Every species thinks they are unique. They think they’re special. The idea that all their faults and graces might be mirrored in thousands upon thousands of other history books for other species never even occurs to them. Each world I have ever set foot on is convinced that they are the only ones to ever discover oil-based paint or assembly lines or indentured servitude. Each new species believes they are the only ones who have ever sinned and found virtue.
Experienced travelers accept the reality with relief: our worlds are not terrible or spectacular, but somewhere happily in the middle. What a blessing to be normal. The more stubborn and egotistical species remain haughty and disconnected for a time, but integration and the spread of ideas get them in the end. After a couple hundred years of space-faring, the population begins to lose its identity as a species except as a collection of relevant medical information and biological tricks. A thousand years of integration with the galactic community and most species won’t even remember where they came from in the first place.
I set out to learn the history of humanity with all this on my mind. I had been gifted the entirety of human knowledge at my fingertips through the university library and the complementary internet access, but that Saturday, three weeks after I arrived on Earth, was the first time I’d truly dug into it. I expected to find some horrors and some wonders, some terrible inventions and some delightful ones. I knew for a fact they’d already figured out how to split atoms, and that was a double-edged sword. I was going to find nuclear bombs: I knew that already.
Part of my reluctance to use the internet was due to past experience. New species can be cautious about planetary surveyors. Sandra had only just convinced me to set up human social media accounts for myself. “So no one else will do it and pretend to be you,” she had explained. I hadn’t even posted anything on Twitter yet, and already I had several thousand followers. I’d also been tagged by several users, including news networks, who I was staunchly ignoring. I was well aware of the media spectacle I could generate if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
Now I turned to the human internet. I found their preferred search engine—Google—and, painstakingly, translated my inquiry from galactic common into English on my notebook and entered it into the computer.
I asked, first, for a brief history of Earth. That turned up very little that was useful to me: it was all geology and evolution and truly ancient history. Then I tried “a brief history of humankind,” which turned up another book. This one was translated to English from the original language (Hebrew) and was, again far too broad. The earliest date it covered was some one hundred thousand earth years ago. I wanted something much closer to the present.
Humans, while they were quite clever when it came to surviving on Earth and exploring their world, were absolutely terrible at designing algorithms and search engines. Then again, they knew their own history or at least some version of it. I was going in blind.
I rolled my neck and tried again: “History of the world.” More general. Less likely to run across scholarly results I didn’t know how to tangle with. I was immediately rewarded with video results. I selected one entitled, “History of the Entire World, I Guess,” because it looked amateurish and friendly. And there was a very helpful view counter below it that displayed some one hundred and fifty million views. That was a vote of confidence from humanity if ever I’d seen one. I settled in with my breakfast and pressed play. It turned out to be another loss: it was too fast, too dense with information, and lacking context. But it was entertaining, so I watched the whole thing while I ate.
At least it provided me with places to build from and explore more. I pushed into the topics of historical wars, religious movements, and oppression. I learned the country I was in had been founded some three hundred years before my arrival, and that nearly all of the humans who had lived here before that had been killed. Exterminated would be a better word. As unpleasant as it is, genocide, motivated by religious ideology, differences in skin pigmentation, or other trivialities, was nothing new. Granted it was usually one species of alien systematically killing the population of a planet so they could harvest it for resources, but I knew there were some species who fought viciously among their own kind. Especially carnivores.
I spent the next two days reading, watching, and listening to every piece of human media freely available on the internet. I learned the reason why Sandra was wary of walking home alone in the dark was that humans would attack each other for the contents of their pockets. I learned that humans feared being abducted and held hostage. I learned that children as young as four years old—the same age as the students I had played make-believe restaurant with in the daycare a week ago—were taught to kick and fight and protect themselves from adult humans many times their size and weight.
I wish that this kind of travesty was new to me, but it’s not. Chintilik sometimes eat their own fertilized eggs or newborns, after all. It’s been a crime for as long as we’ve had laws, but some do it anyway. At least the humans had a similar good sense to recognize it was evil to hurt children.
