Texture of Other Ways
by Mark W. Tiedemann
[Continued from Part 1]
Admiral Kovesh came over to meet us after the convoy arrived at the orbital platform. She was a tall, straight-backed woman with deep creases in her face and very pale eyes. I thought she looked perfect for her command.
"As soon as our counterparts signal us," she explained, "then you'll all be taken down by shuttle. The Forum negotiators are already here."
"Can we see the other ships?" I asked.
Kovesh frowned. "What—?"
"The seti ships."
"Oh. Of course. As soon as I've briefed you on procedures."
"We've already been briefed."
Kovesh looked at Merril, who seemed nervous.
"Before we left Earth," he said, "we were all given a thorough profile of what to expect. They know their mission, Admiral."
"I don't care what they were told on Earth. We're thirteen parsecs out and this conference is under my aegis."
Merril gave us an apologetic look. "I see. Well, perhaps you could let them take it directly?"
"How do you mean?"
Merril blinked. "They're telelogs, Admiral. It would be quicker, surer—"
"Not on your life."
"I assure you it's painless, Admiral—"
"I'm assured. The answer is no. Now, if you don't mind…"
I felt sorry for Merril. He meant well, but I was glad the Admiral refused. Merril had an exaggerated notion of what we did. People are really a muddle.
The Change was mechanistic. We aren't psychics in the traditional sense. That's why we're called telelogs rather than telepaths. At infancy we were implanted with a biopole factory, a device called the logos. The logos transfers a colony of biopole, which seats itself in the recipient brain, and starts setting up a temporary pattern analyzer. Very quickly—I'm talking nanoseconds—the colony establishes a pattern, sets up a transmission, and within moments the contents of the mind are broadcast to the primary logos.
But the contents!
To be honest, it is much easier for someone to simply tell me, verbally, than for me to try to make sense of all this clutter!
We grew up living in each other's minds, we know how we operate, but the rest of humanity? It's a miracle there's any order at all.
Still, Admiral Kovesh's reaction disturbed me.
* * *
The idea made elegant sense.
Humans can't communicate with the seti, and vice versa. There is no mutual foundation of language between us. Even the couple of humanoid ones have languages grown from linguistic trees sprouted in different soils. Nothing matches up except for a few snatches of mathematics, which was how we all managed to pick one system in which to have a meeting.
That and the evident desire on the part of the seti to figure out how to communicate demands a solution.
There are only two solutions. The first will take decades, maybe centuries, and that will be the construction of an object by object lexicon. State a word—or group of words or collection of sound-signifiers, which will only be valid for those species that use sounds for communication—and point at the thing to which it attaches. How this will work with abstracts no one knows.
The other solution is us.
We smiled at each other, passed along encoded biopole of self-congratulation and mutual support, broadcast positive logos. Of course, we thought, what better way to decode a completely alien language than to read the minds of the speakers?
We learned linguistics and practiced decoding language on native speakers of disparate human tongues. With difficulty we learned to decode the patterns into recognizable linguistic components and eventually came to speak the language ourselves. Navajo, Mandarin, !Kung, Russian, Portuguese, English—the hard part was finding speakers of all these languages who were not also fluent in Langish, official Panspeak. But there are enclaves and preserves and the subjects were found and we learned.
The only troubling part—and none of us actually brought this up, but I imagine we all thought it—was that all these languages are ultimately human languages. All grown from the same soil. Hardwired. At some level, then, all the same.
* * *
Details. Kovesh went over them again and again. All we wanted to do was see a seti ship. Until we learned our lessons that would wait. We worked our way through to our reward, then stood before the viewer and gazed at the array of ships.
A small platform orbited the planet. Clouds smeared across a cracked grey-blue surface of alkalis and yttrian earths. The clouds, we learned, came from fine oxide powders blown through the lithium-fluorine atmosphere. We wondered how anything could oxidate in such an atmosphere and were told that a complex form of lichen lived underground and released oxygen through the soil. The surface constantly eroded under the breezes and picked up the deposits of oxidated metals once exposed.
