Book 3 of the Starfarers Quartet
by Vonda N. McIntyre
J.D. Sauvage, the alien contact specialist, picked her way across the rough surface of a rocky planetoid.
A gossamer thread, shining blue-white in the actinic glare of the star Sirius, stretched across the stone beneath her feet. She followed it. A coarser line, her lifeline, unreeled behind her.
The planetoid was more or less spherical, so small that its pitted and scarred surface curved sharply away to nearby horizons. At first glance, it looked like a barren, airless asteroid, weathered by primordial meteors; after a first glance, it would be easily overlooked. J.D. and her colleagues in the alien contact department almost had overlooked it.
The silken strand thickened, branched, and intertwined, gradually forming a lacy gauze. Not wanting to damage the fabric, J.D. followed it without stepping on it, as if she were walking beside a stream. This stream flowed upward, climbing a steep escarpment. J.D. climbed with it, moving easily.
The low gravity was far higher than a natural rock this size would create. The least of the small world’s anomalies, the gravity hinted at a complex interior, perhaps even a core of matter collapsed to neutronium.
The planetoid repaid a second glance. Great masses of webbing filled a dozen of its largest craters. J.D. was walking on an extraordinary asteroid. The worldlet was the starship of alien beings.
Iridescent fibers wove together, forming a solid ribbon that led through a cleft in the escarpment. J.D. stepped cautiously onto the fabric. It gave slightly, a springy carpet over solid rock.
The band of silk guided her to the edge of one of the web-filled craters. Somewhere within it, the alien beings waited.
The message from the squidmoths had been brief and direct.
“You will be welcomed.”
J.D. scrambled up the last steep slope to the edge of the crater. Her destination lay below.
The silken pathway blended into a convoluted surface, filling the wide, deep crater. Valleys and ridges rumpled the webbing, and half a dozen trails twisted into it from where she stood. To proceed, she would have to walk off the edge of the crater and let the web alone support her weight.
She hesitated, listening and hoping for another message from the squidmoths.
“I’m here,” she said softly. Her spacesuit radio transmitted her voice.
In the silence, waiting for a reply, she knelt down and slid her hand across the smooth webbing. The faint shussh of her touch transmitted itself through her glove. She wished she could feel the silk with bare fingers, but the atmosphere was far too thin for her to remove her suit.
A single filament, darker silver than the rest, crossed the surface and disappeared along one of the trails.
J.D. rose, lifting the thread, holding it carefully across her palm. Starlight spun along its length.
She slid one foot gingerly forward. The floor yielded, then tightened, bouncing gently in the low gravity. She felt like a skater crossing ice so thin it flexed beneath her. She feared her touch would rip the silk; she feared a dark tear would open beneath her, and she would fall fifty meters to the bottom.
Most of all, she feared that her presence would cause the structure to self-destruct. She had watched Tau Ceti’s alien museum destroy itself rather than admit human beings. Rather than admit her.
But the squidmoths had invited her. The thread in her hand acknowledged her existence.
J.D. moved farther onto the silk, following the thread into the labyrinth. Her boots left no marks.
The path dipped into a meandering valley. J.D. descended through a cleft of delicate cascades. The fluttery fabric responded to her footsteps, trembling, vibrating. The cascades closed together overhead, and she found herself walking upon one horizontal sheet, and beneath another, past and through translucent tissue-thin layers like huge fallen parachutes that filtered harsh starlight. The membranes formed tunnels and chambers; cables and strands connected the membranes. The sheets rippled silently as she passed.
If a suspension bridge and a Gothic cathedral had interbred, this construction might be their offspring.
Without the filament, she would have no idea which way to go. If it broke, only her lifeline would lead her out.
Silvery-gray illumination surrounded her, suffusing the space with a luminous glow. The spun silk carried the light within its strands.
Deep within the crater, she paused at the top of a slope that plunged into light. Afraid she would slip, fall, and slide sprawling to — wherever the hillside led — she wrapped her fingers around a supporting strand and tested its strength. It gave, then contracted, as if to embrace her hand. Like the floor, the fiber was elastic and strong. She reached for another strand, an arm’s length farther on, and ventured deeper into the web.
“No more communication yet,” J.D. said, though her colleagues in the alien contact department and everyone back on board Starfarer could see and hear all that she was witness to.
Don’t say things just because you’re nervous, she told herself firmly. You’re supposed to be the professional, bravely facing the unknown.
Some professional: you’ve only been certain for a week that your profession really exists.
She did not feel brave. Being watched and recorded only made it worse.
J.D. concentrated on climbing down the smooth silken slope. Even in the low gravity, it was painstaking work. Her metabolic enhancer kicked in, flooding her body with extra adrenaline and inducing extra adenosine triphosphate. Not for the first time since the expedition started, she was glad she had decided to maintain the artificial gland. When she left the divers and the orcas, the long days of swimming naked in cold salt water, she had assumed she would not need to enhance her metabolism anymore.
Thirty meters down, the slope curved to a nearly horizontal level and she could again walk upright on its springy inner surface. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Because of her helmet, she could not wipe the perspiration away.
Within the webbing, thick silk strands glowed brightly, filling the corridor with a soft pink light that imitated some other star than Sirius. J.D. knew, by inference, that the squidmoths had not evolved beneath this star. Other than that, she knew very little about them. They were intelligent beings, reticent. They drifted through the galaxy in their small massive starships, ignored and apparently despised by the interstellar civilization.
Maybe they’re outcasts, just like us, J.D. thought.
