His real name wasn’t Karapophores, if ‘real name’ had a meaning anymore, but it may as well have been. Having adopted it - after legal pressure from the Society for Dignity in Extracultural Interactions - he found that the carefully calculated identity suited him very well. Such a name, he was told, conveyed an aura of nobility, harkening back to the Ancient Greeks, and with it positive associations of early developments in science and philosophy.
Little time had passed before ‘Karapophores’ had permeated him entirely, the inertia of those five syllables manifesting as gravitas. Universally he was usually called Kar, though lately he had come to think of the shorthand version as rather too casual for his tastes.
“This way” said Melissa, his travelling companion and xenorelational cultural expert, “I memorised the map.” She jerked a thumb to the left, quite at odds with the committee-approved smooth directional gesture, which swirled in a semicircle, and concluded with a graceful upturned palm. That also connoted an invitation to walk alongside, of mutual respect and so many layers of etiquette that… well… A coarse jerked thumb did not show them in a good light. How fortunate, then, that no-one was watching.
She was already walking ahead of him, taking in every detail.
“Wait”, he said, “we must have a measured pace.”
“Oh stop fussing. We’re not facing-off the ambassador just yet. If he has a face.”
Karapophores steadied himself - again - in concert with a subconscious sniff. Being appointed to the attache had entailed three years of training, in much the same way in which the astronaut selection process used to be carried out. Only now, candidates were required to study a broader and deeper set of teaching as well as being in peak fitness and exemplars of moral code. Anyone chosen to represent Earth, and thus proffered to the newly-revealed sentience in the sky, was the six-sigma-best.
“I will not!” he said at length, “decorum is an absolute. It is not to be turned on and off at will.”
Kar was a shade under seven foot tall, a longstanding bias in favour of tall politicians and celebrities having been formalised by the selectors. This despite Melissa’s unheard insistence of it being a straightforward case of parochial thinking. As she repeatedly delighted in telling him, alien notions of fitness and worth did not necessarily include the distance from your nose to your foot. As a five foot two example of humanity, she would not have made the selection, had her expertise on alien culture not outpaced her rivals by many times.
“Well come on then”, she sang back at him, twirling on the spot, “let’s do this! It’s exciting!”
“Wait, I must be ready.”
Kar checked his appearance.
One of the other innovations from the Department was a sizable budget expressly for calculating the optimum way of presenting oneself to representatives from from other races. Mel had been rather vocally opposed, and ultimately ignored. What the committee, composed of Nobel Laureates, classical artists and winners of a worldwide competition had resulted in was what they were currently wearing: a modern version of a Greek toga, lighter and with rather more pockets than that which the historical version could boast. Nobility, dignity, and grace.
Since all of the environments were entirely artificial, being temperature, pressure and humidity controlled (to say nothing of the right mix of gases to enable living at all) it was possible to wear whatever you pleased. Mel had made her feelings known by the discordant addition of workman’s utility belt, a baseball cap and a knitted scarf. They’d had words about it, but she was unrepentant.
Ahead of them, scheduled in to the barest sliver of time, was a welcoming party. Though it had to be said that he only supposed this to be the case, based on the vagaries of translation.
Karapophores, every twitch of every muscle carefully controlled, strode purposefully after her.
Journeying to the distant, in stellar terms, alien Cultural Centre had taken a long while; even with the fastest available ships, transfer point had followed transfer point in a vast chain of an itinerary. Both of the Terran representatives and their craft had been conveyed along the route in the manner of an Olympic torch. None of the symbolism was accidental. Most of the craft thus docked with had proved sleek and swift, if not necessarily dignified. Given the robotic nature of the majority of them and divergent environmental needs of crewed ships, pragmatism had dictated the Earth vessel to travel as little more than a cargo package.
As a point of pride, however, the Terran ship was home-grown and capable of space travel in its own right, even if not as… performant… as anything else encountered. Karapophores in the evangelist commitment of his numerous capacities, had pressed the Council to undertake the entire odyssey in a home-grown vessel. Shortly, the techs had reported back that, current given human levels of technology, they didn’t recommend the course unless no-one minded a trip of thirty seven years.
