He writes: 'We are experiencing a problem.' He hesitates, finger over send key. He can see himself, in four days time, sitting here, staring at the reply, which will simply say 'What kind of problem?'
He writes: 'We are experiencing a problem. A personnel problem. With Dr Maitlis.' And then he feels like a child, telling tales, and erases the last three words. He stares at the terminal, and groans, rubbing his eyes.
“You haven't done it, have you?” says a voice, behind him. He jumps. Dr Ramprakash is leaning in the doorway.
“I'm just trying to get the wording right,” he says, lamely.
“You know, we all agreed that's what we were going to do,” she says.
Yes, he says silently, after a four hour meeting in which there was some shouting, and we all went round the whole thing and each changed our minds several times. But he doesn't open his mouth.
Ramprakash comes and reads the message. “I think that's fine,” she says, as if colluding to a crime. Suddenly, hurriedly, he presses the send key. The message disappears. He sighs, as if a weight has come off his shoulders.
He glances round. “Where is he?”
“In his room. I checked.”
He nods, guiltily.
“What about them?”
“We're over the volcanoes. We've got the shutters down.”
He should have known this. Although he knows the three-hour blackout is necessary, it makes him a little nervous, as if he can be seen, without knowing who is looking at him.
“I think I'm going to go for a little sleep,” he says.
He goes down the corridor, to his quarters. He hates the way the corridor curves, slightly, as if it will keep going in an infinite parabola. He comes to his quarters, and locks the door behind him. He is not supposed to, for safety reasons. The lock is there, for safety reasons, for the same reasons he is not supposed to use it under normal circumstances. When he switches it on, a little light goes on in the Captain's cabin. He knows this, just as he knows that Captain Connor will scrupulously fail to mention it, just as he has done over the past many months. What he does not know is how many other lights light up in the Captain's cabin. It can be hard, sometimes, sharing a confined space with twenty-seven other people, especially when you can't just nip out for a stroll.
He lies down, on the bed. In some sort of compensation for the travails of life on board, the beds are extremely comfortable. He wallows in it, for a while, and then, irritated, gets up. He leans against the wall for a while, feeling the slight humming of machinery within it. He knows they are only air ducts and cooling mechanisms, but he likes to think what he hears is the blood of the ship, humming as it circulates. He imagines himself as some kind of strange hatchling, tucked inside a pod in the ship's great body. He thinks of the ship as mother. He thinks they all do, though they are too embarrassed to admit it.
This, the noise of the ship, calms him, and he lies down again, and sleeps for an hour or two. He wakes, less cast down. They are in no danger. There is nothing wrong. All systems are functioning perfectly. This is what he tells himself as he commits his clothes to the cleaning system, and puts on clean ones.
He goes out, into the corridor, and begins to make his way to the dining room. He hears someone coming towards him, hidden by the curving wall. They are whistling, slightly.
He cannot help but flinch, as Dr Maitlis appears. Not that there is anything in Dr Maitlis's appearance to make him concerned. He looks well, chipper, and has a slightly dreamy expression. In fact, he looks renewed, buoyed up in some way.
“Hello, Rositzsky,” he says, pleasantly. “You look a bit under the weather.”
“I just woke up,” he says, defensively.
Maitlis puts a hand on his arm, and offers him a look of sympathy, in a way he would not have done, previously.
He nods. The moment Maitlis has gone he groans, and crouches against the wall. Instead of going to the dining room, he goes to Connor's office. The confessional.
“I feel like a bastard,” he says.
Connor looks sympathetic. He is a good leader. It is a good ship. It is the expedition of a lifetime. All these things, he tells himself. It's just that he feels awful.
“You know we agreed on a course of action,” says Connor, reasonably. “If something were to blow up, and become a serious incident, and we hadn't reported it back to base, that could have repercussions for us all, in the longer term.”
“Yes,” he says, pathetically.
“You look a little overwrought,” says the Captain. “I understand that you're at a loose end. I understand that your role is rather limited once the ship is in orbit. You should take advantage of that. As soon as we prepare to leave you'll be run off your feet. Slack back a little. Rest. Listen to some music.”
He can hear Connor, saying these things, as he has been trained to do, sincerely. He wants to scream at him. We are hanging above an alien world, I don't want to go and listen to old music! Instead he just clears his throat, and coughs, awkwardly.
“Anyway I just thought I'd let you know I sent the message, over the secure system, as you suggested.”
Captain Connor nods. His face shows nothing. Over to the left of his cabin, a screen gives way to the viewing room, and the giant screen therein. The viewing room is empty. It is dark, and lit by the sunrise, below. He can see it, the curve of the atmosphere, the great swirls of liquid gas, the huge clouds of vapour sent up by the geo-activity below. The sun, just cresting the horizon, turning the swirls of stuff electric blue, orange, and pearlescent pink.
