Randy the tap-dancing rhino and his troupe of cockroaches want to wish you a happy . . . ewwww . . . well, maybe just Randy, then . . .
By Steven Ford ©2007
The infant had died in the loving embrace of its mother and father. After more than 60 years of desiccation and weathering, that much was still clear. The arid atmosphere had mummified all three bodies to form a grotesque sculpture in what must have been their sleeping room. As with all the other remains, there was no sign of suffering or violence.
Erin Kim traced a gloved hand along the infant's withered face, brushing away the sand as she went. Rows of needle-sharp teeth gleamed white through its brown, pebbled lips. Bony nodules were visible along its forehead, precursors of the intricate horns worn by its parents.
She rose slowly to her feet and wiped the sweat from her face. One billion dead. An entire race extinguished in a single act of self-destruction. Even after a month on Pi Mensae Prime, Erin still couldn't grasp the enormity of it.
Jason appeared in the doorway with two water bottles tucked into the waistband of his khaki shorts. He tossed one bottle to Erin and proceeded to open the other.
"I assume you heard the sonic boom?"
"Yep," Erin said as she flicked off the cap. "Sounds like the Dalen have arrived at last." She raised the bottle over her head and allowed the cool liquid to drizzle into her hair.
"You should follow my example," Jason said as he gestured toward his bald scalp. "This is a lot more comfortable on a hot planet than your black mop."
Erin shrugged. "As long as we're swapping advice, you need more sunscreen. Your cheeks look like they've been slapped fifty times apiece, which is probably not a bad idea. And with that pale flesh under your goggles, you look like a raccoon."
Jason smiled. " Touché. "
"How many Dalen came down? I heard they were sending an entire team."
"No. Just one Dalen. Their chief of archeology."
"That's odd," Erin muttered as she switched on her scanner. She held the scanner at arms length and waited as it probed the long-dead family, scanning their internal tissues and plotting the exact positions of the corpses. A chime signaled when the scan was complete.
"Have you ever met a Dalen?" Jason asked.
"Yes, once," Erin replied as she studied the scanner display. There were no surprises. Each body carried remnants of a synthetic neurotoxin, the same one detected in all the other corpses on the planet. Their global distribution was efficient to the end.
"Dalens are an acquired taste," Jason said as he recapped his bottle. "I met my first when I was a graduate student at Olympus Mons University. He or she, I was never really sure, reviewed my exobiology thesis. I got along with 'it' just fine...I think."
Erin slipped the scanner into her pants pocket and took a long draw from the water bottle. "That's the problem," she said. "You never really know what Dalens think of you. They're ciphers. They might despise humans for all we know."
"If that was true, they would never have made contact and never given us Jump technology. We'd still be puttering around the inner Solar System and wondering if we were alone in the Universe."
"That doesn't mean I have to cuddle up to them."
"No, but please don't give this particular Dalen a hard time."
Erin shook her head. "Don't worry Jason. I'll give him the grand tour. You can upload our files and he can go his merry way. The sooner the better."
"I guess that's the best I can hope for," Jason replied with a crooked smile. His watch chimed loudly. "It's show time."
The sleek Dalen shuttle hovered just above the ancient village center. Clouds of pinkish sand billowed as the thrusters screamed, softened, then stopped. The craft settled with a dull thud. Erin watched as the "chief of archeology" emerged from an oversized airlock.
The Dalen's six-legged gait was remarkably graceful, especially considering its massive size. Erin couldn't help but stare at the bands of color that rippled across its black exoskeleton. Swaths of iridescent green pulsed in its thorax, just above a metallic multipocketed belt. In one of the pockets, she could see the outlines of a scanner not unlike her own. Dangling nearby was an electronic translator.
Four multi-jointed appendages unfolded from beneath the Dalen's head as it approached. Each of these "arms" ended in six slender fingers.
Jason fumbled inside his shirt and switched on his translator pendant. Erin did the same.
The Dalen's mouthparts began to twitch. At first there was only the sound of staccato clicks. Within seconds, the translator massaged them into a smoothly modulated approximation of a human voice. The enunciation was perfect, but sound was flat and emotionless. "We are pleased to be in your presence. We are Kila, of the progeny of Gorn."
