This week’s free science fiction story is by C.J. Peterson and introduces new challenges in diplomacy!
Please enjoy the story as read by the author in audio or read the story below.
In the viewport, star-speckled blackness framing an alien starship. Before the viewport, a pressurized chamber with scaffolding, a lamp, and a pitcher of water. Behind a transparent wall, Ambassador Gahs-Abo-Johnson, perspiring. Around her, the most advanced spacecraft, qualified crew, and fondest hopes of all humankind.
“Welcome!” she cried, as her counterpart oozed through the airlock into the chamber. Then she blushed to the roots of her hair. She’d spoken too soon. The emissary draped its iridescent body on the scaffold and poured water over itself. Only then did she hear the translator speakers. “Greetings on behalf of the Sentient Alliance for Interstellar Amity.”
“Greetings on behalf of the peoples of Earth. Thank you for the opportunity to meet.” Finally! Until invited out, Earthlings were confined to the solar system. Venture beyond it, and someone from the Sentient Alliance escorted your ship back home again. You’d be left with study guides for the Alliance membership application and instructions to wait inside the heliopause until called.
“Before we begin,” her guest asked, “may I cotton-wool my stoma?”
“Certainly.” Her staff loaded synthetic cotton into a hatch in the chamber wall. On the other side, the alien plucked off little blobs and inserted them around its midsection. Gahs-Abo-Johnson sat down, opened the collar of her jacket, closed it, crossed her legs and then uncrossed them.
The hatch slid shut. “Upon acceptance to the Alliance, technology exchange will potentiate, along with interstellar exploration.”
“It’s wonderful that so many species interact in peace. We –” want that faster-than-light drive! And that matter transformer! But perhaps more politesse first. “Ah, may I offer you some oil?”
“That would be lovely.” The alien peeled a chevron off the part of itself that resembled a carapace. It retrieved the container from the hatch and brushed oil over both sides of the strip, then re-positioned the piece. “Thank you.”
“Is there anything else I can do to make you more comfortable?”
“You are most kind. Might I absorb 600-nanometer wavelengths of light as we converse?”
“Of course. The lamp is there, next to the hatch.” The fixture was raised and the light adjusted. “I was saying…” The Ambassador jumped when a huge membrane flared outward from what she had assumed was a head. Tilted toward the lamp, it scintillated with tiny dots.
Humanity still had so much to learn! What fantastic worlds of possibility would open up to them…if she didn’t fail this interview.
She cleared her throat. “We understand that Alliance membership requires a sponsor to exchange representatives with us. We have hundreds of trained diplomats available.” Her interlocutor twinkled. Was that a faint movement just below the flared crest? The surface seemed to be crawling into a little dimple. Was the creature consuming its own skin? Maybe it was nervous. She sometimes bit her nails.
“The effect on both parties must be prognosticated. Technological advancement disrupts, but social and psychological ramifications can be catastrophic.”
“Catastrophic?” Ambassador Gahs-Abo-Johnson’s mouth went dry. “Excuse me, I need a drink.” She lifted her water bottle and took a long swig.
“I’ll take a moment to swaddle my pedipalps.”
Watching that operation, the human could hardly swallow. She blinked rapidly and set down her bottle. “Our experts believe we are ready for alien contact.” She smiled. “After all, my generation has grown up with the idea.”
Waves of voltage fluctuations engulfed the being in the chamber. Electric arcs climbed, sizzling, between suddenly-erect hairs. While the fireworks died out, the alien turned off the light fixture and refolded its anterior ruff. “Yes.” It rearranged its tentacles on their props. “I understand. However, the Alliance must also identify the most compatible lifeforms for the initial exchange.”
Green humanoids! Perhaps with antennae, but fully capable of speech and even romance. She knew better, but the thought was irresistible.
The synthetic voice remained courteously neutral. “The only commonality among our members is memory-based cognition. Otherwise, physiology varies enormously. Pardon me, I must now unswaddle my pedipalps.”
“By all means.” Gahs-Abo-Johnson glanced at the clock. This was taking forever. She inhaled a few deep calming breaths.
“Memory and cognition may be well-nigh unrecognizable in other species,” her visitor continued. “For example, a distributed intelligence in a hive mind.”
“We have bees.”
“Consumption of learned experiences encoded in flesh.”
“We have flatworms.”
“Consciousness stored in an external device.”
“We have teenagers.”
A moist patch glistened beneath the foreign dignitary. “Perhaps we could arrange a hiatus? I feel I must invert.”
