Texture of Other Ways
by Mark W. Tiedemann
[Continued from Part 2]
The oval-shaped room contained several comfortable chairs, three or four recorders, and a commlink panel. A curious flower-shaped mass on the ceiling apparently provided the unique environments for the species present.
The two people assigned to my group shook our hands quickly, smiling anxiously. We resisted the urge to telelog them to see why they were so nervous. Merril told us we had to trust them and do nothing to damage that trust.
The light dimmed when our counterparts entered. Our group had been assigned the Cursians. They were bulky, almost humanoid types. Their torsos began where knees should have been and their limbs looked like dense extrusions of rope. Individual tendrils would separate to perform the articulations of fingers, but they constantly touched themselves with them. No eyes that we could discern, but a thick mass of lighter tissue gathered in the center of the bumpy mass we thought of as its head. They wore threads of metal draped in complex patterns over their dense torsos. We were told that they breathed a compound of CO2, CH3, and CH5N. The air seemed to glow a faint green on their side of the room.
"We need to touch them," I said.
"That's not possible," one of the linguists said, frowning. "I mean…" She looked at her colleague. "Is it?"
"I don't think so," he said, and went to the comm. He spoke with someone for a few minutes, then turned back to us, shaking his head. "Not advised. There could be some leakage of atmospheres. Cyanide and oxygen are mutually incompatible. We don't know how dangerous it might be."
"Then we can't do this. We have to touch them."
"Shit," she said. "Why didn't anybody see this problem?"
He shrugged and returned to the comm.
We spent the rest of that day's session staring across the thin line of atmosphere at each other. I wondered if the Cursians were as disappointed as we.
* * *
The next day there was no session. Everyone had experienced a similar problem with their seti groups. In one case it was incompatible atmospheres, in another it was a question of microbe contaminants, in another it was just a matter of propriety. The sessions were canceled until some way of getting across the notion could be devised.
Before we could touch and share our logos, Admiral Kovesh ordered us separated.
"Once they make contact," she said, "this is how it will be. May as well start them now so they get used to it."
Merril protested, but we ended up in separate rooms anyway. The three of us huddled close together all through the night.
Admiral Kovesh came twice to wake us up and ask if we had sensed nothing, if perhaps we had picked up something after all, but we could only explain, as before, that to telelog it was necessary to touch, or the biopole could not be transferred—
She didn't want to hear that. The second time I told her that and she grew suspicious.
"Are you reading me?" she asked.
"Would you believe me if I said no?"
She did not come back that night.
* * *
Three days later we once more went to the meeting room. Now there was a solid transparent wall between the Cursians and us with a boxlike contraption about shoulder height that contained complex seals joining in its middle in a kind of mixing chamber. It was obvious that an arrangement had been made.
"How does it work?"
"As simple as putting on a glove," one of the liaisons said. "Just insert your hand here, shove it through until you feel the baffles close on your arm. Self-sealing. The touchpoint chamber will only allow one finger through. Is that enough?"
It was annoying and confusing that no one had asked us. But perhaps Merril had told them. In any event, yes, we told them, it was enough.
On the other side of the clear wall, one of the Cursians came forward. A limb jammed into its end of the box and a tendril separated and pushed through until a tip emerged into the central chamber. I looked at the other two, who touched my free hand and nodded. I put my hand into the box.
My finger poked through the last seal and the membrane closed firmly just below the second joint. The air in the chamber was cold and my skin prickled. I stared at the Cursian "finger" as it wriggled slowly toward the tip of my finger. I concentrated a biopole discharge there and when it touched me it was almost as if I could feel the colony surge from me to the Cursian. Imagination, certainly, I had never been able to "feel" the transfer; the only way any of us ever knew it had happened was when the colony established itself and began sending back signals.
There should have been a short signal, a kind of handshake that let us know it had been a successful transfer. I waited, but felt no such impulse.
I gazed through the layers of separation between us and wondered if it was feeling the same sense of failure. To come all this way, to prepare all your life for this moment, and then to find that for reasons overlooked or unimagined you have been made for nothing…I thought then that there could be no worse pain.
I was wrong.
* * *
Once an animal was released among us. A dog. I don't know if it had been intentional or an accident. You might be surprised at how many accidents happen in a highly monitored, overly secured lab. It seems sometimes that the more tightly controlled an environment is the more the unexpected happens. But in this case, I'm inclined to believe it was intentional, despite the reactions of our caretakers—especially Merril—when they discovered it.
The animal was obviously frightened. It didn't know where it was, or who we were. We thought perhaps that it was a seti, that maybe one had volunteered to come to us as a test, but that was quickly rejected when we accessed the library. The dog was only a pet, an assistant, a symbiote that had accompanied Homo sapiens sapiens on the long journey to the present. It whimpered a little when we cornered it and looked at us with hopeful, nearly trusting eyes. It needed assurance. It needed to know that it was welcome, that we would not harm it. We only intended to give it what it wanted.
