The light was dim—to the paz, the room would have looked nearly dark. But lights shone through the darkness, vivid, sparkling lights that dazzled my eyes with color.
We were in a curio museum. But it was not the sights and sounds of alien beasts that surrounded me, but multifaceted crystals of all colors, rocks of all shapes, pure extractions of minerals of all sheens and sizes. Bright spotlights lit each stone upon tall plinths, or were cast upon enormous boulders on the floor. In one dazzling corner, a rainbow of crystals reflected the light into a spectacle of colors upon the nearby ceiling and walls.
“Is it too bright for you?” Inquieto asked gently as he led me by my hand into the room.
“I’m adjusting,” I said, though I had to blink a few times. The contrast between dark and light was a bit blinding.
“I’ve considered asking Cálido to craft you some lenses to protect your eyes,” he said, “but...the green in them is so pretty, it seems a shame to cover them.” He released my hand and stepped further into the cloistered space. “Your comfort is what matters, though, of course,” he said kindly.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Compliments of my appearance were nothing new, particularly from men, but it sounded different coming from Inquieto. The fact that he was an alien might have had something to do with it.
“You’re sure Montaña doesn’t mind me being here?” I asked. The place seemed so perfect, the minerals so fragile, and having come straight from the High Council meeting to determine my status as an animal or not, I felt like anyone on this planet might view me as a literal bull in a china shop in a museum like this.
“Not at all,” Inquieto said. Whether or not that was true, we certainly did have the place to ourselves. Inquieto had told me he had arranged it with the curator of the Curio Mineral Museum ahead of time. He said he had planned this for me, in the hopes I would have a chance to see it.
“All of these are from different planets?” I asked, feeling the need to whisper in such an awe-inspiring space.
“They are,” Inquieto said. “All across the galaxy.”
I shook my head. “This is incredible. I can’t even...imagine...”
I caught him looking at me like I was the most endearing thing he had ever seen. A simple little idiot who couldn’t fathom interstellar space travel.
I bristled and stepped further into the room, approaching a lustrous pink stone that ran with deep purple, sparkling rivulets.
“That’s cliff bloom,” Inquieto said. “From Planet 233. There are shining cliffs of it that overlook a field of black sand. In the summer, there is a massive tide that causes the field to flood with a salt water sea. The procurers who mined this rock said they nearly didn’t get out of there in time.” He shook his head in an admiring way.
“Really?” I asked. I smiled, imagining the planet, admiring the procurers myself, before the thud in my stomach reminded me that they had taken me in such a careless manner on one of their adventures.
“Yes,” Inquieto beamed and approached another lit plinth. This rock consisted of a dull outer crust, but inside was a green gem that looked as if it were spiraling, blown glass. “And this one we call fire strength. It’s from the third closest system to our own. The planet it comes from has enormous volcanoes, some more active than others. This was formed by rapidly cooling lava that met with a combination of trace elements to give it its green color. They found this specimen buried in the slopes of the highest volcano on the planet. A worm caused the spirals, see?”
He pointed to the outer crust of the fire strength; a fossilized, segmented body crawled on its surface. “It must have been either strong enough to burrow through rock, or hardy enough to withstand intense heat. Either way, it’s impressive.”
I eyed the plaque of information on the plinth beneath the rock. It carried some of the same information as Inquieto’s tongue, but his explanation was more detailed, and certainly more exciting.
“You really love curios, don’t you?” I asked. “You talk about all of these objects and planets with…yearning. If you want adventure, why don’t you just go out there and explore? You don’t have to take things or life forms from their homes to stare at here, just...go.”
He looked utterly captivated by my words, as if he had never heard such an idea spoken aloud. “That’s impossible,” he said regretfully. “It would be amazing, though, wouldn’t it?”
I smiled at his childish excitement. “Yes, it would.”
I continued my wandering, listening to Inquieto’s marvelous descriptions of places he had never been. I reached up to touch some of the minerals and was glad Inquieto did not stop me. He even gave into temptation once to trace the contours of a pale green emerald, but drew back his hand and grinned guiltily as if I was going to scold him.
