Part 2 of 3
III - Observations
At 0700, Jack and I arrive at Observation. Delancey is manning the array of closed-circuit television monitors. I hear his chair swivel as we we walk in. "Dr. Crane!" he says in greeting, his cheer hitting me like a sunlamp. "Dr. Blake!" he says to Jack. "How's it going, boss?"
"How's everyone doing today?" I ask.
"Pretty good," he says, turning back to the monitors. "Everything looks about normal. Adam, Calvin, Dolores, and George are having some kind of powwow in the main enclosure, but it looks pretty relaxed. Betty, Edwin, and Felicia are doing some strength training in the rec room. Ian was in medical for a few hours, 0200 to about 0430, but he looks fine now. Dropped a food crate on his foot, but Dr. Haddock says he looks fine."
When he yawns, I can smell cigarettes and the coffee that's been keeping him up all night. "Helen and Julia are doing some reading -- their stuff, none of ours -- and Livia is doing whatever they do in room B. That leaves our guy Kurt," he says, a smile entering his voice, "who's been prepping for his big date with Dr. Crane for six hours straight."
"Attaboy, Kurt," Jack says. "What about you, how are you holding up?"
Delancey yawns again. "Well, I can't lie. This is all getting to be a little less than exciting. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate this is really special and all. But eight hours straight, seven days a week is a little too special, you know? Like lobster and caviar three meals a day."
"Seeing anything like this first-hand means sitting through everything too boring to show on the evening news," I say.
"Exactly, exactly," he says, taking a slurp of coffee. "Listen, I watched Neil Armstrong and them on the moon, same as everybody. You couldn't get me away from that set for nothing. What would've been less interesting is watching them play cards and pick their noses on their way up there. Know what I mean? It must be like, whaddyacallit, one of those reality shows before they take out all the boring stuff."
He takes another sip from the mug and sets it down on the console. "But hey, big doings tomorrow, right, Dr. Crane?"
I smile. "I can't promise anything too exciting."
"And speaking of the evening news, that reporter is getting cleared for entry downstairs at security."
My smile suddenly feels a little brittle. "Thanks for the heads up, Delancey."
Delancey pats my arm as he turns back to the monitors. "Good luck tomorrow. I'll be up here rootin' for you. Knock 'em dead."
"Good talking with you," I say as Jack slaps Delancey on the back.
"Always a pleasure, doctors."
IV - Discussion
0830 finds me in my office in the Linguistics center, seated across from reporter Janice Tan. The smell of her perfume mingles with the espresso I had a lab assistant make for her. This is the third time we've met.
"So, last time we talked," she says, flipping the pages of a notebook, "you laid out the work your team has completed to date, from language structure, to semantics, to translation. Care to add anything to your description?"
"Just a reiteration of my appreciation and respect for my team. Those first years were rough, but I really have to hand it to them for hanging tough while laying the groundwork."
"Not exactly low-hanging fruit?"
"Absolutely. Like I said, we had more false starts than I can count. But really, for linguists of a certain mind, this was a dream job come true. Totally undescribed language studied completely from scratch? It's the Everest of language studies, and I had the best team for the job. And of course, we can't claim all the credit here-- we were lucky to have brilliant minds coming at this from the other side."
"They've been helpful?"
"Absolutely. They've been working at this just as hard as us, if not more so, and with a fraction of the resources and manpower."
"Yes, twelve. Once they had the habitat finished, they just launched themselves at this. They've all been just incredible."
"They set up the habitat themselves?"
"It was a joint effort, but they did most of the work. There were a number of design considerations that we really couldn't predict, so we handed it over to them. From what I've heard, it's quite a remarkable space."
"Have you been inside it?"
"Not yet, no. They have their own atmosphere set up, so it's a bit of a to-do to get in there. Although, from what I've gathered, I'd find it quite amenable."
I kick myself for letting that slip. "Well, it's a space not just with considerations for sightlessness, but one whose design and construction are rooted in a sightless mindset. Nearly all man-made buildings consits of rooms with long sight lines across mostly empty space. That this volume is easily navigable strongly assumes one can take advantage of those sight lines. However, it's clearly the wrong way to go when one's navigation is dependent on touch."
"As is the case with your visitors?"
"Exactly. Their architecture, as far as we can tell, simply doesn't have the expansive, open spaces found in ours. While a sighted person finds them pleasing, they're totally impractical to someone feeling their way through the environment."
She writes for a few seconds. I've noticed her note-taking increases whenever blindness is mentioned. I don't hold it against her.
"Not to sidetrack, but if you could just quickly explain the names?"
"Yes, sure. We initially referred to them by number, but if you work together as long as we have, that starts to feel a bit impersonal. Their actual names... well, names would take a while to get into, but safe to say, the names they use would be difficult for us to really understand and impossible to pronounce. So at an Institute meeting a few summers back, we worked out twelve names. Our chief anatomist, Dr. Blake, believes they're hermaphrodites, so we alternated male-female."
I laugh. "It's unflattering, I suppose, but yes, that's true."
"So, this half-decade or so of collaboration is coming to a kind of climax tomorrow, correct?"
"We believe so, yes."
"Could you explain what you feel the significance of this event is?"
"Well, it's more symbolic than anything else. The higher-ups like to bill it as the first communication ever between a human and an extraterrestrial, but we've been communicating ever since our first contact with them. Naturally, those first interactions were crude, to say the least. It was more like an extended, top-secret game of charades than an ecstatic moment of cosmic contact."
She laughs. "But you feel that a spoken conversation is possible? That you've each reached that level of fluency?"
"That's our hope, yes. I should make it clear that, despite all the progress we've made, we've only begun to scratch the surface. We've built our way up from nothing, but there's still a long way to go. The conversation tomorrow is going to be a simple one at best, but it could open the way to learning about their species."