Author : Bob Newbell

The tiny spacecraft skimmed the atmosphere of the turquoise world that orbited Tau Ceti. When the ship had completed its aerobraking maneuver, a small sphere emerged from it and plunged toward the planet’s surface. The sphere grew larger and became buoyant, sailing silently through the air as it slowly descended. At last, the sphere touched the great global ocean and burst like a soap bubble, depositing its pilot into the water. The jellyfish-like entity intertwined its tentacles with a half-dozen of the trillions of similar creatures that floated in the planetary sea.

In a matter of minutes, everything the organism had learned about the crew of the small alien vehicle that now orbited its planet was disseminated to the composite-mind made up of the legions of gelatinous marine animals that drifted across the waves of the world.

Curious, these humans, the aggregate-consciousness thought to itself.

Self, as the collective mind regarded itself, had, of course, encountered visitors from other worlds before. As recently as 10 million years ago a most hospitable species from near the center of the galaxy had paid a visit. But they had been more like Self: a multitude of brown, leathery arthropods that formed a single group-intelligence. These humans were altogether different.

“We come in peace and friendship representing all the peoples of Earth,” one of the humans had said.

The translation organs had rendered the human’s strange atmospheric vibration-communication comprehensible. But it had noted that the message seemed to originate entirely from a single human. The encounter ship’s sensor organs had detected no cognitive plexus formed by the crew.

Even while in orbit, the appendage that had met the aliens was still in at least limited communion with Self through the ship’s bioluminescence organ. The idea of this bizarre compartmentalization rippled across continent-sized clusters of bodies as Self tried unsuccessfully to comprehend this odd, fragmented species.

The amalgamated mind was disturbed by its lack of understanding. What could be done? The question electrochemically knifed across the surface of the world. Almost instantly, the only viable answer followed.

* * *

Self awoke on the human ship, waking being itself a novel and unsettling experience as it had never before slept. But it was not Self. The creature had Self’s memories, albeit in a strangely condensed and abbreviated form. Eight of the animal’s tentacles had been fused into two jointed struts, each strut comprised of four tentacles. It found it could stand upright on them and ambulate. Its remaining two tentacles remained unaltered so as to be useful as manipulators.

“Are you okay?” asked one of the humans. Not-Self was taken aback not only by the fact that it understood what the alien had said but that it had heard it speak. The Tau Ceti jellyfish had been biologically retrofitted with a tympanic membrane.

“The…rest of you down on the planet said you might be confused at first,” the human continued. “It said it wanted to understand us and that the only way it could was by sending an ‘appendage’ to live with us.”

Not-Self was again surprised when it discovered it had a speech organ and was fluent in the alien tongue. “I…am…to…accompany…you.” It was disconcerting to hear its thoughts transformed into acoustic modulations. And the awkwardness of it would never entirely abate in the bewildering centuries that passed as it lived and worked among the disassociated creatures from Earth.

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