Out of the bed and over to the food machine. That was the problem with the translator: the names of everything were so implacably boring. Food machine. Space drive. Translator. Space radio. Informative names, but they had no pizazz. Why wasn't anything called the model 79a? Or the defrozzler? Because of infinite sensibility on the part of the Linguists.
Toast. Or unToast. Davidson didn't care how the machine worked or how accurate its replicas were. If there was no grain, no farmer and no toaster involved in the process, it wasn't toast. Davidson looked out the window (porthole?) at unfamiliar constellations. He had long ago given up trying to pick out Sol in the sky when it jumped across the cosmos nightly and unpredictably. He felt as though he should be thinking monumental thoughts, but instead he was considering whether to get coffee or tea.
Suddenly he remembered what was special about today. First contact.
Some world was about to have its collective window of opportunity and knowledge flung wide open. The aliens were coming, Davidson Creek thick among them.
He ordered coffee.
Davidson couldn't help but think about how his ancestors must have felt, some hundred and fifty years earlier when the first Europeans began to show up in Ontario. If that hadn't happened, would he still be the same person? Would he still be a reluctant warrior, only with spear and bow rather than rifle and grenade? Would he still have found himself at twenty years old screaming through the galaxy on an alien ship?
Really though, there was no comparison. After all, the Linguists had no intent to settle on... he checked Raschen's notes... Planet Dirt(Life Bearing Planetary Body Code #98233). If anything, the proper comparison would be Cook's discovery of Tahiti. Or was it Easter Island? Maybe he discovered both. Davidson had never paid much attention in history class, preferring the myths of his grandparents to those of his teachers.
Of course, the Linguists and the Committee had discovered #98233 some centuries ago, but were only now choosing to make contact. The stars had aligned. Dirter society and technology had converged upon some point which Earth must also be rapidly approaching. Some point past which the Subgalactic Committee could no longer leave well enough alone. A point in their history where the stars and heavens would open up and spit forth the long awaited "We come in peace."
Raschen awoke at 8:24 (by Davidson's watch) with a start.
"What the Hell are you doing?" he blinked with his iridescent flagella.
Davidson wondered just what the concept was in Raschen's language that the translator decided to render as "Hell." But given his friend's obvious state of distress, he didn't ask. "Reading," he said.
"Reading?! How long have you been awake?"
The translator did an excellent job of emotional voicing, but Davidson always found Raschen's colourful emotive displays to be even more informative. Or at least more interesting. "A couple of hours," he said.
"It's contact day! Why didn't you wake me?!"
Before Davidson could figure out what to say, Raschen was in the washroom doing whatever his species did in the mornings. In the fifteen months he and Raschen had been friends, Davidson had never once been tempted to ask what those ablutions were.
Ten minutes later, Raschen reemerged from the washroom, still sparkling in frantic shades of yellow. He hastily donned his assistant Observer's smock and grabbed up his notes. Just as he was disappearing out the door, he flashed at Davidson: "Are you coming, or what?"
A small field party met them in the atmosphere craft bay. The contact team consisted of six members. The captain and the spokesbeing were both Linguists. One of the security beings was from a small planet in the Lesser Magellanic and the other from Tau Ceti, practically Davidson's neighbour. Senva, the official Observer, was also there. Raschen was the sixth member of the crew.
The captain, spokesbeing and Senva were conversing animatedly with a creature Davidson did not recognize. There were only about a hundred and fifty beings on the C&E ship and Davidson was pretty sure he knew all of them by sight. From where he was standing, Davidson's translator was only picking up snatches of the dialog.
"...great potential for philosophical thought... ...productive and interesting artistic community... ...yes, several different religions and creation myths... ...scientific progress through nuclear approaching protonic... ...not wars, skirmishes..."
As Davidson and Raschen approached closer, Senva turned towards them.
"You missed the beginning of agent Gurad's report."
"My apologies, Observer," Raschen flashed with obeisance.
Gurad wrapped up quickly with a few brief statements about the world's current political dynamic and the recommended point of contact. Senva and the Linguists both made thoughtful gestures similar to nodding for a few moments.
The captain broke the silence by addressing Senva. "Pending your approval, Observer, we will be departing for the surface in one hour."
"You have it, captain," Senva said, "everything is in accordance with procedure. Although, I do fear that agent Gurad may have developed an unhealthy level of attachment to Dirter civilization. We must keep this possibility in mind when considering the report."