“What’s this?” I asked, staring up at an exquisite sculpture that anchored the next room of gems we entered. Reaching black flames of smooth stone spiraled towards the high ceiling. Caught within its consuming fire were a multitude of small spheres of all colors; flocks of birds, bursts of flower blooms, and etched waterfalls cascaded through the open spaces. In the center of it all was a small, black egg. It gleamed with natural polish, suspended upon a solid plinth that looked unnecessarily sturdy to support such a tiny object’s weight. And yet the entire sculpture was sunk into the stone flooring as if it bore all the world on its shoulders.
“Void,” Inquieto said. “It’s what makes space travel, and thus all of this,” he gestured to the sculpture and to the room around him, and then met my eyes with an inclusivity that simultaneously set me far apart from my fellow aliens. “…possible,” he finished with a murmur.
I exaggerated inquiring eyebrows, attempting to cover my discomfort which fluttered in response to his deep gaze. “How so?”
His mouth shifted, as if he was trying to decide if the topic was something he could explain to someone of my level of intelligence. I pursed my lips.
“The heavy gravity zones,” he began. “Their presence causes the tilt?” He looked at me for confirmation I remembered Oyente’s description. I nodded.
“They are regions of increased gravity because they have a thickened crust, and because they are immensely dense due to the presence of this mineral.” He gestured to the tiny egg.
“It’s a metal. During the formation of the planet, the metal was hot and molten. As it cooled, it began to oxidize. Naturally, the more exposed regions began to cool first, and pockets were formed, with an outer layer of metal oxide surrounding an inner layer of hot, super dense metal. The pockets continued to cool and continued to contract. Now, the cleavage planes of void are extremely weak.” He pointed again at the egg of dark metal, with a clear outer gloss.
“You see these facets? These have been artfully cut for the display, but any pressure on this material will cause it to sliver into faceted pieces.”
“Like diamonds or flint,” I said. He nodded, although I wasn’t sure if my words had come out in my language or his; I was too engrossed in his explanation to notice.
“When the cooling pockets contracted, the pressure caused the metal to crack, some fractures so small you would hardly notice. The pure metal was bonded strongly to the oxidized layer, so the metal could not fully collapse into itself, and instead left open spaces between the cracks—perfectly enclosed vacuums.”
“That’s why you call it void,” I interjected. “Because it holds tiny vacuums.”
“Yes,” he smiled lightly. “We have a more thorough name for it, of course, but...” he shrugged a shoulder and continued his original course of conversation.
“Around a thousand years ago, we discovered these pockets of natural vacuums within the crust in the heavy gravity zones, which no one dared go near before. Wastelands. Nothing survives there. But one intrepid group of paz...” He shook his head, again admiring the accomplishments of others bolder than he. “Suffice it to say we have since developed technology to withstand the gravity. We once mined void in droves, but we still unearth quite a bit today.”
“So why is it so valuable?” I asked, peering curiously at the piece of void. “What’s so important about the vacuums? Can’t you just make vacuums?”
“We can, but nowhere near the scale that void naturally presents,” he answered, and then gave me a meaningful look. “And the positions of the natural formations of the cracks, and the reactive properties of void, are essential in the production of negative energy and exotic matter.”
I raised my eyebrows, waiting for him to go on. He collected himself, clearly surprised that I did not have the floored reaction he seemed to have expected.
“Let me see...” he murmured, tapping his finger on his chin as he searched for words. When he spoke, his words came slowly, and I suspected he was greatly dumbing down the description.
“Within the vacuums of void, the cracks are so thin, and often positioned in such a way near one another, that they become plates of refracted metal, which can produce negative energy between them through vacuum fluctuations. As you said, we can create vacuums, and two simple metal plates placed close together within a vacuum can produce the same effect in a small amount, but void aids the process so that the negative energy and exotic matter it produces is much higher.”
“Oh,” I said, vaguely following him.
