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First (and last) Contact.

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They say it’s lonely out in space. They’re wrong.

The popular conception of the lonesome traveller being overwhelmed by the immensity of the Cosmos is a myth, propagated by people who’ve never been off-world, and who like to make space sound romantic and mysterious. In actuality Interworld travel is quite mundane, and Intersystem much the same. It’s not the travelling that gets to us. It’s the worlds we travel to.

So here I am, sitting on another planet, feeling a little bit heavier than I’m used to, the sunlight through the window just different enough to tell me it’s not my sun, and not my world; watching a flickering screen that makes me feel more lost than I’ve ever felt before.

I’m an Ethnologist by profession. I study Us. Us as people, rather than Us as animals. I study our culture and the way it’s shaped us and how we in turn have shaped it. I know that sounds a bit dry, but like any “ology” it’s as interesting or as dull as you make it, and anyone who thinks we know all there is to know about our own history has got another think coming. The Palaeontologists tell us what we evolved from, the Anthropologists tell us what we evolved into, the Archaeologists tell us how we got where we are today, and the Ethnologists try and tell us where we might be going.

So what’s an Ethnologist doing on a world where there’s no people? Simple. There were, once.

The cosmologists have been studying extra-solar planets far longer than I’ve been alive. Things started out simple. Extrapolating the existence of worlds from the way their feeble gravity tugged at the parent star, detecting the presence of gases from the minute change in light spectra filtered through the atmosphere. Then thirty years ago the Big Eye was built – our largest space telescope ever – and suddenly we could pinpoint planets smaller than gas giants, with potentially breathable atmospheres.

That last paragraph is thanks to Zooë, one of our planetologists; they don’t teach this sort of stuff in Anthropology School. But even with the Glide Drive it still took us three months to get here, and the ship doesn’t have windows so there’s precious little to do but talk to your fellow passengers (every journey through GlideSpace, no matter how near or how far, takes just over three months. Why? I don’t know…or at least I never understood the answer when one of the techs tried to explain).

Not that there’d be anything to look at if the ship did have windows. See, that’s another misconception. Windows on a space ship are both dangerous and largely pointless. From what the crew tell me, while we’re in the Glide there’s no light (because photons can’t exist in GlideSpace) and when we’re accelerating or decelerating in RealSpace any kind of particle heading our way could either shatter any glass or plastic windows, or punch a hole right through the ship and out the other side.

Also, as an ethnologist it fascinates me how I picked up the slingo after just a few weeks on board (nobody back home says RealSpace), and even though the ship’s only official designation is “LA-2YD-AA21”, I’ve joined everyone else in thinking of her as “The Lazy Dazy”.

Economies back home are doing well. We’re living in a Golden Age, probably due to the Glide Drive enabling cheap asteroid mining. Budgets are high, and we can finally waste time and resources doing what we once did best – exploring. None of the worlds in our own solar system have breathable atmospheres, but over the last three decades the Big Eye has identified over two hundred planets with oxygen and liquid water orbiting stars within our reach (if you don’t mind spending three months cooped up in a spinning metal tube…with no windows).

Zooë tells me that we’ve sent ships out to seventeen worlds so far, and found the Big Eye was right in most cases about the oxygen, the water, and the gravity…though sadly not in the same cases. Seven of the worlds had gravity over 3 gees. Five of them were too hot for us, three of them too cold. Six of them had no water to speak of, and two of them to excess. Various combinations of too much this and too little that made all of them virtually uninhabitable, and of course none of them appeared to have (or to ever have had) life.

Until we broke out of Glide into orbit around a planet where the Big Eye might just have got it all more or less correct.

This world is designated OMR18A-8A and orbits its parent star OMR18A at what Zooë calls a “comfortable” distance. New celestial bodies have less than inspiring names now, ever since the Big Eye started finding more of them than our Classical naming system could keep up with. But the crew have affectionately named the planet “Omribaba”, while referring to its sun as “the Sun” and its moon as “the Moon”. As an ethnologist I find this telling, and evidence that we are not as far removed from our primitive past as we would like to think. No matter what ground we stand on, so long as there is day and night, and air to breathe, anything shining in the sky will always be The Sun or The Moon to us.

