Originally posted in general fiction, but someone suggested I should post it here instead. So....
The room was obviously intended for interrogation. The solid table, the uncomfortable chair, the wall-length mirror which was undoubtedly a one-way window... He would have known the room’s purpose even without the two men questioning him. It was called a debriefing but it was an interrogation, complete with the “good-cop” and “bad-cop”, each man wearing a suit as severe as his hair-cut.
‘Doctor,’ began the first, the one with the sandy hair and silken voice. ‘Tell us how it all started. From the beginning. Take all the time you want.’
The doctor shrugged his painfully thin shoulders, lifting his head up with an effort that seemed Herculean. ‘Well,’ he croaked, his accent pure English home-counties, ‘first there was the Big Bang...’
A fist thudded down on the table. ‘Doctor, our patience is far from infinite and we don’t appreciate your attempts at levity.’ That was number two, the one with thinning red hair and the rounded New Jersey accent that made the doctor think of cheap movie villains, of thugs who wore tasteless shirts and bad shoes and spoke with bass, adenoidal voices.
He flicked a critical gaze over the two men. He didn’t know their names and doubted he ever would, but had christened them Sandy and Red on account of their hair. ‘Actually,’ he began, ‘I was aiming at sarcasm, possibly irony, but since you’re Americans I’ll give up the ghost.’ He paused and reached out trembling, skeletal fingers towards the pack of cigarettes that lay before him. ‘Would you mind? It’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to smoke.’
Sandy tapped out a cigarette from the pack and handed it to the doctor, lighting it once it was in the older man’s mouth. ‘I thought nobody on the mission was a smoker.’
‘Quite so,’ he pulled a long, smoke-filled breath deeply into his lungs only to cough it painfully back out moments later. ‘I gave up at university, but some habits die harder than others.’ For a moment he stared at the bright ember at the end of the cigarette before stubbing it out in the cut-glass ashtray provided. ‘Might I have a drink of water?’
‘But of course.’
A plastic cup was filled from a water cooler in the corner of the room which glugged and gulped as the deliciously cold water flowed from it. The doctor reached painfully up to take the proffered drink with both hands, lifting it shakily to his lips and draining it slowly. He held the cup out and released it, seeming genuinely surprised when it dropped on to the table. ‘Second drink in years that wasn’t recycled piss. Tasted good.’
‘Second drink?’ Red asked suspiciously. ‘What was the first?’
‘A bottle of champagne that Nekrasov smuggled aboard. We opened it to celebrate visual contact with the Centauri ship.’ He chuckled. ‘You’d have thought a physicist would have known Newton’s laws of motion. Damn thing acted like a rocket and spun him head over heels, laughing like a loon the whole time. Thinking about it, maybe he knew all along. Not that we’re going to be able to ask him.’
‘Doctor, please.’ As Sandy spoke he rested his fingers gently on the prominent bones of the other man’s wrist. ‘Tell us what happened. We need to know what happened.’
‘From the beginning?’
‘From the beginning.’
SETI. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The program had been diminishing for years, little by little loosing it’s funding until it could barely afford to pay for the coffee the researchers drank. All day and all night a handful of poor schmucks scanned impossibly small fractions of the sky, looking for signals from other worlds that even they didn’t believe were there, and the closest they’d come to success was mistaking a radiation leak from a microwave in one of the cafeterias for an alien message.
In short, SETI had become a joke.
And that’s why it took them six months to get anyone in authority to take them seriously when they said that they were receiving a signal from Proxima Centauri.
SETI used to look for simple repetitive patterns, something more complicated than the monotonous cycle of a pulsar, but which was still ordered enough to discern against the chaotic background of electro-magnetic static that was the remnant of the universe’s violent birth.
What at first glance had appeared to be a repetitive squeal of disordered radio waves was revealed by a bored post-graduate to be two signals overlaid. Both were numerical sequences in base eight: the first sixty-four prime numbers and the first sixty-four numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. As signs of intelligence went it was elegantly simple and utterly irrefutable. No natural phenomenon could have produced such a signal, only another intelligence.
