Project Handshake

Sweat loses its charm in outer space. Robert Qulin learned this as he huddled in front of the instrument panel of the HDS Olive Branch. Said panel was spare for a starship console: nothing more than a simulated flight path and two large buttons that said, respectively, OVERRIDE and RETURN. This already-too-familiar array did nothing to distract Robert from the sweat. The Olive Branch was climate controlled, but it used some high-tech system built into the walls, nothing so simple as a good old fan. If Robert had a fan he could’ve put his face in front of it, and the combination of motion and coolness would’ve relaxed him. As it was, his cockpit was technically livable but chilly. Thus, the beads of sweat on his forehead were not relaxing; they sat cold and motionless on his brow as stubborn lumps of dread.

Robert watched the simulated Olive Branch creep through the halfway point. The green text box at the bottom of the screen acknowledged this by blinking from 49% to 50% and the console concurred with a sharp beeping noise. Robert swiveled his chair away from the panel.

“Half way . . .” he muttered to himself, “damn.”

He was now too far away from the Wayworld Apparatus to send or receive any communications. This should’ve meant nothing to Robert since the ship wasn’t equipped with a comm array to begin with, but the mere halfwayness of his current situation was enough to double knot his already knotted stomach. Halfway had something strangely final about it. It was a milestone, a checkpoint. Part of him didn’t even want to reach the destination.

The Olive Branch pressed on towards an advanced piece of technology known as the World Greeter Platform. The WGP was built to handle anything from cosmic radiation to external or internal ballistics. It was also tiny—about the size of a modest two story house but more spherical in shape. By far its most fascinating feature was that it could safely interact with both matter and antimatter. Someone had explained the specs to Robert at some point, but most of it went over his head. Robert was not a physicist, nor was he an engineer. He was a diplomat.

Specifically, he was a proud member of the Human Diplomatic Society, which emerged, naturally, from our first contact with alien life. They were well outside our galaxy, hence the need for the Wayworld Apparatus, and we had established audio contact with them long before we were able to determine their exact location.

Robert stood up and went to his locker, which contained his book bag and, more importantly, his smuggled box of breakfast cereal. Command had ordered him not to bring any food other than their pre-approved Nutronomical!™ interstellar sustenance packets, but Robert had quickly learned to avoid them. Nutronomical!™ bore an uncanny resemblance to chalk, no matter what meal was shown on the package. It also had the same taste and texture, as far as he knew. Back in his chair, Robert cracked open the box and scarfed some fistfuls of dry cereal. The cereal tasted like cardboard, not chalk, and it reminded him of home. He sank into the chair’s cushion and listened to his own chewing. His nerves eased slightly.

Robert was a people person. That was why he did so well in HDS. He loved finding commonalities between people and using them to wash away conflicts or tensions. He figured himself one of the luckiest people of all time since he was born just a few years before the HDS Communications Committee worked out a common language with the Xedorai. He grew up listening to news reports detailing, with discretion, the conversations our audio ambassadors were having with the first known sentient alien race. By the time he was in college, the Committee had given up on trying to arrange video communications, but was still forging ahead on a project to develop a visual model of a Xedorai while helping them create a model of a human. When the two species had completed models of each other’s exteriors and started enquiring about each other’s organs, the project hit a snag. The doctors on our side told the Xedorai to put the model heart they’d been working on in the left side of the model’s chest. Left? Without any means of visual communication or knowledge of each other’s exact location, neither side could figure out how to agree on right or left. When Robert had heard about this he almost thought it was a joke, but with a little explanation it made sense. Direction is entirely relative, there’s no way to describe it without referencing known physical points. The only reason the Xedorai had known to put their model human’s feet at the bottom was because we’d told them, “All right, let’s start from the ground and work our way up.”

