On the floor in the center of a small, brightly lit room, sat Absol of Krael, his eyes closed. He was intimately familiar with his prison, having lived within it’s confines for forty-two Greevarian days. It was fifteen paces by ten, furnished with a cot, a rectangular table, and three chairs. There was a closet-like room in one corner where he could relieve himself of bodily wastes. One entire length of wall was clear glass. It happened to include the lavatory, thereby stripping him of all semblance of privacy or dignity.
Scientists and warriors, a mix of males and females, were always present on the other side of the glass, peering at him, recording their observations. The only way in or out was through an airlock with a tiny decontamination chamber. This had probably been a bio-hazard containment room at one time, and had been repurposed to contain him. Or to protect him. Or both.
The air in the room suffered from an unpleasant odor and left a metallic taste in his mouth. He supposed that the Greevarians had not been prepared to receive an alien life form, and had scrambled to put together a laboratory and assemble a team. They had taken air samples from his breather and blood from one his leg. It hadn’t taken them long to come up with breathable air for his cell — which allowed him to dispense with the breather — and food and water that he could safely ingest.
The food was the consistency of paste and tasted terrible, but at least he wouldn’t starve to death, or die of dehydration, or of asphyxiation. A few days after his arrival, they gave him two changes of clothing. To get a set cleaned, all he had to do was put it in the airlock, and someone would take it away and return it clean the next day. Other than incarcerating him and studying him like some kind of rare creature — which he was from their point of view — they had not mistreated him.
He closed his eyes and transitioned into a meditative state, his breathing becoming slow and shallow, his pulse barely detectable. The first time he had done this, several of the devices monitoring his vital signs had become alarmed. Literally. His keepers rushed around in a panic, donning breathers, and tripping over each other trying to get through the airlock to resuscitate him, only to find him fully conscious, all three eyes wide open, staring at them quizzically. By the third time, they had stopped panicking and accepted it as something he did from time to time. He suspected they had no idea what he was actually doing, but it confirmed early on that they were very much interested in keeping him alive and healthy. He guessed that if anything bad happened to him, heads would roll. Presumably, he was their first alien, which made him one of the most important discoveries in the history of their civilization.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. His team had come here to observe, not to be observed. Previous experience had demonstrated — sometimes disastrously — that civilizations in the early stages of technological and societal development often responded badly to First Contact. His team’s job was to ascertain exactly where on the developmental scale the Greevarians were, and to devise a plan to prepare them for the inevitable discovery that they were not alone in the universe. But everything had gone wrong when the Frix frigate showed up and destroyed their ship; at least, he assumed it had been destroyed. He couldn’t be sure because he and Finl had abandoned the ship in the escape pod, and crash landed in a forest.
When he had awakened, his breather was still in place and still providing him with breathable air. That was the first priority: air. The breather carried a limited supply of compressed air. When it ran out, he would die. Not that he was likely to survive very long anyway. The Greevarians would be a primitive species; unlikely to have the technology to keep him alive. Assuming they wanted to. Species in the early technological era were usually tribal, militaristic, and paranoid. Exactly the characteristics that made First Contact a tricky proposition.
Absol wasn’t afraid. At least, not very. Mostly he felt an overwhelming sadness. Sadness that he would never see his life-mate again. Nor his daughter. Sadness about failing to accomplish his mission. Sadness about failing this young civilization by exposing them to an unplanned and uncontrolled First Contact. Sadness about Brass. About Finl. What about Finl? Had he survived?
Absol had awaked to find himself lying on his back, securely strapped to a pallet of some kind. He extruded one of his eye stalks as far as he could and looked around. He was inside a large, cylindrical structure with about twenty aliens, seated along either side of the structure. A constant vibration played along his spine, matched by the low, steady rumble of engines. He was probably in a flyer. They were transporting him somewhere.
“Brilliant deduction, Absol,” he said to himself. “Of course they are taking you somewhere. What else were they going to do, leave you to wander around at will?”
The Greevarians were clothed more or less identically, some kind of uniform he supposed. They carried what appeared to be small-caliber projectile weapons. Warriors, he decided. They were bipedal and symmetrically constructed, with two arms and two eyes, long necks, and furry heads. They looked to be taller than the average Kraelian, although not nearly as solidly built. In fact, they looked almost fragile. Greevar 3’s gravity was lower than Krael’s. He doubted those spindly legs would hold up for long on Krael.
