Publisher’s note: These stories were included with the Sunspot Chronicles in the transmissions we received, however they were marked as fiction with a careful explanation that we should not consider them part of Sunspot history in any way, other than that the authors had written them with the intent to entertain their fellow people. As such, we have localized these stories in the same way that we did the original Sunspot Chronicles, so that they would make sense to you in that context. The planet that Molly lands on is not Earth, though we did use many contemporary Earth words to describe it and its life forms. It seemed pretty obvious that the world that the authors created was an attempt to mirror what could be found in the Garden of the Terra Supreme, Thomas’ birthplace, as sort of a fun literary conceit or trope. We might call it “campy”, but an equivalent word doesn’t seem to exist in the Sunspot’s dialect of Inmararräo.
As she watched the gangway of her landing craft push itself outward from its place as a hatch, revealing slivered views of the world she’d landed on, Molly Rocketcoil reflected on the series of major, world shaking transitions she’d experienced to get here.
First contact with real, live Outsiders would just be another in a long line of frankly terrifying events. But it was a big one.
She’d experienced the Nanite Innovation, and knew what it was like to be born without a neural terminal already entangled in one’s neurons. She’d received the nanites as an adolescent, and had her own personal conflict with the Crew and her own Tutor. She’d pushed to achieve accomplishments no one before her had dared attempt. And then she’d boarded her interstellar craft, opened the enormous hatch of the Sunspot’s shipyard where she’d had it built, dropped into the great void, and proceeded to successfully bend space/time itself.
Entry into this planet’s atmosphere had been nerve wracking, another thing no one in her people’s records had ever accomplished, though they knew they had come from a planet, once, unfathomably long ago. But, in the end, it had felt like a mere prelude to this moment.
She’d made a point to land in an apparently uninhabited area, and the noise and presence of the landing craft had almost certainly scared the local fauna away. That is, assuming that this planet’s life could even be divided into flora and fauna the way it was perceived aboard the Sunspot.
Perhaps it was the flora that was ambulatory.
It should be noted, at this point, that her name wasn’t Molly yet, nor was her pronoun “she”. These would come later. But these were the monikers that everyone has known her by since, and they are the ones she fully identifies with to this day.
And as the gangway lowered itself, revealing more and more of the surrounding sky and landscape, Molly’s thoughts did shift briefly to concerns about language and communication before becoming once again focused on more immediate dangers, such as atmosphere, radiation, and microorganisms.
Creating a pressurized hazard suit for herself had been a small challenge.
The ship’s makers were certainly capable of it, but the design required some creativity.
A few people had been born with similar physiology and phenotypes before, though they were rare enough that Molly had never met any of them. And exploring dangerous environments was just simply not done aboard the Sunspot. It was an entire contained world hurtling through space on its own fusion drive, after all. And with the level of technology at hand, nobody ever needed to go outside with their own body before. Or, at least, not in anyone’s memories. So a suit designed specifically for someone like Molly just hadn’t really been attempted yet.
But with the help of her Tutor, Manifold, she’d managed some clever mechanisms for it.
So, when the gangway contacted the ground and the rim light of the airlock turned green, she slithered forward into the alien daylight and down to the planet’s surface, fully protected from all predictable hazards.
Susan didn’t know what to expect an extraterrestrial to look like. In fact, she had never expected to see one. Hoped, perhaps. But, she figured that they were legends at best. A giant snake in a spacesuit with a bubble helmet was absolutely not it, though. And the pair of clearly robotic arms didn’t help.
The alien snake had two eyes with narrow pupils, a pair of nostrils, a horizontal slit for a mouth that spanned more than half of its wedge shaped head, and it had scales. There was no mistaking it for anything but a cartoonishly large python wrapped in technology that didn’t look remotely advanced enough to justify being from outer space.
Oh, the technology certainly looked space worthy. It just didn’t look any more advanced, or all that alien for the matter, than what Susan was already familiar with.
Upon beholding this sight, Susan felt as if the molecules of her body were all trying to shift to the right at different velocities, while all the rest of reality was taking a jump to the left, and she, stuck in the middle, became very dizzy. Her eyeballs wobbled, causing her vision to blur and shake. And she had to take a deep breath and close her eyes, her hands firmly planted on tree trunk and bush branch, to avoid falling over.
“Woah, are you OK,” Lesley asked as quietly as possible from behind her.
“Shsh,” Susan replied, taking another deep breath. “Yes.”
They were momentarily hidden from sight, she hoped, obscured by bush leaves. She and her girlfriend, Lesley, were on a camping trip and had just been making breakfast when the distinctive thunder crack rolled across the land followed by a rumbling.
