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Chapter 7: A Whole New People
My first thought as I looked up at the creature above me was, “Okay, now I have really cracked up. The pressures of this trip and the loneliness of space have gotten to me, and I am hallucinating.” But the hallucination was a large talking octopus whose words I could understand from the disc on my jaw while the beak of this creature was making low rumbling sounds that sounded like a language that I didn’t know. Buzz had said that this disc, or earpiece as Buzz called it, help with translation. Was this what he meant? Did Buzz know I would encounter an alien race that didn’t speak my language and that the implant would be the tool that would allow communication? Who had been studying this alien race long enough to translate the language? I could not comprehend the levels of complexity which had gone into this moment. Why was I the one now sitting on the ground staring up at the first known intelligent extra-terrestrial life form? Buzz had certainly deceived me, or at least kept a lot of information from me. This called for a significant conversation with Buzz, and I thought about calling out to him at that moment. But then, this creature, this person, this intelligence before me demanded my current attention.
“Y-yes – I am al-alright,” I stuttered. “Who are you?”
“I am Armand,” was the reply. “And who are you?”
“My name is Opie, Opie Taylor.”
“Well, hello, Opie-Opie Taylor.”
“You can just call me Opie,” I said with some embarrassment.
That was a pretty normal introduction of two intelligent beings. Could we do more than that? Might we be able to carry on a conversation? It seemed to me that the earpiece/implant was turning my words into other low and rumbling sounds that were slightly louder than my own voice. This would be what Armand would focus upon and represented my words translated into his language. The translation was so fast that it seemed almost instantaneous and allowed for a steady stream of back-and-forth conversation. The technology was amazing, and I wondered why no one was using it back on earth.
I suddenly became aware that other little grass stacks had become blue skinned octopi – octopuses? – what was the preferred term? There were now four sets of eyes staring at me, four octopi – oh I really would have to ask about that – that moments ago had looked like little stacks of green grass, but now clearly resembled octopuses. Armand and one other stood about two metres tall at full height but could scrunch down and slide across the ground at about one metre or even less. There were two others that were about half that size. Half his size? Was “his” the right pronoun to use? Armand introduced me to Libya, his “mate,” and their two “wards,” Triton and Angelina. The choice of the translated words, “mate” and “wards” seemed intentional, and I made a mental note to pursue this at some other time.
Armand said, “May I ask what kind of soul you might be?”
I must have looked puzzled for he said, “What are you? You are not a Grounder.”
“I am a boy,” I said. “I guess you could call me a human. I am a human from earth.”
Armand had never heard of a human, and he became rather focussed on the word, saying it over and over again as if trying to work out an odd sound he had never heard in his own language. I told him that there were many humans on earth, and he asked where earth was. I pointed upward and tried my best to describe a planet beyond the clouds, but this was a foreign concept to him.
Libya spoke for the first time and asked, “In the clouds? With the Floaters?”
“Not in the clouds, but beyond the clouds,” I said. “I came from a long distance beyond these clouds through the black of space, and from another planet that had its own clouds and sun.”
But Libya and Armand were not aware of earth or any other place besides the Ground on which they stood.
Armand wanted to know if there were other kinds of humans on earth. I told him that there were male humans that we called “he,” and female humans that we called “she.” Armand told me that “he” was indeed appropriate for him. His mate was a “she” and the two wards were a “he,” Triton and a “she,” Angelina. The planet on which we stood was known to Armand and his people as Ground and they themselves were Grounders.
There were few anatomical differences between Armand and his mate, but I did eventually determine that males had a small blue patch on the back of their head that never changed colour, no matter what colour the rest of them might be. Females had a smaller red patch on the back of their head. The Grounders could change colour and the texture of their skin to blend in with any surroundings in which they found themselves. It was the simplest thing for them to do and they did not have to think about it. In fact, as Armand later told me, their skin knew when to change. They had to make an active decision to not blend in with their surroundings when they wanted to be visible to others like me and this took more effort than allowing their skin to do its own thing.
