Discovering a planet is always a big deal. It’s field day for the geologists as well as a day of somber speculation for those vexing extraterrestrial theorists. I get a very special acknowledgement in the news transmissions, even offers to be President. And, inevitably, when the effervescence resides every time like it will, my ship gets blamed for yet another boring finding. This one, though, broke all the molds.
There are seven crewmembers on my ship, seven specialties relaying thoughts to each one. It is a very large number, I know. You get used to it. It is a resplendent experience when all goes well, absolutely disorganized when things go, as I’m sure you’ve experienced a few times with your associates, crazy. It was all that planet’s fault.
Whatever you people heard back home are rumors. We were not there to annex some living space nor did we have any idea we might find anything in this region of space; there were no road signs pressing us on. We passed this type G star for one reason only: one-star systems in the Milky Way are rare.
"Maybe they’ll have something interesting there," my college Reto would relay to me. "That will take us off our route by almost ten seconds!" I relayed back. I had no choice really. The majority vote did me in.
As probability would have it, they did have something interesting there. The system had a number of boring planets like the ones we’re used to. They had big boring planets and small boring planets. But the third one from the mono-star took our attention. Liquid water resides on the surface.
Most of my crew partied at the discovery. I was more restrained. I’ve observed wet planets before unlike my comrades. My colleges’ hysterics made our consciousness unstable and all I remember is Wen, whose mind is never far from the goal, relaying, "We’re going to be more important than the people at home now!" Hold your gelatin.
Yes, the scans intrigued us to send out our robots to orbit. They hadn’t been used so we were all plucky to get them down there. When their transmissions came back we were pleasantly surprise. There was life on this planet. Granted, it was only bacteria and viruses. I should say, a flood of bacteria and viruses. The ecology of the planet was bizarre. It seemed to allow a huge quantity of species. If you count up the number of species alone it was a figure much larger than all the life on our little planet. No, we are not alone, we’re crowded actually.
But we hoped there was more to uncover than bacteria. This was a big planet, or at least compared to ours anyway. We hoped to find something living underground so we ditched our little robots for big robots. We burrowed in on every land mass, and on this planet there are seven distinct ones. One is very cold. The others are alright.
It didn’t take long for a series of items to be discovered and what for the remainder of this discussion will be the focus. In scattered spots were unearthed concentrations of some mineralized substance. For brevity we named the findings "bone." Bones consist of repetitive shapes that cannot be explained geologically. We thought that this mysterious "bone" stuff was it for the excavation then, back in orbit, we found several intelligently designed satellites, hundreds to be exact. They went under our notice at first. We thought they were dead animals who decided to commit suicide by entering space, contradictingly we found organic tissue to exist in just one of the satellites. This one carried the remains of what were likely the last natives of this planet. You see, it was a primitive space vessel. In it was found exactly six well-preserved remains; nothing saves organic compounds like nothing. It was a disturbing scene. .
By the same time our robots unearthed something promising. We found something like architecture. There were these small underground rooms that were only big enough to fit a single member of their species length-wise. These underground houses were all congregated together.
With further investigation we discovered two orbiting, what we observed to be "nuclear guns," each one servicing one half of the planet if you cut the sphere from pole to pole.
It took only a microsecond for us to connect the dots. Apparently they were "trying" to enter deep space but I guess they had other plans.
"This is not going to make people at home very happy," Wen relayed.
You understand we’d always assumed, and it is the axiom of the extraterrestrial community, that if a civilization is smart enough to discover quantum science they’d be smart enough not to point it at themselves. Well, dumb luck I suppose. We ventured then the native crewmembers were in orbit while the planet was being destroyed by their own kind. They had to witness it from the best vantage then live for a few days or weeks as the last of their kind till they starved to death, the punishment of adventure-seeking
The cadavers revealed a lot. They are ugly things. They have all these double orifices that consolidate onto one part of the body. The only orifice that came in singular was the largest one. It is lined on the inside with two sets of gears and between the gears a soft, curved clump of muscle that could be stretched outwards. It’s about as disgusting as it is described. For brevity we called it a "face." So we called them "Ones with Faces." All these features compacted together on one part of the body—hideous—but it must have been necessary to their environment to have all these things close together.
It became obvious to us that we were not dealing with a single-species civilization. The bone in the middle of their bodies that connects the two long extensions to the central bulk comes in two dissimilar shapes and skin folds. We never thought two technological species could emerge on the same planet simultaneously. Mathematically, it’s very curious. We wondered why one didn’t become the dominant species.
"Two species?" Georgio couldn’t wait to relay. "Not likely."
I wondered. I always knew more than one species taking hold of civilization on the same planet was something close to impossible. But their world did seem to naturally divide itself into two distinct land masses. "Maybe they were isolated to these hemispheres while they evolved separately," I relayed. "And when they met it wasn’t on the best conditions."