The seti ships orbited close to the platform. As distinct as each appeared, all shared one common trait. They were all shells, protection, walls between life and death.
But what marvelous walls!
I had thought our ships were beautiful, and I still do, but compared to the array of alien ships they seem so…expected. Some of the vessels actually resembled ships. Certain shapes lend themselves to travel, to containing biospheres against hard vacuum, so inevitably globes, discs, tubes, and boxes of various sizes repeat from species to species. But the lines…
The nearest group looked like giant gourds, sectioned by sharp lines emanating from a central locus into seven equal parts. As we watched, though, a segment would drift away from the main body, float to another body, and change places with another segment.
Beyond these, we saw an enormous mass like dirty gelatin. Pieces extruded, broke off, drifted among the other groups, returned to merge with the whole. The entire surface roiled and bubbled.
Then there were the candyfloss yachts catching the sunlight and glimmering along the countless threads that interlaced to form their conic assemblies…
We passed impressions among ourselves, all of them optimistic. We were here to learn to speak with these beings who built these lovely ships. Because we marvelled at what they had built we knew we would marvel at who they were, at what they were. We were a short flight from the fulfillment of our life's purpose.
* * *
Marines escorted us to our shuttles. The wide corridors of the ship suddenly felt tight. We stayed close together, hands touching, and said nothing. Even through the logos all we shared were vague assurances, the soldiers' stiff presence acting like a muffle on our enthusiasm.
Kovesh waited in the lead shuttle.
"A platoon is waiting on the surface," she said. "Each group will go down with an escort of three. I'll ride this one down. All the shuttles will maintain standby once we're down, so should anything arise we'll be able to get you off quickly."
Eleven of us in each group. I missed Merril. He rode down with a different shuttle. We sat in couches that faced across a narrow walkway from each other. One marine sat forward, the other aft, while Kovesh went up by the pilot.
There was no view outside. We held hands and looked across at ourselves and tried to imagine what happened from sounds and vibrations. We knew the moment the shuttle left the ship, we had all felt that characteristic sensation before. Then the soundless time of freefall…then the first brush of atmosphere…the shuttle bounced and we could hear a high-pitched whine through the bulkheads. An air leak? That meant a breach…but no alarms flashed, except the fear transmitted back and forth through our hands, building quickly to near panic until Kovesh came back and told us we would land in five minutes. The panic subsided like water sloshing back and forth until it loses momentum and finds equilibrium.
But our equilibrium now rested on a thin layer of anxiety.
A series of harsher sounds and heavier shocks followed. I squeezed the hands I held tight and they gripped me harder till my fingers began to go numb, till everyone's fingers tingled, and passed the sensation back and forth.
Kovesh stepped down the walkway between us. A few seconds later the hatch opened with a loud pneumatic hiss.
We waited. I imagined us as cargo, the marines our deliverers, and passed the thought along. A few smiles came back and we relaxed a little.
"All right," Kovesh snapped, leaning into the shuttle. "Stay close. The other shuttles are down now. You'll be taken to your temporary quarters."
Umbilicals attached the shuttle locks to the environ module. We stepped into a wide chamber, the support ribs naked against the walls and ceiling, the air chilled so that we could see our breath. We came together immediately, all thirty-three of us, in the center of the chamber, reestablishing contact as if we had been separated for days or years. Merril walked around our perimeter saying over and over that everything was all right, everything was fine.
I looked back to the locks then and saw marines standing at each. I searched the chamber for Admiral Kovesh and found her speaking to two men at the opposite end of the module. More marines flanked them. Then I noticed that marines stood against the walls all around us.
Merril continued his orbit, his reassurances, until Kovesh summoned him.
