by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Tri-Galactic Trek, December 2019
The alien probe gleamed like a star, small and bright, on the Initiative’s main view screen.
“Can we get closer?” Captain Pierre Jacques asked. The Sphynx cat’s pink ears skewed to the side, betraying his excitement. The Initiative was in deep, unexplored space, and the presence of an artificial object of any sort implied an entire civilization that must have created it. An entire civilization that the cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy had never encountered before. Captain Jacques loved nothing more than first contact missions.
The android fox at the ship’s helm said, “The object is emitting a range of signals — from old school radio waves to ansibular tachyon waves. However, our computer has been unable to successfully translate any of it using the normal language processing algorithms.”
“What are you saying, Fact?” the captain asked.
“I believe it would be unwise to approach the probe any closer without further information. It appears to be relatively advanced technology, and we don’t know what it might do.”
Commander Wilker, the collie dog first officer standing beside Captain Jacques said, “Caution seems like a good idea.”
Captain Jacques lashed his pink-skinned tail behind him impatiently. “Very well,” he said. “Transmit a standard message of welcome and peaceful intentions in every language stored in the computer databases.”
Moments after the message had been transmitted, the probe began to grow on the viewscreen. “It’s coming toward us,” Captain Jacques said.
The undifferentiated point of brightness grew into a sphere large enough to show the blinking lights that encircled its surface, winking on and off in dancing patterns.
“It’s beautiful,” Commander Wilker breathed. “Do the patterns in the lights mean anything?”
“Very possibly,” Fact the android fox answered. “But our computer is having no more success making sense of those patterns than of the signals the probe has been transmitting. I recommend we raise our shields.”
“Nonsense,” the captain began to say, but before he’d finished the word, quantum energy sparkled throughout his body. From the perspective of everyone around him, the pink-skinned cat grew transparent and then totally disappeared.
The yellow Labrador chief of security, Lieutenant Vonn, rushed toward the captain, blazor drawn. But there was nothing to defend him from; nothing to aim a blazor at. And by the time she reached the spot where the captain had, only moments ago, been standing, there was nothing left to defend.
“Shields up!” Commander Wilker barked, too late to protect his captain. “What happened?”
* * *
From the captain’s perspective, the bridge of the Initiative disappeared in a glittering flash of brilliance, and he found himself, totally submerged, treading water, inside a spherical space. In spite of himself, the captain cried out in shock at the sudden change of scenery and the startling feel of fluid pressing against him in every direction. Fluid rushed into his mouth, and he sputtered. He was drowning, hacking, coughing, and certain he would die.
But as the fluid filled his lungs, feeling heavy inside of him, the panicky sensation of gasping for air went away. The fluid around him had to be a highly oxygenated liquid, breathable, and a reasonable approximation of an Earth atmosphere, albeit the fluid version.
Jacques stared at the smooth, curving walls around him, and thought he must be aboard the alien probe. He paddled awkwardly with his paws, scratching at the liquid atmosphere with extended claws, until he managed to swim up to the nearest part of the curved wall. He searched for any possible avenue of escape or clues as to why he’d been brought here. All he found was a hatch in the curved wall that lit up when he touched it with the pads of his paw. Behind the transparent hatch, he saw a sinuous, silvery figure with no limbs or antennae or recognizable features other than a pair of eyes that opened to look at him.
The eyes glowed like pale stars.
The hatchway between Jacques and the sinuous figure slid open, and electricity sparked in forking bolts through the liquid between them. The sinuous figure swam through the fluid atmosphere like a wave that had come to life. One end of its silver body opened in a gaping, toothy mouth, and the Sphynx cat flailed his paws out, trying to back away from it.
But then the sparks of electricity reached him, tingling against his pink skin, and an image flashed in the captain’s head: a feral cat with tabby striped fur, curled up on a pair of large legs; warm, cozy, comfortable. A cat on a lap. A cat from ancient Earth, before cats had been uplifted, sitting on a human’s lap.
The captain’s ears flattened, and he felt the strange sensation of water rushing out of them as they tightened against his head. What had he just seen? The image made him think of ancient paintings and photographs from Earth.
