“There are two problems that keep civilizations on their planets of origin,” the professor on the stage was saying. He flicked one of the hair-covered ends of his several upper limbs at the screen, and it changed. “There’s the fact that most sentient beings evolve at the bottom of deep gravity wells.” He flicked again, and the screen changed again. “The second is that most sentience evolves from predation, and predatory animals tend to be more interested in fighting and killing each other than in exploring space.”
Marta was having a little bit of difficulty in following the lecture. This was the first time she’d sat in a class with a Pheldtar professor. It was the first time she’d ever seen one in the flesh, in fact. South Milwaukee wasn’t exactly on the must-see tourist attraction list for Pheldtars–they had enough trouble keeping warm in the equatorial regions. When she had gone to her appointment in the Pheldtar’s office–-he met privately with all entering freshmen–she had been overwhelmed by the heat despite having been warned to dress lightly and to have a towel to wipe the sweat that would collect on her face as she spoke to Professor Talbot. Talbot, of course, was not his name–it was a fiction adopted for the convenience of the student body and his fellow faculty.
“What did he say the second one was?” she whispered to the smug-looking student sitting next to her. She didn’t know him–-he was almost certainly a senior who had avoided taking the course for as long as he could and who now had very little on his mind other than graduation and his life beyond.
He looked at her, then shrugged. “Something about predation,” he said, smiling.
Marta looked up-–Professor Talbot’s head had extended to the top of his neck, and he was scanning the room. Fully extended, his head reached halfway to the ceiling of the auditorium, which was perhaps 30 feet high where Talbot stood. The Pheldtar’s head consisted of a hair-covered ring of bone and tissue that rode on a long stem. The ring could slide up and down, from at rest at the bottom of the stem, where it was just a little bit below human head level, to all the way up, as it presently was. When the head was in the down position, as it usually was while Pheldtars were engaging with humans, the stem draped over and curled down the Pheldtar’s back, making it possible for him to navigate spaces intended for humans. As Marta watched, the ring-head slowly descended again, and the stem-neck curled back to its position. The movement was roughly equivalent to a human throat-clearing and hands-over-the-head stretch.
“Of course,” the professor continued, “even in cases where civilizations do achieve a means to escape their planets’ gravity, and even if they avoid killing each other in the process, they almost never develop a means to cross the interstellar gaps.”
In the back of the room, someone clicked the button–-each of the student stations in the room had one-–that illuminated a small light in front of his station. Professor Talbot saw it. “Yes?”
“My understanding is that the Pheldtar Slide Drive is the one means existing to cross the interstellar gaps, is that correct?” It was a student that Marta had seen in the university’s coffee shop. He was small, studious, and apparently already accepted to go straight to grad school at Princeton’s Ford School of Xenoengineering.
“Well, Mr. Robinson, as you know, the Pheldtar Slide is based on technology that my people received outside our own system, from the Visitors,” Professor Talbot replied. “We have information that the technology which the Visitors allowed us to have represented the low end of their scale, as it were.”
The Pheldtar’s voice box wasn’t built to pronounce English sounds. Professor Talbot represented about the best that Pheldtar physiology was capable of doing in that direction, and even so, it was difficult to tell his ‘t’s’ from his ‘d’s’ and his ‘p’s’ from his ‘d’s and his ‘b’s,’ but Marta was learning how to understand him better and better the more she listened to him speak. “It’s like getting your brain in the right gear,” Robinson had told her one time. “Once you get it, you’ll be able to follow him.” And he was right.
“Chances are there are additional means,” the professor continued. “And we have researchers working on the problem.” He paused. “Perhaps you’ll come up with a way during your graduate school work.” The Pheldtar smiled, which would have been impossible for Marta to interpret and understand if not for the three-week orientation seminar that had been mandatory for engineering freshmen the summer before. Pheldtar expression had developed as a means to communicate emotion to each other, just as humans had. Since the Pheldtar physiology was different, the expressions of course were different too, but they fulfilled the same functions as they did for humans: the signaling of anger, fear, and so forth. The Pheldtar smile did not involve the mouth or even any part of the ring-head. It involved the hands. Pheldtar hands were spherical with irregularly-placed nubs that served as fingers. Despite the fact that the nubs were short and stubby, they were strong and very flexible and could easily perform the most highly detailed task that a human finger could perform. They were actually completely boneless, not unlike the trunk of an elephant in their anatomy, although they were much smaller and shorter. To smile, the Pheldtar’s brought his three pairs of upper limbs were forward and horizontal to form a row of six orbs in a horizontal configuration, then the entire thing was waved up and down a couple of times. Professor Talbot did this and then dropped his upper limbs again, their length burrowing into the fine long hair that grew from his stem-neck.
“That’s his smile, right?” Marta asked her neighbor to confirm.
The neighbor nodded and smiled back, first in the human way, then in the Pheldtarian.
Marta smiled at this.
“Maybe so,” Robinson replied and there was gentle laughter around him.
“We find that the slide drive suits our needs at the present time,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but without it, there’d be no exchange of culture or technology between Pheldtar and humans, or between Pheldtar and anybody else, for that matter. The distance between the stars is a very effective quarantine.”