to where I was standing. For the third and final time that night, I was utterly convinced I was going to die.

The thing stopped short two feet in front of me and collected itself into a compact Jell-O mold shape. A bowling ball-sized protuberance emerged from the top and launched itself up to eye level, supported by a stalk of goop. And then it talked.

"Carl? It's Gwedif. We talked on the phone. Ready to take a meeting?"

Tom, I did something I've never done before. I fainted straight away.

I was down for just a couple of seconds; I woke up to find Gwedif looming over me. I caught a whiff of him: he smelled like an old tennis shoe.

"I'm guessing that wasn't planned," he said.

I rolled away from him as quickly as I could and reached for the nearest dangerous object. My beer bottle had broken, so I grabbed it and held it in my hand, jagged end out.

"Eek," Gwedif said.

"Stay away," I said.

"Away put your weapon," he said. "I mean you no harm."

The line floated in my head for a second before I attached it with what it was from: it was a line of Yoda's in The Empire Strikes Back. It knocked me off kilter just enough that I relaxed just a little. I lowered the beer bottle.

"Thank you," Gwedif said. "Now, Carl, I'm going to move toward you, very slowly. Don't be frightened. All right?"

I nodded. Slowly as promised, Gwedif moved over to reaching distance.

"You okay so far?" Gwedif asked. I nodded again. "All right, then. Hold out your hand."

I did. Slowly, he pulled a tentacle out of his body and wrapped it around my hand. I was surprised not to find it slimy; in fact, it was firm and warm. My brain looked for a concept to related it with and come up with one -- those Stretch Johnson dolls. You know, the one where you pulled on the arms and they stretched out for a yard. It was something like that.

My hand wrapped in his tentacle, Gwedif did the unexpected. He shook it.

"Hi, Carl," he said. "Nice to meet you."

I looked at Gwedif, dumbfounded, for about 20 seconds. Then I started to laugh.


What can you say about the experience of meeting an entirely new, wholly alien, intelligent species of life? Well, of course, Tom, you know what it was like; you 've done it, too. But I think by now you may have noticed that I plowed you right through that first meeting with Joshua, and I did it for a reason. I wanted to give your conscious brain something relatively familiar to work on, while your subconscious was grinding its gears on the existence of an alien. I don't know if it was fair to do it that way; it might have been a sort of coitus interruptus for appreciating the wonder of the moment. What? Well, it's good to know it doesn't bother you, then.

Personally, it took me a good hour before I finally calmed my brain down enough that Gwedif and I could start having a real conversation. During the interim he answered my semi-coherent questions, allowed me to touch him, literally sticking my hands into him on one occasion, and otherwise talking me down back into a rational state of mind. I was like a kid with a new toy. You're looking at me like it's hard to believe, Tom. And it is, I suppose; you folks at work only see me in control, and that's also for a reason.

But there's no way that I could contain my enthusiasm and excitement! Only one person on the planet gets to be the first person these aliens would meet, and it was me. I didn't yet understand why, or for what purpose, but at that moment I didn't care. The answer to one of the biggest questions humanity had ever asked -- are we alone in the universe? -- was sitting, globular and stinky, in the living room of my house. It was....indescribable. A boon of monumental proportions. About half an hour in, as the implications sank in, I wept with joy.

We talked all through the night, of course; I too excited to sleep and Gwedif, apparently, doesn't need it. When 9 o'clock rolled around, I called Marcella and told her I was taking a sick day. Marcella was concerned; she wanted to send a specialist over. I told her not to worry, that I could take care of myself. Then I went to sleep, but woke up two hours later, too excited to stay in bed. I found Gwedif outside, by the pool.

"I'm just admiring my work," he said. "I don't know if you can appreciate it, but this" -- he produced a tentacle and motioned at the pool -- "took some doing. You try to shoot a pod into a swimming pool from 50,000 miles out. And not have it do major damage. And have it look like a natural meteor on the way down."

"It was a nice touch," I said.

"It was, wasn't it?" Gwedif agreed. "A pain in the ass, you should pardon the expression, as I obviously don't have an ass to have a pain in. But we have to do it that way if we want to land near a city. You can fool some of the Air Force all of the time, and all of the Air Force some of the time, but you can't fool all of the Air Force all of the time. Better this way than shot down by a Stealth fighter. Of course, there is the problem of getting back. That thing" -- he pointed to the detritus at the bottom of the pool -- "isn't moving anywhere it's not hauled."

"So how are you getting back?" I asked.

"Well, we've scheduled a rendezvous near Baker for later tonight. There's nothing out there in the desert, so we don't have to worry about rubberneckers. Even so, we'll probably light up the radar something fierce. It's going to have to be quick in, quick out. I was hoping I could get you to drop me off."

