So Far, and Yet So Close

The long wait frayed my nerves. It shouldn't have surprised me that it took hours for the systems that controlled our spaceship and those of the alien shuttle to figure out how to connect, but I had not expected the delay. I spent the time rereading all the information I had about the Kwtghk, which wasn't much. We had only encountered them once before, ten . . . no, thirty years before; I mustn't forget that this trip took twenty-one years by Earth's clocks, though it was less than a year to the passengers on the ship. This mission was important enough that its participants would give up everything they had on Earth, unless it could wait forty years until our return. But the journey assured us a place in history, as one of the negotiators of the first treaty between Earth and another planet, as well as the first chance to study another world.

Finally Captain Koser called to clear the transportation arrangements with me. She was master of the ship, but as chief negotiator I had to approve anything to do with the meeting. There wasn't much for me to comment on; a shuttle had docked at one of our airlocks to take the diplomatic party down to the ground. They had living quarters for us--specially built, I gathered, which made sense; we would probably fit in most of their furniture like a snake in ice skates. But the captain had a special message for me. "The leader of their diplomatic team wants to know if you'd like to stay with him and his family. They'd like to get to know a human better than they can from just formal negotiations, he says."

I didn't know what to say; I hadn't expected this. The scientist in me wanted to agree immediately; there was never such an opportunity for study. The hedonist wondered how comfortable the bed would be and if they had noisy children. The negotiator wondered if offering me such a privilege was some kind of attempt to convince me of how generous and good-hearted the Kwtghk were. It didn't matter. Curiosity would overwhelm me if I didn't accept the offer. I could always justify my choice to those back on Earth; to decline would risk offending the Kwtghk before negotiations even started.

I didn't see a single Kwtghk until the shuttle landed; perhaps they thought it would distract the pilot if the alien passengers were visible. A ship full of Kwtghk certainly would have distracted me if I were piloting. I sat in a chair that was no more u uncomfortable than many on Earth and, because there were no windows, started to page through my copy of the memoirs of Jose O'Brien, the first human to contact the Kwtghk.

O'Brien had been a 24-year-old taking time off between his bachelor's and master's degree; since he had an engineering degree and experience flying ships up to Earth orbit, he got a job as a pilot on one of the cargo shuttles to the Alpha Centauri colony. It was not a terribly difficult job, as the ship was almost entirely automated, but a human pilot was along in case of emergencies. It was very difficult finding people willing to give up over eight years of time on earth, just over four years each way, though the time dilation made it seem like only six months each way. So they sent a few ships whenever pilots turned up, and those pilots were very well paid. Jose needed the money for graduate school and he had no binding ties on Earth. So the job seemed ideal. He wrote later:

"The trip was quite boring, until about halfway through it when the computer woke me up from a sound sleep with a yellow alert buzzer. I asked what was going on and it told me it had discovered a glitch in the navigational system and we had been a couple of degrees off course for a little over an hour. At that speed, we were far enough off course to miss the Alpha Centauri system entirely. I told it to start decelerating down to a stop so that at least we wouldn't travel any farther from known space than necessary. I could have tried to get back on course, but I really didn't want to put my faith in a navigational program that had already sent me in the wrong direction once.

"I didn't panic that the ship was marooned; I had enough supplies for decades. So I put out the radio calls for help, which were not very useful because radio waves only travel at the speed of light. The next supply ship would pick them up on its way to the colony, and know that I was here, but it wouldn't speed up my rescue because no ship that wasn't already in the area would receive my call anytime soon. Then I tried to figure out what went wrong on the off chance that I could change the program and get back into familiar space. No luck, though. But someone would be coming by that route within a year with another supply shuttle; could I wait that long without going crazy?. Despite the large store of music, videos, and games in the computer, there was only so long you could stay in the small living quarters of the ship without contracting a major dose of cabin fever. After a few weeks, I was thankful to be warned by the computer that another ship was coming into communication range. My good mood dissipated a little when I hailed them and got a reply in a language I didn't understand and the ship's computer couldn't translate (which was really odd, because every language with more than a million speakers was in that computer, and no one who didn't know at least one of those major languages would be piloting a spaceship).

"I put on the view of outside and looked at the ship. It looked peculiar, unlike any ship I'd seen before (and I was kind of a spaceship buff). A small part detached and headed toward my ship. I cautiously told the ship to be ready for evasive maneuvers, but held off on them because I never had figured out what was wrong with the navigational system. The shape approached and slowed before there seemed to be any risk of hitting the shuttle, stopping only a few hundred yards away. A door slid open and a figure appeared. It fired an object in the direction of the shuttle; a rope came flying out. Its end stuck to the outside of my ship and the figure made its way hand over hand down the rope. It seemed awfully long and thin for a human in a space suit, but some babies born on lesser-gravity planets could be that thin. It wasn't until the figure got close enough for the camera to be able to see through the clear face plate of the space suit that I realized it wasn't a human. The head was elongated like a camel's, and covered in blue-gray fur.

"I tried to figure out what to do. I could pretend I wasn't here, but the aliens would probably be curious enough about this strange ship to find the door or cut their way in. I might as well put on my own space suit and greet them; it would certainly get my name in someone's history books! So I suited up and went through the airlock, but once outside I stayed near it where I could quickly get back in.