No matter. It would be a privilege for the other races to bear them onwards.
And so the resulting Argo was launched from the island of Santorini towards the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, where it was collected by a Kerchuran barge (Barge!) for the first leg. A dozen or more transfers later, Argo was ejected six months from the Cultural Centre for the terminal cruise inward. No-one watching would therefore be aware of the assistance thus received, which was only proper. In all the elapsed time, Mel and Kar had been in separate cabins. Which was also only proper.
Anything sentient now looking from one of the innumerable viewports of the Centre would have seen a silvery disk glide slowly past. Had they turned instruments on it, inscriptions in all the languages of Earth would be revealed. Poetry, greetings, prose and mathematics, each etched into the polished hull, illuminated by a carefully place light. Argo was beautiful to behold: within a human psychological framework at least.
Just… not nippy.
Melissa had stopped in one of the connecting walkways, a light smile upon her, as she enjoyed the sight outwith the immediate environment. A seamless strip of something perfectly transparent lined the entire length of the connecting tube, which formed a walkway. As with their original arrival some days ago, the view onto space was captivating. The Centre didn’t form a monolithic block as in most Human space structure, but was constructed from thousands of spheres connected by thin cylinders; each representing a different habitat for compatible species. Overall, the impression was of being within an endless stylised atom.
“Isn’t this amazing”, she said, “After months of looking at the inside of cargo bays, this is amazing. Don’t you think it’s amazing?”
Kar remained impassive. The various drives within her were temporarily out of balance, but the mission’s importance would shortly be in the ascendant. When it became greater than whatever aesthetic worth she was gaining, they would continue.
“In your own time”, he said.
“We’re not in a hurry, are we?” But it was phrased as a statement.
He strode on a few dozen paces, just to underline the point, faltering only when it was clear that, indeed, only Mel knew the route. That is, aside from a breached dam worth of Earthlings over the months (though Kar tried not to think of them) as evidenced by the occasional fittings designed for Humans to grasp, or signs in one of the three most common Terran languages. Such crudely physical adornments were ignored by him too, as not befitting this newly navigable territory of pure knowledge.
In the immediate aftermath of the Detection, curious extraterrestrial species in fast craft had invited people, seemingly with no overarching plan and with a distressing amount of layfolk chosen randomly, to come and take a gander at the marvels about to be revealed. None of that counted, now that the Homeworld had forged an official diplomatic team to engage in official, sanctioned First Contact; a process which had extended far beyond the initial euphoria of discovering lost brothers amidst the heavens.
That process had been ongoing for some time now, and was not why Kar was here.
“Melissa,” he said.
“Coming!” she said and skipped ahead of him.
With the mission once again apace, the numinous glow in his heart rose. Why even now a contingent of pan-stellar brethren standing across the Cultural Centre’s voluminous atrium had an arm outstretched toward them: pointing out the newcomers from Earth so that all may see. If only the distance was lessened so that he may exchange thoughts. But matters first had to be dealt with. Swiftly and with grace.
The illumination of awareness was a potent force; Kar smiled broadly, content in his mastery of himself.
When Kar caught up Mel, his arrival intersected with the path being taken by… something. She was standing in a pose which he had come to recognise as analytical, more suited to fieldwork or the laboratory. He had been prepared for this, the unworldliness, the possibility of a xenophobia so deep-rooted in the human psyche that she would disgrace both herself and her fellow men and women. But not him: that would be effectively impossible for one as grounded as himself.
But he was strong, dignified, proud and held open his palms in greeting. Mel waved him off. The creature - he corrected himself - the being, was emitting a sound somewhere between a drain’s fettered ambitions and a frog being palpated. It shuddered for a second, great ripples flowing over its purple skin, before squidging off down the corridor.
“Melissa? I confess the meaning of this is entirely opaque to me.”
“My first extraterrestrial”, she said with a touch of wistfulness. “And not one we’ve had data to study”, she added in a reproachful tone, “you shouldn’t have done that.”