The squidmoths had, at least, invited humans to visit them. The rest of interstellar civilization had ordered Starfarer to return to Earth, so human beings could spend the next five hundred years growing up.
This they had declined to do. In response, in retaliation, the cosmic string by which Starfarer traveled had begun to withdraw. If Starfarer stayed in any one place too long, it would be stranded there forever.
The passage curved and branched. The guide thread passed into the central tube. J.D. followed it. Behind her, her safety line snaked along the floor and pressed against the convex wall. The line creased the silk, an anomalous, coarse dark strand.
J.D. thought she saw the guide thread move. She hurried forward, but the tunnel’s curve straightened and she saw nothing but the guide thread lying motionless on the floor, disappearing into the tunnel’s next descent.
But her spacesuit replayed for her what she had seen. The thread had moved.
She stopped and leaned sideways, pressing her helmet against the tunnel wall. Could she hear a faint scuffling, or was it her imagination? Replayed and amplified, the phantom sound vanished into background noise.
Increasing her pace, she tried to catch up to whatever was laying the guide thread. But the delicate strand grew even thinner, dangerously thin, as if it were being stretched as it was created. J.D. slowed down, afraid she would cause the thread to break.
She rounded a curve and confronted a complete constriction of the passageway. She stopped. The end of the guide thread lay in a tangle at her feet.
“Damn,” J.D. muttered.
She asked for a visual display of the radar traces of the tunnels around her. Her suit obeyed. Up until a few minutes ago, this tunnel had continued, leading deeper into the web.
“Victoria?” J.D. said.
“I’m here.” Victoria spoke softly into her ear through her suit radio. “Shall I follow you in?” Victoria was J.D.’s backup; she waited outside the Chi, the explorer spacecraft, at the home end of J.D.’s lifeline.
“Not yet. There’s no threat of danger.” Disappointed and confused, J.D. smiled sadly. “Maybe I just misunderstood what I was supposed to do.” Recently they had misunderstood, and been misunderstood, more often than not.
“J.D.!” Zev exclaimed.
The backward-watching recorder, a little tiny machine that clung between J.D.’s shoulder blades, flashed an image to the Chi and to J.D.’s display.
Zev whistled a sharp warning in true speech, the language of the orcas and the divers. The shrill sound raised the hair on the back of J.D.’s neck. She spun around.
The tunnel was slowly constricting. She took one step toward it.
Outside the translucent wall of the tunnel, creatures moved.
J.D. stopped, her heart pounding. She glanced at the LTM display in her helmet, but the recorders saw the creatures no more clearly than she did.
Around her, vague shapes made deliberate motions. Legs or feelers or tools pressed the tunnel inward, cinching it with a narrow band that grew progressively smaller.
The tunnel puckered, lifting her lifeline and the guide thread off the floor till they hung in the air, drooping from the closed sphincter.
“J.D., get out of there!” Victoria said.
She was trapped in a silken cocoon, a twist of the tunnel.
“No,” she said. “Not yet. Victoria, Zev, I’m all right.”
She was frightened, but she calmed herself and slowed her thudding heartbeat. The creatures that had immobilized her came no closer.
“I’m coming in after you,” Victoria said.
“No. Stay there.”
J.D. pressed her hands against the wall. It yielded. Unlike the floor of the chambers higher up, it remained supple. The constricting band stretched. Thinking about what this must look like to all her colleagues, J.D. blushed and released the band. She dreaded hearing Stephen Thomas make one of his offhand, off-color remarks.
But when he remained silent, it troubled her even more. He had been silent a lot, since Feral’s death.
“I think I could force my way out,” J.D. said to Victoria. “In either direction. But I’m not quite ready to try. I don’t think I’m in any danger —”
“You’re in the middle of the world’s biggest spiderweb, that’s all! And the spiders are closing in!”
“I don’t feel like a fly just yet. It wouldn’t make sense. You’d get awfully hungry, orbiting Sirius and waiting for dinner to come along, what — ? Once every million years?”
“Especially if you cultivated a reputation for not being interesting to visit,” Satoshi said.
“Satoshi’s right. And Europa said the —” It occurred to her suddenly that her hosts had not referred to themselves as “squidmoths.” Europa, representing the interstellar civilization, had done so, but she had spoken of them with contempt. For all J.D. knew, “squidmoth” was civilization’s version of an ethnic slur. She decided not to repeat it. “She said the beings here wouldn’t talk to us — she didn’t say they were dangerous.”
“Quite true,” Victoria said dryly. “But she was wrong about them talking to us, eh?”
“Um, yes.” The alien human was wrong about a lot of things, J.D. thought, but she felt, stubbornly, that she should wait and see what happened.
“I don’t want you to compromise your safety,” Victoria said.
J.D. chuckled. “But Victoria… this is my job.”
A hissing sound, a classic raspberry, interrupted her. At first she was embarrassed, then startled.
Oh, no, she thought. A leak in my suit — ?
Instead of fading out, the noise of the raspberry increased.
The suit ought to seal — ! J.D. thought.
“Behind you again,” Victoria said again, more calmly this time.
More creatures surrounded the other end of the bubble where she was trapped. They loosened the constricting band. J.D. could not be sure, but she believed their shapes were different from the creatures who had trapped her. The sphincter had relaxed enough to let gas spurt into J.D.’s cocoon.
She giggled, involuntarily.
“What?” Victoria said.