"I am Erin Kim, archeologist."
"I am Jason Stockbridge, archeology team leader."
"May we establish our familiarity?"
This was the part of the Dalen greeting that Erin dreaded the most. "Yes," she replied with a weak smile.
"Certainly," Jason answered.
Kila swiveled to face Erin, bowing forward with its compound eyes mere inches from her face. Feathery antennae first rested on the top of her head, then brushed across her neck, chest, abdomen and legs. Erin shuddered in spite of herself.
"Do we disturb you?" Kila asked.
"Yes, you do."
Kila seemed to process Erin's answer slowly. "Our sincere apologies," it said at last.
The Dalen pivoted its upper body to Jason and performed the same ritual. "We would like to be briefed on your work," Kila announced when it finished.
Jason stepped forward and smiled. "It would be my pleasure."
"No doubt you are the most experienced human at this site, but we would prefer to communicate with Erin Kim, if that is not a problem."
Erin shook her head. "I am really not--."
"I'm sure she would be thrilled," Jason interrupted. "Erin is quite knowledgeable. She was with the first team that arrived planetside."
Erin forced a smile. "Jason flatters me. Perhaps the best person for you to speak with is Alex Natanov. He is with the team that's exploring the large coastal city in the tropical zone. There is little here but desert and corpses."
"Perhaps," Kila replied, "But is this not the location of the transmitter they used to broadcast their message?"
"Yes, and we've explored it thoroughly. There isn't much that would interest you."
"That is a conclusion we would like to reach independently, your research notwithstanding."
Erin flushed. She glanced at Jason and saw him clasp his hands as if in prayer. He silently mouthed the word "please."
Erin flipped down her goggles and turned abruptly. "Follow me," she said.
They walked through the dusty streets in silence. The Dalen seemed to skip effortlessly over the sand drifts. At times it would skitter ahead, scan something of interest, then wait for Erin to catch up.
They emerged from the village gate just in time to see the shimmering orange disc of Pi Mensae sinking into what appeared to be an enormous crater. The rim towered a hundred meters above them with walls of upthrust rock that curved to the south and disappeared out of sight. "They certainly fashioned a most impressive parabolic reflector," Kila said suddenly. "The antenna is visible from orbit, but on the ground its true size is apparent."
Erin nodded and kept her eyes fixed on the pathway.
By the time they reached the squat building at the base of the antenna wall, Erin was drenched in sweat. She stood by the doorway and drained her water bottle in one continuous swallow. "You can probably just fit through this doorway," she said. "We think they used it to bring in the equipment."
Erin stepped into the gloom and switched on the portable lights. The Dalen followed, sweeping the room carefully with its antennae. Erin sat on a nearby power module and watched. Minutes passed as the Dalen used its antennae to probe the controls and displays.
"What is your sense of this place?" Kila finally asked.
Erin took a shallow breath. "Nothing more than the obvious. It's the transmitter control. Their broadcast was encoded and sent from here."
"Indeed. We presume you have analyzed the equipment."
"Yes. The technology is on par with 21st century Earth. We know that beneath this building they installed a high-power microwave amplifier. It's a huge traveling-wave-tube design operating in the gigawatt range, complete with an elaborate liquid cooling system. One of our technicians determined that the feedpoint of the antenna is designed for precise resonance on 1420.40575 MHz."
"I see. That is to be expected," Kila replied while continuing to probe. "Radiation from the precession of interstellar hydrogen is clearly heard in microwave receivers at that frequency. If the intent is to broadcast a signal most likely to attract notice at interstellar distances, that frequency would be an optimum choice."
Suddenly the Dalen turned to face Erin. "But why do you think these creatures expended so much energy on such a project?"
Erin jumped to her feet. Kila cocked its bulbous head as if in bemusement. "I'm not entirely sure," she said quickly. "LunaCom Labs has been trying to decipher the Mensae language since they began receiving the broadcast six months ago. I've made some progress here, but it raises more questions than answers."
"Indeed," Kila said as it moved closer. Erin stepped backward. "The matter of their language intrigues us. Tell us more."
