Sheila nodded. “Maybe we’ll find something, now that we’re in the foothills. There is a lot of rock, I know, but enough dirt to take prints. But if there is an intelligent species here, why didn’t anything show up on the scans? The low-flying drones should have seen something - some kind of settlements, or roads, or planted fields - something that says intelligence.”
“I’ve been wondering about that, too,” Carmen said. “The last two camps were watched, I’m sure of it. And Elizabeth said she saw small, vague figures moving around, too far from the barrier to really see them.”
“Really?” Jim exclaimed. “Next campsite, remind me to talk to her.” Sheila agreed, and Carman said she’d remind Elizabeth about it. They trudged on, climbing higher into the foothills. There were trees here, but most were like Earth fir trees. The trunks were straight, like pine, but a deep reddish brown, and the needles were broader, deep green with red veins. The other trees were all some kind of nut bearers, almost normal in appearance. There were some, though, with the same bluish trunks as the tree with the poisonous flower. Those they would be very cautious of.
Casey saw something, large turkey sized and bright red sitting on a bare branch. He looked closer, and then got out a snare net. Moving cautiously, he approached from behind, swooped the snare over it, and closed the snare. It gave a high pitched squawk, and he reached in, grabbed the thin neck, and twisted. Smiling to himself, he hung the body from his back pack, along side the one he had captured earlier in the trek. These, he knew from base camp, were edible. ‘Good eating tonight,’ he thought, feeling smug.
Three hours later, camp was set up, the barrier screen in place and activated, and the evening meal over. Everyone had enjoyed the “birds”, and Didi was going to tan the skin. “That fur will make something pretty” she said. “Casey, if you get a couple more, I can make myself some nice slippers.” he laughed and promised to try. Most of them were busy with testing and investigating samples gathered on the way. Jim, Sheila, Casey and Drew were gathered around the fire talking about the plans for the next part of the journey, when Jim remembered what Carmen had told him.
“Drew, do you know where Elizabeth is?” he asked. “I need to talk to her, and I think you should all hear what she has to tell us.”
“Yes, I’ll go get her. She said she was going to study the exposures she’s taken, she wants to send the results back to base, and upstairs.” he got up and went off, coming back a few minutes later with Elizabeth in tow.
“Join us, Elizabeth,” Jim gestured to a vacant spot. “Carman told me you thought you’d seen upright figures outside the barrier one night. What can you tell us about them?”
Elizabeth sat down beside Drew. “I really can’t tell you much. I was near the barrier one night doing my study of the sky. Then it clouded over, so I just sat and worked on downloading the evening’s pictures. I was about finished, and starting to pack up, when I saw movement outside the barrier. I only caught it peripherally at first, and when I turned my head, whatever it was scooted away quickly. It was upright, about the size of a chimpanzee, but moved more like we do. I got the impression that it had come close to study me. I was going to mention it the next day, but it seemed so crazy, and when I went out to look for signs something had been there, I saw nothing. So I decided it was my imagination playing tricks when I was over tired.”
“Hmmm...that’s interesting,” Hoishi murmured. “I thought I saw something like that back near the edge of the forest, while we were still in the boats. But before I could call anyone’s attention, we were past it. When I looked back, all I could see were the trees.”
“Ok, everyone, keep your eyes well peeled. Watch for disturbances in the path, like a foot had made a stone move, or moved the dirt a bit. We need to know if there is an already existing, intelligent, species here as soon as we can. That would put this planet in a whole new category.” Jim looked around the group, and they all nodded, and there was an air of subdued excitement in them. To be the first to discover an intelligent species! They would be famous, go down in the history of space exploration, along with Neil Armstrong!
“Do you think that the reason they are so hard to see is protective colouration?” Anne wondered. “But why would they need it? Unless there is something hidden, somehow, up in the mountains, there isn’t anything big enough to endanger them”
The other xenobiologists nodded, looking at one another. Anne had something there. Protective colouration, at least on Earth, was always a defence against larger predators. But what else would make these possible creatures so hard to see? Would they only be protected in the forests? What about the mountains? It was clear that there was almost no growth on them not too much farther up. It was a puzzle, and one that they were all anxious to solve.
Two days later Casey caught up to Jim, in the lead as always. “Jim, come back with me, I want you to see something.” Jim looked at him, then turned and they made their way back. Casey waved his hand at a group of rocks “We climb up here, then take a look at last night’s campsite. The biggest rock is high enough.”
They climbed, with some difficulty, and reached the flat top of the big, cottage sized rock. Casey pointed, and Jim followed the line from the finger, back downhill to where they had camped the night before.
“Hmm....hard to see, but yes, chimp sized, upright, and definitely investigating the place. Look, they are digging up the garbage dump. Oh, oh! Something has got them excited. Got your binoculars?”
Casey lifted them, adjusted the focus, and looked. “Looks like the bones and skin of those big red bird-things I caught for dinner. Boy, they really are excited about it. I wonder - could those things be sacred to them? They certainly do seem to be intelligent - look, the biggest one’s giving orders, or something.”