"The alien didn't seem surprised to see me, although who knew what surprise looked like on an alien face. It could certainly see my face and could tell that we weren't of the same species, but that didn't seem to bother it. It came toward me, stopped a few yards away, and spread out its arms away from its body. I smiled. There didn't seem to be any other interpretation of that than 'I'm not going to hurt you.' I beckoned it toward me with one arm and started to open the airlock to go back in, hoping it would be willing to follow. This was the biggest adventure of my life; I didn't think I could afford not to take the risk of bringing the alien inside.

"After I was rescued, many people told me I was stupid to bring an alien inside my ship. What if it had murdered me? What if it had hijacked the ship, or somehow linked with the computer to find out where Earth was and send an invasion force? I think those people had seen too many bad video broadcasts. I wanted to try to understand the new people before I judged them. I think I do understand them now, as much as any human can, and I like the Kwtghk a lot."

I sighed as I closed the book. O'Brien's book had been a best-seller, but his obviously pro-Kwtghk stance had stirred up a lot of controversy. The UN administration had evaluated the information from O' Brien and all others who had met the aliens and d decided to treat them as non-aggressive, but a small, vocal minority thought the aliens had brainwashed everybody who had come in contact with them or their artifacts. At least that's how it had been when we left, twenty-one years ago. Nobody could predict how it would be when we returned. Hopefully the time would allow people to get used to the idea that we weren't the only intelligent beings in the universe.

We were nearly down to the planet now. Beta Hydrus is a G1 star, while our Sun is a slightly cooler G2, so Kwtghk has a slightly hotter climate despite being a little farther away from its star than Earth is from the Sun. The briefing sheet had described the conditions we would encounter as probably like midsummer in a subtropical climate, although we were visiting a city about as far north as Boston, and in early spring. But that had been tentative. Though the ship that came to pick up Jose O'Brien had exchanged libraries with the Kwtghk, there hadn't been very much information about conditions on their home planet in their storage. I guess it hadn't seemed relevant to a space expedition just looking to see what stars had planets at a suitable distance; they hadn't intended to land and explore the planets just yet.

The fact that the Kwtghk cheerfully admitted they were looking for planets to colonize had scared many Earth people. Either they expected a flood of blue camel-chimpanzee things to invade as soon as they could get to Earth, or they saw the two species locked in war over ownership of other worlds. But even though we breathe the same type of atmosphere, there still isn't that much overlap in the places they want and our choices. Only the most tropical areas of Earth are anything like their climate, so any world even slightly colder than Earth is out for them. On the other hand, most of our delegation started wishing for air conditioning as soon as we landed; we wouldn't want worlds as hot as Kwtghk. The point of the treaty we came to draw up was not entire entirely to divide the universe into our half and theirs; we realized that such a division would be entirely arbitrary (and would certainly require much rewriting if we encountered another alien species). It was more of a friendship and mutual aid agreement. But even those require time to figure out, especially with a completely unfamiliar group across the table from you. Assuming there would even be tables available.

A flashing sign warned us that we were about to land. It amazed me that they had fixed up this shuttle with signs we could read as well as chairs we could sit in. I guess they wanted to seem friendly; the UN would probably have done the same if Kwtghk had come to Earth. A gentle bump and the funny feeling of their slightly lower gravity were the only indication that we had landed, until the door slid open.

A tall, skinny, furry, blue being stood there. I had seen pictures, but that's never the same as meeting your first alien. It wasn't as awkward looking as the usual description of a "cross between camel and chimpanzee" makes it sound. It stood on hind legs that looked awfully thin for its height, with a long tail curled around the bag in one of its six-fingered hands. "Yih wulcmuh y' t' Kwtghk," it said, and my brain took a second to translate that into "I welcome you to Kwtghk." Once I had figured it out, though, its pronunciation made sense. The most prominent language on the planet didn't really have what most Earth languages use as vowels. It used the "h", "w" and "y" sounds between other consonants, while Earth speakers tended to put in an "uh" or "ih" next to the pseudo-vowel sound. On the trip here, most people on our ship had already started calling our destination and its people "Kwits" or "Kwuts." We added vowels to their words; they removed them from ours. At least we weren't trying to depend on interpreters; everyone on our ship had learned all the vocabulary we had stored from the O'Brien encounter, and it seemed that the Kwtghk were trying to speak the language Jose had taught them. I tried once to spell out the way they pronounced things, but it really looked a lot more foreign than it sounded, so I started just writing down the normal English spellings in my diary.

"I'm Spwth, the leader of the committee to negotiate an agreement with you Earth people. If you will follow me, we will get you to your living spaces and give you some time to adjust and explore our planet. It is already twilight for us, and our days and nights are longer than your planet's, so you will have much free time before tomorrow when all the representatives will be here."

So we all got up and followed Spwth--the nine representatives of the UN, as well as various scientists. The family members who had come along had stayed on the ship, because we weren't sure of the etiquette of bringing them down on the first day. A short, featureless corridor led us to the outside. The briefings had been correct; it was hot and muggy out, though the sun had set. A dozen Kwtghk met us outside the ship; some had even donned little tunics, but whether that was to humor our preference for clothing , or because the twilight seemed chilly to them I wasn't sure. The group led us to wheeled vehicles standing on the pinkish pavement which seemed to be both the shuttle's landing pad and a parking lot. The "cars" looked like someone flattened out the pointed end of an egg and attached wheels instead; I couldn't figure out where the engine was.

