A somewhat brief note from the author: this is a hard science fiction story, titled Junction Point. Aside from language, and perhaps adult themes, there shouldn’t be too much to worry more sensitive readers. Updates are every Saturday and Wednesday.
Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.
-Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Shipboard Time: 2097 AD
My first impression was the biting cold.
It ran up my spine, dancing over my bare arms and legs, pulling me back into consciousness. I heard the hiss of pneumatics as chilled air washed over me, raising goosebumps all over, and my body spasmed as I involuntarily drew in my first deep breath in lord knew how long. My eyes fluttered open, only to squeeze themselves shut again as a blinding light shone on my face. I felt as though a swarm of bees was buzzing under my skin as blood pumped back into my limbs with gusto.
I wondered if we all felt like that when we were born.
“Liú?” a woman’s voice asked. “Liú, are you alright?”
It took a moment to get a bearing of myself again, and speaking was harder still. My tongue felt like a dead weight, and I felt my jaw creak as I worked it.
“Loud and clear,” I wheezed in reply.
My throat felt dry, even though I had been submerged in liquid the whole time I slept. Stasis was always an unpleasant experience, no matter how many times you did it. I had only gone into the tank twice before, as tests for the mission. Even with the sedatives they gave you in order to prevent panic attacks, it was still a nightmare. The thought of the lid closing over me, while clear fluid started to flood my lungs…
I dismissed the thought, and willed myself to rise. I heard my vertebrae pop as I managed to get into a sitting position, and a warm hand took hold of my shoulder.
“Easy now,” the voice said, gentle and friendly. “You haven’t used those muscles for a long time. There should be negligible atrophy, but it’ll still be some time before you’re at full strength.”
Forcing my eyes to open again, I saw that it was Valentina, the ship’s doctor. Luís and Wilhelm were standing nearby, concerned looks on their faces. They looked more worn than I last remembered, as if they hadn’t been able to sleep much for the long trip. Being cramped up in a spacecraft, even one as large as the one we were on, had to be very stressful.
“Tā mā de. I feel terrible.” I managed to raise a limp hand to my head. My head felt as though it was painfully inflating, blood pounding against my eardrums as it rushed back in.
Valentina chuckled at that. “You look it, too. It’ll be a day or two before you feel a hundred percent. You’re still better looking than Will.”
“I heard that,” the commander said, trying to suppress a smile.
On shaking legs, I stepped out of the stasis pod, gladly accepting a towel from Luís. I was naked as the day I was born, as was necessary for stasis, but I was too tired and pained to care about that. All I wanted was a hot bath and some food, preferably with a nice cup of tea to go with it.
“H-how long?” I asked weakly, drying myself of the last drops of coolant.
“About eighteen years,” Valentina replied. “Shipboard time, anyway. We’re already decelerating in the system’s Oort Cloud. We can talk about it later, though; for now, let’s get you some clothes and a decent meal.”
“I hope you like protein paste and distilled water,” Luís said, grinning. “It’ll be a few days before your gut gets used to working again, according to Mother Russia here.”
“I don’t think I mind at this point,” I managed to retort.
Wilhelm chuckled at that. “Can’t blame you, really; I remembered when I was put in stasis for testing. Felt like I could eat a horse after that.”
He produced some clothes from a nearby table and handed them to me. “We’ll give you some privacy for now. Meet us in the command center when you feel ready, and we’ll brief you on mission status.”
I nodded weakly, still feeling as stiff as a corpse.
“Good to hear,” he said, smiling.
At that, Wilhelm and Luís walked out of the medical bay, leaving me with Valentina. Before the door slid shut, I saw them joking with each other, smiles on their faces.
They had been friends for years, I remembered, serving on several missions in the Kuiper Belt. Valentina had served with them on one of those missions as the medical officer, which was why she was also selected for such an undertaking. They had proven themselves to be extremely capable, especially when working together. A dream team for any expedition.
As for me? I was only with them because of a faint pattern of radio waves, discovered almost completely by accident.
For more than two decades before I left, back in the now-distant 2050’s, humanity knew that it was not alone in the universe. Probes had found microbes in aquifers deep underneath the Martian steppes, and Europa had proven to be lush with undersea life, much of it totally unlike anything found in our own oceans. Last I had checked, right before I had gone under, there were even rumors of life in the clouds of Jupiter, though they had yet to be confirmed.
The revelation of extraterrestrial life led to an explosion of research, as an entire generation grew up to pioneer to newest frontier of science. Mars, originally one of the less extensively colonized worlds, had suddenly become the scientific hub of the inner planets, and the Jovians finally established themselves as a major population of the Solar System when scientists came in droves, bringing their families with them.
Of course, the nay-sayers always find some ground to stand on.
“Yes, it appears that life can exist outside of the Earth, and that it may be common,” they’d say, spouting their views in papers and books and rants in the data sphere, “but Earth is the only world that can support intelligent life. Think of all the factors that had to go into the development of humankind; the near extinctions and population explosions, the metallicity of our Sun, the great vacuum of impact events that Jupiter is. The conditions needed to create an intelligent species, that can develop a civilization of their own and traverse the stars, are so small as to be called impossible.”
