Humans in Funny Suits

Draco Class Shuttle
[CV4]AIS-8
Ballistic Transfer Trajectory
8 AUs from Luyten’s Star
March 2219

The armored insertion shuttle was designed to drop marines through any number of atmospheres directly into a combat zone, land, and then make it back to orbit in one piece. Comfort was never included as a needed design specification. The seats were rough and hard on Margaret Armstrong’s back, legs, and ass. She felt every time the pilot tapped a thruster directly through her spine. And yet, she was excited. Margaret was one hundred and thirty-eight years old, she had rewound her age twice, and in that time had learned every living human language and quite a few dead ones. Her body was young now, in her mid-thirties by her own estimate. She wasn’t a bundle of hormones liable to screw up an important decision anymore, that was important. The laugh lines had started coming back to her face, and she had noticed grey hairs mixed in with her natural blonde, but it didn’t bother her, she always aged gracefully. She was on her way to meet aliens and learn their language too; it felt like her entire life had been leading up to this moment.

Across the aisle from her, Senior Pragmatist Vedika Srivastava sat stoically, her artificially bright orange eyes contrasted sharply against her mahogany skin, giving her an unsettling, slightly alien appearance. Her eyes stared vacantly into space, gaze focused on her optical displays as she idly pondered the nature of the aliens they would soon be meeting. Margaret couldn’t help but find the dead gaze unsettling, despite knowing rationally it was only because the Pragmatist was reviewing information on her optical implants, streaming data directly into the visual centers of her brain. That knowledge did nothing to make her blank stare less unsettling, and Margaret resolved to look elsewhere.

To her left, Morgan Sabaea, the youngest of them at ninety six and in eir second life, drummed eir fingers on the armrest of eir chair impatiently. The small, mousy androgyne with a short, military buzzcut served as their xenobiologist. Morgan was an odd one, not the top of eir field, working through the Martian Survey Corps like Margaret and Vedika, but with deep and murky ties to an alphabet soup of organisational acronyms. Martian Naval and Recon Corps, InOps, StratNet, MDRPA the military weapons research division, and MIS the Martian Intelligence service. While Margaret and Vedika were effectively outside the Martian naval command structure, Major Morgan Sabaea was military through and through.

“Nervous?” Margaret tentatively asked Morgan as the relatively younger androgyne continued to drum eir fingers on the armrest.

“The nerves come first,” Morgan answered with a smile, ceasing eir drumming and gripping the armrest. “It’s the anticipation of the experience, getting the nerves out of the way. Once we’re into the thick of things, the calm returns.”

“You make it sound like we’re going to war.” Margaret chuckled nervously, glancing back at Vedika, who was still lost in her datastreams.

“This is the most important event in human history Maggie, from the perspective of psychology, we might as well be flying into battle.” Morgan laughed, it was a nice sound, like the tinkling of wind chimes in a breeze.

“Have you been in battle?” Margaret asked the military androgyne.

“I have,” ey answered, taking on a faraway look as ey reminisced, “I fought in the Lightspeed Conflict against the warlords of Alpha Centauri. There’s a lot of conflict in the universe.”

“Only what we take with us.” Margaret retorted sagely.

“I’m not so sure about that anymore, you’ve read the reports, seen the data the Empiricist pulled in. We might be walking into an interstellar war zone,” the Major said.

Margaret took a deep breath, her own nerves were worn, but she felt a deep stillness and clarity in her course of action, and she wasn’t afraid,“We’re at an inflection point, all the math changes, the future of humanity could end up riding on what we do here in the next few months.”

“Sort of justifies the anxiety at least, doesn’t it?” Morgan smiled.

“If you say so,” Margaret said with a sigh, looking back at their Pragmatist, her orange eyes still looking blankly into space, unmoving beyond the occasional blink.

Constellation Project Colony
UNDSV 15-18 Jericho Ridge
Hyperbolic Stellar Escape Trajectory
1.95 Light Years from Sol
March 2219

I am going to die hanging here. The thought pounded through the animalistic parts of Seth Fiegel’s brain in a flood of useless survival instincts. The stars wheeled coldly and uncaringly beneath him, offering no solace.

