Bo was looking for a decent wifi connection, walking around
the Village with an iPhone. The
East Side Coffee Shop seemed to be broadcasting a pretty good signal. The wifi login screen showed a thin,
green, big-eyed alien under the banner, “We are benign observers,” and went on
to explain that a consortium of 651,000 inhabited planets was observing Earth
on the premise that humans were within 100 years of discovering Universal
Transport, the pathway to the stars.
The ad was everywhere on the Web.
The café was crowded with an eclectic assortment of Village types. He bought a latte grande and a brownie and chose an occupied table. The girl was semi-punk, the guy was an Orthodox Jew complete with yarmulke, beard and peis curling down the sides of his long, narrow face. Bo introduced himself and politely asked if he could share the table. The couple immediately stopped their conversation and stared at him.
“You are German?” said the fellow. Bo was blond and spoke with an accent, therefore most Americans assumed he was German.
“I’m from Stockholm, Uppsala, actually. Visiting.”
“I’m Shacharia and this is Zaerfa,” said the fellow. Bo assumed that was Zachary, transliterated from Hebrew. Zaerfa was more problematic. The girl had black hair with red stripes and a T-shirt that read, “ET phoned home and I answered.” Her scowl belied an attitude.
Two guys with backpacks, obviously students from NYU, took the remaining seats at the table.
“Look, it doesn’t matter if there are aliens watching us now. Sooner or later there will be. We need to act as if we were being observed.” The speaker was dark-haired guy with thick glasses.
“And what the hell does that mean?” The athletic guy looked around, apologized for his language, and went on, “What if the observers are getting ready to eat our lunch? Maybe they’re looking us over to see if we would make decent slaves.”
“No evolved race needs slaves. If they have space travel they have computers, probably robots and smart machinery for any kind of economic labor. It doesn’t make sense to run a slave trade across light years of space.” The guy turned around and addressed the people at the table. “Sorry, I’m Jason and this bozo is Theodore.”
The bozo twisted Jason’s ear until he winced, “Call me Ted, please. This nerd believes in ET.” Ted did a double take at Zaerfa’s shirt. “You too?”
“Betcher ass,” she said, “Ain’t that right?” She elbowed Shacharia, who simply nodded.
“Seems damn near everybody believes in aliens nowadays,” put in Bo. “Probably a psychological escape from the pressures of the downhill economy.”
“Probably a psychological cause of the downhill economy,” added Jason. “No one cares about building a life or a community. They’re just all sitting on the curb waiting for Godot.”
“Speak for yourself, Jason. I’m doing my part, propagating the species.” Ted turns to Zaerfa, “Want to go off and propagate?”
“Pah, I eat your species for breakfast.”
“Ted, Jason, seeing as how you haven’t been introduced, this is Zachary and Zaerfa. I’m Bo.”
“Shacharia,” muttered Shacharia.
“German?” said Ted.
“Swedish, on holiday,” replied Bo.
“Love the Village. Never have to travel, everybody just comes to you,” said Jason.
“Little do you know,” said Zaerfa.
“Huh? It’s OK, I like chicks with attitude,” said Ted.
“And I like nice, athletic boys with a little salt and pepper,” said Zaerfa.
Shacharia glared at her. “So how do you think being observed by aliens should affect behavior?”
“If people really believed, I think we would be on our best behavior. We would want to join the Galactic Club. Wouldn’t want to be blackballed,” Jason opined.
“Bullshit. If there was any proof, the military would declare martial law and get ready to repel an invasion,” countered Ted.
“Actually, I think governments, not just here, but in Europe as well, are trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Do you agree Zachary?” Bo nodded in Shacharia’s direction.
“It hardly matters as long as technology keeps moving. This planet is not benign to life. If humans want to survive they have to take advantage of this window to develop the technology and go into space,” Shacharia nodded emphatically.
“Strange thing for a Jew to say, Zachary, if you don’t mind my pointing that out. I thought you would be in favor of waiting for the Messiah to straighten everything out.” Jason appeared to know something about Orthodox Jews.
“Maybe people should go to the Messiah instead of waiting.” says Shacharia.
“Wouldn’t the existence of many advanced species sort of discourage human science? Why strive your whole life for a discovery, when some alien out there has already discovered it, and more?” said Ted.
“Forgive Ted, he’s on a hockey scholarship. Ted, science isn’t like that. It’s built on cultural foundations, stone by stone, and there are more than enough secrets in the laws of nature to go around. Can you imagine someone dropping ‘e=mc squared’ on the court of Pharoah Thutmose IV? They wouldn’t have a clue what it meant. They didn’t have the math, they didn’t have the concept of energy.” Jason looked around the circle to see if anyone else agreed.