Toward the other end of the flyer’s interior, he spied Finl.
“Finl?” He called out.
Twenty pairs of eyes suddenly focused on him. Several guns were pointed in his direction.
One of the warriors barked something in a commanding voice, and the guns pointed away from him. Their commander, he guessed. His voice was melodious and low-pitched; it would have done nicely in the baritone section of Absol’s choir back home. Another warrior made a growling sound, which elicited a series of deep, throaty grunts from several of the others, followed by more growls and more grunting. Their commander barked again, and they fell silent. They remained more or less silent for the remainder of the journey.
The landing was one of the scarier things Absol had experienced in his life. The flyer hit the ground with a solid thud that reverberated through its structure, and bounced twice before settling on to the ground. But rather than coming to a halt, it kept moving, bouncing and swaying. He could only imagine that it had come in with a high horizontal speed and was now careening down a runway. This was confirmed as the roar of the engines rose to an ear-splitting crescendo and he felt himself being pulled forward by the force of deceleration. Absol was vaguely familiar with the concept of active propulsion systems to provide forward velocity to generate lift. Evidently he was in such a conveyance. His emotions vacillated between wonder and terror. There was nothing quite like experiencing first-hand an alien species’ unique twist on the various standard technologies all advanced species eventually discovered.
Finally, the primitive flyer came to a stop. Absol relaxed his fingers, which had a death grip on the sides of the stretcher he was strapped to, and extended his eye stalks. The warriors were moving around, preparing to disembark. As near as he could tell, they were not the least bit shaken by the death-defying adventure they had just been through. He was appalled to realize that it was a normal landing. Did these creatures not value their own lives?
Two warriors took up the stretcher to which Finl was strapped, and carried him out the back of the flyer. Two others carried Absol. His eye stalks involuntarily contracted under the blinding light of the Greevarian sun. A harsh heat assaulted him from above and radiated off the ground from below. His auditory senses reeled under an indecipherable cacophony of unfamiliar sounds.
They were taken into a large, cavernous building. The temperature was noticeably cooler inside than outside, for which Absol was grateful. The dimmer lighting allowed him to extend his eye stalks. He looked around.
The space was dominated by three flyers, surrounded by equipment, machines, and Greevarian personnel who were probably responsible for maintaining the flyers. The flyers were small compared to the flyer that had transported him, but they were still intimidatingly large. He had already deduced that they employed some variant of internal combustion engine. He could now see that they used jet engines. They were armed with guns, and missiles were being attached to the underside of the wings of one of them. It would be a glorious thing indeed to see them in action. Not that Absol was drawn to acts of violence. Far from it.
Like most Kraelians, he had a strong bias toward peaceful resolution of conflict, almost to the point of being a pacifist. But the Kraelians had been forced to learn the art of war during the First Frix Incursion, and had become proficient at it in the decades that followed. Absol was a sociologist, not a warrior, but he dabbled in military history, and had to admit that there was a side of him that would give a great deal to see a real dogfight between two such magnificent weapons of destruction.
He and Finl were trundled into a large freight elevator, which descended with alarming speed to the underground laboratory that was to become his prison. That was the last he saw of Finl. He supposed they were keeping him in a separate location within the complex. At least he hoped they were. If Finl was dead, then Absol was truly alone on this strange planet. Never in his life had he been alone. There were always others, psychic and social reference points that kept him centered and balanced, that helped him define his place in time and space, that reminded him who he was. Now there was just him. Alone. Lost. He tried to push the thought away; it was a path that surely led to the abyss.
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed in Kraelian days since his capture, but he deduced that forty-two Greevarrian days had passed. He based this on his observation that the Greevarrians came and went in a repeating cycle of three shifts, and he had counted a hundred and twenty-six shifts. Assuming the three shifts marked the passage of a single day, that made it forty-two days. During one of the shifts, the lights were dimmed, and only a few warriors and the occasional scientist were present. That would be the night shift. By contrast, the shift immediately following it was a bustle of activity, with more scientists than warriors. This was when things got interesting.