"Or not," as the wiseass Georgio will relay during skin peeling. He is correct though, we look at any information at this point as a conclusion.
After taking a break for a second, traveling around to who knows where, we were bombarded by interference. We couldn’t make out what it was these ordered blasts of electromagnetic radiation. Bent then relayed, "Could these be radio signals?"
Did the Ones with Faces use radio? We got out the age-old radio receiver and had to reconfigure the computer to make it work properly. Once up and running we couldn’t really make the signals out. We felt disappointed, but before we could even relay anything our computer butted in, certain that the radio data, by its own calculations, was intended to be rasterized into what seemed to be a photon grid accompanied by waves of sound. We took the data and plugged the stream through our renderer which would translate the waves of sound and photons into something you and me can understand.
I should enumerate the discoveries. It was Georgio who discovered the photon grid was intended as a "downsized" representation of the first three dimensions of space into two dimensions. It was then Silo, the quiet one, who discovered that the waves of sound were probably coming from the same source as the photons to create a light-sound perspective. It was Wen, of all people, who added the last important piece of the puzzle. He noted that the abrupt transitions that a light-sound channel constantly made, which irritated us, were only changes in perspective and not in substance. Because of the downsized spatial dimensions, when someone’s body became larger to view it was because we were supposed to feel as if we were closer to them.
I was keen to note, given the simplicity of the resolving information, that the Ones with Faces may have had the ability to "sense" light and "sense" sound without the aid of instruments but their bodies. Strange.
We wondered how it was their minds processed all these things simultaneously then Georgio made an exotic metaphor. I will paraphrase. Imagine that you are being touched by three distinct objects in three different areas of your body. Is there any confusion in your mind when you receive these three signals, or can you take them all in at once without thinking about it? I guess this is their sensory experience.
Anyway, the light-sound perspectives were an immense discovery. With our computers translating these photon patterns and sound patterns we were actually able to observe their world as it was before they started pointed nuclear fission at each other.
This was an odd technology for us to find so readily. Did they want the whole universe to know their business? I relayed to the crew, "Perhaps photons had some unknown power over them. Perhaps they ate photons with the help of waves of sound as part of some metabolic process."
"Perhaps it was fun," Georgio interrupted.
As he will. When we observed the data closely I was shocked. If what our computer has told us is correct, most of the Ones with Faces didn’t seem interested in space at all. Most of them seemed concerned only with participating in cultural ritual. Everyone else on the crew didn’t realize the import of this information. They were too busy being amazed by everything, even Georgio, so I relayed to them finally, "They became so obsessive of their own kind it must have destroyed them—fools."
You must understand, their culture, as manifested in these signals, is so complicated and ritualized. For example, a face was important. They paid a lot of attention to it. The most important part of their interactions seemed to be mimicking the face movements of those most immediately near you. In the case where you did not mimic someone’s face, violence often erupted. Lines were important. Everything was always in the form of a line or the union of lines. And they seemed willing to eat anything as long as it was presented to them on a disc-shaped platform. Their hunger seemed insatiable. In many of these transmissions they would be eating, many times as a miniature community. That is another story. Ones with Faces could actually be found alone in some cases. Why would they want to be alone?
Their architecture was strict and geometric. We theorized their building style was related to their rituals. On the other hand Bent relayed, "Maybe they like geometry." Maybe. But then Georgio relayed "It’s because their gravity is so powerful, stupid!"
Once we got used to their weird rituals we got to vetting the physical patterns we received from the renderer. They reproduced just like us with their new guys coming out of them except the ones that come out don’t seem to be fully developed. I figured this was because it allowed them more economical use of their bodies. If you give birth to smaller versions of yourself, you can have a multiplicity of births per cycle which I guess was required in the unique competitions of their overcrowded environment. The light-sound perspectives also revealed that when alive the Ones with Faces had what seemed to be string, growing in patches, mostly around the top of their bodies. Patches come in individual forms. We noticed an inverse correlation. People with long strings tended to be short, and ones with short strings tended to be tall. The tall we called Mallots, the short Tips. And most of the other observable species of their planet followed the same pattern: a face, four limbs, a tongue.
Because they seemed to use their face to make these monotonous waves of sound our computer believed the species used some sort of organic "sound-wave language." We conferred with our computer because such a language would be astronomically slow. It contested that the Ones with Faces were using waves of sound because their minds were closed in, their thoughts never overlapping. Their world must operate very slowly.
It wasn’t long though before we noticed something odd about some of the messages. Some of them took the form of space adventures though the quality of their ships ranged from unlikely to impossible. It became very obvious that these photon messages were not of real, but events falsified in some way. We dubbed them "light stories."
It was a few days before we were scheduled to depart, when I began to feel changes in my health. I had become irritable and defensive. My gelatin was becoming sore and soft, my appetite insatiable. All the signs of mitosis were there.
