Rudak didn’t know why, but the very sight of Diplomat made him shudder.
No, that was a lie; he knew why the alien invoked such feelings. It was too tall, too gangly, like an absurd caricature given life. The bright coloration of its skin reminded him too much of the sleek and predators lurking in the depths of the Northern Seas, waiting to pull down hapless swimmers and slurp out their guts while they were still alive. Diplomat’s claws were narrow and serrated, meant for digging into flesh and nothing else, and those large binocular eyes had clearly evolved to better search for prey.
They reminded him of one time, when he was fresh out of the pool and playing with his sedenbrok out away from the family home. Against the warnings of others, they had gone out into the thick brush, playing in the mud and shaking the fronds of plants. They didn’t hear the vara until it’d sunk its needly teeth into his tail, and began to pull him away. He was lucky; they preferred the head, but often got confused.
The pain was bad enough, especially when the creature began to shake its jaws, but that wasn’t what had struck him most. It was when he turned around to swipe at the thing, and instead found himself paralyzed by the sight of its large eyes, staring right into his. Despite their size, they were without kindness; only an uncaring glare as the creature tried to determine the best way to kill its quarry.
Thankfully, his sedenbrok had gotten the attention of Mother Ulu. The vara stubbornly refused to retreat from what should’ve been an easy meal, until the old matriarch came barreling down on it. It was no contest; she simply pried its jaws off Rudak’s tail and crushed its head in her hand, then cast its lifeless body away. The scavengers were quick to descend on the still-warm corpse, and they left the trio alone as they made their way back home.
The wounds healed swiftly enough, but the attack still left its mark. The lessons regarding the dangers of the wild had been drilled into his head since he’d first crawled out of the pool, but they were more objective than anything else. He’d grown up safe from harm until then, until he suddenly felt pain like never before. It taught him something: though they had tamed much of the world, they could still be prey.
And Diplomat was a hunter.
He knew he shouldn’t judge too quickly. His own kind hunted every so often, and the humans had clearly evolved to be predators, judging by their binocular eyes. Yet, the humans had less threatening features, and they had been amicable from the very start, easing their way to an exchange of language and culture. Liu, in particular, was quite friendly. He considered offering to have her become sedenbrok; he could perform the ritual himself, thanks to Mother Ulu’s gift.
He had no qualms with humans.
Diplomat, however, had come in silence, and had no kindness when it finally spoke. It didn’t ease its exchanges with the humans, but had been brunt, and from a position of superiority. It initially brushed off Rudak’s statement of his homeworld, and seemed to care little about an exchange with his people. The humans, the ones who could actually traverse the stars, were its interest.
It didn’t help that the alien’s species had watched humanity from afar, almost like a hungry vara as it planned its ambush. It was clear that they wanted every single factor regarding contact to be on their terms.
Rudak gave that thought while Diplomat began to speak with the humans. For the most part, the discussion was in English, which was good for the humans, but not for him. Occasionally, Diplomat would ask him a few questions in Mandarin, but they were not very in-depth; the alien seemed to be interested in the spaceflight and astronomy of his people, and little else.
No questions about his world’s cultures. Nothing about their art, or their religions, their beliefs, or their philosophies. Why was that? The discovery of another alien civilization should have been surprising, shouldn’t it? Or were there other intelligences out there, but of a much lower development in comparison to Diplomat’s kind? Were the humans the only ones even close, and his own species considered nothing more than a simple tribe?
No, that couldn’t be it. There had to be other factors at play, ones he didn’t know of.
After some time, Diplomat returned to its vessel and took off, flying in the direction of the mountains. Wilhelm and Valentina returned to their habitat, no doubt reeling from what had just happened, but Liu decided to stay for a while longer.
“Well, that was…” She trailed off, as if lost in thought. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
“I scarcely understood the conversation,” Rudak said. “It used a language that benefited your colleagues, but not me. Could you explain it to me?”
“Sure. Let’s walk.”
She took the lead, and he hurried to her side. The constant cycle of day and night still took getting used to, but he still enjoyed the view of the stars above. If he strained his vision enough, he could still see some of the constellations Liu had pointed out to him, including the Azure Dragon.
