From Chapter 12 in SUPPOSE WE Science fiction novella by Geoff Nelder
Setting: An exploration mission from Earth on Kepler-20h goes wrong. Their ship,
Suppose We, crashlands and they need local assistance but are ignored. Their commander becomes unhinged during the 1062 years hibernation sleep and their AI has become weird too. French science officer befriends an alien butterfly and he can’t help quoting the Flying Crooked poem by Robert Graves and yet, unbeknown to him the butterfly is a virtual part of the planet’s most ancient Kep (a few thousand years old) and not the infant Kep the Frenchman thinks he is.
Scene: alien planet. The four humans see three pale natives glide towards them: their first contact.
Less than a hundred metres to go. The Keps hadn’t slowed nor changed colour. The shimmering continued in a kind of random flow in their skin, apparel, whatever. Gaston recalled the floating one he saw, but you couldn’t see space between the ground and these three even though they appeared to glide. Their faces were a smudge, assuming the more bulbous top quarter was a head. Hard to see their eyes or any orifice. He offered a thought to the others.
“Perhaps they are gel robots?”
“Or not even the local intelligentsia, but pets,” Em said. “Or this region’s wildlife. It might be like Captain Cook in 1771 asking a kangaroo if it’s had a nice day.”
Delta replied, “Suppose it is us who are the kangaroos?”
At fifty metres the figures could be seen more clearly although clarity would be an exaggeration. The three were at least distinguishable by height, width and subtle hues, possibly facial protuberances and indentations changing as if talking to each other.
A purple creature, a squirrel-sized centipede scuttled across the intervening rocky ground. Up and over low boulders and straight through thorny bushes. It stopped halfway, appeared to look at the approaching figures then at the humans then accelerated away out of sight.
It added to the eldritch, surreal nature of the moment.
“I’m quite light-headed,” Gaston confessed, “Delta, you have the loudest voice. Call out a hello?”
“Gee, thanks, but okay.” Between Gaston and Em she took a step forward and held out her arms, hands outwards.
She first whispered, “This is going to sound so corny, but they won’t understand English anyway.
“Hi, how’re you doing? We’re from Earth and we come in peace.”
Gaston worked hard to suppress hilarity at the banality of such a speech even though his preferred bonjour and ça va was hardly any different. His suppressed laugh transformed to the smile they’d agreed in spite of interpretation issues. His fidgeting fingers attempted to be still while open to show lack of weaponry. A sop to its ancient provenance with Roman soldiers greeting strangers. His nervousness at this first contact was modified only a little by thinking how in history it would be Delta who’d be noted for her initial speech. Such bravery too. If they were hostile, she could have been killed on the spot. Had she considered that?
Just ten metres and they’d not slowed. They would now see the whites of his eyes even if he could not say the same of them. He was surprised they’d not stopped to greet or shoo off these invading Earthlings. His initial euphoria albeit infected with nerves now disintegrated into an element of fear. His knees threatened to give way again. Perhaps Penn was right to keep out of their way even if not completely hidden.
“I said, hi, folks. We’re friendly,” Delta said stepping back in line.
With a shaky voice Em gasped, “Do you think they’re blind? Seriously? Maybe they don’t see us at all. I hear clicking, so they must hear.” She took a couple of steps back.
Gaston’s stomach knotted with dismay that he’d not thought of that possibility. Blind and deaf, at least to human frequencies. Non, it didn’t make sense. There’s daylight and air, so unless they’re above the surface by accident or a rare visit, they would have sensory perception in this environment. They must be able to detect our presence just five metres from them.
Another metre. Perhaps he was wrong, it had happened before.
Gaston stepped back and to the left a little while calling out, “Bonjour!”
Em waved her arms, took a couple of sideways steps out of the Keps’ apparent path and called in her English accent, “Hello there, we’ve come an awfully long way to see you.”
The creatures didn’t slow and advanced at walking pace even though their bodies didn’t quite touch the ground. So close now that Gaston caught a mildly pungent zing of ozone, reminding him of electrical sparking at fairgrounds. He was afraid Penn would shoot, so said to all, “Let us step away in case they really cannot detect our presence.”
Now only Delta stood her ground.
One metre to go and Delta had closed her eyes. Penn took a step towards her to yank her sideways, but he was too late.
Delta’s scream shot through Gaston as the tallest creature walked into her. The Kep travelled straight through her as if she wasn’t there, or made of non-solid matter. No lacerations and no blood. Delta stood there screaming, but intact. The three Keps carried on as if nothing unusual had happened.
Gaston held Delta’s arm in case she fell but let go when Em hugged her and asked, “Are you hurt?”
After a pause when Delta looked down, wriggled her fingers and then closed her eyes for a moment she said, “No. Not at all. How weird was that? Its body went through my body as if I wasn’t there.”
Penn laughed. “As if—ah that’s it, they must have been holograms. Where are they now?”
They all looked behind them at the cliff. Gaston pointed up at the tunnel exit. “There. How did they get up so quickly? And, Penn, I don’t think they’re holograms. I could smell them. We could see its form intersecting, travelling through Delta. Did you feel anything?”
“I still feel odd. Like a mild electric shock from front to back. I thought I heard clicking noises though it could’ve been my teeth before I started to scream.”
Em hugged her tighter. “I heard dolphin-like clicks too. So, all we have to do is learn castanet-speak.”
Penn used the scope to examine the backs of the Keps as they drifted into the tunnel. “Could it be their molecules passed through hers through all that space between atoms? You know, like sitting on a chair that is really mostly empty space?”
Gaston shook his head. “Normally, two atoms can’t occupy the same space. Quantum Mechanics say that two electrons with the same spin state cannot occupy the quantum orbital state. However, who knows what trickery future science can do? Temporal bond displacement. Perhaps they’re mostly non-baryonic matter. No. Si’l vous plait a chance to ask them.”
A membrane appeared over the tunnel exit, but the humans looked away and towards the settlement.
Penn laughed. “If they can come through us, then we can walk through them.”
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