This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer
For Justice, though she’s painted blind, is to the weaker side inclined.—SAMUEL BUTLER (1612–1680)
The Navy lieutenant poked his close-cropped head into the aircraft carrier’s wardroom. "It’s going to be another two hours, gentlemen. You should really get some sleep."
Francis Nobilio, a short man of fifty with wavy hair mixed evenly between brown and gray, was sitting in a vinyl-upholstered metal chair. He was wearing a two-piece dark-blue business suit and a pale blue shirt. His tie was undone and hung loosely around his neck. "What’s the latest?" he said.
"As expected, sir, a Russian sub will beat us to the location. And a Brazilian cruise ship has changed course to have a look-see."
"A cruise ship!" said Frank, throwing his arms up in exasperation. He turned to Clete, who was leaning back in a similar chair, giant tennis-shoed feet up on the table in front of him.
Clete lifted his narrow shoulders and grinned broadly. "Sounds like a big ol’ party, don’t it?" he said, his voice rich with that famous Tennessee accent — Dana Carvey did a devastating Cletus Calhoun.
"Can’t we cordon off the area?" said Frank to the Navy man.
The lieutenant shrugged. "It’s in the middle of the Atlantic, sir — international waters. The cruise ship has as much right to be there as anyone else."
"The Love Boat meets Lost in Space," muttered Frank. He looked up at the Navy man. "All right. Thanks."
The lieutenant left, doing a neat step over the raised lip at the bottom of the door.
"They must be aquatic," said Frank, looking at Clete.
"Mebbe," said Clete. "Mebbe not. We ain’t aquatic, and we used to land our ships at sea. This very aircraft carrier picked up an Apollo command module once, didn’t it?"
"My point exactly," said Frank. "We used to land our ships at sea, because that was easier than landing them on land, and—"
"I thought it was because we launched out over the ocean from Canaveral, so—"
"The Shuttle goes up from Canaveral; we bring it down on land. If you’ve got the technology, you come down on land — if that’s where you live; the Russians came down on land from day one."
Clete was shaking his head. "I think you’re missing the obvious, Frankie. What was it that boy said a moment ago? ‘International waters.’ I think they’ve been watching long enough to figger it’d be a peck o’ trouble landin’ in any particular country. Only place on Earth you can land that ain’t nobody’s turf is in the ocean."
"Oh, come on. I doubt they’ve been able to decipher our radio or TV, and—"
"Don’t need to do none o’ that," said Clete. He was forty years old, thin, gangly, jug-eared, and redheaded — not quite Ichabod Crane, but close. "You can deduce it from first principles. Earth’s got seven continents; that implies regional evolution, and that implies territorial conflict once the technology reaches a level that lets you travel freely between the continents."
Frank blew out air, conceding the point. He looked at his watch for the third time in the last few minutes. "Damn, I wish we could get there faster. This is—"
"Hang on a minute, Frankie," said Clete. He used one of his long arms to aim the remote at the seventeen-inch color TV mounted on the wall, turning off the mute. The aircraft carrier was picking up CNN’s satellite feed.
"…more now on that story," said white-haired Lou Waters. "Civilian and military observers worldwide were stunned late yesterday when what was at first taken to be a giant meteor skimmed through Earth’s atmosphere over Brazil." Waters’s face was replaced with grainy amateur video of something streaking through a cloudless blue sky. "But the object flew right around the Earth well inside our atmosphere, and soon almost every public and private telescope and radar dish on the planet was trained on it. Even the U.S. government has now conceded that the object is, in all likelihood, a spacecraft — and not one of ours. Karen Hunt has more. Karen?"
The picture changed to show a pretty African-American woman, standing outside the Griffith Park Observatory. "Lou, for decades human beings have wondered if we are alone in the universe. Well, now we know. Although the U.S. and Russian military aircraft that flew over the splashdown site earlier today failed to make public the videos they shot, a Moroccan Airlines 747 en route to Brasilia passed directly over the area about three hours ago.
That plane has now safely landed, and we’ve obtained this exclusive footage, taken by passenger Juan Rubenstein with his home-video equipment."
The image was coarse, but it clearly showed a large object shaped like a shield or a broad arrowhead floating atop gray water. The object seemed capable of changing colors — one moment it was red; the next, orange; then yellow. It cycled through the hues of the rainbow, over and over again, but with a considerable period of pure black between being violet and red.
Cut to a dour, middle-aged man with an unkempt beard. The title "ARNOLD HAMMERMILL, PH.D., SCRIPPS INSTITUTE," appeared beneath him. "It’s difficult to gauge the size of the spaceship," said Hammermill, "given we don’t know the precise altitude of the plane or the zoom setting used at the time the video was taken, but judging by the height of the waves, and taking into account today’s maritime forecast for that part of the Atlantic, I’d say the ship is between ten and fifteen meters long."
A graphic appeared, showing the vessel to be about half the size of a Space Shuttle orbiter. The reporter’s voice, over this: "The United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is on its way now to the splashdown site. Earlier today, the president’s science advisor, Francis Nobilio" (black-and-white still of Frank, a few years out of date, showing his hair as mostly brown) "and astronomer Cletus Calhoun, best known as the host of PBS’s popular Great Balls of Fire! astronomy series" (silent clip of Clete at the rim of Arizona’s Barringer crater) "were flown by military jet to the Kitty Hawk, and are now on their way to rendezvous with the alien ship. The Kitty Hawk should reach its destination in just over one hundred minutes from now. Bobbie and Lou?"