“Nothing,” J.D. said quickly. The first image to come to her mind was hardly something she wanted to admit to her colleagues, to the records Starfarer’s control computer was making, and by way of Arachne, to history. The image was far too undignified.
For once, Stephen Thomas was giving some thought to propriety, for he remained silent too.
J.D.’s giggling fit vanished.
“It’s an airlock!” she said. “I’m in an airlock!”
“Could be…” Victoria said.
“It makes sense — Satoshi, you said this place must have a reservoir of oxygen and nitrogen. I just found the reservoir.”
“The craters do show a lot of outgassing,” Satoshi said. “Enough to give the asteroid a very thin atmosphere. Nothing like Europa’s ship.”
Europa’s starship, similar in size and gravity to the starship of the squidmoths, had looked like a miniature Earth: land masses, surface water, a normal atmosphere, plants and animals and topography.
The tunnel before J.D. relaxed, opened, and smoothed. The forward constriction disappeared; beyond the translucent wall, the creatures receded and vanished. The constriction behind her remained tight.
J.D. waited, hoping the alien beings would communicate with her. Her suit radio received only silence.
But at her feet, a second guide thread took up where the first had ended. The second thread was darker and thicker, like a strand of glossy black hair.
J.D. followed the thread deeper into the tunnel.
The soft silk floor silenced J.D.’s footsteps, but she clapped her gloved hands together and heard the dull thunk. The spun walls absorbed and deadened the sound, but it was a sound. Earlier, she had been in vacuum; now she was in air. She linked briefly with one of the LTM transmissions and read the analysis: Majority gas nitrogen. Minority gas oxygen, a couple of percentage points higher than on Earth. Trace gases: carbon dioxide, ozone, hydrogen sulfide, a spectrum of hydrocarbons and fluorocarbons.
“If you took your helmet off, you could breathe,” Victoria said. “Not that I’m suggesting it.”
J.D. glanced over the trace gases again. “I wonder if all this stuff is meant to make me feel at home?”
The air on Europa’s ship had been crystalline and pure. Earth, as Satoshi had said, before the Industrial Revolution. Earth, from the time of Europa’s birth, nearly four millennia ago. Europa and Androgeos had been rescued from Knossos, after the eruption of Santoríni on Thera. They had been saved to welcome human beings to the interstellar civilization.
Some welcome, J.D. thought.
The air in the squidmoths’ ship was closer to the air of Earth in the present day, pollution and all.
Or maybe, she thought, the beings who live here just like it that way.
“I wouldn’t want to strike a match here.”
J.D. pressed further and deeper into the webbing. She wondered if the silk could burn. She hoped not. The high concentration of oxygen would feed a fire into a rage.
As far as she knew, nothing she carried with her could produce an open flame, or even a spark. She was glad the Chi had landed at a good distance. Suppose it had come too close, and the heat of its engines had set the complex structure on fire? That would have been worse than back in the Tau Ceti system, watching the alien museum collapse. Worse, because alien people lived here. A fire would kill intelligent creatures, the only members of interstellar civilization to welcome human beings.
J.D. continued onward. When the guide thread quivered, when she thought she heard the scrabble and scuffle of small feet on the silken floor, she forced herself to maintain her deliberate pace. Whatever or whoever she was following, she did not want to scare it again.
Why are the squidmoths taking the risk of welcoming us? J.D. asked herself. We’re outcasts, and our invitation to interstellar space has been withdrawn. Europa fled so she and Androgeos wouldn’t be cut off along with us. The same thing might happen to the squidmoths.
Europa had spoken of the squidmoths with contempt and dismissal. Were they so isolated, so lonely, that they would take such a risk just to talk?
The light grew brighter, and the tunnel surface more convoluted, with strands and sheets of silk stretching and overlapping in all directions.
The tunnel abruptly ended, several meters up the side of a huge chamber. J.D. stood at the top of the slope, gazing out at a visual cacophony of glowing lines and overlapping, curving, rippled membranes. She felt as if she had walked into a sculpture made of light.
The light-bearing cables focused here. The silk carried the light of Sirius from the surface of the planetoid to the center of the web, softening its harshness while its brilliance remained, shedding a bit of its energy burden on its way into the depths. J.D. had reached a focus of the illumination.
“This is amazing.” Satoshi’s voice was soft, but excited. He was a geographer: his work involved mathematical analyses of the interaction of people with the environments they created for themselves. J.D. suspected that Satoshi would be studying alien beings who created every detail of their surroundings.
The slope was steeper than the previous descents. J.D. climbed down the soft rumpled silk. The guide thread disappeared into the most concentrated light.
J.D. steadied herself, grasping a glowing, wrist-thick strand. Her suit registered warmth, but her glove protected her from the sensation. This was like swimming with the orcas in a wet suit: removed, alienated.
Interleaved silk curtains curved around the concentration of light. J.D. moved carefully between the soft, bright sheets of fabric, hoping she was not entering a maze. The mazes of Europa and Androgeos had been quite enough.
The guide thread led her in a switchback pattern of arcs: between two curtains, to the edge of one, around the edge, along the next closest arc to the center. The lifeline unreeled behind her, creasing the end of each successive curtain.
J.D. rounded a final curtain and stepped out into an irregular area formed by the overlapping draperies.
A tiny creature, trailing a glossy black thread, riffled across the floor and vanished beneath a sheer membrane. The membrane fluttered, then smoothed itself against a massive form.
J.D. saw the squidmoth.
“My god,” Satoshi said, in amazement.