But I am here on Omribaba because five years ago when the Big Eye found that this world had an oxygen and water atmosphere, it also detected for the first time what seemed to be complex radio signals coming from the same region. Not only did it look like Life, it looked very much like Intelligent Life. I remember this hitting the news while I was still in my last year at University, and for a few days it seemed like the whole Universe had suddenly become much more welcoming. We were no longer alone. There was Life elsewhere, and it could be like us. But then the scientific community admitted that the signals (if they even were signals) were only weak fragments and although within a range of wavelength that we used ourselves, there was very little structure and certainly nothing that anyone could begin to decipher. Plus we certainly couldn’t answer them. OMR18A is over 1,200 light years away, and with a round-trip of 2,400 years it seemed a long time to wait for a simple exchange of “hellos”.

So the novelty wore off, the Media turned nasty on the Scientists, the Governments complained about the waste of Budget, and the Public forgot.

But although 1,200 years is too long for a meaningful conversation, a trip through the Glide isn’t. So here we were, three months on, and for the first time, among the planetologists, the climatologists, the geologists, the zoologists and the biologists, there was now one lone ethnologist. Yours truly.

Nobody had any idea what to expect when we got here, but I had a pretty good idea what not to expect and after those tin-can months through the Glide, I had come to my own conclusions about what we might and might not find.

For a start, although the Big Eye had picked up radio signals, we wouldn’t be meeting whoever sent them. They had originated over a thousand years ago, and very few of our own home-grown civilisations had lasted that long, so why should Omribaba be any different. Secondly, would they be like us?

Since their planet was only slightly larger than Earth, with a comparable atmosphere and day length (estimated from the Big Eye’s results as around 30-35 hours) then it was possible that life had evolved in a similar fashion. Of course the zoologists and the biologists had been through similar discussions seventeen times before, and found nothing even as simple as a microbe. However this time there was also evidence of intelligent radio broadcasts, and this might mean beings comparable in both form and intelligence to us.

At these times I found myself asked more questions than I could begin to answer, and although I hated to speculate, I concluded that at the best we could find a space-faring civilisation far in advance of our own (and hopefully benign), while the worst might be a civilisation attempting to claw itself back from the latest of many collapses.

But the Lazy Dazy arrived in orbit, and we found neither of these scenarios, although we did find life on Omribaba. It has something like fish in its deep oceans and rivers, and both large and small four-legged creatures on its continents. It has flying creatures that correspond to what we call “insects” and “birds”, and it even has what we would call “trees” and “plants”– sedentary life that soaks up energy from sunlight. The parallel evolutionists are in ecstasy.

Like Earth, Omribaba has a single large moon that, together with its sun, produces regular tides of varying intensities (or as we call them, “spring” and “neap”), and the days are just over 34 hours long. Like Earth, Omribaba also sits in what Zooë chooses to call the “CLOW” orbit (“Comfortable, Light, Oxygen, Water) and together these factors have probably contributed to the spread of life across Omribaba in much the same way as it did on our world. Sunni the biologist thinks all his birthdays have arrived at once.

There are two polar ice-caps formed of water ice that probably change with the seasons, and yes the planet has an axial tilt, so it has seasons. There are areas of desert, and areas of tundra. There are lakes and forests and jungles, all containing plants and animals that while not the same as on our own world, appear to have filled the same evolutionary niches.

But the species who sent the radio signals? Long dead. The signals themselves must have ceased hundreds of years ago, when whatever happened…happened. We don’t know what happened, and we don’t know when or why it happened, although future archaeologists will no doubt piece together the clues and arrive at a likely explanation; but we do know who it happened to.

There are cities and towns and villages buried in the jungles and swallowed up by coastal erosion and deserts. There is evidence of volcanic eruptions, and what looks like meteor bombardment, but then there are also areas of radiation. They are small and localised and we’ve only found a few, but they are all near buildings…or rather remains of buildings. This was no prehistoric society of cave-dwellers. This was a full-blown planet-wide civilisation.