The first few days were pretty much what he would have expected with warriors in charge. They stripped him of his exosuit, strapped him to his bed, and examined every inch of his body. They brought machines in to scan his body and his head. They poked and prodded his ears, his nose, his eyes, his mouth, and other more private orifices. They carved pieces of skin from his body and took them away for analysis.
It was undignified. It was humiliating. It was infuriating. More than once he was tempted to lash out at them. To show them just what kind of damage an alien from a normal-G world could do on a low-G planet when he got mad. But that would only result in a few dead scientists who were just doing their jobs, and would presumably bring down the wrath of the warriors, whose weapons, though primitive, were undoubtedly effective.
The interrogations were almost as bad. They were always conducted by the same two people: a tall, thin male dressed in black pants and a white shirt; and a large female, also dressed in black slacks and a white shirt. So far, everyone he had seen was attired in one of three types of uniform: warrior, scientist, and whatever faction his interrogators were from. The black-and-whites attached sensors to his body, wires leading to a machine on the table, and took turns asking him questions, in increasingly demanding tones as the days wore on and he failed to show any sign of comprehension. He may have been wasting their time, but he was not wasting his. He studied the Greevarians.Everything changed on day eleven with the arrival of a new scientist. She swept into the laboratory like a force of nature, and the entire tone of the place changed. The rest of the scientific staff assumed a posture of deference. Even the warriors seemed to be intimidated by her. She fired off a barrage of interrogatives at the scientists, who responded quickly and concisely, sometimes referring to their instruments or smart pads, sometimes not. She threw orders at the warriors, who obeyed immediately, although Absol had gained enough awareness of their body language to be pretty sure they were not happy with the new arrangement.
Finally she turned her attention to Absol. She walked up to the glass wall and studied him, hands clasped behind her back. She was dark-skinned, almost black, with brown eyes peering through spectacles perched on a short nose, and gray hair tied back so that it hung down her back. Starting at his eye stalks, her eyes moved down his body in a slow, practiced way, like a medical doctor examining a patient. When she reached his feet, her eyes moved back up his body in the same slow, nonchalant way until they reached his eyes again. They stared at each other for several long moments. She turned her head to one side without breaking eye contact and gave a small nod. He heard a click that he had come to recognize as a two-way communication device.
“Are you experiencing any physical pain or distress at this moment?” She asked.
Something about the way she asked, something in the tone and tempo of the words she used, something about the way she met and held his gaze, which must have been frighteningly alien to her — something about her presence in that moment conveyed respect and concern for his well-being. He stepped up to the window so that they were mere inches apart, and tilted his head up to maintain eye contact with her. He shook his head back and forth almost imperceptibly. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
She stepped back and looked around his cell. Then she turned to face a warrior who had just come in, an officer whom Absol had concluded was in command of the operation. A clicking sound told him that the communication device had been silenced. An animated conversation between the scientist and the officer ensued, complete with hand waving and angry facial expressions. Had Absol been able to hear their exchange, he suspected he would have heard some shouting. She must have prevailed in the end, because the officer abruptly walked out, his body language radiating anger and frustration. A short time later, two warriors appeared, and applied black paint to the section of the glass covering his lavatory.
Relief washed over Absol. He had found waste elimination in public to be a humiliating experience. Such things were not done on Krael.
He also found himself feeling gratitude toward the female. Had she choreographed the entire exchange to engender that feeling in him? Regardless, he much preferred her approach to that of the warriors. And he had confirmed what he had already suspected: there was a good deal of tension between the scientist faction and the warrior faction about who was in charge.
Her name was Doctor Dorothy Bennington Dot. It took a few days for him to realize that the first part of her name was an honorific, and the last part was a nickname. He didn’t tell her his name. She was the lead researcher on the team responsible for studying him. He never did know why it had taken her so long to appear and take charge. Over the following days, they spent many hours seated across from each other at the table. She talked, pointed, gestured, showed pictures, named objects, drew geometric figures, brought in a viewing device so he could watch events going on around the world; she seemed to have a limitless collection of techniques designed to establish rapport with him and to teach him her language. He watched and listened.
By day twenty-eight, he had a solid grasp of their language. It was entirely auditory, with no psychic elements that he could detect, and had a relatively straightforward, non-tonal syntactical structure. He did not, however, speak to her. He showed enough interest to let her know that he was intelligent and fully cognizant of what she was doing. But he chose not to communicate anymore than was absolutely necessary. That would lead him down a path that could only bring harm to a fragile civilization too soon aware that they were not alone in the universe. Better they think him incapable of speech.