Victoria’s response was feeling, rather than words: a deep, astonished joy flowed from Victoria, through Arachne, to touch J.D.’s internal link.
“J.D., it’s wonderful!” Zev said.
Stephen Thomas said nothing.
Strangely enough, J.D. had no doubt that she had come into the presence of one of the intelligent beings who inhabited this starship. Back on Europa’s ship, in familiar, Earthlike surroundings, J.D. had wondered if she should try to converse with everything: the ground cover that surrounded the landing platform, the aurochs that had chased her up a hillside, the meerkats who had watched her flee. When she finally encountered Europa and Androgeos, who were very nearly ordinary human beings, she was shocked beyond words.
“Hello,” J.D. said to the squidmoth. She stopped, and waited.
The squidmoth said nothing.
It lay in the focus of the light-conducting curtains. bathed in a bright and gentle illumination. Light that would have driven off an ordinary ocean creature heightened the vivid peacock iridescence of its skin. And yet its shape did hint at an origin in the sea.
The alien’s body was at least three meters long, and probably much bigger. It lay cushioned and cradled and partly concealed within and beneath the folded layers of silken web. Its glossy, leathery body flattened at each side into membraneous fins, where the guide-thread creature had vanished. The edges of the fins rippled gently, exposing feathery undersides and delicate jointed appendages. Vestigial legs? Gills, and legs that would be functional in very low gravity, or underwater? J.D. resisted making assumptions. The squidmoth did not look like it walked anywhere, ever, for its fluted lower body disappeared into the wrinkled floor. It looked like it had grown from the chamber, as if it were the intricate exposed root of some life form even larger and more complicated.
J.D. took a step toward it, cautious, moving slowly, keeping her hands in plain view.
She wondered if the being even understood hands. The squidmoth itself had tentacles, a number of short, thick ones and three long, slender ones. The long tentacles lay in a coiled and tangled mass before the being. A creature the size of J.D.’s hand scuttled down the curtain beside the squidmoth. Scaled skirts hid its legs; its carapace bore an explosion of feathery plates.
The end of one of the squidmoth’s long tentacles writhed free, rising like a snake, probing the air. The tentacle caressed and guided the creature toward a large silken pouch that lay crumpled on the floor. Finally, the creature burrowed beneath the edge of the pouch, and inside.
“Thank you for the invitation to visit you,” J.D. said.
The skin above the squidmoth’s tentacles shifted and wrinkled. The leathery, peacock-blue skin split — J.D. started — and opened. A narrow flap of skin wrinkled upward, and the squidmoth gazed out at her through a row of glittery, faceted eyes. The wrinkled skin circled the bulge above the being’s tentacles. J.D. tried not to assign familiar body parts to a creature built on a completely different body plan from any she was familiar with. For all she knew, she was approaching the being from behind, the tentacles were its feet, the vestigial, segmented legs were its hands, and the eyes sparkling at her from beneath the mobile brow were sensors of smell or hearing or some sense she did not even possess.
But she found it very hard not to think of the bulge as the squidmoth’s head, the tentacles as its organs of manipulation.
Slow down, she told herself; she was giddy with joy and apprehension. Hold on. Remember how embarrassed you were, when you were a kid and you finally looked up horseshoe crabs in the field guide: the long pointy thing was the tail, not its sensors or its whiskers.
J.D. took another hesitant step toward the alien being.
“Hello,” she said again.
A voice transmission whispered into J.D.’s suit radio.
“Do not fear me,” said the same flat voice that had invited Starfarer to visit it.
“I don’t,” J.D. said. “Yes, I do. A little. Can you hear me?” She was broadcasting through her suit radio, but broadcasting might not be necessary if the squidmoth could hear her through her spacesuit.
Do squids have ears? she asked herself. She had no idea; even if they did, that would not mean the alien being followed any similar specifications.
“My vibratory sense responds to very low frequencies.”
“Then you don’t hear me — but you receive my radio transmissions.”
“I receive your transmissions.”
J.D. moved a few steps closer to the squidmoth, fascinated. She wanted to ask a hundred questions at once. Remembering how disinclined Europa and Androgeos had been to answer any questions at all, she decided to take things slowly.
She understood the “squid” part of the being’s name, but not why Europa had called the being a squidmoth. Moth, because of its vestigial legs? Then why not form the second part of its name from some sea-living arthropod, a crab or a shrimp or a lobster?
The being’s eyelid opened widest in the direction facing J.D. Beneath it, several small round faceted eyes peered steadily at her. More of its eyes — J.D. could not help but think of them as eyes — glittered through the half-closed edges of the eyelid. J.D. deliberately moved to the side as she approached the being. Instead of shifting its position, the squidmoth rippled its eyelid open farther toward the back of its head. It must have vision in a complete circle.
“How do you communicate with other sq —” J.D. caught herself in time —”with others of your kind?”
“I communicate with all intelligences as I communicate with you.”
Its tentacles moved. The row of short tentacles quivered, and their tips oscillated in a wave that began at one side before it ended on the other, so that two different waves moved along its shorter proboscises. The squidmoth looked like it had a thick, rubbery mustache.
The tips of the three long tentacles rose like the heads of snakes. One moved absently to the pouch on the floor, guiding a small silk-spinning creature across its surface to lay new threads in a bright pattern.
J.D. was nearly ten meters from the squidmoth. Its tentacles shifted and untangled, coiled and writhed.
She thought she had stopped well out of its reach.
She was wrong.
