Soft One was standing in the corner silently when Polav entered his field office in the enclave.
The aleb were a genderless, warm-blooded species of smooth-skinned hexapeds inhabiting the fourth planet of a sun known colloquially as Raeth’s Star. The planet itself was named New Lodz, after a city on pre-expansion Earth. The creatures had been given the scientific name xeno sapiens lodzensii, but their human observers had taken to calling them the aleb. And though the research outpost had been in existence less than 30 years, no one living there could recall the origin or meaning of that name.
Roughly three feet tall and almost twice as long, an aleb resembled a docile, hairless bear with pinkish, mottled skin. From a barrel-shaped body protruded six stubby, flipper-like limbs and a small, eyeless head. The species was technically blind, having originated—they claimed—in the darkness of a moon locked in the perpetual shadow of its parent world. Despite this, the aleb possessed excellent hearing, smell, and the ability to detect changes in electromagnetic fields.
Soft One did not turn to face Polav when he entered. Unconsciously, the xenoethnographer found himself regarding his liaison as something like a pet even though he knew it was articulate and fully sentient, with an intelligence that was at turns surprising and unnerving. At the very least, it was utterly unlike the scrappy dog his family had kept when he was growing up on Enceladus.
“This one bids you welcome, Yuri.”
On a narrow collar around its neck, Soft One wore a neurographic transceiver, a device that performed rudimentary translations between its own thought patterns and human language. These communications were broadcast from a small speaker in a flat, vaguely male voice.
“Hello again, my friend,” Polav said, draping his jacket over the back of his chair. “I hope you’re feeling well today.”
“This one is experiencing an expected range of sensations. Your arrival was anticipated with enthusiasm. The morning cantata was particularly moving today, and this one is eager to describe it to you.”
When the aleb communicated with one another, they did so using vibrations generated by one of their internal organs. On one occasion, when the local clutch had—as they did every morning—sung their communal chorale, Polav touched the Soft One’s skin to experience the inaudible ultrasounds through his fingertips. It was a remarkable and complex system of call-and-response communication, during which each member sang in turn and the group responded as chorus. The harmonic layers of a cantata were so rich and subtle they required very sensitive equipment to record and analyze; they were also the topic of a journal article Polav was in the midst of drafting.
“What did the colony sing about today?” Polav asked, opening his notebook to a fresh page.
“The joining was discussed. This one had much to sing, and there was much sung in reply, as you can imagine.”
Soft One stirred, shuffling its ungainly body to turn and face its human companion. Because the aleb possessed no visual sensory organs, Polav knew the purpose of this maneuver was probably to smell him better; aleb used scent to detect changes in emotional state in much the same way humans read facial expressions.
“Yuri, does the joining give you concern? This one senses anxiety from you.”
“No, I wouldn’t say anxiety or concern,” Polav said, waving his hand dismissively before catching himself. “Let’s call it curiosity.”
He sat at his desk and noted the date and time in his notebook. While holographic cameras were useful for recording the sights and sounds of the enclave, for capturing his thoughts, he favored pen and paper over a digital tool. The process of laying ink onto a fresh page—of shaping the letters, first in the mind and then with the fingers—gave his words an intimacy that a digitized recording of his voice couldn’t replicate. As with so many things, in this too, he was a traditionalist.
Polav continued. “I had hoped we could return to a topic we discussed last time.”
“Of course,” the aleb said.
“Explain to me again why the joining means so much to your species.”
“Do you desire the repetition of information this one provided in the past?”
“No, that’s not it. You see … translation is a weak point of my science, much like the fallible nature of memory. Because translations can vary, and because memory is plastic, having a subject recount the same story multiple times over separate sessions can ensure that details are accurate and nothing is left out.”
There was a moment of silence before Soft One began.
“These, who you call aleb, did not come into their current form by natural selection. These were designed by the greater ones called benefactors, to serve as companions, to give comfort, and to sustain.”
Polav nodded as he wrote. “And what do you know about how these benefactors—whom I have referred to in the past as xeno sapiens weldoendi—designed you?”
