The next morning, Penelope took off. It was a more difficult affair than landing, since it had to first use jets in order to avoid flattening our camp with its main engine, but Luís managed to pull it off without a hitch. The shuttle sped off, then soared upwards, piercing into the pale blue sky.
I stood by the greenhouse, watching as the shuttle disappeared from sight, then heard heavy footfalls nearby.
“I presume that was Luís,” Rudak said, voice crackling over his suit’s radio. “Incorrect, am I?”
Of course the din was enough to attract his attention. I turned his way and shook my head.
“You’re not wrong. Luís is taking the craft up to Odysseus.”
“The large spindly one?”
I nodded. “Yes. There are two others up there, who will be landing soon.”
“Will I encounter them as well?”
“You will. However, their contact with you will be limited. They do not speak Mandarin very well, and I was chosen to be your ambassador to the human species due to my expertise.”
“You have encountered other thinking species?”
I let out a small chuckle. “No. You are the first. But, we spent a long time thinking about how other intelligences would think and act, and I was a student in that.”
“I now understand.” After a moment’s pause, Rudak continued. “What is the translation of Odysseus? Different from other words, its pronunciation is.”
“It is the name of a hero,” I replied. “One from long ago, who’s only remembered in legend.”
Interesting, I thought to myself.
“Rudak,” I began, “I’ve read part of the manuscripts you gave me, especially about the Provincial Sagas. How much of it is true?”
“There are many truths, Liu,” Rudak replied. “There is the truth in the dream and song, and then there is the truth of the solid. There may be none of the latter in the Sagas, but there is much of the former. And if the dream and song is all that remains, then is it less real than what is forgotten?”
I was actually taken back a bit by his statement. For someone who’d just learned Mandarin yesterday, he’d become downright poetic.
“I understand what you mean,” I finally said. “We, too, have Sagas and songs. We have other things as well, but they are all called legends.”
Rudak let out a low hum. “We are so different, and yet so alike. Now, what is this hero you speak of?”
“They are a single individual, who goes on a great journey,” I replied. “They perform great feats for others and themselves, often using their strength or wisdom. Odysseus was such a hero. His adventure was so great, they named it the Odyssey. Even in our time, we call great adventures into the unknown ‘odysseys’.”
“When was he dreamed?”
“Three thousand of Dìqíu’s years ago.”
Rudak made a sharp piping noise. “And yet even the dream endures! We hadn’t even learned to write at such a time; this Odyssey is as old as our oldest songs. May you tell me of it?”
“Would you prefer to read it yourself?” I asked. “It was originally written in a language called Greek, but it has long since been translated into Mandarin.”
“I have yet to master reading your characters, but I would enjoy hearing it,” Rudak said. “It is an… exciting prospect. The first of my kind to experience a dream from another world.”
I smiled. “Very well. I’ll produce an audio file and play it for you, when I have the opportunity. I could also do the same for other works.”
“What would you consider the greatest works of your species?”
“Well-” I paused, thinking. “I’m not sure if I can give a proper answer. Each culture has different styles and ways of telling their stories; depending on whom you ask, you’d receive different answers. An American would likely never consider Chinese works, and a Russian likely wouldn’t consider Portuguese works, and so on.”
Rudak hooted to himself. “I suppose the question was not well thought-out. My world would, too, have such a debate. Perhaps you could choose works from each of your world’s cultures and offer them to me.”
“It is possible,” I admitted. “Though, works are often best in the original language.”
“I understand,” Rudak said. “It will suffice, however; I cannot be expected to learn all of your languages.”
“True,” I said, laughing a little. “If you want, I could start right away.”
Rudak thumped his tail against the ground. “That won’t be necessary. I am enjoying our conversation. Now, I hope you would not take offense if I ask a question about your species in general, which you may possibly find strange.”
“I won’t take offense,” I said.
He paused for a moment, then said, “Do humans… have a manner of thinking, or perhaps a philosophy, of trying to explain themselves and their place in the natural order of things? One that does not use the rational and scientific methods, but rather relying on the truth of the song and dream. Do you have such a thing?”
“You mean religion.”
Rudak made a small click. “I presume that is your word for it, which means that you do have it. It was… a matter of debate on my world, heavily contested. Some felt that someone from another world would not have it, or it would be so different… perhaps I should not pursue this matter.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“I have given you four of the most prominent religion texts of my world,” Rudak said. “Tanwa, Bur’ko, Gra’palwa, and Northern No’vo’ko. It was a very controversial decision on Ktrit, as many felt it would make the wrong impression. However, regardless of the controversy, they are a major part of our cultures.”
“I understand completely. In fact, we had a similar debate. We brought the texts of our religions, though we agreed only to exchange them if your people had religion as well, and were willing to study ours.”
“What are they called?”
I scratched the back of my head through the fabric of my hazmat suit.
“There’s Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion, for the largest,” I said. “Together, more than seven billion of my people are of those faiths.”
“Seven… billion?” Rudak asked, seemingly taken aback. “What is the population of Dìqíu?”
“It’s actually decreased considerably in the last twenty years,” I replied. “Well, the twenty years before I left. It used to be ten billion, but now it’s down to eight. Our colonies in orbit and on other planets only come up to five million.”
“You must have an astounding birthrate,” Rudak said. “My species is only numbered four billion, though it is growing.”
I shrugged. “It’s a number of factors.”
Rudak seemed to consider that for a few moments, then began to walk away. “I must check on my lander’s engine, then report back to Ktrit. Hopefully, we will be able to continue our conversation soon enough.”
“See you later, Rudak.”
I sighed, then walked back to the habitat. I had to make some notes of what I’d learned from Rudak, then I was going to have to do some in-depth analysis of the texts he offered me. After that, I would have to get some audiobook files on various great works of literature.
Half an hour later, the faint pop of a sonic boom heralded the arrival of Calypso.