Armand also said that there were two other forms of Grounders on the planet. Each was distinguished by its size, the environment in which it lived, and its mode of locomotion. In the sea, there were Swimmers who were larger and able to stream quickly through the water. In the sky, were the tiny Floaters that were able to fly on cushions of air. All of them were called Grounders but the other two species could be specified as Swimmers and Floaters. There was no polite term for the land dwellers other than Grounder. I protested that this might get confusing, but Armand assured me that context always sorted it out. I came to realise that I had already encountered a Swimmer in the sea and that none of these “souls” were truly octopi but simply resembled them in their bodily form.
We spoke more deeply about biology, chemistry, and physics. It was not easy because our languages had to be translated and the translations, although very functional, were not always precise. I came to understand that the chemistry of all plants, bacteria, birds, and animals on this planet was silicon-based rather than carbon-based. This made sense to me as the Grounders did look and feel like a leathery form of glass. Armand graciously let me touch seven of his eight limbs and his head. I could tell that as I touched each arm, he was also assessing the texture of my own hand and arm. I could feel the suction cup structures slowly attaching and releasing. He asked if he could run the backside of one arm over my face and I agreed. It felt like a gentle caress. The colour of the water also gave just a hint of shine like that of glass, and I assumed that had something to do with the silicon particulate in the water.
Eventually our conversation turned to our differences in biology, and I was surprised to know that the Grounders had their own scientists who studied genetics, immunology, and other biology-related subjects and so Armand and Libya were well-versed in biology. Armand proudly told me that Libya had been an instructor at a lab many years ago but that the two of them had decided to leave their careers to care for their wards, who were not their biological children as I had assumed. Armand still dabbled in animal classification and naming, but Libya no longer had access to her former lab that was on a different land mass in the ocean of Ground.
The two mates spoke freely about how reproduction occurred between Grounders. Each male has a limb that produces sperm and can be inserted into receptacles on two of the females’ limbs. The two limbs on the female will store the sperm until the eggs are ready to be laid and will then use the sperm to fertilise the eggs before the eggs are hung upside down under a branch of a tree for the Grounders, under a rock for the Swimmers, and in the tree-top leaves of a tree for the Floaters. After giving his sperm in a four-hour ritual, the male finds a quiet place to bury himself and die. The female spends eight weeks caring for the eggs until they hatch and walk, swim, or fly away, then she too buries herself and dies. The average birthing cohort is four young, and the young must then find a suitable guardian to care for them until they reach maturity. Armand and Libya were mates who would one day reproduce together but for now cared for their two wards, Triton and Angelina. Triton and Angelina were both quite unusual because Triton had resulted from a mating between a Swimmer and a Grounder and Angelina’s biological parents were a Grounder and a Floater. In such matings, the birth size is typically small – just one or two offspring – and one does not know until birth whether the children of a Floater and Grounder will be Floaters or Grounders. Similarly, for a Swimmer and Grounder mating, one could not be sure until birth if the resulting offspring would be Swimmers or Grounders. The Grounder scientists had studied multiple reproductions from male Grounders with female Swimmers, female Grounders with male Swimmers, and other combinations but had not yet discovered any correlations. Armand was not aware of any Floater and Swimmer reproductions and concluded that it might be too dangerous. Armand asked about human reproduction, but I told him that I was certainly not an expert and would not be able to answer his questions. I told him that I was about the age of his wards, and this seemed to satisfy his curiosity for now.
My mind was on overload, and I soon ran out of energy to ask more questions before even a small percentage of my questions had been asked. I was tired and told Armand I needed to go back to my ship to eat and sleep. At the mention of my ship, Armand wanted to know more about how it worked and the place from which I had come. I told him his questions would have to wait for tomorrow and begged his pardon as I exited the clearing. The entire family moved slowly back to their nest and settled in for the next part of their day while I made my way back down the path. As I looked over my shoulder, I could see that the family had once again camouflaged themselves back into their surroundings. I realised I had forgot to ask if there were dangerous creatures on the planet, so I hurried as fast as my legs could carry me back to the relative safety of a locked spaceship. Supper and sleep came quickly as my first day ended with many discoveries and even more questions.