Dragon. That was something Liu had told him about, and he had found the concept to be fascinating. Many beasts on his own world, both realtruth and dreamtruth, had a large role in his culture, and it was pleasant to see another point of similarity between peoples.
“Diplomat spent most of the conversation asking some questions about our exact mission parameters,” Liu began. “It wanted to know if we could make decisions regarding interactions between our species, or if that power belonged solely to Dìqiú.”
“Why did it ask that?”
Liu made a slight motion with her narrow shoulders. “It wishes for peace between humans and… well, I actually don’t know what Diplomat’s species calls itself. It revealed almost nothing about itself, not even the location of its worlds.”
“That was one of the few things it told us. The…”
“Tianlong?” Rudak offered.
Liu bobbed her head. “The tianlong apparently are spread out across several solar systems, but even the exact number is unknown. We don’t know their language, or their culture, or their motivations. We don’t know for how long they’ve been watching us, and we don’t know just how advanced they actually are.”
She breathed in deeply, then exhaled. “It’s difficult to learn something about another civilization when they try to hide everything about themselves. The tianlong apparently want peace between us and them, and they wish to exchange technologies and cultural items. At least they don’t appear to be hostile, but that still doesn’t explain the secrecy of it all.”
“I must admit that I feel uneasy when near Diplomat,” Rudak said. “It might just be partially an instinctual response, but rarely does one need to hide benevolent intent. It even hides its face.”
“That could just be a cultural trait,” Liu said. “But you do remind me of another point: Diplomat appeared to be surprised by you. In fact, it initially dismissed the idea that you could be from Ktrit.”
“You also made that mistake, unless I am forgetting something. You ruled out my world as habitable until the launch of Allmother’s Light.”
“True,” Liu admitted. “But we would’ve figured it out after some intense observation, I believe. The tianlong, however, have presumably surveyed this system, if they decided to put a beacon here.”
Rudak paused. “And if they are advanced enough to colonize multiple solar systems, then they should have known about us. No doubt they would have surveyed the oxygen-bearing world in the system, and would have seen civilization if they tried hard enough.”
“And if that is the case,” said Liu, “then why didn’t they?”
For a few moments, there was only silence. Rudak looked to the horizon, and felt his plates rattle under his suit as he began to give the question more thought.
“I am starting to wonder,” he said slowly, considering each word, “if these tianlong have been entirely truthful about the nature of this meeting between species.”
Liu rubbed the back of her neck. “The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. And it’s terrifying. Their technology seems to be no joke, all things considered, and I’m scared to imagine a much more advanced species having ulterior motives.”
“Perhaps it is paranoid speculation, but do you think it is possible that our conversation is currently being heard by them? Some stories on my world involved methods of surveillance considered outlandish, but so is our current situation.”
“Actually, you might be right,” Liu said. “Considering how little we know of them… let’s stop this conversation for now. I’ll return to the habitat, and perhaps it’s best to wait before making any conclusions.”
Rudak made a small click. “Agreed.”
With that, Liu turned around, and began to walk back to rejoin the others. Rudak spent a few moments watching her disappear into the night, then began the walk back to his dome. There was only so much time his suit’s life support could last, anyway; he’d need to replenish its supplies.
There was no need to rush, however. He spent some time just looking around, taking in the view, the sheer alien nature of it. He was on another world, completely different from home, and he was the first to ever be on it. No other ktrit’zal had ever been here; they had never breathed its air, or admired its red mountains in the distance. He’d been the first to meet another intelligence out in the universe, and perhaps the first to ever call one friend.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t be the last.
Finally, he arrived at the entrance to his dome. Stepping inside, he shut the airlock hatch and shrugged off his heavy pack. Peeing away the rest of his suit, he rolled around in the vamros for a few moments, taking in its scent, then composed himself. There was work to be done.
Padding over to the radio, he paused, thinking. No doubt Ktrit had seen the arrival of Diplomat, and he’d been away from the dome for a while; what speculation were they making at the moment?
There was also the matter of possible surveillance. The idea seemed unlikely, but one couldn’t be too careful when dealing with a civilization far more advanced than one’s own. How to avoid it, or at least confuse it…
He let out a small hoot. Of course.
With that in mind, he began his transmission.