A veritable barrage of checks verified that the signal was coming from a source beyond the solar system and was not simply some stray transmission being bounced back at us: Proxima Centauri was identified as the source. There was no doubt at all that the first indicator of non-human sentience had been found.
Instead of receiving their expected Nobel Prize the discoverers were first silenced with the combined threat and bribe of lucrative government jobs, then shunted off somewhere where they wouldn’t be heard if they started talking. I believe one of them is still living in Belize.
Men in very dark suits took over and an exceptionally talented and discrete staff operating somewhere just to the south of the back-of-beyond took over.
The first thing they did was to send their own signal back. Using the same basic code our reply contained the atomic weights of the entire periodic table as far as Uranium. Some bright spark with more stars on his uniform than neurons in his skull had decided that there was no sense letting the bug-eyed monsters know that we had knowledge of nuclear technology and the weapons that went with it, so the transuranic elements were omitted.
Never let someone in a uniform make scientific decisions – military intelligence has always been an oxymoron. At just four point two light-years away the Centauri – that’s what we’d decide to call our mysterious contacts – were well aware of our level of technology. Think how much of our media is filled with images of war and violence, how much is advertising for the latest gadget or technological breakthrough. And all those television and radio signals are blaring out into space, traveling at the speed of light towards anyone who might be listening. We didn’t need to send Voyager out into the big wide open at its pitifully pedestrian velocity: we’d been advertising our presence for decades.
It turned out that the Centauri knew full well what we were capable of, the good as well as the bad, and that’s why they’d chosen to approach us in the first place, and why they’d sent a signal rather than a ship. They’d realised from watching our movies and sci-fi television series that we’d be more receptive to a method of first contact that piqued our curiosity. It was already culturally familiar, if you will, and thus less likely to provoke an aggressive or protective response. That always made me laugh: the thought of an extra-terrestrial intelligence copying what they’d seen on TV. We’ve been saying for years that no sane person believes what they see on the goggle-box and yet the Centauri had used the garbage we spew into space to model their first contact with us.
I suppose we’re lucky they hadn’t been bigger fans of “Star Trek” or they’d never have contacted us at all.
Anyway, back to the story. We sent off a response and then we waited. And waited. And waited.
While it may be our closest galactic neighbour, at four point two light-years away any radio signal takes four point two years to travel between Earth and Proxima Centauri. To put it into perspective imagine a phone call starting with their greeting and our response.
‘Hello? Anybody there?’
‘Hi. Yes, we’re here.’
‘Good. Pleased to meet you. How are you?’
‘Not too bad. You?’
‘Oh, can’t complain. Mustn’t grumble.’
‘Good. So… Fancy a chat?’
‘Yes. That would be nice.’
Introduction, statement, question, response, and so on. Fairly straightforward. But when it takes almost eight and a half years to receive a reply the time soon stacks up. That simple scrap of conversation we just ran through would take more than thirty years to have with a Centauri. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As the deadline for any reply to our signal came closer the tension mounted. By this point I had become a member of the project, one of a second batch of experts brought on-board in anticipation of our possible usefulness, but I still only half believed what I had been told. Anyway, as the momentous day arrived the beginnings of a signal started to be come through, but it wasn’t the simple numerical codes we’d been expecting. Instead we were getting vast amounts of data, huge quantities of information in an old hexadecimal code once used on primitive computers. Ridiculously out of date here on planet Earth, but perfectly suited to the task at hand. Again it was two signals overlaid, but rather than being mathematical in nature it decoded as textual information in two distinct languages.
The first was English, or at least what passes for it here in the North American continent – you people don’t so much speak the language as wrestle it to the ground and beat it into submission – and the second was Chinese – the Mandarin dialect if I remember rightly. That put the cat among the military pigeons, I can tell you, but it made perfect sense. English is probably the most geographically widespread language on the planet while Chinese is spoken by the greatest number of people. The Centauri had consciously chosen the two contenders for Earth’s most widely used tongue, depending on the criteria by which you chose to measure it.
The data that was contained in the transmission was effectively their version of what we’d been sending out for decades. Cultural, historical, spiritual, scientific, linguistic – it was all there. Like ours, their world was populated by different nations, although a better word would be “tribe” or “family” as each was popularly held to be descended from a single and separate patriarch. Think of Isaac and Ishmael without the holy-wars and you’ll have the idea. Their chosen system of government was broadly a meritocracy wherein those who were deemed fit and capable of ruling were given the task of doing so by those already in power.