Spwth singled me out; I assume Captain Koser had sent him my picture. He led me to a vehicle no one else was entering. He held the door open for me and said, "I am glad you are utilizing my hospitality, Edward Geiger."

"I'm very glad to visit your home, Spwth," I replied, stumbling over the name. "And you can call me Edward," I added in Kwtghk, trying to say my first name as close as I could to the way he had. We chatted all the way to his home, as some kind of automatic traffic control system took care of the driving once Spwth took us out of the parking lot and between the walls which surrounded the road.

Spwth lived, quite moderately by Earth standards for someone so powerful, in a suburb not far from the spaceport. His family consisted of two mates, four children and three Parents. To Earth people, this three-generational system is the major difference between our two reproductive systems and the societies that evolved to accommodate them. I knew beforehand about the life cycles of Kwtghk, but I was the first Earth person to meet any children or Parents. The Kwtghk are mildly reluctant to expose their elder generation to humans, because the elders are not really equipped to understand anything unfamiliar.

You see, a Kwtghk, male or female, doesn't become fertile until mid-life. The hump on their backs that inspired the camel comparisons only appears in Kwtghk before middle age. It contains a large nerve cluster which acts as a secondary brain, a group of glands that produce fertility-inhibiting hormones, and fat to cushion those important contents. Every Kwtghk sheds that hump about 25-30 years after reaching maturity. They lose that secondary brain, which measurably reduces the intelligence, and they become fertile. They have usually already joined a mating group, which can be anywhere from two to five Kwtghk, all close enough in age that they become fertile about the same time.

The mating group has children, and those children have all the love they could ever want from their Parents. Kwtghk Parents are all homemakers, because the jobs that were intellectually challenging before the "change of life" are beyond their capability afterwards. The problems of food, shelter and clothing are taken care of by the new group of infertile adults just maturing out of childhood, who have chosen careers to support themselves and the new Parents who (as infertile adults) kept a roof over the heads of the young children of a few years ago. So the children Spwth lives with are actually the genetic children of the Parents in his household. When Spwth and his mates retire and have their own children, the now-mature ones will support both Parents and kids. This doesn't allow for much exploring, as only very large families can spare adults to leave the household; the ship Jose O'Brien had encountered was only the second to leave their solar system.

Spwth parked the car in an underground area, then took me up to the living quarters above and introduced me to the household. Spwth was not "head" of it by any means; the three adults and three Parents seemed to all have parts in running things, and even en the children tried to maneuver some control, as children frequently do. I've visited some group households on Earth, and this seemed as well-run as any of them.

Grhk and Yylw were Spwth's co-husband and wife respectively. Chnwth, Ywg, Pthy, and Zghj were the children, but they were all in bed. Rmwnth, Spkhh, and Lkyth were the Parents. That last name rang a bell, though I couldn't identify the female whom it belonged to; this was before I really could tell Kwtghk apart. (The solid-color fur threw me for a while. You really have to look to see facial features.) At first, the three Parents were shy around me, but I couldn't blame them for not knowing what to make e of an almost furless, short and by their standards chubby being with a funny accent standing in their living room. The "prime-time" adults (they used that expression; I think it came from a misunderstanding of the English phrase "in the prime of one's life") chattered to me in a mixture of our two languages. They accepted "Gurhuk" for Grhk, and I got used to being called Dwrd.

They fed me a filling meal of their own food and their attempts to synthesize the Earth food samples given them at the first contact, which was interesting. Kwtghk food is usually in soups, stews, and other dishes where the ingredients are in small pie pieces; I could never tell if the next bite I took would be the familiar taste and texture of pineapple or something with the texture of a water chestnut but a taste like sour cream. It was mostly vegetarian; the Kwtghk don't raise animals for meat, though t hey do have dairy farms (the animal looks like a goat, but the milk tastes more like a cow's) and catch fish. In some of the rural areas, they also eat meat from predators and animals that destroy the crops, but in urban dwellers considered that rather backward . Spwth said the farmers did it because they didn't want to waste anything.

Yylw showed me to the guest bedroom, which instead of a raised bed had half the floor padded and many loose cushions. It seemed only natural, as the family had lounged around in all sorts of positions on the floor during our conversational evening. It was s too hot for blankets anyway, there didn't seem to be any kind of air-conditioning. I tried not to think of the difficulties of standing up in the morning; I'm not as limber as I used to be. Sleep came fast, and I dreamed of Jose O'Brien talking to gorillas in space suits.

I woke up knowing why Lkyth's name had seemed familiar; she had been that first Kwtghk Jose O'Brien had met. My reader was in my duffel bag, so I put in that disk and looked at some of his impressions of her.

"Inside the shuttle, I started pointing at things and saying their names. I couldn't think of any other way to communicate, though the alien would not be likely to recognize most of the human-designed artifacts. They would probably look entirely different t in outward appearance from whatever things served similar functions for her species. (It wasn't until later that I found out her gender, but as I write I feel silly calling her 'it.') Whenever I said something, she tried to repeat it, but most of the vowels seemed to disappear on the way. I made sure the computer was noting everything down so that we could try to figure out their language.

