ESD April 13th, 2629
IRIS San Jacinto
Ryosh c Orbit
We’re about to make landfall after the longest four months of my life. It’s like I haven’t totally convinced myself that it’s real yet. Two hundred kilometers below us is a world inhabited by sentient beings of extraterrestrial origin, and I get to walk around on it and try to talk to them. If someone had told me when I’d started undergrad that this was waiting for me on the other side of fifteen years of papers and way too much money, I’d have told them to take a running jump out an airlock. Now look at me.
We’ve been in steady contact with members of Alpha Group for the last week or so, since we came within a hundred astronomical units or so of Ryosh c. How anthropocentric of us to use the distance from the Earth to the Sun as a unit of measure in a non-human solar system, right? Communication was rough for sure but somehow effective, which is all that matters right now. I’d rather deal with a little interspecies awkwardness up front than have our future collaborators be under the impression that we’re coming to invade their planet and enslave them, or have us think that the inhabitants will eat us once we land. Not that I was ever really afraid of this happening, of course. What kind of social scientist would I be to suspect that my collaborators intend to eat me?
More about our first contact experience with the inhabitants. Now the only way we even figured out that there was a sentient species on this planet is because resource explorers picked up so many EM signals and in such a wide range of frequencies that the source could have only been either an exotic celestial body like a pulsar or an unreported human colony. Both of these initial hypotheses were rejected quickly when the resource ship’s hails weren’t reciprocated in any of the five languages in which they were sent out. A few more days of testing the signals revealed that they weren’t any recognizable human language, and then that they weren’t even anything human. From there, it was most likely a bureaucratic nightmare to receive permission to initiate contact. I assume so, since I certainly wouldn’t want a screw up that could oh-so-easily result from something like that on my permanent file. And now I’m on my way to do just that. Oh, the irony.
From all this, they only knew that there was someone or something talking down there, just not who or what. It took a couple months from what I understand, but finally they got the go-ahead to reply to the signals they’d received from Ryosh c. It was the standard “we come in peace” message, updated visually from the first such made in the late 20th century, but the content was mostly the same. Inside-and-out (and might I say alarmingly detailed) depictions of human anatomy, standard behaviors, videos of various terrestrial biomes, some musical highlights of the last two millennia or so, and more, all beamed straight at sentient beings for the first time. All this was about a year ago.
Now here’s where we come in. Our approach toward Ryosh c was casual, if I had to pick an adjective. Not in the sense that we wanted to give the impression of not caring, of course, but certainly we wanted to avoid any patriarchal, “manifest destiny” overtones or any presumptions of superiority. We began by broadcasting the same welcome signal that the previous ship had sent once we reached a distance of about five hundred astronomical units from the planet. Our data indicated that Ryosh c has an average orbital distance of 1.34 AU from its sun and an orbital period of 489.4 Earth standard days. This allowed us to calculate the day of our arrival relative to our collaborators’ frame of reference and give them a heads up on our trajectory so they would know where to aim their replies to our messages (and hopefully not their missiles too) as we approached the planet and ultimately, when to expect us. At our initial distance of five hundred AU, there was a delay of about seventy hours until our message reached Ryosh c and it would be another couple days until their reply got back to us. Needless to say, all of this hit home pretty hard when that finally happened.
The message we received from them was confusing, enlightening, frustrating, unexpected, helpful, terrifying, beautiful… Oh, who am I kidding? Are there really even words enough to describe this moment in its entirety? It’s the kind of feeling you’d need a novel, maybe a whole series of them, all backed by a 1000-piece symphony orchestra and a light show, a complete multimedia extravaganza, to give someone else just a taste of a taste of what it felt like in that moment. Naturally, Larisha and I were brought up to the bridge to try and make some sense of it.
We’d seen holos of the Ryosh before, but this was different. Here they were, talking to us, and the best we could do was watch and feel rather useless. What was so strange about the transmission wasn’t the appearance of the individuals we saw—we’d grown quite accustomed to seeing their physiology over the last seven months—but the fact that there was no discernable sound coming from said individuals. All we could hear was mechanical noises and, when the camera was taken outside to show us a view of the surface, wind blowing against the microphone and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.
This really begs the question of why they included a microphone at all if none of them were going to speak into it. It’s clear from everything we’ve seen that they’re no strangers to the electromagnetic spectrum. I mean, you don’t build a space program from scratch without being able to send radio signals to and from your spacecraft, and someone along the line has to have figured out that you can use that same radiation to make images and sounds appear on screens. But why include sound if not to speak?
Our first idea was that maybe they were speaking, just in an frequency range that we couldn’t hear. We must’ve pulled that audio apart for five or six hours before we came to the conclusion that nothing we were hearing was outside the range of natural sounds. The next logical conclusion seemed to be that if they weren’t talking, they knew that we did and therefore included background noise for our benefit, which was comforting. A cultural anthropologist would pull something about empathy and altruistic behavior out of this episode, which is all well and good, but my main problem is figuring out how to talk to beings who evidently don’t talk. This could be the rare instance of something that is easier done than said. I slay me.
I should say that the surface looked almost too beautiful. White sand beaches like you wouldn’t believe, a dazzling array of red, yellow, and blue foliage, plus the people. Beings. Ryosh. We’ll know what they call themselves soon enough, assuming we can even say it.
Of all the things we don’t know yet, first and foremost for us anthropologists is what these individuals call themselves, both as a species and as a community. For now, we’ve decided on the obviously exonymic “Alpha Group” to specify two things: that this society will be the first formally contacted on Ryosh c, and that we have no expectations that our cultural or genetic data will be universal for all societies on the planet. Our limited funding and small research team significantly narrow the scope of our study, but right now I’m just glad we’re here at all. I think it’s safe to say the same goes for all of us.
I should mention more about the Ryosh themselves. From what we can estimate, adult individuals can be taller than an average human by about half a meter when standing upright. Their bodies appear to be covered partially in a carapace, while other regions on their back and face are soft and can be seen to change color rapidly when engaged with other individuals, including the camera they used in making their video. It’s unknown whether or not these color changes are their primary method of communication or if there are other factors at play, e.g. pheromones, sounds inaudible to us, or body language we simply can’t understand. Maybe it’s a combination of all four. Their eyes, not inset ovoids like ours but slightly protruding and more insect-like, appear to be compound, which could support the hypothesis Len put forward (which I mostly support as well) that the changing colors are their primary communicative medium.
There’s just so much to process here, and not that much time in which to do it. I certainly thought this project would last forever back when I got the research plan and saw how long I would be en route to the planet, on its surface, and then on the ride back home. Plenty of time, I’d thought. Now I’m not so sure. Too many unknowns. Too much that could go wrong, though I don’t doubt the sincerity of our scientific counterparts in Alpha Group. Will the language barrier(s) be too significant to overcome before our grant money runs out? How do you talk to someone who doesn’t even seem to have a basis for understanding what talking is? Will we get eaten after all?
These questions will (hopefully) be answered starting in a few hours. Here we go.