Breadbox had come to the point of Choice in her life—a major life event on her world. And she had chosen wrong. She had been assigned a special role in life, and she had refused it. Escaped it. Ended up here.
How’d she tell me all this? Breadbox sang her stories, and Wanda the wand gave near-simultaneous translation. This made it quite difficult for me to grasp at first, but once I got the hang of it, I could follow her tales easily. Her singing pulled me right inside the story. With Breadbox, even her plain words were musical. Often a sentence would be completed by a long, pure musical tone, bell-like, or even an organ chord. Or the chiming chord I hear when I fire up my iMac.
Numbers are best for sharing data. Words are meant for reasoning and explaining, for ideas and describing. But songs are meant for storytelling—for teaching, for sharing wisdom, for affirming community and relationships.
Here’s Breadbox’s story, pieced together from many days sitting under the old oak tree. I sat in my favorite lawn chair, she on the gurney Doc had brought up for her, as far out the gash in the hull of the fuselage as her life support apparatus would allow. I with my huge glass of sweet herbal iced tea, spiced with a bit of rum, or sometimes gin. She with her bowl of magical water concoction, dipping her short tentacle in it and dripping it over her head. Wanda was our translator, explainer and encyclopedia of all things alien. But I was gradually beginning to understand some of her utterances directly.
Throughout her story of strange events across the cosmos, we were surrounded by the everydayness of Earth—warm sunny days or cool fog, the oak rustling in the breeze, birds devouring seeds and insects, timid voles and darting lizards.
“I was the Clan Daughter,” Breadbox sang, Wanda translated to English, “designated for a special role—poet-singer-chronicler. But special roles always meant unusual restrictions. Since poets and singers are by nature creative, unorthodox, breakers of rules, they also require stringent rules to channel their self-expression.”
And Breadbox resisted. All young females rebelled and resisted, but she took it much farther than usual. “I should not have taken it so far–to the point where I failed to Choose my designated role. And now I have paid the price. My friends are dead on this unknown world, as beautiful as it is.”
I need to give you a bit of background on her people, and a few of the real names the way that Wanda, translating for Breadbox, rendered them to me.
Her real name was Bvar-nala-nga. Her people were the Hawfofonoloy. Haw was the name of her clan. Fofonoloy means “people of the world of Sfofong.”
Now, I keep saying “people.” But of course these weren’t people as in human beings–any more than Breadbox is a human being. We might view them as bug-eyed monsters. Breadbox used a term that has no English equivalent–no Earth equivalent. Sounded like “ohee” or “oki”—a bit like “oaky.” It means any beings that have developed technology and can communicate with each other through symbolic means–i.e., language.
There’s actually a subset of these oki, it turns out–those world races that can make nice with each other and not exterminate, conquer, hunt down, or eat each other! And not mess with each other’s worlds.
“It is against our rules to interfere with uncharted worlds like this one. This is why my clan forbade unauthorized trips like the one we took.”
Breadbox described the Code of Oki, the basic rules of all the Confederation races. Reminded me of the Ten Commandments. One rule prohibited interfering with races that hadn’t yet achieved high levels of technology. The reason was surprising: to maximize diversity. The worst thing would be to shape new races to be like the old races. Boring. Excitement comes from having very different societies and technologies. Kind of the opposite of our way of thinking.
“In times long past, my people, the Fofonoloy, had been explorers and inventors and experimenters and adventurers. We had explored many star systems and worlds. We had established a far-flung network of relationships for trade and knowledge exchange. We were an old people—one of the senior races in the Confederation of Oxygen Breathing Peoples that stretched along one arm of the galaxy that contains both our worlds.
“Our elders always told us that we became too ambitious. Other worlds we visited felt encroached upon by the Fofonoloy. They resisted our advances. The Confederation forced my people to pull back into our own realm, and cease being so expansive.
“But I thought you told me the Confederation was all about expansion.”