“Has it been back?” he says, glumly.
“I think it's a mistake to talk about it,” says the Captain, as if he is on firmer ground. “We have no guarantee that it's the same one. It may be a different one, each time. Since we are unable to tell the difference between discrete members of the species.”
“They all look the same to us,” says Rositzsky, gloomily.
The Captain looks a little more human. “Please don't,” he complains, and laughs, ruefully. “I've had Ndhlovu in here once already, muttering about speciesism. Twice, in fact.”
“Ndhlovu says that we just aren't genetically designed to see the patterns that distinguish the separate individuals. She says that's our problem, not theirs. Like an anthropologist that doesn't speak the language. She working on a piece of software that will...” Connor seems to struggle a bit. “Recalibrate the energy signatures that are visible and re-order them in a matrix that can be recognised by the human brain.”
“That's not the same as translating them.”
“No. It does, however, mean they have name badges.”
As if at seeing the look on his face, Connor laughs, and comes round his side of the desk, puts both hands on his shoulders, and shakes him slightly.
“It's very exciting, Rositzsky. We're very lucky!”
“Yes, I know.” He glances out, at the planet below.
“I keep worrying we're going to end up doing something dreadful to them. They always looks sort of... vulnerable,” he says, pathetically.
“They live in an atmosphere that would dissolve us, instantly. They're right at home, and we're many millions of miles away. I really think they should feel sorry for us, if anyone's going to.”
“They seem... nice,” he says, stupidly, and is suddenly overwhelmed by the utter banality, the stupid, meaningless, unscientificness of his conclusion. He feels ashamed, and thinks he is about to cry.
“You're homesick,” says the Captain, accurately. “Come, lets go and have a coffee. A real one, not the fake kind.”
The Captain spends half an hour talking about his messages from home, and the duty roster, and the malfunctioning water processor on the storage deck, and everything utterly mundane, until finally he has recovered somewhat.
Next day he goes to see Ndlhovu. That is, in the next 24-hour sequence that his body still thinks is a day, though the ships hums, unstoppably, and the planet below spins round approximately once every 7 hours.
Him and Ndlovu do not especially get on. But they not loathe each other, would not have been allowed aboard if it were so. Instead, there is an awkwardness, a lack of empathy, between them. When he walks into the room, she is staring at massed banks of screens. Some kind of wobbling signal crosses each of the screens, each one slightly different. Ndhlovu gets to the end of the recordings – recordings they must be, since they run for a while, and then halt. As if to let him know that his presence is not important, she runs the things again.
“You're here about Maitlis,” she says, without looking up.
Ndhlovu was not at the meeting, since she is research, and not part of the core that see to the running of the ship. He wonders how she knows more than people tell her. He guesses it is part of her job.
“Connor said you're making headway with the program to identify them. The, er, aliens I mean.”
“I don't like that word. This is their home planet.”
“Yes, of course.”
He feels himself, stupid, like some old colonialist stuffed inside a ceremonial outfit, drinking tea in a pouring tropical thunderstorm.
“I just wondering how the research was getting on. In a more general kind of sense. About how the species live. How they operate.”
“They're semi-permeable sacs of gaseous matter which seem to have evolved some kind of nervous system.”
“Yes. I went to the briefing,” he says, more irritably than he intended.
“They seem to have evolved some kind of society, although not, as far as we are aware, any kind of technology. However I would caution against the premature conclusion that this indicates a lower form of intelligence.”
“Yes,” he says. He knew that too. He takes a deep breath, and tries to tolerate her lecturing manner.
“There's a lot more of them down under the cloud level than above. However we don't know if they only come up above for certain purposes, such as breeding. Or feeding. Or indeed, for recreation, much as some people go and walk round the woods for a week every October, while other people go and swim in the sea.”
“Yes,” he says, feeling that she is now, giving something away. “You know when they cluster like that, when you can see a whole group of them together, is that like a breeding thing?”
“It's a theory. Group sex. Might also be a committee meeting, or a dance club. Who knows. The fact is, we're probably never going to be able to communicate with them, and we may never find out. But we've found immeasurably more than if we stayed at home.”
“That they certainly are lifeforms.”
“They certainly are lifeforms. They may be as intelligent as rabbits. They may be as intelligent as cats. They may be as intelligent as monkeys. Or they may be smarter than the whole damn lot of us put together. Who knows? Specially since both the probes failed.”
“You don't think they're down there, unscrewing the damn things, to find out about the alien technology?”
“I think it was atmospheric conditions. Which we only predicted with about 75% accuracy.”