Erin sidestepped and pointed to a nearby switch panel. "Well, their transmission is mostly composed of a long stream of digital data. LunaCom says it probably missed a portion of the first stream, but now the information is repeating. They think the transmission contains the Mensae equivalent of an encyclopedia-the sum of all their knowledge. LunaCom offered to share a copy of the data with Dalen, but I guess you declined."
"Yes. We have followed the LunaCom progress reports nonetheless."
"Of course," Erin replied with a brittle laugh. "Look, I'm just wasting your time with all-"
"No. Please resume. It is helpful to hear the progress from your perspective."
Erin frowned and continued. "The digital information is interleaved with a number of analog images. There are pictures of Mensae of various ages and sexes. There are also pictographic symbols. The two symbols that keep repeating are two vertical lines intersected by a broad curving line near the top, and another that looks like two stylized Xs arranged vertically."
"Yes, this is known to us also. We sense that you have come to an interesting interpretation, however. Continue."
Erin pointed to a row of switches. "Well, I've seen variations of these symbols everywhere on the planet. Look at these switches. Can you see them?"
"Yes, we can see them."
"Two vertical lines intersected by a line that curves, although not quite as sharply."
"Are you suggesting a parallel meaning?"
"Well, yes" Erin said as she drew another hurried breath. "We've determined that these switches control the cooling pumps. If a switch is turned in the direction of the symbol, power to one of the pumps would be interrupted. The pump would stop functioning. I believe the symbol means 'OFF'."
"Yes. Or something like it. Off. Cease functioning. Stop."
"That is a logical conclusion. And?"
Erin inched around the Dalen toward open doorway. She pointed to a solitary platform in the center of room. On the platform there was a gleaming metallic column topped with small panel and a switch similar to the others.
"That switch is marked with what seems to be a reverse configuration of the same symbol. See how the intersecting line appears along the bottom rather than the top?"
"Do you mean 'ON'?"
"I think so, but I'm not certain."
"We understand. Have you operated this switch?"
"Yes. Nothing happened. It's connected to an independent power supply, along with what seems to be a low-frequency transmitter. We think that the power supply was damaged several years ago by a lightning strike."
Kila stepped forward again. "Such a strange device. Can you suggest a purpose?"
"No, but we think that whatever this is, it was intentionally left functional. All the other power generation, everywhere on the planet, was shut down."
"Fascinating. Perhaps we can help you re-"
Erin shook her head. "Kila, Pi Mensae is about to set and I didn't bring a portalight. I think should return to the village."
Kila regarded her for what seemed like several minutes. "Of course," it said at last.
Erin bolted through the doorway and began walking without looking back. She could hear the Dalen following close behind. Its long shadow flickered across the dunes in the fading light. Erin quickened her pace and said nothing.
Erin sat atop the dune with her bare feet buried in warm sand. In the distance the great antenna was a black specter blotting out the twilight stars along the horizon. She closed her eyes and savored a cool breeze that gently ruffled her hair. The aroma spoke of profound dryness...and death.
Her meditation was interrupted by the sounds of Jason's boots crunching their way up the slope. Jason reached the crest and bent over with his hands on his knees. "I need to get in better shape," he gasped. "I'm getting too old for this."
"That's what you get for spending most of your life on Mars," Erin replied.
"Are you waiting for Sol to rise?" he asked.
"Yeah. It's hard to pick out among the other stars. I'm designing my own Mensae constellations based on my favorite foods. That'll help."
Jason chuckled as he sat beside her. "Speaking of food, Kila is taking its evening nourishment. That's something I don't care to watch."
"I don't blame you. Did Kila tell you that we spent some time poking around the transmitter building?"
"Uh-huh. I really appreciate it, Erin. I know it wasn't easy."
Erin shook her head. "I don't dislike Kila, really. The Dalens seem harmless enough, but I can't get past their . . . nonhumanness . When I look at Kila, all I see is an 8-foot-tall praying mantis. At least with the Mensae I can feel a kind of kinship."
"Because they were humanoid?"
"Not just that. From everything I've seen, the Mensae were very much like us. The seemed to have human-like relationships. It's reflected in their art."