“Others expanded outward—to new worlds. My people expanded inward—toward worlds already occupied by oki civilizations.”
She was silent for some time. “Another factor. Peoples of our body shape are less welcome. Most oki world races look more like people from your world—standing upright with four or six fixed appendages. These are Type 1 bodies, that evolved on solid surfaces. The Fofonoloy evolved on a wet world, in swamps and marshes. We have Type 2 bodies, with varying numbers of appendages, and without a solid skeleton.”
“How many body types are there?”
“Four types on oxygen worlds. Type 3 beings live in the deep sea, and have appendages specialized for water. Type 4 live on dry land. They lack internal skeletons, but have an external hard structure.
“Type 4 sounds like bugs! I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“I treasure your questions. What is a ‘bugs?’”
“Bug. We see them all around us. That one is called a spider, this one buzzing around us is a fly. That blue one flying rapidly is called a dragonfly. Some fly, some crawl. Six or eight legs.
“I see. On your world Type 4 is called ‘bugs.’ Our Type 4 races that are oki are larger. They have trouble communicating with Type 1 oki.”
“Why were the Fofonoloy less welcome on other worlds?”
“Because we are different from most oki races. They are suspicious of us. We also communicate in a unique manner, mostly by singing. And we cannot eat the same food as others. Only Type 4 oki are viewed with more suspicion and hostility.
From what Breadbox was saying, it sounded like the wise, advanced galactic civilization had its own petty prejudices. Despite their Code of Oki valuing diversity, they still preferred beings that looked like themselves.
“I am so pleased that you treat me in a civilized manner, and not like some strange fearful being.”
“I suspect that many on my world would view you as a mon . . .” (No I didn’t want to even suggest monster.) “. . . as strange and perhaps fearful.”
“Perhaps because the Fofonoloy were looked down upon, we worked harder to show our superiority. I believe that our technologies and our devices, including this poor wrecked vessel, are considered superior. And perhaps this is why we were assertive with other world races.”
“This would include your device I call Wanda?”
“Yes. If this were not true, how could three inexperienced youths be able to jump to distant worlds?”
Breadbox twittered and twitched nervously. “There is one additional factor I am ashamed to mention. My people, the Fofonoloy, brought a major problem upon ourselves. Many lifetimes in the past, our ancestors engaged in selective breeding to enhance desired traits and qualities, and this went on for a long time. In their hubris they ‘played Creator’ with the genome of our people. We had what you might call a ‘genomic crash.’ As a result we must live partly within this metallic band to maintain strength and longevity. Our elders blamed this on prior generations of experimental scientists. The ensuing upheaval contributed to our move away from innovation and inventiveness.
“After that, a more conservative culture emerged. The message taught to our young became, ‘The inventiveness of the past went too far. Too much newness is dangerous. It leads to longings that cannot be met. It created rifts within our society. We must live in cooperation with those around us on whom our well-being depends.’ This is what we rebelled from.”
Breadbox told me that this shift of culture had been pushed on the Fofonoloy by the conservative Confederation. Over time—centuries, if I am converting their time periods properly—they became ever more resistant to change. The new message became,“We must take the long view for the well-being of all.”
History had been rewritten to distance the present from the creative, entrepreneurial past. “Our world had become a museum,” Breadbox commented mournfully.
Creative self-expression was welcomed only if it led to no permanent change, but merely trends or fashions or belief systems. New technologies were allowed only if they increased comfort or safety or amusement. “Yet some sought to evade the shackles—my friends and I among them.”
“What was it about you that made you more rebellious?” I asked.
“The young are naturally more adventurous. As I told you earlier, we Fofonoloy mature through several distinct physiological stages over our lifetime. Our behavior and attitudes shift with each stage, and so does our role in society.
“Young females, like me, newly emerging from juvenile status, are the creative drivers. Next, they became the mother-nurturers.
“After nurturing our young, our third life phase is male.
I think my mouth dropped open at hearing this. “Are you saying that you go from being a mother raising young to being a father and fostering young?”
