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Denizens: 24 - Alien

...The being stopped about three meters away, and they both started when the voice sounded clearly.

[I bid you welcome].

Bill stared hard at the alien. He was certain the man had not moved his lips, nor had the voice sounded aloud, yet he had heard it clearly. He tried to speak, cleared his throat, and tried again.

“What did you do to my rifle?”...

After their spaceship Hermes has crashed into the sea of an alien planet there's is first contact between humans and another intelligent being.

Brian William Neal's sci-fi novel is a thrilling read. Come on, lose yourself in another world! If you are coming to the story for the first time you can find earlier chapters of this epic tale by clicking on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Miktat ’entau Kallechaem instructed his skimmer to follow the beings that had emerged from the strange vessel. The symbiote that was the essence of the machine received his mental command and reacted with smooth efficiency, and the skimmer glided soundlessly over the water towards the shore. Carefully keeping a safe distance between himself and the alien vessels, he thought over the strange things he had seen that day.

A ship from the skies! So the Academy had been wrong after all, when they said there would be no more visitors from the stars. No matter what the occupants of the alien ship turned out to be, he and his Guild of Astronomers had been vindicated. The Academy, and ’klor in particular, had been wrong!
He wondered at the aliens’ odd behavior; they had seen his observer ’droid, that much was certain. He had deliberately exposed it to show his peaceful intentions, but they had not reacted. This first meeting was extremely delicate, and he knew from past experience that he must not do anything that might cause the aliens to mistrust him, or take offense.

His skimmer’s sensors had recorded the aliens’ evacuation of their craft; that had been a surprise. Doubtless they intended to retrieve it at their leisure, but to simply allow it to sink spoke of a casualness he found not only odd, but also a little disturbing.

The aliens themselves had been an enormous shock to him, one from which he was still reeling. He, like all the others in the Guild who had remained on the planet, had expected almost anything other than what had actually occurred. It had been many cycles since there had been any visitors to the home world, but they had been prepared, so they thought, for anything.

What they had not anticipated, what they had never imagined, was that the visitors would be human.
At least, he admonished himself, they appeared human. Perhaps they were able to assume any shape they wished, and had adopted this familiar form to put him and his people at ease. For whatever reason. Anything is possible, nothing that can be thought can be unthinkable. He repeated the Guild’s litany to himself and, with an effort, brought his excitement under control.

The council had been alerted to the alien ship’s presence, but it had been some time before the elders had acted. Finally, they had agreed that someone should follow and observe them, and that honor had fallen to him. No doubt, the council was still engaged in debate over whether the reports were true, and what course of action they should take. Well, he thought, let them. While they dithered, he, Miktat ’entau Kallechaem, called ’tau, would act. He would be the first of his race to greet these visitors, and would make them welcome.

*

Karen Purdy walked slowly along the narrow track, pausing now and then to examine the lush flora and to listen for sounds of activity around her. A few of the plants and trees of the forest were similar to some varieties found on earth, but many others were of unrecognizable species. Stopping to listen again to the forest, she knew there was something wrong with it, something missing. After a moment, she had it; there was no bird-song, none at all, just as there had been no sea-birds at the beach or on the water.

An unpleasant thought struck her; maybe they have something other than birds here. Earthly science had finally accepted that at least some species of dinosaurs had evolved into birds, while the rest had died out. Maybe on this world they hadn’t, she thought. She looked about uneasily and began to wonder if this excursion had been such a good idea. Although she hated to admit it, maybe she ought to have listened to Cal. Thinking of the American pilot brought a flush to her cheeks and a tingling to her body that she immediately suppressed. She had kept herself to herself for almost two years now; although, if their home really was gone, there was no one but her companions left to impress with her professional conduct.

She still felt her initial attraction to Cal, but he had been a perfect gentleman, and had not given her any sign that he felt anything for her. Bill O’Rourke, on the other hand, was definitely interested, but not annoyingly so; she found him nice, and fun to be with, although there was an underlying sadness to him that she detected through the veneer of laid-back good cheer in which he encased himself.

Men, she thought. Well, she had gone without them for more than four years now, and she could continue to do so. Her self-help sessions alone in her quarters on the Hermes didn’t count, so a plague on them all. All except Jonathan; he was a lovely man, a saint. If the rest of them were finding things difficult, it must be all but unbearable for him, yet he never complained, and was always pleasant and polite. She felt so sorry for him, with his affliction, but he bore it all with unfailing good humor.

Karen walked on for a few minutes, her unease fading as she began to enjoy the exercise, until she came to the edge of a small clearing. It was about fifty meters across, and appeared natural, although without some frame of reference it was difficult to tell just what was natural and what was not. Staying at the clearing’s edge, she moved around its perimeter, senses alert, listening and watching for any sound or movement.

