Base Ten

by Ian Cordingley


“Come on.”

Nothing.

Curtis drummed his fingers. “Come on.”

Nothing yet, so he tapped a few keys, altering the scenario, hopefully taking it down a few levels. Nothing yet. Perhaps the subject was unaware of the change. It was hard to know for certain, seeing how limited its experience with nonhumans had been.

Well, Curtis was patient. He’d come this far. He could wait a little longer.

His subject — the alien — was still fumbling with the interface. It was pecking. The screen was touch-sensitive. Its display was visible into ultraviolet and infrared. And there was the audio prompt, reaching into frequencies unknown to the human ear.

Curtis hedged his bets. Maybe I could...

A blip. A tiny little speck appeared in the middle of Curtis’s monitor, a little red dot. Maybe nothing, maybe he was finally going somewhere.

Curtis sat up. He watched the subject gingerly fiddle with the screen. One peck after another, rhythmically and direct. Vindication.

This was a basic geometry lesson. Feeding in simple shapes and colours, the basic rules. Hopefully it would understand. Perhaps not the smartest plan, equal to randomly plucking a stranger from any street and tormenting it with higher math.

He had been gentle. His subject had almost been willing, or at least very curious. Eyes that were black and deep, and seldom focused on his, apparently taking in the world with a passive interest.

But the results showed at least this one, out of all of his species, was intelligent.

A few more specks formed a line. “Yes,” Curtis said, leaning forward in his seat.

After an hour of “briefing” he had attempted to encourage it to complete a basic equation. Trigonometry. Basic math rules the same the universe over.

And it seemed to understand — differently, but understanding what Curtis hoped were the base concepts.

The dots and specks began to orient themselves the way he hoped they would. A quick translation revealed that, yes, there was a logical thought process.

A whole triangle formed, exactly as if it had come from a textbook.

“Thank you,” Curtis said.

It didn’t hear him. Of course it didn’t understand.

Curtis let his subject slink over. It weaved over the rocks into the dark.

Curtis sat back and ran his hand over his head. Finally he thought.

He had found at least one.

* * *

“How are we doing?”

“Better than before.”

Larson nodded. He sat down.

“Well?”

“They know math.”

“How well?”

“They know math.”

That was criteria enough.

It was a beautiful night with one dim orange light still hanging above the horizon. The sky was blue, turning to black, after the suns had set in the north. Swirls of milky dust graced the sky.

“That one.” A finger aimed at one pinprick in particular.

“How do you figure?”

“How do you know that it isn’t?”

Quiet except for random chirping. Larson rested his back against the side of the habitat. “So, what do you think?” he asked.

“I think we’ve found it.”

“Took us long enough,” Larson said. He looked up at the sky. A favourite, almost routine activity: which one of those specks of light is home? Hauling out the pulsar maps and actually checking was cheating. And it was very, very abrasive to the soul.

“What are we going to do?”

“Call home.”

Larson snickered.

“Its what we said we’d do.”

“We were perhaps a little too optimistic.”

“Still,” Curtis said.

“What would we say?”

“We found them.”

“Yes,” Larson said, “but we assumed that we’d find them a heck of a lot closer.”

“True.”

“I don’t think anyone cares anymore. I don’t think it matters.”

Larson was politely quiet. Among the few of the crew who had lasted this far, he had been the most professional. Second in command: bitterness was not a pleasure he was allowed to enjoy.

Larson didn’t need to tell expedition commander William Curtis what he felt. What he really felt about him and the whole damn thing. Curtis saw it in his eyes and gave a nod of understanding.

Curtis was an old man. Not getting any younger, though the way the years sped by perhaps it was a fair exchange.

“One question,” Larson asked. “Why?”

“What do you mean?”

Larson shrugged. “First species we’ve come across that uses higher math, and they don’t seemed to do anything with it.”

“Give them time,” Curtis replied.

The crew had used their sensors and telescopes to find this world, and were pleased to find it inhabited. No good just listening, they learned that early on. Just the same background hiss.

“No empires, no monuments...”