Gurad opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again when the captain met his gaze. It was the Observer's duty to provide an objective viewpoint on every aspect of the contact. Calling Senva's judgement into question would be a serious breach of etiquette. The Observer's statements were already a matter of record and Gurad could only make things worse for himself by commenting on them.
The captain began giving orders to his small crew. The ship must be prepared for departure. Senva and Raschen were engaged in a lively conversation about the minutiae of contact protocol and Gurad had already excused himself. Davidson was glad that Raschen had invited him to the meeting, but now he was beginning to feel in the way. He looked around for an excuse to leave. Failing to find anything suitable, he simply turned and began to walk back to his and Raschen's quarters.
Before he had travelled a dozen paces, Senva called out to him: "Sol being!"
Davidson turned around. "Davidson Creek," he reminded the Observer."
"Yes yes," Senva said, "would you mind coming over here please?"
Once Davidson had rejoined the group, Senva addressed the captain: "Do you object, captain, to Davidson Creek of the Sol system accompanying us on this mission? I would be interested in his insight."
Davidson glanced at Raschen, whose confused glittering indicated that he had been no more expecting this turn of events than Davidson himself.
"Of course not," said the captain, "we would be pleased to have the Sol being Davidson Creek onboard." The translator did not neglect to include a tinge of sarcasm.
They were fitted with hologram projectors on the flight to the surface which cloaked each of them in image of a creature of the same physiology as Gurad's form, but slightly larger and of different coloration. This was, Raschen explained, the image which Gurad's research had suggested the people of Planet Dirt would be most accepting of as representing visitors from the stars.
They set down just outside of a large city. The captain had already been in communication with the leaders of Dirt's largest political unit and this location had been negotiated as a landing site. A wide perimeter around the site was fenced off by the time they touched down. There was a huge crowd and a healthy representation of what are universally recognizable on any world as Cops.
The president was not waiting at the landing site, though his aide was. The spokesbeing talked with him at great length and spoke also with the leaders of the various smaller nations of Dirt who had traveled the circumference of the planet to be present. The discussions were all relayed into the ship where Senva and Raschen monitored them.
Davidson was fascinated at first, but in the end it was just politics. Alien politics, but politics nonetheless. "It is a great honor to welcome our brothers from beyond the sky" and "May I be the first to extend an invitation of total hospitality to any of your noble species" and "Do you mind good interstellar Sir if I get a photograph of you holding this trademarked product?"
Davidson took a nap.
He was awakened by Raschen shaking his shoulder.
"The crowd's gone," Raschen said through holographic vocal chords, "Senva and the spokesbeing are in the city. It will be another hour before his meeting with the president. Now is our chance to get a look around."
Outside, the air was breathable and pleasantly warm, but had a distasteful smell to it.
"High sulfur content," Raschen explained, "not dangerous to your physiology."
The crowd was perhaps smaller, but still huge. A visible and audible ripple of excitement propagated through the gathering when they stepped out of the ship. Davidson felt like a movie star. Should he wave? He resisted the urge.
"Come on," Raschen said, and led him toward the perimeter. A cop broke off from his pack to intercept them before they could actually reach the fence.
"Is there any way I can be of service?" he asked in the tone of servility beyond reproach which always suggested contempt.
"We would like to speak with one of your people," Raschen said.
"There are many dignitaries and journalists who would be very happy for the opportunity, shall I summon one in particular?"
"No, no," Raschen said, "no-one like that. We would like to talk to an average citizen. Just someone who has come to see the ship."
Davidson didn't need any cue from the translator to read the discomfort in the cop's expression. He returned to his pack and there was a lively argument involving much pointing. Finally, the cop separated himself again, went over to the fence and allowed one of the creatures through the barricade.
While the cop was addressing the creature, probably giving strict orders about the things it was permissible to say to aliens, Raschen leaned over and whispered, "Do you think she's cute? They're bi-gendered you know. Just like your species."
Davidson was about to say "so are chickens," but he was certain Raschen had no idea what a chicken was and he wasn't sure how the translator would handle it. Besides, she was on her way over.
"Greetings," said Raschen, and Davidson grimaced. Why not "Hello?" Of course, it was the translator doing the talking, but Raschen had helloed Davidson before, so clearly it knew the difference.
"Um... Greetings?" the alien said. The translator provided her a female voice. A sexy one, too.
"Tell us what part you play in this culture," Raschen said, obviously enjoying his god-from-the-stars status.
