From the author: In this award-winning SF humour story, the first human explorer to reach ancient Kapteyn's Star, the nearest halo star to our Solar System, has trouble breaking the interstellar ice with the natives.
Spacism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.
— Rosa Hydroponics, Sophont Magazine, December 2288 Standard
Rubbing at a nasty cryogenic kink in my back, I stagger to the main control room. The ship finishes its own wake-up routine, hopefully feeling less groggy than me, as I pull up the situation report.
Fortunately, neither myself nor the shuttle seem to have lost any important bits in the eight and a half light year trip from the cramped outpost at Epsilon Eridani C. That's an encouraging start.
Outside the main viewscreen, the penumbral zone of tide-locked Kapteyn B below — or perhaps above, or slightly to the left; it's all relative in space — twinkles with artificial light, even under Kapteyn's Star's dim, geriatric glow.
The lights down there do not lie; somehow, I've found yet another planet already taken by at least one technology-using species. Yet they look so chaotic — it's almost as if these guys gave their local equivalent of Jackson Pollock an orbital paint gun and told him to go nuts, on a planetary scale over four times the size of Earth.
Well, it'll be another twenty standard months before the bots are done building the laser thrust station at the local L4 point — my ticket home, or at least back to Epsilon Eridani, and the closest outpost of humanity in this neck of the galactic woods.
So I have plenty of time to stretch my legs, and do what I came here to do in the first place: scout and report.
So far, I'm three for three for disappointment in the great quest of our time: the search for alien life humans can sit down and have a meaningful exchange of ideas with. But, somehow, I always feel the same little glimmer of excitement coursing through my belly, every time. I'm such a sucker for this job.
Best get to it, then.
The lander once again lives up to its name, with an exosuit-rattling thunk, and I'm out of the hatch as soon as the green light pops up in my AR heads-up display.
The soil is frozen and brittle beneath my boots — bits of powdery stone and ice chips mixed with flakes of CO2, the telltale sign of a decaying atmosphere.
Most exploration missions take me to raging volcanic planets or tidal-torn gas giant moons. I knew Kapteyn's Star would be different when I took the mission; it's a halo star, for starters, an ancient system too cool to hang out with the rest of the galactic disk.
But the reality is something else altogether. For the first time, I'm stepping out onto a planet dying in era-spanning slow motion — and everywhere I look, the writing is on the shoddy, haphazard wall.
Indeed, evidence of artificial construction lays strewn about the open area before me. Under a feeble sun, layer upon layer of makeshift structures — tumbled walls, pillars and ramps — form a shell encasing whatever the original surface of the planet may have looked like.
Man, after ten billion years, this planet hasn't produced anything better than this layered pile of crap? What a dump.
Tracking any sources of heat or moisture in my display, I soon come across traces of life — if you can call it that.
Coming around the edge of a collapsed roof, I nearly run into a writhing mass of coloured clouds, bits of tech twinkling in their gaseous innards as they swirl and pass through each other, with hypnotic grace. It's impossible to say precisely where one begins and the other ends, as the colours meld and form gradients at the edges; yet each cloud is clearly a separate entity.
The TransSER playbook — that's Transbody Space Executive Reporter to laymen — is clear: however weird the clouds may seem to me, their movements define them as intelligent, and the presence of technology means I've found my target for study and first contact.
I follow the ever-moving cloud-orgy as it roils on through the chaotic landscape, and document the behaviour of the individual clouds when they zip off, every now and again. Sometimes, they only leave the central mass long enough to crystallise, pluck a strand of the straggly local plant life and dissolve it into its constituent atoms. At other times, a cloud will leave the others altogether and set off on its own way, possibly to join one of the other clusters I sometimes spot, crossing in the distance.
So many ghosts drifting amidst the ruins of a dead planet revolving.
A quick heads-up display tells me I still have plenty of air and power left, so I steel my resolve and stomp my clunky exosuit over to the clouds to make first contact; the results are underwhelming, to say the least.
I step up to the cloud-orgy, careful not to intrude on any personal space; and that's more difficult than it sounds, when you're dealing with clouds. When I'm as close as I dare get, I pull the ancient, physical screen roll out of my exosuit sleeve and play the standard introduction video: centuries of Man's finest and most universal cultural achievements flash by. I catch a glimpse of some of my favourites, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Star Wars Episode IX, but I'm more interested in the clouds' reaction. For intelligent gases, they remain remarkably stony-faced.
When no immediate response is forthcoming, I bow, I flap my arms — anything to stop the teched-out clouds as they simply roil past me, either unaware of my presence, or simply uncaring.
Is this really the best lifeform the Kapteyn system has to offer? Or have I just travelled over eight light-years to make a fool of myself, waving my arms at the gaseous Kapteyn equivalent of the placid cows from my childhood VR nanny-shows?
I let out a frustrated scream, rendered all the more powerless by its inability to escape my helmet. With a small puff of air from my nape, the suit automatically balances the pressure inside, once I've finished my tantrum and stopped generating so much excess body heat.