The tentacles whipped toward her. J.D. gasped and jumped back, surprised and frightened. The tentacles stopped short. They were not yet fully extended; they could reach her. Trembling, J.D. forced herself to stand still.
A month ago, a week ago, she would have been surprised, but she would not have been scared. Meeting Europa and Androgeos had profoundly changed J.D.’s assumptions about what the citizens of an interstellar civilization would be like.
Did you expect them to be perfect? she asked herself, with a tinge of sarcasm. She answered her own question: Yes. I did.
She took a deep breath and moved a step closer to the squidmoth.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You frightened me.”
The ends of the tentacles rose, weaving like mesmerized cobras. J.D. held her ground. The tentacles bore no obvious sensory organs: no eyes or orifices, no hands or fingers. Instead, the tips looked soft, furry, feathery, cloaked in a corona of iridescent purple fur.
Sensory cilia? J.D. wondered.
“I frightened you by moving toward you.”
The squidmoth’s voice remained flat, expressionless, and uninflected.
“You frightened me by moving without warning me,” she said, treating its statement as a question. “You frightened me by coming so close, so fast.”
The tentacles drew back.
Great, J.D. thought. Now I’ve offended it.
“You prefer more distance.”
“I prefer more warning. What do your tentacles do?”
“My hands do that for me.” She extended her arms, spreading her gloved fingers.
“I know that.”
“Do you know everything about us?” She could not help but think, What’s the point of my coming here, what’s the point of the deep space expedition, if Civilization already knows more than they ever wanted to know about us?
J.D. had spent her adult life preparing to be the first human to meet aliens. But she was not the first. Europa and Androgeos had preceded her, by thirty-seven hundred years, and that distressed her more than she wanted to admit.
“No, but I want to,” the squidmoth said.
J.D. smiled. She still had some knowledge to offer the alien being.
“We’re even, then.”
“You want to know everything about you.”
“That, too. But I meant I’d like to know everything about you.”
She hesitated, wondering how forthright she could be in what she said. In all the years she had thought about making contact with an alien intelligence, she had never thought that the first time she stepped into a room with it, it would be able to converse in English. Back on board Starfarer, J.D. kept programs and diagrams, introductions to humans based on physics, on math, on biology, on art. She had thought about communicating with a being that conversed by color, by smell. Her colleagues had done similar work, even before she joined the department a few weeks back, experimenting and speculating on the difficulties of communication. Some people believed alien beings would be so different from humans that they would never be able to communicate at all.
She could speak with the being, but she might not always understand it. They could easily misinterpret each other.
“Androgeos said you were… reclusive.”
“Androgeos never visited me,” the squidmoth said.
Lacking the clue of voice inflection, J.D. could not tell whether the squidmoth spoke with regret, with relief, or to offer a neutral point of information.
J.D. felt very calm. Her rush of fear had subsided, leaving enough adrenaline behind to make her hyper-aware, sensitive, as if all her nerves extended beyond her skin.
“I’m very grateful for your invitation, and very glad to visit you,” J.D. said. “We haven’t made proper introductions. My name is J.D. Sauvage.”
“I have no verbal name,” the squidmoth said.
“Call it Nemo!” Zev’s voice whispered in her ear.
“Shh, Zev!” Victoria said.
“Tell me what that meant,” the squidmoth said.
“One of my colleagues suggested that I give you — that I offer you a name,” J.D. said. “The name of a famous fictional character.”
“I will be Nemo,” the squidmoth said.
“I’m glad to meet you, Nemo,” J.D. said. “May I come closer?”
In response, the squidmoth drew its long tentacles toward itself. They twisted and tangled, their tips coming together and parting. J.D. followed, till she was barely two strides away. Even this close, she could see no reason for comparing the alien being to a moth. Up close, it did not look all that much like a squid.
It was exquisitely, strangely beautiful. Bits of every iridescent color flecked its peacock skin. Its slender jointed legs splayed out into tiny pointed feet, alternately concealed and exposed by the rippling gills.
For all her resolution, J.D. had begun to analyze the being in familiar terms.
“I would like to touch you,” the squidmoth said. Its long tentacles, untangling themselves smoothly, coiled before it, their tips waving as if in a gentle breeze. Its mustache of short proboscises continued to ripple.
Again, J.D. hesitated, and she realized just how deeply the alien humans’ duplicity had changed her.
Dammit, she said to herself, you may not be able to trust everybody out here completely; you may not be able to be as open as you’d hoped. But you cannot be afraid all the time.
“Very well,” she said coolly.
The being extended one long tentacle toward her. The tip hesitated at her foot, then curved over her toes and down around her instep, meeting the floor where her boot sank into the thick soft silk. A second tentacle moved toward her, arching up till it reached the level of her face. The fine hair of the tip brushed her helmet, with a sound as soft as dust.
“This is not your body.”
“It’s my space suit,” J.D. said. “It carries my air.”
“You may breathe this air.”
“I know. But the suit also protects me from unfamiliar infections — and protects you from contamination.”
“Nothing here will infect you.”
“Androgeos said the same thing — but he wouldn’t tell me how he was so sure. You’ll forgive my fears, I hope. I trusted Androgeos, but my encounter with him was… unfortunate, in many ways.” Androgeos had tried to steal Victoria’s new work on cosmic string. He had tried to take away all Earth had to offer to claim respect within the interstellar community.
“Androgeos is young, and zealous.”
“Young! He’s thirty-seven hundred years old!”
