First Contact (Part 3)
by Shady Rose
I was selfish. Perhaps I was the only one who grasped the magnitude of my good fortune. To be the first Earthling to contact the outside universe in millenia was no small task. I knew that there would be many in my community who regarded the arrangement with envy and contempt. It became apparent pretty quickly that my work with the “alien” was being widely discussed. The Stargazers had surrounded the city limits, all bolstering for just a sight of you. It was my duty to report on the goings on between us, for the sake of our small society. The people wanted to know, but the Elders were too afraid to approach you. It was left to me to learn you, to bring you into our world and us into yours. Many speculated that the rift was too great to bridge.
But it only took a few days of slow, intentional communication for me to discover that we really spoke the same language after all. The second breakthrough came as I brought you some fruits and vegetables from our finest stock. All were simple, but hearty: carrots, celery, pickled radish, oranges, cherries, apples. I will never forget taking a blushing honey crisp apple from the small basket and presenting it to you, our fingers lingering together warmly, before watching you take a tentative bite of the apple. There was no way for me to predict the silent flow of tears that spilled from your eyes. “Home” you said, and so quietly I knew it wasn’t for me to hear.
You regained your health quickly and soon I was able to take you on strolls further and further out from the encampment. We were able to cobble together a pidgin of both our versions of the language we had in common. This was an apple, this is the air, this is you, me, food, hunger, dust, sun, home. It was when we tried to talk about the expanse of space that I began to lose you. It was how large? You came from how far? There were how goddamn many people out there?
It was the Old Earth animals that confounded you. There wasn’t much livestock left on Earth. Only the very controlled populations of a few select animals. As a child I would go into fits of giggles looking at projections of all the old animals that existed in Ancient times. What on earth was the purpose of a “cow”? I remember being especially fascinated by the idea of “bees”. Creatures designed to pollinate the local flora, help grow the land and crops. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I really understood: animals and plants used to exist outside the idea of “purpose” and “design”. Unlike our few horses, which were bred carefully for speed, agility, strength, intelligence–Old Earth once had fields, plains, entire islands full of wild horses that existed entirely by accident. The bees were just…bees; not designed for anything. I tried to imagine encountering an animal that hadn’t been bred over thousands of years to serve a particular symbiotic purpose.
I introduced you to my horse–my closest friend. I had been raised with her shortly after choosing the path that led me to become a city ranger. It was a high honor to be granted this companion. She was as conscious as any human person, as devoted to my wellbeing as a mother, lifting me up when I fell, charging straight into the heart of danger with me, her heart pounding as mine did. She was the first milestone for you. We approached her where she waited, serenely grazing on the decadent oats that only horses were allowed to eat.
At first you reeled back, alarmed at her size, and it occurred to me that in the star-tethered life you described, there wasn’t much room for such large creatures. This was probably your first encounter with anything larger than a woodthrush. I surprised myself by laughing as you tumbled abruptly backwards onto your ass. That decadent fabric all sullied by our starved soil. Falter whinnied in the way I had come to recognize as laughter and then there she and I were, leaning against each other in a fit of what could only be described as the giggles. You looked embarrassed and hurt at first before giving way to our mirth. I thought such a moment is only human, nothing else.
“This,” I announced grandly, after our laughter had subsided, “Is Never Falter, the greatest, smartest, fastest steed in Jewel 99.”
To my immense amusement, you clambored to your feet , brushing off the dust, and swept your limbs in a most graceful gesture, your torso bent towards the ground and your arm arcing out in the most inviting way. (I would later learn that this was called “bowing” and was fairly common to Galactic citizens that wished to demonstrate their submission to another being). I marveled, as I would many times more, at the sight of you. You were stranded in a world that was as alien to you as you were to me, but your looks were glorious and beautiful, your manner was gracious and as gilded as your body. I began to wonder how much there was that I didn’t know about you. I began to shift uncomfortably in my rough and damaged clothes, my utilitarian style of dress.
After a few moments of becoming acquainted, Falter let you get close and pet her flank. The look of wonder and satisfaction in your eyes was enrapturing. “Hello, Never Falter.” you murmured. How much of a pilgrimage must all this be for you? To return to an Earth you believed to be forsaken only to find life, thriving and undaunted. Did it feel like crash landing in an old fairy tale?
Eventually the two of you felt comfortable enough to ride together and I hoisted you up behind me. We three trotted into the outermost part of the city, suddenly hyper aware of the strangeness of it all. In just a few days I had already forgotten how important this moment was. You were part of a world so far removed from mine there was no naming the difference. I hadn’t ultimately made many strides in discovering who you were or where you had come from. Only the small moments. I had only discovered your furrowed brow, your tears, and–god–your laugh.
As we strode through, the silence in the town was broken only by Falter’s hooves on cobblestone and the noisy stares of the townspeople from their stoops, from behind latticed windows, peeking around corners. It was time for me to get some answers, those eyes said. I resolved myself to remember my work, the purpose I was bred for, as we turned heel and sprinted back to safety.
The learning was all joy. I reveled in the childlike experience of complete ignorance, of probing delightedly into the unknown of your universe. The Galactic Society, for instance, had maintained the legacy of its forebears. There was a monarchy that made all the grand decisions of history, there were nobles who vied for and purchased favor with monarchs to advance their aims, and there were the common people who grew the food and built the ships and wrought the gold and had no say in any of it.
I learned of the war, which existed on a scale larger than the entirety of all the jewel cities combined and multiplied a million times over. The war was, as all wars are in the end, ostensibly over land and resources. But rather than the disputes I was familiar with, over this plot or that, this war was fought over entire worlds. The fates of entire planets rested in the blood, shed by the monarchs, but of the common people. As I struggled to grasp the scope of this war, I learned your role in it all.
The gold brushed at your temple and shackling your wrists was no common adornment, as I originally thought, but was the mark of your status as part of the Galactic Monarchy. If I understood correctly–and my mind railed against the idea initially–the royal family was some many thousands of people. One king and queen–old as sin but preserved for thousands of years by your technology–and then many thousands of princei, clones and natural children each grown in labs. These people inherited the right to choose for all of the people in the Galactic Society, of which Earth was not a part.
And even you, a prince of this great and powerful family, were its victim. Here was the reason, the thing that drove you to strike out in that tiny craft, throw yourself into the outskirts of the Milky Way. This great and terrible Galactic Monarchy wanted, as a part of this war, to wed you to some duchess or another to secure the destiny of one paltry planet. One planet for the rest of your long royal life wed to a stranger.
Though I had grown up with no familiarity with weddings, I knew that the Stargazers and the outer-city autonomous sometimes practiced marriage. For those people it was all about creating a bonded unit based on a combination of mutual ownership and love. I didn’t understand at first how a marriage could be so awful it would drive you to abandon your life. For your people, however, marriage was more a form of captivity. A bargaining chip which ensured the seat of power did not shift too far. You described marriages where the spouses of value were kept locked in stasis chambers, unable to move or speak, but kept conscious to fulfil the illusion of life. That was your fate. So you fled.
I didn’t glean this all at once. It came in pieces here and there. When I told you about our child-rearing programs, the broad integration of community responsibility for children, the rejection of parent-child exclusivity, the banning of hereditary power, the lost concept of “the family”–you balked. It was the first moment I saw something like disgust and rejection enter your eyes.
“So,” you whispered incredulously as though someone might hear us discussing these awful ideas. “There are no mothers?”
“No mothers.” I confirmed, bristling a little at your censure. “No governors, no bankers, no jailers, no kings.”
You were quiet for the rest of the day.