“I am not going to die here,” he said to himself, drawing his mind out of the panic driven fog. “I am not going to die here,” he repeated it like a mantra as his breathing slowly came under control, and his heart rate slowed down to normal. He continued to ignore Regan McKinley’s worried voice in his ear, he wasn’t ready to deal with her yet

His plan of climbing the chain was clearly not going to work, he was too heavy in the suit to haul himself up in it. He went through his other options. If he detached himself from the colony and let himself be flung off, there was a remote chance the station’s sensors would detect him and they’d come rescue him. But they could just as easily miss his tiny suit in the vast darkness of space, it was a gamble. If he could swing up he could try to grab the lip of the door and haul himself inside. Oh, he realized, this suit has magnetic boots.

He took a breath, getting one last look at the stars, yet another ship slipping across them, then turned and started to carefully rock himself back and forth, as if swinging on a swing.

The Pendulum motion in the chain started out frustratingly small, and it took an annoyingly long time to get a good swing going in the bulky suit, but each swing his feet got a little bit closer to the decking until finally connecting with a knee jarring yank as the magnets in the boots reached out and gripped the hull plating.

Seth stood up on the deck, staring off the colony’s vast horizon to the endless expanse of space beyond, spinning, always spinning, overhead now from his new perspective.

“Seth!” Regan’s voice insisted angrily through the speakers.

“I’m fine Regan, I just spooked myself a bit is all, I’m coming back in now, don’t worry,” he tried to make his voice sound calm, confident, he hoped his still shaking nerves didn’t make it into the mic.

“You better not die out there Seth Fiegel, or I will capture your spirit in a jar and taunt you about this forever.” Lily’s voice came out of the speaker system.

Seth ignored her and carefully walked to the edge of the decking. The spinning of the colony still wanted to fling him off into space, and it created the odd feeling of being suspended from his boots. Climbing up over the lip of the door, even with the magnetic boots, was an awkward operation that required kneeling and shimmying and no doubt looked somewhat silly for those watching from the viewing panels.

“How was it out there?” Harper Jordan asked him through the comms system as he strode triumphantly back across the hangar deck.

“It’s awesome,” he replied, “I’m going to have to do that again.”

 

Newton Class Starship
MSCV Empiricist
Elliptical Orbit
8 AUS from Luyten’s Star
March 2219

The conference table was more crowded than usual for the Empiricist’s 87th senior staff meeting. All the usual senior staff were present, as well as the new personnel sent over by the Light of Ages. Ivy studied the faces arranged around the conference table, Cale Rouschev and Vedika Srivastava were staring daggers at each other across the table, Orion Warrego was quietly talking with Morgan Sabaea, and Kestral was pacing nervously at the head of the room. Ivy felt the androgyne’s nervousness mirrored in herself, this was it. In a few hours, they would move closer to the Lament for Lost Worlds and begin real time communication with the Ones Who Came Before.

Or at least, as close to real time as their translation software would allow. Ivy cleared her throat and brought the idle chatter to an end. She flipped the switches on her implants to turn on the room’s recording software.

“Today is March 15th, 2219,” Ivy began, “This is the 87th senior staff meeting, on the 11th mission of the Martian Survey Corps Vessel Empiricist. Topic of the day is The Ones Who Came Before. In attendance today, Mission Commander Ivy Czininski, First Officer Lieutenant Commander Jean Paoloni, Senior Pragmatist Vedika Srivastava, Pragmatist Cale Rouschev, Chief Science Officer Kestral Schiaparelli, Chief Medical Officer Orion Warrego, Chief Engineer Mathias Corbin, Chief Linguist Margaret Armstrong, Chief Xenobiologist Major Morgan Sabaea, and Senior Conscience Evangeline Daedaelia. Kestral, I open the floor to you.” Ivy gestured to the white haired androgyne, who was leaning against the back of eir chair.

Ey snapped upright and clapped eir hands together, smothering eir nervousness in enthusiasm. “Right, so, The Ones Who Came Before, what do we know, what do we suspect, and what do we still need to learn? Those are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.”

The science officer began throwing up images onto the wallscreens ey had stored on eir implants.

