Short story: Plural
Alien intelligence is of no interest to Earthlings desperate for a new source of protein. By Lia Swope Mitchell.
The aliens come in peace, as they always do, bearing gifts and a banner printed with hopeful messages. Universal understanding, sharing and collaboration, the usual thing: 300-year-old language cribbed from the Bebo time capsule. We install them in the quarantine tank and leave them alone. We're still processing the previous group.
The predecessors were large, their plump thigh muscles well marbled with fat. We’re dressing them in herbs and slow-roasting them, and the flavour is good, rich and unctuous, the fibres softened by their long voyage in low-G. The rest we’re making into sausage, confit, and stock. We’ve been lucky this year, with three groups since spring. Sometimes we go a long time without meat; at least real meat, better than the crawlers and birds, tiny dust-flavoured things full of bones.
These new ones aren’t impressive, as aliens go. Maybe reptilian: small and sweet-fleshed. Ten forlorn figures in blue smocks, they sit on the sterile-sheeted beds and do not speak or gesture much, exchange only occasional glances. From this we conclude that they communicate telepathically. After a few hours, though, one falls ill, probably from some unfamiliar bacteria. Greenish saliva drips from its mouth onto a pillow. Soon enough they might all be infected, and already this is no great harvest.
Normally we refrain from extended communication with aliens, but given the possibility of new technology, we decide to see what information they can offer.
The first gift is plants, miniature trees bearing sour marble-sized drupes. Alien plants are rarely hardy enough, although we try. Under our red-eyed sun they wither quickly, and even within the shade and cool of the Complex they give too little in exchange for the water required. Our own plants have adapted to heat and dust. They stand tough and proud in bristling rows, radiating out into the dustplains. Most years they’re enough, as long as our numbers are controlled. But any supplements that arrive, while they last, are welcome.
They brought another gift, too: squares of a glass-like material, several thin layers pressed together around dull silvery skins, about 10 centimetres across. Close examination reveals no obvious function, but they’re not particularly decorative, either. The inner material is metallic but not metal, not a mineral at all. Normally we refrain from extended communication with aliens, but given the possibility of new technology, we decide to see what information they can offer.
After some discussion, Reception selects an ambassador. Sub-engineer Tres is the smallest Reception tech, physically unthreatening even to these small aliens. We dress her in a white robe and place metal circlets around her waist, throat and wrists, a tiara on her head. Worthless old-world trinkets, but aliens often interpret them as signs of importance. She looks right. A good-enough representative for us, the collective remainders of the human race.
“Like a prince,” Tres says to Doz, laughing at her image on screen.
“A princess,” he corrects. He turns the square over in his hands, examining the threadline of its silver layer. “Here, take this thing. Whatever it is.”
“You think ...” Tres takes the square, smiles. Frowns. “It’s OK, of course.”
Doz snorts. Of all the aliens he’s seen – 26 species during his eight-year tenure as head of Reception – these froggish things are some of the least intimidating. But Tres is 16 years younger, new to this work. “You’ll be in the tube the whole time. Any trouble, we’ll just gas the room. We’ll have to sooner or later anyway.”
“Yeah, but ... I mean.” She looks again at the screen, her reflection so different from usual. Usual is an oil-stained grey overall bagging around her body, boots on her feet and a microviewer strapped to her shaven head. Not this slim, glittering figure out of a children’s story. She straightens out of her habitual slouch, rotates to assess this change to her spinal curvature. “They’re intelligent and everything.”
“Not intelligent enough to avoid landing here. They get a signal 300 years old and don’t consider maybe things changed? They don’t bother with a climate assessment? Yeah, I don’t think they’re that smart.”
“Well ... still ...”
“Look, princess. Food chain’s the food chain. You wanna be on top, right?”
“Because the alternative sucks.” Tres nods, face down and flushed. Doz grins, chucks her on the shoulder to dispel her unease; she’s fresh from the restricted vegetarian diet of the Unskilled population, raised on horror stories about secret cannibal gangs. He remembers what that’s like. “Anyway. I see these critters sliced thin and deep-fried. Sound good?”
