[OC] First Contact Protocols – Chapter 6
Thank you very much for all the kind words people have had checking in over the last couple of weeks. I won't bore you with the details but this chapter was way harder to get out than I thought. However, I hope the end product is worth it.
Rill pulled up the protocol guides, the holographic display appearing above the table as she began to rifle through the options, “If you agree, I would like to start by getting an idea of your life on earth. Learning about your economic and social norms will help give us a better idea of how to help you.”
The human’s tongue darted over his lips, “I, uh, I’m not a diplomat, I’m not qualified to, uh…” he trailed into silence, his hands suddenly tight again. Rill tensed for a moment, but she thoughts she recognized the same hesitance as when he had revealed that conflict was common among his species.
“I understand that Dustin. I…” There really weren’t protocols for this. The truth again, then. “I need to send a first contact report in order to have you registered as a refugee. So yes, I need to ask you questions to find out… how much help you will need to integrate into our society.” She folded her hands in front of her, closing down the haptic interface and display that had floated above the table, literally clearing the air between them as she met his gaze. “But I assure you that we will not try to trick you or force you to portray yourself or your people in a negative manner. The primary reason we wait until the translator calibration is complete before discussing such matters is precisely to avoid any such misunderstandings.” She laid her hands out, palms up, on the table, “I realize that you may feel as though you have no choice, but I promise you, I am trying to help.”
He returned her smile, but she could tell it lacked enthusiasm. There was a wan, drawn look to his face and his shoulders were stiff. “What would you like to know?”
Rill thought of a hundred responses that would answer the demands of the protocols but none of them seemed appropriate. To the haunted, hunted alien, any one of them could seem shaded with judgement. After a moment of thoughtful silence, Doctor Passall leaned forward.
“If I may,” he started. At the lack of objection he continued, “When I described myself as a doctor and the roles of others you have met, you seem to have understood the nature of our professions. What was yours?”
Dustin glanced between them and then back out of the window, his eyes wandering among the stars for a moment. After a time, he gave a small smile. “I was a teacher.” He looked at them and they nodded encouragingly. “I taught teenagers, uh, human adolescents, about literature, um, famous historical books, plays.”
Rill cocked her head, “Plays? An oral historical tradition?”
“No, well, sort of. Some of them are based on history but they’re mostly fiction, uh, that translate okay?”
The two salverai hesitated, obviously taken aback as they glanced at each other and then looked back at him. Passall leant forward, Rill able to see the concern etched on his features but hoping that Dustin could not. “Fiction? You teach fictions to your youth? Surely… surely that is against the objectives of an education system.”
“What? How so?”
“It is dishonest to teach something that is untrue.”
“Oh! I see. No, we teach them as fictions. The students know they aren’t true stories.”
He leaned forward, concern giving way to confusion, “But then… why? Education surely should focus on the facts, on objective truth.”
Dustin paused before answering, his words coming slowly, chosen with obvious care. “Well, I… that’s important but… um.” He stopped again, “Fiction… fiction is important to humans. It’s how we talk about… the big things. Not just what and who, but why. It’s how we bring reality into focus.”
He seemed to be forming his thoughts as he went, his hands moving as he spoke, physically manifesting his train of thought. “Humans… remember stories, they’re important to us, they’re how we teach each other how to… be human.”
“What do you mean? Social norms? Customs?”
“Yes, those things, but it goes deeper than that. Things like morality… good and evil.”
“The fiction includes truths regarding the legal code?”
“Not legality, no, it’s… more like a reflection of society. It allows us to look at ourselves, but from an outside perspective. It shows us the emotional consequences of actions, not just the outcomes. It gives students examples so they know how to… react, how to understand and channel what they feel, if that makes sense.”
“I think so.” Rill said and she thought that she did. She thought of the aggression response the brain scans had shown, the flood of hormones and adrenaline that had scrambled his thought patterns. If all of their emotional responses were so… complete, it would be important for there to be a structure, an example to follow. Anything else would be… overwhelming.