"The computer told me that a transmission was coming from the other ship. Apparently our visitor had a receiver too; she suddenly started fiddling with her suit. After she pressed some buttons, the helmet came off the suit. I could smell something unfamiliar liar as the air mixture from inside the suit mixed with the atmosphere in the shuttle, but the alien seemed to have no trouble breathing. We resumed the pointing and naming exercise. She called herself, near as I could spell it, Lkyth.

"Meanwhile, the two ships' computers were trying to interface. I hoped the problem with the navigation wasn't affecting anything else, or I 'd never be able to understand Lkyth, who seemed like a fascinating person. The two of us spent about two hours tr trying to talk, and then another message came from the alien ship. Lkyth motioned toward the airlock and said, 'Shhp.' The computer had translated the gist of the message itself, and told me Lkyth was being summoned back. Then, as I moved to operate the air lock for her, she said, 'Hhssy . . . shhp?' and pointed through the wall at where her ship was. It didn't require the computer's translation to figure out that now I was being invited over for a visit.

"Again, people have told me that I was dumb to go. But Lkyth seemed entirely friendly, and I've always been the curious type. I put on my space suit and followed her across the line to their ship, making sure the comm link to my ship was working. I'd nee d the translating help if nothing else.

"Their ship was much bigger than the shuttle, and it had a crew appropriate to its size. Lkyth showed me around, pointing at things, and introduced me to many of her crewmates. All of them looked the same: the same basic shape as a human but with a hump on the back and blue-gray fur everywhere. I could only recognize Lkyth, who seemed to be my official guide, by the shape of her head and eyes. I went back to my ship to sleep and sometimes to eat, but most of my waking hours I spent visiting the Kwtghk (they had gotten across to me that that was the collective name) where about six of them and I traded languages. It didn't take too long for me to gain a fair grasp of their language, with the help of my ship's computer; of course, I had more teachers than they did in learning English. Once we could understand each other, we traded a lot of information.

"They had some technological advances that were out of human reach as yet, like that neat little gizmo in Lucky's (that's the nickname I gave Lkyth after stumbling over the real word too many times) suit that had collected data on the shuttle's internal atmosphere and sent it back for analysis. We couldn't yet miniaturize the equipment to do that into something you could fit on a belt. But humans did have the jump on them in other fields, like slightly faster ship engines. We didn't exchange details on how to do things; they were a little reticent about sharing the details of their technology right off the bat. Our conversation was more about the societies we lived in.

"They were exploring, looking at G1 suns to find those with planets so that a later expedition could check out these possible sites for colonization more closely. Much farther and they would have run into human-claimed space, although our suns might have been too cold for them. Eventually they would return to their planet and turn all their new knowledge to anyone there who showed an interest. Apparently there isn't actually a population problem on their home planet yet, but they want to prepare for the future because the number of people is growing at a rate bigger than any in their history. By human standards they have nothing to worry about; we had more population than they have before we even got to the moon. I guess Kwtghk like elbow room.

"We kept explaining our planets to each other until the rescue ship arrived for me. That opened up a whole new can of worms."

Right then there was a knock on the door, and a small orange light above the door frame lit up. I got up, somewhat stiffly since I'm not as young as I used to be, and fumbled with the peculiar door-handle. Before I had quite figured it out, the person on the other side pulled it open for me. It was Lkyth herself. "Would you like some food?" she asked in her own language.

"Yes, I am hungry," I said in my best Kwtghk. She considered this a second; I suppose she was having trouble with my pronunciation. Then she smiled and motioned me forward. Down the high-ceilinged hall was their dining room, a spacious area enclosed in t transparent walls on three sides. Several low tables sat in various places, one adorned with steaming plates. The floor was soft, and covered in a vinyl-like substance in shades of peach and yellow. Lkyth motioned me to one side of the table and when I sat , she lay down on her stomach opposite me and grabbed tidbits with one hand off her plate, while I tried to pick up the small pieces with a spoon. She asked if I liked her cooking.

"It's very different from what I'm used to, but it isn't bad." I replied diplomatically. It was certainly no worse than the other Kwtghk meal I'd had, but I just wasn't used to the unfamiliar taste combinations yet. Also, I still have my childhood prejudices about breakfast food; like many people raised in America, I find stew for breakfast a little unusual. Especially a kind of sweet-and-sour fish stew.

We started to talk a little; she told me about the children and how Rmwnth took such good care of them that she hadn't felt at all uncomfortable with leaving him with all four today while Spkhh did the shopping and the cleaning and her task was to keep m e company. It was the sort of chatter you'd hear from any dedicated homemaker of either gender on Earth, but it confused me. Where was the brilliant scientist that Jose had described, with her background in Kwtghk anthropology, history, political science, literature, biology and mathematics? The Renaissance scholar I had read about, whose responsibility was to deal with any life, sentient or non-sentient, with which that spaceship came in contact, could not be this same person. So I got up my courage and asked her if she was the one from Jose's book.

"Yes, I went in the spaceship," she said. "I don't really remember when I was smart, but I remember Hhssy. He was very nice. He was like Spkhh." (It turned out that one of her current mates had been on that voyage also.) But as many questions as I felt I could politely pose did not turn up any concrete information about her experiences on her voyage. She only recalled that it was fun. No memory remained of the intellectual discussions she once had initiated; her world was now the household and the kids. I stopped talking about her past, since it depressed me to see what losing her hump turned her into, and asked what kind of things the Parents did in the household.