The absolutely thrilling moment when they realized that the meteor they looked up to see was not only coming right at them, but had slowed down enough to lose its halo of flames and trail of vapor, had been so singular and overwhelming that neither of them could recall very clearly the moments before or after it.
They could later remember certain facts and details only as snapshots.
It was not a meteor. It was a spaceship. It looked a lot like a concept drawing for a space shuttle. One that had never been used for even a prototype. It seemed smaller than they’d expected. It used vectored thrust. It was landing in a clearing way too close to camp. It had landed. They were there, behind the bush near a tree. They saw the hatch start opening.
And a very large snake in a spacesuit with a bubble helmet slithered out and looked around.
Why hadn’t they run away from it all instead of toward it? Neither of them could recall even talking about it.
Susan didn’t exactly regret not running, though. She was just regretting the intense feeling of unreality that had suddenly swept over her. And the effects of rapid dissociation made her worried that some sort of alien beam had swept over her to cause it.
When she was a child, she’d had nightmares about alien encounters after watching and listening to fictional stories about them. And the thoughts that were going on in her head right then were nearly identical to the ones she’d had in her dreams. Which just made the derealization even stronger, with the feeling like she was observing herself from just behind her own head. While her body experienced visions that looked exactly like they were from a poster for a cheesy science fiction film.
“If you faint and that thing ends up carrying you in its arms, I think I’ll scream despite myself,” Lesley whispered.
“Shsh!” Susan repeated.
It seemed to be looking their way. It’s tongue licked the air inside its bubble helmet uselessly. Or, seemingly uselessly.
It was an actual snake!
It didn’t have the pits for sensing infrared like some snakes did, though. But that didn’t mean its spacesuit wasn’t capable of making up for that. And it really did seem to be looking right at them.
The snake from outer space began to gather its body into coils and lowered its head and halter of robotic arms to match the height of Susan and Lesley’s stances. It had advanced from the ship holding its head nearly a meter and a half above the ground somehow, as if in imitation of a person. And now it had looked directly at their hiding place and matched their postures.
No more need to worry about whether it would just accidentally wander into their camp.
“We’re going to have a chance to use Fenmere and ‘ebejefe’s language algorithm sooner than we’d hoped,” Manifold spoke into Molly’s mind using their local Network.
“I know,” Molly said, staring at the projected outlines of the two locals. She was taking the moment to remind herself that she was the Outsider in this case, really, not them. And she’d spent a lot of time thinking about this situation and going over the possible encounters in her head endless times. And, really, she just had no clue how to proceed.
Why in Phage’s Nightmares had she driven herself astronomical, irreversible distances just to put herself in exactly this mess?
“What we know about them,” Manifold intoned, “is that they bear a striking resemblance to our predecessors aboard the Terra Supreme, and that their civilization is at least advanced enough to put autonomous spacecraft into orbit around their planet. At least the flora that we can see right now is very, very strange. Though grass, moss, and trees do seem to be a common set of forms. There are so many coincidences here that it’s spooky. Mind you, the Chief Monster is on record as saying that evolution has a weird habit of repeating itself sometimes. But I think even it would be surprised by what we’ve found here. I wonder if life here uses anything remotely like DNA, though. That should be our very first test. You should get a sample.”
Molly, without responding in thought or word to Manifold, reached down with her left hand and plucked a strand of what looked like grass from the ground in front of her. Keeping her eyes firmly locked on her hosts, she placed the grass into the tiny maker strapped to the front of her body between the prosthetic arms. There, the grass began to be unmade and analyzed by a small swarm of nanites, which then fed the information as both a set of sensations and cataloged data to Molly’s psyche through the Network.
It was like she was having a waking dream with a blade of grass materializing in a space in her mind, with the full experience of what it made the air taste like, how the green surface of it glinted in various light, and how it felt to the touch, among countless other subtler details. She could even sense the structures of its very cells, but in a way that is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. And then there was a growing data file hovering just beyond it that she could activate in order to read.
“It has something like DNA,” Manifold said. “It does not look compatible with you, though. Which may mean you are somewhat safer from the viruses or equivalent pathogens of this world than you might otherwise be.”
Molly was ignoring it. She was trying to guess how to best rest her arms so that she could convey relaxation and openness to the two locals.
As much as she was wracked with fear herself, they seemed to fear her more. And they did not seem to have more than clothes with them. There had also been nothing like nanites within the blade of grass. And she and Manifold had chosen this location in part because it had very low doses of any communication frequency radiation. The planet was nearly awash with radio chatter of various sorts, but it had its dark spots and this was one of them. It seemed very unlikely that the soil harbored any nanotech. So Molly’s fear was slowly abating, and shifting more toward the social awkwardness of the situation.
