a short story
Gary Baker, March/April/June 2013
Acier watched as the alien craft drew near like a god landing from the heavens to visit what it was that had been created long ago. The ship was almost virtually a polygonal tear: half-octagonal in the rear where the engines, though currently off, glimmered with a resplendent turquoise glow, with the front section slowly tapering to a spear-like point.
Just below the tip of the nose rest the ring of thick metallic glass to the main command center, appearing quite like a band of oil with innumerous colors shimmering in the rays of the Earthen sun. By design, this very ring indicated a clear sense of interstellar physics that humanity still had yet to understand.
Acier, a nonhuman living on what the Eartheans called “the Ring”, knew all there was to know of this very science and technology. He knew that the craft was built more like a skyscraper than any ship the humans had devised, that the force of generated gravity caused by such tremendous acceleration needed to propel such a mammoth creation would necessitate floors perpendicular to the course trajectory. He knew that at high velocity the heads of the beings running the craft would be closest to the nose, and that this not only made things easier overall for energy saving uses but also of more quickly-gained “space legs”.
But the Earthean Ring was enormously more peculiar than the creations of Acier's own kind.
Made up of a similarly mammoth number of “crate”-like modules, the Ring encompassed the blue planet much like the discs of Saturn. Each module had originally been used as an orbiting laboratory, but by some spark of insane coincidental genius had developed into homes for those wishing to live in space. As the very idea spread across the human world more were built, hanging over every nation until one seemingly infinite line was borne into a complete circle, which then extended outward toward the stars.
Those higher up wanted the same grand view as those below so much so that by default the farthest from the planet surface became wide enough that a cutout of the Ring would look like a pair of opposing exponential curves with the widest diameter more than one hundred units away from the closest and had been built twenty times wider.
Through unhindered awe of the human engineering Acier watched all from the most grand of these entirely-transparent outer modules, as his Queen's ship drifted ever-closer to a dock built primarily for arriving Earthean supplies. He could feel the energy of the Earthean species rise in anticipation. It was, after all, what they assumed to be their first contact with life from the outer reaches.
“Meister Holvinald,” came the familiar human greeting from behind him. He turned to acknowledge the newcomer's arrival and found the lead Asiatic general of Ring Affairs. Seeing Acier's silent nod the man decked in olive green and black, with the occasional golden tassel on either side of his jacket, relaxed. “It seems your presence has been requested by those aboard the starship.”
He seemed perplexed, annoyed even, at having been subjected to denial of being the given the title of “first human contact” for his race. His brows were set in a broad scowl and his eyes darted over Acier as though looking for something of value to the alien race.
Acier nodded and chose not to attempt a smile this time, as controlling the human facial muscles was much too great a task for his ability to fully comprehend even after all this time. “Danke.”
The general nodded and motioned for Acier to follow.
Moments later Acier was suited up in a thick suit of human armor that was intended to keep the species alive in zero atmosphere, standing almost at the outer supply dock where human ships would normally deposit sediments and minerals from the moon or nearby planets. As such, the bay was wide, left open most of the time, and required pressure suits at all times for anyone not in a transport car. Cranes and pulley-drawn rail cars moved about on either side of the floor to assist in moving mining equipment and deposit crates out of the way.
Men and women indistinguishable in their bright orange glow-suits strode here and there directing the flow of traffic, while others clad in green brought small piles of gifts that were set upon marble tables nearest the landing point.
“This,” echoed the general's seemingly skeptical voice through somewhat static-prone comm links, “is where they wish to land.”
Acier wished he could smile in this human body without extreme concentration, for the mere idea that his race would even be able to land elsewhere was more than daft. This one location in the whole Ring network held the largest landing bay, and even that would barely contain the nose of the tear. “Abreisen mich.”
The general startled. “What? Leave you?” He turned to point his visor at Acier and scowled. “You think I'm going to just let you make even one mistake that might cost us this friendship? Not a chance, buddy.”
Acier had to admire the man's determination, though uncouth as it was. “Gedenken. Lessen sie mich miene semmeln.”
