We had gotten used to small groups of aliens from closer systems gawking at the tourist attractions. To the dismay of the Public Co-ordinators the range of attractions covered almost everything on Earth. The Meenites, from a water planet, were fascinated with solid ground, and would spend weeks twittering in near hysteria just walking about (perhaps snaking about would be more accurate) in the APCS receiving station. The tall, beaked Stagmites, on the other hand, were insatiable bird-watchers and led the unfortunate Co-ordinators through endless swamps and woodlots on an enthusiastic search for the missing link between Stagma and Earth.
The Silusians, however, had made themselves as unobtrusive as possible; and the Earth representatives whose job it was to make them officially welcome had quickly become accustomed or resigned to their ways. Once they had been persuaded of the disturbing effect of constantly shifting body shapes, sizes and composition - as natural a form of expression on Silus as an Earth sigh or smile - the visitors had attempted to restrain themselves. They had even graciously assumed passable humanoid form on all public occasions. This afforded much relief to the Public Co-ordinators and, indeed, lessened the cross-cultural strain for all of us who dealt with them.
As for the Silusians, I understand that it was a source of only minor discomfort, no more onerous than our enforced restraint on the subject of eating - or ingesting sentient beings for sustenance, as the Silusians would say it, if they could bring themselves to mention it at all. The idea was so repugnant to our visitors that a valuable day was lost when the first - and last - official welcoming banquet ended in massive embarrassment before it had gotten past the shrimp hors d'oeuvres. Four Silusians had to return to their ship for re-training sessions upon learning that the purpose of the gathering was not to communicate with, but rather to eat, a number of other-than-humanoid sentients, who had first been subjected to extreme heat, steam and other unthinkable processes until they were dead.
Fear of ingestion runs a strong thread through Silusian culture - a subject I was particularly directed to research in my position as contact anthropologist with APCS. The Allied Peace and Control System is in charge of most aspects of the Earth's extraterrestrial contacts. For reasons economic, political, moral, or out of abject fear (depending on the analyst) APCS has found it necessary - for perhaps the first time in Earth history - to deal with aliens in their own terms. The consequent need to find out something about them and to at least partially understand them has provided employment for a good number of lay and professional anthropologists - a core of full-time workers supplemented with on-call professionals such as myself.
It was in this capacity that I found myself at a Controller's Conference in the third week of the Silusian visit. The conference, organized by APCS, was heavily attended by governmental/military figures and by the full complement of Silusians. The latter were apparently listening to the interminable speeches with grave attention - their faces composed in appropriate expressions of dignity and intelligent interest.
On my right, Roger Sweetzer glanced at the Silusians and gave an envious snort, "Easy if you're plastic," he muttered. Roger himself was slouched in his imitation Peruvian leather chair in a markedly less successful attempt at looking dignified and attentive.
"Polymorph," I replied absently, "not plastic." I was using my official APCS conference pen - a masterpiece of gold-plated 23rd century efficiency - to total on my official APCS pad the various appearances of the Silusian chief ambassador over the twenty or so photos and newsclips I had researched. While the Silusians were perfectly willing to look humanoid for us, the sensibleness of appearing in the same body and shape from one meeting to the next was, as yet, lost on them. For this occasion, for instance, the mission appeared to be composed completely of prosperous, middle-aged businessmen. Grey suits, grey faces, sober, a little overweight. An exception was provided by a rather alarmingly benevolent Abraham Lincoln look-alike whose shining copper visage kept attracting nervous glances from the brass on our side. The Museum of Ancient Currency had been featured on the previous day's tour and the impression had obviously lingered.
"We have in these times of greater hope than has before been known in the annals of the history of our esteemed and incorruptible..."
General Edless was droning on in this vein, and I had compiled an impressive list of eighteen distinctly separable images for Commander Zutahi when I felt a tickling sensation; a kind of prickly awareness somewhere in the vicinity of the back of my neck. As I focused curiously, trying to decide if it was outside or inside my head, a flush of warm amusement replaced it. I blinked, dismissed the sensation as incipient fantasy born of extreme boredom, glanced around to see if anyone had noticed my start of surprise, and heard it again. No, not heard it - it was felt, simply there, warm, friendly, expansive - but ego-directed. Alien.
"Ahhh, seleen? Ah . . . caspintiaire?" a hesitant, sibilant voice spoke politely. After a pause, "Ah, docthor caspintiaire? Thulio, this is her, iss this right?"
I checked my impulse to turn my head to locate a speaker, frowning at my certainty that the speaker was somehow more, interior. For a moment, wild explanations played tag with each other, nothing sensible emerging to still the whirl of confusion.