By all legal rights she should have been called Athena, (and it pained him a little to say this). That the being had been looking at him was beyond dispute, eyes being one of the few things with which most sentient crea - beings - possessed. Eyes were single closest thing in nature to a standard interface, so to speak, even if they didn’t necessarily come in pairs. What went on in the organic, and occasionally electronic, minds of the Galaxy’s inhabitants was a problem of a different order entirely.
“How did our aspect present to it?”
“What did it think of us?”
“I think it was laughing at us.”
“Laughing? At the very joy of being in a centre of learning amongst its fellow intellects?”
She looked thoughtful.
“No, at us” she said, not giving any sign of having been offended.
“Is it our clothes?” he asked, pulling at his gold-inlaid collar in mystification.
“I have no idea why it would be. Sartorial elegance is very greatly dependent on the perceptions of the beholder. Even in human culture, clothing from one geographical region differs markedly from another. We could be naked for all the difference it would make to an alien. Well, to most of them.”
“A thought must have occurred to it by co-incidence, which gave it a measure of happiness.”
“I really don’t —”
Satisfied, he turned his thoughts to the present mission.
Somewhere in the Cultural Centre was the original information from the Detection. That sacred boundary between being alone and being part of the greater galactic community, had been endlessly speculated upon: when humans became one of the known species. Details, however, had remained a little fuzzy. Not redacted, exactly, just inaccessible: possibly another of those little tests that didn’t look like tests, but which had to be passed anyway. Despite efforts back home to work from existing data, no-one had been able to pinpoint the moment, and therefore what had been said, when it had been said and who had taken it upon themselves the responsibility for the world.
“So to summarise?” Karapophores said haughtily.
“Horses for courses.”
“Wait, what does that even mean?”
But again, she was already walking ahead of him.
After an epic - by human standards -voyage, waiting in an alien reception area gave even more time to think than the vast emptiness of even hyperspacial travel. Melissa offered the opinion that the station resembled a 21st Century shopping mall. It was rather more geared to living in three dimensions than two, with areas of reduced and even null gravity, than a shopping mall. Vast expanses of chrome plating made the bulk of the Centre’s interior, regardless of which of the spherical nodes they were in.
The seats they were sitting in were too large, but as Melissa said, that was better than being too small. Or having to wait in a tank of water, as one past miscommunication had given the impression that humans were semi-aquatic.
“Is this delay normal?” said Kar at last.
“It’s a Kerchuran diplomacy officer we’re meeting. Kerchuran’s have a time unit equivalent to about two and a half minutes. Each major action they perform is timed to align on a boundary, each boundary being a multiple of the unit, the multiple being directly proportional to how important the task is perceived to be.”
“So for example, we could only make a cup of tea on a ten minute boundary, but something more important has to be initiated at the top of the hour.”
“Yes, that’s it. We must be seen as quite important if we’re being made to wait.”
“But what happens if he gets it wrong?”
“Then his associates go ‘tsk’ I guess.”
Five more minutes went past in silence. No events of any significance had occurred.
“Have you decided yet?”
“Of course the Vote. What other matter requires a decision?”
“That’s a year away!”
“Nevertheless, I would know your intentions.”
Mel sighed, pulling the brim of her cap down to shield her eyes.
“We should just be Humans. We’ve always been that.”
“Gaians has more gravitas. You would do well to consider that.”
“All very, very well, but —”
A group of three beings of a species Kar didn’t recognise exited from the Kerchurian’s office, the door sliding smoothly behind them. One of them half-turned to Kar as if noticing him and being intrigued. The others joined suit, stopped in their literal tracks by this new sight.
She was entranced and said nothing. The first alien - purple, mostly conical - shuddered in a way which was disturbingly like a jelly being shaken. All three took up the motion, before it ceased and they continued out of the waiting room.
“I think —” she began.
“They were sharing a joke! Even I could see that. Happy to see a new species such as us!”
