The Titan entered Marak’s field of vision abruptly, looming overhead as it emerged from the cave. He ducked behind a rock, not wishing to draw its attention. They weren’t ready for that. Behind him, his team followed suit.
“Commander?” asked Bor.
“Hold steady. Examine, but don’t approach”.
In the rocky clearing above, the creature moved, its angular limbs thudding against the ground. No attempt at stealth, or caution, henoted*. They’re beyond that now – the reports were right.* His mind shuddered at the implications.
His name was not Marak, of course, and he did not call it a “Titan”. The language used among his species has no easy equivalent, relying mainly on smell and body language. In any case, he carried an undeniable air of authority.
In the rear, he could hear G’nar grumble. The old warrior coveted his place in the hierarchy, he knew, and this crisis only made matters worse. But he was too professional to try anything – at least for now. They had bigger problems.
Faint on the wind, but unmistakable, they could hear the Titan call to others of its kind, presumably hidden nearby. Marak strained to catch every sound, his ears swiveling. He could make no sense of it, and turned to Bor. “Translation?” he inquired.
Bor looked down, reluctant to disappoint. A brief silence passed. “Nothing. It’s too complex”, he said finally.
Marak’s worry deepened. Bor was a uniquely gifted interpreter, even if he had no other skills; he’d prevented G’nar from killing him in battle, long ago, and until today he’d never failed.
They lingered despite the danger, eyes locked intently on the strange form above. The Titan was looking for something, it seemed – its great round head scanned the ground, back and forth in orderly patterns. Finally, it reached inside its garment, withdrawing something they couldn’t see. Marak held his breath, and despite himself, he knew that G’nar did the same. Was this it?
Against the backdrop of the night, the creature moved smoothly and dexterously, belying its great size. For a moment, its efforts seemed fruitless. Then, with a roar, light blossomed from between its intertwined limbs, flooding the area.** “An attack!”, G’nar warned, half-rising to meet it. But Marak held him back.
The Titan rose, turning to its home with a triumphant noise that rose and fell in modulated notes. In the rear, Bor grimaced; the sense of a message was strong, but its meaning lay just out of reach. Then the creature vanished within the cliff, taking the strange glow with it.
Marak turned to his team, concealing his thoughts behind a mask of leadership. “Time to leave”, he ordered, and to his relief they obeyed.
Returning, they found little comfort in the safety of their camp. Silence hung in the air like fog, as Marak’s subordinates looked to him expectantly. Where to begin? They won’t like what I have to say. His eyes still hurt from the creature’s strange glow. Finally, he rose to speak.
“Kalok was right. They are everything he claimed, and now we know what happened to him”.
G’nar was quick to respond – he’d been waiting for this. “Do we? You haven’t told us anything, remember, what he said, where he was going before he vanished. Or why he confided it in you, rather than his own father.” The tone was mild, but there was an edge in his words.
Marak shot him a warning glance. “He told me because I was his commander, G’Nar, just as I am yours”. He sighed. “But now, you all need to know.” Nodding slightly to Bor, he began to fill them in.
Kalok had been missing for nine days, and with each sunset, his team became increasingly sure he would not return. On the fifth day, Bor had been promoted to third in command; to his credit, he had not mentioned it. Marak still remembered the look on Kalok’s face, as he conferred with him for the last time.
He had picked his moment carefully, approaching the Commander during his hours on sentry. “Sir. A word, please?”
Marak glanced around, wary. The tracker’s tone was serious. “Of course. What is it?”
“It’s the Titans, Commander. I believe they pose a serious danger.”
Marak groaned inwardly. His pet subject again. Kalok had always been fascinated by the giant organisms, taking hours of his spare time to watch their habits. Even his father G’nar had never understood the appeal; Titans looked odd, but they kept to themselves, rarely leaving their rock valley. On a planet with so many other threats, they were hardly a top priority.
“How? They barely show themselves except to hunt.” Thinking back, Marak wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d even seen one. “Are you sure?”