He handed the binoculars to Jim, who focussed on the scene. “Yes, from what we can see, they seem to have a language - he’s either preaching or, yes, giving orders. Ok, lets get back to the others. We have to make plans, so we need to find a good stopping place, where we can be protected.”
They made their cautious way down again, and trotted to catch up with the others. “There’s a place about half mile ahead,” Jim called out. “We’re going to stop there. We’ve finally got a look at the aliens, and right now, they seem to be very upset. We saw them dig up our garbage, and had fits when they saw the bones and skin of that furry bird-thing. They’ll be on their way up here, so we need to get into a defendable spot, and then see if we can communicate. Casey thinks the redbird is sacred to them, judging by their reaction. We’re going to have to apologise and see if we can appease them. Start thinking of what we can give them as atonement.”
Three hours later, Jim, Sheila, Anne and Carmen were sitting, just on the inside of the barrier. Ranged on the outside were ten of the aliens, the biggest one slightly in front. Their faces were less simian-like, but still not quite like human faces. The fur looked soft, and on some had not completely changed, so when they sat still, huddled down, they looked like odd shaped rocks with moss growing on them.
Carmen was working on getting a small vocabulary to enter into the translator. It was slow going, but once the Chief understood that they wanted to communicate, he did his best. Finally, after an hour and a half, the translator said “we sorry, we not know redbird holy.” in the aliens language. The chief sat up straight, surprise written large on his face. “You speak us!” the translator said. Jim nodded, and pointed to the translator in Carmen’s hand. “This learn your talk, speak for us.” he said.
The chief stared from the machine to Jim, to Carmen, and back. Then he turned to his group and said something. The translator managed to understand enough that it said “you go, settle for night.”
Then “I think he’s telling them he will talk to us, with just the two nearest him.”
“Good,” Jim said. “Ok, Anne, let’s make it even, three to three. See what the others have found that we can offer in appeasement for killing the birds.” Anne nodded and got up to join the others at the campfire. The extra aliens moved off, too, and Jim said “Let’s go outside the barrier, let them know we are willing to trust them.” He, Sheila and Carmen got up, went to the barrier and out. Jose hurried over and relocked the gate, then went back to the fire.
It took several hours that first night, and many more hours over the next week, but in the end, they had a good vocabulary, and several of them had learned to speak directly to the aliens. They were innately friendly people, and a few of the less advanced tools were given and accepted as atonement for the error the humans had made. The redbirds were sacred to the people, and only the tribal priests could kill them. The were sacrificial offerings to the Gods, in thanks for deliverance from their large enemies.
They found that these had been large predators that were killing off the Demeterians. The chief drew a sketch of what they’s looked like in the dirt. “They look like gorillas,” Sheila said. “How ever did your people manage to survive?” she asked the chief.
“We found fire, we found sharp rocks. We learned to make sharp stick hard in the fire. And we learned to grow our fur to blend with what was around us. It took many, many years, and many of us died. But at last, we won over them, and they no longer exist. Now this is our land. You say you come from the stars, I say, you go back to the stars and leave this land to us.”
For a long moment, they sat in silence. Then Jim said “We will go back, but others like us could come. They might not be friendly. Could we not have a small place, like we have already, back in the forest, and learn to be friends? There are many things we could teach you that would help you. Healing for your sick and injured. How to grow food, so you don’t have to travel so far, but still have enough for all. I know you have seen this man,” and he pointed to Casey, “kill from afar. In the future, we could teach you how to make those things.”
“And, Sheila said, “there are things you could sell to us, that we could take to our world and sell. Those beautiful red flowers, they have such a lovely odor. We know how to make that into a liquid that females can put on, and then smell like the flower. Our females would give much for that liquid. Our peoples could help one another, and be friends. Will you think about it?”
“Yes,” Jim said. “Please do. We will go, in the morning, back to our base, where our friends are. We will pack up all of our belongings, and seven days after that” he held up seven fingers, “we will get in our big ship and leave. Come to me there, if you want to be friends. I will wait in the hope that you will.” He bowed where he sat, then gestured to the others, and they all rose.
The chief rose, as did his aides, and did his best to bow back. “I will consider this, and discuss it with the others. I will come to you in that place in fifteen sun and tell you of our decision. We part in peace, and I think perhaps, we will meet again in peace. Farewell for now, Earthmen. You have given us much to think on.” they turned and walked to where the rest of the group waited, and soon were out of sight.
“Well, folks,”Jim said. “We have made first contact, and it just may be the start of an interplanetary
friendship. Who knows how far it will spread?”
He turned and led the others back to the gate, where they settled for the night. Two weeks later they were back at base camp, and everyone worked to pack up and clear the site. They were all excited at having made first contact with an alien race. But how would it turn out? Would it really be the beginnings of an interstellar friendship? Would they, in the next century, be trading with the Demeterians? Only time would tell.