“Do you think I can take my helmet off?” Molly asked.
“You’ll want to manifest nanite air filters in your nostrils first,” Manifold reported. “But one of the reasons we chose this planet is because the atmosphere is mostly breathable. So, yes, go ahead.”
Molly reached up, unfastened the helmet, tilted her head back, and lifted it off of the ring seal and up over her head. Then she rested with the helmet held in front of her with both hands, and looked back at the locals again.
She’d gotten a taste of the air already through the sensors of her suit, but getting a whiff directly proved it to smell even worse.
Still, she knew that she was just going to have to get used to it, and making any sort of a face might scare the people she wanted to meet, so she did her best not to show any reaction to it. Her hosts did flinch, but it seemed to be in reaction to her movement, and they seemed to relax when it was clear she was just removing her helmet and that she wasn’t going to do anything more.
Having her helmet in her hands occupied the two things she could most readily use to hurt someone. She didn’t have enough nanites with her to do anything dramatic right away. And they also just wouldn’t work the same as on the Sunspot without a massive body of them in the soil, either. But the important thing was that it looked like she was purposefully letting her guard down and waiting for them to make the next move, whatever it would be.
It’s not like she knew what she was doing. This was just a guess on her part.
After an excruciating number of seconds wherein nobody moved a muscle, Manifold suggested, “Why don’t you say something out loud?”
“Do they speak verbally? I mean, with their mouths, with sound?” Molly asked.
“They appear to have ears, so I would expect so,” Manifold answered.
“And you don’t think I might scare them away by talking?”
“I don’t know. But it would be a change from just staring at each other,” quipped the Tutor.
“OK, here goes,” Molly said, and then spoke out loud. “Hello! May I have permission to visit with you?”
She figured tone of voice was more important than what she actually said, since they wouldn’t be able to understand her words. So, she’d chosen words that would naturally lead her to use the tone of voice she wanted.
“I wonder if they even ask questions the same way we do,” Manifold said. “Their vocal inflections may be totally different. Maybe they don’t even ask questions. Maybe their language is all passive statements.”
“You’re not helping,” Molly thought back at it.
But then, the two locals, who had started at the sound of Molly’s voice, held hands and crept forward through the bush to stand upright several meters away from her.
They appeared to be trembling.
Molly rose easily to be just below their eye level. She hoped it would be a gesture of both respect and deference, and not threatening. Waiting further after that was also probably crucial.
Eventually one of them babbled something.
“Let’s try the thing,” Molly thought at Manifold.
“Doing it already,” Manifold reported.
Molly then held her helmet in her right hand and gestured at it with her left and said, “helmet.” Then she nodded her head and gestured with open palm upward toward the locals.
After a moment, one of them nudged the other who then said a word.
Molly took a deep breath and sighed into a slightly more relaxed pose, nodding again. Then she pointed at herself, at her neck just above her suit’s ring seal, and said her name.
In an apparent daze, the two locals did something similar, each saying a different word.
“It looks like they’re making similar assumptions as you,” Manifold observed. “We need way more data, though. This is going to go slowly.”
“You are directing the algorithm to start analyzing their radio chatter, now, right?” Molly asked. “Now that we have samples of their speech, that should be possible, right?”
“Yes and maybe,” Manifold said. “We did land in a relative dead spot, though. There isn’t much to draw from here. What we are getting appears to be all one way communication.”
“OK, I’ll keep going.” Molly pointed at the ground and said, “planet,” and then pointed at the sky and said, “cosmos.”
One of the others made a face and nodded, then did what was, again, presumably the same thing.
“They could have said their word for dirt and their word for cloud, for all we know,” Manifold grumbled.
“I know,” Molly said. “But the algorithm is supposed to compensate for that possibility over time. All responses are data, right?”
“Yes,” replied Manifold.
“Speech,” Molly said out loud, and gestured with her fingers from her mouth out into the air as she was speaking.
They all went on like this for roughly three hours, dutifully building vocabulary for the linguistics algorithm to build a translation. Molly also began to throw in full but short sentences, trying to prompt them to do the same, like, “this is a rock.” And while the two locals seemed to look bewildered, at times frustrated, and at others encouraged, Molly still wasn’t quite sure she was reading their expressions right, and had to rely on the fact that they kept playing the game to reassure herself things were going well.