“That’s a very biased judgment. You should know better.”

“Its an observation.”

“A limited one,” Curtis corrected.

“You know what I mean.”

Curtis knew but did not care. After such a long time it would have been great to find some. “They’re still reasonably young. If you just give them...”

“How long has it been?”

Curtis was quiet. It had been his responsibility. “A few thousand years since I last checked,” he said, “give or take.”

Larson didn’t need to do the math. A very long, long time.

And he had volunteered. “So,” Larson asked, “what are we going to do?”

“Our plan all along was to go home.”

They had heard nothing. Nothing. Signals had stopped; or rather they had stopped checking. Everything had decayed, eventually forming a cold silence. And what did they have to go back to?

They had volunteered. They were given the ship and told to have fun.

“There’s another planet here.”

“I know,” Curtis said. Small, rocky, but it could be home with a little elbow grease.

“I’ve been talking to the rest of the crew,” Larson said. “We’re settling there.”

Curtis nodded.

“We’ve had enough of moving. We want to stand still for ten seconds.”

“All right,” Curtis said.

He always wondered when the moment would come, whether they would be nice and diplomatic or whether they’d force their point. But he was not surprised. The crew had whittled down to a couple hundred by now. Their ship had become a time capsule and specimen jar.

They could enjoy families. Long-term survival for their descendants would not be encouraging, but at least they could die loving and beloved.

Time to think of the future, anything to take their minds off the past.

“We’re stopping.” Curtis found the words simple, though hard to grasp. Stopping.

Larson nodded. “We’ve talked about this before.”

“Yes,” Curtis admitted.

“We were stupid,” Larson said.

“We were passionate, we were committed...”

“We were stupid,” Larson said, “assuming we could drift back home.”

“Not our fault.”

Larson shook his head. “Maybe we should have stopped a long time ago.”

“Maybe,” Curtis said. No need to go down this road again, the old arguments. After finding more slime and fungus and declaring that to be alive, after burying one more member of the crew... Well, now finally the arguments could be buried. No use for them.

“It’s over,” Larson said. Curtis could only agree, adding one thing more.

“What matters is we’ve found them.”

* * *

Watching them from afar was a frustrating activity. The temptation was to move in closer.

At this point no member of the crew was paying attention to rules.

Curtis, as always, was at the fore. Peering closely, watching them. “Day four,” he spoke into his small computer.

About the size of a large dog with two spindly legs and a fluffy feathery body, useless vestigial wings occasionally rippling. Their long beaks prodded the rocky ground.

Some animals — large rodents, judging by their feet — were kept corralled by authoritative clicks.

Beaks pruning and nursing some nearby large plants; gathering sticks and moss, weaving them into tiny structures out of shallow holes.

“A society,” Curtis concluded. “We have made conclusive contact.”

First contact. A magical phrase.

Everyone else was documenting this magnanimous occasion.

Perfunctory, of course: they’d found what they had come all this way to find.

Curtis was never an authoritarian, but he had underestimated how little passion could motivate his crew. Not that this had always been a problem. A crew of bright, talented — and in the beginning, young — people who took what they assumed to be the greatest opportunity ever offered. Now learning the pangs of what had been incomprehensible at the time.

Each instrument handled with dedication, a look of stoic reserve betraying the sadness beneath.

As long as they got the job done.

“Which one?”

Curtis pointed. “Him.”

“All right.”

Curtis contacted him.

The only one to correctly interpret his intentions: a rhythmic looping, the best he could get of their language. He cocked his head for a moment.

It meandered over.

“Come on.”

It walked up to Curtis. Stopping a few good strides away.

“It’s all right.”

Curtis’ movements were slow; trying to be assuring that he meant no harm.

“Now,” Curtis said, “let’s talk.”

Curtis took out his computer. Enough of their language had been deciphered. A beautiful, lyrical tongue; he selected another math lesson. He had a few questions to ask. A question about how they thought.

No written language. But Curtis had been prepared to work around it.

Scratching into the ground. Curtis marked every stride.

