… continued from Telescope
Li-Estl led the three humans back down darkened stairs to the crude lift, locking doors behind her as they went. Descending the vertical cliff face, Anna looked out across the dual-moon-lit ocean, the myriad of stars reflected below as shining above, and lifted her gaze skyward. She searched for that one faint moving star, the one she briefly saw from the observatory, but it had passed on from her view.
Once back at the main residential level of the cliff community, they passed through rocky corridors dimly lit by the occasional oil lantern, seeing few other Kwakitl along the way. Anna expected Li-Estl to lead them back to her schoolroom, but instead they followed a different path. More stairs and twisting hallways challenged Anna’s sense of direction, but she felt they were heading much deeper into the interior of the mountain. After about fifteen minutes of this, she noticed a gradual increase in ambient noise level, and ahead the corridor appeared more brightly lit. The noise, she came to understand, was the sound of many Kwakitl voices, all talking at once, and moments later they came to its source.
The corridor opened into the largest chamber they had seen yet, and it was filled with dozens, perhaps well over a hundred, Kwakitl, seated in circular clusters around low tables. Smoky lantern light lit the chamber, and the smell of frying fish and salty kelp pervaded the air. Anna’s stomach rumbled, and she realized in all the excitement she had conveniently ignored how hungry she had become. Even the cooking kelp smelled good to her now.
“We eat,” Li-Estl told them through Jaci’s translator, “then I show where you sleep. Tomorrow, much more talk, yes? Also, tomorrow big day. But now, eat.”
Li-Estl led them to one of the low tables, which was nothing more than a raised section of rock, and gestured at the cushions surrounding it. She sat, and Anna, Jaci, and Laxmi followed her example. Two other Kwakitl already sat at the table, breaded trenchers of food in front of them. Li-Estl squawked a greeting at them, which they returned in kind, though they were clearly curious about the humans. Surely the word about their arrival had spread through the community by now, and of course Jaci had been here already for some time, but that didn’t make the alien humans any less fascinating, or any less strange.
“Don’t mind it,” Jaci told Laxmi and Anna. “You’ll get used to the stares. After all, how would you react if you were out at your favorite restaurant back home, and a little green alien out of nowhere plopped itself down at your table and said hello?”
Another Kwakitl came to the table, pushing a cart, and plopped trenchers of food down in front of Li-Estl and the humans. The server gave the humans a long look and Li-Estl a curious one, who said something that satisfied the curiosity, and then the server seemed to shrug and went away with the cart.
Anna paused a moment, conscious that the customs around food she and Laxmi had observed on a working boat might be quite different from those expected at a table in a restaurant or cafeteria or whatever this place was, but Jaci and Li-Estl dug right in, so she did the same.
It was more than just fried fish and kelp, which she had become so used to during her time on the fishing boat, though the basic ingredients seemed to be the same. Where fishermen at sea appeared to subsist on pretty basic fare, here at home the average Kwakitl could expect a greater variety, prepared with greater skill. Besides basic green, the vegetables on the trencher came in red and light brown colors as well, and spices other than simple salt were evident in both aroma and flavor. The main course was still fish, but moist and delicate, almost buttery, though as on the boat she found it somewhat messy going. Kwakitl apparently could fillet their own fish, right on the trencher in front of them, using nothing but their long, sharp beaks, occasionally lifting a foot to hold things in place. Without utensils, however, the humans had to pick at their food with their fingers.
Except for Jaci. He pulled a small folding knife from his pocket and proceeded to quickly and expertly separate the meat of his fish from its central bones. He flipped the fish over and separated the other side, and only when he had a handful halfway to his mouth did he notice Anna and Laxmi both staring at him.
“You know,” said Laxmi, “when we were picked up by that fishing boat, and our own boat sank, Anna risked life and limb to rescue a few critical items before it all went beneath the waves. But a knife or fork were not among those items.”
“No,” Anna added, “they were not. Not even close.”
Jaci smiled, put down his fish, and presented the knife handle first to Laxmi. She smiled back, took it, and proceeded to fillet her own fish.
“Of course, back at the lagoon, our lagoon I mean, you would have made sure this was all done before presenting it to us, wouldn’t you, oh master chef? What was your phrase? Greatest chef on the planet?”
Jaci laughed. “Back at the lagoon, we weren’t eating fish, only roots and vegetables. And at the time we didn’t know there was anyone else on the planet. Still, I think I did a pretty good job.”
Laxmi grinned, then handed the knife over to Anna.
“One of you has pretensions, at least, to being a great chef,” Anna said, “while the other is a biologist, skilled with organic things. I, on the other hand, haven’t dissected anything since high school, and my food has almost always come to me in a packet of some kind.” She looked with dismay at the mess in front of her. “Oh well, as long as I don’t choke on a bone, I suppose.”
“So tells us more about these visitors.” Jaci swallowed another bite, then looked at Anna. “Are you sure it’s a ship, and not something natural?”