The brief immersion in its thoughts came as a shock. The sheer terror it exuded surprised us, overwhelmed our own sense of security. When they took it away to be "put down," as Merril called it, several of us still wept uncontrollably from the aftershocks.
Batteries of tests followed to make sure no damage had been done. But the dog was dead.
* * *
It came gradually, a vaguely puzzled sensation, a What, where from, who? series of impressions. For a moment I nearly lost my despair.
Then a wave of nauseating rage washed through me. Revulsion, anger, rejection—like a massive hand trying to push me away. But I was chained to it and the more it pushed the more pain came through the connection. Sparks danced in my eyes. My skull felt ready to split and fall open. When I opened my eyes, I saw that I had slid to the floor, my hand still shoved through the trap.
The Cursian rocked back and forth and side to side, serpentine digits writhing. Suddenly, it reared back and drove one of its limbs at the transparency. The impact shook the wall.
I heard swearing around me, terse words, orders, but none of it made sense. My language was gone. Words were only sound. In my head I knew only a vast and sour presence and I remembered the dog and its terror and I tried to stand, to pull my hand away.
I thought I had failed before. Now I knew what failure felt like. But it wasn't my failure.
Hands grasped my shoulders, another took my arm. I was pulled away. My hand came free, but it felt cold and numb. I stared at the seti. It extracted its own limb and stumbled away from the transparency and nearly collapsed on the floor. It looked tormented.
"D-don—don't—!" I tried to say, but my siblings were holding me and the biopole bled into them.
One screamed. The other jerked away, mouth open.
"Get them out of here!" someone shouted. "Now!"
More people crowded into the chamber and I was lifted onto a gurney. I couldn't stop feeling the awful violation the Cursian had emptied into me. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to die.
* * *
It happened to all of us. It grew worse as we came together.
Logos spread back and forth, colonizing and broadcasting. We didn't understand and that complicated it. We sought comfort from each other, but the enigma of alien rejection compounded, interfered.
It didn't end till we were sedated.
And then there were dreams…dreams of anxiety and suspicion and insult…dreams of dying…
* * *
They showed us vids later. I don't like watching them, but they make us see them, those of us who lived. The setis reacted. It's obvious now, after the fact. They recoiled. That's the only word I can think that fits. Recoiled. Some of them looked dead. Five of us died. Others wouldn't stop screaming.
There are images in my head and I'm frightened to share them. I look at my companions and can see that they, too, contain things they will not, cannot share. It hurts. I understand Admiral Kovesh's reaction to the logos. Nobody told us it might be like this. Perhaps we should have suspected because of the dog, but we had all dismissed that because it had been so disadvantaged compared to us, its mind couldn't comprehend what was happening. But we know now. It was so simple an oversight—or perhaps not, perhaps it was assumed to be impossible, part of the dilemma of the situation: How can you ask permission when you don't speak the language? That was, after all, our task—to ask them things. But no one had tried to tell them that we would invade their minds in order to do so. And when we did, they scarred us.
We can never live in each other's minds again. We are separate now because we fear each other. We fear what we contain. We fear what we might give ourselves. We do not understand.
The seti ships had moved into positions of defense by the time the marines got us back up to our ship. They were frightened. We had hurt them. They had hurt us. We will all of us have to learn a new way to trust.
Perhaps, I think, we fulfilled our mission anyway. We had believed we shared nothing with the seti, but that's wrong. We share fear. Humans have been basing relations on that for millennia.
A door opens and a marine comes in. She switches off the vid and pulls out a notepad.
"Admiral Kovesh says we have to see to it you get whatever you want," she says. She smiles at me and I'm startled at how pleased I am. "What's your name?" she asks.
I feel my smile fade.
[Continue to Story #17]
"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.
"Texture of Other Ways" is one of 26 stories included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November. For more information on this anthology, please start here.
Mark W. Tiedemann attended Clarion in 1988, and has sold over fifty short stories, to Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, Tomorrow SF, Tales of the Unanticipated, and anthologies such as Universe 2, Vanishing Acts, Bending the Landscape, War of the Worlds: the Global Dispatches, and others.
In 2001 the first book of his Secantis Sequence was published: Compass Reach was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. Two more novels followed: Metal of Night and Peace & Memory. In 2006, his standalone novel Remains was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award.
While all this was going on, he joined the board of directors of the Missouri Center for the Book, the Missouri affiliate to the Library of Congress Center for the Book, an institution that works to promote and support the state literary heritage and the culture of the book. In 2005, he was elected its president. Though retired now, during his tenure, the Center advocated for and achieved the establishment of the first Missouri State Poet Laureate.
Mark has lived in St. Louis all his life, for the past thirty years with his companion, best friend, and first reader, Donna. He occasionally plays piano and guitar, doodles in idle moments, and is somehow, according to friends, still sane after all these years, a condition which could change at any moment.