* * *
After the Change we laughed and cried together. Pain and pleasure became a shared thing, what one experienced cascaded through all of us. For a time there was concern that we would fail to individuate. It became necessary to shut us down from time to time, force us to form independent identities. It was a lot like learning to walk, then run, then walk and run in self-directed patterns, then integrate it all into an automatic decision-making hierarchy that worked without constant conscious monitoring. You don't think your way across a room, down a street, over a hill, or through a city, you just go in response to an abstract desire to go somewhere.
Eventually we developed individual traits, some degree of autonomy, but it never felt natural. Forced separation always hurt. Short periods of apartness were tolerable only because we knew we would be together again. Soon.
* * *
The meeting hall stood in the middle of a sodium-white field, gothic in proportion, elegant, delicate, emblematic. Its machinery encapsulated each group in an appropriate atmosphere, clearly seti tech. The marines had told us about it. They were disturbed, a bit awed.
"This is a formal occasion," Merril told us, "an introduction. You won't be doing anything here. We're just meeting the representatives."
We entered the central hall. Sounds echoed oddly, bouncing as it did through mixed gases. It felt as if we were immersed in an invisible sea.
The setis stood arrayed around the perimeter, formed up in loose groups, some of which contained more than one species. Some were bipeds, others without visible limbs, a few with no discernible "heads," and one that seemed nothing but a tangle of articulating limbs. The fields in which they stood refracted light differently. When they moved and the fields overlapped, colors warped out of true, bent, and dazzled.
We spread out. Their designated speakers separated from their parties and approached the center. The light was coppery, liquid. Pride welled up within us. We had trained for this, been created for this, designed for this.
Sound washed through the hall. Bass, treble, mixes of tone that verged on music, then slid away into barely ordered chaos…they spoke! We touched hands, passed our impressions down the line, always with the underthought that this is what we had come to solve.
The human delegates stood up, then, and read from a prepared statement. We heard little of it. The setis held our attention. This was all politics, this meeting. A show. It was being recorded, we knew, and would be used later, excellent press. The real work would be done under less dramatic circumstances. But this alone seemed worth the journey. If we could freeze the moment like this…it was perfect, just as it was. Uncomplicated by articulation.
We gazed across the hall at each other. I felt nothing at that instant but anticipation.
* * *
Of course it made perfect sense. We couldn't do what was required all bunched together in a group, mingled with all the seti at once. The cascade of impressions would ruin the uniqueness of each language. We had to isolate each seti and work on its language apart from the rest. Perfectly reasonable.
"There are five major groups," Ambassador Sulin explained. "Rahalen, Cursian, Vohec, Menkan, and Distanti. There are numerous other allied and nonaligned races, some of them present, but from what we've been able to determine, these five are the primary language groups. Translate these and we can communicate with most of the others."
He cleared his throat and glanced at Merril. "I didn't expect them to be so young," he said.
"It was in the précis we sent," Merril said, frowning.
"Yes, but…well." He shrugged and looked at us. "Each team will contain five people. Two linguists and three of you. We're not sure how many individuals will attend each seti representative, but the work rooms aren't that large, so we don't expect much more on their part. Now, what we want is for you to choose a back-up group among yourselves for each language. When you come out of a session, you go immediately to that group and work over what you've, uh, learned. Don't cross-reference with the other groups, please, not until we've got some kind of handle on each language."
"The setis communicate among themselves, don't they?" I asked.
"Yes, as far as we know."
"Then they already have a common set of referents. Wouldn't it be sensible to try to find that first?"
"Good question. But what we want is to have some basis of understanding for each group individually first. Then we can go on from there."
"This is the procedure we will use."
"Uh," Merril said, "Ambassador, it's just that the idea of separation is unpleasant for them."
"Then they'll have to get used to it."
* * *
[Continue to Part 3]
"Texture of Other Ways" is © 1999 by Mark W. Tiedemann and is reprinted here with permission of the author. The story was originally published in Science Fiction Age, September 1999, and will be included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November.