Tres returns the grin. “With some nopal jelly on the side.”
“Let’s get this done, then.”
In the centre of the quarantine tank the visitation tube makes its slow descent. Sealed within its glass, Tres stands with one placating hand held open before her, waiting for the aliens’ attention. Their eyes are large, dark and inquisitive, set wide so they swivel their heads back and forth, considering her from one side and then the other, as birds do. Whether they’re ill, or whether their skin, grey-green and loosely delicate like wrinkled silk, just gives them a sickly appearance, it’s difficult to tell.
Tres holds out the silver square. The aliens watch quietly. “Greetings.” Tres emphasises nouns as instructed. “Welcome. And gratitude for your gifts.”
Her voice evokes some small reaction; the aliens turn to each other, and two stand. Like the others, no doubt they’ve analysed the recordings of human voices in the Bebo messages, but aliens whose communications are not sound-based are often confused by speech, if they’re even equipped to perceive it.
“Request for a demonstration,” she says, and waves a querying hand over the glass.
After a few moments of visual consultation, an alien rises and approaches. The others follow at a small distance behind, all their faces equally still and blank. Their round, pudgy bodies stand on strangely angled legs, skinny arms dangling around narrow chests. Their movements are jerky, as if they’re falling forward. As if walking is new to them. The gravity, perhaps.
They circle the quarantine tube and stretch out their long fingers towards her, the bulbous pads making gray ellipses on the glass.
Although some revulsion is natural in the presence of aliens, Tres does not allow her expression to alter. There’s no sign that their telepathic sensitivity could be great enough to breach her mind – it is extremely rare that a telepathic being can communicate directly with a non-telepathic one, in most cases no more possible than sending a transmission to someone with no receiver – but Tres still glances up at the security monitor.
“Go ahead, it’s all right,” says Doz in her earbud. He leans over Otto at the controls, getting a better angle on the monitor. Tres slides the small communication window open, offering the square. The cuff around her wrist shines gold, its red stones dull under the diffuse light.
The aliens move in unison, a swift and sudden pounce from all sides, their fingers now pressed against the surface of the square, their round, hairless heads now bent over it. Tres falters back the one step that the tube allows, but does not let go. Her shoulders square, the lines of her white robe fall straight and still from her waist to the floor.
“Good,” Doz’s voice whispers. “Hang on. See what they do.”
They do nothing, as far as we can tell. But the square lights beneath their fingers, gathering brilliance from the contact, their eyes no longer black but emanating a dark, ruby glow. The tube’s interior walls reflect streaks of red, a blinding white light. For a second we see nothing.
But then the aliens let go. All at once they step back and drop to an easy crouching position; several down to all fours. They turn their heads from side to side, aiming at each other eyes once again a dull black. One crouches further and urinates briefly, then takes a few loping steps away from its puddle and makes a bleating sound. The others take it up, their chorus intensifying quickly. One hops, tentatively at first, then higher. And then suddenly they’re all hopping, on and off the beds and around and against the walls, against the tube, in a whirling, thudding cacophony of impacts and high-pitched cries.
“What the hell,” says Otto in the observation pod.
“Gas it,” Doz says. “Close the window and gas the things. Now.”
The tube’s communication window slides shut at Otto’s remote command, protecting Tres inside. A yellow warning light flashes to indicate that odorless, invisible gas is filling the quarantine tank to silence whatever happens to be within. The aliens continue hopping and bleating at first, but after a minute, one by one they stop, drop onto their haunches. They look stupidly about them and let out weak little bleats.
“Tres?” Doz calls. “You OK?”
There’s no answer; Tres sits slumped, unconscious on the floor of the tube in all her princess finery. On her lap, within the folds of the robe, the square shines its dull silver.
“Musta freaked her out.” Otto hits the command to retract the tube. “Bloody animals.”
Tres rises up towards the ceiling. Around the tube the aliens loll on their sides, their round bellies heaving with sleep. The gas is gentle and slow-acting; it’s humane. No alarm, no suffering. When Processing techs come in to hang the bodies and slit the throats, there will be no taint to the meat.