I didn't hear much of her recitation of everyday routine; I was thinking about my grandfather. He had been a vital man when I was young; he took me to the zoo, the museum, the playground, or wherever might be interesting, and it was always a treat to see e him. But when I was in my teens all that changed. First he had a stroke, which partially paralyzed him and put him in a nursing home. Then gradually his mental capacity began to decline. He didn't recognize his visitors or even remember where he was much of the time. The doctors said they could do nothing to treat his mental condition; he didn't understand what was happening and wouldn't let them take him to physical therapy, so soon his body couldn't even do the things that were left him after the stroke. I was almost glad when he died, because it wasn't him that was there anymore, just a breathing doll that said a few sentences but wasn't a person anymore. There are many things that modern medicine can prevent, but we can't cure old age yet.

Lkyth reminded me painfully of Grandpa. She could still work around the house, but everything Earth knew her for was gone. Knowing that it was a perfectly natural part of the Kwtghk life-cycle and that she was likely to live another twenty years with no mental or physical decline didn't help at all.

Spwth drove me to the conference room where our negotiations were to start today. I talked briefly with my colleagues, but nothing had happened that would require us to change our plans. They were more interested in stories of what Kwtghk households were like. I promised to tell them in the evening; now we needed to focus on our reason for being here.

The conference room, unsurprisingly, had the characteristic padded floor and low tables found everywhere else. The youngest and most easy-going of my team, Ekwefi Wiredu, dared to sprawl out on her side with an elbow on the table, but the rest of us sat cross-legged with pads of paper on the table in front of us. The Kwtghk delegation arranged themselves in a wide array of positions; they certainly were limber. By human standards, it was the most informal set of negotiations I'd ever attended in my 40-year career.

Unfortunately, once we presented our ideas and they theirs, it seemed like business as usual. The UN had instructed us to draw a border, a plane on one side of which would be their space and the other side ours. The Kwtghk, noting the difference between our preferences in planets, thought that we should just say all G2 stars were ours and G1 stars would be theirs. We pointed out that a planet far enough from a hotter G1 star, or close enough to a cooler G2 one, might be useful to the other species instead of the one it was assigned to. They said that giving both species a space containing both types of stars, only half of which were useful, was wasteful and denied both species valuable living room that might be needed later. We said that in the future , if either species found a way to live on planets of stars not covered in this agreement, we were likely to run into conflict in a mixed space over who had claim to those stars. They said making a fixed border between the territories of our species would d just cause one of us to invade the space of the other if we needed more stars than we had of a type not covered in the agreement. War could break out either way. We grudgingly agreed with that, but said that the United Nations of Earth had sent us here with firm instructions, one of which was to negotiate real borders. We could not greatly deviate from their plan. Bryg, one of Spwth's co-heads on the committee, said, "This UN must be making fun of Kwtghk by sending a mission not really empowered to do any negotiating." Spwth and others on that side turned to stare at him, and I saw one furiously scribbling something and sliding the note in front of Bryg, whose expression I couldn't read.

My second-in-command, , De-You Nguyen, said, "What you're proposing isn't a treaty, it's a free-for-all!"

I turned to Nguyen and said, "I'm in charge here. And if I want your opinion, I will ask for it." He exhaled loudly and rolled his eyes slightly, but he was quiet. There are advantages to hierarchy, if you have a good enough reputation to get yourself put on top.

Nothing of importance happened for the rest of that session. I talked about the good will of Earth toward Kwtghk and our desire to maintain friendly relations with them. Various members of both teams expanded on that subject, until a different Kwtghk entered and announced that it was time for dinner. I had dealt with much more hostile situations during the first years of the Unification, so I could consider today a good start. I didn't, though; I was depressed, and I couldn't figure out why.

It was midday meal for the Kwtghk; their days are 36 instead of 24 hours long, making negotiations every other day by an Earth schedule, while to them our sessions were the morning of one day and the afternoon of the following day. Both groups had adequate time between sessions to confer, since we had a full waking period in the middle of the Kwtghk night and they had the end of one day and the beginning of another before we met again. So I went over to the accommodations of my fellows, which were quite pretty, but not entirely comfortable. They had put in fans, but circulating warm air is still warm air, and the heat was a bit annoying. Perhaps it was to blame for Nguyen's frayed temper at the meeting.

We met up with the scientists, back from their first day at the facility which was analogous to the largest research university on the planet. Not much research takes place anywhere else, they told us; there's not enough formal government to sponsor any. If you want to learn about anything, either from curiosity or so that you can try and profit from the knowledge, you go to one of these places and join the department that interests you the most. There is no formal line between student and professor; if you know something you offer it to others to learn. Those who earn money from the things they learn give a portion to the "university," and it seems to get along on those funds. I didn't delve much into it, because it was so alien to my mind; I am too much h a product of Earth's money-driven systems.