“Who were your students? What relation did they have to you?”
“Relation? Uh, none. My country, uh, most countries, give free education to children and adolescents. I taught at a school run by the government so everyone’s kids could get in if they lived nearby.”
“Did the government set what you were and were not allowed to teach?”
There was a moment of hesitation there and Rill cursed herself. Of course it was obvious that it was a big question, one that could well cast a judgement against him if there was a fundamental incompatibility. “I’m sorry, that was an indelicate question.”
He lowered his eyes, his hands wringing each other, “It’s okay, I get that you need to ask them.” He blew out a long slow breath, “I guess there’s no sense beating around the bush with it.” Rill blinked in incomprehension for a moment before it dawned on her, one of the cultural references Passall had spoken of.
Dustin watched them carefully as he spoke, “There was a government department that had some control but it’s mandate was to ensure standards, not enforce specific viewpoints.” He was speaking emphatically, his words accompanied by expressive movements of his hands as though, now that he had committed to speaking on this subject he was proud of his place in it, and determined to show it in full. “There were, a lot of organizations run by, well, a lot of people, including the teachers, that tried to make sure we only taught the truth and didn’t pick sides for the children.”
He was still after he finished speaking, watching them carefully for any reaction but Rill did not have to fake her smile as she responded. “That is good to hear. An education system with such a mandate is a requirement for entry into the Federation.“
He sagged, a tension draining from his shoulders, his head lowering as his eyes closed, a small tremor running through his body. There it was again, the same relief over shared ground, the same fear of being unwelcome. The shared pack instinct was near ubiquitous among sentients but it was rare to see it displayed so openly.
“How were you compensated for your work educating the children of others?” Passall’s enquiring, academic mind led them to new ground, his interest clearly piqued.
“Money, um, currency? Does that translate?”
“Yes, it was given to you by the government?”
“Yeah, uh, the Government paid from taxes that they collected from everyone in my country, well, not everyone, um, okay, let me start with capitalism and socialism.”
Later Rill would reflect that she could not remember a more interesting day since she her first flights back at the academy. She had entered the room intending to let the specific needs of the protocols guide her questions but as Dustin talked she quickly abandoned any attempt at it. Though Dustin was sometimes hesitant to speak he responded to even the smallest of encouragements, leaping toward any avenue of progress they offered.
His replies would invariably wander to some new ground that demanded exploration and he bounced from topic to topic erratically, but with a persistent, seeking logic, each leap accompanied by some joining thought. With every step he would look to them, ensuring their understanding, guiding them on the path of his thoughts. She could understand why he had become a teacher.
As much as they learned of him they found themselves speaking about the Federation more and more as time wore on. He would leave no subject behind until he had discovered some parallel, some example that would ensure understanding to both sides. The exchanges usually ended with her or Doctor Passall having to frame their answers about the Federation in the light of some strange philosophical question. He seemed always to be continuing his quest to find areas of shared experience, to paint a picture of them and his new world with colors that were familiar to him. It was bizarre but, at the same time, undeniably interesting, she hadn’t spent time like this since the mentor debates during her course-work.
As for commonalities, there were certainly many of them. Or perhaps the human only made it seem that way. They would arrive at a topic and Dustin’s strange, wandering mind would take them deep into its core to find some small, intricate kernel that he could relate to. Then he would drag them back, expanding and expounding on it until it could be used to shade and shape all else that he had learned on the subject.
She was pleased by how relieved he seemed by so much of what he learned about them. By degrees his hesitance lessened, the moment of stillness and fearful analysis that had greeted their initial questions shortening until she was not sure it was there at all.
Her own feelings on what she learned of the humans were harder to pin down. There was some relief there, certainly, but also concern. As the conversation flowed on he spoke of a species in the early informational age, just starting to explore the potential of global information networks but one clearly hampered by the nationalistic remnants of tribalism.
