I wrote this for the annual fiction party on the Freedom City mailing list. The theme was 'communication' and I didn't come up with an idea till late last week. Thanks to astrogirl2 for her usual fine beta-reading. :-)
"They are obviously sentient."
"Yes. But I wish to ascertain their nature."
"This is nice," Vila said bitterly. "Very nice." When Avon did not react, he continued, "Oh look, you said, an uncharted planet way out on the edge, and with intelligent life too."
"It made a change."
"Let's just have a look, you said. Could be interesting, you said."
"All knowledge is useful."
"Not if it's the last thing you learn!" Vila wriggled, trying to make a more comfortable hollow in the dusty, stony ground for himself.
"I doubt it will be. They have provided food and water after all."
Vila screwed up his nose at that. "Yes, and that chewy stuff was worse than prison rations. Mind you, that's what it probably is."
Avon turned to look at him. "In that case, I suggest you put your mind, such as it is, to finding a way out."
Vila frowned. "Oh, yes?" He threw a small stone that rebounded with an angry buzz from the iridescent domed force field that surrounded them. "And me without all my tools." He could see them outside their circular prison, in a small heap along with Avon's probes, their watches, their guns, and their teleport bracelets, all in their own little shimmering dome. Beyond them was the usual barren, rocky ground--not many planets supported abundant life--some purplish scrub, and the distant toroids and cylinders of the alien city. "What do you suggest I do? Try to dig under the force field?"
"That would be fruitless. It is undoubtedly spherical."
Vila had also figured that out. Strongest type, round force fields, but it was, luckily, the sort that let small molecules in and out; at least the air was fresh. "Maybe Cally will realise there's something wrong and send Tarrant down to be brave and annoying."
"A reasonable assumption. However I would also assume that the teleport bracelets are undetectable inside that field."
"All right then, what do you suggest?"
"What, with those hairy monsters? I can't understand anything they say!"
"I have no doubt that it's mutual."
"But everywhere we go, we can understand people! And aliens!"
"These ones do not happen to be humanoid, in case it escaped your notice, and the translator implants obviously do not work on them." Avon paused and said in a more interested voice. "It's my guess that they're extragalactic."
"How d'you work that one out?"
"Their pattern of three eyes, and three upper and three lower limbs does not exactly fit that of life found in this galaxy."
For a moment, Vila wondered about that. Was there some sort of basic template, like four limbs and two eyes? Even worked for birds and fish, that, but not insects. Pity; nice theory otherwise. He sighed. Thinking about the aliens had given him some entertainment for the first couple of hours or so (how did they make sense of the input from three eyes that could see right round their heads, how did they walk so gracefully with three legs, (mind you, changing direction without turning around was a nice trick) and did they have three sexes too? If so, how did that work? Hard to tell from looking at the ugly, hairy things.
He looked over at the two smaller domed fields that had been created beside them about an hour ago. One contained a reptile with large, snapping teeth, and the other a creature with a thick mottled shell which was all Vila could see of it. (Didn't blame it for hiding from that lizard-thing, pressed right up against the edge of its dome looking distinctly hungry.) Probably some sort of tortoise. "They fit though."
"Yes. And that is why I say we must communicate with the aliens. Those animals are a statement."
"The creatures are native to the planet, and the aliens have been here for a long while, judging by their cities, so they would hardly be caging them for study. They are telling us that we are considered animals. We must prove that we are not. They left our bracelets and other equipment in plain sight, so they are also telling us that we will be allowed to leave if we can convince them to let us."
Privately, Vila thought it was more likely that the tortoise-thing represented them--under a dome just like its shell, weren't they?--and the lizard was the aliens who would kill (and possibly eat them) if they got out. He decided not to say anything though. That left him room for hope that Avon was right. "Oh. Wonderful. And how do we do that?"
"We show them that we are intelligent."
Vila waited for the usual insult to follow, but it didn't. "They should know that. We're wearing clothes and we had tools!"
"So do cave people."
"Yeah, well, I could do with a nice cool cave right now." Vila picked up the translucent bag of water they had been given and had a swig.
"But primitive people do not have mathematics." Avon suddenly leaned over and cleared an area of ground of pebbles which he gathered into a heap. He put one down, then two, then in the next row, four, then began laying out what Vila guessed would be eight.
"That'll use them up in no time at all," Vila said, interested despite himself.
Avon frowned, and rearranged the pebbles into one, one, two, three, five, eight, and, Vila counted, thirteen on successive rows. Avon raised his eyebrows at him. "Can you guess the next row?"
Vila looked at the pebbles, his head on one side. "Ah. Sum of the last two. Twenty one!"
Avon smiled despite himself. "Yes. The Fibonacci sequence."
Vila was unimpressed. "Anyone can add though. How about doing prime numbers?"
"A good idea. Get working."