Their level of technological advancement was similar to our own with a few minor variations. For example, Centauri medicine was quite primitive – they had yet to master even basic transplant surgery – but they had already perfected space travel and their craft were capable of moving at more than ninety-nine percent of the speed of light. We called that “almost light-speed travel” or ALS for short. They had also developed cold fusion to supply the massive power requirements such speeds demanded.
It transpired that much of their more recent progress had only been made possible by the work of men like Einstein and Hawkins being available to them, thanks again to our reckless radio transmissions. A spy couldn’t have purposefully done as good a job as we did unknowingly. Gives rather a new spin on the BBC’s “World Service”, doesn’t it?
The start of the Centauri message also suggested that, rather than converse over such a great distance, effective communication would be better served by sending information packets out in a constant and updated stream, a little like exchanging news letters.
And so the greatest correspondence in either human or Centauri history began.
By this point a little over nine years had passed since that first contact and most decisions relating to potential political and military matters had already been taken in advance. We had answers to all the likely “what-ifs” as well as a few that were so remote as to be practically impossible, so there was little red-tape to slow us down.
Of course the various military representatives from the governments aware of and participating in the dialogue were wary of a possible non-terrestrial threat – it was the very possibility of such a threat that had unified so many nations against the possible Centauri menace – but as Secretary Walters pointed out ‘if they’d wanted to come and conquer us I doubt they’d have said “hello” first’. The logistical difficulties associated with supply lines more than four light-years long would also have made Hitler’s push into Russia seem like sound and reasoned military sense, so the possibility of such an interstellar war was quickly relegated to the level of “ludicrously unlikely” and left for the science-fiction and movie writers to enjoy.
Any lingering doubts as to our celestial neighbours’ sincerity were wiped out when we started receiving technological data. Information on cold fusion came first, closely followed by laser communications and a method of transmitting electrical power without wires both safely and with a much greater efficiency than we had previously achieved under even the best of laboratory conditions.
It was a new renaissance, a wealth of technology fed out to the ignorant world through a series of front-men and dummy corporations. The earnings from exploiting each of the patents were ploughed back into the project and so we became the first governmental body in the history of mankind to actually turn a profit. Now that’s science fiction right there, gentlemen.
Along with the technical data came information about the Centauri physical make-up. We learned that they were oxygen-breathing, carbon-based life-forms possessing genders analogous to male and female. Their environmental tolerances were similar to ours, although the Centauri preference lay towards a slightly richer oxygen mix than would be found here on Earth. Outwardly they were strikingly similar to us, at least as far as their own description went – remember we had yet to establish a protocol for receiving images from them, or indeed anything other than plain-text documents – with a humanoid form only slightly taller and more slender than the human norm. That was probably due to their gravity being only ninety percent of ours.
Internally there were more differences. They had a similar central nervous system, although there was a secondary neural node – a “sub-brain” if you like – located in the abdomen and involved in the process of digestion. Unlike ours the Centauri respiratory system was built around three lungs rather than two, but their cardiovascular system was almost identical to our own. While their lymphatic and endocrine systems were far simpler than ours, their immune system was incredibly robust, able to deal with a host of different pathogens quickly and efficiently. Centauri cell morphology was similar to that of any terrestrial animal, but on a genetic level they were very different. Their version of DNA contained six base pairs and was held in only ten pairs of chromosomes, and gender was defined not as much by a genetic factor as by the gestational environment, similar to the way heat will affect the gender of certain lizards while they’re still in their eggs.
Ironically it was their robust immune system that had held the Centauri back when it came to matters medical. The practice of medicine was simply not needed as critically there as it was here and so had developed much more slowly. I can’t remember who it was that suggested that they emulate our practice of suppressing the immune systems response in organ recipients to prevent tissue rejection, but we sent the idea off along with some guesses on how they might achieve it based upon the information they had supplied. Ten years later we received a report of their first successful tissue transplant, another two years and they’d transplanted their first complete organ without rejection by the new host.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It had been our suggestion to use some old internet data transfer protocols, sending along pictures and movies of ourselves as we did. Eight point four years later we were receiving picture, audio and video files from them. Moving pictures from another world, examples of their art, samples of their music, even images of their cities and their landscapes. Incredible when you think of it, although I never particularly cared for the atonal noises that passed for music to their ears. Their art was pleasant, though. Very Jackson Pollock. I printed some examples off, framed them and hung them from the walls of my office and living quarters.