*

Bill O’Rourke remained hidden close by Karen’s position, behind a clump of short, stubby trees. As he watched her move away from him around the clearing, there came a crashing sound from the far side; something large was approaching. Settling himself against one of the trees, he touched the cocking mechanism on the Browning 15 mm twenty-five shot rifle, and turned on the telescopic laser sight. Then he rested the rifle in a notch in the branches and nestled the butt into his shoulder, gripping it strongly. He had test-fired the weapon on earth; as with all large caliber firearms, there was some recoil, or kick, but no more than from a regular twelve-gauge shotgun. Keeping both eyes open in the correct manner, he sighted through the ’scope at the far side of the clearing and waited.

’tau, unseen by either of the humans, watched their behavior closely. The female (it had to be a female, the resemblance to those of his own kind was too close for it to be otherwise) appeared to be exploring, while the male following her seemed to be deliberately keeping out of her sight. Now, they were both becoming alarmed by the sound of the approaching tark. ’tau stared in astonishment as he saw the male aiming what appeared to be a weapon. What was he doing? Surely he could tell that the creature was harmless!

At that moment, the large lumbering form of the leaf-eating herbivore crashed slowly through the trees and into the clearing. Bill heard Karen’s stifled scream, and sighted the ’scope on the head of the fearsome looking beast, which resembled a rhinoceros, only somewhat larger. It plodded shamblingly towards Karen’s position, and Bill took up first pressure on the trigger of his rifle. Then he took a breath, held it, and squeezed.

To his astonishment, all that happened was that his laser sight turned itself off.

Bill stared at the useless weapon in his hands, then saw the creature move slowly away from them into the bush again. He watched for a moment to be sure it was not coming back, then looked at the rifle. To his complete consternation, the sight was operative again!

He lifted his head, looking for Karen, and saw a man walk into the clearing. His initial alarm was replaced, almost immediately, by a strong feeling that the newcomer meant no harm. Switching off the laser and shouldering the rifle, Bill stepped from the trees in to the clearing. At the same moment, Karen emerged from where she had been hiding, and the engineer quickly moved to her side. She gave him an accusing look, but said nothing, and together they watched the approach of the man.

He was very tall, easily two meters, and he had very large, dark eyes in a face that was all angles and planes. He had a prominent hooked nose, and wore a neatly trimmed black beard and looked, to Bill and Karen, like an earthman of Middle Eastern stock. He wore long, flowing robes and, despite his imposing appearance, they found nothing threatening in his manner, and instead felt a calm detachment. Although Bill knew there were things he ought to be doing, things his survival training had taught him, he simply stood there, the rifle on his shoulder pointed at the sky.

The being stopped about three meters away, and they both started when the voice sounded clearly.

[I bid you welcome].

Bill stared hard at the alien. He was certain the man had not moved his lips, nor had the voice sounded aloud, yet he had heard it clearly. He tried to speak, cleared his throat, and tried again.
“What did you do to my rifle?”

The alien looked at him curiously, then at Karen. The voice sounded again, clear and unmistakable. [Why do you utter sound aloud? Are not your thoughts enough? Come, do not shield them from me. I mean you no harm].

Bill and Karen looked at each other uncertainly, then Karen said, “We are not intentionally blocking our thoughts from you. We do not have your gift of speaking with the mind.”

The alien tried hard to keep the astonishment from his face as he digested this incredible revelation. Not to speak with the mind! Doomed to a life of ambiguous vocal communication! In all of his people’s contacts with alien life-forms, ’tau had never heard of such a thing. He could, nevertheless, communicate with them; the sounds the aliens made were a meaningless jumble, but their minds were open and he was able to discern their meaning clearly. Still, he felt pity for them, that they could not consciously send their thoughts to him. However, the fact that they could receive his meant that they had, or once had, the ability of mind-speech. Perhaps their species had forgotten how it was done, although he found it difficult to imagine anyone knowingly doing such a thing. He sensed their feelings of disquiet, and calmed them, sending, [Are there others of your kind here?]

Karen looked at Bill, who shook his head; she bit her lip, then made a decision. “Yes, there are,” she said. “They are quite near. Will you come with us to meet them?”

[Of course], replied the alien. [That is why I am here].

He said nothing more, just stood quietly, obviously waiting for the two humans to take the initiative. After an uncertain pause, Karen touched Bill on the arm, and set off in the direction of their camp. Bill tried to protest, but she ignored him; resigned, he followed, with the alien trailing after them, some twenty paces or so behind.

Jesus Harold Christ on a golden palomino, thought Bill. What the hell are the others going to make of this?

*

When Karen and Bill walked out of the trees to the small strip of grass where they had made their camp, Cal was busy rigging a windbreak beside their tents. Jonathan sat in his wheelchair, a small personal computer on his lap, and they both looked up as the two approached. Karen thought she detected a note of relief in his greeting, and was both surprised and pleased at her reaction to his concern.

“Well, it’s about time,” said Cal, struggling with the sheet of plastic against the breeze, which had definitely strengthened. “Come and lend a hand, will you?”

When they didn’t reply, he looked at them again, and this time saw the alien emerge from the trees. For once, the American was lost for words. Jonathan looked up from his work and said nothing, studying the new arrival keenly.

The alien looked at them, then crossed to where the Englishman sat and bowed his head briefly.
[I bid you welcome].

