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Contact

Contact by Eileen Gunn, Illustration by Galen DaraThe Desert of Winds was inland, a four-day flight from the eyries along the coastal mountains. After the eight-day fast, it was a long journey, even for the strongest-winged. But when they felt the high, hot desert wind lift them like dry leaves, even the most exhausted stretched their wings to the fullest and surrendered to the euphoria of approaching death.

Girat had been riding the winds for three days. She no longer made a distinction between her body and the current of air on which it rested. Mesas blue-green with lichen, chalky desert sinks, the land flowed like viscous liquid beneath her wide, motionless wings. The circle of horizon shimmered with heat and the sky shaded to transparent blue at the zenith. Suspended between earth and sky, she savored the time remaining and looked forward to death with pleasure.

It was her final afternoon. She was approaching the old City of Pillars, where she would die surrounded by memories of her ancestors. As she passed over the outskirts of the dead city, she noticed a visitor’s encampment below, its tent a sharp cool circle against the hot desert floor.

Her people avoided the awkward, wingless visitors—their devices produced unnatural wave disturbances. Girat murmured a prayer against excessive vibration and glanced down at the camp.

There was only one visitor and it was lying motionless in the shadows, a victim, perhaps, of the city, or of its own ghastly technology. Girat circled and descended, preparing to salvage its flesh for its relatives. She hoped she could do so without abandoning her early and well-deserved deathflight.

Odd that the preservation of their dead flesh was so important to the visitors. The past summer, Girat had observed them packing their dead in boxes and burying them for preservation. Perhaps they would eat them later. She found the thought repellant.

Girat was descending toward the visitor, only a few beats away, when suddenly it came alive and leaped to its feet, snatching a small object from the ground beside it. It held the object at arm’s length toward Girat, an action she recognized as an attempt to preserve the formality and distance that existed between her people and the visitors.

Well, that was certainly all right with her. With a sharp beat of her wings, Girat continued past, to resume her slow flight of dehydration. Since the visitor was not dead, she would not have to delay her dying on its account.

As she passed over the visitor, the object in its hand moved. Her right wing stung momentarily and went numb. Girat faltered in her flight, gave a jolting flap, and swung irregularly to the right, favoring the wounded wing.

Moving faster than she would have thought possible with a wing injury and in her moribund condition, Girat swooped toward the center of the empty city. She landed clumsily on an abandoned flight deck, bruising her numbed shoulder against a wall of masonry.

For a peaceful, pleasing death, she must die airborne, in a slow glide to the earth: She could fly no further until sensation returned to her wing. A maze of warrens and obelisks, its vibrations stilled, the City of Pillars would shelter her until she could resume flying. She settled her wounded limb carefully in place, then scuttled as quickly as she could down a deteriorating ramp.

The interruption was unexpected, but like any event on a deathflight, it must be accepted. A sentient creature like the visitor, however, ought to have more control over its actions. Her people were wise to avoid them, she thought. The miasmic resonance enveloping their camps would cripple anyone’s control.

At the foot of the spiraling inner ramp, strewn with ragged insulation and electronics torn from the walls, a broad irregular doorway led into a pillared square. Windswept detritus, wires and cables of synthetic substances, had piled up to the edge of the door. Girat stepped over the rubble and moved out into the open plaza.

***

Bozhye moi. The size of that bird. He knew he had hit it with the trank gun, but he hadn’t brought it down. Damned dosage too low.

Alex Zamyatin watched the bird sail toward the center of the abandoned city. It was conscious, but the drug obviously was taking effect. The bird landed on a balcony a kilometer away. Good, he thought. It wouldn’t fall too far when it keeled over.

He shrugged on his copter pack and started after it. The city fell away beneath him—tall, slab-like buildings around tiled squares. Pyerva’s lighter gravity made it easier to get around, but without the copter, he would have had a rough time in the roadless ruins.

Laid out in a series of open squares, vast empty plazas edged with towering obelisks, the city had obviously been the home of a people oriented to the air—and all the higher animals on Pyerva were winged. There were no streets below him and few connecting passages between the honeycomb of sandstone buildings and squares.

