It was interesting, to see human technology at work.
At first, he’d only seen it from a distance, with their delicate frames and unusual exteriors of fabric, and he could scarcely imagine their inner workings. But now, it surrounded him on all sides, and it was unlike something ever dreamed on his world.
After a discussion with the humans, with Liu acting as translator, it was agreed that they would convert an extra compartment of their ‘rover’ to suit him. It was certainly large by their standards, considering how small and spindly they were, but he knew it was going to be rather cramped on the voyage when he shuffled inside.
To find the origin of the signal, however, he’d gladly give up comfort six hundred times over.
The interior was just as alien as the exterior. The walls were bare, and incredibly thin, with no almost no markings, save for hazard warnings and instructions. There were small machines in the ceiling that gave light, and occasional protuberances in the walls, which had extradordinarily complicated controls.
If he was going to spend a great deal of time here, then it would be best to carry as much of home with him.
He’d collected some vamros and mololmb from his dome, and spread it over the floor of the compartment. Wilhelm had grown agitated upon surveying the interior afterwards, and promptly had a conversation with Liu in that strange tongue of his, an unusual tone to his voice.
“What happened?” Rudak had inquired afterward, and Wilhelm had left to work on something else.
“It was a simple misunderstanding,” Liu replied, speaking in a different tone than usual. Exhaustion, perhaps. “We have flown in space for many years, and it is agreed that our interiors must be as devoid of soil and plants as possible.”
That had been a shocking revelation. When he asked why, she had told him that it was to avoid getting the material into vital equipment.
“Then what do you do for food and air?”
Liu made that small barking noise she seemed to make when amused. “I believe a demonstration is in order.”
Together, they stepped into the compartment. Liu gestured to various machines, normally hidden away, and explained how they recycled food and air for the crew. Then, she demonstrated their communications equipment, along with others that he did not know the function of.
It was all astonishing. The humans seemed to lack the same skill with life as his world did, but they could simply build machines for any function; even the simpler ones were of a sophistication that seemed impossible for their size. When he learned that they had computers that could fit on the tip of their delicate fingers, yet far more powerful than the massive ones resting in the heart of Du’lonkowo’s mesa, his initial reaction was to dismiss it as absurd. It was far beyond even the wildest dreams of the future, and yet it was reality for the odd people he found himself among.
And it was reality for him, now.
He packed as much equipment as he could with him, without making it impossible to move about and rest. Which, unfortunately, was very little. Wilhelm had managed to set up a relay between the rover and his dome’s transmitter, which meant he didn’t need to carry bulky radio equipment, but he still could only bring a few cameras, his notes, and his pressure suit.
He also had some books and sculptures, of course. After all, cultural exchange was the most important part of his mission. Not only did he have to continue his dialogs with Liu, but there was the possibility of communication with the builders of the beacon. If that was indeed the case, however unlikely it was, then he needed to be prepared.
But one could only be prepared for so much.
He was in the middle of listening to The Mahabarata when Liu’s face appeared in the window. Rising up, he opened the hatch so she could step out of the airlock. She was still garbed in her suit, but she seemed more at ease as she sat down on the floor, crossing her legs.
“Are you comfortable?” she asked. “We will be leaving, soon enough.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I apologize if this is too cramped for you.” Liu scratched at her neck through the fabric of her suit. “It’s very makeshift.”
“There’s no need to worry,”” Rudak replied. “It almost reminds me of home, actually.”
“Yes. I grew up in the more communal side of Du’lonkowo, where the ones there were actually born in the province, and raised in our ways. As more from other provinces came to work at the mesa’s astronomy towers, we started living in less and less homes, often expanding the few we had. It’s typical for a home to have a good part of a family, along with others, but nearly our entire community lived in three homes.”
“That’s astonishing,” Liu said. “How many others lived in your home?”
“Eight hundred,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I had thirty siblings and half as many sedenbrok.“
“What is sedenbrok?“
He chided himself for assuming she would know such a thing. Rudak paused, trying to think of an answer.
