SciFi / Animal Quarantine Facility / A Sone / 920w
Whatever it was, it hadn’t stopped screaming.
Not once, since it had arrived at the facility at 02:66, with nothing but the comp number of its owner and a sack of unidentifiable feed.
It wasn’t howling, hissing, or yelping. And it wasn’t chirping, cawing, croaking, hallooing, or barking. I decided on screaming as the best descriptor, despite having at my disposal three other languages with their various onomatopoeias and verbs of sound-making. I’d handled thousands of types of animals foreign and domestic at QF1818, including some that were entirely new to me, but I’d never heard anything like this. It registered at five sones above tolerable for the average Cleian but only one above for the average human being, which meant that I was obliged to stuff foam into my ears and try to run the tests while my colleagues watched with interest from behind glass.
The tests returned no diseases, but my supervisor was uncomfortable. The comp search hadn’t turned up any info on it, which wasn’t unheard of, but was rare nonetheless. Who knew if it was invasive, if it reproduced asexually, if it carried undetectable pathogens? But that didn’t become a problem, because the owner never came back for it.
Cleians aren’t known for their sentimentality, but Karla and I named it Max, after Karla’s long-dead Dachsund.
As for what Max looked like phenotypically, it’s difficult to say; there are some anatomies that transcend the vocabulary of a single world. It was thelinc’dt, I can say that. And it had a protruding ret that made me think it was Tabusan in origin, but we never confirmed that. Its color was somewhere between orange and ift-1 on what I guessed was its underside, and white elsewhere. But I need to emphasize – the sound overwhelmed everything. It seemed to seize me by my brain stem and shake me back and forth. Being near it was close to tortuous.
“You think it’ll ever stop?” Karla asked me, a few days after Max’s arrival. The padded cell did not quite muffle the sound. We were growing used to it, the constant hnnn of white noise.
“It doesn’t have lungs or vocal cords or any kind of acoustic apparatus that we found,” I replied. “I have no idea how it does it. So I don’t know, I guess.” We had pinged the comp number, again and again, but had never gotten an echoresponse. It was as if the ping never even left.
She looked thoughtful. “Where do you think it came from?”
For some reason, Karla often thought I had all the answers. She had asked me this before.
“No idea. Someplace known. Somebody let it get this far, after all.” By this far, I meant our planet, on the edge of the local travelable zone. It was a bit of an outpost, where the bureaucracy often spat out strange things. But even strange things had to be tagged, registered, tracked. Max had an official designation, an official number.
“You think it came from an explo?”
Explos are the exploring parties. With sixty-one sentient and actively reproducing species in the zone, we need new worlds all the time. Occasionally we find another sentient, and occasionally they object to cohabitation, but there’s always one gift or another that they eagerly accept (for humans, it was a ticket off our overhot planet).
I gave Karla a look. “The last explo only left a year ago. Nowhere near enough time to find things and send them back. You and I’ll be eighty five before we hear from them. And if they did find something, why the hell would it be here?”
Sexless, asymmetric, screaming. We handled Max with our most impervious equipment (foreign pathogens are fear incarnate): thick rubberized gloves, face shields, isolation quarantine. Minimal contact.
It screamed without ceasing. To say nerves were frayed would be an understatement. The other specimens suffered from stress. Egee shed their feathers. A xixi miscarried and its owner pressed charges. I had never realized just how few decibels we are from psychosis.
Max ate slowly, but eventually we ran out of feed. Policy dictated that we keep unclaimed specimens alive as long as is deemed humane (oh, the intergalactic hullaballoo about defining humane) beyond that point. All ears and antennae and receptive organs ringing, we unanimously agreed that humane was a short period of time, and put Max and ourselves out of our collective misery with a syringe of ultraconcentrated alsatium on 110th day 1717th year, 19:02.
The silence was so complete it was almost excruciating.
About three days later we received the official dispatch. The most recent explo had landed just a .85 lightyears outside the zone edge; a stroke of unimaginable luck. Even more extraordinary – there they had encountered the first new sentient in over a century. Like so many others, this race had demanded proof of alien life. Happy to oblige, the explos had assigned a few comp numbers and sent their first batch of ambassador-astronauts into the zone.
The dispatch included images of sentient 62. They were Max. Impossible, indescribable, alien Max. The screamer.
It was a misunderstanding. An awful, awful, misunderstanding. We thought it was just a noise, you know. Like birdsong.
But you had to hear it. It hurt to hear, and it didn’t stop. How could we know? How could we have known it was speaking. We didn’t know the language.
No, that’s fine.
Yes, I’m finished testifying.
No, thank you.
Scifi will always have a place in my heart. A very large place. Now accepting recommendations for good, original scifi series to lose several weeks of my life to. I think a lot about what “alien” will be to us, whenever (if ever) we encounter it. How will we perceive it, process it, label it in the way we label things? Will we be able to understand how it understands? That it understands, if it does?
Now, my understanding of astrophysics and relativity isn’t what it could be, but I hope the mentions of travel and sentience and communication across long distances aren’t horribly far-fetched. I already know at least one friend will be able (and ready) to correct all my errors.
The creepy endings are back. I’m pretty excited about it.
I’m pretty sure “sone” was a typo for “stone,” but I went with it. Learned a new word!