Chapter 12 - Culture Shock
Sun Tzu once said “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” If I am indeed at war with this strange and admittedly beautiful alien lifeform, then this may be my chance to wage it without putting my life in danger. For the first time in our interactions, I have some leverage. It wants information from me. While I suspect it could pull what it wants out of me with enough time, my cooperation might be worth enough to stay its hand, or tentacle, from that course of action.
It wants me to answer questions, and I have some questions of my own. Perhaps it’s willing to trade. Know thy enemy, and all that. There’s just one problem, I don’t know how to ask them. The alien’s form of communication is nuanced, intuitive and elegant. It allows for information to be passed along in a way so precise that any language would have butchered the intent by comparison.
That being said, I’m still something of an amateur at it. With my surface level understanding, I won’t be able to ask the complex questions I need to, or even express my desire for an exchange of information in the alien’s native form of communication. So far, I’ve only expressed a relatively simple concept, but how am I supposed to express a desire for mutually beneficial trade with a single idea or thought? Maybe I can learn and improve at this kind of communication, but for the time being, communicating with the alien in this way is impractical. Given all it can do, surely it must be smart enough to learn a language.
Deciding it’s worth a try, I form as best I can the concept of language. I mentally conjure memories of learning to read from my childhood. Then, I muster images in my head of letters and attach their associated sounds. Lastly, I affix the feeling of want, to express the desire to converse in this way. Then, I send the whole package of information along the mental tether.
I immediately feel the alien’s focus turn away from my mind as it takes to voraciously processing what I sent it. I can feel some of its emotions as it does. I can tell that these feelings haven’t been sent along the tether for me, not necessarily. It feels more like the emotions of interest and curiosity are so strong that they leak through the tether. My suspicion is reinforced by the fact that the aliens color changes from the oppressive dark blue, to a bright and vibrant orange.
The alien spends a few minutes in apparent excitement before returning its focus to my memories. It replays some of the memories it’s already seen, like the day my father died and the past three weeks. This time, I can feel its attention jump about while the memory plays back. It focuses on any words spoken and pauses the playback to carefully inspect any written words. The alien reviews any sample of language it can find in those memories, then expands its search to other times and places.
It seems to randomly flit through my past, greedily reviewing any samples of written and spoken language it finds. One moment it’s reading a flight manual for an experimental aircraft from my time in the Hegemony Air Force, the next, it’s watching an action movie from my childhood. My apprehension at trying to teach an alien to speak Hegemony’s standard language is complete when it puts its newfound knowledge to work.
[Am… myself… comprehended?] I stare at the alien for a long moment in surprise. The mental voice is in broken standard, but it is understandable. I knew it was intelligent, but to think it can learn languages to a conversational level in minutes. But that isn’t what surprises me most. No, that award goes to the fact that the alien is speaking to me in my head, in my own voice. It’s what I always imagined schizophrenics heard. A voice that sounds like their own but isn’t, invading their thoughts.
“Uhh… yes, I comprehend.” I say the words out loud and get nothing but a blank stare for my troubles. Right, it can’t understand me that way. In fact, I don’t think the alien even has ears. Instead, I use my mental voice and direct the words through the tether. [Yes, I can understand you.]
[You... are a... would do... currently the... provided informative... myself seek.]
[I’m... willing to tell you what you want to know... but in return, I want my own questions answered.]
[You are... wished me to... engage in communion with... individual don’t of the Flock?]
[Um, yes? I’ll talk, but only in return for information from you. It’s a trade, understand?]
[You are... am don’t individual of the Flock... however… for mutual enlightenment... myself will this thing do!] At this proclamation, the alien’s mental voice increases in perceived volume and booms throughout my mind.
[Alight! Calm down! All you need to do is answer one of my questions and I’ll answer one of yours.]
[...Interrogate then... supplicant... myself shall allow you the courtesy for... first inquiry.] I wait for my heart rate to subside before I trust myself to ask anything. There are a lot of questions I need to ask, but the first one will likely be the most important. I need to ask it something useful, but still innocuous enough to guarantee an answer. If I can get it to answer one question now, then it will be more likely to answer more. I just need to get it talking. So, what to ask? I’d like to know how the alien even got aboard the ship. I know it can phase through solid objects, but what about the ship’s kinetic barrier?
[I want to know… how did you bypass the ship’s kinetic barrier?] The alien seems to be at a loss, so I send it a memory of me looking over engineering blueprints for the Arcadia’s systems. I also send my own conceptual understanding of how the kinetic barrier functions to compliment the schematics. In response, the alien seems to perform what I can only describe as a mental scoff in the form of sending me the distinct feeling of being underwhelmed.
[Simple... application of… omnidirectional energy... neutralized repulsive field.] The words are accompanied by a conceptual package of information that illustrates how the alien used its strange powers to make a bubble of outwardly directed kinetic energy to tunnel its way through the ship’s barrier. [You are a... will now be wise to... convey my to what you... are... am doing in the Flocks... territory.]
[Well… uh... my species home planet was going to be destroyed, so we were sent to... prepare... the planet below for colonization.] To corroborate my story, I send along memories of the coronal mass ejection and its prediction 50 years in advance.
[That is... unacceptable. The Eldest... will don’t tolerate such... unauthorized habitation.]
[Eldest? By what authority does this ‘Eldest’ deny humanity a new home?]
[What authority? By brilliance of intellect... by magnitude of form... by opulence of age.]
[...I see… Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. Our… my mission was a failure, and now my home planet is destroyed, and I‘m likely the last of my kind. So you don’t have to worry about any ‘unauthorized habitation’.]
[Ah… this is... most convenient.] At those words all my forgotten anger and grief come rushing back.
[Convenient? Convenient! You think mass extinctions are convenient? How would you feel if everyone you ever knew was dead! For an intelligent lifeform, you’re awfully barbaric!]
[You are... don’t an individual that should... speak of barbarism after your... attempt on I’m life.]
[What? You’re the one that tried to kill me first!]
[Myself had... rightful claim on your life... for you am an... invader.]
[Well, I’m sorry for being in your territory, but none of us knew you were here! All we wanted was to survive, do you have no sympathy for us?]
[...Apologies... forgive I’m... insensitivity. Myself merely meant... it is convenient that myself would... don’t need to concern myself with... relocation of your species.]
[Ah yes. Well, when you put it that way, it does sound like good news.] While I wonder if the alien can understand sarcasm, we gaze across at each other for a minute in uncomfortable silence. Not that either of us has been making any noise this so far. To an outside observer, we would have looked like we were just staring at each other the whole time.
[Regardless... currently this goal for colonization is... don’t longer viable...what will you are intend to do? ...Wait… where yours last words disingenuous?]
[I was planning on flying the ship back to Earth, just to be sure no one survived, but the reactor isn’t functioning properly. I was about to inspect it for damage when we… introduced ourselves.]
[Reactor? You are meaning this... fantastic source for sustenance?]