A Man that is of Copernicus’s Opinion, that this Earth of ours is a Planet, carry’d round and enlighten’d by the Sun, like the rest of the Planets, cannot but sometimes think that it’s not improbable that the rest of the Planets have their Dress and Furniture, and perhaps their Inhabitants too as well as this Earth of ours.
– Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheros
It took some time to get used to microgravity again.
I’d experienced it many times before, back when I was training for the mission. We all had to practice orbital rendezvouses with Odysseus, using the landing craft, and everyone had been trained in EVAs. Yet, I never quite got used to it; it was always a wondrous sensation, but there were some small issues involved. I had to be careful when moving around the ship; if I pushed off a wall too slowly, I could get stuck halfway through the hall, flailing helplessly until I drifted near a handhold.
That happened more times than I cared to admit.
Still, it was probably better than getting too used to microgravity. Wilhelm once told me a story of how he’d returned to Earth from a long stay in orbit, and he had kept on ‘placing’ items in midair, still under the assumption that they wouldn’t fall down. Apparently, it was a common issue for astronauts that spent a long time in microgravity, though it was becoming less and less common as centrifuges were put into stations.
Unfortunately, Odysseus didn’t have a centrifuge, which meant I had to haphazardly pull myself up into the command center when Wilhelm called for me. My frustration with the lack of gravity quickly faded, however, when I saw the excited look on his face.
“Wil? I asked, starting to feel excited myself.
“I’m waiting for the others,” he replied. “They deserve to be here, too.”
Sure enough, Luís and Valentina popped up into the command center as well. Luís was in his nightclothes, with a groggy look on his face, while Valentina looked as though she had been in the middle of her meal, if the tea bulb in her hand was any indication.
“What’s-” Luís paused to yawn, then continued. “Why am I up here?”
“We finally received a transmission from them. The ship, I mean.”
Everyone froze at that.
“What kind of transmission?” I asked.
“Verbal communications, and several mathematical proofs, all across the ‘water hole’ frequency you mentioned,” Wilhelm replied. “Here’s what they said.”
He clicked a button on the console, and an utterly inhuman voice crackled to life. We all leaned in, dead silent, and listened.
“Nama-click-zal, ba-clock-wa naga. Ktrit, walanvang –whistle- undokola. Nama…”
Wilhelm shut it off. “That’s it, just repeating on a loop. Most likely a simple greeting, I assume. There’s a lot more data, but it’s in some kind of code that I don’t understand.”
Valentina put a hand to her chin. “It sounds so…”
“Alien?” I offered, a smile forming.
“Yes, that’s the only way I can really put it. There’s definitely something about it, something that gives off an air of intelligence, but it sounds like nothing a human could say.”
“Tell me about it,” Luís said. “It was like someone taught a tuba to talk, and that’s not counting the weird whistles and clicks it was making.”
Wilhelm straightened. “The small noises it was making actually reminded me of something, but I can’t quite put a finger on it…”
“The Khoisan family of languages,” I said.
“Beg pardon?” Luís said.
“Well, family is a misnomer,” I continued. “Most of them are actually unrelated to each other, but they’re bunched together due to a usage of click consonants. They’re primarily spoken by the San and Khoikhoi peoples of Namibia and Botswana. The languages are dying out, but we’ve been able to study them in detail.”
I floated over to the console and began pulling up my linguistic programs. “I’m actually surprised, you know. I was expecting their vocalizations to be too different to really understand and translate, but this is good to work with. You said that they sent code?”
“Yes,” Wilhelm replied. “Around three megabytes of code.”
I scratched my chin. “I think it’s something like their version of Lincos: a program that’s meant to be highly logical. Something I could use to translate their language, perhaps; they might’ve just sent us their version of the Oxford dictionary. I just might be able to use some of the more conventional programs and put together a basic understanding of their language from the data.”
“A lexicon?” Wilhelm asked.
“Don’t get your hopes up. All humans have similar vocalizations, but our languages can differ immensely. Not just vocabulary, but syntax, morphology, semantics, and grammar. This… this is a language from another planet. There’s no contact between our languages, no links that I could use to make translation even a little easier.”
“Of course, we’re still going to try,” Luís said. “Right?”
I smiled. “Right. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to make an effective lexicon in time to send a response. A proper one, anyway. Even if it’s only at ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’, we can manage a dialogue that could build up our understanding of the language.”
“What should we do in the meantime?” Wilhelm inquired. “I think radio silence might unsettle them. From their perspective, we’re the giant alien spaceship; they’re probably anxiously awaiting a positive response to their message. We should give them one, and soon.”