“We have developed technology that can further extrapolate this energy and matter to such a degree, it can surround our ships to create a bubble that will keep the ship and crew unaltered while the exotic matter warps space. It contracts space before a ship while expanding that behind it to create, essentially, a short-cut to circumvent the speed of light and travel otherwise impossible distances.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said, meaning it. I didn’t fully understand, despite his attempt to get to the basics, but I had a clear enough picture in my head to visualize a science fiction movie-come-true.
“And, for the record,” I added, feeling the need to defend my species, regardless of my poor aptitude for physics. “There are scientists on Earth who would understand all that better than me. There are theories of wormholes and warp drives. It’s not our fault we don’t have a special mineral like void on Earth that would help us make it possible.”
He raised his eyeridges. “Really? I... Well, I suppose we are lucky to have it...”
He shifted away, hesitant to continue the subject, concerned about something.
“So, all these curios,” I said, my arm sweeping the room, “because of your ability to go anywhere you wish. But...you avoid other intelligent species.”
He looked up, startled.
“Back in the enclosure, you said procurers are supposed to avoid species like me—any species that is intelligent, sentient. Yet there are two planets with intelligent life within your own solar system. Those Council members spoke of your neighboring aliens like they were monsters or disgusting insects. Why? Why explore the galaxy and never contact other intelligent life? There must be other planets out there full of them. Why ignore them?”
He frowned and drew a breath, shook his head a little, and then ventured further into the room, suddenly finding an innocuous brown stone very interesting.
“Inquieto,” I pressed. “I live on Paz now. I am a foreign, intelligent species. I deserve to know why the paz look at me the way they do. Why they speak of the neighboring planet inhabitants like they are worthless. Or worse, dangerous.”
“We are a peaceful people,” he said, not facing me. “We evolved to be peaceful; it is in our nature. It doesn’t generally occur to us to behave any other way...”
“If you evolved to be peaceful, it means you used to be different,” I pointed out, considering the four canines in his smile, now invisible behind his frown as he turned around.
“Yes,” he said. “There is evidence we used to be a...pack-forming, carnivorous species. We would hunt and...fight with one another over territory, resources, mates, all sorts of reasons. Smaller packs became organized groups, eventually developing into formal countries, but Paz, it was still...war-torn. There was never peace.
“Our planet is small. Its surface area is only thirty million square miles, and eighteen percent of it is made up of uninhabitable desert, mountains, and heavy gravity zones; another sixty-five percent is saltwater. There is a limited fresh water supply, and thus limited food. Eventually, overpopulation propelled people into battling over these resources to an unprecedented degree. There is evidence that our population reached a record low between forty and sixty thousand years ago. If we had not adapted, we would have destroyed ourselves through infighting.”
“But how could you adapt so completely?” I asked, fascinated.
“There are lots of reasons, but...I suppose at our core, it is our ability to process our emotions and take those of others into account.” He folded his arms and watched me.
“You asked me the other day what makes me able to calm you. It is an ability called electrolocation, and, joined with electroreception, provides us with an innate way to understand the world around us. Through electrolocation, we can put forth our own electrical pulse to detect the locations and shapes of objects around us, and through electroreception, we can interpret the electrical signals of other people or animals nearby.” He hesitated, but admitted, “Our evolutionary ancestors used it to hunt.”
“And that’s why you can stun people like an electric eel,” I said. I didn’t add that an electric eel’s pulse of electricity hurt. No doubt that possibility would upset him.
“It is a vestigial ability from those days, but we have long adapted its use,” Inquieto explained hurriedly. “I can tell right now, for example, that your heart rate is calm, and the tension in your muscles is much less than it was an hour ago. And if I were to touch you, I would be able to feel every subtle twitch of your muscles. I could cause them to relax, temporarily, by sending an electrical pulse through them.”
He raised his hand as if he wanted to demonstrate, but seemed to think better of it and instead used it to scratch his elbow in as nonchalant a manner as possible.