Back to CNN Center in Atlanta and a two-shot of Lou Waters and Bobbie Battista. "Thanks, Karen," said Battista. "Before Dr. Calhoun left the U.S., our science correspondent Miles O’Brien managed to interview him and University of Toronto exobiology professor Packwood Smathers about what this all means. Let’s have another look at that tape."
The image changed to show O’Brien in front of two giant wall monitors.
The one on the left was labeled TORONTO and showed Smathers; the one on the right was labeled LOS ANGELES and showed Clete.
"Dr. Smathers, Dr. Calhoun, thanks for joining us on such short notice," said O’Brien. "Well, it looks like the incredible has happened, doesn’t it? An alien spaceship has apparently landed in the middle of the Atlantic. Dr. Smathers, what can we expect to see when this ship opens up?"
Smathers had a square head, thick white hair, and a neatly trimmed white beard. He was wearing a brown sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows — the quintessential professorial look. "Well, of course, we first have to suspect that this ship is unmanned — that it’s a probe, like the Viking landers, rather than carrying a crew, and—"
"Look at the size of the thing," said Clete, interrupting. "Pete’s sake, Woody, ain’t no need for the thing to be that big, ’less it’s got somebody aboard. ’Sides, it looks like it’s got windows, and—"
"Dr. Calhoun is famous for jumping to conclusions," said Smathers sharply.
O’Brien was grinning from ear to ear — he evidently hadn’t expected to get an impromptu Siskel and Ebert of science. "But, as I was about to say, if there are alien beings aboard, then I expect them to be at least vaguely familiar in body plan, and—"
"You’re hedging now, Woody," said Clete. "Couple years ago, I heard you give a talk arguing that the humanoid body plan would be adopted by purty near any form of intelligent life, and—"
Smathers was growing red in the face. "Well, yes, I did say that then, but—"
"But now that we’re actually goin’ to meet aliens," said Clete, clearly enjoying himself, "you ain’t so sure no more."
"Well," said Smathers, "the human body plan might indeed represent an ideal for an intelligent lifeform. Start with the sense organs: two eyes are much better than one, since two give stereoscopic vision — but a third eye adds hardly any value over two. Two ears likewise give stereophonic hearing, and they’ll obviously be on opposite sides of the body, to give the best possible separation. You can go right down the human body from head to toe, and make a case why each part of it is ideal. When that spaceship opens up, yes, I’ll stand by my contention that we’ll probably see humanoids inside."
The Clete on the TV set looked positively pained. The one sitting next to Frank aboard the Kitty Hawk shook his head. "Peckerwood Smathers," he said under his breath.
"That’s hooey, Woody," said the TV Calhoun. "Ain’t nothin’ optimized about our form — y’all only get optimization when you’ve got an ultimate design goal in mind, and there wasn’t one. Evolution takes advantage of what’s handy, that’s all. You know, five hundred million years ago, durin’ the Cambrian explosion, dozens o’ different body plans appeared simultaneously in the fossil record. The one that gave rise to us — the ancestor of modern vertebrates — weren’t no better than any of the others; it was just plum lucky, is all. If a different one had survived, nothin’ on this planet would look the way it does today. No, I bet there’s some critter inside unlike anything we’ve ever seen before."
"Clearly we have some differing points of view here," said O’Brien. "But—"
"Well, that’s the whole point, ain’t it?" said Clete. "For decades, guys like Woody been getting grants to think about alien life. It was all a good game till today. It wasn’t real science — you could never test a one of their propositions. But now, today, it all goes from being a theoretical science to an empirical one. Gonna be pretty embarrassing if everything they’ve been saying turns out to be wrong."
"Now, hang on, Clete," said Smathers. "I’m at least willing to put my cards on the table, and—"
"Well, if you want to hear my — what? Crying out loud, hon, can’t you see I’m on TV?"
A muffled female voice, off camera; Frank recognized it as Clete’s secretary, Bonnie: "Clete, it’s the White House."
"White House?" He looked directly into the camera and lifted his red eyebrows. The shot widened, showing more of Clete’s cluttered study.
Bonnie crossed into the frame, holding a cordless phone. Clete took it from her. "Calhoun here. What — Frankie! How good to — no, no. Sure, yeah, I can do that. Sure, sure. I’ll be ready. Bye." Clete put down the phone and looked into the camera again. "I gotta go, Miles — sorry ’bout this. They’re sending a car for me. I’m off to rendezvous with the alien ship." He undipped his microphone and moved out of the shot.
Cut back to O’Brien. "Well, obviously we’ve lost Dr. Calhoun. We’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Smathers. Doctor, can you—"
Clete hit the remote, and the TV went dead.
There was indeed a Russian submarine present by the time the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk reached the splashdown site, and the Brazilian cruise ship was visible on the horizon, coming closer. The Kitty Hawk held station one kilometer from the alien ship, the hull of which was still flashing through the colors of the rainbow. The Russian sub was slightly farther away on the opposite side.
The alien ship seemed to be about two-thirds submerged in the water, but it was bobbing enough that intermittently most of its upper surface was visible. Frank, Clete, and a young Navy pilot boarded one of the Kitty Hawk’ s SH-60F Seahawk helicopters and took off from the aircraft carrier for a flight over the vessel.
"It sure is streamlined," shouted Clete, over the noise of the chopper’s rotor.
Frank nodded. "It must be just a landing craft," he shouted back. Since the ship had first been spotted entering Earth’s atmosphere, NORAD had been scanning the heavens, looking for any sign of the mothership. Meanwhile, Canaveral was readying Atlantis for flight. No American or Russian Shuttle was currently in orbit; Atlantis was the next one scheduled to fly, but it wasn’t supposed to go up for another eighteen days.