The sinuous figure swam in a circle around the captain, and its smooth, silvery skin slipped against the fabric of the Sphynx cat’s uniform, billowing in the water. The electricity sparked between them again, and the image of the tabby cat on a human’s lap appeared in the captain’s mind again. Clear, distinct, almost as if he were actually looking at the image transposed on the scene in front of him.
The captain wondered, was the sinuous creature trying to communicate with him? He wanted to say, “I don’t understand,” but his voice didn’t work right in the fluid atmosphere, and this creature — who looked a great deal like an electric eel from Earth — wouldn’t understand anyway.
When the captain compared the creature in front of him to an electric eel in his own mind, his memory conjured the image of the great reef tanks in the aquarium on Europa that he’d visited when he was a kitten. He remembered standing before the huge glass wall, and looking at the blue water rising high above him, filled with a landscape of purple and orange coral. Schools of small fish, bright like copper coins, had flitted through the water in synchrony, and a yellow-green eel had snaked along the bottom of the tank, near him. He’d followed it, excitedly, with all the enthusiasm of a kitten.
Electricity sparked between the captain and the alien eel again, and this time Jacques felt sure that he had somehow shared the image from his own memory with the alien in front of him.
“Is this how you communicate? Telepathically?” Jacques wanted to ask. Instead, he focused on a memory of himself talking to his first officer — Sphynx cat and collie dog, talking and laughing together, hoping it would serve as an example of communication.
In return, Captain Jacques received an image in his mind of the same human — still with a tabby cat curled up on her lap — typing on a computer keyboard.
“Yes,” the captain mouthed, mostly for himself since he found it hard to think in pure images, without any words. “Typing would be a form of communication. But how do you know about humans? Are you pulling this image from my own memories somehow?” The fluid atmosphere felt strange in his mouth as he talked to himself.
Captain Jacques thought hard, trying to remember every movie and documentary he’d ever seen about humans. Had he seen this human woman with a tabby cat on her lap before? Was she a character in a movie? A figure in a documentary? He didn’t think so… but where else could she have come from? Had this eel encountered humans before? Was this image truly coming from the alien eel’s mind?
Captain Jacques didn’t know how to ask the question without words… he tried to remember a time when he’d been confused, but he couldn’t remember ever being as confused as he felt now, treading water in an alien probe, facing off with a telepathic alien eel. So, instead, he pictured the connection between humans and his people — images he’d seen in documentaries about how humans had uplifted feral cats into the kind of sentient, bipedal creature he was today.
He felt the tingles of electricity sparking between him and the eel, and then a new image filled his mind. Teardrop-shaped spaceships flew through space, crewed by eels, and those spaceships encountered other ships, alien ships, with strange primates aboard them who lived in dry, barren, gaseous atmospheres. Captain Jacques was seeing a previous first contact — between the eels and humans, and he felt that the memory was old, ancient, like his own memories of documentaries about humans.
Suddenly, Captain Jacques felt the familiar flush of quantum energy flood his body that meant the Initiative was trying to teleport him back. But he wasn’t ready to go. His conversation with this alien eel had only begun.
For better and worse, the electricity from the eel’s body sparked wildly through the sphere, flashing and forking in blinding lightning bolts that disrupted the teleporter beam. Captain Jacques stayed aboard the eel’s vessel.
The sphynx cat pictured in his mind what must be happening aboard the Initiative: his people would be worried for him, doing everything they could to get him back.
The eel acknowledged his image by returning another: Captain Jacques reunited with his people, and telling them about the eel.
“Come with me,” Captain Jacques tried to say. He pictured a tank of water, rigged with robot arms and legs, and a viewscreen that could transmit the images broadcast by the eel’s brain. He pictured the eel inside the robotic mecha, exploring the Initiative, touring the ship beside him. “Come learn about my people, and teach us about yours.”
The electricity in the small bubble of a room died down, and the eel circled Captain Jacques. Looking at the eel more closely, Captain Jacques noticed tiny pectoral fins that fluttered at its sides and a long dorsal fin that ran down the length of its back like a narrow ruffle. Its pale eyes continued to glow like two moons in an empty sky.
Finally, electricity sparked between them again, and the image of the eel in front of him was replaced by a similar image but… brighter. The eel’s eyes shone like twin suns, and the silver of its body gleamed, almost glowing from within. In comparison, the eel in front of Captain Jacques looked gray and… old.
