First contact with an alien civilization was precisely the way many science fiction writers and scientists had imagined it for years. We picked up each other's broadcast signals. Once the Centaurians (as we referred to them) knew we existed and we discovered them, it was only a matter of time before we connected.
While the scientists, linguists, psychologists, and others pored over the wealth of information in the unfiltered signals of the past, our respective governments began the process of direct contact. There were numerous hurdles, from learning each other's languages (or at least a few of the major ones), to getting around the relativistic limits involving communication with a civilization located more than four light years away. At light speed a simple exchange like “Hello.” and “Could you repeat that?” would take nearly nine years.
Fortunately, as we were two civilizations ready to embark into deep space, we were technologically compatible, although not quite identical. We had figured out how to use wormholes to create short cuts for both our ships and our signals. They had managed to discover and perfect a means of harnessing the power of cold fusion. Physicists on both sides were skeptical of the results from the other, since it flew in the face of the established science of each world. The exchange of research – theoretical and practical – instantly cemented the budding friendship of our two peoples.
It was only a matter of time before the relationship evolved from being the most advanced pen pal connection in history to a desire to meet face to face. As a low-level functionary in the planetary diplomatic corps I had no immediate involvement in the process, but I paid close attention. Little did I know that I would soon have an opportunity that far exceeded my ambitions. Indeed, they far exceeded my most extravagant daydreams. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As we already had ships prepared for interstellar travel, it was agreed that Earth would send a delegation to Kwarles, which was their planet of origin in the Centauri system, to establish formal diplomatic relations. We had already learned a great deal about them as they had about us. Like us, they had gone through centuries of regional and global wars before finally coming together in a single planetary government, recognizing that they had reached a point where their civilization could either advance or erase itself for good. In reaching out to us they relied on the same philosophy that had brought a cessation of hostilities to their world: peace through strength. They were slow to anger and willing to assume good intentions on all sides but refused to play the patsy. The occasional disruption by an aspiring autocrat would be put down quickly and forcefully, we were told, a process that seemed to involve both humiliation and dismemberment. It was not clear exactly what happened to those who overstepped their bounds, as our linguists were still mastering the idioms of their languages, but apparently it was a metaphor for “recycling.” Although it was entirely possible it wasn’t a metaphor at all.
In any event, this is how we would be greeted: not as adversaries, but as neighbors ready and willing to enrich both civilizations through shared and combined efforts. Skepticism as to motives would be considered and assessed by each side. As a Centaurian adage put it, “The proof was in the glakh.” In this case our Earthside etymologists assured us that glakh was nothing at all like our “pudding,” consisting as it did of the crushed bones of several amphibians, but the idea was the same. Each side would assume good intentions while taking things a step at a time. Trust would have to be earned by each side.
This enlightened approach assured that the fallout from the historic arrival of the Earth ambassador and his team averted what could have easily turned into the biggest disaster in diplomatic history. While Earth's interstellar ship remained in orbit, a shuttle with the Earth ambassador was sent to the planet's surface to initiate the first actual meeting between our two peoples.
The shuttle was directed to an open area that had been cleared and surfaced specifically for this purpose. By pre-arrangement each ambassador was permitted an “honor guard” who would be armed but had been specifically trained for restraint. There would be no itchy fingers. Both the diplomats and the soldiers had undergone extensive preparation in the languages and norms of the other culture as well as such as basics as to what the ordinary Solarian and Centaurian looked like.
Truth be told, they looked a lot like us. The bipedal form seemed to work – at least on our respective worlds – and the range of skin colors, while somewhat exotic to the other, were more of a detail, like the styling of facial hair or the design of clothing. If we had wanted to design an alien race from scratch for first contact, we could not have ended up with beings more in humanity's comfort zone than the Centaurians of Kwarles.