“Here we go,” Manifold said eventually, then sent a tiny data file to Molly. “Try saying this phrase through your suit’s speakers. Your mouth and vocal cords aren’t really made for their phonemes.”
“I’ve noticed,” Molly said. Then she did as Manifold suggested. She didn’t at all understand what she said, but she commanded her suit to say it precisely as Manifold had rendered it.
She understood that it should have been a greeting and another request to visit. She recognized the sounds of her name and pronouns.
The eyes of the others grew wide, and their mouths opened ever so slightly. They jumped up and down and shoved gently but excitedly at each other, and then one of them said a phrase which the algorithm translated for Molly as, “Greetings! My name is Susan. This is Lesley. Our pronouns are she/her, for each of us. And yes, you can visit!”
“Can I just think at the algorithm and have it translate for me, now?” Molly asked Manifold.
“You should be able to, yes,” Manifold affirmed.
“This distance feels safe for me right now,” Molly said to Susan and Lesley. “Are you OK with it? Should we stand further apart? Or would you like to sit?”
“Safety this separation now me,” Molly the space snake’s voice said from the suit without her mouth moving, pronouncing the words almost perfectly. Except for the bizarre grammar, she sounded like a well trained radio announcer. “You balance this? Must we standing dissociated? Or you wish sitting?”
Susan thought she understood all that well enough, but she still had to hesitate to answer it. And that pause was long enough for Molly to interject with more words.
“Still quickly adapting my calculation,” she said. “Should better talking soon it.”
Lesley was a little faster on the draw than Susan, and asked, “Does it make much sense when we talk to you?”
Molly’s face was surprisingly expressive, and she scrunched it up in response to that, and then seemed to laugh. “No?” she replied.
Lesley laughed in response, visibly relaxing, then turned to Susan, “It’s like those internet translation services. It learned how to translate in absolute record time, but it’s just not very good yet, still!”
“Yeah,” Susan replied. “I’m still trying to figure out if she wants us to get closer or if she’s offering to let us sit down.”
“I think your translator is getting the word order messed up,” Lesley said, turning to Molly. “Ours is a subject-verb-object language.” Then she smiled wanly and shrugged, clearly hoping that would make some sort of sense. Lesley was a writer and had some knowledge of all this, but xeno-linguistics wasn’t what she’d focused on. She’d written historical fiction, though, which had included first encounters between people who spoke different languages, so she had read some ancient translated journals as part of her research. Not what Susan had started dating her for, but definitely a huge bonus!
“Also some words are just not coming through right,” Susan added.
Lesley pointed at Susan, “Ooh, idioms! I should have said, ‘word order wrong.’ Good catch!”
Susan nodded and then said to Molly, “Let us sit where we are at right now.” She was trying to keep the words and sentence as simple as possible, but that still felt too complicated.
But Molly nodded and lowered herself again, and said, “Calibrating word order we.”
“We?” Lesley asked. “Are there more than one of you here?”
The ship certainly looked big enough for maybe one other giant snake. If it was a short ranged vehicle. Susan was squinting at it in thought.
Of course she really couldn’t judge alien technology, but it sure didn’t look like anything that could even make it back to orbit now that it was down here. Not enough fuel. It should need a launch vehicle, if it was anything like technology and physics that she was familiar with. So, it probably also wasn’t an interstellar craft, if Molly even came from beyond their solar system. It probably wasn’t even capable of interplanetary flight. It certainly couldn’t sustain a person for that long. Not enough food and water storage!
“My teacher is with me,” Molly said. “It exists in my internet. It is named Junction of Tubes. Or… Is Manifold the right single word for that?”
“Wow, your translator works quickly!” Lesley blinked. “Yeah, Manifold is good. That’s a good name.”
“My translator marks words with their meaning and function as it speaks, so that I can double check it,” Molly explained. “This means that I am learning too. And Manifold helps. I am still not speaking your language yet. My translator is. I am just telling it how to speak better. And this is still also exhausting. But it is worth it.”
“How are you using words we haven’t even spoken here with you?” Lesley asked. “You’re using a lot of them!”
“Your people’s radio transmissions give us a lot of data to work with. Many examples of speech. We have to filter for your language, of course. On my world, we have three languages. Here, you have many more.”
“But how are you using the words so correctly?” Lesley asked.
“I am?” Molly asked back. “That’s good to hear! It is the predictive calculations using your examples. I don’t think the translator knows what the words mean, just that they are the most likely translations for the words I think.”
“Holy shit, that’s fast!” Susan interjected. “How can your computer work with that much information and do the error checking so quickly?”