"But how do you explain why they would suddenly decide to exterminate themselves? And why did they feel the need to blast their suicide announcement throughout the galaxy? By any reasonable human standard, it's madness."
Erin rested her chin on her hands. "I don't know. I can't find a logic tree with a branch that leads anywhere sane. You know, my father killed himself when I was 12 years old. He had an inoperable brain tumor. With his strong religious faith, I assumed he would let life take its course and put everything in God's hands. But one day he decided to step in front of a maglev train outside Worcester. My mother found a note at home that read 'The substance of things hoped for, the evidence for things unseen. Eternal hope awaits.' I never understood that, and I never forgave him. One day he was my father, sick as he was. The next day he was a corpse."
"I'm sorry," Jason replied.
"Don't be. My mother carried on and raised me pretty well, I think. Hey, I made it into exoarcheology, didn't I?"
"And here you sit, 60 light years from Earth. Very few humans can lay claim to that," Jason said with a grin.
Erin nodded. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but something about this place is getting to me, Jason."
"Death on a planetary scale can be-"
"No, not the death. The senselessness of it."
"Not every riddle has a solution. Just like your father. Just like the Dalen."
Erin began to speak, but Jason was already getting to his feet.
"Look," he began, "I'm going grab something to eat and then I'll be watching a holo in the lab shelter. It's a comedy, probably just what you need."
"Maybe I'll join you."
"Don't be long," Jason called out as he made his descent.
Erin searched the western horizon and finally found a pinpoint of light creeping above the antenna feedpoint. Erin brought her heels together three times beneath the sand, "There's no place like home," she whispered.
A shadow fell over her, obscuring the perimeter lights. Erin laughed. "Jason, I think you-"
"May we-," a toneless voice began.
"Jesus!" Erin cried. She scrambled to her feet and instantly slipped on the loose sand. A six-fingered hand shot out of the darkness and firmly gripped her forearm, effortlessly pulling her upright.
"Our apologies," Kila said as it released her. "We did not intend to frighten you."
Erin shook the sand from her shirt and forced a laugh. "Humans frighten easily. It's not a problem. I was just leaving."
"Why do you come here?" Kila asked.
"To be by myself. To think."
"Dalen never think by ourselves. Each Dalen contains the knowledge of all Dalen. In this sense, we are never by ourselves."
"I guess that's the advantage of a hive mentality, " Erin said as she reached for her boots.
"You dislike us." The bluntness of the statement caught Erin by surprise. She froze, clutching her boots at her side.
"Kila, there are things about Dalen I do not understand. That lack of understanding causes distrust. This is not the same as dislike."
"If there is something you do not understand, why do you not ask?"
Erin opened her mouth, but said nothing.
"Ah...okay. How about starting with the question of why you are here," Erin said.
The Dalen seemed to mimic a human shrug. "To gain insight from your research. To understand what happened in this place."
Erin frowned. "Everything I've transcribed has already been uploaded to your ship."
"But we wish to understand more. There is something unique about the human personality in general and your personality in particular. It is entangled with this planet in a way we do not comprehend."
"Really? Well, you know, Kila, there are things about this investigation that I don't quite comprehend. For example, why didn't the Dalen arrive here before us? Why are we the advance troops in this expedition? The Dalen homeworld is much closer than Earth. You should have received the Mensae signal well before we did."
Kila's mouthparts worked furiously. "Untranslatable," the translator intoned.
"What?" Erin asked.
"The beam of electromagnetic energy projected from this antenna was quite narrow. Your lunar receiving station was fortunate to discover it. Dalen was not as fortunate."
"But our Jump Probe at Sigma Draconis just reported the end of the transmission. That means the beam has been sweeping through the galaxy for at least 18 Earth years. It's hard to imagine how superior Dalen technology could have missed it."
Kila rose to its full height and folded its arms beneath its head. "We did not detect the signal."
"Okay," Erin replied as she began making her way down the slope. "I guess I am all out of questions for now."
"Then you have a better understanding?" Kila asked.
"No, but that's okay, too."