"Of course" I said.

"And also that you'd come with me," Gwedif said.


"Come on, Carl," Gwedif said. "You can't possibly think I came this far just for a quick hello. We have serious stuff to talk about, and it will go much, much faster if you come to the ship."

Even though I had known Gwedif for a very short time, I could tell that he was holding back on something. He wanted to have me come to the ship, all right, but I had a feeling it was for more than just a chat. I had the immediate brain flash to the alien abduction cliché, strapped down to the table while a blob of Jell-O readied the rectal probe. But that wouldn't have made any sense. You don't act all friendly with someone just to get them for lab experiments. They would have just grabbed me.

And anyway, I wanted to go. Are you kidding? Who wouldn't?

That morning, I phoned for a taxi and went to a used car lot in Burbank to get a cheap, non-descript car. I paid $2,000 and got a twenty year-old Datsun pickup. I then went to a pick-a-part place and pulled the license plates off of a wreck. Finally, I pried the Vehicle Identification Number off the dashboard. I didn't know if Gwedif was right about the radar being lit up when they came to pick us up, but I didn't want my own car there if anyone came to investigate.

At about eight o' clock we set off down the 10, towards the 15, out to Baker in the middle of nowhere. Gwedif spread himself out under the bottom of the truck seat and popped a tendril over the back to see and talk. The truck wasn't worth nearly what I had paid for it; it almost died twice on the way out, and once I did an emergency stop into a gas station to add water to the radiator.

About five miles to Baker, Gwedif had me exit the 15 and take a frontage road for a few miles until we came to an unmarked road heading south. We drove along that for another four or five miles, until literally the only lights I could see were my headlights and the lights of the stars above me.

"All right," Gwedif said, finally. "This is the place."

I stopped the pickup and looked around.

"I don't see anything," I said.

"They're on their way," Gwedif said. "Give them another three seconds."

The ground shook. Thirty yards to the left of us, a black, featureless cube 20 feet to a side had dropped unceremoniously from the sky. The ground cracked where it landed.

"Hmmm...a little early," Gwedif said.

I peered over to the cube, which, disregarding the fact it had just fallen from the heavens, was severely lacking in grandeur. "Doesn't look like much," I said.

"Of course it doesn't," Gwedif said, transferring from behind the seat. "We'll save all the pretty lights for when we want to have our formal introduction. For now, we just want to get up and out without attracting attention. Ready?"

I started to open the door.

"Where are you going?" Gwedif asked.

"I thought we were leaving," I said.

"We are," Gwedif said. "Drive into it. We can't very likely leave this car in the middle of nowhere. Someone might find it. That's why I had them send an economy-sized box."

"I wish I'd known," I said. "I would have brought the Mercedes."

"I wish you had," Gwedif said. "Air conditioning is a good thing."

I turned the wheel and drove gingerly towards the black cube. When the bumper nudged against the cube's surface, I lightly tapped on the gas pedal. There was a slight resistance, and then almost a tearing as the cube's surface enveloped the pickup.

Then we were inside the cube. The inside was dimly it, from luminescence coming off the walls. The space was utterly nondescript, the only architectural feature being a platform ten feet up that I couldn't see onto, since we were underneath it.

"When do we leave?" I asked.

Gwedif stretched out a tendril to touch the nearest wall. "We already have," he said.

"Really?" I said. "I wish this thing had windows. I'd like to see where we're going."

"Okay," Gwedif said. The cube disappeared. I screamed. The cube reappeared, transparent but visibly tinted.

"Sorry," Gwedif said. "Shouldn't have made it completely clear. Didn't mean to freak you out."

I gathered my wits, rolled down the window, and stared down at the planet, which was tinted purple by the shaded cube.

"How far up are we?" I asked.

"About 500 miles," Gwedif said. "We have to go slow for the first few miles, but once we're up about 10 miles, nobody's looking anymore and we can really pick up speed."

"Can I leave the truck? I mean, will the floor support me?"

"Sure," Gwedif said. "It's supporting the truck, after all."

I opened the door and very carefully placed a foot on the cube floor and added weight to it. It felt slightly spongy, like a wrestling mat or a taut trampoline, but it indeed held my weight. I stepped fully outside, leaving the truck door open, and walked away from the pickup. I looked up, and I was able to see through the platform; on the other side of it were two other blobs, also with tendrils extending into the walls -- the pilot and co-pilot, I assumed.