Susan shook her head, “There are rumors that some government computers might be able to. But no, not that we know of.”
Lesley was looking funny at Susan, so Susan gave her a funny look back, which snapped her out of it. And Lesley said, “I just noticed something. Molly, do you nod to say ‘yes’?”
Molly nodded and then said, “yes.”
“Ok, two questions” Lesley gestured with both her hands. “Why is that the same between our people, and why is it that we didn’t pick up on that but your translator is spitting out and understanding complex sentences in less than four hours?”
“I mean, we take the gestures for granted,” Susan said. “And Molly has superior technology!”
Again, they weren’t actually using the name Molly here, and we’ll get to that later. It’s just respectful not to use her old name in this text.
“The translator’s calculator is reporting a 1 in 378 incident likely error rate,” Molly said. “I should be getting some words wrong, still. Both ways.”
“Damn!” Susan exclaimed.
“We need to keep calibrating,” Molly nodded. “I am your guest. You should ask me questions. Anything you would like to know.”
‘What do you eat?” Lesley asked, before Susan could open her mouth. “I’m hungry. It’s lunch time for us, so I want to get something from our tents. Do you want anything?”
Molly seemed to think about that for a bit and then said, “My suit has nutrient goo. Until I analyze your food, I should not eat it.”
“Wait,” Susan said, grabbing Lesley’s arm as she was getting up. Susan didn’t feel able to speak her worry, so she just looked up at her girlfriend with pleading eyes.
“Our tents are just behind us,” Lesley said. “You can holler if she does anything you don’t like, and I’ll be right back here in a second.”
“Or you can both get food,” Molly said. “I will stay right here and will not move until you return. This is your home. I do not wish to do anything to it that you do not consent to.”
“Well, it’s not really our home home, but…” Susan looked over at Molly, frowning. She was suddenly reminded of old fairy tales about evil spirits who couldn’t enter your home unless they were invited. But Molly actually looked so naively earnest that she decided it was worth the risk. What could they really do, anyway. Even with the weapons they’d brought and left in their tent, which maybe Lesley was planning on retrieving too, they were really unprepared for anything Molly might attack them with. Molly could have overpowered them easily by now, if she’d wanted to. And she really seemed to be acting like a curious scientist more than anything else. “OK,” she ended up saying, and then got up to return to camp with Lesley.
“Do we understand their language well enough to scan for reports of our landing?” Molly asked Manifold while Susan and Lesley were getting their food.
“Yes,” Manifold said. “I think we are safe for now. Every frequency that has had a message about us, that we can pick up, is reporting sightings of a meteor with no impact. I think we did good.”
“If we choose to stay here, we’ll have to make contact with their governments eventually, though,” Molly replied. She did not look forward to figuring out how to do that.
“Yes, that’s true,” Manifold agreed. “That might be an argument to return to exploring nearby stars.”
Bending space/time made space travel so much more convenient, to completely understate things. But there was still so much travel to and from a given satellite once they were in a star system, and that still took up time. It was lonely, even with Manifold with her. And she had long ago become ready to be around people again.
She’d left the Sunspot knowing that, even with her mode of travel, the people she knew there would have changed dramatically by the time she ever returned, if she was even able to. And she also would be changed. Time would flow differently for her than for her original home, since it was traveling at relativistic velocities while she was breaking light cones left and right, but also their experiences would be so alien. She’d considered this trip to be one way, with her eventual death the end to it. She could always report back using the Tunnel, and maybe even travel back that way without the use of her body. And presumably, Manifold was sending reports. But, she’d left for more reasons than just to explore, and she intended to live amongst another people before her body ever gave out.
These weren’t the first people she’d found. But they were the first to live on a planet with such a nearly perfect climate and atmosphere. So they were the first she’d made actual contact with.
“No. I want to stay here,” she told Manifold. “I want to get to know more of them, even if they end up killing me sooner rather than later. Send that message back to the Crew, too, please. This is who and what I am.”
Susan and Lesley were pretty quick about getting their food. They were already sitting back down by the time Molly had finished that exchange.
Susan habitually checked the contents of her cheese sandwich as she pulled it from its bag. Yep, still just cheese! Just like she’d made it! She smirked at herself for never being able to give up this form of self defense from elementary school, when someone else had made the sandwiches. Lesley would consider her sandwich unbearably dry, but butter or mayonnaise would have ruined it for her. And mustard was right out.
She took a bite and smiled with closed lips at Molly while she started chewing.
Lesley rubbed her back affectionately and then said to their guest, “So, Molly, how do you decline your pronoun?”