“Sir, please, hear me out. They’re more than they seem – you don’t know them like I do”.
That much was true enough. Marak sighed; deep in Kalok’s eyes he could see a foreboding that demanded to be taken seriously.
“Tell me more.”
“For one thing, they’re much smarter than they look, not the dumb beasts conventional wisdom suggests. More of them than we thought too, up in the caves.” He paused, looking around furtively once more, then continued. “Lately, they’ve been spending most of their time making those fluting noises at each other, exchanging information. Getting more complex, too – I’d love to get Bor on it, see what he thinks”.
“You know he’s not suited to a long trip. Besides, we need him here”.
“I’m not sure we have a choice”. He hesitated, unsure how much of his suspicions to share. “Commander, they’re developing new abilities, almost daily. Carrying strange objects around. This isn’t normal.”
“Spit it out, Kalok, what are you suggesting?”
“I know how it sounds, but this planet is changing fast. They’re adapting, becoming something new.” He paused, but he was in too deep to withdraw now. “Sir, I think we may be looking at the first days of a super-intelligence.”
Marak snapped back to the present, conscious of their reactions. Bor looked awestruck, while G’Nar was merely annoyed. “What does that mean?”, the elder demanded.
“I don’t fully know. Kalok tried to explain it to me, said he had to investigate the caves themselves. But I think Bor may know more”.
Bor nodded, shaky. “Yes. The, ah…I’ve heard of the idea, certainly. Never took it seriously”.
“And?” said G’Nar impatiently.
“There’s a lot, the gist is that a species’ intelligence level isn’t fixed, it adapts and evolves all the time. We’re more advanced than our ancestors, and so on. And in the future, if something adapts enough, it might surpass us”.
“And Kalok believed the Titans would do it? That’s insane.”
“He believed they already had. And that our world was about to change beyond recognition,” Marak replied. “Can either of you say, for sure, that he was wrong? After seeing what you have tonight?”
Again, silence reigned. Finally G’nar broke it. “I cannot. Their communications alone…but I know what to do.”
“And what’s that?”
“If those things are about to become ‘superintelligent’, then my son was right – they are a danger. Soon they’ll have tools and strategies beyond our understanding, and replace us as the apex species. We have to wipe them out, before that happens.”
Bor looked queasy. “That may not be possible. G’nar, with respect, they probably killed Kalok – we’d do no better.”
“Bor is right”, said Marak emphatically. “We can’t fight them, it would be like a small scavenger animal trying to attack us. Instant slaughter. No, there’s only one option.”
“And what’s that? Surrender? Typical.” G’nar practically growled.
“First Contact”, Bor interrupted. Both of them turned to look at him, surprised.
“Which is?” said G’nar, regaining some measure of calm.
“Another theory – high risk, but even higher rewards if it goes right. A species makes contact with a more advanced one, tries to form a mutually agreeable peace, rather than risk conflict.” The translator shifted from foot to foot, aware he was speaking out of turn.
“So you two have been talking behind my back, too.”
Marak bristled. “Things are changing, G’nar. We knew if you were consulted, you’d just want to kill everything in sight, as usual”.
“Because it’s always worked! Did you forget how you became Commander? The battles against the Horde? We are a warrior race, then and now.”
The old soldier rose to his feet, visibly enraged. “What did you say?”
“The old way is dead, G’Nar. Our warrior supremacy? It ended in a flash of light, back there at the caves. The Titans are beyond us now. All we can do is try to make peace, as they move the world forward.”
“They killed my son!”
“And they’ll kill you too, if you try to fight them.”
“Then I will die a proud death. Anything, before that dishonor.”
“You would ruin our only chance! Attack them, and they’ll become hostile, maybe declare war on our whole species! I will not allow you to doom us all, for your so-called pride!” Marak was angry now, old instincts rising to the surface. “There’s no time for this. Tomorrow, we make contact. That’s an order.”
“You are no longer fit to give orders, Marak.”
The two faced each other, eyes locked in open aggression.