“Are you asking, by what method?”
“This one does not know the details of the process. There is much the benefactors chose not to teach. These suspect this was not out of malice, but simply because it was not essential to the purpose that these understand the methods of origin.”
“Do you have any idea how long ago it was?”
“The thought-net has reasoned it must be several millennia.”
Each aleb clutch built a kind of neural network using the electromagnetic sensing capabilities of its constituent members, a process human researchers were only just beginning to understand. It was a way of sharing information within the group as well as preserving it across generations. These thought-nets might even have a primitive computational capacity, an idea that fascinated Polav and helped explain why he’d requested an assignment to New Lodz rather than any of a number of more biologically diverse but conventional alien habitats in explored space.
“To the best of your knowledge,” he asked, “what happened to the benefactors?”
“Their fate is not known to these. Their disappearance remains a source of great sorrow for the aleb. These do not know if aleb were abandoned on this planet while the benefactors pursued a higher purpose, or whether some accident led to these being left here.’
Polav spoke as he wrote. “Humans have found no physical evidence of the benefactor species, in this solar system or elsewhere. Is it possible they died out?”
“That is contained in the possible.”
“How long have they been gone?”
“The thought-net counts eighty-nine generations.”
Examination and inquiry put the average of aleb lifespan at almost 40 years, but they reached a mature reproductive age in five. Polav multiplied the numbers in the margin: by the aleb’s measurement, the Benefactors had been absent for almost 500 years.
“If no living aleb has been … joined to another being in all that time,” Polav asked, “how does the desire remain so strong?”
“This one can only speculate. It would seem almost intrinsic to the aleb to want this. Benefactors must have found some advantage to design these to believe so, that joining is part of their purpose, in order to eliminate misgivings and make the process as painless as possible.”
“‘Painless’ is an odd choice of words,” Polav noted.
Soft One paused for a moment. “It is true there is pain before the joining. It is also true that all beings experience pain. All beings experience an end. The joining is an end of sorts. So, this is not unnatural. But, it could also be called a beginning. That, for the aleb, is its allure. Do you understand, Yuri?”
Polav wrote excitedly; this was as close to metaphysical as his conversations had gotten with Soft One. After completing a final bullet point, he said, “humans have, in the past, created stories to explain what happens after death. These stories often theorize ways in which our essence—a non-physical part of ourselves—might persist after death; many of these stories became the basis of entire systems of belief.“
“This one understands. In cantata, these often sing of perpetuation. In your stories, does the human essence seek union with its benefactors? Put another way, could the longing to join be universal?”
“Some beliefs describe a sort of union with a metaphysical creator. Others do not.”
“Which of these stories is truth?” asked the aleb.
“None have been proven,” Polav said. Soft One was being surprisingly circumspect.
The aleb continued. “Do not all beings, even when aware of the certainty of death, desire that existence perpetuate?”
“That drive seems to be a constant across all species, perhaps a consequence of the survival instinct fundamental to life itself. But yours is the first species we have encountered that consents to being killed for the purpose of being consumed by another being. That seems, at first blush, to contradict the survival instinct. My own species long ago decided that slaughtering animals for food was unethical.”
“You do not eat other beings?”
“No. Our food consists of proteins and other nutrients created artificially.”
“Was this decision made because killing is wrong in all cases, or because food animals cannot consent?”
“After many thousands of years of philosophical thought, humans concluded that killing a sentient being without consent is unethical. It deprives that being of life against its will, and all thinking beings have a right to self-determination. Our definition of sentience was once so narrow it applied only to ourselves, but over time has evolved to include almost all complex, multicellular species.“
“This one is curious about consent. Are there instances in human society where consent to be killed is given?”
Polav nodded. “Members of my species may consent to be put to death humanely if their bodies are irreparably broken, or stricken with advanced age or incurable disease.”
The aleb shifted slightly. “Those who consent to die … under what conditions are they allowed to end their perpetuation?”
“Euthanasia is rendered painlessly, and only if the individual in question is deemed to be of sound mind.”
