An archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
The pitted metal cylinder sped between the stars. At sixteen kilometers in diameter and nearly fifty long, it spun at a quarter of a revolution per minute Earth time. Humans had dubbed the structure Rama after the kingly Indian god.
Inside the cylinder, on an “island” nicknamed London by recently departed human explorers, three tripeds three meters tall met near the Cylindrical Sea, having recently been decanted near it. Each Raman resembled a funnel on a tripod, a funnel narrowing at the waist and spreading to a meter wide, projecting three arms caught about by a harness at the upper end.
For our purposes, let us name these individuals as A1, B2, and C3. A1 spoke in one of the humming/whistling/clicking Raman languages:
“It is good to have a body again after all those centuries of storage in the ship’s holonet.” A deep inhalation that spread three arms in different directions. The others took deep breaths as well, standing tall and flexing appendages.
“A pity we can’t also look upon our landscape,” put in B2. The six great Raman light strips—three if one did not count their bisection by the world-circling Sea—lay quiescent preparatory to a long interstellar voyage.
“Even at full solar charge,” replied C3, “we should not squander energy.”
“I’m curious to know your impressions of our human visitors,” A1 continued. “My sense is that in some respects our opinions will agree.”
“Strictly speaking,” said C3, “they failed the test, did they not?”
“Not completely,” said B2. “They landed on a spinning surface and got through the airlock. They understood what the biots are. They explored as much of the interior as they had time for, even penetrating the Lands of the Spikes.” B2 referred to what humans had called the Southern Hemisphere: the segment of cylinder terminating in a massive spiked and buttressed wall built to bleed off the gigantic discharges of the stardrive in full operation.
A1 said, “They also sailed the Sea and figured out how to get into one of our storage units…”
C3: “…And they threatened us with a thermonuclear warhead.” Namely, the missile launched at Rama by the paranoid human government on Mercury.
“One of them risked its life to disable it,” added B2, “before we had to take countermeasures and ruin the experiment.” The meteor splash on the side of Rama might have been a giveaway of unseen protective powers but evidently had not been.
“Yes, that is true,” replied C3. “But they never suspected we were on board, our patterns of consciousness storied away for later reembodiment. They did not even realize that by entering our domain and exploring, they were taking a carefully designed test.”
“They don’t take the long view,” A1 acknowledged. “The possibility that we would build all this and sail it for centuries just to test their maturity obviously never occurred to them.”
“Well, it’s not as if we only test theirs.” B2 looped a tentacle to emphasize the point.
“It’s not even about them, specifically,” said C3. “We spotted a candidate solar system for high intelligence and launched the vehicle toward it. If nothing was found, then on to the next candidate.” An ancestor of C3 had been one of the project’s designers. C3 could draw upon those memories.
“All right,” said A1. “They missed the fact of an obstacle course laid out for them. The smooth walls, the inconstant lighting, the cliffs guarding the Sea, the difficult-to-reach island plants, the Southern squares laid out like a primitive game board. The rotating crown of fire spinning into operation just as they flew near it. Even the one blurred hint of hidden life on board. None of it registered with them as a series of challenges to test their intelligence, cooperation, and adaptability.
“Nevertheless, they explored, mapped, collected information, and departed with only minor damage caused. That still shows qualities of curiosity, care, and inventiveness. It would have been worse had they misinterpreted the ship as an interstellar gift of tribute sent to praise their greatness.”
The three paused in the dark for a moment of reflection.
“My recommendation,” stated A1, “would be to send our conclusions and all the recordings we made of the humans’ actions to the next test ship on its way here instead of recommending that it pass through and go elsewhere. When it arrives, it will study them again and transmit its conclusions to the third test ship. Then we will consider whether to open communications with the humans directly.
“Do you concur?”
“I do,” said B2.
“I do with one condition,” said C3. “The second ship should make the test harder, and perhaps more dangerous. Let us see what they are truly capable of.”
As the three touched their personal stasis controls to go back into cyber-hybernation, consciousness uploaded and bodies recycled, C3 grumbled, “Maybe we should try programmable black monoliths instead.”
Arthur C. Clarke published Rendezvous with Rama in 1973. His science fiction had predicted satellites, robots, planet-wide digital communications, search engines, targeted advertising, telecommuting, and international video calls, among other things.
In the Coaguum year of 2017, a slim interstellar body, featureless and red, tumbled through the Solar System. Astronomers named it Oumuamua, which means “Scout” in Hawaiian. Although far smaller than Rama, at best a thousand meters long, it accelerated as it approached the sun, but without any visible cometary outgassing. It was also ten times brighter than an ordinary comet.
Most astronomers concluded that Oumuamua was a natural body. Some, though, thought otherwise.