Here’s the story that I had in Interzone some years ago:
by Judi Moore
“Thumbs,” the woman in the white coat said earnestly. “Without opposing thumbs it is impossible to develop any kind of mechanical technology, or to go beyond that. Tool use depends on thumbs. You pull the trigger of a gun with your forefinger, but without a thumb you can’t hold the gun steady enough to hit anything. All manual dexterity depends on the thumb.”
“So your interest in the creature is just in its thumbs?” He sounded incredulous. “Not how it got here, or why – just its thumbs?”
“It all flows from that. We have thumbs, it has thumbs. What it has done we must be able to do – don’t you find that marvellously exciting?”
She obviously did. A slight flush came into her cheeks. Her lips remained apart and she moistened them. He noticed a faint glitter of perspiration appear above her top lip and on her forehead. He found her excitement arousing. He wondered what she would look like without the shapeless white coat. Then he went further. He had got down to underwear when he remembered why they were there. It wasn’t every day you caught an alien sneaking around on Earth. It was a big event. He couldn’t help thinking, however, that getting his companion peeled and into bed would be a pretty big event in itself. Maybe bigger than this alien thing. After all, science fiction and speculation had pretty well run the gamut of alien possibilities. He was prepared to bet that the reality of this actual alien would be small beer compared to the literature they had made up for themselves about such things on Earth over the centuries.
They walked down the ramp into the bunker. He noticed that she was breathing heavily. Somewhere under the white coat two shapely breasts were rising and falling. He’d like to feel those two nipples under his thumbs …
“Nervous?” he asked her.
She gave a breathless little laugh.
“Just a little. This is, after all, the zenith of all my work on tool use to date.”
Couldn’t she express anything in simple, human terms? A logic driven egg-head with nice tits. He gave a mental shrug. They’d be working together for some time. She couldn’t leave the base now until the project was complete. He’d see what a few drinks in the bar would do for her egg-head and her tight arse. He’d make it a private sub-project. It didn’t matter how bright the woman or how big an opinion she had of herself, they all turned into mewling kittens in bed. She might not get far with her alien – but he was going all the way with her.
The creature awaited them in a small medical facility on the lowest level. It was propped up on a high, narrow gurney with barred sides. The room was warm, there was no coverlet – to permit maximum observation she presumed. Everything seemed to have been set up very well. Various monitoring devices were attached to the creature’s body. It was a pale greyish, spindly thing, vaguely humanoid. It appeared to wear no clothes, it had no noticeable genitalia. It had a large head and orifices that might be analogs of nose, eyes and mouth. Its most noticeable features – and the reason that she had been sent for – were its two hands. She found it impossible to believe that they could be anything else. The creature was the size of, perhaps, a malnourished ten year old child. Its hands would be considered large for an adult. There were three digits and large, well-developed thumbs. The digits were long and looked strong, in contrast to the rest of the creature, with deeper grey veining to be seen on the backs – tendons, bones or blood vessels, she couldn’t tell. The two hands lay now loosely clasped across the creature’s torso. They looked useful. The possibilities for her research – for the whole human race – were outstanding.
It was difficult to know what level to start on. They knew it must have arrived on Earth in some kind of ship from beyond their own star system. Since Earth had no such capability they had to assume that this spindly race was more advanced than they were. However, the temptation with a creature that doesn’t understand you it to treat it as inferior, mentally deficient – like a child, or primitive, or dog. The face – if such it was – was expressionless, giving an impression of vacuity. She realised how much humans relied on facial expression to communicate now that she was faced with something that completely lacked these clues.
Before they could get into anything detailed there was a primary problem that must be overcome – communication. She was used to dealing with primitive societies where language was not written down and had evolved a kind of language with her hands, with some basis in signing for the deaf and gestures she had found common in the tribes she had studied. She started with that, making the signs for peace and friendship and spelling out her name. The creature continued to do what it had been doing since they came in. If one was anthropomorphising one would say that it was staring at them, but one had to make so many assumptions to come to that point that she preferred to rely on the instrument readings from the monitors attached to the alien. By x-raying it – a procedure she had been completely opposed to, who knew what effect radiation might have – they had ascertained where the masses of organs were located. They didn’t know what the organs were for, but had slapped monitors on them all, certain that the gathering of enough data would allow some sort of extrapolations to be made. She saw no change in any of the readings as she worked.