“I’m not so—”
Past literature had provided at least a possible template for how humanity should think of itself. For most of history the problem simply hadn’t existed, humanity was simply “us”. With the knowledge of other intelligent species out in the Galaxy, were they now to be Humans, Earthlings, Terrans or something else. Opinion, as befitted the diverse bunch of - as Melissa was wont to call them when in bars - hominids with slightly niftier sticks, were equally diverse. Kar favoured Gaians, which sounded weighty enough to do everyone justice. Every step, every inch forward, every iota of progress, leading to a culture for the chest to swell at the very mention of. Karapophores felt transcendent.
Ahead of them, the Kerchuran diplomacy officer opened his door and, with a hand shaped like a paddle, beckoned them in.
Now, the two of them were alone.
Before them was a box; a cube of information in physical form. Gloss black, a hands-width in dimension, it contained what Melissa had sought and which Kar had craved.
All of the staff had left them, filing out on treads or slime trails, as if withdrawing behind a curtain to debate the winner of a contest for which the rules had never been alluded to, much less codified and presented. Interfacing with it was as much a test of a new species as anything else, to the extent which Kar understood matters. No penalties for failure existed - that wasn’t the point - if you could do it, then good for you. Here, fortunately, Humanity was on surer ground than with their space travelling. Mel placed a computer device before it, a modified Terran personal tablet. Inside, the electronics were perfectly standard. Outside, another committee-led recommendation had left testimony of their earlier presence, as solid and unmistakable as the carvings on a stone tablet - which the device was designed resembled. Not only resemble, it wouldn’t have raised a querying look in 50 AD.
She activated it, the “carvings” of poetry on the front crossfading into touchscreen controls.
“Well this is it” Kar said.
“You may proceed.”
“I’ve been worrying about this” said Melissa.
“What is there to worry about?”
“This is all just routine, of course, once you strip away the pomp. But… oh nothing”
“Very well.” He gestured, elegantly.
The cube in front of them was a standard type. Interfacing to it, as if in an eternal test to which human champions had been subject, took only a second. She started to filter and follow the pool of data, a complete record, a dossier, of how humanity had come to the attention of aliens. Kar paced, even a minute being an instant of time for which the answer was taking too long. However a rainbow of a smile was breaking through in slow motion.
Most of Earth was still reeling from the revelation of other lifeform’s existence, though the adventurous had immediately commandeered any transmission equipment they could find. Given that radio waves propagated only slowly and the place of the Detection was many light years distant, it was a snowstorm of small romantic gestures only.
Whilst it was known, of course, that a particular transmission from Earth had been detected, leading to an eventual ambassadorial mission, no-one had any idea exactly which transmission it was. An immediate worry was the old canard about the 1936 Olympics being in the vanguard of TV beams of substantial power, hence Hitler becoming the face of Earth. The direction, thankfully, had not matched that of the receiving station, to shared - though not universal - relief. Whatever had happened, the message had originated on Earth in the year 2008. Efforts by Melissa and her team had uncovered as many facts surrounding the event as was possible to do remotely.
She continued tapping, filtering and refining.
The First Impressions of humanity! Kar took a moment to envisage what it must have been like. The actual reality of it was no doubt too technical to appreciate; encoding rates, codes, waveforms and the like. Symbolically it was, to him, as if a figure had strode out of a misty forest. Whereas before only calls of creatures could be heard, random and minor, now there was an authoritative voice. Decisive, strong, noble. Man.
A man, then, or a woman - doubtless a seeker after Truth - had been in their study, tending to the intellectual problems of the day. Looking at the stars in between pondering equations, perhaps composing poetry to express the immenseness of it all, lifted out of animal braying by the numinous. A moment of divine inspiration, a symbol here, a number there and thus was revealed a mathematical truth of sublime beauty. So profound was the insight that no journal, no institute would be worthy of framing it. So this figurative seeker shouted it to the very sky itself, exulting in the purity of knowing.
What Kar would had traded to witness such an event!
No civilisation had existed around Gliese 581c, the known vector of the beam, a mere 20 years signal time from the Sun, nor had any technology been in evidence. Only a further 150 light years beyond the system had there been a listening post. One which had then focused on an obscure G2V star, whose third planet had become rather bright in the radio spectrum of late…
A sequence of specially composed melodic harmonies told of the successful location of the data.