When Sandra knocked on my door that Monday morning at almost 7:30, bleary-eyed, and carrying food and drink for both of us (paid for by the galactic library), she found me standing, watching a projector screen playing the British Broadcast Corporation’s world news feed. I’d procured a small globe of Earth, and was memorizing the regions, countries, and major cities from the broadcasts.
I opened the door for Sandra, then went back to the screen. At present, the announcers were discussing an ongoing famine in Africa. I had one hand on the globe, tracking the countries they were talking about. I traced the line of the river they pictured. On the globe, it was a tiny blue vein. On the screen, it was a dry brown gouge in a city.
Sandra paused just inside the door, looking at the nest I’d built for my reading, no doubt. There were stacks of books, newspapers, and magazines borrowed from the library. Physical paper was a novelty I hadn’t experienced in a while, and I was enjoying having access to it again.
“Did you read all those in one weekend?” She asked me by way of a greeting.
“I read a fair number,” I said. The newscasters were moving on from droughts to an international sports scandal involving drugging athletes. I put a finger on the country in question—Russia—and then slid it to Moscow.
Sandra scuffled around behind me, settling in for the day.
“There is a saying,” I said, “in galactic, that translates to ‘sifting through lies makes the truth shine like a jewel.’ It’s a bit more succinct in the original language.”
“I like it,” Sandra said.
The story on the news moved on from doping scandals to sports news in general, so I turned away. “It’s relevant,” I said, “even lies by omission make the truth stand out. Have you been lying to me intentionally?”
Sandra took a deliberate swallow of coffee. She’d gone very still and very slow. She told me later that she had been afraid I was about to fire her, which would have been very bad because she’d just quit her teaching assistant position the prior Friday. She opened her mouth, but I decided I didn’t need an answer.
“I have been mugged before,” I told her, “nearly a dozen times. It’s very common in marketplaces and space stations. You should have told me that’s why you were worried about me traveling alone at night.”
“Oh,” She said.
“So, again, are you lying intentionally?”
Again a pause. “No,” She said, “not really.”
My notebook lit up: a rare news alert.
Sandra continued speaking. “I guess I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to scare you. Mugging isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. You could get kidnapped. Or killed. Not on campus, probably, but if you go into San Francisco or down into Oakland late at night then—”
She stopped talking as I reached over to the projector’s chord. I unplugged the computer and slotted it into the intelligent port on my notebook. It took a moment, but then the screen jumped, and the galactic library’s news feed popped up.
There are no anchors on the galactic news feed, no fancy graphics or filler segments. There is only the color of void, scrolling script in the language of your choice, and a synthesized voice. Whose voice varies day-to-day, but they are all well-known famous or historical figures. Today’s was Emporer Sesud XII of the Kirja, who had gifted a planet to the galactic library some ten thousand years ago. They had also headed one of the most restrictive and anti-education governments in recorded history. I knew for a fact that their voice was included in the rotation because it would have made the emperor furious if he had still been alive.
I listened for a moment, ears twitching at each new detail. After two minutes, the broadcast repeated. I knew it would go on like that for some time, perhaps a few standard days.
“What is it?” Sandra asked.
I hissed my displeasure. “There is a planet,” I said, “it was recently identified as a tier 4. It has no sapient life, but it would make a fine world for refugees or colonies for nearby civilizations. It was gifted to a new species, one so young they are still struggling to organize missions outside of their own solar system. A well-established empire has just declared that they intend to seize control of the planet and defend it with military force if necessary.”
“They can’t do that!” Sandra stood up.
“They can and they have,” I said. “With any luck, they won’t hold onto it for very long.”
“Yes but,” She gestured wildly, “can’t they just buy it if they wanted it that badly?”
“They could,” I said, “but that’s difficult and time-consuming. And evil is lazy and greedy across the whole universe.”
“Yeah, it is.” She focused on her coffee cup again. “Are people going to fight back? Or impose some economic restrictions.”
I smiled at that. “Some civilizations might do that, but it won’t make much of an impact. Nor will fighting them: they would blow the planet up rather than see it reclaimed. Either they will be forced to explain themselves and talked out of it, or they will be embarrassed by their own people and outside forces until they return it to the Frid.”