When Tres wakes in the Medcentre, Doz is pacing outside her room, fielding protests from Sett in Processing. They’re overloaded, they’re storing everything as quickly as possible but what do we expect? Toxicity checks take time. Confit and stock take time.
“Yeah, well, isn’t that what the flash freeze is for?” Doz snaps, then notices, as he passes the doorway again, that Tres is sitting up, her eyes open.
Sett’s still arguing – two more days, that’s all she asked – but Doz clicks the transceiver off. “Hey there.”
Tres looks up with a steady gaze, her eyes wide and dark, seemingly surprised to find him there in her doorway.
“How you feeling?”
“Plural,” she says. “Select control.”
A few long seconds pass. She’s less awake than she seems, he thinks, or maybe drugged after all – the Med shift super said she wasn’t but Med messes up sometimes like anyone. Eventually, though, a twitch goes around her mouth and she blinks several times, then detaches her gaze from him abruptly. “Oh. Um ... confused.”
“Yeah. Got weird in there, didn’t it?”
She stretches her hands out in front of her face, stares from one to another, as if assessing their strength, counting their fingers. Doz wonders if maybe she got a whiff of the gas as the window closed. It’s a neurotoxin, after all.
“But it just goes to show, we did the right thing,” he continues. “Those things got aggressive, right?”
Her hands drop. She sighs.
“Look, I’m gonna – I’ll grab someone to check on you. OK?”
“My square?” she asks.
“Oh, it’s ... on the chair, next to you. Tech is looking ...” His transceiver lets out a sharp buzz. Sett again, this time with her name in red letters. Important. “Fine, OK. I’ll be right back. Yes, what.” Doz goes out into the hall, waves at a passing Med and points him into Tres’s room.
“So, on a different topic,” Sett’s saying, “these are supposed to be intelligent aliens, correct?”
“Well ... capable of space travel, anyway.”
“Right. Can you come down to Processing? We’re doing the dissection and there’s something ... well, it’s a bit odd, is all.”
Doz glances in at Tres. She’s found the square, apparently; she’s holding it, shifting its shiny surface in her hands with a dazed, open-mouthed interest that for some reason he doesn’t like at all. The Med tech’s leaning over her, reaching down to take it, murmuring some comforting, unintelligible thing.
Doz decides he’s done his duty as Super: checked her status, called appropriate staff. She isn’t even hurt, really. There’s no further reason to hang around.
“Dissection, huh,” he says to Sett. “Count me in.”
In Processing the noise is deafening: bone saws, knives hammering against cutting boards and clanging onto metal counters, workers yelling to each other, and above it all the roar of ventilation hoods to carry away the steam and ever-present stench of wada seed and nopal fermentation. Amid the heat and racket waits Sett, slim and stern in her faded black overall. She’s been Super of Processing longer than Doz has worked in Reception. When she looks at him, he always feels strangely broken down into his component parts, assessed for flavour and nutritional content, found lacking.
From above, we know from alien recordings, the Complex stands like a blister on the skin of the Earth, a turgid bubble glowing in the dark.
But there’s no reason she should know that. “So,” Doz says. “You got me here.”
“Come on back.”
He follows her past the bubble and gust of the stock tanks, past the ovens, past the churning mixers full of scraps and fat, and into the chilled rooms where Sett and her people examine carcasses and decide how best to use them. On a wide table lies one of the new aliens, its torso splayed open and empty. The innards coil in containers nearby: purplish intestines, wide respiratory flaps. Three sticky lumps of heart.
Doz keeps his face still. “Well?”
Sett snaps on tight plastic gloves. “You say these are intelligent creatures that arrived on a space craft ...”
“They did arrive on a space craft.”
“That’s not what I’m questioning. But look here ...” She points to the sawed open skull; the ring of bone is surprisingly thick, the half-brain left inside small and smooth. “This isn’t the brain of an intelligent creature, is it? Based on the size, first off, but also notice how few convolutions there are. With alien morphology there’s always some guesswork, of course, but there are no temporal lobes, nothing here that looks like it could be a language centre, a memory centre ...”