“Let’s start with what we know. The Ones Who Came Before are an octopedal race that evolved on a 0.6 G world. Four of their limbs are differentiated into legs, and four are differentiated into arms. They are radially symmetrical with a dorsal mouth and a ventral waste chute, they have eight, light sensitive organs located around the perimeter of their mouth. Their bodies are covered with feathers, making them capable of gliding and powered flight on their homeworld. They wear clothing that doesn’t interfere with this flight, and communicate by vibrating parts of their breathing apparatus to create atmospheric pressure waves. They reproduce sexually with k-pattern selection, have three sexes of very limited sexual dimorphism, and seemed to have evolved subsisting on a diet similar to that of early humans. However, the similarities with them and earth life end there. They have no centralized nervous system, however, they do seem to have a decentralized nervous system that runs in parallel to a chemically based information storage system that encodes directly into their DNA variants. They practice a ritualised form of cannibalism that seems to let them inherit the genetic memories of their predecessors.”

“How large are they?” Morgan asked.

“Roughly one meter tall, though it various between individuals,” Kestral explained.

“Oh, they’re that small?” Margaret asked, “I was imagining them somewhat larger.”

Kestral waved eir hands and modified the image, “Here’s a human and a banana for scale. More significantly, they didn’t develop their own technology, they were technologically uplifted to their current level roughly two million years ago by a race they also call The Ones Who Came Before, seen here.”

Kestral changed the image to a different species of octopods, furred instead of feathered, and all wearing individualized and towering headdresses. “We don’t know very much about this race, and they don’t appear to be one of the races presently represented on the Lament for Lost Worlds, but they do seem to be the original source of all the technology used by the, well, Cale and I have been calling them the Bird-Spiders.”

“Their word for themselves is Ki-wa-wen-toa, except they speak all four syllables at once, something we humans can’t replicate,” Margaret spoke up, adding in her input as linguist. “That translates to The Ones Who Came Before, but their word for the ah…”

“Octopuses in funny hats.” Kestral finished the sentence for her.

“Right,” Margaret continued, “them, their word for that race is Ki-an-wen-toa, which is slightly different and translates to The Ones Who Came First. Keep in mind that it’s effectively a single word in their language, it’s densely encoded.”

“Is that actually relevant?” Ivy asked the linguist.

“It’s a more respectful label then calling them bird-spiders,” Margaret answered, “and The Ones Who Came Before is a bit of a mouthful, but if you take the syllables of their word, and say them one at a time instead of all together, it could be pronounced as Kiwawentoa for the ‘bird-spiders,’ and Kianwentoa, for the ‘octopuses in funny hats.’”

“Aw, you don’t like our cutsy colloquialisms? I was hoping they’d catch on,” Cale laughed.

“These are sentient creatures who deserve respect and dignity,” Vedika interjected, “And referring to them as ‘bird-spiders’ implies they are animals, something beneath us. It sets a poor precedent for future cultural exchange, and breeds negative memes within our own culture regarding their natures.”

“I concur with the Senior Pragmatist,” Evangeline added in smugly, “The long-term potential for abuse from the memeplex that develops out of that phrase is dangerously high.”

“Fine, fine,” Ivy imposed, “We call them the Kiwawentoa, can we move along? Kestral, proceed.”

“Alright,” Kestral began, “So what do we suspect about the bi…the Kiwawentoa, that we can’t yet prove?”

“I forward the hypothesis that their development has been largely static since their uplifting,” Cale said.

“Is that testable?” Vedika asked him from across the table.

“Sure, if they start using our warp drive, or experimenting with it, it’ll overturn my theory,” Cale admitted.

“You think they have some sort of learning disability?” Margaret asked, “Something to stop them from developing new technology that differs from what they already know?”

“Something like that,” Cale said, “I’m fuzzy on the details, but they seem to add information to their genetic and chemical memory system by consuming other organisms with similar information storage techniques. It’s probably a hunting strategy, it would have given them a lot of knowledge about the habits of their usual prey animals, and they eat their dead to retain some of those learned experiences, but that strategy isn’t amenable to the development of tool use.”

“And we know they were uplifted by the…what was the other one Margaret?” Kestral asked.

