Watching a lot of Macross has made me really reconsider how I would tell a first contact story. I think it is now quite possible to write a very optimistic story on the subject that is not about conquest or subjugation (or even assimilation), but which offers the promise of peace and understanding.
As a result, I wrote this – about the meeting of two starship captains who don’t know exactly how one is supposed to discuss terms with an empire of unknown size and strength, but don’t want to be the one to fire the first shot.
“This is a groundbreaking moment. This is… We will be… This opportunity represent’s humanity’s first opportunity to speak to an alien species. We are making history, in this room.”
Mankind had carved out a rough, uneasy life in the planets closest to its homeworld. Dealing with its own colonies, the difficulties of trying to simply form ranks around a common humanity as reason enough not to divide and collapse, had been enough to make the early years of its interstellar aims a seemingly hopeless morass of war. Reason had won out, but not before the ships of hope and discovery had been reforged as tough, well-armed ships of conquest.
Aliens had sat as an uncomfortable unraised possibility, the sort of thing that could not be ruled out but as planet after uncolonised planet had had human flags planted on its surface felt increasingly distant and impossible.
It had been five years of peaceful expansion, and now for the first time in recorded history a human warship had recorded on its scopes something that was not either another human ship or a rock.
“Enemy- no, unknown vessel is showing no visible signs of weapon activation. I mean, nothing I recognise as hostile.” There were protocols. They had been forgotten.
“The unknown vessel has numerous turrets and visible weapon mounts. None of them are receiving power in a way I would venture to suggest means preparation to fire.”
“So what now?”
Before anyone could even begin to think about how best to approach this, the communications screens flickered and a grey test screen appeared. Voice Only.
“This vessel belongs to the empire of the third planet of the sixteenth system of the nineteenth expansion zone?”
Co-ordinates appeared on the grey card. Roughly, give or take a few days, where earth should have been. “Third planet.”
It had taken this initial exchange for the captain of the human cruiser to parse in her mind that the captain of this unknown vessel, part of an unknown fleet, the first alien humanity had ever spoken to, knew exactly where Earth was and spoke a halting, unusually accented English.
“How do you know our language?”
“The ninteenth expansion zone has been surveilled by our forces for approximately fifty of your homeworld’s orbits. We have learned details of all major subcultures, numerous languages and dialects and, indeed, much of your fleet’s capabilities. You were quite unaware of this.” Captain Hawthorne realised, much to her confusion, she had no idea if the voice was male or female. It was, she supposed, equally likely that the creatures did not distinguish.
“You keep saying expansion zone.”
“The nature of this is delicate. I feel it fairer if we speak face-to-face on this matter. Do you represent your people?”
“She will, and I will stand by her side.” Hawthorne was relieved that the old man in the chair behind her had finally spoken. “I am Admiral Meraigne, of the Human Colonisation Fleet. Currently you appear to have, shall we say, found me between commands.”
“Confirm for me, Meraigne, that the atmosphere on board your ship is not less than ten per cent oxygen and not more than five per cent carbon dioxide?”
“That is so.”
“Confirm for me that my aide and I will be met with trust, and no weapons will be carried into the meeting room?”
“I see no reason to disagree with this.”
“Be ready to receive a small craft.”
In the interests of security and to avoid a humiliating crush of onlookers, only Hawthorne, Meraigne and a few picked officers were to meet the alien delegate in the hangar.
The moments building up to their disembarkation were not some dramatic buzz of countdowns, flashing lights and smoke. Merely the methodical opening of a shuttle door and the usual awkward attempt to climb out modestly in the slightly impractical skirt of a woman’s dress uniform.
Hawthorne stepped forward to take a white-gloved hand and then immediately realised the familiarity of the gesture, the very cut of the clothing the first alien humanity had ever met wore was wrong.
Discount the oddly silver-grey skin, the strangeness of lengthened ears and featureless grey eyes, and the person standing in front of her could have passed for human. And once that initial shock passed all the other wrongnesses of this alien body became clear. The angle of the shoulders was wrong and that made the arms hang wrong. The fingers were jointed oddly and seemed to bend in ways that at first made Hawthorne panic she had crushed some fragile, birdlike skeleton. The alien woman – for all Hawthorne could do was read her slender face, subtly curved body and choice of clothing as being that of a woman – recoiled momentarily, ending their physical contact, and bowed.
“I am Telena Tefira Ivyll, rank Captain, become diplomat.” The words hung in awkward order. “I am ashamed that my translation is imperfect but hope that negotiation possible.” This was followed by a brief discussion in an unknown language to the second figure to leave the shuttle, a similarly grey-skinned soldier in a deep blue flight suit. Pilot? “Merell speaks next to no of your language. Accommodate her.”
