Soval Din Alt took a deep breath and let it out in three rapid-fire bursts, the Vorian equivalent of a sigh, as he prepared to address the two hundred young men and women before him, seated around concentric rock benches that faced the raised platform on which Soval now stood. The cold, hard outdoor structure was an enlarged replica of the first Greek amphitheater ever built, and was located near the very center of the Earth Portal Restricted Access Zone.
Not that any of those gathered had any idea that this was the area’s official designation.
And why would they? The Vorians had visited twenty-six other planets over tens of thousands of years, and all the information learned from these visits was now in the public record.
But this was not the case when it came to Earth and humans. While the bulk of the background on these visits had been declassified, key aspects remained as secret as any piece of information on Vor.
Soval glanced up at the perfectly clear orange sky, and Vor’s two principal suns, hanging serenely at opposite ends of the horizon. Both suns were more distant than Sol was to Earth, but their combined warmth kept Vor at a nearly uniform seventy degrees. A third sun was visible, even farther away, relatively tiny in the radiant sky. For a few years each millennium, Vor’s exceedingly complex orbital dance gave this sun the brief honor of being second closest to the planet. Regardless, all three in concert kept Vor bathed in light. And even during the few minutes every fifty cycles or so when the suns were all set at the same time, turning nearly endless day into fleeting night, a blazing star field generated considerable light.
Soval knew that the rock benches would be strange and uncomfortable to the members of this new class, but there was no time like the present to acclimate these students to Earth and what they might experience there. Soon enough, perfect computer simulations, tied into their visual and auditory centers, would replace the familiar suns of Vor with Earth’s ugly yellow ball, and the comforting orange sky would transform into a creepy, disquieting blue one.
But now was not the time for this. Let the students wrap their minds around what was expected of them. Let them continue to sit under the comforting suns and sky of Vor before Soval condemned them to years of virtual reality simulations in far less appealing surroundings.
“I want to thank all of you for volunteering for this project,” he began, knowing that each member of this group had been handpicked, and a number of them hadn’t volunteered as much as they had been pressed into service. Still, they were only signed on for twenty-five years, which was but a small fraction of their lives. And this was the safest duty around, so they could hardly complain.
“Now that we’re all gathered here,” continued Soval, “it’s time I tell you just what it is that you, ah, volunteered for.”
Soval could read the look of apprehension on the students’ faces, and they were each so quiet he wondered if any of them had remembered to breathe.
“About thirty-two hundred years ago, a single portal appeared very near where you are sitting now. One that led to a planet that the intelligent inhabitants call Earth. This you already know from your prior studies of the known intelligent species in the galaxy, and our interactions with them. But Earth and the human race are presented merely as footnotes. And this chapter in history is taught as a series of unremarkable visits to an unremarkable planet inhabited by unremarkable natives. A planet smaller than Vor, but also denser—giving it a gravity of .96 Vor-standard. A planet orbiting a single star, with a blue sky and endless water.
“Nothing really notable about humanity, either—at least given the material that you’ve been exposed to—other than the unusual location of the species’ home planet, which is a true outlier. Earth is located within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, a sparsely populated region twenty-five thousand light-years away. It’s the only backwater planet that we know of to have spawned sentient life.”
As Soval spoke, a number of perfect holographic images of Earth, as well as a map of the galaxy, pinpointing the planet’s precise position, appeared above his head and began to slowly rotate.
“Its atmosphere is breathable—of course,” continued the instructor, “and its temperature extremes are within range of what we can survive given proper clothing and shelter. The last mundane item I’ll remind you of is that its year is a bit longer than ours, so our initial visits were about twenty-eight hundred of their years ago.”
Soval paused to catch his breath and then continued. “When the portal did materialize and activate, all those years ago, it let two of us through to Earth every forty of their hours, or allowed two of us to return here. Like clockwork.”
He frowned. “Then, after nearly thirty years of operation, the portal abruptly disappeared. Our people stationed on Earth, by then more than twelve hundred in number, were trapped there. We had no way to communicate with them or bring them back.”
Holographic images of human males and females, some clothed and some not, now loomed above the instructor’s head, twelve feet tall, and began to slowly rotate as before.
“As you can see from the holograms above me, while there are marked differences in appearance between Vorians and humans, at least while naked, clothing is able to conceal many of the more obvious ones. Above the neck, the two species are close enough that we can basically pass as them, with just a few non-surgical adjustments. Which is what we did twenty-eight hundred of their years ago.
“Since then, surgical techniques have developed such that we can alter one of us to fit in perfectly among them, even naked, at least from above the waist and below the groin. No surgical techniques can yet match the precise appearance and functionality of their genitalia. But these are usually kept covered, so shouldn’t present too much of a problem.”
