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Our Unfortunate Cousins

Conor Powers-Smith has appeared several times in the pixels of Daily Science Fiction. Seek at the website and ye shall find.

Dr. Allison Brophy stared up at the hundreds of bizarre forms arrayed around the semicircular amphitheater. Dozens of species--dozens of worlds--must have been represented in that crowded tableau.
She avoided studying them too closely; the strange rainbow of unearthly shades made her eyes ache. Speculating about how she would even begin to describe their alien body schemes for publication in a scientific journal sent her mind reeling through endless, baffling labyrinths of inadequate adjectives.
She confined herself to broad observations. Evidently they were all social; the crowd was comprised of pockets of what Allison took for individual species, no group numbering less than four or five, some a dozen or more. Each group displayed a surprising degree of variation; Allison noted stark differences of size and structure between individuals.
The smell of the place was indescribable.
The patchwork clamor of the assembled creatures slackened, and one sound rose above the rest. It was several seconds before Allison recognized it as English, several more before she identified its speaker, a worm-like thing in the front row, the blue-gray tube of its body draped indistinguishably amid the communal mass of its fellows, red and purple and green.
"Welcome, Earth being," it said, in a voice like heavy snow sliding off an overladen roof. "To me is given the task of communing, as in my kind's organs of speech is found the greatest similitude to those of yours. All those assembled here have learned to hear your language with comprehending."
Allison smiled nervously. "You... speak very well."
"Gratitudes," said the worm. "Gratitudes also for your presence. Comprehend, you will not be eaten, or otherwise annoyed."
"Oh. Good."
"It is with peace and friendship we have penetrated your atmosphere. We wish to join your kind into our great society of intelligent beings from all worlds everywhere."
"That's wonderful. I'm not empowered to negotiate...."
"You are a being of science. We comprehend. You are an arthropod."
Allison frowned for a moment, then understood. "An anthropologist. Yes."
"Yes. Other greetings will occur, among your leaders and ours. To begin, we wish information. We are all here beings of science."
"I'll be happy to tell you anything I can."
A sound like cracking ice filled the room for a moment, just long enough for Allison to locate its source, a vaguely reptilian creature crouched among a group of eight or ten others.
The worm said, "The Moorskoordoor representative wishes to wonder why you have ventured alone?"
Allison glanced to her left, then her right, at the half-dozen empty chairs stretching out to either side of her own. "I hope we didn't misunderstand. Your message specified one representative. A scientist, specializing in the study of our species."
There was another clatter of cracking ice, voiced by a second reptilian, this one pale violet where the other was brown; alone among its group, it had a sort of crest bisecting its snout.
Allison decided she'd misheard the worm the first time it had identified the creatures; the word was clearly different when it said, "The Skoorishmooreen representative states that we wish all species to venture together. For purposes of accord."
Allison recalled what had seemed a moot point in the message the ship had transmitted before its arrival. "You said one representative from each intelligent species. Some consider dolphins, elephants--"
She was interrupted by a sound like gentle rain, evidently the contribution of an eight-legged, bat-faced creature.
"As the Geggelhorn speaks, we have encountered these entities in our studies of your broadcasts," the worm explained. "They do not meet our criteria of sentience."
There was another shower, this one noticeably heavier; the speaker looked more like a fox than a bat, and Allison counted only six legs, along with a pair of arms the other lacked.
"The Hellgrannorn speaks that we refer to your cousin-species," the worm said.
"The apes?" asked Allison, suppressing laughter at the image of chimpanzees and gorillas running amok in the amphitheater.
"Distant relations, we comprehend. We speak of your true cousins. Where do they lurk?"
"We're the only sentient species on our planet."
A universal murmur arose at this, like a great pot of water at a rolling boil. "This amazes!" the worm cried. "We have never comprehended a species to evolve upon so unbending a trajectory. There are seen, in all cases, innumerable radiations, so that cousins cohabit their birth worlds."
"I see. No, we're the same. There were Homo Erectus, Floresiensis, Heidelbergensis. Neanderthals, of course."
"Could the Neanderthals not send a representative?"
Allison thought she should've found that funny, too. Somehow, she didn't. "No. They're extinct."
Now the sound of the assembled creatures was like a vast plume of steam. The worm said, "Condolences. Condolences, vast and deep. We did not comprehend. This too is without precedence in our encounters."
"You mean, you're all...?" Allison's stared up at the throng, not dozens of species, as she'd assumed, but hundreds. Her heart was beating faster, though she didn't know why.
The worm said, "We are gathered here, one representative of each intelligent species, assembled by cousinhood. But, we must comprehend: how did your kin meet their extinctions?"
Allison wiped sweat from her damp brow, forced open her dry, constricted throat. "Well... any number of pressures. Competition. Climate change. And then..."
"There would've been some interbreeding, but, we think... I mean, primarily..."
The worm was staring; the whole host was staring, even those without eyes.
"We probably... killed them."
The amphitheater was flooded with a stunned silence.
Finally, the worm said, "Gratitudes for this information. I will translate into your speech a traditional phrase of leave-taking on my world: Do not allow the door to strike your posterior section as you exit."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Author Comments

Even the non-religious among us may have to come to terms with original sin.

- Conor Powers-Smith
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