The alien ship’s hull seemed to be one continuous piece. It had neither the riveted metal plates that made up the Kitty Hawk’ s exterior nor the ceramic tiles that covered a Space Shuttle. There were four mirrored surfaces that might have been windows across the pointed end of the shield, and there was something in grayish green that might have been writing going down one side of the upper hull, but it was difficult to make out, especially with the background constantly changing color.
"I bet they see into the infrared," shouted Clete. "It’s probably still changin’ colors while it seems to be black before turning red, but we just can’t see it."
"Perhaps," said Frank, "but—"
"Look at that!" shouted the chopper’s pilot.
A narrow cylinder was rising out of the center of the spaceship’s hull. At its apex was a bright yellow light that was winking on and off. Blink, pause, blink-blink, pause, blink-blink-blink.
"Counting," said Clete.
But the next sequence was five blinks, not four, and the one after that was seven blinks. And then the sequence started cycling over and over again: one, two, three, five, seven; one, two, three, five, seven.
"Prime numbers!" said Frank. He shouted at the pilot, "Does this copter have a searchlight?"
The man shook his head.
"Get us back to the aircraft carrier as fast as possible. Hurry!"
The pilot nodded and took the chopper through a wide, banking turn.
Frank looked over at the Russian sub. It was already returning the signal: the first five prime numbers in sequence, cycling repeatedly.
The pilot was wearing a radio headset. Frank shouted at him. "Get the Kitty Hawk to use its searchlights. Tell it to blink out a reply at the ship. The first five prime numbers, over and over."
The pilot relayed the message. It seemed to take forever — with Frank fidgeting through each second — but eventually a large searchlight just below the carrier’s radar antenna started flashing out the sequence.
The yellow beacon sticking up from the lander went dark.
"Could we have said the wrong thing?" asked Clete.
The Seahawk touched down on the flight deck. As the rotor was twirling down, Frank got out, the wind from the blades whipping his hair. Clete followed a moment later. Hunching over, they hustled away from the chopper. The captain, a bald-headed black man of about fifty, was waiting for them just inside the base of the conning tower. "The Russians are still signaling the same thing, too," he said.
Frank frowned, thinking. Why had the aliens shut up? They’d replied exactly as the aliens had, showing that humans understood prime numbers, and—
No. All they’d shown is that humans can parrot things back at them. "Try continuing the sequence," said Frank.
Clete nodded, immediately seeing it as well. "They gave us the first five primes; give ’em the next five."
The captain nodded and lifted a small intercom handset off the wall, pulling it close to him. "Signaling room — continue the sequence. Give them the next five prime numbers."
"Sir, yes sir," said a staticky voice, "but, ah, sir, what are the next five?"
The captain looked at Frank, eyebrows lifted. Frank made a disgusted frown. Clete rolled his eyes. "Eleven, thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-three," Frank said.
The captain repeated the numbers into the microphone. "Sir, yes sir," said the seaman’s voice.
"We better get up there," said Clete.
Frank nodded. "How do we get from here to where the controls for the searchlight are?"
"Come with me," said the captain. He led them to a circular metal stairwell and took them up to the radio room. As they entered, Frank saw the seaman who had been operating the light. He was a young white fellow, maybe nineteen, with a half centimeter of blond hair. "The aliens have started flashing again," he said.
"What was the sequence?" said Clete.
"They repeated back all ten prime numbers," the seaman said.
A wide grin spread across Frank’s face. "Contact."
The captain was looking out the window. "The Russian sub is signaling the ten numbers, too."
Frank pointed. "And here comes that damned cruise ship."
The yellow beacon started flashing again. One. Four. Nine. And then so many flashes that Frank lost track.
"It’s gotta be squares," said Clete. "One squared; two squared; three squared; four squared."
"Give them five-squared as a response," said Frank, looking at the young fellow. "That’s twenty-five."
The seaman started clicking the trigger button for the searchlight as he counted out loud.
"God," said Clete, pointing out the window. " God."
The alien craft was lifting out of the ocean. It rose about twenty meters above the waves, water streaming off it. Its hull had stopped changing colors; it was now a uniform dark green. There seemed to be four jets of some sort positioned on its underbelly. They churned up the ocean surface beneath. The ship started moving slowly horizontally. It flew in the direction of the Russian submarine, but stopped just short of the vessel, apparently to prevent its jet exhaust from blasting down on the sub. The lander then flew over to near the cruise ship. With binoculars, Frank could see people on its deck taking photographs and home videos. Then the spaceship changed direction and headed toward the Kitty Hawk. It stopped about five meters off the projecting bow of the flight deck, and just hovered there.
"What’s it doing?" shouted Frank.
But the seaman spoke up. "Sir, I believe it’s waiting for permission to land, sir."
Frank looked at the young man. Perhaps he’d dismissed him too quickly.
"I believe the boy is right, Frankie," said Clete. "They know this is an aircraft carrier. They’ve seen our helicopter take off and land from it, and they can probably tell just by looking at the planes out on the flight deck what they are — they’re clearly designed according to aerodynamic principles."
"By all means they can land," said Frank. "But how do we tell them that?"
"Well, if the question is obvious, the answer must be, too," said Clete.
"Give ’em the prime numbers again. Do it correctly, and that’s ‘yes.’ Do it incorrectly — say, one, two, three, five, eight — and that’s ‘no.’ "
Frank nodded. "Signal the first five primes," he said.