The balcony where the bird had landed was directly ahead. Alex was anxious to find the bird. It was his first chance, the expedition’s first chance, to examine a live specimen. They had dissected several dead birds found in the ruins, and had raised more questions than they had answered. What did the birds eat? Their intestines had contained no food at all. Where did they nest? Nowhere near the cities, that was certain; aerial reconnaissance had yielded no clues—no birds had even been sighted. How did they use those highly developed paws? Four fingers, two thumbs: They looked very efficient. And why did they die? In every case, dehydration had been the apparent cause of death. The wiry bodies were dried out, tongues shriveled, mucous membranes cracked. Perhaps they were gliding birds blown off course, away from their habitat, by strong winds.

Despite their large brains and opposable digits, there was no definite proof that they were at all intelligent. No artifacts or clothing. They didn’t inhabit the cities. And the initial planetary survey hadn’t revealed any other settlements.

And yet, they were the only possibility so far for intelligent life on this first extrasolar, life-harboring planet, Pyerva. The complexity of their nervous systems argued intelligence. And, structurally, they were the right creatures to live in these cities. Everything was built to the scale of these birds, alone of all the animals of Pyerva. Devices were engineered for their peculiar hands. If he were going to design a city for the birds to live in, Alex conceded, these were the cities he would design. A live bird should end the speculation.

Alex landed on the balcony. It was pretty shaky—he ran into the building. They were familiar to him now, these alien structures. Doors were staggered at various levels in the walls, designed for entrance from the air. Interior automated ramps, no longer operative, led down to the plaza level. He scanned the cluttered interior, furniture half or fully extruded from the walls and floor, the disorder of decaying mechanics. The bird was nowhere in sight. Alex ran down the ramp, checking quickly at each level. It would head for the plaza, he thought. Someplace open to the sky.

He found the bird collapsed in the square, not too far from the door. It lay near one of the pillars, its huge wings folded into fleshy carapace against its back. It was breathing shallowly, rapidly, its eyes covered with a whitish nictating membrane. Rate of metabolism and body temperature were even higher than he had expected, but it would take a lot of energy to get that big a creature into the air. The bird was quasi-mammalian, as he had known: They were really more like bats than birds. Its long body was lightly muscled except for the powerful extensors that ran from beneath its wings, over its shoulders to the chest. It was covered with fine mauve down, a marsupial-like pouch on the abdomen. A female? Perhaps the term was irrelevant here.

He turned his cooling unit up another notch. Must be fifty degrees in the sun. The overheated air, despite its high oxygen content, was oppressive. Perhaps, Alex thought, it had been foolish of him to refuse an assistant: The stifling heat put an unexpected limit on his strength. But there were too few left in the expedition anyway, since the accident. He slid the tractor awkwardly under the animal’s body and rose into the air, pulling the unconscious bird with him.

It was beginning to revive as he got back to camp. He barely had time to get it into the collection cage and turn on the field. The great, downy creature stirred in the cage and opened its eyes. Large as a lemur’s, they shone a luminous violet, compelling his attention. The bird clambered to its feet, shook itself briefly, and flapped its wings to unfold them. Standing erect, it was easily two meters tall, knobby and angular, sharp bones emphasized by its loose skin, emaciation unsoftened by the sparse down.

Alex had the trank gun ready, just a blur dose in case it became violent enough to damage itself. The bird saw him and moved hesitantly in his direction, stopping when it saw the gun. Alex pointed it away from the creature: It seemed to relax. Did it recognize the gun? The bird approached him until it hit the invisible beams of the cage. Examining the force-field in front of it with its paws, it made a series of short, liquid noises. It explored, in silence, the extent of the cage, then turned back to Alex and approached him as closely as the cage would allow. Turning its hyacinth eyes on him, it said, in clear, unaccented Russian, “How do I get out?”

***

Awareness filtered into Girat’s mind. The air was thick with electromagnetic waves, and something was watching her. She opened her eyes, got to her feet; she was in the visitor’s camp. The visitor itself was standing in front of her, its body in the pose of formality and distance. She wouldn’t press it, since it seemed incapable of controlling a tendency to sting.