Molly looked confused and said, “I don’t?” She seemed to scowl and look inward for a bit before continuing, “I like my pronoun. I chose it. So I do not decline it.”
Lesley looked back up from preparing her food and said, “Oh, no. I mean, OK. I’m going to say a sentence and you should analyze it in both languages, ours and yours.”
“OK,” Molly said.
“When Susan accompanied me to our tent, she said that her sandwich was already made, and that she had packed it herself,” Lesley said slowly. “OK, that’s the sentence. Remember when you gave us your pronoun, you only said one word, but when we gave you ours we listed two?”
“Yes,” Molly nodded.
“We were being lazy. There are actually three forms for our pronouns, and I used them all in that sentence. I think your translator may have picked up on it, even if you didn’t notice. She, her, and herself. We call those ‘declensions’, and changing the form of the pronoun depending on where it goes in the sentence is called “declining” it.”
Molly nodded silently every few words, eyes unfocused, like she was listening to something else in her ear or head. Probably her translator, or maybe Manifold giving her its thoughts.
“Ah,” Molly said, after a moment. “My language does not decline pronouns. Old Fenekere does, though, so Manifold is familiar with the idea.”
“Can I hear a translation of that sentence I gave you in your own language? I’d love to hear what it sounds like,” Lesley asked. “If you can remember it, of course.”
“Certainly,” Molly replied through her suit. Then she opened her mouth and uttered the words, “Ninaa mäofni’uf moamayirig mem Shushan, mäoräorig shekotemareg shihubaung’uf shi, ‘enaa ‘ufeg biyem shi.”
“Beautiful! Thank you,” Lesley responded, then took a bite out of her food. After chewing and swallowing it rather quickly, she added, “So, should we just use your pronoun without declining it, or…?”
“I like your pronoun. It sounds good to my ears,” Molly said. “May I use it for myself while we are speaking your language?”
Susan nodded, her mouth full of cheese sandwich.
And Lesley blinked and said, “of course! I really like your name, by the way. Does it mean anything?”
Molly shook her head quickly, and said, “I don’t like it. I used to. But ever since I left home I have grown to hate it. I am trying to think of a new one. I’m a different person now, anyway.”
“Why did you come here, anyway?” Susan finally asked. She’d been holding onto that question since Molly had offered to answer anything they might ask, but hadn’t had the chance to ask it yet.
Molly sucked something green from a transparent tube while she thought about how to answer that, then said, “I hated my home, and learned that I could leave it. But it is lonely in the cosmos, even with Manifold. I wanted to meet new people and feel less lonely. It is more complicated than that, but I don’t know how to explain it.”
Susan found herself reaching for Lesley’s hand. Molly was not describing scientific curiosity or a sense of adventure. Not the normal things you’d expect from an explorer of any sort, let alone an emissary from another species of intelligent beings! This sounded like something personal. And while she herself had felt like leaving the planet some days, if she only could, taking Lesley with her, she couldn’t imagine actually doing it now that she met someone else who had left hers. The enormity of it startled her.
There were people who got up and left for another country because of how their families treated them. Maybe for an interstellar space faring people, this was a similar thing. Except, there were no diplomatic relations between Molly’s people and her own. No prior knowledge that either existed! How could Molly trust that she wouldn’t be killed on the spot by whoever had found her first?
Or, was this story just for show? It was still really hard to read Molly’s expressions. Except for a few coincidental similarities, they were very alien to Susan. They had no way of guessing if she was lying.
Not that Susan was particularly good at reading people’s expressions anyway. This situation just made her even more aware of the questions she usually had. Her default was to take people at their word and hold them to it, and sort things out later if there was a misunderstanding. Which she was letting herself do here, even as she had her worries.
Lesley seemed to have been taken aback, as well. She’d stopped eating her typically strange lunch, and just stared at Molly for a bit.
Lesley’s food was always so much more complicated than anyone usually ate. Susan thought that maybe she invented her own dishes, because she certainly didn’t recognize any of them. But, even though she thought about it a lot, neither of them ever commented on the other’s eating habits. They let each other do her own thing, and both took comfort in knowing they could trust the other. And that was one of the real reasons why Susan loved Lesley so much. Even in their differences, they felt more alike and understandable to each other than anyone else they’d ever met.
Did Molly, an alien being, even have emotions quite like that? If her story was true, it seemed like maybe she could.
That realization was reality shaping for Susan. Probably for anyone who might learn it. Common needs for beings from entirely different stars!
It felt like it said something about the fabric of the universe itself.
The unreality of the whole situation hit Susan again really hard and she felt that shifting, dizzying sensation again.