He waited several additional seconds to give the students time to study the holograms above his head. “You are also aware that, as usual, a number of these humans were brought back through the portal to Vor, where we were able to study their habits, personality traits, expressions, body language, native intelligence, and so on. We also studied their minds, from a physical examination of brains taken from freshly dead specimens, to exact digital imprints of the same, including each and every one of their hundred billion connecting and firing neuronal cells. And with that, the chapter on our interaction with a species hailing from the most remote planet we’ve ever visited was closed.”
He paused. “At least that’s the information that was imprinted into your memories and later expounded upon in school. And I have no doubt that you found humanity to be the least interesting of all the known intelligences that you studied.”
Soval moved his ears, the Vorian equivalent of raising his eyebrows, and continued. “Which brings us to where the public information leaves off.”
The Vorian instructor went on to describe in some detail certain key discoveries that had been made about humanity, and why generations of students, just like those he was addressing now, had been pressed into service.
“We have no idea if the portal to Earth will ever reappear,” he said after providing this critical background. “So far it hasn’t, even for an instant. But if this ever changes, we need to be ready. You need to be ready. At a moment’s notice. And I—and others—are here to make sure that you will be.
“You’ll undergo surgery so that you can more easily pass as human. You’ll learn human expressions and general demeanor, and we’ll implant engrams in your minds to make this more natural for you. We’ll implant all the languages used on Earth when we were last there. And this is only the beginning.
“So far, we’ve waited thousands of years for the portal to reappear—in vain. More than a hundred classes like yours have been prepared to go through—also in vain. Will yours be the class that finally gets to go on the mission that you’re being trained for?”
He sighed. “Admittedly, this is doubtful.”
Soval waited for this harsh reality to sink in. “And even if the portal miraculously does appear during your watch, we have no idea what we’ll find on Earth. Your mission might be over before it begins. Our computer modeling suggests a greater than fifty-percent chance that humanity has gone extinct since our last visit. At that time, Earth was a largely untamed and unforgiving planet, and humanity was quite primitive. Worse than primitive, in many ways the species was barbaric. Savage. Warlike. Most of them lived in squalor. Their hygiene and sanitation were rudimentary, at best, and their lives were mostly cruel, horrid, and short.
“And if their survival as a species was in question at the time of our visit, if they managed to advance technologically, their odds get even worse. Given their violent natures, if they were ever able to develop weapons of mass destruction, the chances that they have self-destructed by now are high.
“And if the portal opens and they have managed to survive, there is no guarantee that there are any Vorians still alive there. Even if our modest contingent there managed to reproduce for a number of generations, this isn’t a large enough initial population to give the group the stability in numbers it might need to survive such harsh conditions and natives, not to mention any wars or cataclysmic natural events that might befall them.
“It’s possible that some did survive to this day. It’s even possible this modest group was able to dramatically increase its numbers and thrive. If so, this will make your mission all the easier.
“If not, when you arrive on Earth, you’ll need to devote significant time and energy to getting the lay of the land. Much is likely to have changed in almost three thousand of their years. Our computers predict that you’ll most likely have to learn additional languages to get by, ones that were not even spoken at the time of our last visit.
“When our people were there last, many human cultures around the globe used a barter system to exchange goods and services, while a few used a fledgling, rudimentary system of currency. But the humans did seem to value the element gold fairly universally. Gold was widely seen as a sign of status and power, and objects forged from this metal were almost exclusively owned by rulers. In the first decade our people were there, they stored substantial amounts of gold at hidden safe houses for future Vorians to tap into, as necessary.”
The instructor sighed. “This said, we have no idea if this metal will still be seen as valuable when you arrive. Regardless, you’ll need to get fully up to speed on the current state of human civilization, and learn to fit in among them. Which will likely take three or more years. If gold no longer has value, your assignment will be even more challenging.
“Either way, there is no need to be overly concerned. We’ll train you well. And you’ll be well versed on what you’ll need to do once you arrive to achieve these preliminary objectives, as well as your final objective.
“But given all I’ve just told you, the odds of your success are exceedingly small. Even if a portal opens on your watch, which is unlikely, and humanity has survived, which is unlikely, and you’re able to complete your mission, which is unlikely, the portal may disappear again at any time, trapping you there forever.”
This time the instructor remained silent for an extended period, letting his sober words marinate in the minds of the students. “This is truly a long shot,” he continued finally. “And yet we continue to play it. Which underscores just how important we think this could be. As does the time and energy we’ve expended over thousands of years, just on the off chance that the portal will reappear. Success in this mission could be a true game changer. And while this success may not be possible,” he added, leaning forward, his eyes blazing with intensity, “we will not fail due to lack of readiness.”
Soval twisted his face into the Vorian equivalent of a smile. “So let’s get started,” he said, now trying to sound upbeat. “By the time we’re finished with you, you’ll be more human than they are.”
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