Our first sight of an honest-to-goodness Centauri was rather disappointing. One of the researchers actually groaned in disappointment. ‘I’ve seen more convincing aliens on old re-runs,’ he muttered as he saw the first of numerous anatomical pictures resolve on the screen. Nobody disagreed with him.
The Centauri form was indeed little different from that of a tall and slender human. There was hair on the head and eyebrows, just like us, but finer and with no other signs of facial hair whatsoever. The eyes were spread a little wider on the face and slanted up like those of a cat, but the pupil and iris were the normal, round shape of a human though the iris lacked any pigment at all. Unlike humans the Centauri did possess the prominent remnants of a nictitating membrane, still not quite removed by the process of evolution. The nose was long and delicately thin, but flattened in profile and with nostrils that were more slit-like. The mouth was also narrow but the lips, while pale, were quite full. The external parts of their ears were slightly smaller than in human proportioning with the convolutions that help to channel sound being almost spiral in form and quite elegant to look at. Like us, they practiced ear-piercing, but it was done so equally across both genders and all social strata.
The placement and proportioning of Centauri limbs were what the man on the street would call normal, although the arrangement of digits on the hands and feet were different. Centauri hands were revealed to have a thumb on either side of the palm with two fingers between them extending forwards like ours, though they lacked even vestigial finger-nails. The toes on their feet were a simplified and distorted form of the digits on their hands, much as it is with we humans.
The torso musculature was again not dissimilar from our own except where the thorax was slightly wider and longer, presumably to accommodate that third lung. The Centauri had four nipples rather than two, one pair on the chest where you would expect and another slightly lower down and smaller to the point of being vestigial. A second set of pictures showing a female Centauri indicated no difference in breast development to their males. The accompanying medical files had revealed that such development only occurred as a result of pregnancy and was not very pronounced even then.
The genitals of both genders were similar to ours – a phallus for the male and a vaginal opening for the female – but the male’s gonads were internal and the phallus was contained in a muscular sheath to protect it. Our assumption that it was revealed only when engorged was rather graphically demonstrated on another file.
Skin pigmentation over the body was also very pale with areas of bright flushing at the throat, belly and groin.
It was also at that time that we received blueprints for the ship.
The decision had already been made that a meeting with the Centauri was desirable, and that an offer to do so would be accepted, but we had expected that they would come to us. They were, after all, far ahead of us in the field of interstellar travel. Instead we had a room full of plans and technical information detailing everything from incredibly strong and ultra-light construction materials, to propulsion drives, to energy sources, to waste recycling systems, to navigation, to... Well, you name it and we had it. All we needed was a phaser and some photon torpedoes and we could have built the Enterprise. The vessel was designed to rotate about a central axis to approximate a very low gravity in the main compartments, but our experience with space-stations had taught us that anyone going up into space for an extended time would still risk catastrophic changes to their bones and muscles. Thankfully we had drugs even then that would counteract the worst effects of bone deterioration: originally intended to halt osteoporosis, they were now turned to a more peculiar use. Frequent exercise would help us keep our muscle mass.
We also had a rendezvous point at exactly the midpoint between out two stars. With the need to accelerate and decelerate at either end of our trip the journey would be two and a quarter years out and the same back plus however much time we spent in between, although for those of us on board the effects of time dilation would make it seem a far less. The Centauri asked that, if we wanted to meet, we signal our agreement immediately and inform them of our actual launch date at least five years in advance to enable them to launch simultaneously and meet us at the rendezvous point.
Did we agree? We started work that very same day.
Within two years the construction was close to complete and we transmitted our intention to launch five years from that point, enabling us to meet exactly thirty years after we had first received their signal.
