Flur traveled across the stars to make first contact with the Cyclopes, hoping to forge a peace treaty between humanity and the first sentient aliens they've discovered. She's undergone careful training and study to prepare for this moment. But what if her approach is too human?
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About the Author
MALKA OLDER is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus, Book Riot, and the Washington Post. The Centenal Cycle trilogy, which also includes Null States (2017) and State Tectonics (2018), is a finalist for the Hugo Best Series Award of 2018. She is also the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Serial Box, and her short story collection And Other Disasters will come out in December 2019. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than a decade of field experience in humanitarian aid and development. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at Sciences Po Paris explores the dynamics of post-disaster improvisation in governments.
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By Malka Older, Richie Pope
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 by Malka Older
All rights reserved.
Nobody expected them to look human. If anyone still harbored that kind of anthropocentric bias, they kept it bottled up with their other irrational fantasies (or nightmares) of successful contact. The biophysicists had theorized alternative forms that could support higher intelligence: spiraling cephalopods, liquid consciousness, evenly-distributed sentience. The Mission Director, who was known for being broad-minded, even invited some science fiction writers to work with the scientists in imagining what intelligent alien life might look like. The collaboration didn't generate many usable ideas for the Mission (although it did lead to half a dozen best sellers and a couple of ugly lawsuits). And after all that thought and effort and retraining of assumptions, the first intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms they found were humanoid.
Not completely human, not like actors in silver face paint, but bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal, with most of the sensory organs concentrated in a central upper appendage that it was difficult not to call the head.
"We need a new word, a whole new vocabulary," Tsongwa said, as he and Flur reviewed hours and hours of long-distance surveillance video. "A term to remind us that they're not human, but still give them equal importance and intelligence."
Because not only were they humanoid (the word did not satisfy Tsongwa, but it caught on and stuck), they were clearly intelligent, with societies and civilizations. They lived not in the caves or intelligent-organic complexes or mind-alterable environments hypothesized by the scientists, but in identifiable buildings, in cities. (The Mission Director promptly brought in architects, urbanists, psychologists, forensic archeologists, urban psychologists, forensic architects). They were "advanced" (Tsongwa insisted on putting the word in quotes) enough that first contact with them could be via radio, and then video. Many of the linguistic problems, not to mention the initial shock of alien existence, could be worked out long before Flur and Tsongwa got anywhere near the planet.
The Mission Director insisted on the importance of a protocol for contact, flexible enough to use in as many different contexts as they could imagine (an optimist, he was still hoping to discover intelligent spiraling cephalopods), yet structured enough to allow for some degree of standardization. Two ambassadors, one male, one female (the Mission Director did not point out that they were also of different "races," another word Tsongwa used only in quotes). They would go armed, but imperceptibly so. They would go with scientific objectives — as much observation and recording as possible — but also with diplomatic goals that were more important: they were to bring back, if not a treaty, at least an agreement. "A framework," the Mission Director explained, "for future relations." He made a template for them, but encouraged them to modify it as necessary. The next day he came back with a few more templates, to give them a sense of the range of options.
Flur, the brilliant young star of what they call the Very Foreign Service, smiles and nods, but he's overselling it. She's pretty sure she can figure out the acceptable options, maybe even some the Mission Director hasn't come up with, just as she's pretty sure she can charm these aliens by respecting and listening to them, by empathizing, by improvising. Maybe more than Tsongwa. She likes Tsongwa, but he's so serious, and places too much importance on semantics. She knows he's supposed to be the experienced balance to her youth and genius, but nobody's experienced anything like this before. And he's not actually that much older; it's just the deep lines on his face and the slow pace of his consideration that make him seem so.
Flur is aware of another probable advantage: as far as they have been able to tell, most of the alien leadership is female. Or the equivalent of female, what looks like female to the humans, which means human females will look like leaders to the aliens. Even Flur's skin color is closer to the rosy purple of alien flesh. Though no one has mentioned either of these cultural elements, Flur prepares herself for the possibility that she will need to act as the head of the expedition, even if she remains technically subordinate to Tsongwa.
Her confidence, or overconfidence, does not pass unnoticed. But it doesn't worry the Mission Director or Tsongwa much. Flur is never disrespectful, and she works hard, studying the video and audio recordings, diagramming and re-diagramming what they understand about political structures, writing short treatises about cultural practices.
The time and place of the landing are set, and there is a flashy ceremony for the departure from the base station, full of flags and symbols and fine music, scripted and simulcast. Flur has an odd longing to wave to her mother, but manages to quell it. Fortunately, the Mission Director has managed to fend off requests to simulcast the mission itself (largely by reminding politicians and media executives about the unlikely but real possibility of a grisly end to the adventure). The closing air lock leaves Flur and Tsongwa alone, except for the eighty-two mission staff looped into their communications and recording network. They beam down, a slang phrase for what is in practice a long, bumpy, and dangerous trip into the planet's atmosphere on a shuttle known as the Beamer. This is Tsongwa's expertise, and Flur is appropriately grateful for it as she copilots. He ably navigates them to the designated landing site, an extensive field outside of the alien city.