Then, within a decade of discovering life in the solar system, they found themselves eating their words.
It was more of luck than anything else that led to it. A pattern of radio signals, sent along the hydrogen frequency, and beamed directly in our direction. Later observations confirmed it, and chaos broke loose in the scientific community, and the world, as we realized that we weren’t the only intelligences in the universe.
Unlike the other big news stories of the past century, this one didn’t peter out as people grew disinterested; in fact, it only grew in scope. The last of the international tensions, already weakened by the colonization of the solar system, faded away. There was a shift in the way everyone viewed the world, a change in awareness as we realized that we could look up at the sky, and know that someone else was waiting there for us.
And, as was our nature, we grew impatient, waiting for them to make the next move.
That was when Odysseus came into the equation. Construction had started three years beforehand in lunar orbit as an international effort, with the hopes that it would encourage even further cooperation amongst the nations of the world. It was the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, and the largest by an order of magnitude.
The intended goal of a flight to Alpha Centauri, in order to explore a potentially habitable exoplanet and pave the way for long-term colony missions. As soon as the origin of the signals had been determined to be Kapteyn’s Star, however, the mission parameters were changed. No longer was Odysseus to explore Alpha Centauri- instead, it was to fly to Kapteyn’s Star and attempt to make contact with whoever had sent the signals.
That required a changing in the crew roster. Originally, Odysseus was to have a chemist aboard, as to study the metallicity of other star systems, but she was cycled out. Partly because there was only room for four, and an expert in contact was needed. The other was because she didn’t want to leave her family waiting for another forty years.
She was replaced with me. My specialty was that of a new science, born from previous ones: xenoanthropology. A bit of an oxymoron, but the name stuck. The field was first born when the Europan life had been discovered, and I was part of the first generation of students. Despite the fancy-sounding name, I was more of a behavioral scientist and a linguist, considering that I was to learn as much as possible about our neighbors.
With how late the cycling was, I barely had a chance to learn about my fellow crew before going under, but I would have plenty of time for that.
The aliens, on the other hand, would be a much bigger hurdle to cross.
We had gathered in the command center, the smallest section of the ship, and the only one with windows. Everywhere else, and there was a risk of getting blinded by the glare of the sail.
“We passed the outer boundaries of the system’s Oort Cloud around a year back,” Wilhelm droned on, handing me a datapad to confirm his numbers. “The ship’s been decelerating for a while, now, but it’s holding up. We had a scare with a tear in the lightsail, but it was within margin of error.”
“How much longer until we arrive?” I asked, pausing to take a sip from my water bottle. I was soaking in fluid like a sponge; three empty bottles cluttered my section of the table.
“I’d say about a month or so,” Wilhelm replied. “With a flight like this, it’s hard to be exact.”
“Wanna see where we’re heading?” Luís asked excitedly. “I’ve been taking some good shots for everyone back home. Shame they’ll have to wait twelve years.”
I nodded. “Love to.”
The engineer rapidly tapped his datapad, then turned it as to let me see the image. A blood red marble hung in the black void, illuminated by Kapteyn’s Star. Massive white icecaps dominated each pole of the planet, and I could see the occasional swirl of cloud. The edges were hazy, where the light of the star passed through, which showed how thick the atmosphere was.
“It somewhat reminds me of Mars,” I said.
“More like a sci-fi writer’s dream of Mars,” Luís replied. “Atmosphere is half as thick as ours, but it has forty percent oxygen, just like the old telescopes confirmed. There’s life here, and definitely more abundant than anything other than good ol’ Earth.”
“Do you think it’s their home planet?” I asked. “That’s definitely enough for complex life.”
“Doubtful,” Wilhelm replied. “At first, we were pretty sure it had to be the case, considering the data we got on the climate, but we can’t detect any signs of industrialization.”
“So that means no hot alien princesses, waiting to be rescued by a dashing Earthman,” Luís said, sighing.
“This is just another unrelated world, then,” I muttered, going over the data Wilhelm had given me. “They might have left a relay station here, or perhaps they were moving through this system. It still doesn’t explain why they wouldn’t be here, though.”
I continued reading over the data, then a thought struck me.
“What about the other planets? There should be three more in the system.”
In response, Luís pulled up another image on his datapad, showing a field of stars. Kapteyn’s dominated the center, like a red-hot coal. He pointed at another star, not as bright and more to the left.
“We sent a probe on a flyby to this one,” he said. “Closer to the star than the main target, but you could argue it’s within the habitable zone. Orbital period of forty-five point six days, and no moons. Oxygen’s there, too, in even higher levels; the atmosphere’s a lot thicker than Earth’s.”
Another image appeared, showing a bright white sphere, the other side occluded in shadow. It almost reminded me of Venus, though the coloration was lighter. The center of the disc seemed to be twirling, almost like the beginnings of a hurricane. Through the gaps in the clouds, I saw dark blues and greens.