“If science stops, there will be no Universal Travel and you never get to meet the alien scientists,” said Shacharia.
“Do you have an opinion, Zaerfa?” offered Bo, who seemed to be playing the mediator.
“As long as humans discover UT and get off this planet, I’m happy,” she answered.
“Ahem. I have this idea that Gaia, the planet, grows an intelligent species, fostering the technology of space travel, and spores off people like a flower sheds seeds. It’s more than our destiny, it’s a kind of wired-in fate. If we don’t make it, we die off and Gaia tries again,” said Bo.
“If it’s possible, it’s happened many times among 651,000 inhabited planets, said Shacharia.
Bo replied, “Ah yes, the anthropic principle.”
“What are you at Uppsala, a student of some sort?” interjected Ted.
“Professor of anthropology, actually. I’m doing work on the Neanderthal culture.”
Jason chuckled, “Ted’s direct ancestors, Ugh and Mugh.”
Ted punched Jason on the arm, “Pencil-necked geek!”
Shacharia smiled at Bo. “I like your idea. It has merit.”
Zaefra addressed Bo, “So you think the Neanderthals died out ‘cause they didn’t make it?”
“They seemed to hit a dead end after over 100,000 years of survival. They never dispersed very far either. By contrast, within their first 40,000 years Homo Sapiens had dispersed out of Africa into the Far East, Northern Europe, and even managed to cross the land bridge into North America in another 10,000 years. The Clovis civilizations got as far south as Peru.”
Ted cut in, “Clovis – they’re the ones that made that arrowhead thingy? I actually have one of those. Found it in the Catskills on a hike last summer.”
“Ted, the Clovis people were way ahead of your Neanderthal ancestors. Give us a good grunt now … hoo, hooo.”
“Neanderthals weren’t stupid, Jason,” Bo defended Ted. “They had a larger brains than Homo Sapiens, they were strong hunters, better adapted to cold climates, made clothing and dwellings, made tools, organized agriculture. Some anthropologists believe they interbred with homo sapiens cultures. One of my colleagues is sequencing Neanderthal DNA right now to see if interbreeding was possible, then he is going to search for the Neanderthal alleles in modern humans.”
Jason pointed his finger emphatically at Ted, who swatted it aside. Zaerfa smirked and Shacharia smiled benignly.
“So, you think Gaia would be propitiated by spewing this spawn,” Zaerfa pointed her chin at Jason and Ted, “into the universe at large? God help us!”
“Oooh, ‘propitiated’! Such a big word for a punk-Goth-whatever you are. Pardon me for being blunt, but you guys are as unlikely a couple as I’ve ever seen, even here in the Village. Are you really, um, together?” said Ted.
Zaerfa flicked her tongue at Shacharia, who showed the merest hint of a grin. “I’m just keeping her out of trouble.”
Jason said, “Look, I’m half Jewish. Orthodox Jews don’t date outside the clan. In fact, they get fixed up by professional matchmakers. Isn’t that right?”
“If you say so. You presume Zaerfa and I are dating?”
Bo looked from one to the other. Zaerfa was white-skinned, black-eyed and skinny in a sinuous way. Shacharia was darker, brown-haired, brown-eyed, big-boned and angular. His hands were soft with long fingers and carefully manicured nails. Zaerfa’s wore rings on every finger, a jangle of beads and bracelets, and every pointed fingernail was a different primary color. Her nose was pierced by a tiny gold ring on the right side. Her eyes were feral, and she narrowed them to slits when she noticed his scrutiny. In direct contrast, Shacharia seemed to glow with the attention.
Bo said, “I know a little bit about the origin of names. Zachary is biblical, of course. But Zaerfa, that’s not an easy name to decipher.”
“It’s not Zachary, it’s Shacharia. It means ‘morning light’ or ‘first light of day’ as close as it can be translated.” He seemed to radiate that light.
“Most interesting. And Zaerfa?”
“It means none of your damned business. Back off!”
“Ouch,” said Bo, “no offense intended. Just professional curiosity.”
“Yeah, I thought Bo was a girl’s name, like Bo Derek,” said Ted.
“In Sweden, Bo is a common name given to both boys and girls.”
In the estranged silence, Bo took another sip of his dead-cold latte. A long moment passed before Shacharia broke the conversational impasse. “Did you ever consider the possibility of interplanetary migration patterns on human civilization? I mean, from an anthropological point of view.”