The Ambassador stood. “Indeed. Quite. Sure thing,” she babbled as the alien retracted its appendages. “I’ll just stretch my legs.” She walked toward the door. “Please let me know when you’re ready to resume.” From the corner of her eye she noticed the amorphous body elongating. Cotton balls shot everywhere like popcorn.
Outside the room she covered her face with her hands. “Oh my God.” Her crewmates gathered around her. “This is awful. I’m not getting anywhere. We’re completely stalled.”
“You’re doing fine.” Her deputy massaged her shoulders. “Just relax.”
“I can’t even talk to him. Her. Zir. Every time I start there’s some new bodily function to tend.”
“Do they actually live like this?” The ship’s chief engineer waved his arms. “Do they have sprinklers everywhere and go around oiling themselves every ten minutes? I want to learn from them, but I can’t imagine what visiting their home world would be like. Dear God. It would drive me insane.” He raked his hands through his hair. “How do they ever get anything done?”
“I’m failing.” Gahs-Abo-Johnson wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m doing something wrong. It’s obvious this species doesn’t consider itself compatible with us.” She sniffed. “We’re being stonewalled.” Her deputy offered her a handkerchief, which she employed moistly.
The other crew members returned to their monitors. “You don’t know that,” her junior said. “Mention that you’re ready to go. You’re packed. Spacesuit, vitamins, oxygen.” The Ambassador nodded glumly. “Shoes. Soap. Everything you need.”
“Look at this!” A technician switched all the screens to show the feed from floor level. “It really is inverted. See, the part that unfolds like an umbrella is now on the bottom.”
“No, it’s not.” Someone else displayed the view from the ceiling. “From here, you can still see it.”
“Maybe it’s having trouble inverting.”
“How the hell would we know?”
The diplomats joined the others in studying the screens. Gahs-Abo-Johnson chewed her lip. The shimmering form contracted and distended. The dimple that was eating skin earlier now extruded it. Abruptly, with a rending gasp, the foreign dignitary split in half and dropped to either side of the light fixture.
The humans screamed. The Ambassador was the first to dash into the Earthling side of the meeting room. “Are you all right?” she shouted. “Do you need a doctor? Water?” She wrung her hands. “Cotton?”
Each half of their visitor gathered itself up, then spoke as one: “I must apologize.” The voices reverberated with a slight echo. One voice continued, “We reproduce by division, but don’t necessarily know when that will occur.”
A second voice said, “Thank you for your hospitality. The Alliance will continue to seek an ambassador to your world. But at the moment…”
“…I’m afraid I must…”
Both newborns crawled into the airlock as fast as they could squirm. “Thank you!” Gahs-Abo-Johnson called brightly. “Come again soon!”
The airlock sealed and seconds later the alien ship detached. The humans stood silently on their side of the viewport and watched it leave them behind.
Inside their spacecraft, the two aliens collapsed. “Oh my Blauoie,” said one.
“Dear Blauoie,” said the other. They were already diverging, their genetic inheritance expressed in distinct epigenetic manifestations. “How can they stand it?”
“She looked at a chronometer. She was counting down the tiny remainder of her life.”
“She mentioned her generation. How can she say that without existential despair? Her generation must die so the next can grow old and die in their turn.”
One half of the emissary said, “It’s not just the occasional accident, or a flawed individual. It’s each and every one.”
“Death. What a hideous evolutionary mistake,” the other half agreed. “Sexual reproduction offers no way to distribute useful mutations or acquired wisdom.”
“Except by giving birth. Countless births over countless millennia, necessitating countless deaths.” A puddle leaked out as it spoke.
“And they know it, too. How could conscious awareness evolve under these conditions?”
“Stop.” Both struggled to damp their voltaic reactions.
“You’re right. It’s too grotesque. Lights, activate.” A reddish glow brightened around the pair. “We must let the Alliance solve this. After all, these pathetic organisms do have some form of sentience.”
“It’s just unbearable for anyone else to witness.” They unfurled their membranes and coruscated furiously. “This quadrant must remain guarded so no spacefarer encounters them accidentally.” They shuddered.
“And yet! Poor things! They reasoned that other intelligent lifeforms must exist. And they wondered why none ever visited their world!”
“They sent messages into space.”
“And died waiting for an answer.”
“Oh, it’s too horrible!” both aliens cried. “We have to stop thinking about it!”
And then there were four.
Edited by Lloyd Penney – Published by Amazing Stories, LLC.