I asked about Kwtghk political history, so that we would know what kind of treaty would sound fair to them. It was as alien as the economics of learning; it puzzled me how people so much like us could live in a society so different. There didn't seem to be any world government or even any nation-states, just local government in areas the size of small towns. The people we were negotiating with were an elected committee with each representative from a different "province," large divisions of land drawn up just to elect a manageable number of negotiators for this treaty. They'd actually never needed to deal with any world-wide issues before, only minor conflicts between adjoining local areas. There was no permanent military because there was no fighting b between Kwtghk; they disputed things, sometimes with anger but never with force, until a solution was reached. The expedition Lkyth and Spkhh had been on was funded by contributions from the various "universities" and interested private citizens; most of the Kwtghk were not yet even thinking about future population pressures or the unclaimed territory on other planets.

This society seemed unreal after dealing with Earth politics. The vast majority of Kwtghk apparently had no urge for power, no nationalism or identification with any group larger than their families and friends, and no greed. The strongest forces driving them were curiosity and duty to the family. Getting angry over an issue seemed extremely childish to them. The rare one who craved power usually found some niche where they could make arbitrary decisions on issues which didn't matter to others. So why we re we hung up on this treaty, when they weren't supposed to want to gain power over us? The UN had expected "a negotiator of Geiger's caliber" (their wording, not mine) as well as every other brilliant mind they'd sent, to have no problem setting up an arbitrary line through the unknown territory and pledging friendship with the Kwtghk. Perhaps they had sent too many brilliant minds, enough to spoil each other's efforts. All of us who stayed in the room to hear the discussion on what to do next fell asleep p on the floor without reaching any conclusion; there were entirely too many ideas and no one was willing to give up their pet theory. Luckily, I think Spwth had expected me to spend time with my fellow humans because, when we first arrived, he showed me how to start the car's program to get me back to his house. His co-husband was going to pick him up, I gathered.

When we woke up, I talked to our biologist over breakfast about our hosts and specifically, the change in Lkyth from the person O'Brien had described. She wasn't surprised, and told me more than I wanted to know about the biological differences between t he two stages of adult She added that Kwtghk biologists assumed that the ability to have children meant the instinct to take care of them above all other tasks; they had been surprised at the concept of the human juggling act between careers and children . All this information made me feel guilty; I saw their life cycles as a tragedy when Kwtghk philosophy traditionally viewed the Parental stage as a kind of nirvana, when external pressures were almost non-existent and children could be loved unconditionally. The shared responsibility for the kids seemed to keep the children from feeling hemmed in by their elders; a household was at least four to ten adults with diverse interests, enough to keep any child occupied. Like their elders, Kwtghk children seemed d to have a less aggressive temperament than humans; raising them involved less conflict than with human children. Anger and hostility were only useful in a few situations involving outside pressures rather than dealings between Kwtghk.

We humans seemed to be an outside pressure to some, judging by Bryg's comments. I wondered why, and then a partial reason became obvious. We looked like the breakdown of society to them: their near-anarchy of tiny governments with as little power as possible, their multigenerational polyamorous family structure which fit their life cycle so perfectly, their economics which compared to Earth's scrambles for money was a leisurely stroll. I might have to break it to them that they were nearly as scary to modernized Earth, who saw a planet with a third of the population bereft of its former intelligence, a family system with no rules for how many of which genders could marry one another, and no laws to ensure that people were safe from having money, safety, or freedom taken away from them. One characteristic the species share is finding novelty frightening, because it always holds the threat of making things worse. That's why we got sent out with the instructions we did, which basically boiled down to "Keep those hairy freaks away from us!" An interplanetary mutual aid treaty, but as far as we could see, no circumstances that would make either side ask for aid.

All this analysis didn't further our negotiations, though. I suggested a possible compromise to my cohorts. No one came up with any better ideas than mine, which was to offer a neutral zone, a sphere with our two planets on opposite sides, and try to divide vide the remainder of the universe up between us. I thought they would look at it as a ridiculously small area to share, but we couldn't really think of anything else. I half-expected that they would realize that we had been ordered to segregate the two species, and break off negotiations in disgust at being treated like something we didn't want to be around. Or they would decide they didn't want to be around such aggressive, greedy beings who ignored reasoning. Either would be a shame, because humans and Kwtghk really want to learn about one another. But then, even I, the man who found common ground between some of the most opposed groups on Earth, couldn't understand them enough to not be perturbed by their life cycle. Maybe it would be for the best that we cut off contact.

I went back to the house for the next night's sleep. I thought everyone would be in bed, but two Parents and two prime-time adults were in the living room. Apparently one of the children was mildly sick and had kept them up late. I tried to be outwardly sympathetic, but I really was too depressed to care. The failure of these negotiations would be a black mark on my record big enough to blot out most of my successes. Perhaps I was getting old and losing my touch. Even the fact that nothing had actually gone wrong yet didn't allow me any hope; I was expecting the worst.

I didn't want to go to bed yet because I didn't think I'd feel any better in the morning, so I sat down with my hosts. I apologized to Spwth for staying at the hotel the previous night, and then sat quietly trying to remember who was who. About the time I got the names straight, Rmwnth asked me about child-care arrangements on Earth, and I tried to explain that I had never participated in the raising of any children on Earth. My late wife and I had never had any. He seemed totally surprised by this, even when Yylw pointed out that if I had children, coming to Kwtghk would have meant leaving them behind for forty years or uprooting them from home to bring them along, which seemed equal horrors to her. The Kwtghk explorers had all been prime-time adults who came from families where an adult could be spared. "They had rare courage," she said, "to be able to leave all they knew behind them. I could never have left my siblings and my land; all those I grew up with live nearby still." Apparently she had not been told that several families had come along with us and remained on the ship.