“Males father young, of course, but females care for them.”
“That’s often the case on this world as well,” I frowned.
She kept going. “When we become male, we have to choose between being an engineer or professional, or a warrior-politician. Mature males and females have separate life functions and may have little to do with each other.”
Breadbox explained that their final stage was asexual. I called it the “mother in law” stage. (No offense intended to all you sexy mothers-in-law out there!) They were the conservative seniors. They poked their noses (or tentacles) into everybody’s business, and wielded the real power.
Thus males, in their current cultural milieu, were prevented from becoming entrepreneurs, and young females from being inventors or explorers, because the viewpoint of the clan society was that it didn’t need more change or new things.
“In prior times,” Breadbox went on, “the strongest bonds were often between a young female and a young male. They formed an ideal pair: she creative and inventive, he the engineer and organizer. But this is discouraged now.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It could lead to dangerous paths of thinking and acting.”
And this is exactly what happened with Breadbox and her two compatriots. “We three formed a similar team, but with three members. “My role was artist, singer, storyteller. I chronicled and interpreted everything we did.”
“I love the name Breadbox you have bestowed upon me, but my home name is Bvar-nala-nga. My dearest friends call me Nala.”
“Our second crew member, Analala-noa, also female, was the inventor. Best friends called her Alala. She was the one that discovered the amulet and figured out what it was.”
“The third member of our team, Rleza-novan-nga was male—an engineer. He was called Novan. He built all the equipment, adapted the ancient codes contained in the amulet to modern navigation and jump equipment. He alone outfitted the vessel for our journey. He started with a small pleasure craft and transformed it into a star-jumping explorer.”
“Alala was our captain; she laid out the itinerary; Novan was the navigator, translating Alala’s guidance into effective jumps across space.”
“Alala was also our creative problem solver. We relied on her to figure a way out of jams.”
“How did the three of you first come together?” I asked.
“We three met on a Wilding. This is a period of craziness for young females and males just before their time of Choosing.”
To me, as she described it, the Wilding sounded like a combination of Spring Break and Carnival before Lent. But it went on for much longer.
Besides the normal craziness of the Wilding, all three were rebelling against the life channels they were being forced into. So they became good friends—and conspirators.
“Alala, in her ‘young woman’s’ research and exploring phase, had discovered the amulet in a trinket shop. She told us she knew instantly that it was something very old and special. She had studied archaic modes of notation. She recognized the patterns of incision to be the notation patterns of an ancient, almost mythological, progenitor race–far older than the Fofonoloy of our world. Older even than the oldest oki races of the Confederation. An oki race had built an empire spanning much of this part of the galaxy long before the Confederation came into existence.”
“But the patterns were untranslatable—by her or anybody else. They combined elements of both numerical data and storytelling description. As if it were a story about numbers. It looked to Alala like logical symbols constructed of bits of story.”
I thought of our DNA, but instead of the standard ACGT protein building blocks (yes, I looked it up), the genes would be built of tiny images of the person whose DNA it was.
At this point I went up to my house and retrieved the amulet from my hidey-hole to show to Breadbox. I noticed I had been reluctant to reveal it to her. Not sure why. Maybe afraid she would take it and somehow fly away home. When she saw it, she shrank away at first, then leaned forward to look closely. She was clearly fascinated–like a Hobbit seeing the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. But she made no move to take it from me, or even to touch it. She extended one eye-stalk very close, as if examining the amulet with a magnifying glass.
Good idea, I thought. So I dashed back to my house, got my large magnifier and a bright lamp, so I could see these things she was describing.
When I got back, I placed the amulet and chain on the corner of her gurney, and we both hunched over it—her with her two eye-stalks and me with my big glass—as if examining the Hope Diamond, or more likely, the Rosetta Stone.
With the glass, I could clearly see clusters of repeating symbols with slight variations. Breadbox narrated what her partner Alala had done.
