“You still have to dress up,” Sandra had informed me. “Even with your scales. Your usual robes are nice, Archie, but they’re working clothes. Put on something fun.”
I did, because I didn’t want to stand out. And because I wanted to impress Sandra and Nick. Just a little.
So I dug into the very bottom of my suitcase to retrieve my one and only formal Chint-made garment. It’s traditional for planetary surveyors to wear formal dress from their home world when they graduate and to take that clothing with them on their travels. I’d worn it a few times at formal ceremonies. I guessed it would be fine for the opera.
Chintilik formal wear often denotes their position within society. Chintilik nesters, Nren, always have many, many pockets, for instance, and their formal wear usually matches the color of the sands. Chintilik academics and artisans, Cikn, wear robes very like humans during their graduations but without the square hat for every formal occasion. And, finally, warriors and guards go nearly unclothed in formal settings, wearing only the straps and pouches necessary to carry their weapons.
Dron wear a garment whose name, Pt’orgla, translates almost directly to “shredded.” Luckily, the name isn’t literal. It wouldn’t matter on Chint, but some humans take offense to nakedness. Instead, the name comes from the texture of the cloth. Pt’orgla are traditionally made from scraps of cloth from other clothes layered on top of each other to create waves and ruffles and loose folds of fabric. The effect can be wonderful if done well, and ugly if done poorly. The idea is that the richest garments come from unwanted scraps.
My Pt’orgla was tailored for me. It was made from layers and layers of soft pastel fabrics that gathered at my waist into a swell and then fell softly around my legs. Of course the original design assumed that I wouldn’t be able to walk and was meant to downplay that fact. That was fine by me.
It took me an hour to clean it by hand and another three for it to properly dry, but I got it on well in advance of the opera.
Sandra was in the bathroom applying pigment to her skin when I came out of my room. Make up, as it’s called, is an art form of its own in human society. Sandra knew just enough to “make myself look presentable when I have to,” as she put it.
She was wearing a plain, satiny black dress and tall shoes that made her much taller than me. Just looking at them made my legs hurt, but they made her look graceful and angular.
“Hey Archie,” She said as she turned to me, “did you figure out your… clothes?” She stood up, one eye outlined in black and soft pinks, “Wow. That looks great on you.”
I was caught off guard, but managed to say, “Thank you. It was tailored for me.”
“Fancy,” she said, and went back to the mirror.
A few minutes later, when Nick arrived, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t expect a dress.”
“You thought I would put on trousers?” I asked.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” He admitted, “but I just assumed that formal wear would be…more formal?”
“Hey!” Sandra said, “pants are not more formal than skirts!”
“Especially when you have rough scales,” I pointed out, “that tear through fabric.”
Both humans were quiet for a few seconds, and then Nick said, “Good point. I didn’t think about that.”
“Now isn’t really the time to talk about Chintilik clothing,” I said, “we have somewhere to be.”
The theater sent a car to pick us up: Sandra, Nick, and I. They went through the trouble of “rolling out the red carpet” as a human might say. They offered us behind the scenes access and talks with the actors and musicians. They even asked me to make a speech.
I declined all of the special treatment aside from the car, much to Sandra’s and Nick’s annoyance, but if I was going to take part in human culture, I was going to be doing it as if I was a regular human. I had arranged for an additional ticket, so that both humans could come along. That had been easy enough to do, and it meant I wouldn’t be watching the play with the opera’s director sitting next to me, thank goodness.
But nothing in the world could stop the director meeting us at the door and shaking my hand with such intensity it hurt.
“Thank you so much for coming,” He said, “it’s an honor to have you here. We’re expecting a great performance tonight.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” I gave the customary reply. “This is the first time I’ve had the chance to see an opera.”
His eyes fairly lit up with delight. “Then you are in for a treat! We have a world-renowned cast and orchestra…” As he led us inside, he continued to tell us about the cast and the musicians and the production.
Perhaps I should describe the Sydney Opera House, in case a picture is not provided. Picture a solar wing, as one might find on an adolescent civilization’s starship: curled in on itself, colored silver-white. Imagine a dozen of them all layered on top of each other, as if they were all some great beast. Multi-winged and large enough to move planets. That is the shape of the Sydney Opera House. It sits on a pier beside the ocean, and humans come from all over their world to fill it with song. The interior auditorium is also like a living thing, or perhaps the shell of one. It was more like a huge cave than a typical human dwelling. It made me feel as if I was inside a huge hive of bugs, one that hummed and throbbed with activity.