“Yes.” He thinks a while. “Rabbits aren't curious.”
“No,” says Ndhlovu, heavily.
“And they don't fixate on a single person.”
Ndhlovu says nothing. She just stares at him, enigmatically. There is something cold in her, he thinks.
“Connor says that it may not be the same individual.”
“Maitlis thinks it is.”
“Did he say that?”
“I observed it.”
Bloody anthropologists, he thinks.
“What do you think?”
“I haven't finished my algorithms.”
There is nothing to be read in her face. She stares him out, boldly.
“You think its the same one.”
“It may not be what you think. It may be an ambassador. It may be an envoy, or a sentry, a scout, or a research individual. Like the division of labour in a beehive.”
“But you do think it is the same one.”
She says nothing. There is something of secrecy in her that makes his palms sweat, in the artificially cooled air. He is glad that there is no way out of the ship, or he thinks Dr Ndhlovu, with the her deep, glassy eyes, is in danger of going native.
“It does seem to really like him.”
“Whether it has feeling is unknown. However, the two of them are incapable of existing at the same atmospheric pressure and gravity, so they're never going to get any closer than they are now.”
“No,” he says. An inexplicable sense of failure overwhelms him. He sighs.
“I wouldn't worry about it,” she says, in a more conciliatory tone.
He turns to go.
“And besides,” she offers, as a parting riposte, “As semi-permeable sacs of sentient gaseous matter go, you gotta admit they're not bad-looking.”
He feels disturbed by this comment, all the way through supper.
The next day he is down in the service corridor behind the viewing lounge, checking some of the terminals there. Connor has asked him to do this. He suspects it is a strategy to keep him busy. There is nothing wrong with the terminals, which are working perfectly. He can see all the data from the external monitors streaming in the measurements from outside, wind speed, atmospheric concentrations, and so on. This reassures him, since when he stands up he can see through a one-way screen into the viewing room, which is in darkness, that the great shutters are shut. It is like the ship has closed its eyes, so he is glad its other senses are working.
They must be coming past the area of volcanic activity, since he can see the heat signatures in the data fading, and dropping to what they have come to think of as the temperate zone, although it is hotter than he would care to bathe in.
He stands up. Somebody has entered the viewing room. It is Ramprakash, in the faint light of the emergency lighting. She is standing there, waiting. He feels a slight shuddering, as if of the ship waking, and grunting, sleepily. A faint noise happens in the service tunnel. Like the lids of an eye, the giant shutters split open, and a blade of light enters the room. Bluish, like a cold, winter morning. It crosses her feet, spills over her body, and lights up the room. It is beautiful. There is a dull, mechanic clunk as the shutters come to rest, and the sound of the shields which protect the ship from volcanic debris, powering down.
He taps on the window. She cannot hear him. She is staring out into the panorama below, the great lakes of gas, the swirls of cloud like peacock tails, all feathered and changing. He feels a little guilty, watching her, so he raises the comlink on his wrist and says 'Hello'.
Ramprakash jumps out of her skin, making him laugh, slightly.
“I'm in the service tunnel,” he explains.
She comes round, and climbs into the tunnel. She looks a little sweaty.
“Scared the bloody life out of me,” she says. She pulls her legs up into the tunnel, and closes the door behind her.
“What are you doing?”
“Routine. Maintenance. You?”
“Admiring the view. I'm glad I caught you alone, actually. I guess you haven't heard back from base yet?”
“There's no physical possibility of that till tomorrow at the earliest. Though they will have got my message my now.”
Ramprakash looks a little downcast. “I hope they don't tell us to do something awful, like sedate him.”
“We don't have to take their advice. What are they gonna do? Come round and shout at us? They're several light years away.”
“Yes, but we do get home eventually, don't we?”
“Yes.” He sighs. “I'm having trouble imagining it, these days.”
Ramprakash looks through the screen. She grips his sleeve.
“They're out there,” she says, a sense of excitement and dread in her voice.
He looks. Below them is a group of the other species, though, if you did not know, you might have mistaken them for dandelion seeds. There they are, in the largest group perhaps thirty of them, gathered together in a bundle, like seeds, or frogspawn, pulsating. Each one of those things, like bubbles, a sphere of pulsing membranes that drifts in the clouds, moving, shifting, changing. Thinking. Do they think, and act, like we do? Are they not just senseless bits of weed, drifting on a gaseous sea, and only alive in the sense that molluscs, or bacteria are?
As if to answer this, two of the bobbing bubbles break off from the group, hang, unmoving for a moment, as if communicating, and dive instead on a smaller group of four beings some distance away, slightly disturbing its trajectory. Seconds later, three more surface from the cloud, and pause, shivering. A glint of light flickers for a second, followed by a lesser spark, in another one. They dive below the cloud again, like swimmers surfacing, and dropping back beneath the water. The third sets off in an unknown direction, towards something unknown, in a direct course that suggests a purpose.