“Using her devices, she isolated each cluster, and then ran a series of these clusters through the language translator, a task for which it had not been designed.
“She was delighted to discover that each cluster evoked a tiny song from the translator. When she fed in a whole series of them, it created a harmony—giant chords. The more clusters she fed in, the more complex and beautiful the harmony.
“But she had no idea what it signified.”
At this point, Breadbox went into her storyteller mode, recreating what had transpired on that far away planet, in song and lyrical prose.
Alala brought the amulet and her translated music to the Wilding and shared it with us, her new trusted friends. Late one night we were sitting on a small knoll beneath the stars, listening once again to this eerie, mysterious music.
I said to my friends, “It sounds like the song of the Universe.’
“What song would the Universe sing that one would go to the trouble to encapsulate in a small metallic crystal?” asked Novan.
“Perhaps it sings a picture of the Universe,” responded Alala. “Or our galaxy. Or part of our galaxy—our surrounding star neighborhood.”
“Why did the ancients want a picture of the stars when all they had to do was look up at night to see them in all their glory?” I mused.
“Perhaps it matches the song-image of the star with information about that star,” said Novan. “But what kind of information?”
“Where they are? Their coordinates? How to get to them?” I guessed.
We saw the truth hit my friend Alala. “That’s exactly right! That’s what it is! This is a songstory of the stars describing how to jump to them.”
“But what stars?” I wanted to know.
“Perhaps the ones we see in the sky right now.” Alala pressed on. “The amulet contains the data needed to jump from star to star. Of course, not the stars themselves, but the worlds surrounding them.”
“There were so many songs you played for us,” I exclaimed. “How many worlds then?”
“Yes, thousands,” Alala said excitedly. “And I only examined a tiny fraction of the crystal.”
“I wonder if it includes our home world?” I asked the question all were thinking.
We had figured out what it must be, but had no way to confirm it. That would be Novan’s job.
I asked, “What if it does contain jump codes to unknown worlds not visited for untold years? Are we going to visit them? Or will we turn this over to the keepers of knowledge, to once again be hidden and suppressed?”
“The question answers itself,” said Alala. “It would be sacrilege against the ancient inner spirit of our people to allow this not to be used.”
“If it is to be done, we three must do it,” intoned Novan.
For these three, the crazy times of the Wilding completely disappeared—but their collaboration, one might say conspiracy, was born. It took far more than a year, during which they kept putting off their Choices.
Novan found a well-used pleasure yacht that wealthy clan members had long used to jump to vacation worlds around their confederation. As Alala worked out the mathematics of the song codes contained in the crystal, Novan adapted navigational equipment to be able to read this entirely new form of communication data.
When Alala had entered a significant portion of the song codes into the display field of her visualizing instruments, they made a momentous discovery. The song codes were arranged physically within the crystal in the same relationships as the stars in the heavens.
Breadbox continued her narrative.
We were excited to discover that the crystal was a miniature 3-D model of the galaxy—or at least a good part of it. We could clearly discern its spiral arm structure. We quickly identified known star clusters. This allowed us to pinpoint the code for our own star. If we knew where we were starting from, we could figure out where we wanted to go.
Alala matched up song codes with known jump site codes to the familiar worlds of our Confederation. But the codes of the crystal extended far beyond, to stars outside the Confederation . The realization was overwhelming. There were new worlds out there to discover, and we had the means to get there!
Now, we had no idea what the worlds that lay beyond the known boundaries would be like. But by closely comparing the ancient codes to the Confederation’s codes, we saw that the song codes were generally for the kind of water-oxygen worlds we would want to travel to.
Did we dare jump to a known world using the new jump codes? A frightening prospect. Instead, Novan fashioned a few small robot devices to make the jump—hopefully unnoticed—then send back information to us. This worked the very first time! The eons-old jump site we selected was still functioning.