The director took us up several flights of stairs to a small balcony to the left of the stage. From there, we could see the whole of the enormous sloped auditorium.
We sat: me in the middle, Sandra and Nick on either side. They leaned in a little, over the edge of the balcony, peering down. Both of them were quiet with wonder and excitement. I was quiet with apprehension.
The director appeared again and gave us each a thick pamphlet containing, among other things, an English translation of the opera we were about to see. I read through the first few pages, getting a grasp of the story. It was about a troupe of human artists freezing to death in an apartment, trying to survive a particularly brutal winter. I knew immediately I was going to have a very hard time relating to anything on stage, since I had no experience with any of the themes. Except that the play was also about love, and that I thought I understood.
“Are you excited?” Sandra asked me.
I rumbled at that. “I suppose,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make any sense out of this.”
Nick heard me, “Yeah, me neither. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the music.”
“It will be in Italian, which I don’t speak,” Sandra said, “but, honestly, I just want to hear a real soprano.”
“Soprano?” I asked.
“Someone who can sing at a very high pitch.”
“Oh,” I said. I wished I’d brought ear plugs.
There was a swelling of noises down below, a strange harmonic buzz that reminded me of wind blowing through hollow rock. The crowd hushed. The lights dimmed all at once, and the room was dipped into shadow.
“What is that?” I asked.
Sandra heard the anxiety in my voice, or perhaps saw that my ears had flattened back against my head. She touched my arm gently, smoothing her hand in the direction of the scales. I patted her hand with mine, comforted despite myself. Her hand withdrew again, and she settled in her seat.
“It’s the orchestra,” Nick answers me in a whisper. “They’re tuning their instruments.”
Soon enough the harmonic screech died too, leaving the theater in silence.
A single spotlight lanced out of the darkness and illuminated a single human figure walking to the center of the stage. The audience began to clap, a polite surge of noise. The figure was the opera’s director, and he introduced himself again over the microphone.
“We have an amazing performance for you tonight,” He said, “but before we get there, I have a few announcements to make.” The audience shifted and murmured, then settled again. The director talked for a moment about the Sydney opera house, their productions, and how the audience should attend their other performances. Then he thanked the orchestra, actors, crew, and their donors.
And then, the director paused, made a gesture to the orchestra pit. “We have a very special guest in the audience tonight,” He said. “I’m sure all of you know that we are no longer alone in the universe. That ten years ago, alien life reached us, introduced humanity into interstellar society, and that every day, aliens come to Earth. Specifically, they come to the United States of America. Well, that is no longer the case, because today, in this opera house, the first alien to ever walk on Australian soil is here.”
Now there was a reaction. People turned in their chairs, craning their necks to see me. I was grateful I had been seated where none could see.
“You’re famous,” Sandra told me playfully.
“Yes,” I said, “I know. You two will be too if this keeps up.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad,” Nick said.
The director waited for the audience to quiet down. “Acharya, that is her name, is also the first ambassador to humanity from the Galactic Library, that organization which holds all the knowledge of every interstellar civilization. They are here to add our knowledge, and knowledge of our world, to that collective. And while I have no doubt they have visited plenty libraries and met with the best scholars, read and learned all they can from books, they have not truly experienced this planet.”
Here I huffed. Some species have a deep-seated belief that their experience is somehow more profound than others. I knew humans felt that way, and the egoism of it irritated me. But I would indulge them, since only time and experience could show them they were wrong.
The director continued, “Tonight, I would like to give her an experience, before our main performance. I have a small favor to ask of you.” Now two more humans had joined him on the stage. One of them was carrying a small musical instrument and was dressed in all black. The other was wearing what was clearly a costume. The director set them center stage.
“To be human,” He said, “is to sing. So, please, join me and our wonderful musicians in singing Hallelujah as a group. I trust you know the words.”
He handed the microphone to the costumed women, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and exited the stage to baffled applause.
The woman smiled at the audience, said nothing, just gestured to the woman beside her, who lifted her instrument and set it under her chin. There was a moment of breathless silence as she positioned a long, delicate piece of wood over the tightly-held strings, and then the first note of the song swelled outward and seemed to fill the whole auditorium with sound like sunlight.
I had been intending to say something about preferring if they had just got on with the play, but that first sound froze the words in my throat. It was such a mournful, sweet thing, high and fine and exquisite.