By then I had been working on the Centauri project for over twenty years and was considered one of the most capable men available. I had devoted my life to the project to the exclusion of almost everything else. I had no living family and no social circle to speak of. I had never married, and never been interested in doing so, which meant I had no wife and no children.
Let’s look at that equation again, shall we? Expertise plus zero friends plus zero family equals X. And what does X equal? Why a front row seat on the express train to the celestial equivalent of the middle of bloody nowhere. Was I happy to be chosen, was I proud? Was I Hell! I didn’t want to go, flat out told the director that I wasn’t going to go and finished by saying that he couldn’t make me. Director Daniels very calmly and carefully explained to me that I was going on the voyage and that, while he admitted he himself couldn’t make me, there were several governments, including my own, that would give it the good old college try. I even pleaded my age, for I was on the slow slide towards fifty by that point, but it did no good. My mind was sharp, my health good and so I was fit to go. And that, as they say, was that.
That evening I drank for the first time in my life and got so plastered that I almost forgot my own name. I didn’t forget that I was going into space, however. That terrible reality wouldn’t quite drown no matter how much alcohol I poured on it. I would have done the same thing on the day of the launch but our colleagues were monitoring us far too closely by that point so instead I sat there with my bowels quaking while the hours counted down to minutes and then seconds.
Speaking of drink, might I have another water? Thank you.
The effect of time dilation reduced the journey of years to something perceivable to we happy crew as little more than weeks. True we had to have a nice long run up and we didn’t reach cruising speed until we’d passed the termination shock – think of it as the limit of the solar system – but at least we didn’t have to spend two and a half years traveling those two point one light-years.
Yes. I know it’s confusing. You’ve got that same glazed look in your eyes that first-year physics students seem to have. Just trust me when I say that as you approach the speed of light while your rate of passage through space increases your rate of passage through time decreases such that... There’s that glazed look again.
Can you just accept that aboard the ship time slowed to a crawl? Good.
On the good ship “Fraternity” – and who the Hell thought of that name? – were a crew of seven men and women made up of the three pilots and four engineers of various specialties, plus the delegation itself. Our linguist was O’Dwyer – surprisingly one of your fellow countrymen – who had spent years becoming fluent in the main Centauri dialect yet still barely spoke to anyone else aboard. The Russians had donated a biologist to the cause, Doctor Nekrasov – he of the smuggled champagne. His knowledge of Centauri biology was flawless, as you would have expected, but he was also blessed with the gift of imagination and capable of making startling leaps of deduction in an entirely unscientific manner. It was hoped he could help push forward the Centauri knowledge of medicine. He certainly pushed forward my knowledge of obscene jokes and vulgar songs. The unfortunate need to include a Frenchman aboard had led to the presence of Monsieur Gagnon – yes I’m quite aware he holds, or rather held, a doctorate, but I’m telling this story so I’ll choose the title I address him by – who was expected to exchange further information with the Centauri on the subject of chemistry. Apparently our knowledge of organic chemistry was more advanced but our physical chemistry was lacking.
And then there was me. A medical doctor capable of caring for any of the crew if needs be, but looked upon as the preeminent expert on the Centauri culture in general. Preeminent expert... Christ, I could weep.
As we approached the rendezvous our two ships could finally begin to communicate in real time. O’Dwyer, as our linguist, was the first human being to have an actual conversation with an extra-terrestrial life-form, and we learned so much. The Centauri had been exploring their own area of space for some time and had already found traces of other intelligent life-forms in a neighbouring system even while we had been trading information with them. That other civilisation was long dead, their cities little but dust and rubble, but it lead to the obvious conclusion that, far from being a rarity, intelligent life must be widespread throughout the universe.
It’s impossible to say what day and time we finally saw each other, their ship appearing first as little more than a dot on the view screen before swelling inexorably as we neared each other. Our time on board ship had passed differently to that back here, as I’ve already indicated, but whatever the moment may have been back on Earth we on “Fraternity” knew that a new day had most definitely dawned, a new era arriving for humanity and Cenauri alike.
Until that point I think we had all still had doubts, but now there was proof. Here was another intelligent life-form in the universe. Finally we knew that we weren’t alone. And where there were two there had to be more, possibly countless other life forms to meet and learn from, just as the Centauri had already deduced. The tension on board ship was palpable.