Next we jumped a small robot device to a world outside the known circle of the Confederation and awaited its return signal. The jumpsite functioned well, the signal came back, but there was no world in the vicinity. The robot’s instruments picked up a large gas giant in an orbit farther out, but no planet in the path of this device.
On the third try, we were able to pick up readings from a world of the right size and mass, but covered with exceedingly cold clouds. Not an appealing target. Things change in the cosmos, given long enough time periods. But amazingly, the jump sites were still functional.
Alala then proposed that we choose a target world to jump to, then send the small robot device to make sure a desirable world was there, and that there were no huge threats or hazards.
Then Novan, the practical one, asked, ‘Why don’t we send more sophisticated robot vessels to explore for us, rather than risk ourselves?’”
A long silence ensued, but then Alala and I responded in unison, ‘Because we want to go!’ Novan had no choice but to agree.
Breadbox paused in her delivery to allow Wanda to catch up with the translation. “That is how three untested youths made the commitment to leap into a void that none from our civilization had ever attempted before.”
“Wait. I don’t understand this,” I interrupted. “How does this work? What does it mean to ‘jump’ between worlds? Our science tells us this is impossible.”
“I don’t know how it works. Novan was the engineer. He used the wand and the amulet.”
Here’s how I pieced it together. Now understand, this comes to you via a poet-storyteller to a songwriter-musician, with intercession from a talking metallic tube. So my apologies if you can’t grasp the science.
The universe has two (or more?) kinds of space, overlaid. Regular space has all the laws and limits we are familiar with. The other space has different laws. Laws that allow messages, solid things, and even living beings to move from one place to another without passing through the intervening space. Space without distance. Perhaps without time.
It’s like on Earth. We can travel on foot only so fast and so far. But suppose there’s a telephone where I’m heading. I can just call ahead, seemingly instantaneous. “Telephone space” is completely different from travel-by-foot space. A telephone seems like magic to someone who has never encountered one before. But once you get used to it, you never again send messages by runner.
But initially there are no phones. So somebody first has to travel around on foot to install phones at different locations. They assign each one a number, record it in a directory along with its location, and thereafter you can reach that location merely by calling the number. Now, when you call a phone number, you may have no idea where that phone is located, and maybe you don’t care. You only want to connect with the person on the other end.
In a broad swath of our galaxy, probably millions of years ago, robot vessels chugged around between stars at sub-light speed, taking as long as it took, installing jump sites around stars with interesting planets, like a fleet of cosmic Johnny Appleseeds. Jumpsites were positioned at stable gravitational spots where they would stay put over eons in relation to the worlds they wanted to visit. Thereafter, vessels could get there by jumping through the other plane of space from one star to another—the one with no time or distance.
The big difference is, with this space jumpsite network, you could send not only messages, but also vessels and people and goods.
But in the intervening millions of years the “phone directory” of jumpsites had been lost. Not just the directory, but also knowledge of those who had created the network and its directory. And even the system of recording the data was lost! Later, when bits of it were found, people didn’t recognize it for what it was. Yet the jumpsites themselves still orbited their stars, awaiting a visitor.
Much more recently (tens of thousands of years?), the existing Confederation built up a new network of jumpsites as it expanded. Not as extensive as the prior network; old jumpsites at stars like our Sun lay completely outside the newer network. Also, it was based on a completely different system of communication.
I can’t quite grasp the distinction, but it sounds like the more recent Confederation used strings of numbers to identify jumpsites—the way we would do it—whereas the ancient prior civilization had used complex pieces of song. You can see how singing story tellers like the Fofonoloy would be the ones to rediscover them.
Okay. End of lecture on galactic history and science. (But there will be a quiz later!)
I asked Breadbox, “Did you visit other worlds before coming here?”
“Yes, four. But boring. Dark, cold, barren, one covered by sand, one by ice, one by jagged mountains, one by thick forests. We never even landed on any of them. We orbited, recorded data, looked in vain for signs of advanced life, then eventually departed.“
“Why choose this world we call Earth? By the way, what is your name for our world?”