After a few minutes of walking around, I had Gwedif make the cube totally transparent. For the briefest of seconds, I felt a surge of panic again, but it was immediately replaced by the most astounding sense of exhilaration -- a God's eye view of the planet, unencumbered by spacesuit or visor. I asked Gwedif if there was artificial gravity in the cube and he said that there was; I asked him if we could cut it off so I could float, but he demurred. He said he'd prefer not to have the pickup floating around aimlessly. They did decrease the gravity to match the spaceship that we were going to; suddenly I was 40 pounds lighter. After a few more minutes I asked them to retint the cube -- my forebrain had accepted I was safe, but the reptile regions were having trouble with it.

The flight was a little under a half-hour long; we slowed appreciably as we approached the spaceship although I of course didn't feel the deceleration. But I saw it -- one moment I was staring at the blackness of space, and the next a huge rock came hurtling at me, not unlike the meteor had the night before. I cringed involuntarily, but suddenly it appeared to stop, hovering what seemed a few miles away.

"There it is," Gwedif said. "Home sweet home."

It was impossible for me to judge how big this asteroid-turned-spaceship was. As we got closer, I guessed that it must be close to a mile in diameter, a guess that was confirmed by Gwedif to be in the right ballpark. The asteroid appeared to have no non-natural features, but as we approached, I saw featureless black streaks dotting the surface. We were heading towards one.

"Does the ship have a name?" I asked.

"Yes," Gwedif said. "Give me a second to translate it." He was quiet for a moment, then, "It's called the Ionar. It's the name of our first sentient ancestor, like an Adam or Eve for you. It also means 'explorer' or 'teacher' in a loose sense of those words, in that Ionar, realizing he was the first of his kind, learned as much as he could about the world so that his" -- another pause here -- "children could know as much as possible. His exploration is our culture's first and greatest memory epic. We thought that his name would be a good one for this ship. Provident. That reminds me, we should plug your nose before we go out into the ship."

"Excuse me?" I said.

"We communicate with smells," Gwedif said, "When I said I had to translate, I meant that I had to translate the smells that we associate with a concept into an auditory analogue. But only a few of us know this translation as yet -- and obviously the rest of us will be speaking our 'mother tongue.' But I don't think that you'll find our conversation very appealing to your senses."

"I wouldn't want to be rude," I said.

"Well, here," Gwedif said. "Here's how we say Ionar." A smell erupted from Gwedif like fart from a dog. "And here's how I say my name." The fart this time came from a larger dog than the first. My eyes watered.

"Now, keep in mind that there's a couple thousand of us in this ship," Gwedif said.

"I see your point," I said.

"I thought you might. I'll make arrangements. Look, we're about to dock."

Our cube was coming to rest on the edge of one of the black surfaces, about 100 yards long and half as wide. Underneath the surface of the cube, the black surface thinned out and cleared away, leaving what seemed to be an airtight seal around the outside of the cube. The cube dropped slowly through the seal. As we cleared the skin, I could see that we were dropping into a cavernous hangar about 100 feet deep. The hangar was dimly lit, and as far as I could see there weren't any other cubes or anything else that might resemble a ship.

I thought about asking Gwedif about it, but then there was gentle thump and we landed. Almost instantly the cube began to melt; a circular hole started in the center and became wider, with the residue sliding down the walls of the cube, which were themselves sliding away. The Yherajk on the piloting platform slid down the walls a fraction of a second before the walls dripped away like wax; the platform itself sucked into the wall and disappeared. The mass of the cube lay in huge mounds on the floor of the hangar; then were suddenly absorbed, leaving me, the three Yherajk, and the pickup. The whole process took less than a minute.

"Interesting," I said.

"Yup," said Gwedif. "We grow 'em when we need 'em. Making a cube, though, takes slightly longer than breaking one down."

From a near wall a door appeared and a Yherajk stepped out and approached us. It was carrying what looked like cotton wads in a tentacle. It came up to Gwedif, touched him briefly, and presented the cotton wads to me.

I took them. "Do I eat these?"

"I don't think you'd want to," Gwedif said. "Stuff them in your nose instead."

I did and immediately felt the 'cotton' expand, totally blocking my nasal passages. I suppressed the urge to sneeze.

The Yherajk who presented me with the wads exited, as did the pilots, after briefly touching Gwedif.

"Now," Gwedif said, after we were alone. "Oewij, who came with the nose plugs, tells me that the ship-wide meeting has been arranged at our communion hall, and that our presence is requested immediately. However, I feel that it is only fair and courteous to allow you some time to collect yourself or even sleep if you so desire. I know you've haven't had much rest since we've met. Or, if you'd like, I can arrange for the tour of the ship. It's up to you, really."

"I'm not tired," I said. "I'd love a tour of the ship, though. May I have a tour after the meeting?"

"Of course," Gwedif said.

"Well, then," I said. "Let's go have a meeting."