Flur takes a deep breath once they are settled. Through the small window she can make out tall, curving shapes: the aliens, the natives of this planet, have gathered as planned. From the screen on the dash the Mission Director looks back at her, almost bathetic in the way emotion and overwhelming awareness of the significance of this moment play openly on his face. Flur checks her comms and stands up. For a moment she and Tsongwa are face-to-face in the narrow aisle between the seats, and though his chin is level with her forehead Flur feels for the first time that they are looking straight at each other. This moment, though it is being recorded and transmitted in a dozen different sensory and technological combinations, is still theirs alone. There is a mutual nod — Flur doesn't know which of them initiates it — and then Tsongwa leads the way to the hatch.
Stepping out of the Beamer, Flur finds that the aliens look less human at this close range. Their extended bodies curve gracefully into hooks and curlicues, partially obscured by flowing robes that give the impression of square-sailed ships luffing to the wind. When two of them step forward with extended hands, Flur can see that their three fingers are flexible as snakes. They cover the lower part of their faces with more cloth, but above that their noses have only a single nostril, flat on the face, opening and closing like a whale's. Unsettlingly, it is the eyes that are most human: none of the giant pupils or extended slits of old science fiction movies, but (what appear to be) irises and robin's-egg sclera within the familiar pointed oval shape, although they each have only one. In the popular press they are already known as the Cyclopes, but Flur finds each eye startlingly (perhaps deceptively?) expressive.
The two aliens have paused, hovering at a safe distance. Maybe that's their idea of personal space? Flur glances at Tsongwa, a sideways slant of the eyes obscured by her goggles, but he is already stepping forward, arms up and out, mimicking the circular alien gesture that they have identified as significant and positive. Through her speakers, Flur can just make out the sound of him clearing his throat.
"Greetings," he says, in an accented Cyclopan that they hope is comprehensible. He pauses. In what is surely the best moment of either of their lives, the aliens say the same word back to him.
The two designated humanoids approach, and curve more so that their singular eyes are nearly on a level with their visitors'. The skin of their faces looks parchment-like, worn and creased, like oak leaves pasted together, with striking lines trailing down from both corners of their eyes. They pronounce elaborate welcomes which Flur only partially understands. Their names are Slanks and Irnv, and they are happy to welcome their most esteemed visitors from another planet and take them in this honorable procession to the capital city of their island, where they will meet their leader. Flur almost lets out a reflexive giggle at the irony of it all, but she squelches it, and accepts instead the folds of material that Irnv hands her. "A costume more suited to our climate," Slanks says, as he hands the same to Tsongwa.
Flur, cozily padded in a latest-model spacesuit, had not noticed any issues with the climate, but at least the local dress resolves one concern. There had been some worry at Mission Control that, having transmitted visuals of humans in their native habitat to the aliens, they would find the sight of them in their tubed breathing apparatuses disconcerting, but the alien clothes include fabric to cover the lower face, so that should help.
It is a moderately long walk to the city, and Flur keeps an eye on the visit clock ascending without pause in the corner of her view, and the bars representing her life support resources shrinking ceaselessly. A milky fog obscures much of the landscape, but Flur stares at the fragments of organic material at her feet, twigs and leaves in strange shapes, or maybe shells or corals, or something they have no word for yet. She longs to scoop up a sample, but is embarrassed to do so in front of their attentive entourage.
At the edge of the city they are guided to a canal or river where they board an almost flat barge, its slightly curved sides dressed with the same fabric that the Cyclopes wear. As they detach and float slowly along, Flur begins to feel disoriented, although she can't figure out what is dizzying her. Finally, looking down at the canal, she decides it is the water, or the liquid, which is sluggish and thick. Grateful for the flowing native costume, she detaches a specimen vial from her space suit and within the compass of the billowing sleeves manages to scoop up some of the canal liquid, seal, and pocket it. She doesn't think anyone has noticed, not even Tsongwa, who is deep in limited conversation with Slanks.
The gray-blue buildings are sinuous and low. Flur wonders if they continue underground. They cross a few other canals, but there are also pedestrian paths where tall humanoid shapes in expansive robes move, pause, interact. As they stream inexorably by, Flur catches a glimpse of two flowing dresses, one bold purple, one carnelian red, pressed against each other, fluttering suggestively. She looks away quickly, then looks back, but they have drifted out of sight before she can be sure what she saw.