Eventually we approached each other, our ships embracing like lovers as the Centauri extended an enclosed gantry from their vessel towards us. At the end of their docking port was a sphere, giving it the impression of a mushroom slowly growing into space, and as it reached full stretch we extended our own docking port to meet it. That sphere was to be the location of the first meeting between our two species. By that point, of course, neither ship was still rotating and so we enjoyed all this in a state of graceful weightlessness.
As a gesture of amicability it was agreed that the atmosphere in the spherical meeting room would be formulated with the higher oxygen concentration favoured by the Centauri. It would make O’Dwyer, Nekrasov and Gagnon a little light headed, but the effects on the Centauri of breathing our atmosphere would have been worse. In return they suggested a temperature and humidity which would be more comfortable for us, far drier and cooler than that of their world. We gladly accepted. Everything seemed to be going spectacularly well compared with what we were used to when nation meets nation here on Earth. Neither we nor the Centauri had complained about the shape of the table or the size of their flags or the brand of the bottled water. Alright, we didn’t have a table, any flags or a single bottle of water, but you understand my point. We were two species who had nothing in common, not even our earliest genetic antecedents, and yet we were happy to modify even the air we breathed to make things as comfortable for the other as possible.
The UN wishes it could have achieved as much.
We spent several hours talking to each other over the comms systems, each of us getting to know our opposite numbers and start exchanging information. At first we were very business like, sticking to the areas of our own academic specialties, but before long we were discussing family, friends, colleagues and unreasonable bosses, all the things that strangers talk about when they meet those with similar back-grounds. It felt a little like being at a conference in Zurich. Only weightless.
All of us knew a little of the other race’s language, just enough to make ourselves understood in polite conversation, and together we got along famously. By the end of that first day we were chatting and laughing with each other. Do you know about Centauri laughter? They have a sort of breathless, giggling hiss that reminds me of Mutley, the dog in those old cartoons.
O’Dwyer, of course, was already fluent in Centauri and hearing him talk to one of them for the first time was positively surreal. We were used to him being quiet and reserved, but on the radio with the Centauri he came alive. In his role as our main negotiator he agreed that he, Nekrasov and Gagnon would meet the four lead Centauri delegates in what passed for morning on our ship. We didn’t need the time for sleeping you understand – who could sleep? - but rather to finish up our individual preparations. I, of course, would not be on the initial meeting but would instead observe it. I felt like Michael Collins, waiting in the lunar orbiter while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history. All that way, I thought, to be little more than a footnote. Little did I know.
As the next morning dawned – well as much as it can in deepest space when the nearest sun is more than two light years away – we had our last meeting, the one where Nekrasov opened his champagne. Spirits were, to say the least, high. Once we had stopped laughing and dried ourselves off I took my position at the command console while the other three clustered nervously by the airlock like boys waiting at a date’s front door. And I made them wait while I ran a final check on the video and audio feeds from the meeting chamber. Yes it was petty, and no, I don’t regret it.
As soon as the Centauri signalled their readiness and stepped into their airlock O’Dwyer, Nekrasov and Gagnon did the same. Once the atmosphere in the locks had cycled, and at a joint signal from both me and my Centauri counterpart still on their ship, each party opened the airlock and advanced into the room.
And everyone in the chamber went completely and utterly crazy. Have you ever seen bowel-loosening terror in zero-gravity? Well I have and it’s not pretty. One of the Centauri screeched something – I have no idea what – and fairly flew at Gagnon who screamed like a girl, threw up his hands in terror and soiled both himself and the air around him as he scrabbled for the exit, ripping and clawing at the air-lock. The others in the room were striking at each other with more vigour than effect, slapping with open hands like schoolgirls rather than using their fists, or just kicking out with energetic desperation. Nekrasov finally locked limbs with one of the Centauri, trapping the two of them face to face while both yelled with horrified intensity at the other.
Then there was a flash of electrical fire from where Gagnon still thrashed at the air-lock while a bellowing Centauri pounded at his head. There was a second spark, then a third, followed by a burst of flame rippling through the oxygen-rich atmosphere as the delicate walls of the chamber split and burst like a balloon, vomiting the seven occupants out to die instantly in the inky vacuum of space.