Gwedif and I entered the Ionar through the same door that the other Yherajk disappeared into. I had to duck to get through the door and then had to hunch down as we walked down several corridors; the ceiling was about an inch shorter than I was tall. I suppose that this would make sense: the Yherajk are not exactly tall. These corridors must have seemed roomy to them.

Gwedif sensed my discomfort. "Sorry about this," he said. "I should have gotten us a transport so that you could sit. But I thought you might want to experience a little of the ship on the way to the communion room."

"It's all right," I said, looking around. The corridors appeared carved out of the rock of the asteroid, and didn't have ornamentation of any sort, like the hangar we had just been in. I mentioned this to Gwedif.

"You're right," he said. "The Yherajk have never been much for visuals. While we see quite well by your standards, it's not our primary sense to the world, like it is to you. But the walls here have scent guides, which function in the same manner. And this isn't to say we have no artistic impulses. Later on, when we tour the ship, I'll take you to our art gallery. We have some tivis there which are really quite nice."

"What are 'tivis'?" I asked.

Gwedif stopped for a second, suddenly enough that I braked myself, reflexively straightening up and bumping my head in the process. "I'm trying to think if there's a human analogue, and I'm not coming up with one," Gwedif said. "I guess the closest words in English to what they are would be 'Smell Paintings,' but that's not quite right, either. Oh, well," he started off again, "you'll get it when you see them -- or more accurately, smell them." I hurried off after him.

A few more corridors, and then we stopped outside a door. "Here we are," Gwedif said. "Now, Carl, nearly every Yherajk who is on the ship is in here now. I want to know if you're prepared."

"I think I can wrap my mind around it," I said.

"I'm not talking about that," Gwedif said. "I just wanted to make sure your nose plugs are secure. It's pretty stinky in there."

"I feel like my nose is filled with cement," I said.

"Okay. Let's go in, then." He extended a tendril to the door. At his touch, it opened inward.

Two things struck me immediately as we stepped through. The first was that the Yherajk tradition of visual monotony continued unabated -- the room consisted of an unadorned dome over a large circular floor that sloped downward to where a small central dais jutted up modestly, itself unadorned. On the floor, large clumps of Yherajk assembled here and there, pretty much like humans do before a meeting gets down to business.

The second thing was that even through my nose plugs, the smell of the room slammed into me like a rocket in the chest. It was as if someone had fermented an entire horse stable. It was unbelievably strong. I leaned back against the wall.

"You all right?" Gwedif asked.

"I think I'm getting a buzz from the smell," I said. "And not in a good way."

"It's because everyone's talking at the moment. It'll get better when we start the meeting and everyone shuts up," he said. "For now, just take deep breaths."

In the middle distance, a Yherajk broke from the clump and approached us. It briefly touched Gwedif -- I was beginning to think this was their way of greeting or saluting each other -- and then extended a tendril at me. I looked at Gwedif.

"Carl, this is Uake," Gwedif said. "Uake is the Ionar's ientcio -- our leader in both ship's operations and social interactions. A captain and a priest. He welcomes you and hopes that you have had an interesting visit so far. He'd like to shake your hand."

I extended my hand, let Uake's tentacle envelop it, and shook. "Thank you, ientcio. It has been a very interesting visit, and I thank you for allowing me the honor to make the visit to begin with." I directed my comments directly to Uake, assuming Gwedif would translate, without prompting.

He did. "I've passed the message on and added my own comment that we should start the meeting soon, before you pass out from the fumes. To you, Uake says that the honor is ours, that you would visit. To me, he says that if we will accompany him to the dais, we will begin the meeting and get the rabble under control. Shall we?"

Uake, Gwedif and I walked through the crowd to the dais. As we arrived, three Yherajk also arrived, carrying a block of something, and set it on the dais.

"I thought you might like to have something to sit on," Gwedif said. "We don't have any chairs, but this should work just as well." I thanked him and took my seat. Uake took up a position on the far side of the dais from me, and Gwedif sat between us.

Some signal scent must have gone up, because the Yherajk on the floor broke up their clumps and encircled the dais, forming concentric rings. The room became noticeably less smelly; everyone must have shut up.

"The ientcio is about to begin his speech," Gwedif said. "He has asked me once again to translate for him so that you will understand what is being said. The translation will not be exact, I'm afraid -- Uake will be using a lot of High Speech, which we use to quickly pass along large amounts of information. But I'll be able to give you the gist of it. If you have any questions, let me know -- our talking isn't going to disturb the speech." He fell silent for a few minutes and then started speaking again, starting and stopping as Uake made his statements.

"The ientcio welcomes all to the meeting, with the hope that this moment of our journey finds them all well and at peace with themselves. He asks us all to look back on that moment, over seventy years ago now -- your years -- when the first faint signals of intelligence from this world were picked up by our scientific arrays, and the confusion, turmoil, joy and fear that those signals, first sound, then picture, brought to our race.