The squidmoth’s tentacle brushed back and forth across J.D.’s faceplate. The pattern of the rippling of its proboscises had changed: from a single wave-form, moving regularly across its mustache, to a double pattern, two waves starting one at each side, clashing in the middle, adding to each other, canceling.
Could I have perturbed it? J.D. wondered. But the question of contamination must be the first one everybody wants the answer to, and the first question these people must have solved. They’ve been interacting with each other for millennia.
Maybe I made it mad because I don’t want to put my life completely in its hands.
“Androgeos is young,” the squidmoth said again.
J.D. wondered if she heard a tinge of amusement or irony in its voice. Surely not; it was her imagination.
Strangely enough, Androgeos had struck her as young. He was physically young, while Europa had chosen a more mature physical presence.
“Androgeos acts young sometimes,” J.D. said.
“We have nothing to fear from each other’s symbiotic microbes,” the squidmoth said, and waited.
J.D. hesitated. The potential danger was very low. She and Nemo were products of completely different evolutionary backgrounds. It would make more sense to worry about catching Dutch Elm disease from a tree.
J.D. reached for the seal on her helmet.
“J.D. —” Victoria said, and then fell silent.
J.D. had walked out onto Europa’s planetoid, unprotected. She had hesitated then, too, but she had made the decision to trust the alien humans. In several respects, Europa and Androgeos were not trustworthy at all. But when they assured J.D. she was in no danger of catching, or transmitting, a human or environmental pathogen, they had told her the truth. They had probably eliminated every disease in their environment; they were probably in more danger from Starfarer than Starfarer was from them. And all Stephen Thomas’s tests had come out negative.
It would make no sense at all, besides, to throw Earth a lifeline in the form of cosmic string, and then wage biological war on whoever responded. The interstellar community had been keeping an eye on the solar system for generations; if they had wanted to eliminate humanity they could have done it long since, easily, without ever being detected.
The only difference between walking unprotected onto Europa’s planetoid and taking off her spacesuit in the squidmoth’s presence was that here, her surroundings were strange, and there, they had been familiar. And, perhaps, that then she had not known what her hosts would look like, and now, she was in the presence of a supremely alien being.
Her only reason to refuse was fear: xenophobia.
Recognizing such a reaction troubled J.D. deeply.
Too many bad alien-invasion movies, she said to herself, and then, Bad joke.
She unfastened her helmet. She took it off.
She drew a deep breath.
J.D. started to cough. The air was pungent, musty, reeking of hydrocarbons. It stung her eyes. She breathed shallowly, tempted to seal herself back up with her own clean air supply. The high oxygen content of Nemo’s atmosphere made her giddy.
Once she got used to it, it was about the same as back home in one of the more polluted regions. Spending so much time in the wilderness had spoiled her and weakened her resistance to fouled air.
J.D. unfastened her suit and climbed out of it. She put it carefully on the floor. The LTMs clambered around so they could still see and record her actions. She hoped their resolution was insufficient to capture the trembling of her hands.
Nemo’s voice, tinny and indistinct, droned from the helmet. In order to converse, J.D. would either have to wear the helmet without the suit, which struck her as ridiculous, or communicate with Nemo through her direct link. Ordinarily she used the direct link only to communicate with Arachne.
J.D. reached out, cautiously, tentatively, into her link. She could talk with her colleagues via the direct electronic transmission, if she wished, but she usually did not do so. Like many people, she found it discomforting. She did not like the sensation of other people’s voices in her head. It took a considerable effort of will to overcome her reluctance and speak directly to Nemo.
“Can you hear me?” she asked.
“I can hear you.” Nemo’s voice whispered in her mind.
The tentacles of the squidmoth hovered nearby, raising and lowering themselves from the silken floor, twisting and turning as they waited. J.D. faced the squidmoth, moved a step closer, and held out one hand.
The tentacle brushed her palm lightly with its tip. The sensory hairs, soft as fur, quivered against her skin.
J.D. closed her hand gently around the tip of the tentacle. Its motion stilled. Nemo waited, saying nothing.
The tentacle moved up her arm, curling around her wrist like a snake. Its skin, beyond the fur, felt like suede. Its warmth surprised her. The squidmoth must have a body temperature well above hers, if its appendages felt so warm to the touch. She had unconsciously expected the slick wet coldness of a real squid, the sharp pull of predatory suckers.
Nemo touched her sleeve, exploring it, probing beneath the cuff.
“This is clothing,” J.D. said, touching her shirt, her pants. “It’s the custom of human beings to wear it most of the time.”
Maybe I should strip down, J.D. thought, but I’m not quite ready for that yet.
Nemo touched her palm, her sleeve, her palm again, testing the differences between skin and fabric.
The tip of one tentacle brushed her throat, her lips. She closed her eyes. Fur caressed her eyelids. A second tentacle curled around her waist, gently embracing her. The tip probed at her, tracing the texture of her shirt, touching each button, following the curve of her heavy breasts and coiling softly down her arm. The third tentacle wound around her leg, then its tip traveled up her spine, touching the bump of each vertebra through her shirt.
She opened her eyes. Her lashes brushed against the sensory cilia.
“You detect sensations with these hairs,” Nemo said.
“No.” She smiled. The squidmoth was trying to make the same kinds of assumptions about her that she was making about it. “That is, I can feel your tentacle, but my eyelashes are for protecting my eyes. Um — do you call this a tentacle?” She brushed her fingers across the soft peacock skin.
“In English, I call it a tentacle.”
This time J.D. thought she heard a flash of humor in Nemo’s voice. Again, she told herself she must be imagining it.