“Your world was unknown to our astronomers. It is so distant from our Confederation that your star had never been mapped or given a designation. Thus we didn’t know what your world was like before we arrived in your star system.
Breadbox made intricate weaving gestures with two tentacles—the kind that I learned meant what was to come had an emotional charge. “ It was a dare. Find a world that is unknown but not barren. One that has some interesting phenomena and life.” She added after a pause, “We viewed this quest as an initiation adventure.”
“As soon as we jumped into your star system, we were quite excited. Your world is so beautiful! We couldn’t believe our sensors. There is such a magnificent fountain of coherent radiation patterns filling the space around your world. We had hoped for at most some interesting flora and fauna. Instead, we had discovered by pure chance a world of high technology and advanced beings. Exactly the kind of world we are forbidden to make contact with. Exactly the kind of world we dreamed of finding. Now that we had done so, we were terrified.”
“Did you report this back to your home base?”
“No we did not, I am sorry to say. Since this was a forbidden voyage, we did not dare. If we had made contact with interesting worlds, if we had proof, then we could have reported back. But instead we had this mishap.”
“What would you have done?”
“I do not know. Your world is so much more than we could have anticipated. If we returned home with artifacts and evidence, we would have been received as heroic explorers by some, even as we were given strong reprimands and punishment by the elders.”
“Can others follow you here?”
“Unlikely. Alas, no-one knows where we went. We kept it secret and concealed any traces of our choices. This amulet is unique as far as we know, and we brought it with us. It alone contains the jump codes. We dared not transfer them to other devices, because others would have found them and followed us, and we wanted this to be our voyage of discovery.”
“Can you call for help?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I would be too ashamed. I fear their response. The deaths of my two companions weigh upon me.”
“But they could come rescue you.”
“They would not do that.””
“We have broken the greatest taboos. And we failed in our mission.”
This was so alien to my way of thinking. Yes, of course, you say, they are aliens! Yet in another part of my noggin, I could totally resonate with her thinking.
“What happened? What caused you to crash?” I asked with some emotion.
“I’m sorry I cannot explain well. I was the youngest and the least formed of our crew. Remember, I was the artist, the poet and singer and chronicler. My role was to sing the song of the journey.”
She continued dispassionately, “We may have had the landing protocol set to ‘beacon landing’ instead of person-controlled visual landing. We were too eager. We should have orbited first. The device sought a beacon to lock onto, to cede control so it could guide us in. When there was no beacon, of course, we were coming in too low, too fast. The vessel hit the atmosphere like a wall, turned, tumbled, broke apart.” After a pause, she continued, “We tried to crash in the sea so no remains of us would be found.”
I could think of nothing to say to this. We sat in silence for a time, then sang a quiet song together.
* * *
The next day it was my turn. I related my lifetime tale of triumph and woe. So paltry compared to her glorious leaps across the cosmos! But I’m not going to bore you with it. It’s all there in the tabloids. True eternal love and love lost. Ah, Doug, where are you now? How I kept choosing the path to popularity and wealth, via shallowness, instead of putting out songs of deep meaning that nobody would pay to listen to.
Like Breadbox, I had chosen. And chosen wrong. Not once, but repeatedly. Like the time last year, in a pit of despond, I had called my old love Doug to see how he was doing. His wife (when did he get married?) answered and I could hear an infant and a small kid in the background. “I think you shouldn’t call any more,” she said politely, and I nodded my head in assent, my ears ringing with embarrassment.
Wait. I said I wasn’t going to get into this. But Breadbox was fascinated. She ate this up. I, the poor native on a forlorn unknown world beyond the edge of her universe, had lived the life she craved.
Breadbox strongly disagreed that I had chosen the wrong path. And besides, she reminded me, since I had already chosen many times, I could still choose many more times. Unlike her, who only had one Choice, I had the freedom to choose a different path. Many times. Many times the choice faced me. As often as the Moon rose.