“In Ktrit, family is important, much like yours,” he said slowly. “Important in its own ways, different from yours. However, the definition of family may be different from yours. If we are close to someone, one who is neither blood-family or mate, then they are sedenbrok. They are as important to you as a brother or a sister, and they can choose to become a part of your family. It is a complicated process in many parts of the world, however, which is why I never incorporated the family names of my sedenbrok.”
“You mentioned you were married,” Liu said. “Could you enlighten me on that?”
“Yalam is her name,” Rudak replied. “She was the daughter of the Ziz family, who had grown influential for their excellent agriculture. They had moved to Du’lonkowo many years past, to sell food to the other foreigners. She met me while I was learning to become what I am today, and we began a courtship. I am not aware of your courtship standards, so I will pass it over, as I wish to continue with this.”
He paused, deep in thought as the memories came back to him, then continued.
“Her family did not approve. To them, I was a Tanwa’a miscreant; they did not want such low-life to be part of their family. The Bur’ko priests in the region were all Ziz, and they refused to wed Yalam to me. To solve this, she joined Tanwa, and Mother Ulu married us together.”
“That is quite a story, Rudak,” Liu said. “We have had similar ones on my own world, and we call them star-crossed.”
“Star-crossed,” he repeated to himself. “I have talked enough about myself. What was your home and family like, if I may inquire?”
“Well, our families are much smaller, for the most part,” Liu replied. “I had no siblings. My mother was a linguist, and my father was an astronomer. They met when they were both young, and fell in love. Compared to many others in China, I grew up fairly comfortable, but the other children didn’t associate with me. So, I dedicated myself to studying.”
“You have no mate?”
Liu shook her head. “I didn’t want to marry, for fear that I would not be able to pursue my academics if I did. There was a man, when I was college, but it ultimately didn’t end in a marriage.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t wish to discuss it,” she replied.
Rudak fell silent for a few moments. “I apologize for my transgression.”
“There’s no need,” Liu said. “I should apologize for being so terse. It’s simply… it brings up painful memories.”
Rudak leaned forward and gave her a reassuring nuzzle. Liu tensed up at first, then gave him a scratch behind the ears.
“Painful memories mean that you have good ones to compare them to. I will respect your silence.”
Liu rubbed her hand over his head. “Thank you, Rudak.”
Suddenly, her wrist-computer chimed. Looking down, her eyes widened.
“What is wrong?” Rudak inquired.
“Odysseus has spotted something,” came the swift reply.
Wilhelm and Valentina were huddled near the communications array, their faces an unusually pale color. Though he was not yet well-versed in body language, it was obvious that something was making them nervous.
“I’ll talk to them,” Liu said, stepping forward.
She made an inquiry in English, to which Wilhelm gave a rather long-winded answer, occasionally pointing at a computer. When he was finished, Liu turned back to Rudak.
“What has happened?”
“Odysseus has detected a strange burst of radiation very far away,” Liu replied. “It has come from the edge of your solar system, at a plane different from the one your planets orbit on.”
“What could it be?”
“We don’t know, and that is why we are concerned.”
Rudak glanced over at the two others. “Could it be another people, drawn here by the beacon?”
“It’s possible,” Liu admitted.
At that moment, the sky brightened a fraction.
The group looked up at once, eyes scanning the heavens. The sun was a familiar red blotch, but he could see nothing else yet. The humans could, perhaps; their eyes seemed to be far better than his.
“There,” said Liu, pointing.
Rudak followed her direction, and his palps retracted in shock.
There was a new star in the sky, so brilliant a point of light that it made his eyes burn just to look at it. He cast his gare down, everything hazy, then waited until his vision recovered before turning to Liu. For her part, she was hurriedly speaking with Wilhelm, her own face turning white. Finally, she glanced back at him.
“They say, based on the distance, that it’s very likely not a natural phenomena.”
Rudak let that settle for a few moments, trying to process the implication.
“It is bright,” was all he could say. “Even brighter than yours, by a considerable degree.”
Liu glanced back skyward, her eyes trained on the sky’s newest star.
“It seems they are not going for subtlety,” she said.