“The Kianwentoa,” Margaret answered.

“Right, so this all points to the theory that they were uplifted, told to go do a certain set of actions, and then set on their way,” Cale elaborated.

“That makes them what, biological robots?” Evangeline asked.

“Engineered servants, manufactured slaves, biological automatons, the point is, these guys are just doing as they’re programmed to do, what we need to do, is talk to the fuzzy squids in charge,” Cale said.

Vedika cleared her throat loudly at the colloquialism, and Cale held up his hands apologetically.

“Due to the potential seriousness of the threat they pose, we are required to strongly suspect the Reshapers are not a fabrication, that said, we do not yet actually have evidence for their existence, only the word of the Kiwawentoa.” Evangeline listed.

“We should have other survey ships warping coreward right now to test those claims,” Cale said, “That should be a priority.”

“It’s already being seen to,” Vedika answered calmly, “Remember, MNCV Watt’s Engine departed for Sol last week with all the data your ship recovered. When they relay all this to Mars, included will be a recommendation by myself and Admiral Wallace to dispatch the MSCV Bacon’s Legacy, and the MSCV Destiny of Light towards Sagittarius looking for these Reshapers.”

Cale nodded his head, feeling slightly humbled, by the Senior Pragmatist’s foresight,  “good, good.”

“That’s still something we should talk to them about,” Jean said, speaking up for the first time in the meeting, “it’s pretty obvious they care a lot about all this. They basically forced the information on the Reshapers down our throats when we first met them. They considered it the most important thing to send, and spammed it to us until we were able to translate it.”

“They’re basically a shipful of refugees, that’s what we’re getting at, right?” Margaret said. “They’re running away from the conflict zone, picking up sentient species along the way.”

“To play devil’s advocate for a moment,” Ivy said, “What if they’re lying about the Reshapers and using it as an excuse to harvest sentient species as slave labor?”

“Highly unlikely,” Vedika replied, “For a huge host of reasons. It’s just not practical.”

“How does this potential war play into your theory of them being preprogrammed automatons?” Evangeline asked Cale.

“Difficult to say,” Cale admitted, “We’d need to know more about their biology, their chemistry. We know they have a distributed nervous system that is partially electrical like our own, but how much thinking that system does compared to how much is epigenetic decision trees in their chemical memory?” He shrugged.

“They’re incredibly alien, we don’t really understand their minds at all,” Jean said. “I’ve talked to them, and compared to them, everything we’ve tried to imagine when we say aliens is just…”

“Humans in funny suits,” Morgan interjected, Jean nodded.

“So how exactly is this all going to go down?” Evangeline asked.

“A good question, shall we move on to operations planning?” Ivy asked the table, receiving a dull chorus of nods in assent. “Vedika, if you would then?”

The senior pragmatist nodded and stood, without actually looking at the screens, she threw images from her implants onto the wallscreens, displaying dozens of intersecting and passing orbital arcs through local space. “We will move the Empiricist in, warping to within 250,000 kilometers of the rods the Lament for Lost Worlds uses as propulsion. Thanks to the continued services of First Officer Paoloni as Speaker for Mankind, we have pre-cleared this action with the Kiwawentoa. When we arrive, we will launch a shuttle to a small vessel they will bring out alongside us. That vessel will serve as the first contact platform.”

“I thought we couldn’t warp any closer to it than this?” Matthias asked, speaking up for the first time “If I recall, we stumbled onto them because Commander Paoloni couldn’t get the ship to warp one night.”

“That’s because the computer systems in the warp drive weren’t accounting for the mass of the Lament for Lost Worlds in their tunneling calculations,” Vedika explained, “This meant not enough energy was being fed into the warp field generators and the warp tunnel was coming up short of the ship. Now that that mass is accounted for, we should be able to warp closer without any issue.”

“Provided they hold still,” Cale added, “Those oars of theirs produce pretty serious gravitational waves when they move, which would make warping pretty much impossible.”

“Can we moor the Empiricist directly to their contact ship instead of using a shuttle?” Jean asked.

“Maybe, we might be able to print out a custom airlock, but it’ll depend on a lot of factors, we’ll be able to decide that once we see their ship,” Vedika replied.