Hexadecimal: they thought in base sixteen.

“It is intelligent,” Curtis said. “First outside Earth.”

He watched the computer change the planet’s status. A little green circle next to its designated title; a merry beep.

Curtis joined the crew to pack up.

The creatures looked back. Their eyes were deep and inky.

* * *

“So what’s the bad news?”

Larson and a couple of others, Gibson and Brown, stood over the display table.

“This is where we are.”

The solar system was displayed on the map of stars.

“And this is the bad news.”

Bright blue gamma rays swept across the screen at a leisurely pace from the star, racing over their system, drowning it.

“A companion star, a neutron star,” Larson said. “It’s pulsing.”

Its rays swept through the map.

Curtis asked, “When?”

“Likely within a few years.”

Astrophysics had never been the expedition’s strong suit. Merely finding life.

“It will be destructive,” Larson explained. “Complete sterilization...”

“Yes, I know.” Curtis waved him off. “What is our course of action then?”

A shroud. It was large and concave.

“Not hard to make. We’ve had the bots on ice since we left.”

All they needed was a few asteroids. A plastic membrane could be created large enough to encompass a world to shield it from the coming storm.

“How fast can we make it?”

“Two weeks,” Larson said.

“We can have it over both...”

“We don’t plan to.”

Larson stood firm, eyes fixed on Curtis. Resolute.

“We don’t have the bots?”

“No,” Larson said. “We’ve had to dip in from time to time, if you remember.”

It hadn’t been easy keeping the ship flying. Maintenance gave them a goal and a purpose. Now fulfilled.

“We’re putting it over the other world,” Larson explained. “We’re calling it Home.”

Home was small and rocky. A cursory survey had revealed it to be capable of supporting life. Primitive life in pools of water: some moss and lichens and maybe something small and soft and slimy to crawl over them.

A tiny advance team was there presently. They had a small sign erected: HOME SWEET HOME. Some long-stored alcohol had been brought out and toasts made.

“We’ve had three pregnancies,” Larson said. “We’ve been digging out our patches.”

“Yes,” Curtis acknowledged.

Larson was in his mid-thirties (adjusted of course). He’d been eying some of the female crewmembers for some time. Not just for the usual, natural reasons. And now perhaps someone eyed him back.

“It’s a shame,” Curtis said. “They’re the only ones.”

“We’re the last ones,” Larson said.

Larson called up their physical studies. Their eyes in particular: just simple black dots.

“They won’t understand it. I don’t even think they can discern anything if they look up.”

So simple: effective for night vision, for detection of predators. But they had their limits, nowhere near the sophistication of human eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want to leave them. Not now.”

“All right,” Larson said. “We can afford to give you some shelter and rations. We’ll pick you up before it hits.”

“Thank you,” Curtis said. He felt slightly chilled.

* * *

It was unfurled.

A thin shell, shaped like a contact lens. Remarkable how industrious they could be under the circumstances. It drifted over the horizon. Caught the light in the most fascinating way. But Curtis had other intentions tonight.

He called his protégé over. He figured he owed it an explanation.

“Come here.”

Perhaps the creature understood and obeyed.

Curtis, solemnly, readied his equipment. Something he had cooked up a long time ago. Just for such an occasion, when he had to be so direct and immediate.

Curtis lifted the helmet over its head. It did not resist.

He hit the play button.

When it was over he removed the helmet, and their eyes met.

“Well now you know,” he said.

It looked back, its eyes large and black, almost as if it was pleading.

Curtis decided.

* * *

It was a quiet, peaceful night. It was quite the show.

Curtis looked up, watched the gamma rays spread.

He sprawled out on the ground.

Each tiny, flickering light impacting their shield. Diffusing into a spread of light, like water trickling off a plastic surface.

Not hard to get hold of. He was the commander after all.

Above the horizon was the other planet. Best not to think about them.

He did let one eye wander; scan the sky and the stars.

Which one after all?

A crunching noise came up from behind them. One crept up next to Curtis, and together they watched the show.


Copyright © 2009 by Ian Cordingley

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