It was becoming frustrating, and projecting even simple messages at this intensity was very tiring. After about an hour she made signs for goodbye and they departed. She had never been sure what role the man they had given her to work with was supposed to fill. She scarcely needed protection. She presumed he was some kind of military requirement. It would have been helpful to have a colleague with whom she could exchange ideas but this … She found him boring, surly and lewd. He had contributed nothing to the interview, when she would have welcomed additional ideas. Brain-storming with an expressionless alien and a human male of this kind was impossible. She felt very isolated.
When they had left the bunker he suggested that they go to the bar and discuss progress. She didn’t quite manage to swallow a bark of ironic laughter, made her excuses and returned to her miserably uncomfortable billet to consult with her books. She had an uncomfortable feeling that the alien’s apparent passivity simply meant that she was missing something that was very obvious to it and should be obvious to her as well.
They returned to the bunker after dinner. As they walked down the slope she thought to ask her companion whether the creature had eaten. He shrugged. Logistics were as foreign to him as logic it seemed. What sort of nourishment did the creature need, she wondered – and was it getting it or was it just starving quietly to death? She picked up her pace down the ramp. Suddenly she felt urgency about this next interview. They must find a way to communicate quickly or it was likely that the object of their study would be short-lived and nothing would be gained.
This time, although she made the same signs as she had done on her first visit for welcome and peace, and spelled her name again, she let her hands lie quietly in her lap after that. She cleared her mind as far as she could and sat with her face as expressionless as she could make it, emulating the alien. The man started to fidget, so she sent him out to check with the doctors whether they had made any progress with making sense of the readings from their monitors – and whether any attempt had been made to feed the alien.
Almost as soon as he had left the room the creature’s hands began to move. At first there was a slow, tentative fluttering – then she recognised that it was repeating to her all the gestures she had so far made, including the goodbye gesture which she had made only once on her previous visit. Excited and pleased she clapped her hands and smiled. The alien’s hands immediately clapped as well. There was, of course, no accompanying smile. She noticed that the orifice that might have been a mouth was more like a sphincter than a human mouth with lips. She wondered what lay behind it. She didn’t think that it was capable of a smile. She wondered how it showed pleasure.
As she wondered the creature lifted its hands up to chest level and put the thumbs together, making a shape like a bird with outspread wings, then it crossed its wrists and made the bird shape towards itself. It repeated these two gestures several times. She smiled again and imitated the shapes herself. It felt good. The gesture was so graceful, so peaceful. She speculated that the creature might be able to take thoughts from her mind, but that perhaps she was not able to receive its own thoughts. A stilted conversation.
Working on this assumption she began to think and sign together, repeating the physical manifestation of each thought twice. She included the query sign often. Before long when she thought a question the creature would respond with the query sign. Communication was established. The creature was very quick – as she had expected. Soon she felt able to ask about food.
Have you eaten? she signed.
Are you hungry?
What do you eat?
Please try and tell me what you need.
At first the creature did not reply. She repeated the query sign. The creature made the sign of the bird, almost framing its face with its hands. It might be a fanciful notion, but she felt it was imploring. All she could do in response, however, was sign that she didn’t understand. The hands lowered and became still.
She glanced at the big white clock in the facility and was amazed to find that five hours had passed. She was, herself, very hungry. It felt wrong to eat herself and not be able to obtain food for their guest – but she dismissed that idea as folly. It would help nobody if her efficiency were impaired through lack of food. She signed her intention to leave for a while and to return after rest. She suggested that their guest should also rest, signed goodwill and departed.
On the ramp she met her surly companion returning with a big sheaf of readouts from the monitors. She took them from him.