“The self-name for the people it was gifted to,” I sketched one in the air, shorter than either of us. “they’re delicate creatures. Nearly translucent and very sensitive to light.”
“Do you have pictures?” Sandra asked.
“I do,” I said. I tapped my notebook, brought up the picture storage, and flipped to the album of Frid. I chose a picture: a small party of blue-blushing see-through people, half a nightmare of exposed anatomy, half a dream of thumping organic rhythm. They had eight limbs: two they walked on and six they used to grab and lift and generally manipulate the world around them. And what a world it was: a planet-wide forest of strange twisting growths that were neither plant nor animal where food dripped freely into open mouths and symbiotic bugs and mites nibbled away dead cells. They had left my skin and scales so new and smooth that it had actually hurt, and I’d needed to take precautions to drive them away, but the Frid had called me crazy for dismissing the attention.
Sandra’s jaw slackened, and she leaned forward in her chair. “They’re…”
“Very strange looking, yes,” I said. Humans were too.
“Their bones are right there,” She said, and I heard the wonder in her voice. I heard her universe expand: it had been a small place: one planet, perhaps only one country, one small academic life. And here I had given her the briefest look at a second planet, and already she could sense the possibility of a life a thousand times larger than her current one.
If interstellar transports were more accessible, she would have gone right then. To any place that would have her. I knew the feeling. I’d gone mad with it when it touched me. I hoped Sandra didn’t try to smuggle herself off the planet like I had.
“Did you visit them?” She asked
“I surveyed their world a few years ago,” I tapped another picture. This one was taken by one of the Frid. It was of me mere moments after catching three hatchlings at once as they dropped from the nursing trees. In my hands they were bioluminescent: glowing pink to match my scales.
Sandra squealed over the picture and actually took the notebook from me, flipping through the photographs of the little ones, making soft cooing noises at their round, soft heads. She grew quiet when the pictures became less adorable and more about capturing everyday life. The Frid gathering food, performing work functions, taking in news from the radio.
She looked up at me, very serious, calculating. “You should post these online,” She said, “when you talk about the planet being taken.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because people deserve to know about this,” She said, “about what that empire is doing.”
“They do know,” I gestured behind me, “and of course, I’ll make a statement, but words only. It speeds up the data transfer.”
“What about on Twitter?” She suggested.
I just tilted my head at her. We stared at each other for over a minute. The news broadcast was still playing faintly from the computer speakers.
“Humans don’t have access to the galactic news yet,” Sandra said finally. “Also we’ve never seen another planet. Not an inhabited one.”
“So you think I should introduce them to the concept by… sharing an interspecies political conflict?”
“Yes,” She said as if it were obvious. “Humans love a good story, especially one with a clear bad guy.”
My first instinct was to say, “No. It won’t be helpful,” but I resisted my first judgment and thought about it. There was a possibility that humans would be gifted a planet in the near future, and if that were the case, they would need to know what to expect. Also, Sandra seemed to like the idea, and I wanted to keep her talking about human history, crime, and modern-day violence.
“I’ll consider it,” I said, “but I want to learn about the things you aren’t telling me. I need to know the truth.”
Sandra handed my notebook back to me. “Yeah,” she said, “but let’s do it outside, where it’s sunny.”
We sat at a table on the lawn near the apartments. The college campus was just about the only place in the city with large green spaces. For several minutes Sandra ate her breakfast and drank her coffee, and I followed suit, though I didn’t touch the drink. We watched students get off a bus, and more get on. They waved to us, recognizing us both, and again I felt proud that I had managed to make this place that had never seen an alien before feel so comfortable with my presence. Sandra was right: they deserved to know what the rest of the universe had in store for them.
Finally, Sandra put her cup down. “Okay,” she said, “what do you want to know?”
I tapped my notebook and brought up the screen I kept notes on. “How about this: if you had to define an act of evil, what would it be.”
She thought about it for a minute, then sighed and said, “I can think of four. Genocide, rape, torture, and child abuse.” Four broad categories of behaviors that she considered inexcusable, none of them new concepts to me. “Acharya,” she said after a moment, “any answer I give to these questions is just my perspective. Other humans are going to say different things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like not believing in God or believing in the wrong one. Or being, you know, something different than they are.” She sucked her teeth for a moment, eyeing something in the middle distance that wasn’t actually there. “People who think like that are awful,” she said, “but they exist, and there are a lot of them.”