Without realizing it, Robert had eaten through two-thirds of his cereal. He set the box on the floor and went back to this locker to grab his notes. Back in his chair, he flipped through pages and pages until he found the sketches they’d given him of what the Xedor ambassador was going to look like. The first few sketches were all of a nude Xedorai, which at a quick glance looked to Robert like a giant mushroom with tentacles growing out of its stalk. They are not, however, a fungal race; in fact, their nearest Earthly equivalent would be a highly evolved cephalopod. The part of the head that resembles a mushroom cap is actually a chitinous black shell which, back in their sea-bound, pre-sentient evolutionary stages, acted as a kind of crest used for both combat and mate attraction. Unlike our cephalopods, though, they have no suction cups on their tentacles because they evolved out of them after so many millennia on land. Their skin is pale and usually somewhere between turquoise and grey. Clustered along the rim of their aforementioned crests are tiny pulsating nodules that form a sophisticated sonar system, which serves as both their sight and hearing. Because of this, they found the human eyeball fascinating. They knew of light’s existence but never imagined it could be a source of vision. Robert turned to the page that explained their tentacles. Three on the bottom, generally used as “legs”, and two longer ones originating closer to the crest, generally used as “arms”. At the ends of each “arm” are two-pronged tentacular clubs—“hands”.

The console beeped, Robert looked over at it. 70%.

“What the hell?”

It was programed to beep at 10% intervals. Robert hadn’t noticed the beep at 60.

“Damn it!”

Robert paced for a while, wringing his hands. Soon, one of those hands was possibly going to shake a Xedor tentacle. To Roberts’ thinking, the handshake was one of the most fascinating nuances of human communication. Its earliest known incarnation appeared in ancient Greece, where it was essentially a way of telling someone “I’m not a threat.” Since right-handedness has always been more common, and left-handedness then carried a heavy social stigma, offering your right hand for a shake showed your partner that you were unarmed. Thus the handshake became an inextricably handed operation. That is to say, there is a proper hand for it and an improper hand for it. Throughout history, the handshake has evolved into many different forms, some preferring a soft grip to show courtesy, some preferring a firm grip to show confidence, and some even preferring the use of both hands for added tenderness. What Robert now found quite troubling was the fact there were actually some left-handed handshakes in the world. The American Boy Scouts, for instance, preferred to shake with the left hand because it’s closer to the heart and thus communicates deeper friendship. This practice, in turn, was supposedly inspired by the Ashanti warrior tradition of shaking with the left hand as a sign of bravery, since it required that the warrior first drop his shield. Accordingly, Robert’s swiftly approaching handshake was definitely handed and he was trying desperately to remember which one.

During the preparations for this meeting, the Xedorai quickly consented to a handshake, mainly because they were fascinated by our arms. When our doctors were first helping them model a human arm, they joked that it was too rigid and inflexible compared to their own tentacles. But, as the doctors and other human communicators explained the many things we’ve managed to do with them, the Xedorai developed a great respect for our jointed, lever-like limbs. They came to realize that the inherent limitations of our arms has lead us, in many cases, to great creativity, forced us to practice and codify our movements into distinct, repeatable beats. They were ecstatic when they managed to make moving models of human athletes and dancers, dazzled even by descriptions of what a human driver must do just to operate an automobile. They even admitted that some of our technology was perhaps more elegant than theirs since ours must be designed for a very particular range of bodily motions. By contrast, the controls on their machinery are often more slapdash because they can use their tentacles to operate just about anything.

As it happens, we did manage to discuss right and left with the Xedorai. Part of the problem had been that the laws of the physics were, as far we knew then, ambidextrous. Physics seemed to reveal no particular preference for any one direction until a paradigm shifting experiment simultaneously solved the right and left problem and deeply offended the aesthetic tastes of physicists the world over. It turns out that a particular radioactive isotope of cobalt is magnetic at extremely low temperatures next to a strong enough magnet, causing the cobalt atoms line up with respect to its magnetic field. As the atoms decay via the weak interaction they emit electrons which prefer to emerge in the direction opposite the vector of the magnetic field. This was somewhat unfortunate news for the physics community, since it ruined the beautiful symmetry of the laws of nature, but it was an absolute boon for the HDS Communications Committee. Finally they had a replicable physical experiment that would reliably favor one direction over all others. They arranged the cobalt experiment in front of a dummy of a human torso and aligned the apparatus in such a way that the electrons would tend to fire off in the direction of the dummy’s left side, then explained to the Xedorai how to set up the same test.

