“What’s this, grandpa?” The flat triangular object in Mike Picardo’s hand seemed to smother the dim hospital lighting against its dark surface, charging small golden symbols beneath. It appeared out of place among the worn clothing and faded trinkets the old man had begun to pack.
His grandfather glanced up from the edge of the bed, watery blue eyes moist and rimmed with red. He looked lifeless and ancient, a shell of the retired spacer who’d spun tales of the early days of galactic exploration, thrilling his grandchildren with adventures around other stars.
“What do you have there?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Picardo held the obsidian shard closer to the jaundiced overhead lights. “It looks almost alien.”
An unsteady hand grasped for the object. “It is alien. It’s Unuai.”
“The Unuai vanished about the time humans entered the galaxy, Gramps. There are no Unuai artifacts. Nothing exists of them except ruins.”
“Give it here.”
Reluctantly, Mike complied. His grandfather’s wrinkled hands caressed the shard’s dark center. A holographic image appeared, leathery masses of bruise-colored flesh slithering around a cone-like base. Three large eye sacs bulged from the top, and a gaping beak ground soundlessly back and forth.
“That’s a Unuai.”
Mike gasped. “Where’d you get this?”
“It’s mine!” The old man jerked the artifact, and the holograph vanished like a magician’s prop. “But I’d give it back if I could.”
His words trailed off, a sullen grumble Mike couldn’t quite understand. Surely his grandfather couldn’t have gotten the object legally. It’d be priceless. “How’d you find this?”
“I traded a Unuai for it.”
“That can’t be true.” Mike sat beside him, placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. His grandfather’s skin felt like cardboard, bones jutting like the struts of an umbrella beneath.
“Are you calling me a liar, boy?” The old man’s voice rose.
“I’m not saying that, Gramps.” Mike rushed to calm him, hoping the noise wouldn’t alarm the nurse. “But you must be mistaken. There are no Unuai.”
“Not anymore.” The old man slumped, his thin shoulders sagging, head lowered. He looked as though he’d been folded for storage. “Not anymore… because of me.”
“I don’t understand?”
“I commanded a mapping vessel in the early days. It had no name, just a number, and a three man crew of scientists. We were looking for life, intelligence, someone to tell us we weren’t alone in the universe.”
He stood and busied himself with a flat felt-covered tray holding a collection of military medals. Mike recognized one or two, but was embarrassed he didn’t know more of his grandfather’s rich personal history.
He thought the old man had forgotten about him, but after a while his grandfather turned and continued speaking as if he’d never paused. “And we found them. On an expedition to investigate a promising and newly discovered moon orbiting Iota Horologii.”
“Found who?” Mike didn’t like where this was going.
“Found the Unuai, of course. They didn’t live there either. They were exploring.” The old man sighed, confusion playing briefly over his wrinkled features as if he’d just remembered something he’d forgotten for a very long time. “They don’t dream, you know.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“They don’t have notions of “what if”, only of what is or isn’t. Civilization, society, technology, spaceflight–it all came as part of a natural progression to them, the next logical step in their search for resources. They never glanced at the stars in awe and wonder the way we do.”
“Wait. Back up. You really met a live Unuai?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” His grandfather picked up the artifact and moved it back into its box. “Our ship met one of theirs around that star. It was a one in a million chance, and the worst thing that could’ve happened.”
Mike sat heavily on the edge of the bed, his thoughts spinning. None of this could be true.
“We taught each other, learning to communicate. They were friendly, but naive. They didn’t understand lying. They had no concept for fiction. We didn’t realize what we’d done until it was too late. They were just too different.”
“What did you do?” Mike’s skin grew cold. He had visions of murder, his grandfather involved in some secret galactic war. But it couldn’t be true. The old man was just spinning a tale, the way he used to when Mike was a boy.
“We didn’t know they’d treat it the way they did.” The red around the old man’s eyes had darkened. His lips trembled. “I thought they’d study it, use it to understand the differences between us and them.”
“What did you do, grandpa?”
“I don’t think it was the things themselves, but our ability to conceive them.”
“Remember the time I took you to the circus? You were seven or eight.”
Mike nodded. “I remember. Where’s this going?”
“They had a smartiebot there, one of those games where you’d challenge the robot and see if you could stump it. You’d just learned Algebra, and you were feeling smug, like you knew everything.” He put his hand over Mike’s. His skin felt cool and dry, like an old glove. “But the smartie displayed things you’d never seen before, equations that made stellar navigation look easy.”
“I’d cried.” Picardo whispered, reliving the old shame.
“You tried to tell me the smartie was making it up, but you knew. An insurmountable chasm had opened between what you understood, and what was understandable. You were crushed. It was worse for the Unuai. At least you could grasp what you were missing. Imagine suddenly realizing there’s an infinite universe of experiences forever beyond your reach. How would you feel?”
“And you did this to the Unuai? How?” Picardo could hardly breathe. He clenched his hands into tight balls, knuckles white with tension.
“I thought they’d understand us better if they could see how we illustrated our experiences through fiction. So I gave them my reader and my science fiction collection.”
“You gave them books? So what?” Picardo felt he’d missed something.
“Time travel, galactic war, death stars… We don’t really believe this stuff, but we’re able to suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the tale.” The old man’s voice faded. “The Unuai had no choice. They couldn’t disbelieve. Like that day at the circus, a gulf opened they could never cross.”
“Geez, grandpa.” Mike glanced out the small window, squinting as if he could see armadas of Unuai ships fleeing from the galaxy, their people terrified by the inconceivable imaginations of man.
He was starting to believe in spite of himself. “This is huge. Is anyone working on it? Are they even looking for the Unuai?”
“Oh, we’ve got people out there all right. If the Unuai are still in the galaxy, we’ll find them eventually.” The old man fingered a colorfully painted model. The spherical toy was a miniature of the very ship he’d crewed so many years ago.
“What do we do when we find them?” Mike asked breathlessly.
The old man sighed.
“We try to convince them it was all some bizarre misunderstanding, a translation error. We do what we’re good at, what we’ve always done. We lie.” He stared at me, his eyes suddenly bright. “We tell them a story they’ll believe this time.”
My writing credits include:
Daily Science Fiction
L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future, Volume 27
Member: SFWA, HWA