“But they aren’t evil, in your opinion?” I asked because that was just fascinating.
“No,” Sandra said, then, “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t understand them, and I don’t want to, but if they never do anything… well having opinions isn’t illegal.”
“Some would disagree with you,” I said.
“Some would,” She agreed. “but not you.”
“No. Thoughts are often out of our control.”
“But if you have a kid in your control, and you hurt them,” Sandra said, “that’s evil. Pure evil. I don’t understand people who do that either.”
“And people do that?” I asked.
“On a daily basis,” She looked down, took a deep breath. “It’s really hard to actually explain this stuff to you. I want to make humanity look good, but it’s kind of hard when you want to know about the worst parts of us.”
“You’ve been a very friendly and welcoming planet so far,” I said, “I want to see the other side of the coin. I highly doubt it will be anything I haven’t heard before.”
“Bet,” Sandra said, leaning forward immediately. “How about slavery? We still have slavery. Sexual slavery too, you know. Illegal, but people do it,”
“Extremely common for planets with capitalistic economies,” I said, “and those who are greedy. Sexual slavery is rarer, but not unheard of. It’s a crime on ninety-nine percent of planets.”
“But not on all of them?” Sandra asked.
“There are a couple species where it’s the norm for one sex to be complete under the control of the others,” I said. “I think it’s barbaric, but as you said, we don’t understand everything. Besides, those cultures don’t resemble yours or mine at all. They’re more like the insect colonies you have here on earth or the burrowing creatures on Chint.”
Sandra did not look placated, but she nodded. “How about serial killers?”
“There are whole cultures that make a sport of killing,” I said, “maybe not in the same way as humans, or not for the same reasons.”
“Racially motivated crimes?”
“Generally motivated by species divides, not the,” I paused, showing my disdain for the very idea, “different amount of pigment found in the skin. Some species declare their colonized worlds to be only for them and don’t allow immigration. Sometimes, if they decide that a planet belongs to only them, they’ll bully others off it.”
She clicked her tongue, finished her cup of coffee. I offered her my untouched one, and she took it. “Okay,” she said, “what about religiously motivated crimes?”
“Among the most common of all,” I said, “and quite dangerous.”
She deflated a little. “Sexual orientation?” She asked.
“That one is less common. Most other species don’t care who is attracted to whom. I have heard that the species who do care can be quite violent about it, though.”
“Damn,” She leaned back, “I guess we really aren’t special.”
“Your violence isn’t unique,” I agreed. “You are different in other ways.”
“Like what?” She crushed the empty coffee cup flat against the table.
I didn’t tell her that the amount of violence humans did, and how varied it was in motive, was odd in itself. No: it was better to let her believe humanity was normal in their crimes at least for now. Violence is a symptom of underlying problems. It could be as easy to solve as an unfair economic system, which would be alleviated by emigration to space and other planets, or as difficult as an ingrained aspect of human genetics. I hoped that wasn’t the case. Being a mercenary race was not a pleasant fate. Instead, I said, “Your social structures, your adaptability, and your lack of self-preservation instincts.” I was thinking about the athletes poisoning themselves to perform their superhuman tasks better. It must destroy their bodies, I thought.
She smiled, exposing a single sharp incisor like she knew that each thing was also a threat in disguise. It was as unnerving as ever.
“I still want to know, through your eyes, about current events and the state of the world,” I said. “and I could use some guidance on where to learn more about humans, what sources to trust, and what biases I need to be aware of.”
“Okay,” She said, “you need the AP News and Reuters. They’re international journalism organizations, and they’re pretty unbiased.”
“And that’s it?” I asked.
“Those are the two I know off the top of my head. There’s also the New York Times, but you have to pay to access them. Fox News is free, but, you know how I was talking about racists and homophobes?”
“Yes,” I said, though the words did not quite translate.
“That’s where they get their news,” She said, “so don’t take anything they say too seriously.”