“I meant, is ‘tentacle’ an accurate translation of what you call it in your language? What do you call it in your language?”
“I have no language.”
“I don’t understand,” J.D. said.
“Our communication does not consist of sounds.”
“I know, you told me: you use transmissions. But what do you transmit? Words? Visual images? Sensations?”
“A surface of meaning and perception.”
J.D. frowned. “A neural visual image?”
“Position, and change of position, within a multi-dimensional surface of meaning, intensity, rapport between the speakers.”
“Multidimensional? More than three dimensions?”
J.D. tried to imagine a more-than-three-dimensional surface; she tried to imagine being shown a more-than-three-dimensional surface in her mind. An acquaintance of hers claimed to be able to imagine rotating a sphere around a plane, but she had never been able to explain to J.D. how to do it.
“It sounds beautiful,” J.D. said.
The squidmoth tentacles twined and curled before her; their tips touched her cheek, her breast, her hand.
“It is beautiful,” it said.
“Do you have art forms associated with your communication? The way humans have singing and stories and poetry?”
“It is an art form in itself, whenever a talented one extends the limits and forms new regions and new shapes.”
“May I… Will you show it to me?”
Without warning, a flash of perception tantalized her brain. She heard sugar dissolving, smelled the pink clouds of a brilliant sunset, sensed the position of a billion raindrops like muscle fibers. She saw a melody of Nemo’s vision. Each sensation had its own particular place, its own connections with all the others. More information poured into her. But her internal link acted like the narrow end of a funnel. Nemo’s transmission filled the funnel to the brim, and spilled out into nothingness.
J.D. gasped acrid air. She sneezed, and began to cough. Nemo’s transmission faded away, and J.D. found herself sitting sprawled on the floor. She buried her nose in the crook of her elbow, breathing through the fabric of her shirt, forcing herself to take shallow breaths, until her coughing stopped. She wiped her teary eyes.
Nemo lay placidly before her, short tentacles ruffling slightly, long tentacles guiding a frilled, wormy little creature as it spun silver thread in concentric circles.
The radio in her helmet rumbled with a faint hollow sound. J.D. sent an “I’m okay” message back to Victoria and the Chi. The rumbling ceased. J.D. pulled herself together and sat crosslegged near Nemo.
“I didn’t understand what you sent me,” J.D. said to Nemo. “But you’re right, it was beautiful.”
“You cannot absorb enough information to gather the complete communication surface,” Nemo said.
“Internal links aren’t one of our natural senses,” J.D. said sadly. “They’re pretty limited.”
“It is too bad,” Nemo said.
“But any of us can use them to talk to you,” J.D. said quickly. “And my colleagues would like to meet you. Would that be possible?”
“I want to become acquainted with one human being, first,” Nemo said. “I want my attendants to become familiar with you.”
Nemo’s fragile legs drummed on the floor. J.D. felt the vibration, and heard a faint thrumming.
She heard the same sound she had heard farther out in the webbing, tiny feet scratching against soft silk. Several small creatures scuttled from beneath the curtains, moving on many legs, and another slithered down a steep slope. They gathered around Nemo, crawling up the iridescent skin. Their dull colors changed and brightened. Like chameleons, they blended into their background. If she watched carefully she could make out their shapes, malleable and indistinct, reaching out with long pincered fingers to groom Nemo’s skin. One clambered up the feathery gill-leg, and vanished beneath the fluted fin.
“The attendants are not used to the presence of other beings.”
“Oh,” J.D. said. She did her best to be diplomatic. “How long will it take?” She wondered if she would get a useful answer; she did not even know if Nemo reckoned time in long spans, or short ones.
“I don’t know, I’ve never received a guest before,” Nemo said.
“We’re solitary beings,” Nemo said.
“Does it — does it bother you to have me in your crater?”
“I enjoy unique experiences.” Nemo guided the circling creature around the edge of the disk of silk.
“Would you like to visit Starfarer? I don’t know if you’re mobile or not —” And I have no idea what you might be sensitive about, either, she thought, doubting the brilliance of her spontaneous suggestion. I only know that human beings are most sensitive about what’s hardest, or impossible, to change. “You — you or any of your people — would be welcome on board Starfarer, if you cared to visit.”
The squidmoth’s mustache ruffled, from left to right, then back again.
“You inhabit the inside of Starfarer,” Nemo said.
“I wouldn’t fit inside Starfarer,” Nemo said.
“Oh.” She glanced at Nemo’s iridescent back, the tail section disappearing into the floor. “How much of you is out of sight?” Anything that could fit inside the crater would fit inside Starfarer, though the logistics could be difficult.
“You see all of me.”
“I don’t understand,” J.D. said.
Nemo’s long tentacles touched the silk, the walls.
“All you see is me,” the squidmoth said.
“The whole crater?”
“Everything,” Nemo said.
“The whole ship?”
“What you call the ship.”
That stopped her. She wiped one more unexamined assumption away, embarrassed to have made it without even noticing, and revised her perception of the squidmoth. J.D. had assumed Nemo was her counterpart, the individual who volunteered, or was chosen, to meet an alien being. She had assumed each of the silky craters held a being like Nemo, each in its own web.
“You’re all alone here?”
“I am myself,” Nemo said without inflection.
Great question, J.D., she thought. What would you say if somebody asked if you were all alone in your own body? “No, I’m here with a bunch of white blood cells and a liver”? But — no wonder Europa and Androgeos said squidmoths were reclusive!