"He asks us also to remember the day when this ship began its journey to this place, our people's emissary to a people so strange and unlike ourselves. The ship was to serve two purposes: to learn about those people, to find if they could be communicated with; and if they could, then to make contact, with the hope of joining our two peoples in friendship and comity.

"The ientcio now recounts the difficulties of the journey -- its length, both in distance and time, a number of accidents that diminished the number of the crew and caused damage to the ship, and the mutiny attempt that resulted in the soul death of Echwar, our first ientcio, and the loss of a tenth of the crew. This recounting is made to remind us even in this moment of happiness that we must not lose sight of all that this journey has required of us.

"Now, the ientcio says, our journey comes to the cusp, in which we learn if our efforts form a memory epic for all Yherajk, to be told to the days when our race is old and the stars red with age, or if they disappear into darkness. We have made contact with one of the humans, one who we believe will be wise, and whose actions will determine our path. It is difficult to assign our fates to the will of one who is not one of us, but that is the way of such encounters as these -- though we prepare for the moment, the moment itself is not a thing we can control."

Tom, I was dumbfounded by what I was hearing. These creatures had traveled across the stars, over unimaginable distances. And if what I was hearing was correct, the success or failure of their trip was being placed into my hands. It was a burden that I didn't want or even frankly that I understood. I asked Gwedif if what I was comprehending correctly what was being said.

"Oh, yes," Gwedif said. "your actions in this meeting will determine what happens to us and to our journey. It's something that we've known for a long time, and something that is characteristic of the Yherajk -- the surrender of control in the hope that the moment germinates into something greater. This is that moment."

"Wait a minute," I said, becoming angry. "I didn't come up here to play God for you. You're asking me to do something I don't know that I can do. I don't even know what it is that you want me to do, much less if I can do it. I feel like I've been tricked."

Gwedif sprouted a tentacle and placed it on my hand. "Carl," he said, "you're not being asked to play God. Your part is about to be explained. If you refuse it, then we go back home, and our people plan a new way to try to contact your people. That's all. We're not going to launch our ship into the sun if we fail -- the drama you hear is part of the formal nature of High Speech. You've been around me enough to know we don't usually talk like that. But we do need your perspective on this. You know your people like we could never know them. We need to see through you whether we can make contact with humans here and now. Do you understand a little better now?"

I nodded.

"All right," Gwedif said. "The ientcio is speaking to you now. He formally welcomes you to the Ionar, wishes you happiness at this moment in your journey, and presents to you the host of the ship, the crew of the Ionar, and hopes that you will acknowledge them thusly."

"How do I do that?" I asked.

"Got me," Gwedif said. "No human's ever done it before. Try waving, and I'll wing the speechifying."

I stood and waved. Two thousand Yherajk sprouted tentacles and waved back.

"I have said that you acknowledge the host of the ship and wish them happiness at this moment of the journey," Gwedif said. "It's more or less the correct response and doesn't commit you to anything further. Was that all right?"

"Yes," I said, sitting back down.

"Good," Gwedif said. "Uake is now speaking to you about the journey, and what we have learned of your people through your radio and television transmissions. What he's saying is completely untranslatable due to the complexity of the High Speech structures he is using, but the upshot of it is that while your transmissions point to a rich and fascinating culture, we also have found them contradictory and confusing at the same time. There is no structure to your planet's transmissions into space."

"Well, it's television, you know," I said. "It's meant to be understood by humans and not intended for anyone else. You're just getting the leakage. I do believe that we have a scientific program that is beaming messages for alien cultures into outer space, but that's the only thing that's intended for non-human audiences."

"The ientcio wishes to inform you that we have indeed received those messages from SETI and have found them....amusing is probably the best word. Television is much more interesting."

It was a good thing Carl Sagan wasn't alive to hear those words. Gwedif continued. "The ientcio says that we have found that we have been able to learn something of you from television and radio. Some of us, and I am obviously being referred to here, have learned English, and have begun to piece together something of a world and cultural history of your planet.

"But we have become aware that we have been quite unable to make a clear distinction between what is factual and what is fictional -- what represents your true culture and what constitutes your imaginings. We understand the distinction, for example, between your news reports and your entertainment programs. But we lack the context to tell which is the exaggeration of the other. This is a source of frustration for us -- to the Yherajk, you can at times seem to be a culture of pathological liars, unable yourselves to tell the difference between truth and falsity. You can see how that can make us nervous to initiate contact. We need someone to help us create a context, so we can separate the truth from the lies and make an accurate reckoning of the status of your planet.