Ambassador Marcus Shalem, dressed in full formal diplomatic drag, was joined by five guards, three aides, and an interpreter. Fremis Revoda, recently appointed by the Centaurian government to the new position of Minister for Interstellar Affairs, had already approached the shuttle with a party of similar size. After some final bits of coordination, it was time for the official meeting and greeting to commence. The rear of the shuttle opened, and a ramp slid smoothly to the ground. The ambassador and his party were to walk down, step off the ramp and walk halfway towards the Centaurians. The Minister and his party would then come forward to meet them. It never got that far.
I viewed the recordings taken by monitors onboard the shuttle several times. It was less than a minute after their arrival when Allison Hamer, our interpreter, fell to the ground and began convulsing. Ambasssador Shalem turned to see what the problem was but before he could react he began what was described in the later medical reports as “projectile vomiting.” He was soon joined by most of his party, except for two of the honor guard who simply fainted. Across the landing area the Centaurian party came to a halt. Their expressions, according to the psychologists who had been cataloging them to help avoid miscommunication, expressed confusion, fear, and concern, but were not indicative of someone having successfully sprung a trap on an adversary.
As a result, both sides remained as calm as could be expected under the circumstances. A group of heavily armed troopers bounded down the ramp but were ordered to pick up Shalem and his team and not to engage the Centaurians unless fired upon. Revoda gestured to the Centaurians to move back and away from the now entirely unconscious team from Earth. The obvious question – beyond what had happened – is why it was not affecting the troopers who successfully removed the ambassador and the others. It was not until the diplomatic team had resumed consciousness and finished expelling whatever they could from every available orifice that medical examiners had the answer to both questions.
Shalem, a robust and experienced diplomat in his fifties, would not answer any questions until he had showered and changed his clothes. His only instructions for his onboard staff was to inform the Centaurians that contact was postponed indefinitely. They were to explain that this was not intended as a hostile act, nor were we assuming any aggression had been directed toward us. In brief, everything was on hold.
Two hours later, washed, dressed, and looking somewhat recovered, Shalem opened up a line of communication with Earth, where the First Speaker was eagerly awaiting his report. The delay was negligible utilizing the wormhole tech but was just enough that both sides felt they could not waste time. An initial report about the failed meeting had already been transmitted.
“Marcus, what happened?” Earth's leader asked. “Are you all right?”
The ambassador, who occasionally had a cocktail before dinner and was used to exchanging diplomatic toasts, had a glass and a bottle of bourbon in front of him. When the glass was empty, he grabbed the bottle and poured without measuring. He downed the glass in a gulp and filled it again. “Speaker Chang,” he said, “They stink.”
The Speaker looked confused. “You mean it was a set up? They've been lying to us?”
Shalem downed half a glass and stared at it for a moment, not sure if he should finish it first or immediately begin refilling. “No, Madame Speaker. I may be speaking bluntly but I choose my words carefully. They stink. I don't know if it's them or their godforsaken planet or what, but I have never smelled anything so horrible in my entire life and even if it means being dismissed from the Diplomatic Corps I will never do so again.”
“Should we provide them with some deodorant?” asked the First Speaker, wondering if perhaps Shalem had snapped under the pressure of the first encounter.
“This isn't a matter of personal hygiene. At least I hope not. We never got that close to them,” said Shalem. He finished the glass and slammed it down on the edge of the table where it fell off. On screen the First Speaker could see someone's hand come in from off-camera and replace it with another one. “Madame Speaker, this was like an explosion at a sewer treatment plant combined with an entire store filled with rotting food and, I don't know, a morgue where the refrigeration failed and the corpses are decomposing, a recycling dump after a month of record high temperatures, a ward filled with people being eaten away with disease, a skunk farm...”
“In other words,” interrupted the First Speaker, “they stink.”
“In brief, precisely so. If you'll excuse my undiplomatic language, it was like being kicked in the balls, punched in the stomach, and being forced to drink a gallon of sour milk all at the same time.”
“Why didn't it affect the soldiers who brought you back into the shuttle?”
Shalem allowed himself a thin smile. “Because our troopers were dressed for any emergency and came out with gas masks and their own oxygen supply.” And, with that he reached for the bottle of bourbon and poured himself a fresh glass.