After only a short hesitation, Jonathan said, “I thank you. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
The alien looked at Jonathan curiously; a puzzled look passed over his features, then cleared as comprehension dawned.

[Forgive me], he sent. [I was unaware of your affliction. Why do you endure it?]

Jonathan returned the alien’s frank, open gaze. “It is not by choice. It is something for which our science has no remedy.”

Once again the alien struggled to contain his surprise, and Jonathan said, “I ask you again. Who are you, and what is this place?”

The alien drew himself up and addressed them all. [I am Miktat ’entau Kallechaem, of the Astronomer Guild. I am here to formally welcome you to the world of…] he paused, then went on. [There is no direct translation in your thoughts for the name of our world. The nearest I can find is Gaia, the living planet]. He paused again, then smiled. [My name will be difficult for you. Those who know me well call me ’tau].

Jonathan smiled back, and held out his hand. “Very well, ’tau. I’m very pleased to meet you. My name is Jonathan.”

’Tau looked uncertainly at the earthman’s outstretched hand, then tentatively reached out and touched it with his own. No one spoke or moved. It was a singular moment in time, and all present felt strongly the sense of history being made, and of greatness on the wind.

All through this exchange, the other three astronauts had been silently watching, unsure of how to handle the situation. Now, Karen came nervously forward, her hand outstretched. At this, the ice was broken, and in a moment, all the travelers were crowded round the newcomer, introducing themselves and all talking at once. ’Tau again turned to Jonathan, but before he could send his thoughts, Jonathan said, “I think you should direct your thoughts to Cal. He is our leader.”

’Tau looked at the Englishman in surprise, then turned to Cal. [Forgive me], he sent. [I naturally assumed that the strongest intellect would be your leader. I hope I have not offended you in any way].

Cal smiled. “No, not at all. Where we come from, no one’s as smart as the professor. No offense taken.” Cal took the lead and guided the alien to a seat out of the wind. Then the four members of the Hermes team gave the alien a condensed version of their travels, and of where they had come from, as well as where they had been.

’Tau showed no surprise or disbelief at any of their story, not even when they told of the strange beings that lived beyond light speed, and the time-traveling effect that passing the barrier had had upon them and their ship.

When their story was told, he sent, [Why did you allow your ship to sink beneath the water? Is it your intention to salvage it later?]

The astronauts looked at each other, and Cal said, “We didn’t have much choice. It was badly damaged during the landing, and we had no way of preventing it from sinking.” He smiled wryly. “As for retrieving it, I don’t think it would be of much use to us, even if we could reach it in such a depth of water.”

The alien continued to look puzzled, and sent, [Why? Surely, it is a simple enough matter to raise it?]

When the others indicated that they did not know what he meant, ’tau remembered that their ship was not constructed of Kivvex. He briefly explained its properties to them, and the astronauts learned, for the first time, of the fabulous substance around which their destinies would be woven.

The travelers listened, fascinated, as the alien told them of the marvelous metal. When ’tau paused in his narrative, Cal said, “Would it be possible for us to meet some more of your people?”

“Yeah,” said Bill. “As we say on our world, take us to your leaders.” He smiled to show he was joking, but the alien did not reply.

The others noticed the change in ’tau’s mood instantly. “What is it?” asked Bill. “What did I say?”

Karen shushed him. “What’s wrong, ’tau?” she asked. “Where are the rest of your people?” Still the alien did not reply, and Jonathan said, “We have noticed that there seems to be no one else around, ’tau. Has something happened to your folk? Have they suffered some disaster, or something of the sort?”

’Tau was silent for a moment more, then sent,[Very well. If you wish to meet more of my people, I will take you to them]. Then he stood, and without another word strode off along the track and into the forest. The four watched him go, uncertain of what to do, then Jonathan powered his wheelchair over the remarkably even ground, and the others followed after him.

They followed the track for a few hundred meters and emerged from the forest into a cleared area with a smooth path running through it, similar to paved road, but smoother, almost like a plastic. Around them, the land showed signs of once having been an area of rolling parkland that was lapsing back into its natural state, either by design or from neglect. If ’tau picked up their thoughts, he gave no sign.

He led them towards a smooth-fronted building, one of many they had seen in their approach over the city. Its tall spires seemed to go up and out of sight into the blue of the sky, which was beginning to cloud over again. The breeze had stiffened, but the air was still very warm.

As they drew closer to the building, its vast scale could be better appreciated. Cal looked at it in amazement; it had to be almost a thousand meters high, far taller than anything in any earthly city. He glanced around again, but saw no one, and there was no sound. Following their guide, the four headed for a small black rectangle set into the otherwise featureless gray of the building’s façade.

’Tau walked straight up to the door, for that is what they knew it must be; it immediately slid soundlessly aside, and he beckoned the travelers through. Without hesitation, Jonathan fed power to his chair, and followed the alien inside the massive edifice. Seeing no alternative, the others did the same.

Immediately after Bill, who was bringing up the rear, entered the building, the door slid shut behind them. It did not escape their notice that none of them knew how to open it, since ’tau appeared to have done so with the power of his mind. For better or for worse, they were in unknown territory, and at the mercy of their host.


***

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