The Power of PoetryXavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, watched the alien ship approach. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and fought panic. He didn’t care about the fame that might come of making first contact with a new species. He’d happily let someone else have that fame and go on exploring uninhabited reaches of space.
There were just so many ways this could go wrong. For one thing, there was the translation module. The TM had been producing translations profane enough to get a person thrown out of the worst dives in the sleaziest spaceports in the system. At least, Xavier thought it would. He’d never tested that kind of language, and stayed out of the sleaziest dives. He avoided conflict.
“Larry, are you sure the TM is going to be okay with this? First contact is tricky. And Space only knows what the aliens might make of a foul-mouthed translation.” He thought a moment. “How long until we’re out of this gravity well and can make the jump?”
Larry didn’t answer. Xavier looked around. He didn’t see the eyeballs that were the computer’s semi-human manifestation. “Larry?”
“Um, here, Captain?”
Xavier felt a chill. Not only did Larry call him “captain,” which he did only only when he had bad news, but he had hesitated as though unsure. This was no time for Larry to turn human.
“What is it, Larry?”
“At the current course and speed we will be ready for the jump in 21.35 minutes. We contact the alien ship in five point five minutes. Assuming the TM can handle the alien language, have you considered what you will say?”
“Isn’t there something in your protocols?” Larry was the AI, for Earth’s sake! He was supposed to know things. Xavier wiped his palms again.
“There are several options. None seems apropos?” Larry ended on a rising tone, the way an Earth-speaker would, to indicate uncertainty. Another human trait. Xavier suppressed a shudder.
“Lay them on me.”
“One. ‘We come in peace.’”
“That has promise, though I’d rather go in peace. Next.”
“’Do not approach any closer or we may—‘”
Xavier cut that one off before Larry even finished. “Definitely not.” They lacked significant weaponry in any case.
“How about, ‘Greetings? Do you want a drink? Are we—‘ Wait, no, that’s for meetings in bars, not first contact.”
“Different kind of contact. The opener has promise, though.”
“Then there’s this one. It’s a list of everything of interest in the local space region.”
“Like a tourist brochure. That might be good.”
Larry had reappeared at last—his eyeballs, that is. Until now, he’d remained a disembodied voice. Now he was a disembodied voice and a pair of floating eyeballs. “The last one is. . . odd. I do not understand.”
“It begins, ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote.’”
“That doesn’t even sound like English.”
“It goes on a very long way, and there is a notation which says, ‘a poetic pattern retains inertia.’”
“Weird.” Xavier thought a bit. “A little inertia on their part might be helpful. We could try that.”
The alien ship now loomed large on the vid screen. Xavier studied it, trying to decide if it bristled with weapons, was covered with sensors, or was just a truly ugly design.
The external audio input crackled to life. The alien language hurt Xavier’s ears. Even Larry’s eyeballs seemed to flinch, though as far as Xavier knew he didn’t have ears. Then the TM kicked in.
“’Who the #$%# @#$%@# are you?’”
Xavier groaned. “It’s still doing it!”
“We must respond, Captain. Failure to respond would be worse than a tactless response.”
“Give them the tourist brochure response. At least it goes on for a while. It might buy us some time.” He wondered what a recitation of the local attractions would sound like in the profane language the TM seemed to have adopted. “At least the TM can handle the alien language. I always wondered how they do that.” Xavier’s musings on the miracles of translators were cut short by a long string of speech in the alien tongue, their TM’s broadcast of where to find hotels, bars, brothels, and other necessary amenities.
The aliens put up with it for a full minute before their response came back. Stripped of the decorative profanity, it amounted to “your mama.” Followed by something along the lines of “—obliterate you.”
“Holy asteroids, Larry!” Xavier scrambled for an idea, beyond the notion that maybe the cussing didn’t come from the TM after all. They needed back-up, and they needed to get away. “Code message to Gamma Sixteen about this hostile alien. And hit that poetry thing. I hope to Hades IV that it’s right about poetic patterns and inertia, because we have got to get out of here.”
“I have adjusted our course for optimal achievement of a moderately safe jump. Three minutes and four seconds.”
“Accelerate gradually away from them after the TM begins.”
The harsh syllables began pouring from the TM. Xavier hoped that the poetic pattern translated, if nothing else did. And he wondered what the Canterbury Tales sounded like in cuss words. And if the cryptic comment about inertia meant anything.
It seemed it did. At least, the alien ship didn’t adjust its course this time to follow as they moved obliquely away from it. Xavier didn’t know if the aliens were inertialized by poetry, numbed by early English verse, or awed by the TM’s obscene vocabulary. He didn’t care.
Larry monitored their progress, as Xavier strapped into the jump couch. A minute later, he initiated the jump, and they were in another system.
Just how had the TM translated “And smale foweles maken melodye,” anyway?
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014
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