The next morning, back in the familiar surroundings of the spacecraft, my questions were all for Buzz.
“Buzz, can you hear me?”
“Yes, how can I help?”
“It seems you have a lot of explaining to do. You didn’t tell me that we would be encountering intelligent aliens on this planet. You might have warned me to watch out for octopus-like creatures that would speak to me.”
“Ah yes, the Grounders. What would you like to know? I will see if I can answer your questions.”
“The first question is right there in your response to me. Why might you not be able to answer some of my questions? It seems you have a lot of information you have been withholding from me. Why not answer my questions now?” I said with a little more passion than I meant to use.
Buzz replied, “I will try to answer your questions, but I might not know the answers to all your questions. We still have much to learn about this planet and these people. And there is the matter of ‘need to know.’”
“Wait, ‘need to know?’ Who decides what I need to know?”
“Yes, NASA. After all, you are here at their request and by their significant investment. You did agree to this mission every time you touched buttons and clicked on screens to set up the mission profile. There were explicit and implicit statements asking if you agreed with the parameters of the mission.”
“Yeah, I guess I did blow through some of those screens rather quickly,” I admitted.
“Not only that, but you also took the mission into your own hands when you overrode NASA controls and shortened our journey to Trappist-1g.”
“Oh, that. You mean you knew all along what I did?” This conversation was not going the way I had expected.
“Most certainly I did. You did outsmart me with your naivety, but I soon determined what you had done. It will have profound consequences on your life upon returning to earth. So, I believe we have established that NASA has a right to keep some information from you for the good of yourself, for the good of the mission, and for the good of all humanity.”
“Okay, okay, okay. What can you tell me?”
“I can answer some specific questions about the mission, the planet, the star system, and the people of Gaia.”
“Well, Buzz, why me? Why am I the one here on this planet rather than a proper astronaut?”
“Ah yes, that is an important question. The answer is complicated, but what I can say is that NASA wanted to send someone to Gaia who would not be influenced by previous encounters between cultures. It was recognised that problems had previously occurred when one culture of greater technological power interacted with a culture of lesser technological power. They wanted to send a young person to be the first person to interact with the Grounders. They did not want a repeat of the cultural faults of European cultures overpowering indigenous people. They felt that you would be a good representative of humans and would be kind to the Grounders you met.”
“So, I am the first person to interact with the Grounders? This is first contact? How did NASA develop the translation tool? How does NASA know so much about the Grounders?”
“Those are questions better answered by others, but I can tell you that NASA, your father’s team, and a few highly skilled people have been watching the Grounder people as best they could for about three years. They used planet-orbiting satellites that could work through the dense cloud cover of Gaia or Ground. The team behind all of this believes that now is the time to make first contact. We listened in on Grounder conversations so that our scientists and artificial intelligences could pull together a good description of their language that allows us to translate effectively. It is not perfect, but now is the time to test it out with real world contact.”
“And I’m the one to do that? Wow. I hope I don’t mess it up and cause World War III.”
“I would suggest that you simply be yourself and act naturally with the Grounders. NASA has been watching you for a while as well. They have great confidence in you.”
Buzz went on to fill me in on more details about the Grounders. I could tell that he had been listening in on my conversations with Armand and did not repeat any information that I had already received. Buzz did speak of the two other “races” of Grounders. He could tell me that the sea-dwelling Swimmers are capable of staying out on land for a couple of hours at a time before they begin to dehydrate and then must return to the sea. Floaters, spending almost all of their time flying in the dense clouds of Ground, can land on the ground but must be careful to land in lush bits of grass or very clean sand, so as not to damage their membranes. The land-dwelling Grounders can wade in water but cannot swim and of course only the Floaters can fly, and so the only real place where the three races can meet is on land.
I began to form an opinion that perhaps the land-dwelling Grounders were the leaders of the three races and were slightly superior to the other two. Buzz quickly said that they do not function like that and that there are no hierarchies amongst the peoples. I pondered this but still wondered because of the naming of the land-dwellers and the name of the planet. It seemed there was some priority given to Armand and his kin. Buzz did confirm that the Grounders call their planet “Ground,” but he also assured me that Armand’s race had no sense of superiority over the other races and that all three races deferred equally to each other. I decided I would investigate this assertion more with Armand.