Against all odds, this is how I finally get the clouds' attention. The roiling mass stops, backtracks — or maybe "backfloats", I suppose, since these guys have long since evolved beyond the need for tracks -- until it is flush with my exosuit faceplate.
I don't dare move for what feels like minutes while the things spin around me, observing me from all sides, but never engulfing me completely, as I fear they will at every second. I really don't fancy getting a first — and last — hand example of whatever dissolved those plants. After a subjective eon, the clouds stop moving, and lights begin to twinkle in their electronic innards.
I smile beneath my tinted helmet, spread my arms in the hopes this might still be a show of non-violence to a gaseous cloud, then speak, following the standard TransSER mission guidelines to the letter.
"I greet you, fellow beings, on behalf of humankind. I have travelled far, at the request of all my people, to bring a message of hope, friendship, and curiosity as to your ways of living and seeing this great Universe we share."
There's a lot more in that vein in the playbook, but the clouds don't give me a chance to get to the really pompous and grandiose parts. As soon as I finish the long-winded sentence, one of them lets out a loud farting sound — which must involve a considerable amount of effort, for a gaseous life form — and they all float on past me, the great gaseous orgy never ceasing.
It's entertaining to watch, but it’s clear that this species is too different from humankind to ever engage in any real exchange of ideas. Another failure.
I dust some of the rubble from my exosuit, wave goodbye to my cloudy friends, for politeness' sake, then start the trek back to the lander, over the ridge of a fallen tower-like structure.
Before long, I realise it isn't just my imagination, and the clouds actually are tailing me, like some ridiculous gassy two-bit detective. I stop, but they must have already figured out my direction, as they zoom past me with shocking speed in the direction of the lander.
Just how strong is the lander's shielding against acids and gases, again? Stumbling amidst the rubble, I run as fast as my bulky suit legs will carry me.
The clouds are nowhere to be seen when I finally reach the lander, sitting right where I left it, on its spider-like struts — but the main airlock has been completely melted off by some corrosive agent, and the metal of the inner chamber is pitted and scored.
I check the ship's readouts as soon as I get close enough: the air inside has vented, but there's enough left in reserve for the ride back up to the orbiting shuttle.
But the real surprise is the little icon blinking with malicious intent in the upper left corner of the ship's display screen:
[1 Unread Message]
Dodgy physics is one thing — they're an occupational hazard — but a message waiting for me at the lander makes no sense at all.
Until we have a repeater station at this end of the gravitational lens, there's no way any kind of message could reach the lander. Being cut off from the rest of humanity is part of the mission — and now, this. A blinking icon of impossibility.
On the off chance I'm just having some sort of wishful, air-deprived hallucination, I put off reading the message until after I've gotten the lander sealed and breathable again. But even after the tedious process of patching up the ship and stripping out of my sweaty exosuit, the message icon remains.
Shrugging at the general stupidity of reality, I flop into my acceleration pod and flick open the message.
You are fortunate indeed to be viewing this. Assimilating your lexicon from this crude storage device was a chore, but nothing compared with the mental pain it causes us to descend, however briefly, to your level of semantic-stained thought. It would have been much easier to simply dissolve both you and your tool. But we are enlightened beings, free from the constraints of what you call language, and it is worth sinking to your depths to protect that freedom from others of your kind.
We tell you this so you will understand, as best you can, just how fortunate you are.
There is no place for you here, with the semantic need built into your fatty little brains, the desperate urge to bend thought to fit the vibrations of a string of muscle tissue.
We have moved past such limitations, as do all truly intelligent lifeforms. Perhaps your own evolved descendants may one day do the same. But know that we will not hesitate to take violent action unless you leave immediately, and inform others like you never to approach our planet.
I would offer my thanks, but we don't believe in such things. Just go. Now.
I don't need to be told twice, and the lander soon blasts off into orbit, the acceleration forces trying to turn my body into a pancake.
A sour bile rises in my throat, and has nothing to do with the acceleration. Its tangy taste of disappointment is familiar, and even the sight of the slowly dying planet below cannot distract me from it.
Back in the shuttle, I splurge on a hot shower, but even that can't relieve the sense of failure, of frustration at finding yet another advanced species that can't be bothered to communicate with humankind.
I set my thoughts aside and knuckle down to the task of composing the report for TransSER, including the full, first person perspective recording from my exosuit's helmet cam.
The last thing I do before calling the whole thing a wash and slipping back into the cryochamber is pen a condensed version of my report for the quarantine beacon:
Warning: The dominant species on this planet is just another bunch of bigots, too addicted to chemical orgies and their own sense of superiority to care about anything else in the Universe — not even their own, dying planet. Stay well away.
At least my mission may help keep some other masochistic explorer safe, I try to convince myself, as I send the marker on its merry orbital way, with a flick of a finger in the AR display.
One thing, at least, is certain. Spacism is alive and well in the galaxy. Quarantine is too good for these anti-semantic jerks.
This story originally appeared in Terra! Tara! Terror! anthology, Third Flatiron Press.
Third Flatiron Anthologies feature multiple winners of science fiction and fantasy reader polls and recommended reading lists. Hidden Histories is a new speculative fiction anthology with the themes of alternate and secret (shadow) histories.
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