A brief statement was issued by the Earth government that the beginning of formal relations between the two planets had been delayed but was otherwise on track. Communication continued via various devices connected through the wormhole tech while Earth authorities tried to figure out what to do without giving offense to our new friends. After all, “You make us deathly ill” was not the promising start of a new friendship.
And that's where I came in.
The debacle on Kwarles was not made public, of course, although whether that was to avoid embarrassing us or the Centaurians wasn't clear. However, within the Department of Outer Planet Affairs, it was priority number one. Up until now we had simply handled trade and labor disputes within the Solar System, making sure we hadn't ended war on Earth only to export it into space. As second assistant chargés d'affaires for Luna, most of my day was taken up with paperwork: an Earth company that wanted to establish a branch on the moon or the Lunarian Circus wanting visas and work permits for a Mars tour. You know, simple things. The most complicated diplomatic work I'd been involved with was when the First Speaker's husband was on a good will tour and the Lunarian authorities had quarantined his pet badger. It was my uncovering the fact that it had been vatgrown and therefore would not be carrying any communicable diseases that sprung the badger and put a letter of commendation in my file.
It turned out that letter was handy when I was proposed as the new ambassador to the Centaurians. “Who is this nobody that you want me to entrust with establishing the most delicate diplomatic entente in human history?” demanded the First Speaker of the department's Secretary. “He’s not even on the flow chart I have for Planetary Affairs.” I was in his office and on-camera, but Speaker Chang acted as if I was part of the wallpaper.
“He’s civil service, Ma’am, not a political appointment,” replied the Secretary, “He's the man who came to the aid of your husband and his badger when they had that trouble on the moon.”
“That stupid thing,” muttered the First Speaker, and it wasn't clear if she was talking about the badger or her husband.
“If I may...?” I said hesitantly, looking for permission to proceed.
The Secretary nodded, grateful that he could shift the burden of explanation to someone else. I looked to the screen, waiting for the Speaker's permission. She waved her hand. “Madame Speaker, while I am admittedly a low-level functionary, as you pointed out, a thorough search of the department's personnel files, medical records, and psychological profiles will make it clear that I am the best – and, indeed, the only – person qualified for this role. When I read the internal department summary of the initial contact I immediately informed the Secretary that I was ready to step up and do my best in the interests of Earth.”
“And what makes you so special?”
“Very simple, Madame Speaker. I can't smell.”
There were several moments of silence. “Mr...” the Speaker looked down at her notes, “...Hadash. What exactly do you mean that you can't smell?”
“Exactly that. I had a childhood brain injury. When I recovered the doctors found that my mental faculties and motor skills were unimpaired, but I had lost my sense of smell. Entirely. I can't distinguish between burning sulfur and a rose garden. It all smells the same to me which is to say, not at all.”
Speaker Chang seemed to take my measure through the view screen and then turned to the Secretary. “That certainly makes him qualified. Can you assure me he has the diplomatic skills that go beyond not retching?”
“Second Assistant chargés d'affaires Hadash has fifteen years of exemplary service in the department, having risen through the ranks from Third Assistant,” explained the Secretary. “And we’ll be backing him every step of the way… from a great distance.”
And that's how I found myself on a shuttlecraft heading down the gravity well to Kwarles, ready to make history as the first human to, well, complete the establishment of diplomatic relations with an alien race. My superiors – including Ambassador Marcus Shalem (ret.) – had laid much of the groundwork for my arrival. That wasn't exactly the truth, but then diplomacy is less about the facts than in negotiating a shared reality. What had been established was that the initial landing party had hypersensitive respiratory systems (the concept of “allergies” was not unknown to the Centaurians) and that the new envoy – which is to say, me – had been carefully selected to avoid that problem.