The two aliens were led up to the officers’ deck, and Hawthorne indicated they should enter.
“You two officers, myself, none else. Merell to remain.”
Merell sat with a slouch of impending boredom that seemed to Hawthorne’s aides to be universal across species.
“And now, discussion.” Sat now at a round table, Telena removed from a small bag a disc she set down and suddenly her speech was flawless. “I am sorry. Without this computer I cannot speak your language fluently.”
“It is to be frank incredible.”
“Incredible that a species capable of travelling through space should be able to set computational power to interpretation of foreign languages? Or impossible that a species capable of travelling through space should not be alone?” Telena watched Hawthorne choke on words unsaid. “Or, impossible that now, suddenly, language is no barrier the awkward little creature one has gawked at should be capable of speaking harsh truths?”
“I did not mean offence.”
“You have yet to cause it. I merely wish you to be careful.”
“Have you really watched us for fifty years?”
“Yes. It was decided that your world should be among those we colonise. This is the truth, I will not mask it. There was a brief hope that during your period of schism you would annihilate yourselves before contact was made.”
“Is there no hope for peace?” Meraigne raised an eyebrow. “Is this meeting simply to be your ultimatum, your reassurance to us that some day, in a few years – for you have waited half a century, so what’s a little longer – Earth will be populated by your kind?”
“I like you rather more than your subordinate. I am not disposed to discuss terms of peace outside of your surrender. However, I am equally not permitted to begin an open war unless provoked. So let it be said I have provoked you, and I merely wait for you to provoke me.”
“We would fight hard.”
“I am sure.”
The discussion continued in circular terms. It was clear that Telena was simply trying to drive her new foes to strike the first blow, and getting increasingly perturbed that humanity was not biting. In frustration, Hawthorne spoke instinctively.
“You have talked at length about the courage of your people. About the number of worlds you have conquered. Never, of course, without fair warning, without the option of surrender. But have you ever had to surrender yourself? Have you ever been defeated?”
“We have lost battles. We have never lost wars. What has this to do with anything?”
“If I was to say that, as I stand representative of my people, I would want to walk among you, learn how you live, and some day stand at your side, how would you respond?”
“We have little need of traitors to bolster our ranks.”
“As I suspected. You do not understand me.”
“In our history as a people there was a tradition among certain families who… wished to see their children educated. Who wanted stability. A child would live among strangers, spend its formative years surrounded by those who may not even – in secret – trust or like his family. In return, the host would send to the other family a representative of their own. Neither side would risk fighting while their potential enemy held a close family member.”
“Surely a mark of courage? To willingly live among your potential enemies as an honoured guest.”
“Pick a representative from your crew. I offer myself in return. We will speak again in a year’s time. Once you properly understand the empire you are hoping to conquer.”
“And once you properly understand under whose knee you will bow. I approve of your noble sacrifice, it is highly amusing. What stops me never sending my delegate and shooting you in the shuttle?”
“Nothing. But after hours of you talking about your honour, your great heritage of military culture and your trustworthiness and magnamity, I very much doubt you, a mere captain, would be the one to provoke humanity by killing a prisoner.”
“At least you admit this is little but offering yourself as a hostage for the sake of the others. Buying time.”
“You cannot claim it mere espionage, at least.”
“Why not? You have access to our lives for a year.”
“And your delegate has the same.”
“And, I suppose, there is little for us to learn.”
Telena was silent.
“Merell will remain on this ship. You will return to my ship. I am sure we will both return to our waiting fleets proudly proclaiming we have a live prisoner.”
“No. We will return to our own base saying we have an honoured diplomatic guest from a species that is prepared to put its trust in humanity so deeply they have agreed an exchange of wards.”
“Then it seems, by the twisted logic you trap me within, I must say the same at risk of seeming… dishonourable?”
No reply from the human delegates.
“Before this can happen, we must exchange medical information. Lest either ward fall ill. Lest one party or other be unable to eat. Your shipboard atmosphere is within a few per cent of ours. Your homeworld’s atmosphere is close enough.”
The preparations would take time. Papers had to be drawn up, a formal treaty. It had been decided by both parties that the fleets should not be informed until after it was signed.
The whole affair took hours. Hours during which, it was discovered to some surprise by Telena, Merell had rather enthusiastically proved there was no incompatibility in dietary needs between the two species. Her experience of shipboard life in efforts to stave off boredom had likely done more to convince Telena and Hawthorne both that this would work than all the disagreement over clauses and contracts.
Historians would say that it was quite likely that a potentially devastating war of conquest, and the fall of the entire human empire, was avoided primarily because both captains were so confused at the concept of making first contact that they were able to talk freely and without pretense. It was not a lesson that was widely repeated in military colleges on either homeworld.