Playing dumb was difficult. The sociologist in him desperately wanted to engage with these creatures; to understand how they thought about themselves and their world, what social mores governed their lives, how they arranged their society politically, why two of them — a male and a female — kept touching each other when they thought no one was looking, and myriad other questions that arose as he observed them observing him. But there was a protocol for this situation. It required him to minimize his communications with them in order to minimize the amount of cross-cultural contamination his presence would injecting into their civilization. Yet another protocol he had never imagined he would have to execute.
On day thirty-seven, he broke protocol.
When Dorothy Bennington entered his cell, he was seated in the chair she always sat in, which put his back to the glass wall. She paused for a moment before sitting in the chair that he usually occupied. Silence filled the space between them. He could tell from her facial expressions, even through her breather, that she was thinking, trying to understand the significance of the change. The fingers of one hand drummed on the tabletop. It was an idiosyncrasy he had observed in her before. She stopped.
“You are trying to tell me something,” she said.
He nodded his eye stalks, and glanced up at the camera in the corner of the room behind her.
“Bill,” she said calmly. “Turn off the cameras.”
A male voice responded through the intercom. “Um, are you sure? It’s a breach of protocol.”
“Turn off the cameras,” she said, her tone signifying she expected compliance. “And the intercom. And the recording devices.”
The light on each of the cameras in the room blinked off one after another, and the intercom clicked off.
“Turn the cameras back on,” she said. Nothing happened.
She folded the fingers of her hands together on the table top. “Our conversation now is as private as I can make it.” He had no way of verifying that. For all he knew, she didn’t either. “And I won’t be able to maintain this for more than a few minutes. Until the commander notices.”
He nodded his eye stalks. “Doctor Bennington. May I call you Dot?”
Her eyebrows crawled up her forehead. He found this facial tick fascinating. He had not seen anything like it among any of the several species he had encountered, but it was quite common among Greevarians.
“Please do,” she said. “And what should I call you?”
Scraddoks! It was careless of him to engage her in casual conversation. She was skilled enough to take advantage of it and turn the tables on him. He ignored her question.
“There were two of us,” he said. “Did the other one survive?”
Her eyes blinked twice before narrowing to a squint, which caused her spectacles to slide down her nose. She pushed them back up with one finger.
“Yes. Were you friends?”
He ignored that question too. “Is he still alive?”
“Is he well?”
She hesitated. “Reasonably so.”
He wasn’t sure what ‘reasonably’ meant in that context. “I do not understand.”
“Your companion was more, um, aggressive than you. He was … injured in an altercation.”
He didn’t know the word ‘altercation’, but the meaning was clear enough.
“Will Finl — “ Fool. He should not have used Finl’s name. “Will my companion live?”
“We believe so,” she said. “His injuries were minor. Compared to the others.”
Absol’s breath caught in his throat. “The others?”
“A research assistant and two soldiers were injured as well. One of the soldiers died.”
That was not good. It was one thing to break protocol as Absol was doing. But to engage in violence against the Greevarians was an entirely different matter. Finl must have been under a great deal of pressure. Had they tortured him? Had they so humiliated him that he could not bear it?
She was watching him closely, and spoke slowly. “You and your companion have different temperaments.”
He bobbed his eye stalks. “I don’t know that word.”
“You are more compliant. Quieter. Less prone to violence.”
More words he didn’t know, but again the meaning was clear enough. This was dangerous ground. It was what he had feared would happen if he started talking to her. She was very close to identifying Finl as a member of the Kraelian warrior class and Absol as a scientist. From that she would be able to deduce a great deal about Kraelian society. He desperately wanted to keep talking with her; he was learning so much. But he dared not.
“Dot,” he said. “My people have knowledge that your people are not ready for. It could destroy you. Even the knowledge that we exist is more dangerous than you can imagine. I have broken protocol to say this much, but I wanted you to understand why I cannot talk with any of you. I am sorry.”
He went to his bed and laid down with his back to her. After a while, he heard her leave. The next day, the two black-and-whites returned to continue their interrogations. They brought more equipment with them, including vials and needles. For the first time since his arrival on Greevar 3, Absol felt despair.