They seemed a species whose instincts threatened to tear it apart while its higher functions fought a constant battle to lift them beyond the reach of such a threat. The thirst for cooperation that was inherent to pack sentients vying with a fierce, tenacious independence and competitiveness.
Both sides were present in virtually all sentients. In humans, this human at least, they seemed… rawer, purer, as though he contained the sum of both and took from them as he needed rather than simply being born with only his portion of each. The whole species seemed to be a single step away from dissolving into anarchic chaos, and yet… And yet she could not hate them for it. For every atrocity there was beauty. For every violent impulse there was mercy. For every fear there was wonder.
He spoke of heroic acts that had inspired legend. Of music that had moved entire societies. Of speeches that had rallied nations. He spoke of the fiction he taught to his pupils, of teaching reluctant children to identify with and understand the value of what they once viewed as stale and irrelevant. He spoke of other humans, Shakespeare, Dickens, Moliere and more. An endless string of authors and philosophers back through history.
Some had written to entertain, some had written to uplift and some had written to condemn that which they saw as wrong. But the way Dustin spoke about them, when viewed through his eyes, they became so much more than mere creators of fiction. They became philosophers that had spoken to fundamental cores of humanity and helped to shape and uplift their cultures.
On and on they went from economics to technology to philosophy and back again in a single, flowing conversation that enthralled her with interest.
“Why do you guys nod?” he asked suddenly, veering wildly to the new topic with his usual energetic curiosity. “That’s not just something this is making me see right?” He said, tapping the small chip laid against his temple.
The question caught all of them off guard, the salverai in the room glancing at each other for a moment. It was Dr. Passall that answered. He seemed enthused by Dustin’s questing, seeking mind and had been providing many of the prompts that Dustin had latched onto for exploration. Rill was extremely pleased he had been a part of it, every answer that Dustin gave invariably filled her mind with the questions that the protocols demanded answers to and how the response might shade those answers to an unfriendly eye. It distracted her, concerned her, forcing her thoughts away from their small circle and to the distant offices where her words, and Dustin’s, would be poured over and analyzed.
She knew that without Passall’s academic talkativeness the conversation would not have moved half as smoothly.
“No, the nod is a genuinely shared gesture. It is in fact one shared by many species with similar spinal and cranial configurations.”
His upper hands framed his head while his lower indicated the vertebrae in his neck. “Many evolutionary trees found similar solutions to the need for a body configuration suitable to higher-order tool use. As the minds within those bodies begin to develop language, sentient communities will naturally seek to develop easily identifiable gestures for assent and dissent. When the neck and head are aligned in this way the nod and the shake are the simplest, most easily identifiable gestures and so are surprisingly common. There are many species in The Federation with a single, vertically spined cranium, most of us found that we share at least some similarity of gesture despite utterly independent social and genetic evolutionary trees.”
Dustin chuckled, she was learning to like the sound, like the fact that it signified that he was at ease, “That’s… that’s actually kind of a relief.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged, “I guess it’s just nice to know not everything out here is… weird. Sorry, uh, does that translate negatively? I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just… like, you look like you live more or less by the same set of rules.” He trailed off, eyes darting between them.
The two salverai shared a glance before Rill replied, “Rules?”
He frowned, looking away, nervous again, the uncertainty that always lurked coming to the fore, “Sorry, I just… I mean… you’re… you sleep, you eat, uh,” his eyes travelled around the room, before a sudden, small smile flitted across his face, “You’re wearing trousers.”
“While there is an endless variety of cultures and histories among sentient life the… rules, as you put it, are generally developed by the stricter edicts of evolutionary necessity. The evolutionary pressure and environmental factors necessary to give rise to sentience occur most commonly in pack omnivores such as ourselves.” Passall was answering before she could marshal her thoughts. He had excelled academically before entering active duty and was revelling in the chance to expound upon topics that he knew so well but were so rarely discussed in the practical, day to day world of military life.