Everyone - even Humans, now - knew of the Elaniana, whose first message into the sky had contained a proof of what Earth mathematicians knew as the Chandramanyan Conjecture, a problem which had hitherto defeated all the known species. As a demonstration of their intelligence and worth, it had garnered universal respect. Of all the radio beaming into the vast yonder, Shakespearian sonnets, mathematical proofs, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the noblest and best of human intellectual thought, the first detected communication from humans was — Kar closed his eyes, savouring the moment of the reveal.
Here, he thought, here had humans finally made their voice known to the cosmos. Humans, Gaians, would be known as the Galaxy’s Poets or Mathematicians, even Philosophers, the Spiritual Soul of the Infinite Compassion and Mercy of… and…
Mel had an odd expression on her face.
A hand raised itself immediately to her mouth.
Which didn’t stop the laugh from escaping.
“What is the meaning of this undignified behaviour? It is one thing for another species to share a joke in public if that is their base culture? But for us to indulge.”
Mel’s face started the slow process of looking stunned, for only a moment before another giggle burst up from within her like a bubble of volcanic gas escaping a fissure. She adjusted her cap, in a broad caricature of restoring equilibrium.
“Well?” Kar demanded.
“Nothing was regulated back then” she explained, “anyone could send anything.”
“Yes, yes, I know this. Even now nothing is proscribed. Why in all the world should that matter. No-one is going to bring disrepute on their species. It is literally unthinkable.”
Mel decided how best to relate her findings.
“Ah, not so unthinkable as all that.” She settled for highlighting the pertinent passages, translated to formal English by the tablet. Turning it around for Kar to read, he got the message, pulling a sculpted finger along the lines, mouth inert until the end of the first sentence. Seemingly of its own volition, it spoke the words. Something was happening to his voice as the support mechanism of his body began to quail. He read. And read it again. Read further. And further again. His stomach started to feel funny. Now energy was summoned for his voice to become a roar.
“We were most proud of telling the Universe about our potatoes?!”
A twitch had developed in Kar’s right toe and was working its way to his eyelids in a little tsunami of disequilibrium.
“Potatoes. No doubt.”
“But why? Why?”
“A promotion. Someone won a competition to broadcast a message into space, along with sponsorship of the makers. We were most proud of telling whoever was listening about slicing a vegetable into thin sections, frying them in oil and consuming them as a snack. Very popular back in the 21st Century.”
“No, this has to be wrong. It’s a cruel joke. A cruel joke. We are Gaians! This is beneath us, unworthy of us. It can’t be true, it simply cannot! You stab at a poor philosopher’s soul! Ah yes, I see, I see. It is a test of us. We are being presented with a test, to see how we react! Well we shall react with the dignity befitting us!”
Mel sighed, looking thoughtful.
“We’d always wondered about the wisdom of letting unknown creatures with unknown capabilities know we existed. Would they be friendly, would they want to eliminate us? I guess no-one imagined this consequence. Yes, their reactions make sense now.”
He now listening only to his internal monologue.
“But we cannot be held up as living examples of what our ancestors did. We are Gaians! This is not us!”
Mel shook her head, sadly. The assault on Karapophores’ self-worth was now complete. She comforted him, as far as she was able and as far as protocol would allow. An outlook in which a baseball cap standing proxy for formal dress, was proving a more robust buffer to the truth than a toga. Confirmation of what Mel now suspected, from the Ambassador, was going to hurt like a bitch.
She led him, not without a measure of compassion, back to Argo.
Kar rationalised all the way back to Earth.
And that, broadly, was how the term “Human”, “Terran” and even “Earthling” fell out of favour, in the bulk of the galaxy’s population of which humans were such a small part. No being could know everything about all the races, or even a small part of it. Only key facts, fair or not. Sure, there was always the official name, once it had been voted on, but it would never stick. By His deeds shall you know Him, or to put it another way: only warp drive and reputation travel faster than light.
Throughout the Galaxy, now and for the rest of time, Earth and the human race would be forever known as the Planet of the Potato People.
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