After two weeks of back-to-back meetings, even something as momentous as First Contact got boring.
Frieda Kellermann–official UN liaison–couldn’t face running the press gauntlet outside the official entrance at Platz der Luftbrücke so she instructed her driver to take her round to the other side of Tempelhofer Feld where the tenements of Oderstraße overlooked the perimeter of the disused airport.
Any cameras around here belonged to tourists trying to get a selfie with the Stardisc in the background and after sunset there was nothing to see. Frieda’s car passed through the checkpoint unmolested. Ahead, the kilometre-wide Stardisc loomed, a featureless silhouette against the deep twilight. Frieda didn’t even look up. She had an agenda to check. She flicked at her iPad.
Day Sixteen: Telecommunications and Networking
What humanity could learn from the Varjadrii–culturally and technologically–boggled the mind, the potential benefits epoch-making. But first Frieda had to make sure their guests were properly connected to the internet.
The car pulled up and Frieda stepped out. The bulk of the Stardisc eclipsed the sky overhead. She stalked up the ramp towards the dim glow of the entrance, shoes clanking on the metal. As she passed through the vaccination shield the chill of late autumn Berlin air cut off, replaced by the clammy fug of the ship’s atmosphere.
The first time she’d entered the Stardisc Frieda’s heart had been beating so fast she worried she was having a panic attack. Now all she could think of was room service when she got back to her hotel on Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. The dim lighting in here really got on her nerves.
Something was up.
Over the last fortnight Frieda had become Earth’s leading expert at judging Biloxal’s moods simply from the smell they emitted. She wasn’t sure Biloxal was even aware they did this, let alone whether they could suppress it. They probably wouldn’t be much good at poker.
Formaldehyde and hibiscus. Hmm. Biloxal was confused and possibly frustrated. Frieda wondered what the problem was this time. It was surprising what it took to trigger an emotional state in their visitor. A week ago Frieda had arrived wearing her glasses. They’d had to reschedule. She switched back to contacts and the incident had never been mentioned again.
“Hello, Biloxal.” Frieda smiled and stepped towards the large desk at the centre of the room. “How are you this evening?”
Biloxal squatted on the floor directing their retractile sensors at the laptop Frieda had delivered on the previous visit, a donation from a generous sponsor.
It was surprising what you could get used to. The first time she’d been introduced, the pictures returned from the camera drones had not been enough to prepare Frieda for the instinctive aversion she’d felt at the sheer outlandishness of Varjadrii physiology and she’d had to call upon all her reserves of self-control not to run from the Stardisc in terror.
Now she walked around the squat cone of grey-green flesh and leaned in, peering at the laptop screen.
The desktop was invisible behind a noisy cloud of garish popup windows, the browser viewport reduced to a narrow strip by the numerous advertising toolbars that had installed themselves.
“The computer…hates us,” the translator speaker hissed. Biloxal turned three of their sensors towards Frieda, keeping the others trained on the offending piece of hardware.
Frieda was reminded of the last time she’d visited Opa Bernhard and spent the whole afternoon cleaning up his computer. Thankfully this time there was a shortcut at hand. She reached across and pressed a four-key combination. The screen went blank.
“I reset the computer.” Frieda walked back around the desk and sat down opposite Biloxal. “It’ll revert to the original configuration. Nothing to worry about. Might take a few minutes to re-image. Have you got any other questions in the meantime? Perhaps we can go through what to avoid when online…”
“We do not understand… password.”
“Ah.” Frieda paused. “You don’t need to understand it. It’s just a random set of characters to stop anyone else accessing your account. A precaution. You can’t be too careful!”
“We do not understand…password…concept.”
“It’s to…” Frieda pinched the bridge of her nose. She was getting a headache. “It’s to protect your account. Stop anyone stealing your information.”
“Information…cannot be stolen…” The scent of formaldehyde grew stronger. “Information is…information.”
“Well yes of course, that’s what we’re here for! The free trade of information and knowledge.” The last thing Frieda wanted to do at this stage was compromise her mission. The benefits of this cultural exchange were going to change the world. “But we need to protect the information from unscrupulous parties. People who would try to exploit it.”
“We do not understand…exploit.”
“People who would steal it. Try and make unfair use of it for their own benefit. Criminals.” Frieda wondered if the translator was on the blink. There had been a few problems at first.
“These concepts are meaningless. What benefits one benefits all.”
The computer start up chime interrupted Frieda, making her jump. Her mind whirred; she had a lot to think about. Could it be?
She spent the next twenty minutes advising Biloxal on safe browsing and set the laptop to auto login to bypass the whole password issue. Over the course of this tutorial it became clear to her.
“Thank you Biloxal. Same time tomorrow then.” She picked up her briefcase and left.
Frieda walked out into the cold night air, past her waiting car, and out from under the shadow of the Stardisc. She looked up at the stars. The galaxy looked back.
Yes, this cultural exchange was definitely going to benefit Earth. The Varjadrii clearly had no concept of competition, no drive. No appetite for rivalry. No urge to take advantage of a situation. No backbone.
Humanity’s audacity and finely honed skills of deception meant that the galaxy would be theirs for the taking.
Five years? Maybe three.
Chris Limb is a writer and designer living in Brighton, UK. His finished novels Comeback and Ghostdance are currently being submitted to agents and publishers.
Chris also writes short stories, a number of which have been published over the past couple of years — most recently in the anthologies Suspended in Dusk, Beachfront Starter Home Good Bones and Kneel Downe’s Stolen Indie as well as in Daily Science Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Theme of Absence online magazines.
Find him online at chrislimb.com.
Image by Comrade King