“And as for less professional sources?” I asked.
“You have Twitter, don’t you?” She said, “Speaking of, you have a promise to keep.”
We went back inside, where digital screens were easier to read, and Sandra gave me a lesson on how to navigate social media. Eventually, I put together a whole twitter “thread” about the Frid and their stolen planet.
I managed to ask more about current and historical events. Sandra was well-educated and quick: she could give me basic overviews of most of modern history and go into detail about politics in the United States for about forty years in the past. She had promised to actually do some research with me about human laws and how they defined criminal actions. She had let slip that in the united states, there were at least three different degrees of murder against another human: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter, and it had stalled my writing while I picked apart the definitions from each other.
Finally, annoyed with Sandra’s insistence that I focus and feeling confident in my writing and communication skills, I pressed the ‘post’ button and sat back from the computer.
“There,” I said, “humanity now knows about an interplanetary conflict that neither affects nor concerns them. Hopefully they find it interesting.”
“There is nothing more interesting than drama that you don’t have to deal with yourself,” Sandra said. She had pulled out her phone and was tapping at the screen. A moment later, my computer chimed, and I saw that she had liked and retweeted the thread. She hadn’t added a comment, just had silently sent the message on.
She and a thousand other people in the next hour. They read, processed, and passed the message onward, like a single immense living thing. Some chimed in, and some stayed silent. And within three hours, #Frid was trending, and it was the only thing humans were talking about.
As horrified as I was to have been tricked into generating the media frenzy I had been trying to avoid, I was enamored with the way it had come about. There was no government dictating what was said, no filters applied, only humanity and my own words. I knew it was dangerous, but as the silent clamor of outrage grew, I could not bring myself to feel bad about it.
There were humans more focused on me and my place on earth than the conflict, though, and they were being very strange.
“Sandra?” I said.
“Yes?” She was almost up to her knees in books by then, marking passages and pulling out bits of information. Compiling the information I had asked her to find for me. After she was done with that, I was planning to ask her about places to go in the nearby cities and communities. It was time I started actually exploring Earth.
“Why are the humans calling me a ‘dommy mommy?'”
She froze and looked up at me slowly, fighting a smile the whole way. The moment she made eye contact, she burst out laughing.
“What?” I asked
“Is Twitter asking you to step on them?” She said after she had calmed down.
“Just ignore them. Some people have boundary issues.”
I thought about it for a moment, and then said, “Is this a sexual thing?”
“Yep,” She was smirking. “It’s all talk though, don’t worry.”
“Hmm,” I closed the notification and put it out of my mind.
“Does that make us special too?” Sandra asked.
“Yes,” I said, “most species don’t find alien species sexually appealing. Even if it’s just talking about it.”
She blinked at me. “I’m walking a line professionally here. You’re my boss. You hired me. Typically, we don’t talk about anything sexual at work—”
“Forget it then,” I said, “the last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable or put you in an awkward position. I might ask about human sexualities and how they’re expressed at some point, however.”
“Oh, I can talk about that some.” She said, “and I can introduce you to the LGBTQ center on campus. They’re definitely more qualified than me.”
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.
“But I was going to say that you’re also my friend,” Sandra said, “and so I have no problem telling you that yes: humans absolutely do and will find aliens sexually attractive. And if I were you, I’d learn about how we express that interest, because you’re not immune to predators.”
“Are you worried I’ll be attacked?” I asked.
“Part of being a woman is always being aware of your own safety.” She was deflecting.
“I’ll be okay,” I assured her but didn’t say why. I suspected a conversation about my own sexual biology would be crossing the line of professionalism that she wanted to maintain.
She rolled her eyes and went back to her stack of research documents.
I saw that I had yet another notification on Twitter. Another human saying something both violating and flattering, I thought, but when I checked it, I saw it wasn’t anything of the sort.
“I want to fly up there and beat up the empire,” It read, followed by a gif of an immense spaceship erupting into flames. It sent a little shiver down my spine, but I dismissed it as human bluster. There weren’t enough humans in space to fight one transport vessel, let alone take down a whole fleet of highly-equipped interstellar warships.