After a long moment, the singer added her voice. It was also high and sweet, but her voice was more hopeful than mournful. The audience let her sing alone for a few lines, and then, as if in unspoken agreement, they added their voices to hers. And the swell of the human voices became its own living thing, separate yet together. Sandra and Nick, on either side of me, were singing too. Nick loudly, confidently. Sandra quietly, like she didn’t want to overpower the others but couldn’t help but join in.
I didn’t completely understand the song: how could I hope to unravel something so deeply entwined with religion and culture in a few minutes. I knew it was a song about God and faith. And that it was a song about love, and the loss of love. As I heard it then, in the dark Sydney Opera Hall in six thousand human voices, I understood too that it was a song about being human. Each human sang the song, and knew themselves to be human in the singing of it. It was as if the act of singing alone could make sense out of their lives.
The desperation, love, and madness in it caught me off guard, and I found myself sitting, entranced, while the immense chorus sang. As the song crescendoed, I heard a sob in the audience below us. Someone, somewhere had been brought to tears by the song alone. Sandra and Nick were sniffling too, their voices clogging with emotion.
As the last “hallelujah,” faded, echoing softly away, the singer and the violinist bowed to the audience, who immediately erupted in applause. It took minutes for them to calm down, longer than I thought. My heart was pounding in my chest and my hands were shaking. Beside me on either side, Nick was breathing deeply, and Sandra had leaned all the way into me, over the armrest between our seats, so she could rest her head on my shoulder. It only lasted a second, and then she sat upright again.
As the noise subsided and the orchestra began to play again, I looked at the two humans beside me. They were both riveted to the stage in a way I hadn’t expected. I chose not to bother them with my questions just then, but I made a mental note to interrogate them about it later.
The actual opera was pleasant, but not particularly interesting to me. I didn’t grasp the themes or the character motivations, and it was in a language so foreign that the song was reduced to pleasant noises. I actually caught myself dozing off about halfway through, only to be awakened by the high eerie keen of a soprano singer at full-volume. Sandra and Nick were both still and attentive, as was every other human in the room. It was eerie how focused they were.
It was a relatively short opera, and there was no intermission. After the show ended, I made them stay put while the rest of the theater emptied. I didn’t want to be harried by the other attendees on the way out. The director met us at the bottom of the stairs and shook all our hands again.
“What did you think?” He asked me.
“I didn’t understand it,” I answered truthfully, “but I enjoyed the performers’ singing. They’re skilled artists.”
“Ah. Well, thank you. I’ll pass that on to them.” He said, “What about the song before the show?”
“That was,” I thought about it. “stunning. I wasn’t aware that humans had such ingrained cultural memories that they would be compelled to sing like that.”
Now he looked genuinely confused. ‘What do you mean?”
I looked towards Sandra and Nick, but they both looked blankly at me. “I assume you have some kind of cultural memory. Traditions that compel you to perform certain actions. Or do you have shared cultural consciousness?”
“I wouldn’t know,” The director said, “I reckon…well maybe we do. I’ve never thought about it before.”
I twitched my ears at him. “You mean humans have auditory and visual triggers that cause involuntary reactions, and you haven’t studied that phenomenon? You haven’t figured out if you have a shared consciousness, or genetic memories?”
“Oh!” Sandra exclaimed, “We do, yes. Memetics are what Acharya is talking about, I think.”
The word translated fairly well into galactic common, so I nodded, “Something like that,” I agreed. “It is the study of how information is transferred between individuals, through genetics, a common consciousness, or verbal communication.”
“Fascinating,” The theater director said like he thought it was anything but.
“You’ve kept Acharya away from Reddit, haven’t you?” Nick asked Sandra.
“No,” She said, “I showed it to them during their first week here, but they didn’t really care.”
“Thank you,” I said to the director, “for the tickets and the experience.”
“You’re very welcome. If you’re planning on staying in Sydney for a while, please come back. Our event manager would be happy to arrange a speaking arrangement for you—”
My communicator, not my human phone, began to chime insistently in my pocket. “Excuse me,” I said to the director and my human companions. I took it out.
Skaalt’s name, in their native language, was glowing on the screen, pulsing in time with the chiming.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the director, “it’s a colleague.”
“Another alien?” He asked.
“Yes. It’s an interstellar call. I need to answer it. Thank you again for your time.” I headed towards the door, taking the call as I went.
“Shki-shkri,” I said, which is a very rough approximation of “hello” in Skaalt’s native language that my anatomy can produce.