You see, this all happened a long long time ago. The towns and cities were all made of rock or brick or clay or concrete or metal, and all of these things crumble in time. We aren’t an experienced archaeological team and we can’t excavate villages buried beneath sand, towns drowned in the sea, or cities overgrown by jungle. But we have found some settlements closer to the surface, where we can climb cautiously into still-standing buildings where the rooms have been spared the worst of the elements.

I say “we” but at first there was little that I could do during these first few weeks. I was hired to analyse a civilisation, not scavenge among its ruins, and quite frankly with my lack of athleticism I’d be a danger to myself and those around me. So I spent most of my time at our coastal base camp, writing my reports and watching the sun rise and set, while others more skilled than I sifted through the ruins. As they brought back their results, I slowly began reconstructing what the people of Omribaba might have looked and lived like.

They raised oblong buildings of many floors, they used electrical wiring for lighting both inside and out, and they built wheeled vehicles of metal that seemed to be self-propelled. We also knew from the very few skeletons unearthed that they were bipedal, about two thirds our height (assuming they walked upright) and versatile digits on the ends of their arms confirm they were tool-makers. From the look of things they appeared to have reached approximately the same technical level as us, only perhaps a century or two behind.

And then one day the techies came to me with their latest find.

Although I only have two civilised species to compare – us and the Omribabans – it would appear that any creature that evolves similar intelligence probably does the same thing – use language. Like our own primitive ancestors they would have started out with an oral tradition, then progressed to cave-painting, and written language on stone, then scrolls made from either the hides of animals or processed plants, finally culminating in storage on electronic or optical media.

Very probably every civilisation will eventually fall upon the disc as the ideal medium, because that’s what we did and it’s what the Omribabans did. That’s what our teams found, and when they had worked out the storage process and how to decode it, they brought it to me.

They brought them to me. Hundreds of discs. Plus a hastily built mechanism to play them on. Constructed of plastic and metal, the discs have proved remarkably resistant to corrosion, and contain nothing less than simply-encoded video files, designed to be played back again and again.

Yes they were bipeds, they stood upright like us, and their society was just as diverse as ours. They argued, they laughed, and they cried, like us. They had children and they had parents, they fought with each-other and they fell in and out of love, like us.

At first I found their mannerisms strange and alien, but then suddenly things just snapped into place and for all their oddness, and the fact that they weren’t us, I began to comprehend them. Although I have found what appear to be programmes aimed at young children, and now know the spoken and written words for “tree” (as well as more specialised ones for various fruits and animals) there is no way to fully understand their language, either written or spoken, and we probably never will. But some things bleed through. They used their Moon’s orbital period as a measure of time, comparable to our own “month”. They divided their days up similar to our “hours”; they even grouped them into something akin to a “week”, and measured their history in multiples of their planet’s orbital period that could be called “centuries”. Like us, they used these divisions of time to structure and define their lives. And like us, they may even have called their planet “Earth”.

No matter that we can’t understand the dialogue, their hearts, minds, hopes and fears are there on the screen for us to see, and like us they could not be satisfied with just one world, and looked ever outwards. They built rockets and spaceships. They explored their own Moon and nearby planets…and then struck out beyond their solar system to neighbouring star systems. They fought with and conquered alien races, colonised distant worlds, their indomitable spirit forging ever on.

Except they didn’t.

Because these are not historical records. They aren’t archives preserved for posterity. This is entertainment. These were their films, their travelogues, their stories, their weekly dramas, their tales of love and comedy, their fiction.

Like us their hearts soared to the heavens, but unlike us they never got there. Sometime in the last thousand years they were suddenly wiped out, either by war or by natural disaster. Observers on the Lazy Dazy have discovered evidence of a few primitive landing sites on their Moon, and that’s it. The star ships, the colony worlds, the space battles, all existed only as dreams, and they died before they could make their dreams real.

As if I’m looking into a mirror and seeing an alternate history of ourselves, suddenly I realise how lost and alone they were, and how we could have been if this had happened to us. And as I write this I can’t shake the horrible feeling of the What If. What if our own aspirations had never been realised? What if this that you were reading was just another fantastic story, a fictional future destined never to happen?

And what if they had survived, and found the remains of us? Would anyone have been able to tell the difference?
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