“Herbivorous species rarely have a sufficiently high metabolism to create the necessary neural networks, while purely carnivorous species have no evolutionary pressure to create agriculture and develop more advanced tools and social structures. That same evolutionary necessity also explains certain similarities in biological configuration once specific environmental pressures are accounted for. Evolution usually seeks the path of least resistance.”
Dustin was listening carefully, intently, “So, then, it’s easier for evolution to create audible speech and ears than, uh, telepathy or something so everybody ends up developing it?”
“Well, speech is often augmented through some other means, pheromones, visual information, things like that. You, for example, use gestures when speaking. But yes, that is the… essence of the idea, yes.” He was speaking happily, only half caring if his audience was paying attention, enjoying the ability to display his knowledge.
“Our genetic history encourages cooperation and the preservation of that cooperation is the basis for much of the development of our morality and legal systems. This shared genetic predisposition creates a predisposition to societal compatibility. I must say, I am surprised to hear you broach the topic. It is one straight out of our federation service psychology textbooks and beyond the basic causal understanding is the subject of much scientific, sociological and even theological discussion.”
Rill stayed silent, content to watch the two of them speak, and, well, to watch Dustin. She was learning to read him, she thought, learning to recognize the way his furred brows accentuated and intensified the expressions of his eyes.
Dustin spoke of a man named Darwin, from his home planet, who was given much of the credit for first articulating the principles of evolutionary adaptation theory. From there, he jumped to questions about science in the Federation, staring in open wonder at the room around him and the expanse of stars outside.
Passall hesitated for a moment before frankly stating that he was not qualified to speak on the ship itself, his expertise lay in biology, not engineering. Dustin chuckled in response, nodding.
“I get it. You’re a doctor, not a scientist.” He laughed again obviously amused though Rill was uncertain at why. He reached out, hesitated for a moment and then pressed his hand to the window, his eyes widening as his fingers met the pane. “Will I be able to learn about it? Like, is that something I’ll be able to do as a refugee? It’s not classified is it?”
Rill found herself hoping that he would be able to learn, he seemed so earnestly eager. “As I said, The Federation will do everything it can to make sure you have what you need to live here successfully, if that includes knowledge then you’ll have as much access as any civilian.”
She saw a spark of excitement in his eyes at the prospect, a wave of sudden anticipation appearing like a light in a dark room. “I’d like that. Uh, though, how, how do your schools work?”
The two salverai shared a glance, “What do you mean?”
“Erm, a lot of our speculative fiction came up with teaching methodology that was pretty out-there.” He paused and a strange expression, not quite a smile, passed over his face. “I used to think they were ridiculous but here I am sitting in a f—,” the translator chose not to translate the next word, “spaceship so I don’t even know what to think anymore. Do you just, like, read and listen in a classroom?”
Passall grinned, the rapid “tih-tih-tih” of a salverai laugh sounding in the room, “Yes Dustin, many lessons are taught in such a manner. Personally. I gravitated to a program that offered a more interactive approach but there are as many education programs as there are cultures within the Federation. I am sure you would find a suitable environment in one of them.”
“What, like I would travel to the planet to study?” His voice was breathless, his eyes widening at the prospect.
Passall paused, “Well, while travel would certainly be a possibility in your future, most education is done through virtual environments.”
And just like that they moved on again as Dustin enthusiastically asked about their information networks, faster than light communication and even holographic interfaces and immersion. Here, her qualifications held up better than the doctor’s and so she once again became engaged with the conversation, careful not to let slip anything beyond what the protocols would allow but at the same time increasingly happy to offer what knowledge she could.
The human responded to each new dawning of understanding as though it were a precious gift, listening intently in open curiosity to her description of the networks of FTL enabled buoys that provided communication across the vastness of federation space. Then on into questions about how many species that vastness included and what lay beyond its borders.
He hesitated immediately after voicing them, “Uh, if that’s something…” There it was again, the caution, the fear of pushing too hard and severing the connection that had formed.
“It is,” She confirmed, wanting to allay those fears, “There are currently twenty-seven members with about forty-eight affiliates covering about forty-two species.”