Bo startled. He had often wondered about that. “There are persistent legends in nearly every culture.” He paused, then decided to start with the Americas. “The Olmecs, which means roughly the rubber people, had a legend that a bearded man with white skin came on a ship out of the West and taught them to cultivate corn, which made them a great civilization. There are portrayals of this person or god, Quetzalcoatl, carved in stone showing a curly beard and hair in ringlets. The Olmecs had straight black hair and no facial hair at all. There is no way they could have met such a person in that age.”
“Of course, the Spanish missionaries discovered the legend and attributed the figure to Jesus Christ. By that time their descendants, the Aztecs and Mayas, were decimated by plague, syphilis and smallpox brought by the Conquistadors.”
“A similar figure gave the gift of the potato to the people of the Andes, and there are similar legends among the Maori and several African Yoruba tribal cultures. Interestingly, the genomes for corn and the potato are both complicated compared to say, rice or wheat, and some say that is evidence of genetic manipulation. Corn and the potato are the most widely grown and adaptable staples in the world nowadays. Without them we would lose half the population. The other staples are too limited in their growth regions to make up the difference.”
“There is one more puzzling thing about that legend,” Bo added.
“What’s that?” Jason and Ted asked in unison.
“Quetzalcoatl is also depicted as a feathered serpent, or some kind of a snake, but with arms and legs.”
“You mean, like a Chinese dragon?” opined Ted.
“More like a snake than a dragon. It did not have the huge head, the ridges or the fangs.”
Zaerfa chortled, which was startling enough, then actually began to laugh hysterically. Shacharia stared at her in consternation. Bo thought it was so out of character.
“What is so funny about some Inca snake god?” said Ted.
“I, umm, we were, that was before….” Zaerfa started but apparently Shacharia kicked her under the table. Her face went back to a scowl and she abruptly shut up.
“What are you studying, Jason? “ asked Shacharia.
“Civil Engineering, with a Mechanical Engineering minor. My dad is a general contractor. He needs a registered engineer in the family.”
“Your dad should have raised a lawyer. He’s in big trouble over the Plaza project.”
“Shut up, Ted, you know nothing about it.” Jason shook off the innuendo and went on. “I always wonder, if there really are so many different alien races, what they look like.”
Shacharia showed a small, lopsided grin. “What do you think they would look like, Jason?”
“Well, from an engineering point of view, given the strength of known biological materials here on Earth and the range of sizes of various life forms, there are a several reasonable solutions. Too big, and you have a food problem that limits the population size and therefore limits the group variability and potential interactions. Too small, and you are looking at tiny niche environments, like rodents in burrows. Lots of animals on Earth have a five-plan, that is four limbs and a head. Using two of those for manipulation, like for hands, makes a lot of sense. That leaves two for locomotion. So you get an upright biped. Having the sense organs collocated on top of the body maximizes the sensing range, so that’s why we have eyes and ears on our heads and our heads on top. I guess those rules would yield pretty much the same kind of being on any planet our size, one that had liquid, solid and gaseous water, a gravity range somewhat like ours, and a stable enough sun to allow civilization to develop. Of course, there are always exceptions, like termites, maybe some sort of group intelligence, or cockroaches, or whales.”
Jason thought a while. “If I was an intelligent culture with 651,000 planets to choose from, I would choose the most human like beings to make first contact. Wouldn’t you?”
“Definitely,” said Shacharia.
“So, I would not be surprised to find very human-like aliens observing us,” Jason finished. Then he made googly eyes and peered around the circle, finally finishing with a fixed stare at Ted. “No, I would want them to be intelligent.”
It took Ted a few seconds, then he walloped Jason on the arm. “Ow.” Jason pulled his arm away.
A barrista approached the group. Bo noticed the front door was closed. Another barrista stood by it, waiting.
“I’m sorry, we’re closing up now.”
“Ach, I never even looked at my email,” said Bo.
“Well, that’s what coffee houses are for, conversation,” said Jason.
“And observation,” said Shacharia. “Pleasure to meet you, and thanks for the stimulating talk.” He got up, waited for Zaerfa to arise and moved to the door. Watching Zaerfa walk Bo got the idea she was double jointed. Her legs moved from the hip down, smoothly, without any sway to her hips.
Ted and Jason slung their backpacks and the group moved out the door. Within a few steps they were still moving together.
“It seems we are all headed in the same direction by some coincidence. Have you decided anything about the alien observation issue?”
“All bullshit,” said Ted.
“Possible, “ said Jason, “I wish I had proof.”
“Interesting just as a legend,” said Bo, “a seismic change, culturally, if it were true.”