The landing occurred at the same place. This time, by pre-arrangement, it was agreed that Earth's delegation would consist of a single person, but there would be no restriction on what the Centaurians felt was appropriate. I must admit that if I was greeted by 100 armed troops I'd feel apprehensive, but in fact it was the Foreign Minister, an interpreter, a child holding what I assumed was a bouquet of local plant life, and a handful of aides and, perhaps, members of the local news media.
As we agreed, I would walk halfway towards them, they'd walk halfway towards me, and the ceremony could begin. “Welcome Ambassador Hadash, our brother from the Solarian System and the planet Earth,” said the Minister in decidedly fluid English, “We are pleased to begin what we believe will be a long and productive friendship between our two peoples.” Everyone then looked at me and I realized it was time for me to respond. That and the voice of the Secretary in my earpiece saying, “Go, that's your cue.”
“Honorable Minister…” I stopped. The Minister had fallen to his knees and seemed to be bleeding from his ears. Some detached part of my brain noted his blood was more magenta than the rich red of human blood. The little girl had dropped her bouquet and was running screaming across the field. The other members of the party were on the ground, covering their ears and writhing in agony. “What's the matter?” I asked, which only brought new howls of pain.
Moving swiftly across the landing area were several vehicles. Before I could react, they had arrived. They were soldiers, clearly armed, wearing helmets that covered their entire heads. One of them flicked a switch on the side of his helmet which turned on a speaker. “Earthling, stop speaking at once!”
“Do not say another word. If you utter a sound my squad has orders to shoot you. Silence!”
I put my hands over my mouth to indicate I understood his order. “Good. Thank you,” he continued. “I am under orders not to harm you so long as you do not harm us. Until we understand what it is about your voice that is so excruciating, I am going to have to ask you to return to your ship and leave the planet at once. If you understand, you may wave your appendages but under no circumstances are you to speak. Am I clear?”
I started to reply but then my brain fully digested what I had just heard. I waved my arms, hoping those were the appropriate appendages.
“Please return to your ship now and do not speak again until you are off our planet.”
I did as I was told. This was way above my pay grade. Back on the ship we reported back to Earth. It was unclear what would happen next. What I discovered is that where there's the diplomatic will, there's always a way.
Less than a year later the Earth embassy was in permanent orbit around Kwarles, and a corresponding embassy was being planned for Earth orbit. As it turned out, it took less time to transform our ship into a stationary installation, with supplies and add-ons coming from both Earth and Kwarles, than it did to staff it and for the Centaurians to select the members of their own liaison team. After all, most of the communications between us could be conducted, as before, through various media. Some high-level diplomatic negotiations, however, could only be handled face to face. My team – for I was now in charge – consisted entirely of humans who had lost or never developed their sense of smell. It was our solution that helped the Centaurians find their own way. Every one of their diplomats assigned to Earth was stone deaf. We communicated through sign language and electronic devices and if one of my untutored aides blurted out a question, no one batted an eye.
When I was awarded a Medal of Valor for conducting a five-day series of negotiations with the Centaurians, I was treated as someone who had faced fiery death instead of someone who simply hammered out a trade deal.
“No one else could have done it,” said Speaker Chang, as she personally pinned the medal to my lapel.
“Better you than me,” muttered Ambassador Shalem, happily and permanently Earthbound.
Through caution and understanding by both sides, what could have been a diplomatic disaster (we prefer not to drop the expression “first interstellar war” around here), instead turned into a productive partnership that has benefited both our systems. In fact, there's only one issue that remains a cause for serious concern. It seemed too coincidental that Solarians and Centaurians were so completely incompatible that the very presence of the one rendered the other immobile with disgust. It's almost as if the universe had designed us that way.
Thus, the arrival of the ship from the Tau Ceti system promised new challenges, particularly when they pointedly refused to make visual contact, declaring that we were not yet fully prepared to see them. We’re still not quite sure what they look like, but if you have diplomatic experience and are legally blind, there may be a job opportunity for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award from the New England Science Fiction Association and a Hugo finalist for his collection of essays Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction films. He is the author of three novels, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, and the forthcoming Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.