Thursday, March 09, 2006
Don't Talk About the Mars Project
Flash forward from A Page From History...
[My journal of alien contact]
Most of us didn’t know what the Sartereans actually looked like. There were the grainy sketches on the probe that the celestronauts Dogstar and Summit found on Pluto, but those sketches were about as accurate as the ones we sent out on the Voyagers I and II all those years ago. In that time, Earthlings had changed in small but perceptible ways, so it was fair to assume that the Sartereans had also evolved differently from how we pictured them. On the regular TIC channels, etiquette forbade the discussion of appearances. Still, that didn’t stop us from joking about how each of us had imagined “aliens.”
“Sartereans were sure that any intelligent life out in the universe had to have three heads,” Zeke, my penpal, told me. “Many of our artists’ depictions of aliens still have variations on the three-headed theme.”
"That doesn't sound so strange," I said. "For a time, Earthlings were convinced that there were little green men living on Mars.”
“What did you find when you finally went to Mars?” Zeke asked.
“Lots and lots of red dirt,” I said. “When we finally gave up on the idea of finding life on Mars, we had grand ideas of terraforming the planet. That project almost annihilated the ISAP. In fact, the biggest opponents of intergalactic communication always love to cite the failure of the terraforming project. If you ever want to start a brawl, all you have to do is walk into a room full of strangers and say, ‘Mars.’”
Just then, I felt, rather that heard, Mieko Alleyn-Cates standing behind me. “Just a moment,” I said to Zeke.
“Don’t say anything more about the Mars project,” Alleyn-Cates told me.
“It’s fine,” I told her. “Zeke understands that there have been some interesting mishaps along the way and he—“
“Don’t say anything more about the Mars project,” Alleyn-Cates said again. There was steel in her voice.
“Okay,” I said. “Can you at least tell me why? It’s not as if Zeke is in a room full of Earthlings.”
“In some ways, he is,” Alleyn-Cates said. “Look around you. ISAP is concerned that you and others are portraying Earthlings as buffoons. You know about the Stop Stupid Earthlings movement on Sarter. If the wrong thing gives them enough fuel for their hostilities, they could shut down the Sarter TIC.”
“I thought we were supposed to have free access to the TIC,” I said.
“Sure,” Alleyn-Cates said. “But freedom has always been a subjective matter.” Alleyn-Cates glared at me. Quickly and quietly, she said, “Look, the money isn’t going to hold out forever. Stick to the chatty public relations with your penpal and leave the ISAP totally out of it.”
I turned back to the TIC. “Sorry, Zeke,” I said. “That was more than a moment. Let’s change the subject quickly.”
“Time is irrelevant,” Zeke said. “Quick change of subject: What are you doing this evening? Would you like to go %$%^%^ and watch the moons rise?”
“Very funny,” I said. “By the time I got there, we’d both be dead. I didn’t understand the activity you mentioned. Something got lost in the translation.”
Zeke paused. “It’s %$%^%^. It’s…” he stopped again. “I can't explain. Let me look it up.”
I waited. It was quite common for things to get lost in translation. The basic language we had developed was still evolving.
“I’ve got it,” Zeke said. “The closest thing I can relate it to is ‘curling.’ There’s a slippery surface involved, and a lot of sliding around, but the rules are a bit different. Anyway, I was just being silly.”
“Silly is good,” I said, and on it went. This was the sort of conversation ISAP wanted us to have. Light, seemingly trivial, even flirtatious. They didn’t want us speculating on the meeting between the Earth and Sarter delegations, even though the projected rendezvous in Alpha Centauri A was some years away. They also didn’t want us getting our hopes up about actually meeting our penpals. Although our spacecraft could go much faster than anyone in the twentieth century could have ever dreamed, we were not making any progress with faster-than-light travel. Frankly, I didn’t think it was ever going to happen.
Alleyn-Cates would have kicked me off the TIC if I had ever blatantly suggested such a notion to Zeke or anyone else. I wasn’t stupid, and neither was Zeke. Many of us had developed little cues and emphases in our communications that ISAP didn’t seem to pick up on. It was the only way we could ever have real conversations with the Sartereans. Zeke and I knew more about each other than ISAP realized. At least, we hoped ISAP hadn’t picked up on what we were really saying.
If Zeke and I ever met on the ground, we might get freaked out by what the other person looked like. I imagined Zeke as some sort of silvery humanoid creature with the face of some handsome actor in an aliens-land-on-Earth film. How did Zeke imagine me? In his mind, did I have tentacles, antennae or (despite himself) three heads? As I said, etiquette forbade the discussion of such matters. I would like to think that if Zeke and I ever did meet on the ground, we’d get past all of the external oddities.
I’ll admit it: we fancied each other.
To be continued.
ISAP: International Space Administration Program, pronounced "Ee-sop."
Sartereans: The intelligent species from the planet Sarter in contact with Earthlings, pronounced "Sar-ter-ray-ans."
TIC: Transgalactic Instantaneous Communicator, pronounced "tick."