Erin emerged from the mess tent, still chewing the stale remains of a cinnamon bagel. Pi Mensae was already well above the mountains and she walked directly into a shaft of its brilliant orange-yellow light as she crossed the square. Cursing softly, she lowered her goggles.
Jason came around the other side of the mess tent at a trot, carrying a tripod and a holo imager across his shoulders. "Howdy, ma'am! Ain't it a beautiful morning?"
"Please shut up. I'm begging you."
"Bad night?" Jason asked as he paused beside her.
"Uh-huh. Hardly slept. Where's the bug?"
Jason sighed. "The Dalen Chief of Archeology is at the transmitter. He's been there since dawn."
"Sorry, Jason. I'll go look in on him."
Jason did a mock bow. "And a good day to you, Ms Kim."
Erin shook her head and made an obscene gesture.
She was 10 meters from the transmitter building when she saw a dazzling burst of blue-white light accompanied by a loud pop. Erin rushed to the doorway, muttering under her breath. The air was heavy with the stench of ozone.
She cautiously peered into the room and found Kila astride the center platform, wildly juggling a tangle of wiring. "Untranslatable! Untranslatable!" Erin's pendant barked.
"Are you okay?" she called.
"We are nominal. A minor setback, but we have identified the error."
Erin edged closer. "Can I help?"
The Dalen stopped with its arms in mid-air.
"You may not. Your help is not required." Even through the translator it sounded sharp.
Erin watched as the Dalen resumed its mad dance. One by one the wires seemed to untangle and fall away. Kila produced a silver tube from its belt and gently probed a dangling circuit. A ribbon of smoke curled to the ceiling.
"There," Kila announced. "The correct connection has been made. You have arrived at an opportune time, Erin Kim."
"Yes. We have repaired the low-frequency transmitter power supply by substituting one of Dalen design. We believe the Mensae unit will function now. We believe that it generates a powerful local field of modulated energy within a frequency range of 2 to 10 hertz."
"That's remarkable," Erin said as she approached the platform. "Have you discovered what it does?"
"Something . . . biological. The frequency range is one we have encountered before in biological systems."
Erin paused with her hand on the miniature switch panel. "That sounds promising--and dangerous."
"We were hoping that you would test it."
"What?" Erin cried out with a laugh. "I don't think so, Kila. This is clearly your project." She stepped back, but the Dalen nudged her forward.
"We cannot what? Risk our lives?" Erin turned and shoved Kila's arms away.
"It is important for our knowledge, Erin Kim. It is absolutely critical."
Erin narrowed her eyes and nodded. "If it is so important, then you test it."
Kila lowered its head. Its arms hung motionless. "We...cannot. Great danger, we believe, to us. However, we must know the answer."
"The answer to what?"
"The answer to...untranslatable...the answer to why. We believe our neural chemistry is too dissimilar for this device to connect with our consciousness. However, human neural networks should be...receptive."
Erin felt her skin prickling. "You mean this is a some kind of neural transmitter?"
"Yes. When language cannot be quickly bridged, direct induction into the neural pathways would be effective. The Mensae must have understood this."
Kila gestured to a dark vertical patch immediately to the right of the switch. "We believe that is a tuning control. The frequency of the transmitter can probably be changed to accommodate various brain patterns. The surface is sensitive to touch. "
Erin gently traced the patch with her index finger. It felt smooth and cold. "So they expected visitors," she whispered. "Non-Mensae visitors."
At that moment a gust of wind stirred the sand at her feet. Erin licked her lips and wished she had remembered to bring her water bottle.
"You know, the sensible thing for me to do is to return to base and report everything to the Dalen/Terran Council. They'll send another team to test this device, step by logical step. I'll receive my accolades back on Earth and everyone will be happy."
"But you would not be pleased with such an outcome," Kila said.
Erin smiled. "You're right. I've always felt that sensible approaches aren't always the most satisfying. I guess that concept is unfathomable to Dalen."
"You are correct. The ability to take irrational action is your advantage as a human."
Erin laughed as she turned back to the switch. "Maybe so, but I sense a tiny spark of individualism in you, Kila. It has you in conflict. You always speak in third person, but I think there is a first-person Kila that is just as curious about this device as I am."