“Please explain soundness.”
“Soundness of mind is demonstrated when the decision is made as a result of clear and reasoned thought, unclouded by emotion. We do not allow people to take their own lives irrationally.”
There was another pause from Soft One. It shifted its bulk, then shuffled several steps toward Polav.
“Would you call this one irrational, Yuri?”
Polav, taken aback, pretended to scribble a note, a false gesture for a sightless alien. Finally, he said, “no. I wouldn’t.”
He regarded Soft One. Aleb were remarkably, almost eerily still when not engaged in some physical task. Nothing on their dappled, rotund exterior betrayed an emotional state; they lacked facial features, and the orifice used for eating did not possess the expressiveness of a human mouth.
“What confuses me,” Polav said, “is the reasonableness with which you state your desire. That’s why I’m asking these questions: to ascertain your state of mind. You seem very rational, though this could be a false impression. The transceiver does a reasonable job translating brain signals into language, but the subtlety of word choice and context, as they pertain to emotional state, can be difficult to parse. Frankly, I don’t even know if you experience emotions in the same way we do. Like the rest of your kind, you seem perfectly rational in conversation. But when you speak of this urge your species possesses, you speak in purely emotional terms.”
“This one cannot explain the desire,” Soft One said. “This one only knows by depth of conviction that joining is the purpose of the aleb. That this is not sufficient for you to understand is regrettable.”
Polav sighed, then closed his notebook. Soft One took another step toward him.
“If this one and you were joined, Yuri, explanation would not be necessary. You would understand.”
Polav gazed at the fleshy lump before him. He felt an urge to take the long walk back to the hoverlift and return to the outpost. It was silly: the aleb were harmless, if strangely obsessive. And he had a lot of field work to accomplish in the next two days.
“It would fulfill this one’s greatest desire, Yuri. Then all would be whole. All would be together.”
Polav stood and walked to the hut’s only window. His gaze drifted as he looked distractedly out over the marshy sink that served as home for this enclave; there were four others out there as well, in similar environs. The aleb seemed to prefer wetlands; possibly, the wide variety of food sources suited their omnivorous diet. The swamp itself was a pungent stew of rotting vegetation and water accumulated from the rain that fell several times each 37-hour daily cycle on New Lodz. Peculiar, veiny plants and giant blue fungi native to this world rimmed the sunken area, and the hillocks beyond were tufted with towering purple grasses that hummed when the wind blew just right.
He drew in a breath and sighed. The atmosphere was rich with oxygen but had a vaguely metallic tang to it. Long-timers claimed it took a year on the planet for it to fade from the senses; to him, it was a reminder he was still a stranger in this place. The angle of the sun here still felt odd, and the weather patterns were unpredictable in a way that made him careless at times. His previous assignment on Ytter Nova, documenting non-familial trine bonding amongst the qil—a long-known and well-researched species—had been three comfortable years of easy field study within well developed, Earth-like confines. This place, by comparison, felt thoroughly … alien.
His confusion about how to approach the issue of Soft One’s request was compounded by the fact that the aleb, like the humans who’d arrived 30 years ago to study the planet, were not of the place. Xenoethnography placed a great emphasis on long-term environmental factors when building a model of the evolution of a species’ behaviors, beliefs and cultural concepts. Not only did the aleb have frustratingly little culture, they seemed to draw no inspiration from the world around them. Their names for things—plants, animals, natural phenomena, colors, states of being—were reductive in the extreme. Talking with one of them was like trying to have a conversation with someone who had never heard of adjectives.
So this mysterious and unexplainable urge, seemingly innate, to be killed and eaten defied their every attempt to explain. The species also seemed to have been engineered with an utter lack of self-reflectiveness, demonstrated by an inability—or unwillingness—to examine their most strongly-held belief.
Stirred from his reverie by the roll of distant thunder, Polav turned to ask Soft One a last question, but the aleb had gone. He guessed it had gone underground to join its brethren in whatever collective tasks they undertook every morning.
He sighed and crossed the hut to brew some coffee.