“I can understand your body’s signals so I know if you are upset, and I can calm you if necessary,” he summarized, while I struggled to cool the sudden flush of my cheeks. “Paz use these inherent techniques to interact with one another so that any unpleasant situation can be handled with care before it escalates. We can also process our own emotions well; we understand that others will not always agree with us, and we can easily move on from situations that are unhealthy or make us uncomfortable. It is my understanding that this can be extraordinarily difficult for many other species, whose brain chemicals can be erratic and easily unbalanced by small life stresses and fluctuations of stability.”
“So, you don’t like other species because we’re more volatile?” I asked.
He swallowed. “I suppose you already know more about...you’ll probably be able to handle this topic better than...” He unfolded his arms and fidgeted a little.
“One thousand years ago, when we began to mine void and developed space travel, we discovered we were not alone in our solar system. Two other planets, Northwaar and Elglua, also contained species that were nearly as intelligent as us. We shared our technology with them and soon developed a system of trade of much-needed resources and an incredible exchange of knowledge. We had massive fleets of trade ships and a successful partnership with both species, especially the Northwaarans. However…” He paused.
“The Northwaarans wanted more resources than we were willing to give. We tried to approach the situation peacefully, but it escalated until our two planets were in open conflict. Our trade ships were altered into warships. We attacked the Northwaarans, and after a seventy-year war, we had decimated their population.”
I listened, shocked.
“We withdrew. Horrified at what we had done, we dismantled the majority of our ships. We had already destroyed nearly all of the Northwaarans’ vessels, and the few the Elgluans still possessed. And without access to our void, we knew retaliation from them was impossible. We developed an unequivocal isolationist policy, one that has been in place for over 600 years.”
I recalled that the lluthian was from Northwaar and was 607 years old.
“The paz do not engage in war,” he emphasized again, strongly. “The only time we did, the only time we have in tens of thousands of years, was when we interacted with species other than ourselves.” Inquieto’s hands looked like they wanted to clench at his sides, but spread out in splayed stars instead.
“The few remaining ships were kept in high security storage. At one point, years later, there was a developing, popular opinion that we should not fully isolate ourselves, and the peaceful resolution was the legalization of exploring planets devoid of intelligent life.”
“And bringing back curios to the bored and curious masses,” I murmured.
“As one of the most curious of them, I’m not sure an apology from me is worth much,” Inquieto said softly.
“You’re the only one who has apologized, Inquieto,” I said. “That counts for a lot. And, if you weren’t more curious that most, I would still be in that enclosure.”
I looked around, unable to stand still after such a discussion.
“To think, I used to design exhibits like this,” I said, taking in the lustrous displays with their plaques of information. “I used to give tours through museums. Tell curious spectators of my adventures and my studies.”
“You did?” asked Inquieto.
“Yes,” I answered. “I was a curator. Ironic, isn’t it?” I gave him a lopsided smile. “Except...our artifacts were remnants of history. Human history. I study people, Inquieto. I have traveled the world, experiencing as much of Earth and human cultures, past and present, as I can. Earth is full of diversity, not like here. But you know what? When it comes down to it, all people are the same.”
I traced a finger along the sharp, jagged edge of a blood red crystal. “You bury your history,” I said. “You hide it away, you run from it, when you could learn from your mistakes and build upon them.” I turned to face him. “Instead of exploring every planet in the galaxy but your own.”
He only stared at me for a moment, his dark eyes and full mouth round and full of awe.
“You are so different,” he finally said. “Everything about you. The way you think, the things you allow yourself to say, the emotions you so vividly allow yourself to express. And yet...”
He bowed his head, too overwhelmed and confused to contour my every feature as he had been doing. “You’re right...you are the same. You’re what...I’ve wanted to be. My entire life. Parts of you, at least. You’re the same.” His shoulders shifted, and he turned again to his rock for refuge.
I decided to refrain from pressing his revelations and the reasons behind them, though I had to struggle through my own curious impulses. I simply asked an equally pressing query.
“Do you think the Council will see?” Then, a horrible fluttering in my stomach. “Will they let me stay? I can’t—If I really can’t go home,” I took a breath, “I want to stay here with you.”
“I’ll make sure you do,” he said firmly, and there was a small, nearly invisible gleam in his eyes, a tiny spark that flared a warning against anyone who stood against him.