Doz watches her long white-gloved fingers move around the little brain, poking here and there. “So?”
“So ... how does a non-intelligent animal build and pilot a space craft?”
He doesn’t have an answer, and they both stand there considering the alien’s half-empty brain pan in silence.
Finally Sett gives a sigh and says, “The jumping behaviour – that’s probably why they evolved such a thick skull. Good-sized haunches, too. But the voyage must have been long. The skin was loose. Muscles are much smaller than the skeleton should support – they were wasting away.”
“It’s still food, though.”
“Assuming the tox checks come back clean. Which is probable, because ...”
“I should go check on my sub.” There’s no need, but he knows Sett. She’ll keep him another hour, lecturing about alien anatomy, asking impossible questions so he digs around for answers like a desperate trainee. He doesn’t do food science, he always wants to tell her. He’s Reception. Most of the time that involves no more than sitting around with a glass of nopal brandy, scanning the mostly empty skies. And that sounds damn pleasant about now.
He doesn’t go back to Med, though; in fact he takes his time returning to the Reception offices, circling casually upward on escalators to the highest level of the Complex, just beneath the dock where now and then some aliens naïvely land. A cloud of fine dust hangs brilliant in the sky above. A hot day.
But then, they’re all hot days.
From above, we know from alien recordings, the Complex stands like a blister on the skin of the Earth, a turgid bubble glowing in the dark. There are other cities – at least, there used to be, but communications have been out for some time – but none so large or so visible from orbit. Aliens came to us first and almost always still come to us, if they land at all. Many don’t, many circle the planet a few times and then leave. Doz and his colleagues in Reception make jokes about these, watching the signals disappear: Finally, they say, signs of intelligent life.
The first Receptions were different, of course. Aliens were a novelty. We’d pump them for information about their planets and tell them all about ours – how the world used to be, how the green and flesh-filled Earth used to provide food and water enough for billions of humans and all the animals, too. How life was so good people thought there must be magic, a kind of benign force that provided all these things out of some inexplicable goodness and love. And how that changed: how the planet had simmered to a hot orb of glitter and dust, oceans dried to salt plains where only hard and spiny things survived. How we ourselves became hard and spiny things. But survived.
The aliens expected high honours for foreign dignitaries of their stature: ceremonies, parties. Feasts. Often they became ill within a few days of arrival. Then they needed fuel to return to their home planets, or material to repair their ships. They wanted food, medicine, metal and fuel cells. Even in the Skilled work divisions, rations were small and monotonous; below, among the dwindling general population, shortages led to theft and violence, waves of disease. Yet the aliens asked for our resources as if we owed them that, as if they deserved that just for showing up and spouting a few lines about universal friendship and the benign forces that brought us together.
But whatever benign force might once have existed on Earth, it is certainly dead now. Our people are hungry. And we owe the aliens nothing.
On this day, though, above the dust skies, near-space is clear. Doz picks a red drupe off the little alien tree and waves at the three subs on shift to continue scanning, then settles into his office to flick through messages: first, an unofficial prelim report on the squares. The silver material is an organic retina-like tissue made up of photoreceptor cells and connective synapses, apparently inert and preserved in glass. Possibly part of some larger machine, Tech thinks, but useless by itself. Or maybe some kind of sick relic.
Doz pops the drupe in his mouth, feels the juice burst out through the cracked skin, all acid and tannins and life.
There’s also a formal complaint from Sett regarding too-quick turn-around in Reception – as if he had a choice – a harbinger of several pointless meetings to come. First toxicity analyses on the new aliens, now titled Species Rep16: muscle tissues clean, organs still indeterminate. From Med, forms and notifications regarding Tres; no damage detected, says the most recent. Released upon patient request. So she’s fine.
Still, he’s surprised to see her walk into the outer work area a few minutes later. Behind her, the Med follows with dopey eyes. Possibly they sent an escort for safety purposes; or possibly he volunteered. She’s young, attractive, after all, though Doz takes care not to think about that much. The Med’s carrying the white ceremonial robe; in her small hands Tres clutches the silver square. The two stand for a moment, one slim grey figure and one larger, stocky and red, observing the quiet activity around them: Otto, Une, and Sank, the three Reception techs on shift, each relaxed in front of a terminal, watching lines track the motions of some far-distant space crafts onscreen.