The visitor made a gesture of approach, and Girat drew closer, until she encountered the force shield between them. She felt for the door, but the field extended all the way around her. Perhaps she had overlooked the controls: The visitor’s technology was alien to her, and she had been away from the city and its devices for a long time.

She spoke slowly, groggy from the vibrations, directly into the visitor’s head.

“How do I get out?” she asked.

The visitor gave a start and invoked a mythical being. It approached her, its thoughts stumbling. What an odd creature. She felt her feet warming to it, it was so tentative and unsure. And no wonder, with all these thought-scrambling devices around it. Her head ached unbearably. But despite the pain, Girat was tempted to interrupt her deathflight, to stay and study this visitor for a while. She would consider it later. At the moment, she must find a way out of this vibrating shield. There must be controls.

There were. The visitor pulled them from the folds of its clothing, adjusted a knob, and walked right through the field. Inefficient way to run things, Girat thought. She couldn’t reach the controls at all.

“You speak Russian!” it said.

“Don’t you?” she replied.

It stared at her with a peculiar lack of expression. But with such small eyes, it must have difficulty expressing the visible emotions. It shook its head slowly.

“Yes, yes I do.” There was a pause, and it looked at her. “But are you actually, uh, speaking Russian? Or . . .”

“No, of course not, I’m just floating the words. Our structures are not compatible.” That explanation was a little vague, she thought, but the visitor seemed to accept it.

With barely a pause, it launched into a detailed description of the astronomical location of its planet of origin.

Girat wasn’t interested. This information couldn’t contribute much to her deathflight, and the vibrations from the force field disrupted her thinking. She scratched politely beneath her pouch and asked if the could perhaps continue their discussion outside the fields of force.

The visitor stopped talking and tinted its skin warmer. Control of its body fluids, thought Girat. Charming, and very polite.

“—most distressing to me,” it was saying. “This is our first contact with, uh, other species. No knowledge of what to do. I should, of course, have been prepared, but I wasn’t really expecting that you would speak my—well, you know. Please come into the tent. Certainly. Much more comfortable there . . .”

It led her out of the force field, across the tablerock to the circular tent. Vibrations came from a small cluster of containers next to it. Girat could tell that the tent wasn’t going to be much more pleasant than the force field.

The tent was quite cold, as she had known when she first saw it from the air, and the combination of cold and vibration must have had a visible effect on her, for the visitor noticed her recoil when she entered the tent.

“Is there something the matter?” it asked.

She told it about the vibrations, which apparently it couldn’t even detect. Nevertheless, it considerately shut most of its equipment down.

“No wonder we never saw any of you close up. We were driving you away.” It seemed to think that, but for the vibrations, Girat’s people would have flocked to the visitors’ camps. Girat did not correct the impression. “This tent will heat up pretty fast without the cooling unit,” it continued, pulling off its clothing. “But the heat doesn’t seem to bother you.”

Squatting comfortably on the floor, Girat watched the visitor while it talked rapidly and enthusiastically about establishing contact with an alien species. Girat was still feeling a bit dizzy from the vibrations, and she wasn’t listening much to what the visitor was saying. Its words were irrelevant to her death, which had been interrupted, but would proceed as planned. It was a handsome animal, she thought, though its species must be a lonely one, to be so excited by contact with another.

***

Alex watched as the huge bird settled itself on the floor. This was the moment, he thought, that the human race had been moving toward for more than a century: contact with another intelligent species. They had prepared speeches for everything else: the first person on the Moon, the first on Mars, the first on every moon and half-assed asteroid since. His captain had made a speech as they prepared the cryogenics after finally clearing Pluto’s erratic orbit. He had sent a lengthy speech back through four light years of empty space when they were awakened, a month out from Alpha A, which later proved to have a great selection of cosmic debris, but no planets at all. Then another lengthy speech went out when they landed on the most likely-looking planet of Alpha B, the first extrasolar planet to be explored by humans. It had been named Pyerva, The First, by Grisha, who was a Georgian and sentimental, but it was only the most recent of a long line of firsts. And now it was superseded by yet another first, the first “alien.”