"This is of specific interest to us as it relates to your planet's tendencies towards the idea of alien contact. The SETI program implies that your planet is actively seeking contact with other peoples, but your entertainments show you to be hostile to the idea, full of the fear that the peoples you encounter will try to subjugate your planet. Moreover, when you do show aliens as friendly or benevolent, they tend to be humanoid in appearance. When they are hostile or violent, they tend to appear like us. Obviously, this is very worrying."

"I think you are underestimating the influence of special effects budgets on that particular question," I said.

"The ientcio agrees that this might be the case -- again it comes to a question of context and knowledge of the culture. He hopes that now you may understand our predicament.

"You are one of the most powerful men in the industry that creates the programs that are beamed off of your planet, and have become so because of your character and intelligence. You are in a unique position to help us understand the distinctions between what is real and what is fanciful, between the things that your planet hopes for and the things that your planet fears. It is his hope, and he wishes to stress, the hope of every Yherajk on this ship, that you would be able to help us in our efforts to understand your people, to give us a grounding in the reality of humanity that only a human can."

I blinked. "Is that it? You want advice?"

"For starters," Gwedif said.

"Well, of course I'll help you with that any way I can," I said. "But I don't know how much help that will be. You understand that even humans don't understand humanity most of the time. I could tell you everything I know, but it would only be my opinion. And it would take years to get it all down at that."

"The ientcio understands that you are just one man among billions. Nevertheless, of those billions, you are one whose skills and mind lend themselves most favorably to our needs. As for taking years to know what you know --" Gwedif stopped for a moment, seemed to collect himself.

"As for taking years," he continued, "We have another way."


Tom, did Joshua ever tell you how the Yherajk reproduce? No? Well, I'm not too surprised about that; it's an immensely personal event. On the cell level, all Yherajk are the same -- massive colonies of asexually reproducing, single-celled organisms. But their experiences are different and unique to each Yherajk. Think of them as a race of identical twins, sharing the same genetic information but obviously separate people, divided by their individual experiences.

When humans learned about genetics, they began arguing whether people are the way they are due to genetics or environment; what our genes are versus our experiences. With the Yherajk, this isn't even a debate -- since they're all the same genetically, who they are is all about experiences. Personality is all.

Yherajk personalities are remarkable things. For example, once they are formed, they can be transferred. Their personalities don't have to stay in a particular body. That personality and set of experiences can go from one body to another -- if, for example, that body were dying of disease or something else of that nature. Yherajk do a much simplified version of this when they transmit information; a single Yherajk can go off and have a set of experiences, and when it comes back, it connects with an entire group and 'downloads' its memories to the whole group. Then all the Yherajk there know what that one knew.

But it requires physical contact and takes a great deal of time. The Yherajk High Speech, which is an even more simplified version of this, performs the same function by encoding a concept as an aromatic molecule, which is then set aloft and automatically decoded by the Yherajk who come in contact with it. It'd be like having an entire memory created in your head simply by someone saying a word. Fascinating stuff, Tom.

In Yherajk reproduction, the personalities do something else entirely -- they meld with another personality. The Yherajk join together into one mass, and, rather than simply transferring information or even a 'soul' from one body to another, the individual souls interact over the entire mass of their combined body. Some portions of one personality end up being dominant, and other portions from the other personality end up being dominant.

After those personality traits are figured out, the mass splits into two parts. One of those parts splits again and becomes the original Yherajk that had melded, with their own personality traits and memory intact, but physically smaller than they were before. The other part is an entirely new personality: it has the memories and intellect of its parents, but it comes with a brand new 'soul,' if you will, made of the new, melded personality, and it's ready to go -- there's no childhood, per se, with the Yherajk.

This melding isn't easy -- it requires the Yherajk in question to surrender their will and allow another entity, another soul, to mingle freely with its own. This other soul surrenders to you and you to it -- complete communion. But with the ultimate risk: a Yherajk's defenses are down -- the other Yherajk, if it has been insincere in the joining, can attack the other's personality and destroy it, replacing it totally with its own. This is a "soul death," and causing it to happen is the worst crime a Yherajk can commit against another Yherajk. A large part of the reluctance of the Yherajk to speak about their reproduction comes from its potential to change in an instant from an act of perfect union to one of the ultimate rape.

But it's rare -- far more rare than murder is with us. Most of the time, it is a joyous experience -- and apparently better for them than sex is for us.

The interesting thing is that while nearly all reproductions occur between two Yherajk, there is no theoretical barrier on having the melding occur between three, four or even more. It's vastly more complicated, and it takes longer for the personality traits to suss out, but it can be done. Gwedif told me that one of the great memory epics of the Yherajk involved a exploring colony, under siege from attackers, who all melded together in the desperate hope of birthing a hero who could save them from destruction. The colony numbered 400. It worked -- of course. Otherwise it wouldn't be an epic. For millennia, partially out of respect for the epic, that had been the record.