At this the man smiled as though it took not a single thought, and nodded. “'Thoughts', right.” He reached a suited hand out and let the rubber palm rest on Acier's shoulder in an expression of human compassion. “Look big guy, I don't know why they want you of all people either. Last I heard you just arrived on the Ring from... what was it, Norway? Germany? Anyways, for a businessman like you, all used to international relations, this oughta be no big deal.” His teeth were bared in a wide grin and Acier almost broke the general's visor right then, still unused to the fact that for humans such behavior was yet another sign of cheer, of good intentions, and not provocation for a fight.
Acier would have to make sure his queen understood this very well before the meeting commenced. If he didn't then when the humans in the area would undoubtedly choose to applaud the “first human contact” with grins on their faces, his race would take it as an act of aggression, and war would ensue over nothing less than bared teeth.
As if on cue, a spotlight snapped on from the tear's nose, aiming around in the open bay until it lit upon the fully-cleared central area. There it focused and became a bar of solid white.
“ Whoa,” the general breathed, “they have beaming technology!”
It wasn't true, Acier knew, so as the general and the others out on the floor gaped through their suit visors Acier strode his way toward the beam. Still the tear drifted ever closer, still the massive ship moved at ever-decreasing speeds akin to an asteroid-sized cargo truck hitting the brakes at the last minute.
Except that in space true sound was impossible and thus no vibrations of screeching inertial dampening reached the ears of anyone on the Ring.
By the time the general noticed Acier having left, he was already midway across the bay floor still moving with the haste of a man homesick but weakened by his journey. Then at last the tear reached a complete stop and mechanized crank levers were yanked to shift the docking cranes to hold the nose steady. Equipped with arm-thick rubber pads meant to lessen the inertia of badly designed mining transport ships, the cranes seemed to find their job half-done by the alien ship's own inertia dampening mechanisms.
KZAK MOTUL COMPRIETA, came the sudden echo of Acier's queen through a subspace communications link. Oh and how he longed to see her face to face once again.
He reached the beam and stepped in, completely aware of the numerous humans probably thinking this suicide. Truthfully, however, it was like stepping into a hot bath. His body began feeling regenerated and his mind more fluid in a matter of Earthean seconds. In the beam of light Acier began to disrobe of his human life-suit and let the artificial skin pucker and shrink as moisture was wicked away by the lack of pressure.
Soon his whole human form was as dry as baked clay, a human statue void of color and life, as the humans might see it.
But Acier knew this wasn't the case. To his own eyes, hidden away underneath the artificially-grown human flesh, he tasted the dull tones of grey and alabaster white, he inhaled the deathly sulfuric mist that resided between the membranous cells, and relished the cool sensation of open space once again.
It was then that the general reached the outer edge of the beam. His hesitation emanated from him as much as the putrid smell of his fear, but it was the determination that had Acier second-guessing the coming events. As denuded as he was, to the general Acier would seem to either have committed suicide or have been the first casualty in an interstellar war.
It was the time-adopted human in Acier that cursed the infamous Hollywood for making the man feel this way. Knowing he had very little time, the no-longer-human Acier quickly shook himself into a violent convulsion and let his true self break free of the essentially freeze-dried flesh.
This was why the beam had been set up. If the humans saw this they would think his coming out to be a virtual act of war, much like if a violent Russian spy were to let himself become known as so in the inner chambers of the British consulate.
The flecks of dead flesh floated outward, toward the edge of the beam, threatening to override all that had been done to keep this peaceful. Acier shot his broad face skyward and into the light source, and snapped out a color signal across the white tendrils crowning his skull. Instantly the light shut off and the bay went completely black in comparison.
Then the doors of the nose opened as the humans set up their own light sources, and several of the alien race slowly began falling to the bay floor around their liaison.
When the general's eyes attributed for the change in light, he stared in complete shock. Before the man stood seven previously unseen beings; bipeds with limbs as thin as bars. Their skin was puckered and loose, much like the heads of the many turkey-vultures that Acier had come to see on Earth, yet were toned with a much wider variety of colors.
