Three years had gone by so quickly. And then four. Kutshife finished his gradual transformation, remapping his central nervous system to the 500 meter long, hydrodynamically sleek Meuuxmsrx shape, only to discover that five years had passed, and he had just barely begun to learn from the pod. Six years ago, he’d landed in this world-ocean. He’d first set out in his hominin shape, temporarily dressed in an insulating suit bearing gills, fins, and water jets.
He had swum into the cold dark for months, leaving its hollow shell in the whitecaps of an ocean storm, the water around it hissing and steaming from the heat, first of atmospheric entry, and later as it discharged waste heat to reconfigure itself into a streamlined pressure vessel. While Kutshife watched from underwater, he listened to the croaks, tweets, and booms of the the speech of the Meuuxmsrx, who had noticed the Contactor orbiting in the night sky above and, perhaps, his own arrival.
Even with the high-gain voice synthesizer, an array of thousands of underwater drones sampling Meuuxmsrx language, despite the growing database of vocabulary and grammar, and despite his budding understanding of this Meuuxmsrx pod’s linguistic system, he hadn’t been able to understand anything substantial of the beings with whom he’d made first contact. With every attempt at a conversation, he had gotten the sense that their answers were to questions other than those he’d asked. Nonetheless, he had made a friend, he supposed, whose voice the sensors could recognize in the dark deep. After a month, Kutshife had gained some confidence that the being’s name was Ahuuxnin, which he suspected was related to a word for a particular series of seasons. But even Ahuuxnin’s responses struck him as simultanously curt and pondrous. A simple dismissal or dead-end answer could take him hours or even days to receive, but leave him understanding little more than that he had inconvenienced Ahuuxnin with his questions. Sometimes, the answer songs would take so long, he had found it difficult to know when his notional friend had finished the sentence.
Their pace of life was so different that he finally decided to alter his limbic system just to perceive at their tidal speed of thought, and that change made little sense without giving himself the rest of the advantages of their body form. Only one other constituent of the Contactor, Rkntshezjr, had decided to self-modify so radically, and she was with another pod, seasonally circling a deep sea vent far away in the northern hemisphere of the planet. Kutshife and Rkntshezjr had mimicked the Meuuxmsrx body form as well as they could, asking advice and physiological questions of the Meuuxrsrx who took the time to compose an answer, but they found markers in the language for far more information than they could decode. Eventually, they discovered a Meuuxmsrx corpse and, after asking their pods about objections (to which they received little answer, but that “the dead would float and sink in their time”) saturated it with sensors and duplicated its functions to the best of their abilities, mapping the nervous, digestive/respiratory, and other systems onto their own bodies.
Kutshife heard his name crackle and hiss in the deep darkness of the world-ocean: another in his pod struggled through his strange name to explain that they had heard that the Contactor wished to talk with him. On the next northward migration, Kutshife decided, he would surface and broadcast what he had learned. When he arrived at a good spot for communication, he did so. He extended the antenna array from his dorsal ridge and startled at the volume of data his metacortex began to download from the Contactor: a vast amount of geophysical, physiological, meteorological, and xenoanthropological data, contextualized for study at his leisure.
Within the data lay an urgent message from the orbiting Contactor, followed by a thread of increasingly urgently worded missives, requesting his response: the Contactor’s window drew closer for either a return trip or a call for help, and they needed to know if he and Rkntshezjr needed help. The Contactor hoped not, and many wished the two participant-observers well, while friends and former lovers said that they missed them. A child, his child Genitshu, now grown into adolescence, had sent several pieces of art of increasing sophistication along with a preliminary paper describing her observations of Nneoaxx, the world that she had orbited for most of her life. He felt a pride grow in him, that she was progressing so quickly. She already looked so mature in the recording she sent, singing with her two friends before an enthusiastic audience 60 megameters above. He watched the recording again, slowing it down so he could see every moment of her performance.
It appeared that there was some urgency to the message. He resurfaced, extruded the antenna array from his dorsal ridge as he broke through the waves churned by the summer storm, pointed it northward to where he calculated the equatorial satellite array lay, and spoke.
“I do not need help, but have not yet decided to return to Earth.”
The response came instantly from Rn-Zjemea, the logistical genius who had first assembled this Contact: “We light the torch in 2.63 deciyears, Kutshife. Ukem tells me that it will take that long for you transform back and we don’t have the mass budget for your current form, never mind the water you would require. You mass a megagram, not counting the water you need to survive right now. This is your last moment. Please tell us your choice. Please get back to us. We’re running out of time. We need to light the engine.”
“Very well, I’ll get back to you shortly.”
He had done so much here. To leave now felt foolish, a waste of his research, and frankly a betrayal of his growing friendship with Ahuuxnin. But he missed his daughter and, now that he thought about it, his partner Tozjemu.
He reviewed his work. Could he leave it now? Could he draw conclusions about the Meuuxmsrx society, their technologies, their language, their art? He thought perhaps not. He did not know enough. Perhaps he should stay. He wondered if Genitshu would join him here, if she would want to join him by transforming her body as he had. He resolved to ask her to join him.
But when he surfaced into the biting cold air to send the message, he received a recording from Rn-Zjemea: “I apologize, Kutshife. We have to light the torch. We wish you well in your exploration. We will leave the satellite array in position for communication purposes. You will have another communication window in 22.6 years”
Kutshife felt a great melancholy, a rippling, gagging sensation starting in the rings of peristaltic muscles that comprised the core of his sleek, 500 meter long body. For a moment, he found it hard to swallow and he felt his body decelerate from drag of the water around him. As soon as the flow of oxygen to his brains slowed, he reflexively gupled, pushing ocean through his still-new body, jetting it out cleansed of oxygen and microscopic life. The gulp jolted him forward again.
He surfaced once more and transmitted a message to his daughter. “I apologize for my absence. I wish you could join me.” He pitched his body back, angling some of his ring of eyes into the air. As they refocused to see through the cold, harsh winter air, he could see the piercing white light of the Contactor engine, far brighter than any star, accelerating slowly toward the northern bound of the solar system. He dove back underwater to moisten his eyes and gulp some water through his body, and when he returned to the surface, the bright light had turned orange, the color of the spring sunset that had just passed. He understood now the frustration Ahuuxnin had felt with him. He had been moving so fast that he’d been unable to experience vast, wide vistas of reality. He had been unable to perceive the acceleration of the ship as it had left Earth or approached Nneoaxx, relying instead on graphs and numbers to assure him that their craft moved at all. But now, he could see the craft arching across the sky, deepening toward red as it sped away, a shift of color with every moment he experienced.
In his brief stay on Nneoaxx, Kutshife had not yet observed the reflex that he had experienced and resolved to discuss it with Rkntshezjr at his next opportunity to cross the equator. In the meantime, he asked his friend Ahuuxnin about it.
“We have many poems about this melancholy,” replied Ahuuxnin “and I will compose and sing for you another.”
“I await your poetry eagerly,” responded Kutshife.
Ahuuxnin responded, a harmonic of impatience in his tone, “Please be patient. This will take some time.”