The canal empties into a wide circular plaza, like a collection basin, or possibly the source of the waters. Avenues dotted with pedestrians surround the central circle of mixing waters, which has been waterscaped into a flat sculpture, tilted slightly upward, with streams of blue and lavender liquid running down it in carefully designed flows. Flur can make no sense of it, but she's sure it's important.
"It's beautiful," she says to Irnv, and although the alien replies "Thank you," Flur has the feeling that the crinkles around her eye express politeness rather than real pleasure. Beautiful was not the right word.
They disembark and enter the palace through a gateway draped with more cloth, the bright colors this time woven through with a black thread that gives the whole a muted sheen. The corridors are high and narrow, and slope (downward, so she must have been right about going underground) more steeply than a human architect would allow. Despite her oxygen regulator, Flur is out of breath by the time they come to a stop in a cavernous chamber, and she thinks uneasily about their tanks. As a precaution, during the visit planning they halved their life-support time frame and gave only that conservative number to the aliens. Still, Flur can't help being aware that everything was an estimate, that if for any reason they can't use the barge it will take them longer to get back, that they are therefore dependent on the aliens. She calms her breathing, catches Tsongwa's eye on her and nods to tell him she's okay. Then she looks around. Mission Control sees what she sees.
The room, like the corridors, has no right angles; its shape suggests the word "organic" to Flur, although she guesses Tsongwa would be able to find some semantic problem with that. The impression is intensified by a shallow pool of slightly lilac-tinted liquid in the middle of the room, roughly where the conference table would have been on Earth. The Cyclopes are reclining in flexible harnesses, suspended from a frame that hangs from the rounded ceiling and ending in constructions almost like hammocks. It takes quite a bit of adjusting for these to be feasible for Flur and Tsongwa (more wasted time, Flur can't help thinking), but once she's cradled in one she finds it surprisingly comfortable, her weight evenly distributed, her feet just resting on the ground.
While they are finishing with Tsongwa's harness she examines the row of decorations along the curving wall, gradually realizing that they are not abstract moldings, but sculpted likenesses. There are no gilded frames, no contrasting background to firm, smiling faces, but once she sees it Flur can't believe she missed it. There are so many analogs in her own world: the row of ancient principals on the moldy wall of her high school; the faces of presidents in her history book and hanging in pomp in the Palais National; the old, unsuccessful directors hanging outside the Mission Director's office. Conscious of the video feed, she looks at each face in turn for a few seconds, trying to learn what she can.
They do appear to be mostly female, although Flur counts three faces of the thirty-eight that scan to her as male. There are no confident smiles; a few are actually looking away, their faces turned almost to profile, and most of the eyes are angled downward. They look almost sorrowful; then, as she keeps staring, they look too sorrowful, the way the politicians at home look too distinguished. The vertical lines on the cheeks, trailing down from the corners of each august eye, begin to look stylized. In fact, much as the sequences at home evolve from paintings to photographs to three-dimensional photographs to hyperphotos, the moldings also show the passage of time. The first few are exact and detailed, like living aliens frozen into the wall, and as she follows the series back they become vague and imperfect. The face that Flur places as the oldest is painted in a combination of blues and lavenders, as though faded from the more usual dark purples, and the two-tone palette is unique. Staring at it, Flur starts to feel that it looks familiar. She remembers the fountain in the huge plaza, and suddenly that flowing pattern of water makes sense. It was a face — this face.
She leans toward Irnv to ask her, but at that moment everyone starts swinging back and forth in their hammocks, and more aliens start filing into the room. The last face to enter is also familiar: it is the most recent in the sequence of portraits. "It's the president," Irnv whispers. "She lost her three children and husband to sudden illness over the period of a year!"
Flur has no idea how to respond to that, and her half-hearted "I'm so sorry" is lost in the flurry of introductions, swinging of hammock-seats, and a brief interlude of atonal song. After that it is the president who, arranging herself with some ceremony in her hammock-chair, begins to speak. Flur gets most of it. Irnv, who has also apparently been studying, whispers the occasional English word in her ear, but these are so out of pace with Flur's internal translation that they are more disruptive than helpful. She is grateful that she will have the recording to listen to. She will translate it word by word, slowly, in her office at Mission Control (a thought that fills her with momentary, inconvenient homesickness) but the general point is clear enough. Honored to receive this first interplanetary delegation; already the communications between them have set the foundations for a strong and close friendship, the type of friendship (if Flur understands correctly) which can withstand any tragedy; this personal visit, however, will truly interlace (or something like that) their peoples in mutual regard. Blah, blah, blah, basically.
Excerpted from Tear Tracks by Malka Older, Richie Pope. Copyright © 2015 by Malka Older. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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