"I'm a housewife," she said sheepishly.
Davidson interjected before Raschen could speak again. "Don't be scared," he said.
"I'm not," she lied badly.
"No really," Davidson said, "it won't be that bad. I mean, it will be hard on your culture, sure. There will be a lot of new things to accept, but it will all be so exciting."
He looked to Raschen for support. He knew he sounded like an idiot, but he just couldn't stop himself.
"Just think of the new technology, the new opportunities. It means the end of war in your lifetime. I mean, who has time to fight when there are aliens to welcome and a galaxy to explore. And art, do you like art?"
"I studied art in college," she admitted.
"Just imagine, the entire cultural history of thousands of worlds laid open before you. I mean sure, a lot it is really trashy, but just think about it."
"You're right," she said tentatively, "it IS exciting. And frightening."
Just then a siren went off. Davidson jumped, but neither the alien girl nor the cops seemed to hear it.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Raschen had grabbed him by the arm and was pulling in the direction of the ship.
"Yes, I'm fine" Davidson said.
"I'm sorry," Raschen said, "we've got to go."
"Wait," she called out after them, the cop preventing her from following, "what is your name?"
"Davidson," he called back. The translator let it slide.
"Daffidun," she said, patting her abdomen, "a good name for a child," she had to shout to continue, "a child who will grow up among the stars!"
And they were inside the ship before he could respond.
"What is it?" Raschen demanded of the captain.
"Diplomatic breakdown," the captain said tersely.
"Not a problem, I hope."
"Shouldn't be, so long as the spokesbeing and Observer got out of there in time."
Feeling the tension in the ship, but knowing better than to ask questions, Davidson watched with the others through the viewport. After a moment, a blur appeared in the sky. The captain breathed a sigh of relief as the blur resolved itself into Senva and the spokesbeing swooping in under personal propulsion.
The escape was slightly tense. Raschen explained to Davidson that there was no real danger. The Dirters had surreptitiously launched some variation on an EMP net (whatever that was) to prevent the contact ship from leaving. The technology of Planet Dirt, however, was incapable of harming or hindering the ship. But still, the holographic dance by which they turned the ship invisible and left a perfect image of it in their place as they departed was vital.
Within moments, Dirter militia swarmed the landing site, as the surveillance feelers had indicated they were planning to do. A cloaked missile from the contact ship, intercepted the holographic copy of the ship at precisely the same moment as the first Dirter troops. The resulting explosion tore apart the hologram, the converging forces and more than a few unevacuated curious onlookers.
To simulate a self-destruct mechanism, Raschen lectured him; it was of the utmost importance that the natives believe the the ship had been destroyed.
"But why did they do it?" Davidson asked.
"Do I look like a psychologist?"
Not at all, Davidson thought, psychologists have two arms, two legs and a head.
"It happens about a third the time," Raschen elaborated, "fear, I guess. They attack or try to seize the contact ship and we go about our business. They don't get to play in our sandbox and everyone's happy. The Committee doesn't tolerate violent parties."
Davidson was more than a little surprised. "None of the species that make up the Committee or Consensus make war?"he asked, "Ever?" He was thinking of the Earth as he had left it, with a madman charging through Europe and a million naive children crossing the ocean do die stopping him.
Senva and the captain could be heard arguing in the background. They had activated the privacy mode on their translators, so the sounds that reached Davidson and Raschen were meaningless to them.
"Well, of course they do sometimes," Raschen replied, "it's almost a requirement to be a sentient species. When resources are limited, you kill people off until there's enough to go around. It's the unnecessary violence that disqualifies a people."
Unnecessary like every war in human history?
Davidson sat in silence, feeling embarrassed for himself and his world.
Back aboard Systematic Worlds Contact and Evaluation Ship 104 there was an atmosphere of denouement. When a contact played out properly everyone had a part to play. And they had to be prepared to fulfil their role every time. Now that the Dirters had shown their inhospitality, there were over a hundred psychologists, scientists, anthropologists and speech-makers standing down from battle-stations.
Raschen, for his part, was busily filling out forms and reports at his desk. His account of the contact would accompany Senva's back to the Committee. He needed also to send his report and an accompanying essay back to Polaris IV University. His assistant Observer placement was earning him credit toward his degree in Xenofilial Relations.