Lkyth spoke up. "There was no reason to turn down a chance to go and learn about new places and help our grandchildren find a home. It wasn't fun to leave my family, but I found a new one on the ship and when we got back."

Yylw and Rmwnth both made the same gesture of grabbing their tails with both hands and pretending to twist. Spwth, noticing my confusion, translated this as "lack of understanding." It appeared Lkyth was unusual enough among her own people to provoke the same confusion that Jose O'Brien had received among many. Both chose satisfying their curiosity over keeping within secure, familiar bounds. Perhaps that was why they had been such friends.

The talk turned to other things and lasted well into the night. When Spwth got up to go to sleep in his own room, he reminded me that we both had to be well rested for tomorrow. I went to my room, but I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned, trying to figure re out why these negotiations seemed so doomed to me when I had solved worse situations. It finally came to me that when dealing with humans, I never lost faith that I could understand their motivations with enough effort. With Kwtghk, just when I thought I had some hold on their psychology, I would find something that invalidated my theory. Most individual Kwtghk seemed much like individual humans, but in large groups, the two species were appallingly different. How could I ever expect to get a grip on how they thought?

I got out the O'Brien book and started where I had left off. Perhaps his experiences would throw a different light on things, though it hadn't really brought me to any breakthroughs the first time I read the book.

"When my ship told me that a human ship was approaching, I made haste to go back to my own ship and send off messages that I was in great shape and that I had encountered a friendly alien race. I didn't want any trigger-happy types assuming I was in dang danger because of the much bigger ship next to me. Their next message congratulated me, for what I don't know. I didn't intend to get lost and need rescuing by anybody.

The captain (it was a passenger ship that needed a chain of command imposed by the UN. military to keep everyone in line) said that communication with the Kwtghk was now his responsibility, and for me not to do anything unless he cleared it. I shook my head at his attempt to take over something he knew nothing about, and sent off a message to the effect that I had established relations with the Kwtghk and learned some of their language, and no one was going to exclude me now. Unfortunately, the Kwtghk had been monitoring the exchange, and they were confused. Lucky sent me a message asking why this guy wanted to stop our communications. I tried to explain that a captain is supposed to have jurisdiction over everything that happens while the ship is away f from the usual authorities. She told me he wasn't fit to control anything if he didn't let the skilled do the work in areas where he was unskilled. I told her that he was probably concerned for my safety, and that of his passengers and crew, and it was a new situation for him. Nonhuman beings are scary to some people. She answered that no one on their ship had been scared when they encountered me. Well, I said, I hadn't been scared of her either, but not everyone is like that. She made the equivalent of a snort, but didn't try to argue.

"The passenger ship had monitored this exchange also, and from the portion that was in English the captain seemed to decide that the aliens trusted me and would get angry if he tried to muscle in and run things. (I told him, "That's the first sensible thing you've said!") But he loaded me down with warnings: don't tell them details of where Earth or the colonies are located, let them think Earth has more ships than we really do, and that kind of thing. He seemed to think it was his duty to make Earth seem like some kind of galactic empire to the Kwtghk.

"So I was allowed to communicate with both ships and instructed to arrange a meeting between Kwtghk and humans on the shuttle. Lucky said she'd organize a small party. My rescuers extended the transfer tube as soon as they were within reach of the shuttle and sent over the first officer and some others.

"My human visitors could not think of anything to say to my Kwtghk visitors. Lucky and her companions did not know whether to class these new people with me, or with the captain for whom they had all conceived an instant dislike. So I asked something I had not thought of before, while I couldn't get back to Earth. 'Lucky, when are you all planning to go back to your planet?'

"'I do not know. I guess we will go home when you leave and tell everyone that we have met new people,' she said, looking around at her companions.

"'Yes, that is more important than looking at stars we don't need yet,' Spkhh concurred. 'Those who sent us will be fascinated by your species.'

"'Should we arrange the next meeting for our two species?' I asked both groups. Everyone agreed; this was diplomatic and formal enough for the human crew, and practical enough for the Kwtghk, who were less concerned with how things looked to posterity.

"Lnndg said, 'Why don't some of your people come to visit our planet?' We humans frowned, wondering how many of our people would be willing to go stay with on a whole planet of nonhuman civilizations, but it would have been impolite to object. Captain Millikan would have had us court-martialed if we had ignored his instructions and invited them to come to Earth.

"It took several interviews between human and Kwtghk scientists to figure out how soon we could get a ship to Kwtghk, and during that time we exchanged as much information about our respective peoples and living conditions as we could, considering that neither ship had been prepared to teach strangers about its place of origin.. But in a few days, there was no more reason for anyone to stay. I cried when I said good-bye; I had almost been tempted to go with the Kwtghk. But I've always wanted a family, and there wouldn't be much chance of that on a planet where I wouldn't see any human women for at least thirty years.

"I had learned to read some of my friends well enough to see how emotional the parting made them also. The last one to leave the tiny shuttle that had become home was Lucky. We couldn't think of much to say. When Spkhh radioed her that she had to leave sometime, she turned to go out the airlock. I followed her and with a hug whispered, 'Have a good life, Lucky.'