‘Do you think,’ Sandy asked the doctor, ‘there was something in the air that made our men react in the way that they did? Some pheromone secreted by the Centauri perhaps, or something in the atmosphere they brought with them. Would that explain it?’
‘Perhaps a weapon,’ Red interrupted. ‘Doctor Gagnon’s voice recording clearly has him crying “murder, murder” over and over again as he was being attacked.’
The doctor waved his hand dismissively, ‘He didn’t say “murder”, you idiot, he said “merde”, the French for shit. Don’t they teach you anything in school these days? There was nothing in the air – no exotic gases, no pheromones, just plain old air with a little bit more oxygen than normal.’
‘So it must have been a weapon,’ Red concluded.
‘No,’ the doctor shook his head with delicate firmness. ‘The Centauri were affected in exactly the same way as O’Dwyer, Nekrasov and Gagnon were. Pure, blind, unreasoning, terrified panic.’
‘Then what caused it?’ Sandy asked.
‘Have you ever heard of the arachnid response?’ the doctor asked, receiving a pair of head shakes in response.
‘I suppose it was too much to ask,’ he sighed and leaned forward to explain, his elbows resting on his scarecrow knees. ‘It’s named after the effect most people feel when they see a spider or become aware of its presence. A little part of the hind brain starts screaming at the rest of the brain that something is wrong. That something is very, very, wrong. When the response is triggered that little warning part leaps up and down like a child that needs the toilet and starts shrieking that whatever we’re facing is alien to us, that what we see is different and strange and most definitely not our friend. When O’Dwyer, Nekrasov and Gagnon first saw the Centauri face to face, not divorced from the experience by cameras, that part of their brains didn’t just scream, didn’t just shriek, that part of them when absolutely mental. And just like that,’ he snapped his fingers, ‘they went as mad as a box of frogs.’
‘So they attacked the Centauri.’ Red sighed as his comrade nodded, visions of Centauri warships dancing in their heads. ‘Our first contact with another race and we attacked them.’
‘No,’ the doctor wiped a tired hand across his face, ‘didn’t you watch the tapes? Haven’t you even been listening to me? We didn’t just attack them, they attacked us at the same moment. They don’t call it the same thing as we do, but they have the arachnid response as well. When they saw O’Dwyer, Nekrasov and Gagnon in the flesh for the first time they felt exactly the same sense of revulsion. As “Friendship” waited to leave I and the surviving Centauri diplomat spoke to each other one last time. It took a little while to translate some of the nuances, but he and I figured it out between us. He’s probably sat in a room much like this having a similar conversation with the Centauri equivalent of you pair. There’s not going to be any reprisals, and they’re happy to keep in contact with us, but we can never meet again. Ever.’
‘Well, that’s alright then. Not a complete loss. We can draw a line under the whole Centauri debacle and get on with things. We have ALS travel and we know now that there must be more intelligent species out there, that life is not unique to Earth, or even restricted to us and the Centauri, but evolves anywhere that it can.’ Red turned to Sandy and smiled. ‘We can explore and see who else we find.’
The doctor’s thin hand slapped on the table, a painfully loud sound in the muffled quiet of the room. ‘No, you idiots,’ he shook his head and frowned in anger, ‘don’t you understand? Even if we could overcome our own arachnid response – and there’s no reasonable way to believe that we could – the Centauri had the same reaction as well. The response is common to both of us, two species who evolved on entirely different planets in different star-systems. Parallel evolution, same results. It’s hard-wired into our brains as part of our survival mechanisms, one of the very traits that enabled us to survive to evolve in the first place.’
‘So?’ Red shrugged. ‘So? So what?’
‘So what?’ The doctor threw his hands up into the air and gave an exhausted sigh. ‘Great merciful, blood-stained gods. The response is as essential to evolutionary success as the opposable thumb, and it develops in parallel. Any intelligent species we come across will have it as well, and we’ll both trigger it in the other. We may well be in a universe teeming with intelligent life,’ he spat, ‘but we’ll never be able to share a room with any of them.’