“You’re… dying?” Captain Jacques pictured his own grandmother on her death bed. He had put his head on the pillow beside hers and whispered lies to her all through the night. She had died during a bad time, when his family had been fighting with each other, and the Tri-Galactic Navy was at war with the ursine people who had since become their allies.
While she was dying, and had passed beyond reason, he’d had no good news to share with her, but he could tell she needed to hear good news before her mind would let go of her body and let her pass on. So he had whispered lies to her — the family had reconciled, and he had been promoted to captain; he was being given his own ship; the war was over, and the ursine people of Ursa Minuet had joined the Tri-Galactic Union.
Since her death, the lies had all come true. The family was reconciled. He was a captain. The war was over. And an ursine officer, Grawf, even served on his own ship.
But at the time, they had been lies, meant to reassure his grandmother that the world would be okay without her; that it was okay for her to leave.
Captain Jacques felt sure his eyes were filling with tears at the memory, but they blended with the fluidic atmosphere around him, and he could not feel them against his skin.
Suddenly, the whole space seemed to be filled with tears. The fluid pressing against his skin, filling his nose and lungs, all of it was tears, mourning his grandmother, lost to him years ago, and also the passing of his new friend, this alien eel, who he was uncannily certain would die soon.
“Why did you come out here, all alone, to die?” Captain Jacques pictured the string of family members who had kept vigil beside his grandmother’s bed; then he pictured the isolation of the empty space around the eel’s small vessel.
In return, the sphynx cat found his mind filled with a new string of images: all of the species whom the eel had met on its long travels — reptilian aliens with glittering green scales and fuzzy orange-and-black striped aliens like giant bumblebees; translucent jellyfish who spoke in poetry and antlered ungulates who communicated through dance; tangled webs of fungal mycelia who Captain Jacques could hardly recognize as living creatures, and the very familiar oval faces of the humans who had uplifted his own people.
“You’ve met so many,” Captain Jacques said, filled with admiration and awe. He wanted to meet all the aliens he saw in the eel’s memories himself. He wanted to fly to them with the Initiative and bring them into the Tri-Galactic Union. “I wish you could take me to them.” But he could see the eel’s eyes dimming already.
Captain Jacques held his arms out toward the eel, and after a moment of hesitation, it spiraled through the water toward him. The eel allowed him to press its flattened tube of a body against his chest, embracing it as its mortal coil failed. Like his grandmother years ago, the eel was slipping away, and all Captain Jacques could do was be there for it. But this time, instead of whispering stories himself, he let the eel whisper stories to him, showing him image after image of its life and explorations.
In the eel’s long death voyage, Captain Jacques had the honor of being its final goodbye.
When the electricity finally went out between them, and Captain Jacques could feel that his new friend was gone, he felt the quantum energy of a teleportation beam sparkle through him again. But this time he was ready.
* * *
Commander Wilker, Lieutenant Vonn, Fact, and the rest of the bridge crew eagerly greeted Captain Jacques when he rematerialized on his own ship. His uniform was still wet from the fluidic atmosphere aboard the eel’s vessel. He felt like all the tears of a lifetime worth of goodbyes were clinging to him, and he couldn’t imagine drying them off. Not yet.
“Captain, are you okay?” Commander Wilker’s rapidly wagging tail betrayed his immense relief at having finally retrieved the captain. “We teleported you back as soon as we could.”
“I will be,” the captain said, carefully. He turned to the android fox at the helm and said, “Fact, can you bring the alien probe aboard? It should fit in the shuttle bay, and I’d like it examined.”
“Yes, captain.” The efficient, studious fox was already back to working the helm, and only moments later, Captain Jacques saw on the viewscreen that a tractor beam began pulling the small spherical vessel toward the Initiative.
The sphynx cat hoped that the probe’s navigation system had travelogues that would help the Tri-Galactic Union find their way to the many alien races the eel had met during its travels. But even if it didn’t, he knew he would spend the rest of his life treasuring the memories the eel had shared with him. He had been gifted with the memories of a lifetime of travels.
There was far more in the universe to be discovered than Captain Jacques had ever known before.
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