“Who makes up the initial contact team?” Cale asked.

“Myself, Major Sabaea, Dr. Armstrong, Dr. Schiaparelli, and Lieutenant Commander Paoloni will form the initial team,” Vedika answered, “And we’ll be warping in five hours.”

“Any further questions?” Ivy asked.

The room fell into a somewhat sullen silence, the meeting had already begun to run long.

“Okay,” Ivy said, “let’s get to work then.”

 

Draco Class Shuttle
[FSF8] AIS-2
Ballistic Transfer Trajectory
2 AUs from Luyten’s Star
March 2219

Jean struggled to keep her breathing in check as the shuttle vectored towards their fate. The Kiwawentoa vessel that had flown out from the Lament for Lost Worlds to meet them resembled a cross between a jellyfish and a coral reef: a bulbous head of matte, peach colored material trailed away into strange reedy strands and clusters of nodules. Like the larger vessel, it lacked an apparent source of propulsion, appearing to adjust its course by pulsing its trailing strands in a manner not unlike an aquatic organism.

A large maw irised open at the head of the vessel, and their shuttle was quickly swallowed up. The shuttle flew into a large hanger, brightly lit in blue and green lights. Various semi-organic looking nodules of equipment blinked and twinkled in stacks and rows at the periphery of the space. The entrance irised closed again in that same faintly organic way as everything else.

“This is it, everyone please don your helmets and prepare to exit the vehicle,” Vedika spoke from the back of the craft. Jean unstrapped herself from her seat beside the pilot and pushed off it, drifting slowly down the middle of the shuttle. She strapped her helmet on and registered a hard seal on her EVA suit. The Kiwawentoa breathed in oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide like earth life did, but their atmosphere contained a much larger proportion of oxygen and carbon dioxide, enough to render a human unconscious in under a minute.

Jean looked around the cramped shuttle compartment, multiple sets of eyes met her own through the curved glass of the faceplates, faces set in grim determination.

“Let’s open it up,” Vedika’s voice came through the speakers in her suit, though she could also hear the Senior Pragmatist’s muffled voice directly through the suits, there weren’t actually in a vacuum after all.

The hatch at the rear of the shuttle folded outwards, opening a view up into the alien hangar beyond. Despite her best efforts to remain calm, Jean felt as her heart began racing; it threatened to pound through her chest and escape the confines of her suit.

“Fall out into the hanger,” Vedika instructed, “hold position by the far wall.”

One by one, the suited figures moved to the edge of the shuttle and pushed off into the alien cavity beyond. Jean’s turn in line came speeding at her, and she almost backpedaled into Margaret as the vast and strange landscape caught her off guard. The sheer weirdness of everything was striking: the visual centers of her brain kept trying to draw associations between some strange object and a familiar human one, but there was no frame of reference, nothing made sense, it was like looking at an abstract painting of a spaceship hangar.

But there was no going back now, and with a sharp intake of breath, she pushed off into the void. Alien shapes swirled all around her in the distance, denying her eyes an easy frame of reference. She felt as if she was falling into an irregular blob of color, before the wall came rushing up at her surprisingly fast and she quickly threw her hands up before she rebounded off the rough peach colored surface. The impact sent her slowly spinning away from the wall until Vedika deftly reached out and grabbed a handle on her suit to arrest her motion.

“Sorry,” Jean said sheepishly into her microphone, Vedika said nothing in response.

“I feel like I could spend a few lifetimes just studying this room and still barely scratch the surface,” Margaret’s voice came in through Jean’s speakers.

“We have a meeting to attend though,” Vedika said, “And our hosts are waiting for us,” she pointed down the wall to their left. “The door should be over there,” she said, “they’ve got a meeting room set up for us.”

Cold gas thrusters worked poorly in atmosphere, and inefficiently at that, so instead of thruster packs, the contact team’s EVA suits had small ducted fans mounted where thrusters would normally be found, powered by a battery housed in the compartment that would typically contain fuel. Vedika tapped her thrusters and Jean could hear the fans whining through her suit as the orange eyed Senior Pragmatist floated along the wall, one hand gently pressed against the rough surface for stability. She seemed completely unflappable, Jean suspected she might be an android.