The seaman looked at his captain for confirmation. The captain nodded, and the seaman used his thumb to operate the light trigger. In the window, Frank could see the alien ship moving over the flight deck.
The intercom whistled. The captain picked up the hand unit. "Raintree here."
"Sir," said a husky voice, "the Russian sub has radioed us, asking that we send a helicopter to bring three observers over here immediately, sir."
The captain looked at Frank, who frowned. "Christ, I don’t want—"
Clete interrupted. "Now, Frankie, they chose international waters. You can’t really—"
"No, no, I suppose not. Okay, Captain."
"Take care of it, Mr. Coltrane," said the captain, and he replaced the hand unit in its clip.
"I want video equipment set up on the flight deck," said Frank. "I want everything recorded."
The captain nodded, and spoke into the intercom again.
"Let’s get down there," said Clete.
Captain Raintree, Frank, and Clete went back down the circular staircase they’d gone up earlier, and emerged from the same door at the base of the conning tower, exiting onto the flight deck. There wasn’t much wind, and the sky was mostly clear. The lander was still in the process of lowering itself.
"Damn," said the captain.
"What’s wrong?" asked Frank, over the roar of the lander’s exhaust.
"It’s setting down in the middle of the runway. No way we can launch a fighter with it there."
Frank shrugged. "It’s the biggest clear area."
In the distance, another Navy Seahawk was now hovering over the conning tower of the Russian sub. A rope ladder had been lowered, and a man was climbing up into the chopper.
Captain Raintree looked at Frank. "We do have recorded music, sir. We could play the national anthem."
"Is there a United Nations anthem?" asked Frank.
"Not as far as I know, sir," said the captain.
"Anybody got the theme from Star Trek on tape?" said Clete.
The captain looked at him.
Clete shrugged. "Just a thought."
"I could assemble an honor guard," said the captain.
"With rifles?" said Frank. "Not on your life."
The lander came to rest. Frank could feel vibration in the deck plates beneath his feet as it clanged against them.
"Shall we go have a look?" said Clete.
"Sir," said the captain, "the lander could be radioactive. I suggest you let one of my people check it over with a Geiger counter first."
Frank nodded. The captain used the intercom again to give the order.
"Do you suppose they’re going to come outside?" asked Clete.
Frank lifted his shoulders. "I don’t know. They may be incapable of coming outside — even if they have space suits, the gravity may be too high for them to move around."
"Then why land on the Kitty Hawk at all?"
"Maybe they were just getting seasick being tossed on the ocean."
The helicopter was now leaving the Russian sub and heading back toward the Kitty Hawk.
Clete pointed at the gray-green markings on the ship’s dark green hull.
They were complex, consisting of a horizontal line with various spirals and curves descending from it. No way to tell if the whole thing was one character, or if it was meant to be a word, or just abstract art.
A sailor appeared next to the captain, holding a Geiger counter. The captain nodded for him to proceed. The man looked nervous, but headed out across the flight deck toward the lander.
"Captain," said Frank, "can you sail this ship to New York?"
"Want to take ’em to see Cats?" said Clete.
Frank frowned. "To the United Nations, of course."
The captain nodded. "Sure, we can go anywhere."
The helicopter landed. Two Russian men and a Russian woman disembarked, along with the copter pilot. They came over to the American captain.
"Sergei Korolov," said the Russian, a thickset man in his thirties. He saluted. "I’m— first officer, you’d call it, on the Suvorov." He nodded to the woman. "Our doctor, Valentina Danilova, and our radio officer, Piotr Pushkin. Neither of them speaks English."
"Great," muttered Frank. "I’m Frank Nobilio, science advisor to the president of the United States. This is Cletus Calhoun, astronomer, and Captain Raintree."
"I point out," said Korolov, "that the lander only settled on your ship because it was not possible to settle on our submarine. But under international salvage laws, the lander is clearly ours — we got to it first."
Frank sighed. "It’s not our intention to steal the lander, Mr. Korolov. In fact, I want to take it to the United Nations in New York."
"I will have to consult with my captain, and she will have to consult with Moscow," said Korolov. "It is not—"
The man with the Geiger counter returned. "It’s clean, sir. Just normal background radiation."
"Very good," said Captain Raintree. "Do you want to go have a closer look, Dr. Nobilio?"
"By all means. Let’s— my God."
A portion of the curving wall of the lander was sliding up. The hatch had been completely invisible when closed, but the opening was obvious. Inside was a gray-walled chamber — an air lock, in all likelihood. And standing in the middle of the chamber was a figure.
A figure that was not human.
"Damn," said Captain Raintree, under his breath. "Sir, if that thing is carrying alien germs, we’ll have to, er, sterilize this ship."
Frank spoke firmly. "I’ll make that determination, Captain."
"Captain, shut up." Frank stepped closer to the lander. His heart was pounding in his ears.
An actual, honest-to-God alien.
It didn’t have the big head, the large eyes, the tiny body, or any of the other characteristics associated with UFO sightings, of course. Frank nad always taken such unimaginative descriptions of alien beings as proof that UFOs had nothing to do with extraterrestrial life, Packwood Smathers’s ridiculous contentions notwithstanding. No, this was clearly something that had evolved somewhere else.
The creature was not humanoid.
It stood about five and a half feet tall and, at a wild guess, probably weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. It had four limbs, but all four of them seemed to be attached at the shoulders. The left and right ones were long, and reached down to the ground. The front and back ones were shorter, dangling freely. The head was a simple dome rising up from the shoulders, and on top of it there was a topknot or tuft of white tendrils that seemed to be waving independently of the gentle breeze. Positioned near the front of the dome were two mirrored convex circles that might have been eyes.