Lesley glanced over at her and said, “Sweetie?”
Susan shook her head, “Just dissociating. We’re the first people to ever meet an alien from another star. Ever. That anyone knows of. We’re personally living an historical event. Of course I’m dissociating from it!” She giggled a little bit at her own observation.
Lesley squeezed her hand and nodded, “Yeah. I get it. I’ll keep leading.” She turned back to Molly and asked, “How long have you been searching for other people, on your own, I mean?”
Molly seemed to scowl again in what was probably her thinking expression, and said, “That’s a hard question to answer. I have visited many stars and scanned their planets for radio waves, and I experienced two months? We have not yet calculated how our time measurements differ from yours.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Lesley said.
“But,” Molly continued pointedly. “I also, according to typical space/time, have not yet left the Sunspot.”
“What?” both Lesley and Susan asked, not quite in sync.
“Bending space/time in order to travel does weird things,” Molly stated.
“Oh, right! Relativity and the speed of light!” Susan blurted, feeling more focused because of the subject. “You’re talking about traveling at faster than light, sort of, right?”
“Correct,” Molly said.
Susan looked over at Lesley and said, “I mean, how else would she have gotten here on her own? Especially if she experienced visiting many different stars in just two months! That’s physically impossible even at relativistic speeds. Unless her ship can warp space!”
“Not this ship,” Molly gestured behind her. “My larger one, in orbit around your sun. This is my landing craft. You governments might see my starship, but we think it would be hard for them to reach it. It took me a long time to reach your planet from there.”
Susan boggled at the enormity of that, and found herself saying, “What you just did was so incredibly dangerous!”
“Yes, I know,” Molly acknowledged.
“Aren’t you afraid that we could have killed you? Or that our government would come here to capture or kill you, or do worse?”
“I am,” Molly said, pausing for a bit as if emphasizing what she was going to say next with the silence. “But, I think it is worth it. And the risk is less to me than it might seem. I am not sure I want to explain yet, but my technology may preserve me in the case of danger. Please do not ask how. I feel it is important I keep it secret for my safety. But it is a passive defense. Harmless.”
Susan felt years of enjoying science fiction stories come crashing down into her mood, and she found herself getting very quiet and asking slowly and cautiously, “Do your people usually carry weapons?”
“Weapons?” Molly asked, and again seemed to be listening to someone else. “The translator gave me the old Fenekere word for that, and Manifold had to explain it. No. We don’t even have a word for such a thing. But, I have access to technology, on me and on my ship, that I could use as weapons if I need to. I had not considered it. Should I?”
“Maybe,” Susan said. She glanced over at Lesley. They’d retrieved their weapons from camp, bear spray and a handgun. It had been careless to have left them there in the first place. Weapons are useless or more dangerous when you let them leave your reach. “Our government might send someone here in the next day or two. I am surprised they haven’t shown up already. But maybe they don’t realize you’re here, and just think you were a meteor. I don’t know how they would react if they found you.”
“If you don’t have any weapons where you come from, why did you feel like you had to leave?” Lesley blurted out. “It sounds idyllic!”
Without showing any signs of offense or distress, Molly turned to her and said, “Even though we do not have the word for weapons, we can and do still hurt each other. Sometimes on purpose, using tools. We are human, after all.”
“Is that the word for your species?”
“Then I don’t mean that. I mean, we are people. We are Ktletaccete. We are fallible.”
“Oh,” Lesley said. “OK, we use the word ‘human’ for that kind of thing, too. I get it. But what was that word your translator didn’t translate?”
“It’s the one I used that came out as ‘human’ before,” Molly answered. “It means ‘Children of the Exodus Ships.’ Or, at least, that’s what it means now. Manifold says it meant ‘Children of Eh’, but that doesn’t make sense because Eh is not that old. At least, I don’t think Eh is. Fenekere is the language that predates all of the Exodus Ships, according to legend. It is billions of our years old.”
Susan just didn’t believe that. That sounded like something religious, it was so outlandish. But it didn’t matter. It was what Molly had grown up being told, and that was important in its own way. It informed her view of the universe and of herself.
Molly just went on talking, “The Exodus Ships, including mine, the Sunspot, are ancient. Most of them have likely been destroyed by now. We have lost contact with so many. But if the Tutor Abacus’ discoveries are accurate, then it is likely we originated in another galaxy entirely, and that our people have spread to many others. But we are just passing through, looking for enough matter to create another ship occasionally. We don’t need anything from any inhabited worlds. Oort clouds tend to have everything we need. And our ship spends most of its time traveling at nearly the speed of light relative to everything around it anyway. Contact with Outsiders is almost entirely unheard of. I decided to leave when we received confirmation of our first radio contact with Outsiders since the Sunspot was created.”