“Is that a challenge, G’Nar?” the Commander spat.
“It is. I will take control, and exterminate the Titans, before you can bow down to them.”
“Then prepare yourself.”
They paced around each other, dust stirring with every step, both on guard. Bor ducked into a corner, looking terrified. He knew the practices of his culture when it came to dominance; civilized as they were in other areas, a challenge was pure savagery.
G’Nar saw an opening, and lunged; Marak sidestepped, ready for him, and they were on each other, limbs flailing, nails and teeth searching for each other’s throats. There was a shout of pain, and blood stained the forest floor; Bor could not tell whose. He held his breath; if Marak lost, his protection would be gone, and G’Nar would come for him next.
With a quickness that surprised even himself, Marak knocked G’Nar off his feet, and stood over him, victorious. Unused to combat recently, he panted, but did not remove his foot from his rival’s throat. To do so would invite a fresh assault, and he wasn’t sure he could win a second time.
“I am leader” he emphasized, catching his breath. A wheeze emerged from the fallen G’Nar, whose left side bore a sizable wound.
“Yes…” he assented, barely audible. “Do it…”
“No. Unlike you, I am not a killer”. He backed away slowly, half expecting more violence, but G’Nar was still. Faithful to the old rules of combat, he thought, even to the end.
The old soldier rose to his feet, coughing raggedly. “Then I must leave. I will not be commanded by the one who left Kalok to his death.” He limped to the edge of the forest, turning back to his former comrades. “Bor, you are second now. I wish you well, but know that you will not survive Marak’s madness.”
The youth nodded, swallowing. He was grateful to be alive now. Without another word, G’Nar stepped out of sight beneath the trees, and was gone.
Only Marak and Bor were left, hunting through the wilderness. They had not slept, spending the hours after G’Nar’s departure in intense discussion. Bor had done his best to explain the principles of First Contact, piecing together hints and scraps of information that Kalok had let slip. Looking back, he wished he’d paid more attention to his colleague’s pensive mutterings.
“True communication will not be possible, if it ever was,” he’d warned his Commander. The rank meant little now, but he would always think of him that way. “But a gesture of goodwill may be…some sort of gift, or offering.”
“Offering? You make them sound like gods.” Marak had observed.
“Effectively, they are. Whatever that glow is, they’ve harnessed energies we can barely imagine. Like lightning, but different…” he trailed off. Bor had been pondering the Titans’ secret for hours, but he could make no sense of it.
“But if we can make peace, we could gain the benefit of their knowledge.”
Always the strategist, Bor mused. “Yes, sir”, he replied aloud. “At least, that’s the idea. An alliance of sorts, ensuring our survival.”
So the commander had set out on a hunting trip, hoping to gain the Titans’ favor with a gift of freshly killed game. His theory, as far as it went, was that every species understood food. Puffing with exertion behind him, Bor could not disagree with the logic.
An acrid smell took his attention, and he slowed to a halt. After a moment, Marak did the same. The stench seemed to be coming from a dense tangle of weeds to their left, and it was overpowering. A buzz of flies accompanied it. They looked warily around for scavengers, then approached.
Within the underbrush, they found an unwelcome sight. Bor slumped to the ground, feeling nauseous; Marak controlled himself better, but was still unwell. A twisted, blackened lump lay before them, with just enough structure remaining to identify it as Kalok’s corpse.
“I didn’t want you to be right about this,” Marak said at last.
Bor nodded, still unable to speak properly. His eyes roved across the body, analyzing it automatically even as his higher functions struggled to cope. How did they do this?, he wondered. For a split second, G’Nar’s plan of revenge looked more appealing.
“They must have used that energy, whatever it is. Turned it on him full blast – he didn’t stand a chance.”
They stood, picturing the agony that must have unfolded. “Come on, let’s bury him,” Marak said at last.
They did so, kicking up bursts of sandy soil as they dug, then lowering their fallen friend into the hole. His father should know about this, Marak thought sadly. Perhaps I’ll track him down one day, give him the location. If there are any more days, for us.