“Where's it going?” says Ramprakash.
He shrugs. Neither of them can answer that, though it is hard to stop oneself from asking.
“They don't act like herds. Sometimes they do what the others do, and sometimes they don't,” she says. Rather despondently, somehow.
“Like us,” he says.
She does not answer. She grips his sleeve, again.
“Oh my God,” she says, very quietly. Maitlis has entered the viewing room.
“It's ok,” he says. “He can't hear us.” But he too has become tense, suddenly.
They watch Maitlis as he approaches the screen. The light from outside shows him, an upright, well-kept man of about 55. His hair and beard are neat, and completely white. His uniform is neat. He displays no signs of a man disintegrating. He adjusts his shirt slightly, and pats out the creases, as one might do before a job interview.
He goes to the screen. He looks at the creatures, below. He smiles, a little wryly. And then he seems to search for something. He looks left, right, up down, eyes narrowing. A strange expectancy comes on his face.
“He's looking for it,” says Ramprakash, quietly.
When he does not find what he seeks, Dr Maitlis puts his hands in his pockets. He seems a little cast down. He stands there a little longer, but with an expression of mild interest, no longer the expectant tension he displayed earlier. He watches the antics below with a pleasant, mild smile on his face.
Suddenly, his head goes up. There is one of the creatures below, singly. It hangs there, as if staring at them. Dr Maitlis practically throws himself at the glass, putting his hands on it, which they are not supposed to do. The creature zips sideways, left, right, small jerking movements, as if unsure, and then throws itself straight at the ship. It only takes a few seconds, and must miscalculate slightly because it hits the magnetic field that surrounds the craft, and a burst of little lightening sparks happens inside the boundaries of the creature's semitransparent body. It bounces back, spinning, wobbling slightly, until the sparks die out, and comes to a halt about ten metres away.
Dr Maitlis presses himself against the glass, a look of consternation on his face. Or panic, maybe. He seems to be suffering, physically.
The thing shakes itself, somehow. It approaches, carefully, and hangs just outside the point where the electronic collision took place.
“They've learnt that that field is painful,” says Ramprakash. “They've learnt it. They figured out we didn't do it deliberately to harm them. That it's just a side effect our technology. They reasoned it,” she says, despondently.
“It's an inescapable conclusion. Otherwise they'd be attacking us.”
“They may not be capable of attacking us.”
“They're certainly capable of running away.”
He says nothing, since she is correct.
Dr Maitlis is looking exceedingly worried. The creature comes slightly closer, as close as it can, and hangs there for a moment. Dr Maitlis is transfixed. A ripple of light, pinkish, starts on one side of the creatures being, and crosses to the other. It stops, as if waiting for a reply.
An expression of relief crosses Maitlis's face. He smiles. His fingers move on the glass, as if in some form of greeting. The creature seems to expand slightly. A second ripple of light crosses the thing, going in the opposite direction, pauses, and then travels back again. Dr Maitlis laughs. He touches the glass with his fingers, gently.
Sparks of white light happen with the creature, like a tiny meteor shower, and then die out. Maitlis's face has changed. He is standing upright, and his face is full of hope. He puts his head to one side, as if to better admire the thing outside. In the centre of the creature, a little light kindles. Some volley of sparks run out of this light, into the pathways of the thing's being. It fires, once, and dies, and then begins to burn again, slower, and more brightly. It gets brighter and brighter, till it forms a steady glow, like a lantern. Tiny points of blue and pink energy pulse round its body.
“Look at his face,” whispers Ramprakash.
Maitlis has changed somehow. Instead of a responsible, middle aged man, there is something boyish and tender about him. Years have fallen away. His face is open, and lit by a kind of unspeakable, burning joy.
“We shouldn't be watching,” whispers Ramprakash, hoarsely.
He tries to to think of something equivocal or sarcastic to say. Something that will make it a bit less strange, and all a bit understandable. Somehow he can't.
“He really is in love with it,” he says, helplessly.
“I can't watch,” says Ramprakash, abruptly, and suddenly scrambles out through the hatch.
He stays for a little longer, staring out through the one way screen. The creature dulls, and quietens, as if its exertions have exhausted it.
“I think it's reciprocated,” he says, out loud, to no-one in particular. And then he closes the shutter on the screen, closing out Dr Maitlis and his extraterrestrial affair.
Next day, he goes to the terminal that represents the secure com-link with base. There is a message for him.
“What sort of personnel problem?” It says.
He lays his head on the table, groaning.