“It was just a glimpse, but I don’t think I’m wrong. It had the even, regular shape of something constructed, and it was moving fast, but not nearly fast enough for a typical meteor. More like something intentionally slowing down on approach. Plus it was pretty much on the right path for an orbital insertion. I think it’ll probably take it at least a day or two before achieving stable orbit, but that’s just a guess, since we have know idea whether they’ll go for a high or low orbit.”
“Ok, then who are they? Another ship from Earth?”
“We have no way to know, of course, though I guess that seems most likely. I mean, Earth is the only space-faring civilization we know of for sure that has the capability to send a ship here. Exhibit A is sitting down to dinner here at this table, right? But why? Why send someone out so soon after us?”
“It’s been three years, but… oh, right. They would have had to have left only a couple months after we did, three years ago, to get here now.”
Anna nodded. “That’s right. Unless we developed a much faster drive in the meantime, of course, which is theoretically possible, but that would have been awfully quick. And it’s not like we’re overdue, not by a long shot. We aren’t due back home for almost another four years, and there’s no way for them to have known that we are, or would be, in trouble. So… why?”
“Rival agency?” Laxmi asked. “Maybe IndoAsia?”
“Well, they’re the only ones besides ESA who might have come up with the funding for something like this, but still, launching a major Alcubierre-driven mission is so expensive and takes so much preparation, it’s such a big deal that I can’t find it credible that we wouldn’t have known it was in the works. Not for something that launched only a few months after we did.”
“So… little green aliens, then,” Jaci said. “Or big nasty ones.”
Anna shook her head. “That would imply that there are a host of other spacefaring civilizations, and we’ve just never found the evidence for that. We’ve only ever found this one, and…” She looked around the dining chamber. “These people are not flying anywhere.”
“They did, though, once. You read that old broadcast.”
“And we picked up that broadcast. We never picked up any others.”
“We also never picked up any other broadcasts from here besides that one snippet, yet it’s pretty clear they had been broadcasting for some time before that, and probably for some time after. It’s not like they were beaming it directly at us at high power. We just got lucky. There could be dozens of other civilizations out there, or thousands even, all broadcasting away, but if they aren’t close, and we aren’t looking in the right direction at exactly the right time, we would never know.”
“Ok, Mr Fermi Paradox, I’m familiar with the equations, too. And I know you want it to be true that the galaxy is filled with some sort of super high-tech benevolent consortium of alien races, just waiting for us to grow up enough to be worthy of inclusion. But we have to be realistic and stick with what we know. We heard exactly one broadcast, which brought us out here, and we found exactly one other intelligent society, although they are certainly no longer a technological one. I think there’s some kind of cautionary tale in that, to be sure, but that’s not highest on my mind right now.”
“Two societies, Anna.”
“We know of two other intelligent societies that were technological and space-faring, at least twelve-hundred years ago.”
“Yes, I mean the Orta.”
Li-Estl squawked and made some commotion at that moment, appearing as if she had choked on a fish bone. The other two Kwakitl at the table had been paying rapt attention to the human conversation, but with no indication they understood any of it, but now they turned to Li-Estl with concern. She waved them off, said a few words, then looked to Jaci.
“No say name,” she squawked in English. Then she pulled a small parchment pad and a stylus from a vest pocket and wrote something down. She held the page of scratch-like characters in front of Jaci and spoke again. “Translate.”
Jaci pulled out his tablet and aimed its camera at the page. The translation appeared on its screen.
Remember the superstition. Do not mention Orta around others. Not safe. They do not understand, but they hear you say words they know.
“Sorry,” Jaci said to Li-Estl, then turned back to Anna. “Yes, I mean them. And we’ve never picked up a broadcast from them, but obviously they’re out there.”
“How do we know they’re not as technologically regressed as the Kwakitl?”
“We don’t, of course, but think of it, Anna. They weren’t from this planet, and as things turned bad here, they were made to feel rather unwelcome. So they had somewhere to go home to, didn’t they? There’s no reason they couldn’t have kept on advancing, wherever their home is. What were humans doing twelve-hundred years ago, Anna? It was the dark ages for us. Yet these folks had space travel, probably interstellar travel, back then. How long did it take the human race, from the first electric machines, to get to this point? Maybe three-hundred years? It’s been four times that length of time, and you know as well as I do that technological advancement isn’t linear, it’s almost exponential. How far ahead do you think they could be now?”
“Ok, let’s suppose you’re right. Why now? After all this time, why choose to come back now, just at the moment when we’ve arrived here? Isn’t that highly coincidental?”
“Maybe they come by every now and then just to check on things, who knows? Hopefully we’ll get to ask them soon. They could be our ticket home!”
“Maybe,” Laxmi said. “Back on Earth, though, the history of what happens when one species meets a different species in the wild isn’t especially peaceful.”
… to be continued.
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