I had stopped administering the mitosis represent because we needed another hand around the ship. I had cloned three times before (Nick, Fred, Alpha) so I had no immediate concerns. By the time the clone and I were separating I was in the middle of examining the light stories. We were nearly done with anaphase; me and the new guy were still connected at the middle of our bodies. There on the renderer was one of those "mystery scenes" of the Ones with Faces that taunted my analysis. Whenever there is a point in a light story when a Mallot and a Tip seem to want to collide together their actions are obstructed from view to varying degrees.
A stroke of genius hit me. During the struggle of anaphase, I looked at me trying to separate from the newborn at the middle and then at the two Earth species trying to connect at the middle. My mind clicked. It was a crazy thought, but what if these Ones with Faces somehow exchange a part of their bodies in order to reproduce? If so, then it must, by the fact that the Tips are the ones who shed new guys that it is the Mallots that are giving up a part of their body. If we stretch this theory out one more notch then we can account for the observed differences in middle-bones: this was a single species subdivided into two! What a concept!
My ideas were instantly relayed to the rest of the crew, who all agreed with me, except for Georgio who took an extra moment. Overall, this was a disturbing form of reproduction. You see, if this one absurd thought I had while cloning was true it might help everything we found strange to make sense, kind of.
First, I had to deal with the new guy of course. Maybe those versed in replication can sympathize. You know the new guys, the same shit the first three seconds. "Where am I? What is this? Do you have food? What is the meaning of life?" Then two seconds later, after you’ve answered them, they become arrogant and self-aggrandizing, thinking their momentary ship duties degrading. It never changes, even after the fourth time. We named him Rozwal.
My idea was important because it added a level of competition to their environment. We wanted to know how the genetic participants in a "mystery scene" were chosen. We projected that because their language is auditory that those with the most complex modulations would be selected for taking part in a "mystery scene." Our computer argued the point. It devised that the selection process was purely chemical. We didn’t know what that meant so we asked the computer for clarification. It argued, because the species were obsessed with faces and photons, the quality of the photonic reflection of a face garnered a chemical reaction stimulating a "mystery scene."
"How silly," I relayed to the computer. "If they bonded based on that everyone on that planet would be doomed to stupidity." The computer agreed.
"They also seem to take an obsessive interest in death," Tyro relayed after his brief millisecond run-through of the scenes. I asked him what he meant and he relayed, "If you have noticed, sometimes the photon stories show those underground houses we were curious about. Often these interactions take the form of the species huddling around a single tenant who rests in his house. I know Wen relayed that these were probably the most important people which explains the attention they received, well, I have reason to suspect what we thought were political ceremonies were ceremonies of another nature. These subterranean rooms are not houses, they are containers of the dead."
Everyone was fairly disgusted at the idea. They spend all this time with these rotting bodies? And then bury them in the soil? What an irresponsible waste of space and organic tissue! This species is a mess; and I thought Rozwal had problems.
As you can also imagine, we all found it odd that they took something as silly as death and made it such a personal issue. What strange obsessions these Ones with Faces have. They might build cities and space vessels, but otherwise they’re so different from us. They would hate us I’m certain, a fact I had gathered quickly. We all asked Tyro what he thought about this.
"There were a lot of competitive factors on their world," Tyro relayed. "Because of the competition, death ‘stared’ them in their ‘faces’ every time; hence, it makes sense that natural selection would prefer this species to obsess over it."
With all this new information we began to feel sorry for the Ones with Faces I had condemned. Evolution had doomed them all to lives of fixation, stupidity, and isolation. Reto relayed it best: "These rituals, these apparent self-obsessions were reinforcements of fragile bonds."
Memorializing this planet’s former intelligence seemed appropriate. We all discussed very ornate arrangements but I wondered, with their rigid architecture and their rigid cultural rituals, whether they might despise an alien interpretation of their departure from the universe. Something moderate was agreed upon: a signal beacon which any passing vessel could read, even through good old radio, stored everything we knew about them. "They liked telling the universe about themselves," Georgio relayed somberly. We kept an archive of all their light stories and a report of all statistical and archeological findings. It didn’t take up much space.
The core of this beacon, a fifty meter transmitter, was decidedly placed in what was found to be the densest concentration of their mineralized remains. This was found at the center of a tiny, thin island. We thought it may have been the capital of their world.
"Huh? How did it come to this? All the lives that were lived on that planet were in vein," Rozwal relayed, his interest finally tuned in to us.
"Well, they had so many people. A huge civilization, dwarfing us in the way their planet dwarfs ours," I offered. "Maybe it is like the game Remorox where the more people who play, the more likely the game comes into the hands of a smaller number of people. There is a lesson here for us."
"Or not," Georgio relayed.
That’s all there is to relay of the Ones with Faces. If they were more organized maybe they would have met up with us first. They probably wouldn’t have liked us. But who are we to judge? They got this far at least.
Daniel Sosa is a recent college graduate, holding a BFA from New York University. This is his first short story publication.
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