This is Part 16; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
Woods had been sitting in the dining hall for a few minutes, mostly just looking at his hot oatmeal rather than eating it, when Mastroianni walked in from the galley carrying a lunch tray with soup and salad. She put the tray down on the table directly across from Woods and gave him a pleasant smile. He noticed that today she’d pinned back her long hair with a silver and turquoise clasp in a Southwestern style. No doubt it was a souvenir of long-ago travels; the Martian colonists generally favored simple, no-frills clothing like his own plain microfiber shirt and slacks.
“How are you today—well rested, I hope?”
“Yes, thanks,” Woods answered by rote. He touched his clean-shaven chin, which still felt odd after so many years with a beard. When he’d shaved today, he had given himself a small nick—which he hadn’t noticed right away—while preoccupied with thoughts of alien telepathy.
Perhaps Mastroianni could shed some light on whether it was real? And even if she couldn’t, Woods expected that as the ship’s doctor and counselor she would at least have enough respect for confidentiality not to gossip about him. He went on speaking before he could overthink it and change his mind. “I was just wondering about telepathy. Whether there’s any way to test for it.”
“This has to do with the images you mentioned yesterday?” Mastroianni left a forkful of reconstituted lettuce and cucumber hanging in the air while she considered the question. She finally shook her head. “Nothing that would amount to definite proof. I can think of a few possible tests—looking for chemical changes in the water of the tank, measuring changes in your brainwaves and those of the squid-creature when you see the images, and scanning for electrical signals. The hard part would be interpreting the data. We have no idea what’s normal for this species, so how would we recognize evidence of telepathy if we saw it? Maybe if we knew more about the species, or if the creature had some way of communicating to others… and if you don’t mind my asking, have you seen any more of those images since you woke up today?”
Although her tone hadn’t changed significantly on the last sentence, and she continued eating her salad like this was just an ordinary lunch, Woods could hear the shift into counselor mode. Well, he shouldn’t have expected anything else. Truth be told, if their positions had been reversed, there wasn’t much chance he would have taken alien telepathy seriously.
“No. You’re probably right that I just imagined them because of my lack of sleep.” He looked down into his empty cereal bowl, without any recollection of when he had finished eating. There was no need to mention—at least not yet—either his guess about detailed recollection triggering the telepathic link or his avoidance of it after he woke up. “But I want to know for sure. If the creature is sentient, we shouldn’t be treating her like an animal.”
“Even if we somehow could find proof of telepathy, that likely wouldn’t settle the animal question,” Mastroianni pointed out. “I had a great-aunt who firmly believed that her cats could converse telepathically with her. Ability to communicate is not necessarily the same as being a sentient person. When a dog brings its owner a stick, the dog is clearly communicating that it wants to play fetch, but it’s an animal regardless of how well it can communicate such things.”
Woods turned that over in his mind, concluding that it was indeed more complicated than he had thought at first. “If I had enough images and understood more of their context, I could sketch the images and ask the linguists to look at them. Maybe they could figure out whether there’s anything similar to a human language. But they’d need more images to have enough data to analyze.”
“How about keeping a journal? You can sketch the images and write notes about what you think they might mean. If you see any new ones, then you can add them. And if not, well,” Mastroianni smiled again, “you’ll have a good start to a sci-fi novel when we get back to Earth. All of us will be celebrities for a while, and I expect the publishing companies will be eager to print whatever we write.”
He returned the cheerful smile as he got up to take his empty bowl to the galley, though being a celebrity was the farthest thing from his mind. Having a research lab with a tank full of alien microbes, however, was beyond awesome, and he was eager to get back to work. This was what he’d been waiting for his entire life, after all! He could give more thought to the mysterious images and the benefits of journaling after his workday was over. Maybe then he’d have a clearer idea of how to proceed.