by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Boldly Going Forward, March 2020
A’loo’loo swam eagerly back and forth, impatient for the spaceship above her, floating on the ocean’s surface, to open its hatchway. There had been so little warning — A’loo’loo had only discovered the burst of radio waves coming from her planet’s orbit three tides ago. Everything had changed since then.
The inhabitants of Oceanica were not alone in the universe, and the aliens who had come to them from the void above the sky were strange. They breathed the thin gases that floated above the true world, rather than good, nourishing water. A’loo’loo’s own people had evolved out of a dependence on breathing those wispy gases through their vestigial blowholes millennia ago.
The hatchway of the spaceship opened, and three aliens emerged, each of them wearing a breathing mask over their face. One had green scales; another was covered with fuzzy grey-and-black fur; and the final one had appropriately smooth skin, except for a strange long mane sprouting from its head. All of them had bizarrely brachiated bodies — four primary limbs and weirdly narrow, weak tails that would serve as very poor rudders. Except for the smooth-skinned one — it had no tail at all! All three flailed about pathetically.
A’loo’loo wondered if they moved more gracefully in the thin gaseous atmosphere they were used to.
The waters shifted around A’loo’loo, and she looked over to see that the Senatorial Master had glided up beside her.
“Your visitors from above are not very impressive.” The Senatorial Master’s voice was low and fluting.
A’loo’loo hoped that the aliens’ computer translators had missed the snide remark. She risked rebuking her leader: “They came here from an entirely different ocean — across the void above the thin gases. That is not impressive?”
The Senatorial Master waved one flipper and then the other, rocking back and forth in a shrug. A perfect demonstration of the scientific indifference that had nearly defunded A’loo’loo’s international telescope three times. It was a wonder she’d had the tools to contact these alien visitors at all.
“Testing… Testing… Can you hear me?” The artificial-sounding voice emanated from the green-scaly alien.
A’loo’loo flipped her powerful blue tail in delight. “Yes!” she sang out. “Welcome to Oceanica! This is our Senatorial Master–” she pointed a flipper at him, “–and I’m the scientist you were talking with before. Are you ready for a tour of our fine capitol city?”
The Senatorial Master snorted through his baleen. He was clearly picturing how long it would take to escort these awkward creatures about. “Tell you what,” he said. “Take your time on the tour. A feast is prepared in your honor in the senate chambers — I’ll see you all there.”
With that, the Senatorial Master turned tail and left a wake of roiling water behind him, wasting no time in escaping from his diplomatic duties.
“My sincere apologies,” A’loo’loo said to the three aliens. “I cannot convince my people that your visit is anything more than an oddity. Very few of them understand the vast difference between leaving our ocean for the thin atmosphere that surrounds it, and actually ascending all the way to the void above and crossing to an entirely different sphere of oceans.” With great shame, A’loo’loo admitted, “Some of them do not even believe there are other spheres of ocean.”
The three aliens assured A’loo’loo with their artificial voices that each of their worlds had gone through similar phases before developing spacefaring technology. Comforted, A’loo’loo encouraged each of them to take hold of her flippers, and she swam them down in a wide spiral that showed off the capitol city from every angle. They admired the coral statues, grown into the shapes of heroic Oceanicans of yore, and politely complimented A’loo’loo’s personal pride and joy — the great library filled with kelp-scrolls, containing all the knowledge her culture had attained.
From talking to the aliens, though, A’loo’loo had a sneaking suspicion that the computers they talked about contained far more information than all the kelp-scrolls put together. She wondered if their praise would sound condescending if it weren’t filtered through artificial, translated voices.
At the end of the tour, a crew of cetacean ballerinas performed in the senatorial chambers for the visiting aliens. They twirled and somersaulted and swam in formation; the dance ended with two of them ceremonially ripping open the woven nets of krill and baby shrimp, delicate jellyfish and delectable fetal crabs. The colorful feast exploded outward, and every Oceanican in the room inhaled deeply through their baleen, swallowing gullets-full of the delicious morsels.
The scaly-green alien plucked a few fetal crabs from the swell and popped them under its breathing mask to munch on them. The smooth-skinned alien and the fuzzy ring-tailed one abstained, earning another derisive snort from the Senatorial Master.
After the floating feast cleared from the water, a cetacean poet performed a bubbly recitation. Then the Senatorial Master gave a disturbingly insular speech about the singular greatness of Oceanica.
A’loo’loo found herself tiring of her own species’ pompous presentations and itching to hear more from the visitors about the other oceans they’d visited.
Alas, before she could plead with them to tell her stories about the worlds beyond the void, the scaly-green one announced, “Our oxygen filters are nearly worn out. We must return to our ship.”
With a growing sense of urgency, afraid she was losing opportunities moment by moment, A’loo’loo complied to swim the visitors back up to their vessel, floating on the surface of her world.
Along the way, A’loo’loo asked, “Will you come visit again?”
The smooth-skinned alien replied, “We have enough material from this single visit to write many papers. I’m sure other scientists will come, but it may be a long time before they do.”
“Will you give us the information we’d need to follow you into the void?”
The scaly-green one answered, “You don’t have any technology that can download our computer banks… Besides, it will take your species generations — at least — to build the infrastructure necessary to support space travel.”
Regretfully, A’loo’loo arrived at the underside of the aliens’ spaceship and asked one final question: “Will you take me with you?”
The fuzzy ring-tailed one, who was the first of the aliens to have talked to A’loo’loo over the radio waves, said, “Trapped in a fish tank? I don’t think so. There’s nowhere on our ship that you’d be comfortable.”
If underwater species cried, then A’loo’loo’s bright eyes would have filled with tears.
“However,” the scaly-green one offered, “now that we know you’re here, perhaps a spacefaring race of water-breathers will take an interest in reaching out to you. The Lintar are always looking to expand their trade routes.”
“Keep your eyes on the sky,” the smooth-skinned one added.
As if A’loo’loo would ever stop watching the sky, now that she knew what out-of-reach wonders filled it.