He had spun out his errand as long as he could. The creature, so still, made him uncomfortable. Being so close to her made him uncomfortable too. The more she ignored him the more he wanted her. The more he found his mind wandering onto what he would do with her when she finally thawed for him. He was used to looking out for danger. His reflexes were honed, his mind razor-sharp when it came to threats, tactical advantages, angles of fire, possible ambushes. This assignment gave no opportunity for any of that. The thing was motionless, in a bed with bars around it. It looked feeble, it did nothing. This was a waste of his time.
His mind didn’t take kindly to the enforced inactivity, tended to wander off to a warm bed with wine and soft music, to unbutton, unzip, unhook. He couldn’t shed what she had said about thumbs. He imagined his thumbs on her body, on her nipples, her earlobes, her neck …
“Any progress?” he asked, because he had been told to.
“Some – a little.”
Somehow she didn’t want to tell him just how much. She had begun to have feelings for the alien. She had begun to feel protective. Perhaps it was just that she really didn’t like this man. She was short with his renewed insistence that they go to the bar – this time he justified it by saying that she looked tired and would feel better if she “unwound”. She barely heard him and set off with her print-outs for her own quarters.
He watched her go, found his fists clenched by his sides. Snotty totty – that’s what she was – treating him like a glorified tea boy. He couldn’t believe she’d turned him down twice. He’d go over and see her later, with a couple of bottles of wine. That should do the trick.
But when he went over later she wasn’t there. He tried the canteen and the bar and she wasn’t there either. As he had been told to keep a close eye on her he became concerned. Eventually he thought to check with the bunker and, yes, she had returned there after a couple of hours and was now working with the alien once more. Quickly he went down to the lab. Through the glass wall he could see their hands working.
So, he thought sourly, she’s made real progress. She didn’t tell me.
He went in.
She looked up to see who it was and he could see the irritation in her face.
“Come in, sit down and keep quiet,” she said.
He felt his fists ball again, but he had his orders. He would settle with her later. He sat down in the only other chair. It was close to the alien. He tried to take an interest, but their conversation completely excluded him. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his knees, then he crossed his arms. She glanced over at him and he knew that she read the body language.
“You can leave any time,” she said. “I’m fine here.”
She returned immediately to her conversation with the creature. His discomfort interested her not at all.
He noticed that she seemed to be asking the same question of the creature time after time. there were variations in the question and sometimes one or the other of them would make a rather appealing gesture with both hands, like a bird. Sometimes the bird’s wings would beat outwards, sometimes inwards. He found himself becoming curious about this beautiful gesture despite himself. Finally he asked her:
“What does this bird thing mean, then?”
“I’m not sure – pleasure? Food? It’s what I’m trying to find out. It’s hungry. It’s told me that – but I don’t know what it likes to eat. I couldn’t go to bed knowing it was hungry.”
When he had interrupted the creature’s hands had stopped their fluttering and were still again. She tried to resume the conversation with it, but it remained stony. She sighed with exasperation which he felt sure was aimed at him. She tried again, but the creature didn’t move. Suddenly she stood up.
“I think it wants us to go now,” she said.
On their way up the ramp he tried to interest her in a nightcap, but she barely heard him and when she realised he was still with her when they reached her quarters she dismissed him with barely the civility of a ‘goodnight’. He fumed, but went as bidden. He was beginning to dislike this assignment intensely.
The next day she was, again, missing when he called for her. He guessed this time where she would be. Sure enough when he got to the bunker she was there before him. She had wheeled a little trolley into the lab and placed it between her and the alien. On the trolley was a box with a hinged lid.
She acknowledged his arrival with less irritation today.
“It makes it more difficult, but I will speak what I sign, so you can follow what is happening. I sign to teach our guest – it takes my meaning from my mind but it seems that it can’t transmit the same way.”
“OK. Thanks. What’s the box for?”
“I decided that it was time to get down to the reason why I was brought in to this. If I can’t find a way to get nourishment into our friend then we may not have long. Be aware that … it … understands what you think.”
She began to sign and translate for him.