The ientcio of the Ionar was planning to break that record. He proposed 2000 -- the entire crew of the Ionar. And one human as well.


"I'm not following you," I said to Gwedif, after he translated the ientcio's proposal.

"The ientcio implores you to meld with us," Gwedif said. "Pool your knowledge with ours and help us birth a new Yherajk -- one that has an intimate understanding of humanity, who can help us learn, quickly, easily, whether our two people can be joined in friendship. It would be a great gift -- and you would be remembered not only as our first human friend, but also a parent, the most important parent, of the greatest Yherajk in our race's long history. As he will be -- one that two thousand of us have surrendered our wills to create. It is a powerful event."

I looked out into the mass of Yherajk, and got the distinct impression that two thousand of them were waiting for me to say something. Anything. Tom, I got stage fright. But there was nowhere to go.

I stalled for time. "I don't know if you noticed this," I said, "But I'm not a Yherajk. I don't meld very well."

"With your permission, the ientcio says," Gwedif said, "I will act as your conduit."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

Gwedif paused for a moment. "Aw, hell," he said at last. "Uake has just sent some High Speech crap that I'm not even going to try to translate. Carl, what it means is that I'd stick tendrils into your brain, read your memories, and transmit them to the rest of the crew. Bluntly speaking, I'll be rooting around your skull, looking for the good stuff."

"It sounds painful," I said.

"It won't be, I promise," Gwedif said. "But you're going to feel stuffed-up like you wouldn't believe. Carl, don't misunderstand, I'll be effectively downloading your brain to the group. In the melding union, there are no secrets -- and the offspring of this melding will know what you know. We know we're asking a lot of you, more than has been asked of any of us. If you don't want to do this, then don't."

"What will happen if I say no?" I asked.

"Nothing," Gwedif said. "We would never try to compel you to a melding."

I looked out at the crew. "And every one of you is willing to do this?"

"We are."

"What if one of you tries to take over the rest? Isn't that possible? What would happen to me?"

"You'll be connecting to the group through me," Gwedif said. "If one of us tried to overtake the entire crew, I'd disconnect before he could overtake you. I'd probably have time." That qualifier disturbed me, but Gwedif went on. "But I'd say it's highly unlikely that someone will do that. For one thing, it'd wipe out the entire crew; whoever did it would never get back home. For another thing -- Carl, this is epic stuff. If this works, this is going down in our history as one of the defining moments of our people. We'll be famous forever. Believe me, none of us wants to be the one that screws that up."

"Will I be able to read all your crew's thoughts?" I asked.

"No," Gwedif said. "I'm going to be translating your thoughts -- I won't have time to translate the other way. You'll experience all our thoughts, they just won't make a lick of sense. It will be the weirdest trip you'll ever take, my friend."

"Well," I said, "When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

"Then you'll do it?" Gwedif asked.

"If you will be my conduit, Gwedif, I'll be honored. Translate that exactly to your ientcio," I said.

Gwedif apparently did -- the room became filled with the odor of distilled dumpster juice. I asked Gwedif what was going on.

"The crew is applauding, Carl," Gwedif said. "They're relieved and happy. They didn't just spend half of their lives traveling here for nothing. I lied a little to you, Carl -- if you hadn't accepted, it would have been a crushing disappointment for us all. But I didn't want to burden you with that sort of guilt. Sorry to be sneaky."

"That's all right, " I said. "I don't mind. It'll help me to recognize your thoughts during the melding -- I'll look for the sneaky ones."

"I won't be able to meld myself," Gwedif said. "I have to manage your thoughts. That requires me to remain fully alert during the whole thing. In fact, of all the crew, I'll be the only one that won't be melding."

I was dismayed. "I'm very sorry, Gwedif," I said. "If I had known, I'd have asked for someone else to act as the conduit. I don't want you not be part of it."

"My friend," Gwedif said. "Please. I am honored that you have chosen me as your conduit, more than you know. In doing so, you have allowed me to be the only one truly conscious during the melding -- the only one who will see the event as it happens. When this story becomes our memory epic, the eyes that it will be seen through are mine."

Gwedif sprouted a tendril and waved it at the crew. "This crew will be in the memory epic. But I will write it -- and thus I will live forever through it, the Homer of this, my people's greatest Odyssey. You have given me a great gift, Carl, and for it, I cannot thank you enough, you, my friend, my great and true friend."

"Well," I said. "You're welcome, then."