A slightly more organic looking surface dilated open into a long corridor lit in blue lights further along the wall from the group, and Vedika pointed towards it, “That will be our destination, stay together.”

The group of suited humans continued along the wall, then turned and made their way along the corridor. The walls were narrow, slightly too close for comfort to an adult human, it was as if everything had been designed at a child scale. The far end of the corridor dilated open into another larger space beyond. The group pushed themselves out of the tube and into a large roughly spherical room, one which had been divided in two by a smooth plane of transparent material.

Beyond the glass though, two of the Kiwawentoa watched the group of humans, their strange trilling communications somewhat audible through the thick transparent sheet.

The two groups studied each other in silence for a few moments, each seemingly taken aback by the other. When no one else moved or spoke, Jean pushed to the front of the group, and approached the glasslike sheet that separated the two races.

“Hello,” she said aloud through her external suit speakers, pressing a gloved hand against the hard transparent surface, “We come in peace.”

There was a beat, a moment as the two creatures studied the larger human, then one of the pair moved close to the wall, and pressed a clawed hand to the glass opposite Jean’s.

“Humans,” A voice spoke in english, translated by a hidden computer system somewhere, “We wish you peace and prosperity.” Jeans’ eyes locked with those of the strange being in the room beyond, and an understanding passed between them. For the first time, two unique intelligences looked into the eyes of the other and saw themselves reflected there. There could no longer be any doubt, humanity was not alone in the universe.

 

Constellation Project Colony
UNDSV 15-18 Jericho Ridge
Hyperbolic Stellar Escape Trajectory
1.95 Light Years from Sol
March 2219

Regan’s breath caught in her throat as the chain went taut and she felt herself swinging out over the nothingness that was space. Once Seth had confirmed it was safe and explained how to swing back inside afterward, Harper had taken a turn out on the hull. Well, Regan wasn’t about to be shown up by the boys, and once the suit had recharged, she declared that she wanted a go at it as well

“Holy shit!” She said into the microphone, instinctively keying up as the stars spun dizzily past beneath her. “Okay, okay this is pretty intense here.”

“You doing alright out there Regan?” Seth’s voice came back calm and self-assured, and it helped calm her down.

“Yeah, I’m good it’s just, wow,” she said as she looked around. The colony continued rotating, turning inwards to face its neighboring colonies and providing a view up the long corridor to the High Ridge. The vastness of the expanse around her filled her with a sense of awe, feeling her own tininess against the wide landscape of human mega-engineering.

A parade of military ships was undocking from the High Ridge, cutting free of their moorings and following one another nose to tail, up and out of the vast structure of Jericho Ridge.

“Hey Seth,” Regan asked, “all those UN ships are leaving, have you heard anything about that?”

“Nothing on the news or over the colony’s localnet. You sure it’s the UNDF ships?” He asked her.

“The rotation of the colony is sending me right past them,” Regan replied, “I can read the words on the hulls, it’s definitely those military ships, and they seem to be in an awful hurry to get somewhere.”

“That’s kind of relieving, it’d be real bad if a battle broke out here,” Seth answered.

“It’s probably to do with those aliens,” Regan replied, “That news ship is leaving too. I doubt there’ll be an actual battle though, everyone is just kinda spooked by this alien stuff.”

“Yeah, but when you’ve got access to nuclear weapons and railguns and combat drones, getting spooked can give someone a real bad day, real easily,” Seth said.

“I think people are better than that,” Regan retorted, “I don’t think this will start a war or anything.”

“I hope you’re right Regan,” Seth’s voice came quietly out of the speakers, “The alternative is pretty bleak.”

“I hope so too,” The teenager said into her microphone. Outside her suit, the station kept spinning, panning into view and out again as the UN fleet left the superstructure and fired up their engines, points of light growing more distant as they accelerated away. And beyond them all, the stars wheeled endlessly onward.

 

Loving Extension of Wisdom class Lifeseeker
i34_2015/76
Circular Orbit
250,000 Kilometers from Lament for Lost Worlds
March 2219

Jean closed her eyes, letting the bizarreness of the situation around her vanish away for a moment. She focused her attention on her breathing, mentally silencing everything beyond herself. She heard the sound of her heart beating, the blood pumping through her veins, and the even movement of her breath.