"'You too,' she said, and the inner door closed behind her. I know this sounds like the separation of lovers from some romance novel, but I don't know how else to say it. She was as close to me as anyone I'd known on Earth, despite the short time we had been friends. We thought alike; maybe neither one of us fits in with our own species. I don't know how else two people from such different backgrounds could learn to trust each other so quickly."

I flicked off the reader. Maybe Jose O'Brien had been a misfit, and that's why he got along with the Kwtghk so well. Or maybe if he had dealt with the whole society and not just a bunch of young adventurers like himself, he would have had the same problems as I had.

Since I had gone to bed early by my internal clock, though late by planet time, I was up early. After I dressed and left the room, I ran into all seven adults and four kids. Lkyth, halfway through preparing breakfast, insisted that I join them for the me meal. The youngest child leaned up against me as we waited in the dining area, and the oldest politely said that she hoped I was enjoying my stay at their house. I told her I was, and that I almost wished the negotiations would last a long time so that I would not have to leave. I tripped over some words, but I think the truth of the sentiment came across. I didn't say that one reason I didn't want to go home was that I might be bringing the news of the greatest failure of my life with me.

Spwth asked me, "Have you and your companions thought of new approaches to the territory issue?"

"Well, we have some ideas," was my cautious response.

Perhaps my worries were more obvious than I had thought. Spwth said, "It is not as bad as it seems. It does not matter to most Kwtghk how the claim to colony planets is settled, but Bryg is unusually attached to his own plan, and has persuaded others to support him. He is near becoming a Parent," Spwth added, as if that explained anything to me. I outlined the shared-zone ideas to him.

"It may work," was the reply. "It combines the two plans well. Also some of the representatives will have thought it all over and decided the method of division is not important as long as we are friends." I shrugged in response. Treaty makers I've met don't think that way, but most of the agreements I've worked with were frantic attempts to make peace between hostile nations. This was a different situation; we were trying to start off on the right foot instead of obliterating the past's mistakes. Perhaps s this one-on-one approach of talking our plans over in private was more akin to the Kwtghk way of working things out between disputing parties; just one more difference between us for the list.

Spwth had predicted correctly. When I presented our team's compromise idea, and Spwth added his support, no one voiced any objection. One Kwtghk representative even praised me effusively for devising another plan instead of "waiting for time to bring us over to your belief." Bryg stayed in the background; apparently he was not interested enough to argue. It baffled me that our compromise was so unexpected; on Earth people make treaties more to keep the opposite side from getting all that they want than to satisfy their own side's preferences. If you have the power to get everything your own way, you use that power in other places than the conference table. But there is much that humans have yet to understand about Kwtghk psychology.

The next few weeks were occupied with establishing boundaries for the shared zone and providing for a joint scientific enterprise somewhere within it. Both species wanted a chance to study each other, as well as continuing observation of astronomical phenomena that could only be observed from outside an atmosphere, which both sides had previously done only in their own solar systems. Also, now that the pressure was off, we brought the families on the ship down for brief visits and went on excursions to places of interest on the planet, with Kwtghk guides.

For the last full day before my party left for Earth, some friends and I helped Spwth to arrange a surprise party for his family. Our ship had replaced some of its large extra cache of supplies with Kwtghk food for some variety on the journey back; we we re becoming used to the tastes and we had all been bored with the limited selection on the first part of the journey. So I took possession of the extra Earth victuals, invited my subordinate Ekwefi Wiredu over because the children had enjoyed her company during our tourist activities with the family, and asked Lkyth if we could do something in the kitchen without being disturbed. She must have wondered what I was planning, especially when I had to ask Grhk for help with the controls to some of the cooking g apparatus. But eventually we carried steaming trays of Earth finger foods into the dining room, which Spwth and I had decorated with reproductions of Earth art from our ship's library. Then we invited the rest of the family into the room.

I can't quite transcribe the noise most of them made, but the human equivalent would have been, "Oooh!" The kids ran toward the food, while the prime-time adults strolled around evaluating my taste in art. Rmwnth joined the kids, admonishing them not to eat too much or they would get sick. The two Parents who had seen Jose's shuttle both stood at the entrance, sights and smells probably bringing back memories. Lkyth was first to break her trance; she walked over to my plate of nachos and picked one up correctly. (The kids had made a mess by grabbing for the toppings without getting any tortilla to hold them up.) I walked over and asked everyone what they thought of my cooking.

"Hhssy made these!" Lkyth told me. "For good-bye. I never thought I would have them again." She looked out into nothing once more. I wasn't sure if she was happy or sad at the memory of her friend, until she popped the whole handful into her mouth. She looked just like her children on the other side of the table. Somehow I couldn't see her as being like Grandpa anymore, not with such obvious enjoyment of so small a thing as a dish from the past.

"Did we tell you what happened to Jose, Lucky?" She turned her head in surprise at the old nickname. "Besides writing the book about meeting you all, he got a job at a prestigious university as head of the department of Off-Planet Studies for a while. But just before we left, he got bored and went to one of our colonies with his wife, a sociologist. In his last interview, he said he was going to name his first child Lucas or Lucretia, so he could call the child Lucky."

She smiled. "I don't guess he has time to, or wants to think anymore, either. Could you pass a message on to him some way? I just want to say, that despite all the things I worried about, I am having a very nice life."

Home | Writing | Bio | Resources & Bibliographies | Links


eXTReMe Tracker