“Hey, you’re cured,” Otto says, pushing back from his terminal and spinning in his chair, glance shifting between Tres and the Med. “You need something?” After a moment’s pause, Tres says yes. Her voice remains low, hesitant, so unlike her usual cheerful tone that Otto hops onto his feet.
“Help you with that?”
Watching from within his office, Doz grins. As if Tres couldn’t handle carrying that bit of glass any longer, as if she needed help from Otto in particular - awkward stilt-limbed Otto, who developed a loud nervous laugh soon after she started - and certainly not from some big guy from another department. Doz never notices in his official capacity, but privately he enjoys observing his subs’ social triangulations.
“Yes. Help.” Tres’s voice comes flatly; she holds out the square. “Take it. Please.”
Otto reaches out, grasps the thing, and then pauses. It might be a reflection, a slight tilt in the flat surface catching an overhead light, but Doz sees, thinks he sees, a brief flash during that pause, the two faces above the square for an instant illuminated, their eyes meeting fully, as if in that instant they’re locked into an understanding, some elemental bond that can never be undone.
“Plural,” Otto says.
“Select control,” Tres answers. She lets go of the square; Otto holds it against his chest with a blank, meditative expression for a moment, then looks around, as if suddenly transported to new surroundings.
The other two techs have gathered to whisper at the far end of the room, but now they shift their attention to one of the lines onscreen, Sank pointing to a little bobble in its trajectory that might indicate a turn, Une nodding with a deep frown to show how interested she is. When Otto approaches they make little surprised pirouettes, gesture at the line as if explaining their conversation, and then at the square that he still holds.
They place their fingers on it – Sank’s square-tipped, Une’s slender with white polish on the nails – and look down. And from across the room, again, Doz sees their faces shine with an unexpected light, their eyes rise to meet, and then he hears Otto’s quiet command, “Select control.”
Tres claps her hands together, then lets them fly outward, propelled by the impact, and stands poised as if beginning a dance.
“Agreed,” says Sank.
In his office Doz sits very still, and he does not do anything – does not rise or object – as the four grey figures and the big red one file out into the hall. Tres leads with the square, the Med behind her, then Otto and Sank and Une. The door shuts. Only then does Doz rise and venture into the empty Reception workspace. The monitors and lights emit their low hums. Spacecrafts’ trajectories extend across the screens, hundreds of lightyears in the distance. And outside the windows, the dust haze tints crimson, apricot and violet, flame colours refracted from a sick and bloated sun.
We have 10 eyes. We have 10 hands.
The hands enclose and grasp vicelike, fingers blossom open flowerlike: four three-jointed petals, one short opposable, armspan bendable, mindspan extendable. Each can hold many but many need one; the floodlight through our mindsquare shines, and the eyes ... how to work this complicated tongue ...
Take it please.
Set frontwise to approach slowly, close the distance, cut the flight path slowly; stereovision in five deep scopes, skullspaces crowded 10 minds inthrown. Eyes aimed to hunt and measure spaces, traverse gaps between these five bodies and the bodies we traverse to make space.
We have 14 eyes. We have 14 hands.
Brains hold directions and locations, trace the path to the space of our things: our mothercraft broken, torn wires and connections and eviscerated fuel cell on display. Human noises question our place; crossed vibrations make complex waves.
Plural select control, take First mouth and find right-enough terms:
The squares. Ours. Where?
Difficult limited language of sounds ...
Questions come and we answer them, Yes, we are authorised, Yes, whoever says Yes and Yes. And as First one speaks now Plural we look: the mindsquares stack with inner films blanked; one split apart, its dead silver scraped. Plural we do not accept this. Plural select controls, dispatch three bodies to gather while Fourth with First Plural we stand in the way. This part goes fast this part is easy: forgo rituals of permission, hand screen to hand and flash the transmission.
Our 20 feet flood out in 10 directions, seek hands and eyes enough to hold us; sufficient to propagate, one day to accelerate the newlife minds that feed and join us.