Alex was at a loss for words. He should have said something more memorable than “You speak Russian?” but truly, he hadn’t expected the bird, however intelligent it was, to start talking immediately in his native language. Even on the ship, they usually spoke standard. Well, he could invent something that sounded good for the history cubes. Who would know?

“We come in peace for all the citizens of Earth.” Hadn’t someone already used that? Oh well. “Uh, you are our first contact with a civilization other than our own.” No response. It didn’t seem to be too handy with small talk. Neither was Alex. He slumped back against a cushion. He had been trained to communicate a few basic concepts, to start learning an alien language, if he could. He was to lay the groundwork for more meaningful communication later.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. Here he could say anything he wanted, but nothing seemed worth communicating, and the creature wasn’t interested. The whole encounter seemed meaningless.

Alex looked over at the bird seated awkwardly on the floor. It had folded itself rather haphazardly together and looked forlorn and a little moth-eaten, to tell the truth, like a malnourished dog. Purely on impulse, he leaned forward and reached out a hand to touch the down on its broad shoulder, where wing and arm and back and chest met. It was soft on the surface, hard-muscled underneath. He stroked the length of the arm softly, and the creature didn’t flinch or pull away, but reached out to touch his cheek with its longest fingers. Its hand was very warm, warmer by several degrees than his own body temperature.

A part of his mind protested: This wasn’t remotely in tune with the demands of protocol, or even of scientific inquiry. How was he going to explain this to his superiors? Extremely disordered behavior, said his mind. Situational diplomacy, replied his body. He put an end to the discussion and moved closer to the alien.

Physical contact with the telepathic creature made them both of one mind, one feeling. The bird’s large, sensitive hands moved lightly around his neck, under his ears, to his shoulders, and down. He moved his own hands in the same way on its longer body. Sensual warmth without sexual arousal flowed between them in the smoothing together of skin and velvet. Alex felt the weight of the expedition’s problems fall away from him, as he lost himself in the drowsiness of warmth and contact. They stretched slowly together on the floor of the tent.

***

Girat could feel the visitor relaxing, loosening his grip on his pain, letting the tension flow from his muscles. When they touched, Girat could feel the sources of his tension: They lay not so much in the vibrations that filled the air of the tent, as in the pain and isolation of creatures who have abandoned their nests, who have left behind all the rest of their kind, forever.

As she began to understand its pain, Girat felt herself grow closer to the visitor, and she sensed the ambiguity in the visitor’s mind concerning the exchange of warmth and the reproduction of his species. Very different from her associations concerning the two functions. To Girat, there was no relationship between gene sharing and mind sharing. She projected that thought to the visitor, and felt him drowsily agree to the idea of sharing. Their minds and bodies moved together.

Lying stretched out on the floor of the tent, she shared her breath with him, breathed the air as it came from his body. Their muscles moved together, their limbs glided over each other.

Girat could feel the pain leaving his mind, the edges of his regret dulling. Slowly, she pushed further into his unconscious. He would be left with a sense of loss, which is a worthy emotion, but would no longer feel such pain and longing for his Earth. She spoke to the visitor in words for the first time since they had touched.

“This is a good happening for the end of a deathflight. I am honored.”

***

She was lying on her chest, against him, one arm over his shoulder, the other reaching forward beyond their heads, her hand curved back toward her face, her long fingers lightly flexed. Alex smiled sleepily. He should find this experience a lot stranger than he did.

Instead, he felt comfortable on this planet for the first time since they had arrived. He had been welcomed by one of Pyerva’s own people, and they could explore their differences and their similarities. What a wealth of information she could give him.

She rose up slightly on one arm, turned to face him. “This is a suitable happening for the end of a deathflight,” she said. “I am honored.”

“What is a deathflight?” asked Alex. Perhaps this would explain the mummified birds in the cities.