"Great," Gwedif said. He sprouted another tendril, and wiggled both of them at me. "Now, you have to take out those plugs -- I've got to stick these up your nose."

"You're kidding," I said.

"Not at all," he said. "This might sting a little."


I won't try to describe the melding, Tom, except to say -- try to remember the most vivid, wild, erotic dream you have ever had. Now try to imagine it entirely as a clutch of smells, colliding, sliding, fading into each other. Now imagine it going on for a lifetime. That's what it felt like.

I woke up, still on the dais, with three Yherajk around me. I asked for Gwedif. The one to my right waved a tentacle.

"Did it work?" I asked.

"It did," Gwedif said, and motioned to the Yherajk near my feet. "Carl, please meet the progeny of 2000 Yherajk -- and one human."

"Hello," I said to the Yherajk.

"Hi, pop," he said.

"The ientcio" -- Gwedif indicated the final Yherajk -- "wishes to thank you once again for your great help and understanding, and assures you that you will undoubtedly become one of the great heroes of our race, something which I can tell you is already taken care of."

"Thank him, and thank you," I said to Gwedif.

"No problem," Gwedif said. "The ientcio also wishes you to know that the honor of naming this newborn Yherajk belongs to you, as the Initiating Parent."

"Thanks, but it was Uake's idea," I said. "I can't claim credit."

"Sure," Gwedif said, "but your acceptance of the proposal in this case has been agreed by all the parents to be the initiating act. So it's back to you. However, the ientcio, anticipating your reluctance, does indeed have a name picked out, which will be given to the newborn if you agree."

"What is it?" I asked.

"We wanted a name that reflected the importance of this Yherajk to us, and hopefully his eventual importance to your own people, one that was immediately recognizable. What do you think of 'Jesus'?"

I laughed unintentionally.

"See," The Yherajk Who Would Be Jesus said. "I told them it wasn't going to fly. But what do I know? I'm a newborn." The sarcasm in his statement was unmistakable.

"It would be a very bad idea," I said. "About half the folks on the planet would get very touchy about it."

"Nuts," Gwedif said. "Can you give us something else?"

I could. 'Jesus,' is the Latinized version of 'Joshua,' -- a name that's still in use, of course, and without the same religious overtones. It was also the name of my father, and, incidentally, of the baby that Sarah was carrying when she died -- we found out it was a boy the month before. Elise and I aren't planning to have children, Tom. So this Yherajk, which was only the smallest fraction of me, and only of my thoughts at that, was nevertheless the only 'child' I was likely to have. The name 'Joshua' had long been with me, and I was happy to finally give it a new home. Joshua was happy with it, too. Of course he would be -- he would know what it means to me.

After I had named Joshua, Uake excused himself to attend to ship's duties. As we shook 'hands', I managed a glance at my watch. It was 11:30 in the morning.

"Uh-oh," I said. "I have to go."

"You haven't had a tour of the ship," Gwedif said.

"Don't bother," Joshua said. "These people just do not know how to decorate."

"I'd love to, but I'm late," I said. "I already missed a day yesterday. By now my assistant Marcella has called my house looking for me. If I don't show up at the office today, she's going to file a missing person's report."

"Well, there's a problem," Gwedif said. "It's daytime now. We can't really risk being seen doing a drop."

"So don't do a drop," Joshua said. "Make it a one way trip."

"We could do that," Gwedif said. "But there's a problem with that, too."

"What's that?" I asked.

"It depends," Joshua said. "How well can you control your sphincter muscles?"

Gwedif explained it as we headed to the hangar. They could build an unmanned cube the size of the pickup, launch it, and have it land near where we had departed. But, as with the 'meteor' and the black cube, it would have to arrive full-speed to avoid being picked up on radar for any length of time. Another thing: the cube would have to be transparent.

"Why?" I asked.

"Black cubes in the daytime sky are suspicious," Gwedif said. "Red Datsun pickups in the daytime sky are merely unbelievable. Even if someone saw it, no one would know what to think of it. And that's not a bad thing."

"Good thing you haven't had anything to eat in a while," Joshua said.

A few minutes later, as I prepared to get behind the wheel of my pickup, I said my good-byes to Gwedif and Joshua. I asked Gwedif when or if I would see him again.

"Probably not for a while," Gwedif said. "When we send someone again, it will be Joshua. But even he will stay here for a few months, to benefit us with your knowledge -- now his -- as to how to approach humanity. We probably won't see each other until the day our race makes its debut. But I look forward to that day, Carl. I will be happy when it arrives. We'll finally take that stroll through the tivis gallery."

"I can't wait," I said, and then turned to Joshua. "I look forward to seeing you again, then."

"Thanks, pop," Joshua said. "It'll be soon. Get a better car by then."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:09 PM