“I’d eat my hat if they came from here. Gravity’s five times that of Earth, and the side facing the sun has a surface temp hot enough to boil water. The air’s marginally breathable for us, but’d we be crushed and broiled down there.”
“It’s tidally locked, like we’d theorized?”
Luís nodded. “Heat transfer means the cold side would be considered tropical by our standards, regardless of latitude, though. Atmosphere’s drenched with water vapor; the dayside must be a perpetual rainstorm, or at least a good part of it.”
I peered closer at the image, brow furrowed. “I wouldn’t rule it out just yet- studies made by Chang and Smirnov indicate that it’s still possible for intelligent life to develop on tidally locked worlds. Have we attempted radio communication with the planet, just to be sure?”
Wilhelm shook his head. “The only radio we have that can pierce those clouds is our lifeline to Earth. We tried to see if we could send signals to the nightside with weaker transmitters, where it’d be less turbulent, but the planet has a very strong ionosphere.”
“I see,” I said, feeling more than a little disappointed.
“We’re still hoping to study it in greater focus,” the commander added. “There’s definitely life down there, even if it’s nothing more than storm-tossed algae, and it’d make for fascinating research.”
He pointed back to the red planet. “This, however, is the main priority. We’ve confirmed the Doppler shifts- this planet is where the signals are coming from.”
“How are we approaching it?” I asked. “Are we landing?”
“That’s the plan,” Wilhelm replied. “We’ll enter the planet’s orbit, then try to pinpoint the signal’s location. Once we have it, we’ll use one of the landers to explore in greater depth. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make contact. At the very least, we should be able to find whatever’s broadcasting it, and that alone could prove to be valuable knowledge.”
“How will we-” I suddenly paused to yawn, then rubbed my eyes. “Sorry. How long until we can land?”
“Shouldn’t be much longer than a day or so after landing.”
“I think we’ve done enough for today, no?” Valentina interjected, getting up from her seat. She spared me a thoughtful glance. “Liú needs to rest for now; we can keep up with this when she’s feeling better.”
“Going from one nap to another,” Luís said, grinning at me. “I like your style. Unfortunately for me, I still have to do some check-ups on the reactor.”
He rose from his seat as well, far more practiced than me in the zero-g of the command center. He climbed down the ladder, only pausing to check his watch. Valentina followed after him, after giving me another once-over.
Wilhelm was the last to go. He paused at the ladder, then turned to me. Despite the worn look around his eyes, he managed a warm smile.
“It’s good to have you back, Liú. Feel free to stay up here for a few minutes if you want, but don’t stay too long; it’s easy for the view to lull you to sleep.”
With that, he left.
Rubbing my eyes, I leaned back into my seat and watched the stars through the opposite window. Despite the tremendous speeds we were moving at, they remained virtually motionless. Odysseus was decelerating, but I couldn’t look Sunward, lest I risk getting blinded by the monstrously powerful laser that was still pushing us.
It was strange to think about, really. We were farther from home than anyone had gone before, by orders of magnitude. Some ships had gone beyond the orbit of Neptune and into the Kuiper Belt, but even that was a trivial distance- they were still at the edge of the harbor, with the safe port only a mere five billion miles away. We weren’t in the harbor anymore; we were in open ocean, with nothing else in sight. We were the only thinking beings for possibly trillions of miles, surrounded by the void. A single, fragile seed, drifting in the abyss.
I shook my head, as if to try and get the thought out of my mind. I couldn’t be thinking of that, not now. I’d been asleep for five years, but I still wanted to sleep a while longer.
Getting up from my seat, I carefully pulled myself down the ladder. The crew quarters were at the ring level farthest from the command center, so we would get some vital time in gravity, or at least a simulacrum of it. I passed by the middle ‘ring’, where the lab, gym, and medical bay was, then entered the last ring.
I took note of the slight wear and tear of the handles, and it reminded me of how long I’d been asleep. When I had first entered Odysseus, the ship was completely pristine, like something out of a movie. While the interior wasn’t worn and dirty, per se, it definitely had a used look to it now. It actually made things feel more comfortable, for some strange reason.
I stepped off the ladder and onto the padded floor, finally feeling like I was in the pull of gravity, thanks to the spin. Beneath me, I could feel the distant rumble of the ship’s fusion reactor, like a soft drone. Having spent time in cramped interplanetary shuttles, the sheer size of the the ship still amazed me at times. There were orbital habitats smaller than Odysseus.
Stretching my toes, I carefully walked towards my quarters. Opening the door, I was pleased to note that one of the others had the decency to unpack my things. Old books littered the bedside stand, and my family Yixing pot was safe on a drawer, along with the set of cups. It was funny, seeing such an artifact surrounded by the most cutting-edge technology ever created.
The stark white walls made me feel uncomfortable, like I was in a hospital. Clearing my throat, I spoke clearly.
“Yes, