SiliCon 2002 COTI First Contact Report


          We see a hot plasma plume in the sky.  Parallax reveals it to be some AU out, but coming in fast.  We know what plasma is.  Plasma is fire.  Spectra of the plume tell us it is VERY hot – God’s Own Fire.  We don’t have any fissionables, so we never discovered nuclear fission, so we never discovered nuclear fusion.  (And no, we don’t know what makes stars so hot; it’s one of our enduring scientific mysteries.)  We can’t make fire as hot as that plume.

          We try to bounce lidar pulses off the plume, but we see no results.

          After some months, the Thing goes into orbit around Scoti.

          From one of our space stations (we have a handful, they’re laser telegraph relay stations), we send a laser telegram in Scorse Code.  It says, “Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?”

          The Thing replies, “Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?  Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?”  We are confused.  What fire?  And as for who we are and what we are, that’s the same question: we are the Scoti, the People.  At least they got the, “Hello,” part right.  But why twice?  We don’t know what to make of it, so we reply, “Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?  Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?  Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?  Hello.  Who are you?  What are you?  Where did you get the fire?”  One, two, four, even the simplest Thing ought to make some sense of that.

          They don’t reply, but within the hour a small box appears in the sky over south central Scoti (City) (we have no radar, so we didn’t see it come in) and lands at the airstrip there.  This is too much of a coincidence; it must be related to that Thing in orbit.

          A small, expendable, expedition is formed to investigate.  It consists of a junior Elder (Pat MacEwen), a conservative scientist (Randall Clague), a maverick scientist (Michael Wallis), and an ambitious scout (Buzz Nelson), whose ambition to be Splat XV has been greatly advanced by this historic circumstance.

          Buzz approaches the box.  He holds out his hands, and indeed it is warm, but cooling fast (Gerald said it had an aeroshell, but I don’t think that made it into the story).  It does nothing.  He pokes it with the butt of his ice spear, and

          A window opens on the front of the box, and we see a small Thing (Lara Battles) inside, sitting on a chair.  Another small Thing (Jim Funaro) enters, box right (from where, we couldn’t tell).  The sitting Thing stands up and walks over to it, and they clasp flippers and then embrace.  They both spout gibberish more or less continuously, though they seem to be spouting it in turn, almost as if they were communicating.  A greeting, perhaps?  But they make none of the ritual gestures.  The first Thing exits, box left (to where, we can’t tell), and then comes back carrying something.  It spouts gibberish, and the second Thing, after spouting more gibberish, appears to eat the stuff.  It then hums.

          We don’t know what to make of this.  Michael observes that if these creatures are as small as they look, and if they came from that Thing in orbit, and if it’s as big as it looks, then there could be thousands of them up there.  I comment that that’s a lot of ifs, but I can’t come up with anything else.  We’re all trying to figure out, what is it doing?  Buzz wants to take the box apart.

          As we’re trying to puzzle this out, the initial scene repeats itself, this time with two Things greeting and feeding the Thing that enters.  This is of no help to us.  Buzz still wants to take the box apart.

          Michael has a brilliant idea.  Perhaps there are no Things in the box.  Perhaps it is a representation.  Such a thing is theoretically possible using the binary code recently adopted for computers.  I admire the idea, but point out that it would require a ridiculous data rate – why, it would need at least 100 kilobits/second.  [This is about twice as fast as a dial-up modem, and way too slow for video  -R]  Preposterous.  Besides, where are the wires?

          We decide we need to know more.  We finally let Buzz go out and – no, not take the box apart!  Just take the top cover off the box.  Michael goes along to observe.  Pat complains that the damn Scouts are loose cannons, and I agree, adding, “the price of progress,” in a regretful tone. Buzz opens up the box, and there’s nothing inside but hard flat things the color of kelp and a bunch of wires.  The pressed kelp leaves(?) seem to have beetle carcasses attached to them somehow, but the beetle carcasses are strangely rectangular.  Buzz puts the cover back on, and they come back to discuss it.

          Michael still favors his representation idea, citing the complete lack of small Things in the box.  He thinks it might be an electronic device.  Even he sees the obvious problem: where are the vacuum tubes?  But it’s the best hypothesis anyone has.

          We’re stumped.  We go out and watch it some more.  It starts counting.  I (1) II (2) III (3).  Odd symbols for the numbers, but the meaning is clear enough.  Buzz brings out a writing board, and writes I 1 II 2 III 3.  It then does some kindergarten math, with more weird symbols.  1 (+) 1 (=) 2  1 (+) 1 (+) 1 (=) 3  1 (+) 2 (=) 3  2 (+) 1 (=) 3  I’m not impressed.  “It’s trying to teach us math?  Does it think we’re stupid?”  Michael disagrees.  “It’s saying it knows math.  I think it’s trying to tell us that it’s smart.”  “Well, it’s failing.  Every child knows this.”  “We should give it the benefit of the doubt.”  “What doubt?  Oh, very well.  But what does it want?”  Buzz echoes the math lesson back to it, with the proper symbols for + and =.

          It then shows 1 + 1 = 2 (Yes)  1 + 1 = 3 (No).  I miss the (Yes) and (No) symbols and crow, “See?  It got the math wrong.  I’m telling you, this thing is Not Very Bright.”  Michael sees the symbols and deduces True and False.  Buzz echoes the math/logic lesson back to them.  Michael makes the case that the box Thing is communicating, and I reluctantly agree.

          We decide to do the polite thing, even if it is plenty weird, and offer the box food.  Buzz wants to just give it iced fish and kelp, and keep the good stuff for ourselves, but Pat overrules him.  “This could be God.  You want to give God less than our best?”  Michael and Buzz go out to the box with food – HOT food, no small luxury – eat some of it, then offer it to the box.  The box makes no move to eat the offering.  Michael and Buzz come back, with Buzz surreptitiously eating the part of the offering he held back.  Scouts need Elder supervision, and Splat candidates need more than most.

          We still don’t know what to do about this Thing.  But it doesn’t keep us in suspense for long.  With what is becoming characteristic impatience, it shows another representation.  This one shows two Thing creatures sitting down.  A Scoti Thing (Michael Sims) enters, box right, and they greet it and feed it.  We can see that the Thing creatures are half again our size.

          This is bad.  Up until now, we have been faced with a mystery, but not a threat.  The only real question was, is this God, or something completely unknown?  But now we see a Scoti Thing.  It could be a doppel-Scoti, a predator that looks like a Scoti, but is faster, meaner, and dumber.  It preys on Scoti by using its mimicry to approach a group of Scoti in the water.  When it gets close enough, it attacks, and carries away a Scoti pup.  The Scoti have learned how to defeat a doppel-Scoti: while it is approaching, we encircle it and cut off its escape.  When it tries to swim away with its victim, we close on it and kill it with ice spears.  Few Scoti pups have ever survived a doppel-Scoti attack.  Being a doppel-Scoti sacrifice is an honor, but one that most pups would rather forgo, thanks, may it please the Elders. (NB: Pat invented the doppel-Scoti on the spot, to give us something to worry about. Michael and I hadn't had time to fill out the rest of the Scoti biosphere. When she sprung it on us in real time, it made perfect sense, and we went with it.)

          So, we are shown a representation of what is either a Scoti or a doppel-Scoti.  Whatever it is, it and the Things are on good terms.  Pat raises the questions that need answers: is it a Scoti, or a doppel-Scoti?  We have domesticated polar bears; has it domesticated them, or have they domesticated it?  If it is a doppel-Scoti, and it has domesticated them, then it is a doppel-Scoti with God’s Own Fire.  That much fire could actually be a bad thing.  It could boil the sea.

          I have an idea for a Test: lure it to the Western Shore.  God would not be stupid enough to land there.  Or if he did, he would stop The Wave.  Or he might ride it out, and emerge alive and uninjured.  For what Wave could harm God?  In any case, it is a good Test.  Pat approves, and we plan to lure the Thing to the Western Shore if we can.

          Fortune smiles upon us.  The box shows the Thing in orbit landing at the airstrip in Scoti (City), next to the box Thing.  It also has blinking True and False boxes below the diagram.  We discuss this briefly, and Buzz presses the False box.  It stops blinking and shines solid.  The True box also stops blinking, but it goes out.  Buzz then draws, on a map of Scoti, the Thing in orbit landing on the Western Shore, and a rocket ship flying from the airstrip to the Western Shore, farther from the beach.  “Do not land here.  We will meet you at the Western Shore.”  We hope they understand.  We don’t know what to hope they do about it.

          The box shows the orbit Thing landing on the Western Shore, and a rocket ship flying from the airstrip to the Western Shore, along with True and False boxes.  Buzz presses True.

          Sure enough, they meet us there.  We ask Gerald, the SimGod, what is the time of year, and date and time?  Is it One-day, or Two’s-day?  Gerald tells us it’s late spring, and the second moon is on the other side of the primary.  OK, it’s noon, and Two’s-day has just started.

          One of the Thing creatures gets out of their ship Thing carrying a huge fish.  It walks halfway to our rocket ship, and lays the fish on the beach.  It makes, “here, take this” signs, and walks back to its ship Thing.

          Buzz goes and gets the big fish.  We autopsy the fish as best we can in a rocket ship.  It’s a fish, yet not a fish.  It’s as big as the biggest fish we’ve ever seen, but the species is one of our common food fish, a few inches long at most.  The muscles are wrong for a huge fish, and some of the organs don’t make sense.  It’s as if they took a food fish, made an almost perfect copy, and then made it huge.  Who but God could do such a thing?  But wouldn’t God do a better job?  This is all very confusing.

          Buzz goes out with a table of sashimi, and sets it down halfway to the Thing ship.  The Thing that brought us the huge fish Thing comes out and brings the sashimi back to its ship Thing.

          At this point, Gerald stopped the sim, because we were out of time.  Jim noted that First Contacts between peaceful, communal societies were boring.  This is a Good Thing.

          Both teams more or less continued the sim, on a meta level.

          “Gerald, do these exchanges last another 21 hours?”
          “Why?”
          “If they do, we’re flying back to Scoti, and The Wave is going to squash these guys flat.  If it does, they failed the Test.”
          Jim answered, “Oh, we knew about that.  We’d have followed you back to your capital.  So, what’s the deal on your society?”
          “We’re the only intelligence on the planet, and we’re a homogenous society.  We all grew up together.  We have no concept of the Other.”
          “We could tell.  You guys were slow!”
          “Well, we had to get consensus.  So, what are you doing here?”
          “We have a bunch of embryos that we stole from a repressive regime back on Earth.  We’re trying to give them a better future.”
          “You’re criminals?”
          “We’re fugitives.  And once we entered your solar system, we were committed.  We had to colonize or die.”
          “You should have told us.  Our greatest sin is refusing aid.  It’s worse than – well, it is murder.”
          “We figured we had three choices.  Colonize your planet, with your permission, or colonize the second moon, or live out in space.  We’d rather live on a planet.”
          “You want to trade?  You’ve got that great fire.  Want to trade land for fire?”
          “Can we?”
          “You can have the whole second moon, if you share that fire with us.  We’ll pull our colony off.”

          So, not just a peaceful First Contact, but a happy ending for everyone, at least until the humans outgrow Nova Scoti.  But that’s centuries hence.

          A couple other things we learned after the sim: the humans were highly ethical, and wouldn’t even have landed had we not invited them.  I have to say, they did a pretty good job of wangling the invitation.

          The humans were escaping a repressive regime on Earth.  The human regime was practicing eugenics, like we do, but instead of being selected by the female Elders, the human babies were selected by males.  What a mess that must be!  No wonder they left.  It’s terrible, that society will collapse within 20 or 30 generations.  We wish we could help them.

          The human team heard our greenies’ rally chant as they were leaving the room, and mistook it for a battle cry.  They were going to land first thing, but the battle cry decided them on sending a probe instead.  It’s unclear to me how they could land first thing if they couldn’t wangle an invitation.  I guess they’d figure out our language from deciphering our Scorse Code.  That actually would have been better for the sim: we could have gotten past the language barrier and into the meta-level contact much earlier.  I enjoy the language problems, myself, but apparently they’re boring for the audience.

          Michael Wallis had an idea, that the First Contact sim be held as its own panel, maybe for two hours.  Then the two teams could do their debriefs as a separate panel, and hold the audience.  Another idea, I forget whose, might even have been mine by mistake, was to have a panel of Contact veterans, telling war stories of previous Contact simulations.  Then go from that to either the current First Contact, or the team debrief.

          As usual, a LOT of work – I slept for 15 hours when I got home – and a LOT of fun.  A big Thank You! to Jim Funaro for creating Contact, and to Gerald Nordley for inviting me to the Contact workshop at SiliCon.

-R