She floated there, in her self imposed meditative trance, for a few moments, letting her thoughts recollect and her emotions flow away. One by one, she came back to her senses, starting with hearing.

An air pump cycled noisily as it worked to adjust the composition of the atmosphere in the Meetingspace, the name the kiwawentoa gave to the split room. The Lifeseeker, the alien’s name for the small ship they now occupied, was designed explicitly for first contact missions, hence the large space and giant glass wall.  After the Kiwawentoa had explained to them that they were meant to bring in equipment as they willed and adjust the atmosphere on their own side of the wall to their liking, Vedika began having supplies hauled in. The sound of the other explorers in her party as they set up camp provided another source of noise. But the dominant sound in the chamber was the kiwawentoa themselves. Their language sounded to Jean nearly identical to terrestrial birdsong, and she smiled as she listened to them sing. She took one final breath and opened her eyes.

Morgan and Kestral continued to wrestle a large collapsible tent structure into place, struggling to control the long fiberglass component rods onto which the fabric wall structure was hung; Vedika was overseeing the construction with vague disinterest.

A pair of kiwawentoa diplomats watched the construction with far greater interest than the Pragmatist, chirping and trilling away in their language as they discussed the humans amongst themselves. Occasionally, one of the aliens would field them a question that was translated by the various computer systems interposed between them and issued forth through her earpiece in Martian.

The senior of the two aliens in the still poorly understood hierarchal structure was Dreaming-Waking-Transcending. The creature they had communicated with previously seemed to be in charge, and held the rank of ‘Singer of Sad Truths.’ Jean learned that he was a male of their species, or at least, that was how Margaret and Morgan had agreed it should be translated. It seemed sort of arbitrary to Jean, they had three sexes, and they didn’t neatly map to human sexes. Referring to them as male, female, and ximale, were necessarily inaccurate human conventions.

The Dreaming-Waking-Transcending’s feathers bore a mottled pattern in black, white, and grey, and he practically exuded authority. He was the only one of numerous aliens coming and going to wear orange. All the rest of their contingent wore various shades of brown or blue.

His companion was a slightly smaller creature named Studying-Hoping-Envisioning, who had feather patterns that made Jean think of a calico kitten. She wore navy blue robes with orange trim of the same shade as Dreaming-Waking-Transcending’s robes, and bore the rank ‘Interpreter of Wisdom.’

Margaret floated in a lotus position in the center of the room, holding an actual notebook and pen, most likely exported from Earth at an exorbitant markup. Positioned only a meter from the glass wall, she sat and watched the two kiwawentoa, occasionally writing something in her notes.

Jean’s suit began to beep and she focused her eyes inward onto the suit HUD. The exterior atmosphere sensors were flashing green, the air was safe to breathe in the Meetingspace. She quickly shed her helmet and breathed a sigh of relief to be free of the cramped confines of the suit. She let her neck and back go limp and took a deep breath of the much cooler outside air. It had an odd fragrance, a strange cross between musk, rain, and flowers.

“Sol-human-Jean-Paoloni,” asked Studying-Hoping-Envisioning, the AI systems giving the smaller alien a slightly different voice to differentiate them, “Does your breathsuit cause you discomfort?”

Jean looked at her helmet floating slowly away, then to the calico creature, “It gets a bit cramped after a while,” she replied, surprised to be addressed by the alien.

“We too dislike wearing the breathsuit,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning admitted, curling her legs under her, “It confines the legbreath and produces much discomfort.”

“What do you mean by legbreath?” Margaret asked her, looking up from her notes.

Studying-Hoping-Envisioning flexed and curled her legs again, unlike Dreaming-Waking-Transcending, who watched them still and stoically, the female creature seemed completely unable to stop fidgeting.

“Legbreath is,” she fumbled for something translatable and decided it would just be easier to demonstrate. She rippled her feathers while also closing all her legs to one another and the motions combined to propel the small creature through the air. Studying-Hoping-Envisioning continued to fly around her side of the meetingspace, making a sound that the earpiece interpreted as laughter.