“Whichever way the electrons go,” we told them, “that’s where you put the heart.”

Robert flipped forward a few more pages. The next set of sketches showed what the Xedor ambassador would be wearing. For various reasons it was decided that each ambassador would appear in his own breathing suit rather than our engineers trying to fill the World Greeter Platform with mutually breathable air. The suit in the sketches looked like a rumpled white plastic bag wrapped around a Xedorai, with various tubes and tanks sprawling out from the back. Robert had to admit his own suit looked pretty similar except wrapped around a human. There was one more small difference: his suit had a glass pane over the face; the Xedor suit had a thinner, more flexible membrane around the sonar nodules.

The console beeped. 80%.

It had to be right. He was to put out his right hand, the Xedorai would put out his right tentacle, which would appear left from Robert’s perspective, and they would have a good old handshake. There would be none of that awkwardness that occurs when two people reach forward their opposites and realize that hands aren’t meant to link that way. If the Xedorai put forward his left tentacle, Robert was under orders to immediately turn around, get back in his ship, hit the RETURN button, and do it all as calmly and wordlessly as possible. If he had any desire to survive the mission, he was not to accept a left-handed shake.

The Xedorai did not know about Robert’s orders. In fact, all they knew was that it would be most polite and most preferable for their ambassador to put forward his right tentacle. In the event that Robert returned and reported a left-tentacle shake, the Wayworld Apparatus would be immediately evacuated and destroyed, and all communications with the Xedorai would be permanently cut off. The WGP was already programmed to start drifting away from our direction in the event that Robert’s ship detached without him first hitting the OVERRIDE button. The Xedorai would be left in confusing silence with no path left to follow back to Earth, which, all things considered, would be the best that anyone could ask for.

As contact with the Xedorai became more frequent and more familiar, one of the topics that came up was, naturally, a comparison of scientific knowledge. In a discussion on physics, the Xedorai admitted that they had not yet discovered antimatter and had only recently begun to theorize about its existence. As a group of eager young scientists started pulling up data, a professor sitting toward the back end of the room suddenly leapt up and shut off the communications feed. In front of a bewildered audience of fellow HDS members, he explained his recent epiphany that the Xedorai might be made of antimatter. Antimatter worlds had long been determined theoretically possible and, as it had been with right and left, the relative terms “matter” and “antimatter” could not be determined through audio communication alone. The implications were plain as day: if there’s was an anti-matter world then anyone’s attempt to set foot on the other’s planet would result in the visitor’s instant disintegration. Without any need for discussion, everyone in the room realized that such an event could only lead to greater tragedy. The professor turned the communications back on. “Sorry about that,” he said as earnestly as he could muster, “one of our colleagues here was about to pollute the discussion with some new crackpot theory. It was all I could do to prevent him feeding you nonsense.”

Soon after, that same professor published a paper proposing a test. The paper explained that the cobalt experiment, if it was performed with anticobalt, would tend to launch positrons in the opposite direction of the electrons in the original experiment. In other words, if the natural workings of the universe are right handed when dealing with matter, those same operations become left handed when dealing with antimatter. Physicists were relieved to see Nature’s return to symmetry, and HDS had the basis for a test.

“If antimatter operations are left-handed,” he would explain at lectures, “then the Xedorai have been working with right as left and left as right. Thus, if we were to tell them to meet with one of us and offer a handshake with their right hand, they would put out their left.”