She looked around with an even finer appreciation of her environment and all the other species living here, helping to repair and remake the structure, adapted or co-opted to a perfect interaction…
Were they symbionts, or did they correspond to blood cells, or organs? She was still trying to put names from her own frame of reference, from her own linear language, into a system that corresponded more closely to Nemo’s multidimensional communication.
“Who do you communicate with?” she asked abruptly.
“I communicate with whoever speaks to me.”
“I meant… if you’re the only one of your people in the Sirius system, how do you communicate with others? We haven’t found any way of sending electronic signals through transition. Can you — ?”
She stopped her excited rush of questions and waited impatiently for Nemo’s reply. She imagined the anticipation of her colleagues pressing against her link to Arachne.
If Nemo knew how to communicate through transition, the deep space expedition would be able to tell Earth that it had met alien beings. That could change everything.
If we could let them know back on Earth, J.D. thought, that an interstellar civilization really exists…
J.D. knew it was Utopian to believe human beings would come to their senses, and end their interminable and dreadful power games, if they knew of a civilization beyond themselves. She knew it was Utopian… but she believed it anyway.
And if Starfarer could send back word that it had met other intelligences, the members of the expedition might be forgiven for taking Starfarer out of the solar system against EarthSpace orders.
If they could signal through transition, at the very least they could let their friends and relatives know they had survived the missile attack.
“I am mobile,” Nemo said, “like all my people.”
“Oh,” J.D. said, as suddenly disappointed as she had been elated. “Then you can’t signal through transition?”
“No one I know of.”
“You go visiting.”
“I go visiting,” Nemo agreed.
J.D. sighed. It had been a long shot. Cosmic string theory allowed only large masses to enter transition. No one — no one human — had figured how to chitchat across the transition threshold. Apparently no one non-human had made such a discovery, either.
Talking about cosmic string reminded her of something she had put off discussing for too long.
“I understand your wanting to get used to meeting people,” she said to Nemo. “But if you want to meet any other human beings, you have to do it soon. Starfarer has to move out of the star system before the cosmic string withdraws. If it does withdraw — you’ll have to move, too, or you’ll get stranded.”
“I will not allow myself to be stranded,” Nemo said.
“Good… I was afraid…” She shrugged. She was ambivalent about bringing up the subject. “I’m surprised you’ll talk to us. Aren’t you afraid of being contaminated by us? You’ve talked to me more than Europa and Androgeos did altogether, I think.”
“They were disappointed that you failed the test.”
“But it was a mistake! We weren’t armed with nuclear weapons. Or with anything else, for that matter. Nemo, we were attacked in our own system. We dragged the missile through transition because it hit us.”
“That is a shame,” Nemo said.
“And the only thing that will keep us from being attacked again, if we go home, is proof that Civilization exists.”
“Your own people would kill you because you failed,” Nemo said.
Another silk-spinner crept out of a fold in the wall and joined the silk worm in the new circle of fabric. The second spinner scrambled across the disk, leaving a radial trail of thread that secured the delicate, tight spiral.
“They wouldn’t kill us, but they’d put us in jail.” Nemo’s attention to the handwork exasperated her.
Is there any way to get Civilization to listen to us? she thought.
“Maybe you should neither go on, nor go home, but allow yourself to be stranded,” Nemo said.
“We’ve thought about it,” J.D. said. The ecosystem could support far more people than the ship carried; it could support them indefinitely. “We could turn Starfarer into a generation ship, and form our own little isolated world…” The whole idea depressed her. It meant abandoning Earth. She could not imagine anything more selfish. “I’d rather go back and get put in jail!” she cried aloud, and her voice broke. She struggled to calm herself.
“I did not understand that,” Nemo said.
J.D. repeated herself. Her electronic voice sounded so calm, so rational.
“Imprisonment is preferable to freedom.” Nemo’s eyelid opened all the way around, and the tentacles extended to J.D. and touched her forehead, her shoulder. The silk-spinners, deprived of guidance, wandered across the fabric and trailed threads that left flaws in its surface.
Nemo’s tentacles drew away from J.D. and returned to the spinners.
“No! But… we didn’t come out here to found a colony. That’s against everything we agreed on, everything we dreamed of! We came out here hoping to join an interstellar community. We came out here to meet you! And now you tell us we have to go back, or abandon Earth, because of a mistake — !”
“Five hundred years isn’t so long,” Nemo said.
“Not to you! You and Europa and Androgeos will still be here when five hundred years have passed. But I’ll be dead. Everyone on board Starfarer will be dead. And if we go back to Earth with nothing but the news that we’ve failed… I’m afraid human beings won’t survive at all.”
“Many civilizations have destroyed themselves.”
J.D. looked away from Nemo’s brilliant, colorful form, with two long tentacles shepherding the spinners, the third waving delicately in the air.
“I’d hoped…” She started to take a deep breath, felt the tickle of acrid gases in the back of her throat, and instead blew her breath out in frustration. “I hoped you might tell me that no civilizations are ever lost. That somehow we always manage to pull ourselves out of destruction.”
“Civilizations are lost all the time, J.D.”
“I meant… a whole world’s civilization.” The culture she lived in had reached out for the stars, and had attained them, however temporarily. Why should that be proof against extinction?
Nemo’s tentacle brushed her toe, her shoulder.
“So did I,” the squidmoth said.
Copyright © 1992 Vonda N. McIntyre
Cover art courtesy R. Brandt
Book 3 of the Starfarers Quartet
by Vonda N. McIntyre
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-095-8