"Oh," I thought at last, my anthropological training marching in to fill the gap where common sense was floundering, "Telepathy. Initial contact with alien species. Someone in the Silusian delegation is talking to me!" Rather startled still, despite my sensible explanation, I looked furtively around again. The glazed or attentive looks of the other APCS members seemed genuine. Roger was asleep on one side of me, and Barbara Owalu was staring fixedly at a young lieutenant on the speakers' stand. I seemed to be the only one so addressed.
I hardly knew a proper reply to an interior greeting and, in fact, still knew next to nothing firsthand about the Silusians. I had been hauled back from the field at the last moment, a fact I was still busy resenting. I decided to wing it, merely acknowledging the presence and waiting for something to happen next. Taking a breath, I ventured in what I imagined might be directional thinking: "Dr. Carpenter, yes, Celine Carpenter." A vast amused consciousness bounded into my thoughts, not unmixed with relief.
"Thulio," the voice said jubilantly.
"Celine," I responded, feeling idiotically pleased at the good start I was making at conversing with myself.
After that initiatory exchange, words more or less ceased. A most natural prescience - a sense of fully meaningful musical phrases perhaps - filled my head. A kind of questioning and answering then ensued, as clumsy as any I have experienced in twenty years of fieldwork among a variety of linguistic groups. Carefully phrased sentences were only answered with a confused tangle of hesitant meaning. In turn, I would receive phrases and words only after a musical phrase of meaning had left me helpless - stabbing at a response. Nevertheless, it was all somehow great fun. I don't remember what information was passed but the goodwill certainly made up for the lack of precision. A sharp jab recalled me to Roger's presence as he poked me to demand in a plaintive whisper, "What the hell's so funny?"
I must have gaped at him blankly, because he was saying to me as chairs scraped back and voices rose around me, "You kept chortling over there. Lord, I thought you were going to burst out laughing during the Chancellor's closing prayer." I giggled helplessly, and croaked, "I'll tell you about it... uh, later." I felt caught in an amazed space between the wordless dialogue in my head and the familiar reality of the noisy auditorium. As both began to waver into unreality, I realized that I needed some space and quiet to get my feet back down again somewhere. Muttering leavetakings to Roger, and in a thought sense, to the presumed Silusian, Thulio, I jostled my way through the crowd and outside.
Much later that night, after a steadying supper of peanut butter and wheat crackers (still on field rations, I had noted sourly) and an hour or so of work on one of the three reports I was expected to produce from my interrupted fieldwork, I leaned back in my office chair, and put my feet up. The halls were quiet, some night bird called once outside. Unaccountably I found myself recalling one of my first field projects. A small band, hanging on tenaciously to their desert community against all odds. I was there to help ease them into the urban sprawl - and out of the location a developer had chosen for a Controllers' Rec Complex. We had shared a sense of the wrongness and of the futility of the situation and a certain bleak humor. And, inevitably, our tenuous friendships had splintered as Anda, and Bot and his kids, had turned their souls' efforts into becoming other people. I had tried to share my knowledge to ease the exile; they tried to survive. Old Anda had simply died, far out on the Saguaro plains. Jenny Pollack had been terribly upset. Considered it a major failure of the project. My friendship with my co-worker had gotten lost somewhere, too, I realized. She's doing a project in Melanesia, I thought, or is it Arrak? But really, who cares?
Restlessly, I turned my thoughts toward the unknown Silusian - and received a startlingly immediate awareness. A pervasive sense of polite reticence, with an underlying air of joyful expectation. Quite disarming. My reservations seemed suddenly pointless - surely I knew my own mind well enough to recognize thought not my own, and besides, a newspaper article had caught my eye at supper which claimed for the Silusians, among other things, telepathy and a highly developed sense of humor. I decided that these two indisputable facts warranted belief - and received an appreciative laugh in response and a sense of the Silusian's own trepidations at contacting an alien for the first time.
That evening turned into dawn effortlessly and unnoticed as we exchanged information, opinions and questions, and learned gradually to un-pidgin our communication. The process was surprisingly quick, almost practiced. I became aware, gradually, that I was communicating with my counterpart on the Silusian mission. The Silusian sense of individual identity is well-developed, in contrast to several other well-known telepathic cultures - especially interesting given their lack of somatic identity. "Thulio" indeed was one of the only thoughts which were as definite and delimited as a word is for us, and came through quite clearly as a stable complex of personality, skills, and personal history. Thulio's training and his position in the mission was as contact person - a galactic ethnographer. He had been seeking out several relevant members of our contact culture in the telepathic sense as part of his mission duties. Although the Silusians had adopted humanoid speech with their humanoid bodies with a facility we still do not fully understand, and communicated with us in that mode, it was their expectation that communication in the future would be telepathic. Much more practical as it does not respect the vast distances of space as bodies do. It was one of Thulio's tasks to begin training a number of APCS members to serve as liaison and facilitators.
I, however, had come somewhat accidentally into Thulio's sphere. Something about my thoughts at the conference had drawn him - I got the sense that I was the only one there whose ruminations on the Ambassador's changing appearance were oriented to their funny aspects.