Acier stepped toward his previous guide and looked at himself in the man's visor. His broad, flat head was back to what it should have been, with opaque tentacle-like tendrils where glimmers of colorful light reflected as though in fiber optic cables. His eyes blinked vertically once more, over primarily black eyes, with pupils glowing chartreuse speckled with green.
“Thank you,” Acier bowed his head to the general, who still stared with his mouth agape under his visor. His words, unbeknownst to the general, had been what the humans might highly consider as telepathic, though really Acier knew them to be subspace vibrations which humans had yet to realize their ability to decipher. Had they figured this out yet, that their brains could detect the movement of particles in a lesser, energetic realm of physics, then these apes would have been able to do away with even the slightest of both wired and wireless communication lines.
There was a long pause while Acier flickered his tendrils to explain to his comrades the many odd ways of the human species, until the general stammered out a rough cough. “Y-you speak English?”
Acier's tendrils wavered with amused cheer. The man hadn’t even caught onto the fact that the sound existed out of his own center of truth. “Yes, and what you call German, as well as seven others which I have deemed of utmost importance to know.” He sighed languorously at finally being able to express his words in a form as natural to his kind as breathing was for humans.
In more than one way, it had felt as though Acier had been holding his breath for all this time, lost in a world of water and ice like a bird of the tropics submerged in pools of the arctic.
Men at the outer rim of the docking bay shifted closer and Acier felt his comrades tense in response. Switching back to his own language, he turned to face the others. “Fear not, friends,” he released, “these are human ways which even I still barely understand. They are in awe, a human idea for instant worship of the relative nature.”
The others around him barely contained their unease, proving Acier's upcoming job to be even more work than he'd expected. Somehow he would have to get his own kind to stay at ease in the presence of a species with completely opposite social norms.
The general stepped back and looked toward the planetary officials in the pressure chambers on one side of the bay. “We should go to them, they haven't enough suits to all come out here.”
Acier nodded over his shoulder. “First let me speak with my Queen.”
“Is she not with you already?”
“No, human,” Acier paused to think of the best way to put it. Finally deciding upon Spanish, he indicated the six others of his kind, “se trata de lo que podríamos llamar: sus guardaespaldas.”
One good thing about the human technology was that each suit had been installed with an automatic translation device also connected to their brains by small wires to sense thoughts and translate even as the words were spoken, using standard programs updated at each consulate each and every month. As the machines claimed possible, the signals that the general was hearing from Acier in his head were counted by his sensor and relayed out in English for him.
“Ah,” he nodded back. “Then let me guide these... men?”
“You are... mostly correct.” Acier darted his eyes to Gylar in the rear, striking in her deep maroon-toned skin, and smiled. She, however, was not amused.
The general caught Acier's glance and smiled as well. “Well let me – dare I say it – take you to my leaders.” He let out a loud guffaw of laughter at which Acier's fellows jumped with palms instantly reaching for their heads. The general scowled. “Did I...”
“No, friend,” the liaison mumbled, “you did nothing wrong. It is simply that to us that sound is what most-often precludes a shrill birthing ceremony. Very loud, and very much something my kind do not enjoy.”
As the general nodded and looked around for the German politician, Acier bowed his head and stepped back behind his fellows. "I leave you to care for my comrades, general, for now I must meet with my Queen." The light suddenly struck back on and consumed the sight of him as he vaulted up toward the main guest hatch to his queen's ship.
* * * *
Acier arrived on the floor of the Tear bridge with a soft shush. His feet first hit the smooth metal alloy meant to feel more like the ground cover foliage back home. The sensation was as pleasing as reaching his home world once again with the intent to stay.
It would never happen, he knew, especially since his kind had long since expired in this desolate universe. Only the ability to preserve their remnants had saved the entirety of Acier’s race as such individuals had been slingshotted themselves into deep space using the large gravitational pull of the nearing sun. Acier had been awoken years ago, by the queen herself, sole survivor of the Elders, a lone soul in the universe dedicating the rest of her existence to seeking out others like her; others with the physical inability to expire without some severe exorbitant force that could push them from this realm.