Davidson meanwhile sat listlessly on his cot. He sat thinking about his mother. About how she had named him Davidson, after the doctor. Named him after a white man bringing an Ojibway boy into the world. Thinking about how he had been born on the reservation but turned out early into the white man's world. An alien world full of art and custom he would grow up sharing but never really absorbing. He was interrupted by an excited shout from Raschen.
"What is it?" Davidson asked, concealing his disorientation.
"Haha!" Raschen flashed joyously, "they've relieved Gurad of duty. Conflict of interests. Nearly went mad upon hearing the decision about the Dirters."
"I feel sorry for him," Davidson said, counting on the translator to find the right pronoun, "why does that make you happy?"
"Well, they still have to send someone back down. And procedure dictates that in a case like this, that duty falls to the Observer."
"That's right. And the assistant Observer-- the assistant Observer becomes the acting Observer!"
Raschen was overcome by another bout of ecstatic glimmering.
"Just wait till I write home to my parents," he flickered more to himself than to Davidson, "Sure, it's only until next starfall, but still-- Observer Raschen," he tried the title on for size, "And I haven't even finished my degree yet!"
"So they're just leaving Senva here?"
"They certainly are," Raschen flashed, "the old bastard better not forget to leave his Observer's smock behind for me."
"For how long?" Davidson asked.
"Who cares?" He checked his notes anyway, "forty years."
"Why only forty years?"
"That's how long the Dirters live."
"So they're only monitored for one generation?"
"Well, of course. Then they're no longer a threat."
Raschen blinked in confusion. "Because we sterilize them, of course."
Davidson couldn't believe his ears. He imagined the girl he had talked to. Naming her child after him.
"When?" he asked frantically.
"Oh, it's probably already been done," Raschen flashed distractedly, "Standard procedure, they mix up the virus in advance before each contact, in case it's needed. What's wrong?"
If Raschen was noticing, Davidson knew his distress must be obvious.
"Nothing," he lied. He left the room immediately. He needed to be alone.
As he wandered the corridors of the ship he thought about violence. He thought about deer hunting with his father and brother as a child. About the feel of rifle in his young hands and his budding understanding of how it represented not only the power to eat, but the power to assert authority. He thought about fistfights with his brother John. Fights that John always started and usually lost. And he thought also about his basic training, two short years ago. About the nineteen other children who made up his company and about how they were all being carefully conditioned to kill other human beings, without yet even beginning to grasp what that actually meant. He thought about the base camp in England and the frequent and contradictory reports of victory and defeat on the mainland. And he thought about the first two men he killed. A grenade through a window ending the lives of a Nazi soldier and a cowering civilian both. But most of all, Davidson thought about how, for all the raping, pillaging and killing, the two greatest violences performed upon Native Americans by Europeans were small pox and influenza.
When he finally returned to the quarters he shared with Raschen, the alien was sound asleep. Raschen's notes were open on the desk and he was still logged into the ship's computer, the strange little moving picture screen acknowledging him as acting Observer. Assistant no longer.
Down one side was the list of planets for the ship to visit in the future. After a small amount of fiddling, Davidson was able to discern how to scroll the list. Hundreds and hundreds of worlds to be given just one chance to show their worth. And a third of them destined to miss the mark. Hundreds of peoples and cultures to wiped out forever by this single little group of travellers. Tears, of anger or sadness or both, were blurring Davidson's eyes as he read the names of stars and planets with such a short period of time to prepare themselves for a genocidal test they could not know was coming.
It was the tears that prevented him from seeing it at first, but as he scrolled back up the list there could be no mistake. "Sol-Earth"-- Estimated time of contact, fifteen years.
Davidson tried desperately to erase it, to physically scratch it from the screen, but the Observer did not have the authority. He clawed and hammered at the screen with desperation, but the words would not disappear. Maybe he could get a message out, he thought wildly, maybe he could warn the Prime Minister, the President, anybody. But what difference would it make? Would human nature change in fifteen years? Davidson hit his head resignedly against the screen and let it slide down until it rested flat on the desk. He sobbed silently and mourned the passing of mankind.
When he finally raised his head, something was different. He blinked twice at the screen before he realized what it was. Earth was five places further down the list than it had been before. Estimated time of contact, sixteen years. The Observer had the power to re-prioritize! Glancing over his shoulder to ensure Raschen was still asleep, Davidson guiltily slid Earth to the bottom of the list.
He couldn't save mankind, but he could buy them a few hundred years.
transient0 is also known as Frank Duff, author of Lysergically Yours.