This time Kila did not respond. Erin drew a deep breath and reached for the switch. "For the greater glory of new discovery," she whispered.
The Dalen power supply hummed, but nothing happened. Erin placed her index finger on the tuning strip and slowly inched it upward. When she reached the halfway point, she began to feel lightheaded.
"I feel strange," she called out. Erin moved her finger another millimeter and the room seemed to waver as if she were looking through distorted glass. The gray walls vanished and she found herself standing at the outskirts of a Mensae city. She recognized the distant spires as a city she had visited on a continent in the western hemisphere. Pi Mensae was directly overhead, blazing fiercely.
Hearing the sound of footsteps, Erin turned slowly. A tall Mensae individual was approaching. Its intricate horns gleamed above blacker-than-black eyes. Its chest and leg muscles rippled beneath pebbled skin as it walked with long, confident strides. The Mensae stopped a meter away and began speaking in a series of grunts.
Erin's throat tightened. The being was alien, yet somehow familiar. "I don't understand," she said.
The Mensae pointed to its sun with a three-fingered hand, then crouched and pulled up a handful of dried, withered grass. It held out the brittle leaves as if pleading. A translucent image appeared in the space between them. It showed Pi Mensae with lines that Erin recognized as light spectra. As she watched, the ultraviolet lines grew larger.
"Your planet was becoming uninhabitable for you. I understand. But couldn't you-"
The Mensae abruptly vanished and Erin found herself standing in the middle of the parabolic antenna. A sea of Mensae adults, children and infants surrounded her. One of the adults stepped forward and held out its arm. It produced something that looked like a syringe and inserted it into its flesh. Red liquid oozed into the vial, reaching the top and overflowing. Droplets scattered into the air, transforming into the double Xs Erin had seen before. One symbol joined to another, producing snake-like strings that seemed to dance and vibrate. Similar strings arose from everyone she could see, filling the sky with an enormous column of interleaving Xs that gently floated up to the stars.
Erin cried out. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Not language. The transmission is not language at all. The double Xs are a double helix . It's genetic code!"
The vision suddenly winked out of existence. She was back in the transmitter room.
"Erin, are you nominal? Are you injured?"
Erin grasped the platform railing with one hand and wiped her tears with the other. "I'm as nominal as can be expected, Kila."
"I...we...have excitement. What did you discover? You appeared to be in a trance."
"A dream," Erin said with a sigh. "I was in a dream. The data stream the Mensae transmitted isn't a knowledge base. I think it's the digitally encoded DNA pattern of every Mensae. They beamed their DNA information into space."
"Because the ultraviolet radiation from Pi Mensae is increasing. This world is slowly being sterilized. The Mensae must have known what was happening, and where it would lead. They weren't spacefaring, so they preserved a legacy the only way they could."
"But why did they not continue to live out their lives? The Mensae could have moved underground."
"I don't know. Perhaps it was what we humans call a 'quality of life' issue. Maybe they looked into the future and saw only suffering."
"Senseless," her translator barked. "Senseless."
Erin smiled. "You're wrong. Actually, it was... beautiful in a way I can't completely describe. Faced with certain death, they sent their essence into the universe in the hope that someone, somewhere, would receive and understand. Maybe they thought an advanced civilization might bring them back to life in some fashion, I don't know. What I do know is that they all leapt into the abyss with nothing more than hope to carry them. What remarkable beings!"
Kila shuddered and stepped away. "This is a dangerous thought pattern. One that I...we...must not dwell upon deeply. Rational suicide. The consequences to the hive are too terrible to contemplate."
"No doubt. What one Dalen knows, all Dalen know, right? Consider yourself lucky that you didn't share what I just experienced."
The Dalen didn't respond. Almost a minute passed with only the hum of the power supply resonating within the room. Erin reached for one of Kila's arms and touched a motionless fingertip. "Are you alright? What's wrong?"
Kila collapsed. Its carapace slammed to the floor with a sharp crack. "Kila!" Erin cried. She reached for her emergency radio, but one of the Dalen's hands intervened, clutching her wrist with a vice-like grip.
"No," Kila said.
"I need to call the base. You're sick."
"Sick in spirit only. I have great shame, Erin Kim."
