SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 4:
"Abret. Greet them," said Zawn, firmly. The frightened deep-space physicist responded slowly, raising just the one hand above his head, keeping his laser pointed at the aliens. They all stood like that for a very long time, looking at each other. They were disturbingly Miran-shaped, and yet alien. Wrong. Yes, they were bipeds, and had the normal arrangement of arms and a head. Two eyes, a mouth and a nose. But the hands were wrong. Five digits instead of the normal three and opposable. It looked as if one of their digits—the inner one—might be opposable. And the head and face were even more wrong. The heads had filaments on them, as if the aliens were suffering from extreme cold. And the face pigments-stripes were all different. The position of the eyes, the shape of the nares, the angle of the mouth were all slightly different, and the external part of what was probably an ear was too low. At least they were not showing their teeth. Eventually, Kretz said in whisper—ridiculous, because the aliens couldn't hear their radio transmissions and certainly couldn't understand them: "Can we stop greeting now? My arms are getting very tired."
Zawn slowly lowered his arms. The aliens looked at each other and slowly did the same. And the external mikes picked up the sound of alien speech.
Transcomp cut in. "Unknown but sequential pattern," the computer supplied. "Analyzing."
"So what do we do now?" asked Abret.
"Hope like hell that they're not too mad at the damage you did shooting at them. Apologize," said Zawn.
"How do we do that?" asked Kretz.
"We repeat their words back them from Transcomp. And then we do some miming," said Zawn. "It appears as if we have similar meanings in our hand-gestures, anyway."
What the expedition leader lacked in animal-behavior knowledge he made up for in decisiveness. Personally, Kretz thought that the miming could have meant nearly anything from “sorry” to “if you move we'll shoot at you.” But the repeat-back of the Transcomp recorded words had produced a flurry of more alienese. When this was repeated back to them, one of the aliens had grasped the situation and began pointing to objects and naming them. They plainly were quick on the uptake. But that was what you'd expect from the builders of such a magnificent artifact.
What followed was the most exhausting and thrilling time period of Kretz's life. Transcomp got the names of objects quickly enough. Once they got the idea the aliens had even contrived to show actions and provide words. Kretz wasn't sure how much of the translation was getting through the other way. The aliens called all of them “Zawn.” And they appeared willing to help, even if Abret had kept his distance, nervously, most of the time. Another thing had been noting the appearance of small 'bots of alien design which had eventually appeared and begun repairing the damage from Abret's shot. Obviously the alien ship's internal machinery still functioned well, if slowly.
It had been a triumphant and excited group that had returned to the ship.
The aliens were… alien.
And yet, less so than some of the scientists and the general public had expected. If they'd been blobs of slime they might have been more wary. If Transcomp, designed to provide interface between nests from any island or culture on Miran had proved less adaptable and successful, things might have been different too, admitted Kretz.
Everyone had wanted to be part of the next group, but Leader Zawn had taken that cautiously too. "We'll take four people next time. They seem friendly. I'm afraid, Kretz and Abret, I won't be able to take you two, this time."
Abret, in the nervous-moody stage before change, certainly didn't mind. Kretz too hadn't regretted it in the slightest. The systematic examination of the plant sample he'd taken took up most of that time. The others would merely have been part of the second contact. He'd been part of the first, and his monograph on the alien plants would ensure that his fame continued long after he'd mothered his sons and become a vast matriarch, too big to move without help. The structure of the plant had been like looking at a young student's first badly understood research of Miran vegetation. It was… similar in function, but obviously had arrived there from a different direction. The chemists would have fun with some of the long-chain organic molecules too, but they were carbon compounds. Evolution had a myriad possible paths to follow in theory, but perhaps in practice there were certain constraints. Kretz found himself intensely curious as to how these alien plants would taste. He resisted the crazy urge. Miran digestion was robust, but who knew what alien toxins would do one's livers?
The second expedition came back bubbling with excitement at the friendliness of the aliens. "They want to meet all of us. It… seems they are rather vague on 'outside'," said Zawn. "We're making huge strides with the language. I've decided: Except for Abret and Derfel, who will be taking the lander to the source of the laser pulses, and Leter and Guun, who will remain onboard the ship, we're all going in after next rest period. It's a veritable treasure house of alien life-forms and equipment, Kretz. And… you know what? We think it was supposed to be a colony ship. A whole series of them, rather. They say their bead was suppose to take them to a new sun. Obviously their astronomy must be far ahead of ours, to predict what suns would have habitable planets."
Kretz had been just as excited about the idea of more material to add to his biological firsts and keen on engineering discovery. He'd quietly taken along the better part of an engineering repairman toolkit.
He was expecting great things.