“Right means matter, left means anti.” Robert muttered to himself as he swiveled his chair. “Right means talk, left means walk. Right means override, left means leave. His left. My right. So, I should see—”

Beep. 90%.

Robert smashed the arm of his chair with his fist.

“Okay,” he told himself, “This is going to happen. Look at the positives. New frontier.”

This was his chance. The biologists, the physicists, the linguists, the artists, the architects, they’d all gotten their chance with the Xedorai. They’d had years to experience their respective crafts and sciences through sonic, alien eyes. Poets translated with them, mechanics built scale models of their machines, surgeons explored replica Xedor bodies made by anatomists. Now it was up to a diplomat to go and experience their culture firsthand, to learn the minute nuances of their interpersonal communication, to grapple with their customs, get in arguments with them, try to balance our perspectives with theirs. It would be Robert’s grand, pioneering adventure. Or the Xedor Ambassador would put out his left hand.

If he was offered a left-handed shake, Robert would follow his orders without hesitation. That wasn’t what scared him. What scared him was the question of what that fellow ambassador would think seeing him walk away. What scared him was getting back into the Olive Branch for a long, lonely ride home. What scared him was the thought that the only other known sentient race in the universe might be so fundamentally different from our own that contact could only result in doom. If the ambassador put out the wrong tentacle, there would be no talking, no creativity, no laughter, no gift-giving, no good intent. He would have to leave, and that’d be it. Robert tried to calm down by reminding himself that whatever came next was already determined and nothing he could do now was going to affect it. That didn’t help.  

He looked over at the console. 99%. He could actually see the lights of the WGP through the simulated window screen. By the time the console hit 100%, this time sounding off with a loud bong, Robert was already in his breathing suit. The Olive Branch connected itself to the WGP and its entry door opened up to a standard-issue transfer chamber. There were various red scanner lights lining the grey walls and thick pipes on the ceiling. Robert stepped in and the Olive Branch closed behind him. As he pressed the first of two buttons on the door ahead, the room scanned him and swapped out its air for a gas similar to the material that the WGP was made of. With that, the door’s second button lit up. Robert hit it to open the door.

The main chamber of the WGP appeared much larger than he had expected. It was roughly circular and the walls formed a dome with searing white lights running along its longitudes. A set of those same lights traced the diameter from Robert’s door to the other one and formed a circle in the middle. Aside from the lights, everything was perfectly black, not even reflecting Robert’s glowing white suit when he looked down. He took a few steps toward the meeting circle then stopped. Just as he realized that his guest wasn’t there yet, the walls on the opposite end of the chamber opened up. There he was. The Xedor ambassador walked slowly but, as far as Robert could tell, calmly toward the center of the room. As Robert approached him, he noticed something odd. The Xedorai’s right tentacle looked too limp and it didn’t have the same swaying motion as the other one. He squinted at the rumbled white “chest” of the ambassador’s breathing suit. There was a bulge that seemed to run diagonally from his top right to bottom left. He was injured. His right arm was inside the suit.

When they both reached the inner circle, Robert watched silently as the Xedor ambassador slowly lifted his left tentacle.

Robert froze. He imagined his guest was using sonar to see through his helmet and count the big round beads of sweat on his forehead. He turned. He walked back to the door, opened it, let the transfer chamber do its job, and got back in the Olive Branch. He hit the RETURN button and started to take off his suit.

“Why?” he thought, finally in his chair again, “What the fuck were they thinking sending me a cripple? Why? Did he get hurt on the way? How goddamn dangerous do they build their ships?”

He clutched the arms of the chair until his knuckles turned white, imagining how he would walk up to Command and tell them to go tell their little alien friends to send a proper specimen. The more he thought about it the more he reluctantly realized that they weren’t going to do that. They were never going to speak to the Xedorai again.

As the console beeped for 10%, now with its little simulated Olive Branch heading in the opposite direction, Robert stood up. He walked to the corner next to his locker, sat on the floor, and cried.