Below them was an orifice that could have been a mouth. The being’s hide was blue-gray. It wore a dun-colored vestlike affair with many pockets.
Clete had moved to Frank’s elbow. "No space suit," he said. "It’s breathing our air, and it’s standing in our gravity."
The alien began to walk forward. Its left and right limbs were jointed at three places, and its stride length was close to six feet. Although it didn’t seem to be hurrying, it managed to close half the distance between itself and Frank in a matter of seconds — then it stopped, dead, still about fifty feet away.
The meaning seemed plain enough: an invitation to come closer. The alien wasn’t going to invade Frank’s territory, and it clearly wasn’t looking to grab Frank and steal him aboard the lander. Frank walked forward; Clete fell in next to him. The Russians began to move as well. Frank turned around.
"Just one of you," he said. "We don’t want it to think we’re ganging up on it."
Korolov nodded and spoke briefly to Pushkin and Danilova. They both looked disappointed, but they obeyed the order and moved back to stand next to Captain Raintree.
The three humans closed the remaining distance. Clete held up a hand when they got within eight feet of the alien. "Better stop here, Frankie," he said. "We don’t know what it considers to be its personal space."
Frank nodded. Up close, he could see that the creature’s skin was crisscrossed with fine lines, dividing it into diamond-shaped scales or plates, and — Frank couldn’t help smiling. There was a small adhesive strip, perhaps three inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide, attached to the side of the alien’s domed head — apparently a bandage, as if the alien had bumped its head on something. Somehow, the small sign of fallibility made the alien seem much more accessible, much less formidable.
The alien was presumably studying the humans, but there were no visible pupils in the mirrored lenses — no way to tell where the alien was looking.
How to proceed? Frank thought for a moment about making the hand sign from Close Encounters — and that thought gave him a better idea. He held up one finger, then two — he was conscious that he was making peace sign — then three, then five. He then brought up his second hand and added two fingers from it, for a total of seven.
The alien lifted its front arm and raised the hand attached to it, which ended in four flat-tipped fingers, equally spaced around the circular end of the arm. The fingers seemed undifferentiated — they were all the same length, with no obvious thumb. The first and third fingers opposed each other, and so did the second and fourth.
The alien raised one finger, then two, then three. It then reached its second hand around from behind its body, and raised two of its fingers — making a total of five — and then the remaining two, making a total of seven.
So far, so good. But then Frank thought perhaps he’d made a mistake.
Maybe the alien would now assume humans communicated through a gesticular language, rather than a spoken one. He touched a hand to his own chest and said, "Frank."
"Frank." The alien was a gifted mimic — it sounded just like Frank’s own voice.
No, no, that wasn’t it — it had recorded his voice and immediately played it back to him. There must be some sort of recording equipment in the vest it was wearing.
Frank pointed at the alien. There was no reason to think the gesture would make sense to the creature — pointing might only be meaningful to beings who had been spear carriers in their past. But almost at once the alien’s mouth moved. It was a complex structure, with an outer horizontal opening and an inner layer of tissue that had a vertical opening, letting it make a variety of rectangular holes. "Hask," said the alien. Its voice was smooth and deep — Frank had seen nothing on the being that might be genitalia, but it sounded male. The voice started softly, but the volume lifted by the end of the word.
But then Frank realized that he hadn’t really established anything. Was Hask the being’s personal name, or the name of its race? Or did the word mean something else? "Hello," maybe? Frank pointed at Cletus. "Clete," he said. The alien repeated the word back, and this time Frank was positive that the sound was coming not from the mouth, but the alien’s chest. One of the pockets on its vest contained a small rectangular object; its outline was apparent by the way the fabric was distorted, and the top of the unit was peeking out of the pocket’s flap. The sound had apparently come from it.
The alien pointed at Frank and said his name — this time it did come from the alien’s mouth. He then pointed at Clete and said Clete’s name. Both times the word started softly, but grew louder over the length of the syllable. The alien pointed at the Russian. Frank looked at him, but was damned if he could remember the man’s name. "Sergei," said the Russian.
"Sergei," repeated the device in the alien’s pocket, and then, a moment later, the alien said "Sergei" on its own.
Frank then indicated himself, Clete, and Sergei. "Humans," he said.
"Wait," said Sergei. "I object to contact being made in English."
Frank looked at the man. "This isn’t the time—"
"Certainly is time. You—"
Clete spoke up. "Don’t be a pain. Dr. Nobilio is in charge here, and—"
"For heaven’s sake," said Frank. "We’re getting this all on video. Let’s not squabble."
Sergei looked angry but didn’t say anything further. Frank turned back to the alien, repeated his pointing at each of the people in turn, then repeated the word, "Humans."
The alien touched its chest, just as Frank had touched his own moments before. "Tosok."
"Tosok," said Frank. "Hask."
"Humans," said Hask. "Frank. Clete. Sergei."
"Now we’re cookin’," said Clete.
Captain Raintree and the remaining Russians came closer. Dozens of the Kitty Hawk’s crew members had found reasons to come up on the flight deck, and Hask was soon surrounded by an awestruck crowd. Frank and Clete spent hours teaching the alien English nouns and some simple verbs — such as "walk" and "run" and "lift."
Frank noted more details of Hask’s appearance as time went by. The alien had four mirrored silver lenses — two on the front of his dome-shaped head above the forward arm, and two more in back above the rear arm, an arm that was somewhat less robust and a bit shorter than the one in front.