The next few days fell into a routine. I would eat and sleep on the spacecraft, trundle up the pathway to the clearing (both Buzz and Armand assured me that there were no dangerous beasts in the woods), and spend time with Armand and his kin. Armand would sometimes take me to other places and occasionally introduced me to other land-dwellers and even a Floater and a Swimmer. Most other Grounders kept to themselves. Armand was known as an outlier and an extreme extrovert. So everyone else was happy to let Armand answer my questions and show me around. This seemed to be a significant part of his role in the community, a role for which he was naturally gifted. Others in the community allowed him to have this ambassador role and helped him by bringing food to his family. In this way, Armand was exempt from some of the normal hunting and gathering of polite Grounder culture. I began to think of Armand as the leader of his people, but Armand repeatedly told me that there was no such category on their world. I kept pondering this claim.
The Grounders, of all three races, were omnivorous in their food choices much like humans. They would eat tender grasses, leafy lettuces (found in both the sea and on land), some young tree leaves, root vegetables, fruits that looked like bananas, apples, and pears, and nuts that looked like almonds, pecans, and pistachios. Then there was their meat: clams, oysters, crabs, insects (flying, crawling, and swimming), small rodents like mice, a rabbit-like creature, ground burrowing squirrels, toads, frogs, snakes, small fish, and small birds.
None of this was a real surprise to me, but what was a shock was that none of it was cooked. I never saw them start a fire or boil water. They offered me their food from time to time and I accepted when it didn’t seem too weird and begged off and told them I wasn’t hungry when I could still see the shape of a small bird or rodent. They mostly skinned the animals they ate, and I was surprised to find that their food tasted very good. It had a purity that made it better than any of the processed foods of home. Their arms were incredibly dextrous and could do most anything. They had very little need for tools but occasionally a sharpened stick or sharpened stone was used to cut something. I wondered what they would be able to do with hardened steel.
Most Grounders, of the three races, spent much of their time searching for food and eating communally. None of the food was set aside for anyone in particular and was shared freely in groups of ten to fifteen individuals. This seemed to be the average size of their villages. The rest of their time was divided between care and training of the young and rehearsing stories. Their history was completely oral and committed to memory by all individuals. Anyone could recount a story and appreciation was shown by a rhythmic slapping of limbs on the ground, rocks, trees, or whatever was handy. Stories seemed to be the main method of teaching the children and anyone might contribute to the care and training of wards even though they were each the primary responsibility of one pair of Grounders.
Many of the stories that were told had much to do with “the Basileus.” I could not tell if this Basileus was a king, super-powerful Grounder, political figure, religious leader, or perhaps simply a great friend of the Grounders. Armand and the others held this person in high regard and trusted the Basileus completely. There was a creation story in which the Basileus was prominent and the way the story was told suggested that Basileus was a role, a person, and a group of people. I wondered if there was something wrong with the translation of either the name or the role that this person played in the structure of their society. It seemed that the Basileus had been around for a long time and was still present somewhere near this piece of Ground. Soon I was determined that I must meet the Basileus and decide for myself what he or she was. The pronouns used for the Basileus gave no indication of male or female.
I asked Armand about the Basileus, but he was confused by my questions. He was shocked to learn that I did not already know Basileus and that I could not hear the voice. I assured him that I had never heard Basileus speak, and Armand found this very curious. He promised to introduce me but still had an odd look on his face. Armand said strange things like, “There, did you hear that?” and “Listen closely, you will now hear the response.” He told me to listen to the breeze so that I might subtract its sound from the voice of the Basileus. One day, Armand brought a small stone closer and closer to my ear and shouted above the silence of the rock. He seemed to think that there was something wrong with my hearing. I had now begun to understand the emotions shown on the faces of the Grounders and so Armand’s perplexity was most curious. I made a mental note to speak to Buzz about these things.