"I have great shame? Don't you mean we?"
"The shame I feel is...personal. Whether it will extend throughout the hive remains to be seen."
"What are you talking about?"
Kila paused and seemed to tremble. "It doesn't matter now. This experiment is at an end."
"What? You mean this--"
"You...all humans...were deceived. We did receive the Mensae transmission before it reached Earth. Our scientists sent a Jump Probe to the Pi Mensae system within days after we discovered the signal. It followed the signal to this planet and we were horrified at what it showed us.
"As it surveyed the planet, the probe detected the electromagnetic signature of the neural communicator and we soon guessed its function-and the possible message it carried. We reacted with fear. The possibility that the experience of rational self-destruction could be directly communicated, that it could find its way into the Dalen consciousness, was unacceptable. Reception was terminated. All our stored information was erased and the probe was commanded to send a high-voltage pulse to disable the communicator.
"But our curiosity remained great. Throughout the hive, there was...hunger. The concept of suicide is unknown to us. We became desperate to find a means to obtain an answer to this maddening puzzle without endangering Dalen."
Erin nodded slowly. "And that is where humans came into play."
"Yes. We had been studying humans for years, waiting for the proper moment to establish contact. Many in our scientific community felt that the singular nature of the human mind would allow the complete truth to be discovered without your entire species being placed at risk. We made contact in the hope that humans would eventually receive the Mensae transmission and become as curious as we were."
Erin laughed and shook her head. "Why weren't the Dalen honest from the beginning? What was the point?"
"We wished to study the human response to the Mensae incident. It had to be a pure response, untainted by prior knowledge. The situation presented an incredible opportunity to solve a dangerous mystery and at the same time study how the revelation would effect a civilization of similar composition to the Mensae. We thought perhaps we could interpret all of these events--"
"At a safe clinical distance," Erin snapped. "This was an interstellar psych class experiment."
Kila paused, then continued. "When the Terran/Dalen Council assembled the human team for Pi Mensae, we studied your psychological profile and your work, Erin Kim. Of all humans assigned to Pi Mensae, you were the most...predisposed...for success, considering your father's--."
"Of course," Erin replied as she stepped from the platform. She gazed at the room as if seeing it for the first time. "You know, I always thought it was a phenomenal stroke of luck that the Dalen established contact with Earth just a couple of years before the Mensae signal reached us. Isn't that something? Your Jump ships allowed us to go right to the source. I suppose I should thank you, but..."
Kila stood motionless and silent. Erin slipped on her goggles and walked to the door.
"What will you do with the DNA information?" Kila asked as it hurried after her.
"I won't do a thing. On Earth we've been able to resurrect some ancient animals we call 'dinosaurs' using reptile embryos and DNA synthesis. Perhaps the same can be done for some of the Mensae. At least I hope so."
Erin stepped back into the late-morning glare of Pi Mensae. She stared at the wall of the giant antenna as a whirlwind carried a spiral column of dust into the pale blue sky. Kila's antenna brushed her arm. She recoiled with a shudder.
"Where will you go now?" it asked.
"Back to the village. I have a long report to transcribe. I want to do a good job, Kila. The Dalen have gone to a great deal of trouble and I want to make sure they get an A+ on their lab paper. It will be fascinating reading for the Terran Science Council as well. Tell your brethren that the 'human response' to Dalen duplicity is likely to be a bit more negative than they probably anticipated. Another juicy subject for Dalen analysis, I'm sure.
"After that... well...a month on Pi Mensae Prime is long enough. I'll rotate back to Earth in a week. I need to go home to my 'species,' Kila. And I need to visit my father's grave."
"To remember? To reflect?" Kila asked eagerly with his recording scanner extended to her.
Erin looked directly into the probe. "To forgive," she replied.
x x x
This story put me in mind of several "guilty pleasure" entertainments: the so-bad-it's good Heinlein film "Starship Troopers" (the first one; even I couldn't like the second one) and my favorite space soap opera "Babylon Five." Smart bugs have always fascinated and repelled me. Nothing repellant about this story, though. At least, that's my opinion. I await yours with baited (with bugs) breath. -GM