Why don’t you look in the box?
Don’t you want to know what’s in the box?
I know what’s in the box.
How do you know?
I can see into the box, as I see into your mind.
She opened the box. There was a flower inside. A fresh rose.
Don’t you want to touch the flower?
No, I don’t need to touch i.t
She bent forward and picked the flower up, she held it to her nose and smelled it.
It smells good. Do you like this flower?
It has no savour.
She had trouble with this last word and they spent some time defining it with busy fingers. She said, at last:
“It seems that taste and smell are almost the same thing for … it.”
She returned to the food question.
What can I put in the box that you would like?
Why should I want anything in a box?
We put food in boxes sometimes. We call such food sandwiches – snacks.
I do not understand.
She threw up her hands in frustration, spoke without signing.
“What can I do? It’ll die if I can’t find out what it eats. And as you see, it has no interest in using its hands. It uses its mind to probe, to communicate. It has no interest in lifting, in tasting or smelling. Those beautiful hands – that beautiful gesture – what does it mean?”
He shrugged. She bent over and put her face in her hands.
“I’m very tired.”
She stretched her head up and back, stretching the cramped muscles in the back of her neck, trying to get rid of an incipient headache, running her two hands down her throat.
What fragile entities we are, she thought.
Then she noticed that her guest had changed position for the first time. It leaned forwards, stretching the monitor leads and causing one of the them to pop off its body. She searched in her mind to see if anything were there. She could sometimes sense an emotion from her friend. There was nothing. The bland face had not changed – there was just that one shift of position in the cluttered medical bed.
She made the query sign and concentrated on:
What? What do you want? Tell me.
It made the sign of the outward-facing bird for her – pleasure. She made the sign herself.
But pleasure in what?
I am very hungry
She felt enormous compassion for her friend. She wanted so much to help. She got up and crossed the room, moving the trolley and the useless box out of the way. She let down the bars on the far side of the gurney, perched on the edge of it, stretched out her hand towards those beautiful hands, still held in the bird sign.
This was dangerous, he felt in instinctively. There was no telling what the alien was capable of – no telling what viruses touching it might transmit. Sitting there, all three of them passively in their places, it had seemed like an afternoon tea party. He hadn’t been prepared for her sudden passion. He hadn’t seen how far things had gone. He’s been too wrapped up in the way the hair curled on the back of her neck. Had there been something to warn him how things were going? Had there? He stood up.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” he said.
“Oh nonsense,” she said, without even turning her head. “What can it hurt? It’s dying – don’t you understand. It’s starving. And we’re just sitting here watching it.”
“All the same – I think you should come back over here.”
But now she wanted very badly to touch her friend. Perhaps that would help her to receive properly – do away with the need for clumsy signing, enable her to understand. She hitched herself up onto the bed, leaned closer.
All his training told him that this was a serious mistake. He opened his jacket, put his hand on his gun, held it on ‘safety’.
“You need to step away from the bed. Now.”
She smiled at her friend and made the sign of the bird. Then she held out the gesture towards the creature in the bed. The alien’s bird hands came to meet hers. They touched, and suddenly she knew. But it was too late then.
It was so fast he didn’t immediately understand what had happened. Suddenly the beautiful gesture had changed, had flown to her throat, one thumb each side of the carotid artery, the long fingers around the back. The powerful thumbs flexed, there was a crack and the head lolled. The creature bent over what was suddenly a corpse and the thumbs dug into the artery of the neck. Blood spurted briefly, a tube emerged from the sphincter in the creature’s face and fastened onto the neat wound it had made. It began to drink.
He emptied the magazine of his gun into it. Before the last bullets had peppered the alien, the bed, the instruments and the woman the room was full of people. They were going to want some very good answers. It would be difficult to explain. It was complicated – what he had wanted, what she had wanted, what the alien had wanted – all of it bubbling under the surface, nothing stated, nothing out in the open, until … Had she been right about the thumbs? Or had it been all about desire? Well, there was only him left to ask, and he was damned if he knew.