Meta:

Title: Interview with a Maintenance Chief
Tagline: First contact doesn't go as expected
Type: Oneshot
History:
• 2019-05-31: Originally posted to r/HFY on Reddit (URL reddit dot com slash r/HFY/comments/bv4y3q )
• 2021-02-04: Reposted here


So, it started when a Primum Convivae ship - that's our name for them, of course; they don't have a name as we understand it for themselves, let alone one we can pronounce - suffered some major malfunction and dropped out of FTL about five lightyears from Sol. They picked up our radio transmissions, and decided to come here to work on their repairs - not because they thought we could help, but because if they failed to fix things, whatever species eventually discovered us would also find them, or at least their ship. So they calculated Earth's present orbital position and warped there, then flew to the nearer stable Earth-Luna Lagrange point to park for repairs - and it was only blind luck that that was L5, population a hundred-odd scientific and commercial satellites and one small industrial station to service them, rather than L4, population several dozen large civilian habitats and a couple armed military platforms. We didn't learn any of that until later, of course.

So these aliens have just popped out of nowhere, and the scientists are beaming prime numbers at them, and the politicians are beaming messages of peace, and the military are beaming polite but firm threats, and the aliens are apparently ignoring everything we say or do. And I'm sitting on my station looking at this beat up ship sitting five-odd klicks away from my station, and I'm thinking that I don't know the first thing about alien architecture - and I don't; I never managed to identify a single part of that ship except by seeing it used - but there's one law I'm pretty sure is universal: the air is supposed to stay on the inside of the hull. And this thing's got rents all over that are venting, and I figure that helping with repairs can't be a bad way of introducing ourselves. So I grab a few hull-patches and fly over there and the first contact 'experts' (who, I note, have done this before exactly as many times as I have) are howling but the aliens don't vaporize me, so I start slapping what are, ultimately, just fancy glue-covered pieces of plastic sheeting over anything that's leaking gas and looks like it shouldn't be. A couple of them, the aliens send out their repair drones - or maybe they were aliens in suits; we never did figure out for certain - and rip them off, but the rest they leave in place, so the experts decide we're probably helping and next shift my whole work crew is out there with me. The ones they ripped off, we decided, were places where the lost gasses were either waste in the first place or something that was supposed to be contained and the aliens would rather lose it than have it build up inside the hull - fuel vapour, maybe. In either case, we avoided touching any more places leaking those gas mixtures and we didn't get any more patches ripped off.

The next idea came from the contact experts. We had samples of the gasses they'd been losing - flying into an unknown fume cloud without checking that it's not made of something that'll melt your suit is the sort of mistake an engineer only makes on his last mission - and they figure the aliens might be short on them, so we loaded up pressure cylinders with those gasses and left them next to the ship to see if they were interested. At first nothing happened, then somebody had the bright idea to send out another set of bottles, only this time we first gave the valve stems a good whack so they'd leak enough for the aliens to tell what was in each one. They were interested in about half of the gasses we offered, and anything they took we replaced. Most of it they only took a bottle or two, but a couple of gasses they kept taking and we eventually started using larger bottles. Neon, in particular, they couldn't get enough of - we were sending them bottles as fast as we could get the stuff delivered right up to the end. But the original, well-sealed bottles? We left them there, just to see what would happen, and they never touched 'em.

Now while this was happening, something interesting happened: more of the damaged bits started venting gasses, places that hadn't been venting earlier. We went out with hull patches again, and our first sign something odd was happening was when we hit the second vent and my dosimeter started clicking at me. We backed off, took new gas samples, and found that the new vents were releasing entirely different stuff from the old ones. That was odd, but we didn't have any idea what it might mean, so we went ahead and patched them. But then new vents started up, releasing the same new gasses. More patches, same thing: new vents to replace them. It was one of my guys, Able Cosmonaut Anna Kennedia, who figured it out: the vents were deliberate, and the new gasses were things they wanted. That was our first real clue just how alien they were: a human - any human - would have tried something else first. Maybe filled our leaky pressure vessels with the gasses they wanted and sent them back at us, or even just vented the gasses deliberately from ports or the airlock and hoped we got the message. But with the Primum, it was purely a basic cause-effect understanding: their ship had leaked certain gasses, and we'd brought those gasses to them, so if they leaked different gasses, we'd bring those as well. Admittedly, it worked - there were a couple things on their 'shopping list' we couldn't get, but all the rest was arriving at their airlock - in slightly leaky cylinders - within 12 hours.