"They are aware of basic mathematics."
"That is unsurprising. They have a vessel in orbit. The question is whether they are people."
Vila watched as the aliens came back towards them, holding devices. "Perhaps they're going to let us go."
"Quick!" Avon began to get to his feet as the alien pushed a button, but he and Vila were caught in the same immobilising net-like field that had captured them when they had arrived. The one with the pink-tinged fur turned off the force field, placed a small mammal on the ground, then turned it back on. The greenish alien turned off the flickering blue net around Avon and Vila.
"Agh!" Unbalanced, Avon fell forward.
"Oh! Hello there," Vila said to the animal and held out a hand.
"Careful, you idiot," said Avon, savagely brushing sand and grit off his leather. "It may bite."
"Course it won't! It's afraid, can't you tell? Come on. I won't hurt you."
The creature hesitated, then took a few tentative steps towards Vila.
"Here you go." Vila rummaged in his pocket for a lump of the tasteless food they had been, broke off a piece, and put it on a stone. "See if you like that."
The little brown animal approached, its snout twitching, then grabbed the food in its front paws and retreated to eat it, its large black eyes on Vila.
"Like that, did you?" Vila grinned. "First thing I did in prison," he said to Avon, "is make a little friend like that. Course, it was usually rats."
"Why does that not surprise me."
"Cheers you up, it does."
"One of them showed concern for the animal."
"That proves nothing. Either it does not eat that sort of animal, or it prefers to fatten it first."
"You are a cynic."
"Perhaps I am swayed by their extraordinary ugliness. They are almost bald, like reptiles, but for the one bit of decent hair on top."
"Why," said Vila, "would they put those in here with us?" He eyed the two little domes near the centre of their own larger one. The reptile was still staring at the shell, which so far had only shown a cautious eye that quickly disappeared when it saw the predator.
Avon just looked at him.
"Nah, they can't think that! Animals don't know about prime numbers!" Vila looked over at the two aliens who had retracted their lower limbs and were squatting, watching them with two eyes each. "They're up to something."
"Tell you what, if that lizard thing gets out, I'm going to brain it with a rock. It'll eat that thing in the shell, then go for Fluffy." He out a protective hand around the little mammal.
"That too! That thing doesn't look as if it cares what size its prey is. It's probably go for our exposed bits. Like your nose."
Avon's hand flew to his nose. "Don't be ridiculous."
"If they do not pass this final test, then they are not people and cannot be permitted to know about us. We shall destroy the ship."
"Hey! The field's off!" Vila jumped up. "Oh. No it's not."
"You excel in stating the obvious."
"And you just did!"
"Vila. Shut up and be ready to run for the bracelets. They will do it again. Perhaps they are measuring our responses." Avon got to his feet.
"All right." Vila's eyes widened as he saw that the reptile was out of its dome and right up against the tortoise-thing's. "Hey! Those bastards!"
"Run!" shouted Avon, doing so.
Vila however was watching as the lizard-thing tipped the tortoise-thing over and opened its mouth wide, showing a lot of very sharp teeth, ready for a good bite. "Oh no, you don't!" He aimed his boot at it and kicked it high into the air and well away. "Murderers!" he muttered as he knelt and righted the tortoise, then looked around for the little mammal. That lizard would be back.
Avon skidded to a halt by their heap of possessions and grabbed a bracelet before he realised that Vila was not with him. He was kneeling, his head down. What was the matter with him? Had they done something to him? "Vila!" He ran back and grabbed Vila's shoulder. And that was when the force field went back up.
"Vila, you idiot! What were you thinking?"
Vila stood up, the mammal in his hands. "Had to make sure Fluffy was safe, didn't I?"
Avon closed his eyes. "Vila..."
"Oh, look! They've turned the fields off again."
"One of them stopped to save the animals. The other returned to save its companion, or perhaps to remain in captivity with it."
"Yes. They are people. They are permitted to leave."
"If you think you're taking that animal back to the Liberator, you can think again."
"But that thing will get it!"
The pinkish-furred alien glided to Vila and held out two limbs, the short tentacles at the ends formed into a bowl. Vila took an alarmed step back, then realised what it wanted. He put the little animal into the alien's 'hands' and watched as it curled up there. He was a little hurt that 'Fluffy' was so disloyal, but also relieved that it trusted the hairy monsters. Perhaps it was their pet. He gently stroked the mammal's head, and the alien lifted a tentacle and did the same. Vila smiled.
"Don't do that." said Avon. "It may construe it as aggression."
"I don't think so."
"You don't think," said Avon, but there was that warm look in his eyes that he got sometimes. "Cally? Teleport."
"I agree," said Cally. "We should let this region remain noted as empty and of no interest."
Avon nodded. "They are too far in advance of us technologically."
More to the point, thought Vila, they might find out what humans are really like.