“Hmm. If you don’t mind, please follow me a short ways down Greene Street. Perhaps I can shed some light.” Shacharia grinned. Greene Street was deserted and deep in twilight, not necessarily a place any New York resident would go without some trepidation. But somehow, no one hesitated. Shacharia sought out a narrow service alley between buildings.
“Jason you are right about biped evolution. Of course, there is a good form for every kind of inhabitable planet.” In the dimness, his glow was quite obvious. “Please let me assure you, we are benign. Just observers. What better place than a coffee house in the Village? Yes, everyone comes here. You have no idea how far I came.”
His outline began to shimmer. His voice gained an echo, like sound traveling down a pipe. “Too bad you’re not studying physics. I can’t tell you much, but eventually UT will be derived from the physics of multiple realities, called Class 4, that and brane theory. Good luck!”
Shacharia’s outline shimmered out, leaving a central, glowing core, which dimmed and vanished.
“Shit!” Ted stood, eyes as big as saucers, “Did you all see that?”
Jason recovered quickly. “Hah! I told you the biped five-plan would be common among aliens!”
“Idiot,” growled Zaerfa, “he IS human. That’s what you would have looked like if you had not been kicked off his planet. Yeah, he glows. Like an angel, he glows.”
“So now it’s your turn. Aren’t you going to shimmer and disappear?” said Jason.
“Disappear to where? I’m no alien. This is my planet.”
“But I thought you were together,” said Bo.
“He’s my minder. We’re not together. We aren’t even physically similar.”
“Then, what are you?” asked Ted.
Zaerfa flicked her tongue at him. “Now that my minder is gone, I’ll show you. You deserve it.”
The transformation took a few minutes. It was hard to see in the dim service alley, but Zaerfa’s body rippled, pushed and stretched from strange internal forces. Ted turned away. Jason could have been made of stone. Every hair on Bo’s head stood on end.
Zaerfa, had four limbs, two of which were three fingered hands. She stood upright on the hindmost pair. Her body was covered with iridescent green feathers, her “face” was flat, shaded from crimson to deep red, with large red eyes, and a sharp crest over each eye. Behind her twitched a slender barbed tail. She stood over six feet tall with her tail another four feet .
Her voice was pitched lower, but quick and sibilant. “In my species, the female is the larger and the dominant. Do you recognize me now?”
“The Devil,” said Ted.
“Sure, your kind demonized my kind. That’s how you go about trying to exterminate your competitors.”
“No,” said Bo, “you could be the image of Quetzalcoatl.”
“Yes, we once tried to make peace with humans, and we gave them the gifts like good neighbors. Lots of good that did.”
“A real alien!” Jason finally got his tongue. “you’re a real, honest to goodness science fiction alien!”
Zaerfa gave a long hiss and flicked her tongue at him. “No, you are the alien! I told you, this is my planet. We evolved here. We had a technological civilization a hundred thousand years before you arrived. The ancestors of my kind walked this planet in the Jurassic, over 165 million years ago. Their bones are on every continent. You are the aliens, the demonizers, the overbreeders, the greedy, the self-centered, the destroyers of Gaia!”
“We are the ones who discovered UT and joined the Cooperative. Your legends are truth distorted into nonsense. Yes, we are the devil and we are Quetzalcoatl, and we are bitter over your invasion. Our task is to make you miserable, until you finally leave our planet and go back where you belong.”
“What do you mean? We have ancestors on this planet, there is a clear trail of hominid development here.”
“Hominids never developed technology. They were just a kind of ape. We watched their kind come and go. Yes, there is such a thing as co-evolution, but you come from Shacharia’s planet. That’s where you evolved, ten million Earth years ago. That’s where your group disgraced themselves so thoroughly that you were thrown out and devolved to the stone age. You made yourselves intolerable to such as Shacharia. Understand why you are being watched - when people like you are on the verge of discovering Universal Transport, or, rather, rediscovering it, we all worry. The only good thing is that my people will eventually get our planet back.”
“WE were thrown out! What did we do? Why did we come HERE? How come we never knew about you? How come you know where we came from?” Jason spewed question after question.
Ted just talked over him, “They say the devil always lies. You are Satan, admit it! Don’t believe anything she says. Wouldn’t you know the devil is a female!”
“SHUT UP!” Bo yelled. “First things first. If we didn’t evolve here, where did we come from?”
“I’ve answered enough questions. Besides, you already know where you were before you got thrown out. Shacharia’s planet is called Eden.” Zaerfa shifted gradually back to human form. When she was complete, she turned and walked out of the alley.
Just before she left, she called back over her shoulder, “We call this planet Hell.”