As is, she kept herself at the heart of the Tear, feeling everything, knowing all. Wires had been installed into her tendrils to allow her complete cognitive control of what could be called her majesty’s escape pod.
Acier moved through the seats to reach a cordoned octagon of red in the floor, then closed his eyes and let his queen choose if he could come to her.
With a clank followed by a hiss, his queen activated the floor mechanisms and he began to descend level by level into the deep regions of the Tear. Whole floors passed by in slow succession as the blue-white lights of the surrounding hallways seemed to scan him.
He watched carefully, relishing the sights of his kind again. Here a floor of livestock, tall lanky spheroid beasts on stilt-like legs with deep azure filaments that grew from various openings in their sides. The filaments were prized for the superb flavoring capabilities when mixed into various dishes, while also providing plenty of sustainable energy for the light of healthy tendrils. Then came a floor of open rooms where silver boxes had been stacked with supplies from their home planet, now a mausoleum of originals to be scanned and replicated due to the impossibility of ever getting more.
Acier grimaced. He had family back there, a loving self-daughter whom he had once thought would take his place onboard the starship cruisers one day. He’d had a home; nothing too large, a simple ord’ui floating over a plot of gerha jungle where he once wished to raise more self-kin and reach out to begin new genetic codes with a female he’d met in the academy of Jk’Nal.
But all of that was gone now, along with his ability to self-replicate.
Somehow, in the turmoil of the aptly-named Tear fleeing from an exploding sun mere light years before it happened, his body had closed itself off from being able to self-replicate. That was why he’d chosen to undertake this mission: to take upon himself that one mission required of one lifeform of his genetic sequence access to the realms of the Elders. And since he was alive and capable of acknowledging his sequence, truth dictated that his genetic sequence had yet to achieve this greatness.
It was odd, Acier noted, that many of the human religions and beliefs had almost strikingly similar ideas, and yet they knew not how close to the universal truth they had come.
He passed a level of bedding material grown artificially from jungle organisms believing their blue UV light to be the sun that no longer existed in this realm. Waves of moist air rolled over him, thickening the shaft airspace like the wafts of solid carbon dioxide. And still the floor descended, as though intending to reach the very base of the Tear, itself.
Finally an orange glow began to consume the fog that still held at Acier’s feet and spilled into the shaft like a gaseous waterfall from above. He let his eyes close as he breathed his preparatory breaths. While he knew his queen well, Acier had never actually met her face-to-face. It would have been damning for any of his kind to see her before the ship had come to a halt, as taking her mind from her tasks could have resulted in catastrophic collisions with free-ranging asteroids or planetary debris.
As is, she had been forced to swerve the ship twice since entering the nearby area of this planetary system, due to electrical arrays sent out in relative arcs from the human homeworld, and once again three planets out.
The fog around Acier thickened and grew, now more orange than blue-gray. At this, he knew the floor was almost at the bottom where the fog collected during the times when the ship was at a standstill. He felt the floor slow, and a loud metallic shudder emanated as the floor he stood on ceased descending with an orange fog consuming him as though he’d been dropped into a vat of dye.
Instantly he kneeled to place his forehead on the chilled floor, laying his tendrils flat and void of color in outward lines from there. “My queen,” he released.
My son, Acier the Brave.
Her voice tickled in his head, placing colors he’d never seen at the forefront of his thoughts. Her grace touched him with a severe loneliness that his body absorbed like a sponge submerged.
It is good to feel your presence again.
Suddenly the orange shifted, slowly altering to a placid rose pink. He couldn’t help but raise his head to take it all in. It was magnificent. The fog swirled with vortexes he couldn’t feel, while dancing with hues of white and faded blue-greys in whirlpools of light specked with the debris of darkness. “My queen,” he whispered, unable to contain his awe, “your presence...” he searched for the right words to describe it, for some way to portray his feelings for such glamorous beauty.
I know, my son. She cooed against his mind, her touch as gentle and tender as a lover, and you have done well, Acier. Your bravery in facing your mission has brought your sequence much honor.