Skaalt responded in galactic common, the language rumbling through his translation implants and breathing orifices. “Greetings, little one. I sent you a letter, but you didn’t reply.”
“Ah, yes, I’m sorry,” I replied in the same language, “I was forced to put attention elsewhere. This planet is trying to drive me even more insane.”
There was the deep purr-rumble of his amusement made tinny and tame by the communicator. “What did the humans do?”
I told him about the opera and the communal singing while Sandra and Nick woke themselves up from their music-induced stupor.
“Bizarre,” Skaalt concluded, “but not dangerous. Your letter made it seem as if you were near death.”
“I am not,” I said, “but I was a little scared when I wrote that. I had a human follow me halfway around their world, across an ocean in fact, for no other reason than she felt like it.”
“Oh?” Skaalt said, “and this isn’t just a case of Surveyor Fever, is it?”
I felt a prickle of annoyance at the implication, but suppressed it. “No. If it is, it’s a different sort than I’ve seen before. She’s a very rational and intelligent being, and I don’t think she would abandon her whole life to chase someone she wanted to mate with. If anything, I’m the one who’s a little in love with her.”
He was quiet for a long moment.
Sandra came up from behind me, she signaled at me that she and Nick were going outside. “I’m coming,” I said to her, “I hope you don’t mind if I talk in the car on the way back.”
“Not at all,” she said.
“Is that her?” Skaalt asked.
“Yes,” I said to him.
“And she’s the reason you think you might be on a Deathworld?”
“Among other things.” I said. I told him about the deadly diseases and ferocious animals, the tendency of humans to gloss over the horrifying details of their world. By the time we’d gotten back to the rental (all of a fifteen minute ride), I had gotten all the way back to the damned heat of the deserts on this planet compared to the freezing winters, and the terrible storms I had heard of but never seen. And yet how all the evidence of humans I’d seen pointed to Earth being a comfortable, hospitable planet.
I got out of the car and lead the way into the house, then left Sandra and Nick to their own devices and headed into my bedroom to continue the conversation.
Skaalt hissed into my ear, “I think you already know what I’m going to say, Archarya.”
“I can guess,” I said, “but I need a second opinion before I do anything. If you were here, you would understand my hesitation. If this is a deathworld, or if I name it as such, it will change humans forever.”
“Yes,” Skaalt said, “I know.”
“They aren’t as dangerous to be around as your species is, but they are still formidable, and they are going to be exploited by others as it is. I’m already being forced to classify them as a biological hazard because they carry bacteria in their saliva, nevermind that I’ve never seen one of them bite someone else.
“You are by far the most qualified surveyor when it comes to Deathworlds, and I don’t feel right about classifying this planet until you’ve seen it. If you concur with my final assessments, then maybe we can make it easier on them.”
“Have you spoken to the Librarian about this?” Skaalt asked.
“Not yet,” I admitted. “The Canteron have occupied its attention on humans.”
“Yes, the Canteron. How do humans feel about them?”
“They are eager for war. They see it as a chance to prove themselves.”
“Does your Sandra feel that way too?” In Skaalt’s voice, Sandra’s name was sharp and jagged.
“She isn’t war-hungry, but she is confident in their ability to win. It isn’t even a question for her.”
“Understood.” Skaalt said nothing more.
“So are you coming here?” I asked.
“Don’t be foolish, of course I am. I’m very curious to see this new Deathworld and talk to its people.”
“I’m already on the way, so not too long. My baby is better than the Canteron’s warships, so I will be there before them, but not by much.” For as long as I had known him, Skaalt had called his ship his baby. He loved it more than some people loved their children.
“I’ll find a place where you can land safely. I probably won’t be near the established spaceport, but I can make my way to an ecological dead zone.”
“The middle of the ocean is always a good choice.”
“They’re actually very protective of their oceans,” I said, “they’re key to regulating the biosphere here.”
“Another place then,”
“I’ll send you coordinates when I have them.”
“Excellent. Tread carefully, Acharya. Earth is a Deathworld, and that makes every square inch of it dangerous.”
“I know.” I said.
“I’ll see you soon, little one. Stay safe.”
“You as well. May the stars light your way.”
“Keep your spikes sharp and your eyes keen.”
The communicator went dead.
I say back with a sigh, already thinking about where I could possibly send someone like Skaalt on this planet without repercussions.
“You still have to dress up,” Sandra had informed me. “Even with your scales. Your usual robes are nice, Archie, but they’re working clothes. Put on something fun.”