Over the next several weeks we shared professional experiences, as well as masses of technical data. I went over all the latest Earth theories on social order, the variety of belief systems still extant on the planet, and my own North Hemisphere, female, representative and idiosyncratic, set of world knowledge. Thulio shared data on the far more homogenous Silusian culture - a planet united by an energetic, heavily bonded culture. The feeling I experienced from Thulio at these points in our discussions - one of separation, yearning - was curiously tempered by an emotion I recognized with a shock as one I shared. Over a professional career spent largely "in the field," Thulio had simply seen too much of the universe, as I had seen too much of my planet. The unthinking comforts of home were tinged with doubt, and a doubt that could not be shared with those at home. For us, even as we moved easily in our home worlds, or preserved habitual ways away from home, there was always the presence of so many others whose thoughts were different, whose lives centered on different planes, whose unthinking comforts were not-ours. In the last analysis, not much was left to us but a sort of lingering belief in the believability of just about anything. For a moment I shared the consciousness of a lonely knowledge spread over a globe with one shared across light-years of universe.
We indulged voracious curiosities about the others' professional data. We raced through the accumulated knowledge of years of fieldwork. The telepathic mode made me want to laugh and cry. It was so fast - so comprehensive - and had to be translated back into halting, inadequate words to be useful to myself and my colleagues. I would "talk" with Thulio for hours, break off to unscramble notes, dictate reams into the tape recorder, hope for money to pay a transcriber. Thulio's periodic absences on ambassadorial duties and my own rather limited social duties allowed us time off. We would review, snag spare moments to prepare questions and directions to explore at our next session. I found myself waiting for the slight shock of connection that initiated our talks with a sense of anticipation, of meeting.
Colleagues and friends knew me to be at work with a Silusian informant, and though they were professionally curious, the mission had succeeded in delegating itself to second page news, and I was not deluged with curiosity-seekers wanting to know what they were really like. They were, in fact, similar to Earth dwelling humans in their conception of reality. A manipulative intelligence, a time sense (though more in the form considered in some of Toyo's latest work with the Venusian colonists than the operating usages of most of Earthkind) and, surprisingly, a similar sense of objects. The Silusians seemed as kin to us as any except the nearest and probably co-derivative extraterrestrials. The many fascinating, yet by and large comprehensible differences provided Thulio and I hours of discussion. Our own relationship provided a constant course of pleasurable speculation for both of us - bolstered by other reported contacts that were taking place during the mission's stay. I had, for instance, imbued Thulio with a male gender on most occasions, a fact he found amusing as well as interesting.
We spent one entire afternoon ruminating on the influence of bodies on identity and social communication and in recounting funny stories about encounters between Earth humans and Silusians in various somatic states. We found separately that these stories were notoriously un-funny to our respective colleagues.
After the mission's stay had passed about two thirds of its allotment, I was sitting more or less idly in my office one morning, my thoughts touching on absent friends, and particularly old lovers. Thulio came somewhat surprisingly into my presence. Some connection had been made in my thoughts. He sent a message of curiosity, rather as though his head were tilted to one side: 'How do I come to be here?' I returned a sense of rueful amusement - and an explanation which might be expressed in words such as: "Ours is certainly a species oriented culture. I have mentioned the feelings of empathy between humans - and how at sufficient strength, when the highest level of closeness is achieved, they modulate almost inevitably into a desire for sexual closeness. Even in such an unlikely relationship as ours. . . " I began to feel confused, somewhat abashed at this confession. "We are, of course, hardly fit for species extension, let alone sexual intercourse, but, ah, the culturally given impulse retains its strength ... I hardly expect you to understand, to empathize with such a somatic symbol..."
In response, a rush of warmth burst over me. I teetered a moment in an overwhelming wave - and retreated, in confusion. Tears came to my eyes. Unwilling to weep, I clasped my head in my hands and waited desperately for a measure of quiet to return. A faint contriteness hovered behind my confusion, and a feeling of suspension. And suddenly, through my marshalled defenses came the conviction that the contriteness was on the edge of regret, that in seconds perhaps something unutterably precious would be gone beyond recalling. A rush of certainty brought my tears forth. Hesitation gone, fears irrelevant, I turned open my mind. Utterly vulnerable to this other, utterly joyful, utterly welcoming. Every nerve in my body sang in response to his answering.
Yearning and loneliness were there - swallowed by communion. The pleasures of thought and analysis and search were there - and transcended. Then we were dumb together for moment - and the feeling ebbed, became a steady flow, a current of shared consciousness, and unutterably deep gladness.
And thus it has remained. I have my earthly friendships, deep and casual, my sexual communings, my excitements with the intellectual dialogue. And I have this being - this Thulio - and we go our separate ways in the universe - as fellow travelers.