It was more than he could bear, the magnanimity of his gracious reverential wonder brought tears to his eyes. He felt them linger at the base of his vertical eyelids before tracing his cheeks to his chin, then as they broke free and splished on the floor beneath him.
He felt as her majesty seemed to chuckle, the fog taking on a faint green glimmer to one side before returning to pink. Come here, oh Acier, come closer to me so that I might bestow upon you my image.
Acier looked, wide-eyed, in the direction that the green had been. She was serious. He leaned back onto shaky legs and attempted to let the lessened gravity carry him toward her. This was precisely what he’d expected, yet now that it was happening he felt it blasphemously wrong. Her body should never be seen, her image never be shown.
It was an act worthy of death to look upon an Elder, and yet the willing gift meant more honor to a genetic sequence than the triumph of war or genetic variance. Such a gift could practically raise him to the status of Elder in the next realm, forevermore he would be second only to his queen and her kind.
Never before had such an honor been given to a sequence as low as Acier’s. Even the late leader of his nation had been denied such a privilege.
His footsteps echoed in the vast room, tracing depths unseen through such thick clouds of color and moisture. Each step was a travesty of hesitation and fear. He battled the thought of fleeing as such a gift seemed beyond his ability to handle. With each successive step, he found a darkening shadow nearing him with light coming from all around.
Finally he stopped. This was it. One more step and he would see her as more than just a silhouette. One more step and he could never take it back.
He lifted his foot to step forward, his leg slowly tracing into deeper swirling patterns in the pink light... then stopped and took a hasty step back before throwing himself to the ground in a reverential bow.
“Forgive me, my queen,” he released as though it had been pent up inside him for ages on end. “I do not deserve this honor, for that I am grateful that you even offered, yet I feel there is more to do yet that I have not been able to discover.”
A delicate laugh lit the room with ruby and purple spots arcing about like fireflies in the backdrop of light rose-pink. You are wise beyond your years, my son, she cooed. And you are, indeed, correct: I do not sense an Elder within this planet.
Acier let tears once again ravage his cheeks. The thought that he’d almost done it blew him away. The fact that he almost desecrated his sequence not moments after achieving such greatness took all his awe and turned it sour within his core. Had he been any bit less hesitant, he would have ruined his sequence for all of eternity.
Stammering, he let his lips quiver words into the audible realm. “So what do we do now, my queen? They will wish to meet you and our brothers still in hibernation.”
Well as my expert in Earthaen affairs, what would you have me command?
He thought about it, noting the various disciplines on the surface that would attribute their sudden departure as an act of terror, as an act of fleeing from what the humans believed themselves as an impossible force of power. The humans would think Acier’s kind had been sent to judge the human strength to determine if the planet could be taken in some universal game of conquest. If the Tear left too quickly, the humans would forever seek out his species to exact upon them the terror only their own race knew. They would claim it wrong that his kind chose to keep their interstellar technology from them, that his species could dip as deeply into petty squabbles as the hoarding of knowledge.
Yet if they did not move on soon, the Elders out there may never seen his queen before their own stars blew out.
“My queen,” Acier released as calmly as he could in an attempt to show how strongly he believed this wise, “I suggest we stay to resupply, sell our secrets for items the humans might think of as valuable. If we ask for resources such as all the scientific knowledge they have gained, in exchange for some of our own, they will not have reason to come after us.”
Once again, my son, you are wise beyond your sequence. She reached out for his mind and left a lingering series of colors as vivid as a kiss that would last forever. It is too bad your honor wouldn’t let you come closer to receive my image.
At that the pink light faded to a low orange again and Acier made his way to the platform to return to the Ring. From here, Acier knew he was in charge of anything related to the Earthaens and their planet. Once he felt it to be a decent enough stay with the sentient apes, Acier would have his people return to the Tear and their journey to recommence for the next planet with life.
Somewhere out there would be another Elder for his queen to rekindle with. Somewhere and sometime, he hoped to be sooner rather than later, he would make sure his queen saw another of her own kind. Acier just wished it could happen before he saw an end to his sequence, and his life as a whole.