There seemed to be some sort of rust-colored dental plates inside the mouth at the front of the head, but there was a second mouth that lacked such plates in the back of the head. There were also two small orifices at either side of the head, and it seemed that it was through these that the alien was breathing.
As they began building complex phrases it became clear that the Tosok manner of speech was to start each sentence at a low volume and raise it until the end of the sentence was reached. Hask seemed to have trouble following what Frank was saying because the human wasn’t able to emulate this effectively; Hask was only able to parse Frank’s speech if Frank paused for a full second between sentences.
After about an hour a seaman came to within ten feet of Frank, then motioned to catch his eye. Frank said, "Excuse me," to Hask — not that those were words Hask yet knew, but Frank hoped the alien would understand that they were meant to be polite. He walked over to the seaman. "What is it?"
"Sir, we just got a message from NORAD. They’ve located the alien mothership. It’s in a polar orbit, about two hundred miles up. And, sir, it’s huge."
The Kitty Hawk set course for New York. The alien came inside the aircraft carrier and allowed Frank and Clete to lead him to the wardroom. To Frank’s astonishment, once they were inside, Hask reached up simultaneously with his front and back hands and let the four mirrored senses fall into his square palms — he’d been wearing the Tosok equivalent of sunglasses, although Frank couldn’t tell exactly how they’d been held in place. Hask stacked the mirrored lenses into a neat pile, and dropped them into one of the many pockets on his vest.
Hask’s eyes were circular and moist. One of those in front was orange, the other green; one in back was also green, and the fourth was silver-gray.
Each had a small vertically oval black pupil in it; each pair seemed to track together.
Hask couldn’t use a chair with a back because of his rear arm. A yeoman got a stool from somewhere, but Hask didn’t seem to have any desire to sit on it.
Clete and Frank continued teaching the alien English; so far, it had shown no interest in reciprocating by teaching the humans its language.
They showed Hask various objects, and spoke their names aloud. The Tosok reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out the small rectangular device that had been helping him with translations. It was the first good look Frank and Clete had got at it. The object was made of something that looked more like ceramic than plastic or metal. There was a cross-shaped arrangement of buttons on it, with six green buttons in each arm of the cross and a blue one in the center, and on its side was a three-holed aperture for some sort of connector. The back of this handheld computer contained a viewscreen, and the computer apparently was also a scanner — Hask could display the interior structure of the objects Frank and Clete showed him, as well as magnify them enormously to study fine details.
The humans also drew pictures on a pad to represent a variety of mathematical and physical concepts. At one point Clete — who was a much better artist than Frank — produced an image of Earth, with an object in polar orbit around it.
"What is that?" asked Frank.
"Ship," said Hask.
"How many Tosoks?"
"Six plus Hask?"
"Six plus Hask equals seven."
"Big ship," said Frank.
"Big ship for big walk," said Hask.
"Big journey," corrected Frank.
"Big journey," repeated Hask.
They didn’t yet have the vocabulary to ask from where the alien had come, but—
"How long journey?" asked Frank.
"Long. Big long."
Frank went to the porthole and motioned for Hask to follow. Hask placed mirrored lenses over his front eyes again and came over to stand beside Frank. Frank pointed at the sun, then made a circular motion with his arm, hopefully indicating the concept of a day.
"No," said Hask. It was frustrating. Sometimes Hask grasped what Frank was getting at quickly; other times it took repeated tries to get even a simple concept across. But Hask moved back to the table and took the marker from Clete’s hand — the first direct physical contact between human and Tosok. He then took the drawing of the Earth that Clete had made, lifted it up in his front hand, and pointed at the porthole and the sun beyond with his back hand. Hask then moved the picture of the Earth in a circular motion.
"He’s saying it’s not a question of days, Frankie," said Clete. "It’s a question of years."
"How many?" said Frank. "How many years?"
Hask used his front hand to manipulate the buttons on his pocket computer. The unit said something. Hask pushed another button, and this time the computer replied in English. "Two hundred eleven."
"You’ve been traveling for two hundred and eleven Earth years?" said Frank.
"Yes," said Hask.
Frank looked at Clete, whose mouth was hanging open in astonishment.
Hask picked up spoken English at a phenomenal rate. One of the things Frank had brought with him was the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, on CD-ROM, which had recorded pronunciations. There was no way to electronically interface Hask’s pocket computer with Frank’s multimedia notebook, but while Frank slept, Hask, who seemed to have no need for sleep, worked his way through the two thousand line drawings included with the CD, and for the ones that made sense to him, he listened to the pronunciations. By the time Frank woke up the next morning, Hask had substantially increased his vocabulary. How much of it was Hask’s own native facility, and how much of it was the doing of his pocket computer, Frank couldn’t say. Hask had explained that the computer could communicate directly to him, apparently by a receiver implanted in one of Hask’s four evenly spaced ear slits (slits that were all but invisible against his gridwork of scales).
Concrete nouns were the easiest for him to learn — Frank had begun calling Hask him rather than it, although they still hadn’t worked out the being’s gender. Synonyms confused Hask, though — the idea of having more than one word to express exactly the same concept was utterly foreign to him.
Clete, who was trying to divine whatever he could about Hask’s home world, suggested to Frank that this meant that Tosok culture had always been monolithic, with a single language — most English synonyms were adopted from other languages. Frank used this as another argument to keep on teaching Hask only English, despite the Russians’ continued complaints.
The Kitty Hawk was still two days from New York. Hask could have flown there himself in his lander, or been taken there in one of the aircraft carrier’s planes. But it seemed better to give humanity in general and the United Nations in particular a little time to prepare for the arrival of the alien.