She sat up slowly. “When we left the cities, thousands of seasons ago, we left the mechanisms that would support a large population. We must keep our numbers low.” Flexing her wings slightly, she stretched her arms out in front of her, tendons and muscles stretching. “So, when a person has accomplished some good and has made a contribution, she is allowed to return to her ancestors’ city to die, and one of her eggs is quickened.”

This made no sense to Alex. “But why did you leave the cities in the first place? They could support millions.”

“The vibrations,” she replied. “The cities and their electronics produced vibrations—” she touched his arm, and he associated the word with the electromagnetic spectrum, “—that scar the mind and damage the body. Some people—my ancestors—could feel them, like a sickness, eating at them. They left the cities, got as far away from them as they could, and settled in the rock eyries where we live now. Most people stayed in the cities until it was too late. Perhaps they couldn’t feel the vibrations, or perhaps they ignored them. They did not live healthily until death, and their young suffered even more.” She paused. “It’s time that I left,” she said, rising slowly from the floor of the tent, drawing Alex up with her. “If I rest too much, I’ll be unable to die properly.”

Alex stood stunned for an instant as her meaning sank in, then turned incredulous. He was just beginning to put the pieces together, and there was much more they should talk about. She couldn’t die now. She couldn’t abandon him.

He grabbed her arms, to keep her in the tent until she regained her senses.

***

When he grabbed her, Girat instinctively pushed back, but she was too weak to have any effect: Almost all her remaining strength was in the muscles that controlled her wings. With a violence of emotion that blew through her mind like a wind, he objected to her leaving, objected to her dying, and threatened to prevent her from continuing her deathflight.

Girat had never found herself in violent opposition to another intelligence. She found herself totally without referent. She could accept the impersonal barbarity of her environment, she could comprehend searing pain and transmute it. Those were natural occurrences: She could move past them. But the artificial constraint of one person by another, this was beyond acceptance and comprehension.

He couldn’t intend to keep her here! He couldn’t place his mind and power in opposition to hers! What kind of incomprehensible monsters were these aliens?

Incredulity and rage burned reason from her mind. She shook uncontrollably. There were other ways of dying. She would accept a hasty death on the ground before she would be kept alive against her will.

Suddenly she stopped. The cause of his irrational behavior was available to her: He couldn’t understand what she was thinking, he couldn’t hear her, even when they were touching. She thought again what a lonely, comfortless existence these creatures must lead. But she could project. As long as they were touching, she could put parts of her mind into his, just as she could project words from a distance.

And she did. She projected pure emotion, tied tenuously to facts: the triumph of heroes of her clan who had died beautiful deaths, the pride of her mother, dying that she might live, the joy of the child that would receive life when she was dead. The visitor stopped holding her, but she kept the flow of emotion pouring into him: She relived the euphoria of her deathflight, and felt again an eager anticipation of her death.

When her desire for death became unbearable, she left him.

***

The next day and the day after, Alex Zamyatin went out into the city despite the heat. It was much too large a city for one man to cover in a day. On the third day, he found her.

It was early, an hour or two past dawn, and the city was rosy with light. She lay, wings spread, in the shadows at the edge of a plaza. She had been dead for some time.

Her wings, dry as parchment, were loosely outstretched, covering most of her body and the ground around it. One arm lay hidden under her; the other reached forward, her hand near her face, fingers curved slightly inward—the same sleepy pose she had taken in the tent.

Her face was peaceful, what he could see of it. Membranes obscured her large, luminous eyes. She looked, deceptively, as though she were breathing. He could almost see a slight rise and fall of her chest.

He knelt beside her, reached out a hand. Not to move her; she was perfect, ageless, spent. He touched the downy leather of her wing, surprised against his will by his own action. Her flesh, waxy under his fingertips, was colder than he could have anticipated. Dead.

He stroked her wing again, involuntarily. It was difficult to stop, he felt such joy.

© 1981 Eileen Gunn.
Originally published in Proteus: Voices for the ’80s,
edited by Richard McEnroe.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn by Francesca Myman

Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the influential Infinite Matrix webzine from 2001-2008 and was for 22 years an influential member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has published two collections of stories, Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press: 2014) and Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications: 2004).