They were silent for the rest of the trip, neither having the will to speak. Bor watched as Marak brought down several large birds, passing them to him for transport. Will this be our arrangement, now? He takes care of the hard tasks, and I carry things? He wondered.* Or will the Titans just destroy us? Will they even understand what we’re trying to do?*
There were no answers. Only the attempt would tell.
The cliffside was changed since they saw it last. On its rocky walls, markings had sprung up overnight, covering the surface for several feet in all directions. Most were incomprehensible, consisting of short jointed lines and squiggles. Others bore simple drawings, depicting Titans in various situations, and more disturbingly, three skulking figures behind a rock. They knew we were there? Marak wondered. Then why…
His train of thought was cut short by a sharp gasp. Bor stood enraptured by the sight of the wall, forgetting to conceal himself. His eyes raced across its surface, taking in every detail.
“Can you understand it?” Marak asked him.
“I… maybe. With enough time, probably days. But the complexity…” he sank back into his thoughts.
Superintelligence, thought the Commander. As if there was any doubt. Aloud, he ordered Bor to get himself out of sight, and was gratified to see the little translator do so.
The Titans were nowhere in sight, so he approached the cave mouth, dragging his peace offering behind him. Hadn’t thought I’d become a diplomat today, he thought wryly, but there was never any doubt who should make contact. Within the cave, he could make out large shapes, and in the distance, a faint, wavering light. The glow!
He rapped one foot on the cave entrance, making his presence known, and saw the large shapes move. From further back, a Titan loomed into view, joining him in the cave entrance with two long steps. It stood, just a few feet away, regarding him slowly.
Now. Marak dropped the birds at its feet – gender was impossible to tell – then backed away slightly, indicating the gift.
The creature inclined its head, quizzical but not hostile. It looked from Marak to the dead birds, which were beginning to seem a bit pathetic, laying flaccid on the ground with their feathers removed. Should have gone with a mammal, the commander thought frantically.
Slowly and deliberately, the Titan reached down, picking up the unexpected meal. Avoiding sudden moves, just as I did, Marak observed. It raised a bird to its head and sniffed, nostrils flaring. Finally, it seemed to approve, and carried the bird within its cave, turning its back to Marak. Cautiously, he followed, gesturing to the cave mouth for Bor to do the same.
They walked for many yards, following a rough-hewn tunnel that departed the main chamber. Its walls were festooned with more symbols and drawings, depicting Titans fighting each other, storms on the horizon, and creatures Marak had neither seen nor heard of. Bor stared, open mouthed, as the creature led them onward.
Eventually they reached a second chamber, smaller than the first. It was warm, and well-lit despite the depth. In its center stood a glowing form, almost conical – the energy source they’d been wondering about. It worked, Bor thought, we’ve been allowed to see it. He examined the pillar of light as it swayed from side to side. Fascinating. Drawing closer, he yelped in pain as it grazed his face. The Titan made a rough chuckling sound.
Pushing them gently away, the being held a bird up to the glow, turning it slowly from side to side. Bor and Marak watched as its flesh browned, releasing a savory smell that permeated the cavern, making their mouths water. Then it ripped the fowl in two, throwing half to each of them, before cooking its own. They ate eagerly, aware of the gesture’s meaning – even Marak needed no translation.
As they finished their meal, the pair noticed other forms moving about the cavern – several adults, and smaller ones that must have been their young. We’ve done it, Bor thought, been welcomed into their home. No creature brings their offspring near a possible conflict. He nodded to Marak, who seemed to understand. Contact is made.
Their host, if that was the right word, approached them. He pointed to himself, making a sound, then waited. “Brugan”, he repeated. A name – clearly a male. Then he reached down once more, resting a hand on Bor’s head. To his surprise, the feeling was not unwelcome. Brugan spoke once more, bestowing a name on his new friends, and they knew their alliance was complete.
“Dog,” he said.
by Alex Skopic