"Is there a hierarchy among the seven Tosoks?" asked Frank. "Hierarchy" might be a big English word, but it was a simple concept that they’d already used repeatedly in discussions of scientific principles, such as the relationship between planets and stars and galaxies.
"Are you at the top?"
"No. Kelkad is at top."
"He’s the captain of your ship?"
Frank took a drink of water from a glass. He found himself coughing. Clete came over to thump him on the back, but Frank held up a hand and coughed some more. "Sorry," he said, his eyes red. "It went down the wrong way."
Clete waited a moment to make sure Frank was okay, then went back to his chair.
"Who should speak to our United Nations?" asked Frank, once he’d regained control.
Hask’s topknot was moving in strange patterns; it was apparent he had no idea what to make of the coughing fit. But at last he answered. "Kelkad."
"Will he come down from ship?"
"I will go get him and others."
"In your landing craft?"
Clete piped up from across the room. "Can I go with you?"
Hask didn’t have to turn around; he had eyes in the back of his head. If the question struck him as impertinent, there was no way to tell. "Yes."
Frank shot an angry look at Clete. If anyone were going to go up, it should be Frank. But they’d agreed to minimize any signs of human conflict — Hask hadn’t understood Sergei’s exchange with Frank out on the flight deck at the time it had occurred, but the alien had doubtless recorded it and played it back now that he had an English vocabulary. They still didn’t know why the Tosoks had come to Earth, but if it was what Frank was hoping — to invite Earth to join the community of intelligent races in this part of the galaxy — then the last thing they wanted to do was emphasize humanity’s inability to get along. It was bad enough that the rendezvous with the alien lander had been performed by a military aircraft carrier and a nuclear sub.
"Can I go, too?" asked Frank.
"No room," said Hask. "Lander built for eight; only room for one more."
"If your ship has a crew of seven, why was the lander built for eight?" asked Frank.
"Was eight. One off."
"One dead?" asked Frank.
Hask said nothing.
The inside of Hask’s lander was simple and elegant. Frank and Clete had been hoping for a glimpse of some fantastically advanced technology, but clearly almost all aspects of the lander’s operations were automated. There was a single control console with a few cross-shaped keypads similar to the one on Hask’s handheld computer. There were also some recognizable mechanical devices, including cylinders with nozzles that were most likely fire extinguishers.
The most intriguing thing were the Tosok chairs, which were shaped something like tall, sideways saddles. Hask sat on one. As he did so the raised sides rose up to — well, to his "leg-pits" might be the appropriate term: the hollows beneath where his long legs joined his shoulders. The sides seemed to be spring-loaded. As Hask lowered his weight into the chair, the sides compressed, then snapped into place at just the right height to support him.
There were indeed eight chairs: two in the front row, then two additional rows of three chairs apiece. Clete tried to sit in one of the chairs, but found it excruciating. Hask went over to the wall, which was pale green and waxy in appearance. He touched it, and a hatch popped open. Hask reached in and pulled out a device that looked a bit like a screwdriver, although no part of it seemed to be metallic. He then dropped down to the floor — it was a strange, fluid movement, his long legs folding in three places, and his front arm helping to support his weight. He ended up lying on his front, and his rear arm reached up with the tool held in his four-fingered hand. He did something with it and the front part of the saddle seemed to come loose.
Clete surged forward and grabbed that part of the chair before it toppled onto the Tosok.
Hask then rose to his feet. "Suitable?" he said.
Clete sat down sideways on it, leaning back against the remaining projection from the curving seat. He smiled at Frank. "Ain’t no La-Z-Boy, but it’ll do the trick."
"When are you going to leave?" Frank said to Hask.
"Whenever Clete is ready."
"Can I bring my video camera?" asked Clete, indicating an equipment bag sitting on the lander’s floor.
"All right," said Clete. "Then let’s go."
Frank left the spacecraft, and the airlock door slid shut behind him.
It was three in the afternoon. The sky had been whipped by contrail lashes: dozens of media and government airplanes had flown over the area to get glimpses of the alien ship. The sea was reasonably calm; waves slapped softly against the Kitty Hawk’s hull.
All the arrangements had been made. Hask and Clete would fly up to the mothership, get the rest of the Tosoks, and then land in United Nations Plaza. There was going to be some delay aboard the mothership — Hask lacked the vocabulary to explain exactly why that was — so they would not be returning for about twenty hours.
Frank, meanwhile, would be flown by fighter jet direct from the Kitty Hawk to Washington, where he’d brief the president, who was already miffed that the meeting was taking place at the UN rather than on the White House lawn, as fifties SF films had predicted. They would both then fly to New York; other world leaders were making their way there is well. All in all, Frank was pleased: humanity was handling first contact much better than he’d expected.
The alien lander lifted off the flight deck, its deep green form stark against the pale blue sky. Frank waved as it rose higher and higher. Two F-14s provided an escort — as well as an opportunity to observe the alien ship in flight.
Inside the lander, Clete was getting it all on videotape. No live transmission was possible, unfortunately — the lander was shielded against radio waves, preventing Clete from broadcasting out, and there was no way of using the equipment on hand to interface his camera with the communications system employed by the Tosoks.
Although the four mirrored squares along the pointed bow of the shield-shaped craft did indeed turn out to be windows, Clete found he got a much better view through the wall display inside the ship. The lander rose up, higher and higher; the Atlantic Ocean receded beneath them, and the sky quickly changed from blue to purple to black. Soon Clete could see the east coast of Central America, and then the west coast of Africa as well. He was literally shaking with excitement — his whole life he’d wanted to go into space, and now it was happening! Adrenaline coursed through his system, and when he caught sight of his own reflection in the wall monitor, he saw that there was a huge grin spread across his face.
