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Zala

A. J. Abel is an Australian author. He lives in Sydney. This is his first story published in a science fiction outlet.
What exactly are the Zala? Clearly, they're intelligent. They look like craggy, grey, four-armed, walking trees, each of which has a nest of hive-insect-like creatures buried in the distended front of their abdomens. The "insect" creatures scurry up and down the craggy bodies, mending injuries and, I've been warned, spraying jets of acid at the slightest hint of a threat.
So are these beings a species, or the hybrid result of a symbiotic system? Did the insect creatures play a role in facilitating the Zala's development or evolution as a highly intelligent civilization?
These were the rambling thoughts that rushed through my head as I slowly picked my way across the spacecraft, feeling lightweight in the vessel's relatively low centrifugally simulated gravity.
I was more uncertain than I had ever been in my life. I hadn't a shred of training in biology or anthropology. I was a diplomat expected to open up a dialogue with beings the basic nature of which I didn't understand. The Zala strode towards me on long, thin legs, lit up by the eerie array of orange and green lights studded into the twisting, corded, jungle-like structure of their spaceship.
At heart, all humans have the same instinctive drives, no matter how warped they may become--that belief, truly, is at the heart of how I approach my job. But the drives of these beings? I could only guess. And I had to, because I was Earth's leading representative here. Nerve-wracking. Even when I worked in United Earth Military Intelligence, the stakes were never this high.
One of the Zala slid back a spindly arm. The arm rattled against the creature's back. It wasn't a scratch. I tilted my head and listened as speakers overhead started to translate into English. "Welcome. Please stay well back. Our hives find your alien biology most distressing."
I looked at the alien's abdomen. A frantic mass of tiny creatures was spilling out and scurrying back in, constantly moving like blackened leaves in a hurricane.
My voice crackled through a speaker outside my pressurized spacesuit--the only thing protecting me from the Zala's toxic atmosphere. "I have no desire to cause you distress. But I do want to learn."
"They can't possibly mean that! It's insane!"
I'd returned to the United Earth vessel Gilgamesh and handed over the chip with the full recording of my encounter. Dr. Robert Iyapo, as his interjection made clear, was struggling with its contents. A Nigerian-Canadian astrophysicist with seniority in the mission's science team, he looked like a cat suffering an electric shock right now. Then, he drew in a deep breath. He seemed to regain his cool.
"Some strange, alien attempt at humor, perhaps?" he suggested, before the others shushed him.
"I am just amazed their technology is as advanced as it is," continued the robotic voice of our electronic translator. I wished there was some way of translating emotion too, but we didn't know enough about these aliens to account for that level of nuance. "Their fundamental approach to mathematics and science is completely wrong. It is like watching a pack of t-- build an electronic transport!"
"What happened to the recording?" barked the Admiral.
"One of their words is untranslatable," said a technician. "It likely refers to some sort of uncivilized animal species on their own planet, given the context."
So, all that talk about welcoming us into a partnership was hogwash. They thought we were primitives. Earth's entire upper echelon of politicians had fretted about that possibility ever since we discovered a more advanced species. It was bitter all the same.
As the recording continued, the aliens didn't seem to tire of harping on about our inferiority. At first, I was inclined to agree with Dr. Iyapo. They were so disparaging of our approach to science that it was starting to sound like hyperbolic mockery. If we were as hopeless as they seemed to believe, you'd think every plane would be falling out of the sky, every spacecraft exploding before it could achieve liftoff.
What the Zala did not know is that one of their early research vessels had crash-landed on Earth. While their technology was largely opaque to us, we could grasp enough of their translation project to launch a project of our own. Unless they were playing a trick on us, they had no clue that we had eavesdropped on their idle chatter. Sure, we'd had a bit of luck. Still, not bad for such a "primitive" species.
"Their mathematicians and physicists don't even take full advantage of paraconsistent theorems." A different tone to this translation marked a different speaker.
"What is it talking about?" Iyapo shook his head, his fists clenched. "It's absolute gibberish! Which morons designed the translator?"
The Admiral eyed him coldly. "You were on the team supervising it, Doctor. And don't you have any idea what they are talking about?"
Iyapo glowered. "Paraconsistent theorems? This is the kind of thing philosophers of mathematics might burble on about. Esoteric dreamers like Martin de Vries with his ivory tower theoretical crap."
The Admiral shrugged. "We are so out of our depth that theorizing may be the best we can do right now."
Iyapo's eyebrows shot up. "Really, Admiral? Really?"
"How can you seriously tell me that you don't know what happened?"
I stared at the Secretary-General of the United Earth Government. Her face was contorting like someone was twisting wires underneath her skin. Saying she was furious would be an understatement. "I can't account for Dr. Iyapo stealing that escape pod other than to say that his obsession with the aliens' technology drove him to extremes--"
"But what did he do?" The Secretary-General banged her hand on her office desk. "No one can even tell me whether weapons were discharged, or explain exactly how the Zala vanished." She trailed off, slumped. "Dr. Martin de Vries believes that mathematics and science on Earth could have developed differently. In the Zala civilization, it did."
Later, I heard the good doctor's arguments myself. A Dutch academic specializing in logic and the philosophy of science, Martin de Vries was extremely passionate about his pet theories. He saw enormous value in paraconsistent logic, vagueness in mathematics, and even more abstruse approaches. His argument? There are so many avenues logicians and mathematicians are only beginning to experiment with, and probably more that haven't even occurred to them yet. Why not embrace inconsistency and vagueness and innovate from a different angle? And go full throttle, before it's too late.
When I first stepped aboard the Zala vessel, it chilled me to see intelligent beings that developed from such different biology. Now I felt cold fear at the thought of how far they might be ahead of us--advancing from an angle we didn't yet understand.
Iyapo had to see how Zala science worked for himself. I didn't envy him his high-risk astrophysicist's adventure. The Zala would hardly be thrilled to encounter a trespasser in a tiny, primitive space vessel, but what if Iyapo was catching a glimpse of secrets the rest of us could never dream of?
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 19th, 2017


I recently stumbled across articles about unusual approaches to logic and mathematics, and had the idea for this story. Enthusiastic philosophers and mathematicians passionately argue that our approach to logic and science could be better, or at least radically different.

If we come across another advanced civilization, will we even understand what has driven their advances? Or will it all be too strange for us to understand? I hope you enjoyed my fictional take on that idea.

- A. J. Abel

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