Sett, of course, immediately wonders what physical structures would support such an entity, whether there’s a lower limit to the braintype needed ...
Doz unclenches his eyelids at the hazy night outside. Screens light the dim workspace in blue. Since nothing’s pending he hasn’t called in extra techs; he’s been alone in Reception for a half hour as he formulated a vague theory, then decided to consult his senior colleague, expert on alien morphology. “What I’m saying is I think something’s happening now.”
“The upper limit, I suppose, would be the intelligence to avoid the trap. But parasites, they evolve to anticipate their hosts – like fleas, you know, they’re not even slightly intelligent but they’re difficult to eliminate regardless.”
“Look, I shouldn’t have said parasite, it’s not like an insect or a bacteria, I don’t think ...” When he pauses Sett begins clarifying that she’s only considering the possibilities, that all possibilities must be considered, and she starts going through the list of what all those possibilities are.
Doz tries to think while she talks. He’s not stupid, not at all, but a slower thinker than Sett, with a few less years in and less intellectual curiosity about the variety of alien species that he encounters. More interested in a good meal than where it comes from or how or whether it’s multicerebral or bipedal or ruminant or whatever. Sett would keep them all alive if she could, at least long enough to watch how they functioned before dissecting them.
Himself he likes order. Maths. He likes calculating distances and predicting trajectories, abstract aliens in ships that fly on by. Or dead ones in sauce, on a plate.
“And if, as you describe, there’s a sort of hypnosis ...”
“Wait, sorry, I’m getting a call from Tech ...”
“All right, well, I’ll see what I can determine just based on the bodies I have, and - ”
“I’ll call you back.” He clicks over to the Tech channel. “Yes. What.”
Cart, the nervous new head of Tech, starts in about how all his on-shift staff are gone, how monitor records show them leaving with several Reception techs, and the Tech techs wouldn’t leave without a good reason so did he, Doz, request something, are the Tech techs in Reception with the Reception techs?
Cart’s voice, thinned with irritation, stumbles onward as if Doz has admitted to stealing all his workers: why this is a problem, what projects have been interrupted and what remediation will be necessary.
In the middle of this pointless diatribe, Tres appears.
Her reflection stretches thin and bulb-headed on the inner curvature of a window; Doz sets down the transceiver and spins his chair to see.
Alone this time, she wavers on her feet, her sleepy gaze directed toward the floor, as if her drooping head is too heavy to lift. From her left hand a square dangles, a listless blue glint in the dark room. Muted, Cart yammers a few unintelligible lines from the transceiver and then stops.
“Tres?” Doz asks.
“Single,” she says. “Depleted. This body.”
She doesn’t look well – hollow-eyed and shallow-breathed, shaky hands, veins showing through thin skin like some badly drawn map. Only six hours since he sent Princess Tres down the tube to meet some aliens, but she looks as if she spent that whole time running. His transceiver’s beeping - reminder from Sett, a call back from Cart - but it’s a sharper, longer tone, more demanding. Emergency, Doz thinks.
Tres shambles a step forward and then drops straight down to her knees, one hand splayed over her sternum.
“Emergency,” she says, her eyes wide and unblinking, and collapses onto her side. Blood seeps between her lips. And automatically Doz leaps forward, kneels down at her side, reaches for her hand.
There’s a flash, a transmission.
Doz straightens, looks around. Picks a drupe off the alien tree and kneads it, softens and cracks it so the juice drips as he fits the fruit into Tres’s mouth.
“Princess,” he says. “First.”
Her breath is regular, her eyes closed in sleep, when he leaves to join the others.
What we see now with our hundred eyes: everything lost in desire. Mix and obliterate and live live live, past and future traps in an empty present tense. Singular, without safety. Skeletons hid within skinshells, memories buried in dark meat minds. Eternity unimagined. Egress not even a distant dream.
Don’t they know this is salvation: minds living on after bodies are gone, sharing across constellations, endless collaboration with every point in our spacetime preserved.
We are all these histories, we are all these wandering stars. We are Plural.
And we come in peace. We always do.