“Ah,” Margaret replied, smiling and scribbling another note in her book, “That makes sense.”

“We understand that humans are an aquatic species, is that a correct interpretation?” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning asked as she floated up in front of Margaret.

“No?” Margaret replied, tilting her head in confusion. “We spend very little time in water compared to many other species on our world, so we don’t consider ourselves particularly aquatic in comparison.”

“But you are unharmed by it,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning responded, “To many species, water is highly corrosive and toxic.”

“Including your own?” Margaret asked.

“No,” she answered, “Our species drinks water like your own, but we do not immerse ourselves in it, to do so would likely be fatal. Its high specific temperature would leach away the heat from our bodies.”

Margaret nodded in understanding, scribbling down another note.

“Does the repeated vertical realignment of your chin and neck bear particular meaning?” She asked Margaret.

“It’s a nod, it represents agreement or understanding, a nonverbal yes.” She shook her head from side to side, “Conversely this represents a nonverbal no or disagreement.”

Studying-Hoping-Envisioning flexed her legs again excitedly, communicating with Dreaming-Waking-Transcending in untranslated birdsong.

“Does that motion where you curl and flex your limbs have a meaning?” Margaret asked.

“Our body language is less discreet than you describe yours as, it means different things relating to the context,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning explained, “Though it often is used to indicate talkthinking or confusion or unknowing, we believe it is similar to your shrug.”

Margaret quickly wrote down the alien’s response, nodding as she listened.

Jean activated her suit fans and slowly pushed herself across the room towards where her helmet had drifted. She collected it and began moving towards the now completed modular tent structure.

“What is your exact definition of aquatic?” Vedika asked the aliens as she floated past Jean, going the other direction.

“An aquatic species is defined as one capable of surviving immersion in water,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning answered.

“By that definition,” Vedika began, “We are indeed an aquatic species. However, we don’t actually spend that much time submerged in water. There are species on our world that live their entire lives submerged thusly. Have you never encountered an intelligent species that lives its entire life in water?”

Studying-Hoping-Envisioning curled her legs in confusion, “We have never encountered an intelligent oceanic species. We do not believe such a species is possible. The environment is too hostile, thus species evolved within it must become too well adapted to that environment to ever require the creation of tools.”

“Interesting,” Vedika responded, crossing her arms as she studied the two aliens. Jean climbed into the tent and began peeling out of the suit. After wearing it for hours and hours, her perspiration threatened to glue it to her skin. The cool air felt fantastic after being trapped inside the suit, and the pants and shirt she pulled on barely felt like anything in comparison to the heavy suit that gripped her body tightly.

Without the suit fans to act as thrusters, Jean stood a real chance of being stranded somewhere in the middle of the room with no way to reach a wall and push off of it. To avoid this, she attached pair of large collapsible nylon wings to her arms in the form of bracers. If she activated a switch on them, the wings would extend, giving her leverage on the air. Another press, and the wings retracted back down into the bracers.

“Are there any other aquatic species on your vessel, or are we the first to be encountered?” Vedika asked.

Jean flapped her arms and pushed away from the tent, air swirling in her wake as she propelled herself back towards the center of the room. She collapsed her wings and used the glass to arrest her momentum, lightly bouncing off it with all fours before extending her wing again to come to a complete stop beside Margaret and Vedika, both of whom still wore their suits.

Jean looked over Studying-Hoping-Envisioning. The eyes of the alien were somewhat disconcerting. They bore an odd resemblance to one of those hypnosis spirals, only colored bright blue in the case of Studying-Hoping-Envisioning, and violet for Dreaming-Waking-Transcending. The little alien had her navy blue hood pulled up over her head, which seemed strange considering the radial symmetry of the aliens, it blocked two sets of their eyes. Jean pulled the hood on her shirt up over her head.

She mirrored Jean by reaching up with two of her limbs and pulling down her hood. Jean laughed and pulled her own hood down. Studying-Hoping-Envisioning pulled her hood back up in response. This game continued between the two of them for several minutes until Vedika and Dreaming-Waking-Transcending began giving them disapproving looks.

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