His jaw dropped open, “That’s amazing.” He whispered. “Are there a lot of them on, uh, Hub was it?”
“There are, there are eighteen districts varying in atmospheric and gravitational settings that host permanent populations of compatible species, including visitors there are likely thirty different species aboard at any one time.”
“That’s… incredible.” He pressed his hand to the window again, staring out, “When can I see it?”
“Soon.” She reassured him. “We’ll be prepping for the shift to Hub in the next few hours after that we’ll just be waiting on the security and medical clearances.”
She had expected to have to tip-toe up to these topics. The protocols warned to skirt around the edges of the vastness of the Federation and the breadth of technology and species that made up its complex melting pot of a society. Apparently many species recoiled from it. For some… many… most perhaps, the shock of first contact should not be followed by knowledge of the existence of a government that spanned across over a hundred planets with innumerable stations, ships and outposts filling the void between worlds.
It had caused problems during the early days of The Federation, new members viewed it with trepidation, seeing in it an empire eager to consume their identity rather than a plurality seeking to uplift them. There had been tensions, social upheavals, even wars during early first contacts. Even today in ideal situations there was so much potential for fear of the other to drive a wedge between species.
Perhaps there would have been for the humans too, if their government had been sitting across from her. But they were not. Dustin was, and the spark of excitement in his eyes was too much of a reward to consider holding back.
She had read about the process of discovery, back during her Lieutenancy exams when she had been required to not only have an awareness of the protocols but become skilled in their implementation.
For most, The Federation’s first contact negotiations meant convincing a new species to see someone other than themselves as a sentient. To grant the same rights and considerations to a literal alien as they did to themselves, or in some cases, to grant more, to change ingrained ways and create something that would bridge the gaps. It often took decades, even centuries, from first contact to a species or culture being ready to become full members. Entire epistemological structures needed to be torn down and rebuilt, societal constructs that often dated back to the most primitive dawnings of a species’ sentience needing to be entirely discarded.
For Dustin it seemed the opposite, as though he were desperate not to reject the other but to become embraced by it, to throw himself into it and learn to understand it rather than trying to force it to conform to him. Rather than rejecting strangeness where he found it he simply chewed on it until it became familiar then soaked it up like a sponge.
It was fascinating to watch.
She remembered how she had first seen him, cradling an alien whose language he could not possibly understand, fighting for its life even when it made the preservation of his own more difficult. Was this that same instinct? To take the other and make it familiar rather than reject it? To give personhood to that which was not a person as he understood it?
It was an interesting question, one that circled her others thoughts until the low beep of her communicator brought her mind out of their small, happy conversation.
She pulled her personal interface up on the table and was surprised by the pang of regret that went through her as she saw the appointments that called for her time. She dismissed the display and raised her eyes to the others, their conversation paused by her action.
“I have to go, but this room has been cleared for your use until the end of the duty shift. Passall, will you be able to stay with him?” She stood as she spoke, pulling her jacket straight again and re-clasping the collar.
The doctor nodded happily, clearly anticipating a continuation of their academic exploration. “Of course, Captain.”
She turned to Dustin and met his eyes, feeling a smile cross her face at the calm she saw there. “Thank you for speaking with me Dustin. I will make sure you are told of any developments but I hope we will have good news for you soon.” She chose her words carefully, not wanting to puncture the bubble that they had created here, to break the familiarity that he had created.
He stood in response, his head moving in a deep, slow nod, “Captain… I…” He paused, raising a hand to run it through his hair, his tongue darting out to run over his lips. After a moment he looked back up at her, “It uh, it doesn’t quite cover it but… thank you.”
She left the room already hearing Passall’s voice rising again, picking up the thread of their conversation. She had more than enough material to begin initial recommendations on the protocol paperwork, certainly enough to begin to appease the diplomats and officials back home. For the first time since she had seen him in the cargo hold she was looking forward to the process, hopeful, if not confident just yet, that a better life was ahead of him than behind.