The last thing we did for them came a bit later. They'd been replacing damaged components on their ship the whole time with those drones-or-maybe-suits, and some of it they were just ditching the old bits into space. The first contact specialists, after due and careful consideration, decided that these were probably garbage, which we could therefore collect for analysis without pissing them off. I was the one who picked up the samples, and nobody ever bothered to remove me from the reply chain when the scientists did their preliminary analyses on them. There was one in particular - they couldn't make heads or tails of what it was made of, but the mechanical properties weren't anything beyond what we could do, and it didn't seem to have any active function. I took a guess that it was purely a structural member, and I'd noticed that there were plenty of them on the ship with visible damage but only the most heavily damaged were being replaced, which probably meant the aliens were short on spares. So I did a laser scan of one of the intact ones then had a copy fabbed out of an alloy with the same properties and included it with the next gas canister delivery. Sure enough, they took the copy and installed it in place of a damaged one, so we had a groundside foundry stamp out a priority production run of the things, and they ended up replacing all the damaged ones and even some that looked just fine as far as we could tell. I ended up sending one of the intact-looking units to the foundry for 'quality control' and not bothering to ask for it back. They'd earned it; they'd started the production run as soon as I sent them the specs instead of waiting for the contract to work its way through the contact team's government-issue bureaucracy, which cut half a week off the delivery time. KUS ended up naming their first asteroid mine after me. Of course, we tried the same thing with a bunch of other components they'd dumped, but while they took in some of the prototype replicas, they never installed them. I guess we'd missed something vital to make them functional.

And then that was it. A couple days after we delivered the last replacement part, the ship just vanished. No warning, no lightshow, just gone. The unused gas cylinders and failed prototype replica parts were sitting not fifty meters away from them weren't even disturbed.

Of course, you know the rest of the story. A year and a half later, a Hizzz ship pops out of FTL. But they stay a cautious and polite lightsecond out, and when we beam prime numbers at them they send pi and e back, and the scientists and politicians all get the first contact they were hoping for. Eventually, we get translation of abstract language sorted out, and they explained how the Primum ship came to be here and what had happened after it left.

See, it turns out new species are valuable. Not for their resources, because there's no shortage of uninhabited space out there to get those from, and anybody primitive enough that conquering them is cheaper than mining is too primitive to have anything worth looting. Not for technology, either - even if they have something you don't, that's a trade you can only make once, not the basis of a stable relationship. Rather, intelligent species are valuable for their uniqueness. Each sapient race has it's own strengths and weaknesses, its specialities, its unique point of view. Now, at its extreme, you get species with fundamentally different, incompatible ways of thinking - no useful relationship is possible. Like us and the Primum Convivae: not only do they lack the basic concepts by which we define reality, they don't even think in concepts as we define the term, and what they use instead is utterly incoherent to us; no human will ever understand a Primum or vice-versa. But as long as you're close enough together to communicate meaningfully? Any problem you have, the more different species you have working on it, the better a solution you'll get. Did you know the Hizzz never invented popsicles? They got the idea from us, even if theirs are made out of frozen chloroform dissolved in toluene. Now they're a popular snack food for them.

Thing is, first contact is hard. There's always mistakes, and communication errors, and cultural missteps, and when that happens, it's not the guy in the starship who pays the price. The level of understanding which is required to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with a new species is a lot higher than that required for a unilaterally beneficial relationship. But, for all that they are fundamentally alien, the Primum apparently understand 'gratitude' or something like it, because, rather than simply sell our location to the highest bidder, they found the most humanlike of their allies, who contacted the most humanlike of their allies, who in turn found the Hizzz.

Whatever the Hizzz were willing to pay for a new trading partner ended up going to the two intermediaries instead of the Primum, but we ended up with an ally whose dominant language isn't really any more different from English than Mandarin is from Inuit. One that understands the value of keeping your word, yet also understands that not everyone will. One, in short, we can work with. And that is why Humanity is a bright new race on the galactic scene instead of a valuable new tool in somebody else's collection of client races.

- Interview with retired Master Maintenance Chief Jon Trudeau, from Appendix A of First Contact: A Retrospective