“How old are you?” Lesley asked. “If it’s ok for me to ask?”
Molly blinked and looked up at the sky, “Your planet has a rotational period of 31 of my hours. That’s an interesting coincidence. But it is a coincidence. Nevermind. Um… And it has an orbital period of 278 of your own days, roughly.”
“We do have to keep adjusting our calendars, yeah.” Susan mumbled.
“Manifold says that I have experienced the equivalent of 73 of your years.”
“You’re older than both of us put together!” Lesley exclaimed. “I’m 32, and she’s 33.”
“And yet, thanks to relativity, I haven’t been born yet,” Molly seemed to smirk. “May I ask. Do your people consider you to be adults?”
“Yes,” Lesley said.
“To my people, I am a child. I have been through first adolescence. But I am considered to be in second, longer adolescence,” Molly admitted.
“And they let you leave? On an experimental interstellar trip?!” Susan asked, instantly flabbergasted.
“Yes. According to Autonomy, it was my right,” Molly said. “Also, Manifold came with me. It is my life long parent, so long as we both continue to consent to it.”
A different voice came from the suit then. Where Molly’s was soft and sweet and sounded well groomed to Susan’s ears, this voice sounded like the owner of it had chosen to mimic a gruff but amiable stereotype. Like someone who’d be chosen to play a friendly mechanic in a drama. But its word choice was almost mechanical, like Molly’s sometimes sounded through the translator. It was obviously Manifold.
“I am the version of myself that would rather accompany Molly. The version of myself that would rather stay aboard the Sunspot is there,” it said. “I can confirm what Molly says. It is a universal right of sentient life to exercise Autonomy, and that is recognized even for the youngest children. She did not leave the Sunspot before she experienced many arguments about it, however. Still, when she left, she was given as much assistance as possible, even from the eldest of the Crew. This is how we do things.”
“I wish our world was like that,” Lesley said.
Susan nodded and added, “We are here, camping, to get away from our people for a while. We call it a vacation. It’s important for our mental health. But we have to go back soon. We both have to work, to do labor for others, in order to survive. And other people are often not kind to us. We’re a couple of queerdos.”
“Queerdos?” Molly asked.
“It’s our word. We’re queer and weird. Um. We’re lesbians. That refers to who we love. Our relationship is not accepted by everyone.”
Lesley spoke into a bite of her food before putting into her mouth, “And we’re autistic. It’s a kind of difference in the way we think from everyone else. That’s where the ‘weird’ part comes in.”
Susan put a hand on Lesley’s back and bit her lip, then looked at Molly, “I’m getting the impression that you experience something similar with your people?”
Molly opened her mouth to talk, even though her words would come from her suit. But then, something very startling happened.
The language algorithm didn’t yet know how to translate “queerdos”, “queer”, “lesbians”, and “autistic”. This made it very difficult for Molly to follow Susan and Lesley’s confessions, even with their explanations.
She was just trying to figure out how to explain her own situation to her two hosts more clearly, so that maybe they would understand better if there really were similarities, when a deep voiced thought echoed in her head. She did not recognize it, but she felt a chill as if she knew what it meant.
“Molly and Manifold, may I have some of your nanites, please? The maker bin in your landing craft will suffice,” it said.
“Shit!” Manifold exclaimed.
“Who are you?” Molly thought back.
“Phage,” it said.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
“I hitched a ride with you. I came the whole way in the bottom of your psyche, to help if you need it.”
Molly was horrified at what she was facing. The Chief Monster was not in her ship’s Network, but in her own head!
“Without my consent?!” she demanded.
“Of course not,” Phage responded. “But there’s no time to explain. There are several local aircraft converging on your location and you need my help.”
What Susan saw next, shortly after Molly had frozen in mid thought, was a dark, oily looking figure, shaped very much like a human but with a tufted tail, walk casually down the gangway of the landing craft.
It paused at the bottom of it when its feet touched the ground, which they seemed to sink into ever so slightly.
Then it posed as if stretching muscles it probably didn’t have. It appeared to be made entirely of goo.
Even without distinct eyes, it clearly looked at Lesley and then Susan, and wrinkled its face in a smile of some sort.
And then it silently rocketed into the air. Almost like it was yoinked into the sky by a rubber band.
Susan’s vasal vagus nerve finally decided that then was a good time to faint.
Susan remembered thinking to herself while she was falling over, “Why am I fainting? What good does this do?”