The lander continued to rise, and soon it passed over the terminator, into Earth’s nightside. Above, the real stars were rock steady; below, the constellations of city lights twinkled with interference patterns.
Soon the ship was in orbit, and the invisible hand stopped pressing against Clete’s side — he was, after all, sitting sidesaddle. He felt himself grow weightless, and his heart pounded even harder with excitement.
And then, there it was — floating majestically in front of them.
It was indeed gigantic. Almost all parts of it were flat black, making it hard to see against the backdrop of space. It seemed to be baton-shaped, with a bulbous habitat module at one end and what appeared to be an engine at the other. That the engine and the living quarters were so far apart suggested to Clete that the power source was nuclear. He’d have to get his colleagues to look over starplates they’d made in the last year or so; in all likelihood, the alien ship had come toward Earth tail first. Most ideas Clete had seen for starflight proposed a continuous acceleration to the halfway point, turning the ship around, then continuously decelerating until the destination was reached. Astronomers might well have inadvertently recorded the fusion exhaust of the braking starship — and from its spectra, something could be gleaned about Tosok technology.
Hask said the Tosok home world had a higher gravity than Earth, but the mothership, of course, was in microgravity now, although during its starflight its constant acceleration would have provided a sensation of normal weight.
Clete was still having trouble maintaining his composure. Flying through space was enough in and of itself to qualify as the greatest thrill of his life, but to have that coupled with actually being in the presence of an extraterrestrial lifeform was almost too much to bear. He’d been grinning so much that his cheeks hurt, and he felt positively giddy.
And weightlessness! My God, it was everything Armstrong and the other astronauts had told him it was! Once, for his PBS show, Clete had flown aboard the Vomit Comet — the KC-135 jet that NASA used to train astronauts. That had been fun, but this — this was spectacular!
He’d come a long way from his poor upbringing in the hills of Tennessee.
He was famous, a celebrity, rich, a frequent guest on The Tonight Show.
But he’d always said he would trade all of that to go into space, to know for sure that life existed elsewhere.
Clete had guessed correctly: the lander was indeed fully automated; Hask never once touched the controls. But as the lander maneuvered along the baton’s boom, something caught Clete’s eye. Although it was hard to know what Tosok technology was supposed to look like, a portion of the ship seemed damaged. Clete pointed at it.
"Yes," said Hask. "An impact, as we entered your solar system. To our surprise, much junk at the edge."
"How far out?" said Clete.
"Perhaps fifty times Earth’s orbital radius."
Clete nodded to himself. The Kuiper belt — the source of comets with orbital periods of twenty years or less. "Is the damage severe?"
"Must be repaired," said Hask. "Your help needed."
Clete felt his eyebrows rising. "Of course. I’m sure we’ll be glad to."
The lander continued to approach the mothership, which Clete estimated was three hundred meters long. If its hull had been more reflective, it would have easily been visible from the ground.
Finally, the lander connected with the mothership’s hull, clamping onto it just behind the bulbous habitat module; Clete could hear the clanging of docking clamps connecting with the ship. No clamshell-doored hangar deck like on the original starship Enterprise. Clete had always found that unbelievable anyway — it required pumping so much air in and out. Three other landers — two just like the one he was in now, plus one more that was much longer and narrower — were already clamped onto the hull. There was also one additional, unused docking port.
"Is the other empty port a spare, or is a ship missing?" asked Clete.
"Ship missing," said Hask. "One was knocked loose during the impact; we were unable to recover it."
Hask floated forward, and both the inner and outer doors of the air lock slid aside, revealing the interior of the mothership. The lighting was yellow-white, and rather dim. If the color matched that of sunlight on the Tosok world, then they must come from a G-class star. In the local stellar neighborhood, besides Earth’s sun, only Alpha Centauri A and Tau Ceti were Gs.
It was cool inside the starship — perhaps fifty degrees Fahrenheit. The weightlessness was utterly intoxicating; Clete indulged himself with a few barrel rolls while Hask watched, his head tuft moving in a way that might indicate amusement. Soon, though, Hask floated down a corridor, and Clete followed, trying to maneuver while keeping an eye on his cam-corder’s small LCD screen. Since the Tosoks had apparently been traveling for two hundred and eleven years, Clete had expected the ship to be roomy on the inside, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of open spaces, and so far they had yet to see another Tosok.
"Where are the others?" asked Clete.
"This way," said Hask. Every few meters he gave a gentle push off the wall with his back hand to continue him on his way. It was clear which part of the corridor served as the floor and which as the ceiling when the engines were on: the ceiling had circular yellow-white light fixtures set into it at regular intervals. In between those were tiny, much dimmer, orange lamps, which Clete thought might be emergency lighting.
The floors were covered with — well, at first Clete thought it was deep-pile carpet, but as he pushed his own hand against it to propel him along, he realized it was some sort of plant material, with purple leaves. It wasn’t grass; rather, it was more like a quilt of soft Brillo pads. Various possibilities ran through Clete’s mind: that the plant carpeting was responsible for sucking up carbon dioxide, or some other waste gas, and replenishing it with oxygen; that it represented a food source for the Tosoks; or that they just liked the sensation of walking with their bare reet through it. Although he wouldn’t presume to guess much yet about Tosok psychology, anything that helped them get through a multicentury voyage was doubtless to the good. ...
All rights belong to the author: Robert J Sawyer.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.