“Hell, have we decided on what language we’d use?” Luís said, spreading his hands wide. “Maybe they have one language that holds the majority, but we sure as hell don’t. And I think it might confuse them if we send a message in more than one tongue. What if they wind up trying to talk in some horrible mish-mash as a result?”
“English is the de facto trade language,” Wilhelm mused. “Not the easiest to make sense of, but not the hardest, at least from our perspective.”
“And Mandarin has the most speakers,” I shot back. “We can’t pick one language to represent Earth, so let’s wait for the time being. I think we should send our own mathematical proofs back at them, but nothing else. Once we have a grip on the language, then we could send a simple response in their own tongue.”
“I don’t think we could pronounce half of that stuff,” Luís said.
“We’ll just use the synthesizers,” I replied. “And then we could send messages in our own major languages, after informing them that we have no majority.”
“Maybe we should just use Lojban,” Valentina offered. “Less ambiguities, and there’s no national claim to it.”
“Screw that,” Luís spat. “Ain’t a real language; no-one wants to claim that. If we’re using a human language, it has to be a human language. It has to represent us, ambiguities and all. There’s no way we’re going to use a language made as a thought exercise to speak our first words to alien life.”
I blinked. “Pretty strongly put, but I do agree. Let’s just focus on translation for now.”
“Which is your job,” Wilhelm said. “I’m putting you on extended shift so you can work on constructing a lexicon.”
“Yaaaaay,” I muttered.
“In the meantime,” he continued, “we’ll send the math proofs, then begin to move closer to them. Not too quickly, of course; we don’t want to panic them.”
“Especially considering that drive of theirs,” Luís said under his breath. “Why need weapons when your ship craps nukes?”
“The same goes for us,” Valentina replied. “They might be wary of us because of our fusion drive. It’s the biggest pair of flamethrowers for light-years around.”
“Wasn’t that idea mentioned in some book? The something lesson.”
I interrupted their conversation with a cough. “I’ll get started on translation, now, but that requires use of the ship’s computers. And privacy.”
“Sure thing,” Wilhelm said, pulling himself through the open hatch and down to the lower levels. “Luís, Valentina; you’re with me. Let’s prepare for rendezvous. I want the pressure suits checked again, and the landing craft might need its navigation tweaked a little…”
Luís and Valentina followed after him. I watched them go, then sat down at the console, cracked my knuckles, and went to work. I pulled up several translation programs on separate screens, then began to process the hard data the alien ship had sent. Glancing out the window, I could see the landscape of the red world beneath me, slowly rotating on its axis. Unlike the alien homeworld, this one had days, albeit far longer than Earth’s.
After a few minutes of work, I realized I was going to need tea. Lots of it.
A half-dozen tea bulbs were floating around my head, almost like a plastic halo, when I stared at the sentence on my central screen. It was a horrible transcription, with far too many ambiguities, but it sufficed. My heart pounded as I read the sentence, and checked for any major errors.
[Other/stranger] [people/race], I [give/deliver/carry] [welcome/greeting] [to/for/at]. Ktrit [is/be] [peaceful/nonviolent] and [receptive/welcoming].
It worked. It made at least a modicum of sense, with sufficient signal versus noise. The programs had performed beautifully, even if it took a lot of trial and error; I’d designed them well.
I’d done it.
I suddenly sprang from my seat. Unfortunately, I had once again forgotten I was in microgravity, and promptly met the ceiling face first. The pain barely registered, however; my excitement far outweighed it. Absentmindedly wiping away the globule of blood that drifted from my nose, I pulled myself down the hatch and to the quarters level. Hooking my feet into the floor with some holds, I knocked on the door to Wilhelm’s quarters.
After a few moments, he opened the door, stifling a yawn. His eyes widened when he saw my face, and tentatively reached a hand forward, only to stop.
“Good god, Liu,” he murmured. “Your face-”
“Not important right now,” I hurriedly replied, and held up a pad. “I can have Valentina patch me up in a minute, but this is far more imperative.”
Practically shoving it into his hands, I continued. “It’s really fascinating; it’s almost like a hodgepodge of other languages when it comes to syntax and morphology and grammar. The word order is actually OSV, which only Warao used to our knowledge, and the verb tenses are almost like Mandarin, but the grammar has strong similarities to Germanic-”
Wilhelm cut me off. “You’re rambling, and you’re excited. Deep breaths, Liu, and cut to the point.”
I did as told, inhaling deeply, or at least trying to. My nose was pretty swollen, and there was still some bleeding.
“I finally managed to do it, Wil,” I said. “I thought it’d take longer, but I did it. I made a lexicon.”
His eyes practically bulged out of their sockets. “You mean…”
I nodded. “We can finally talk to them.”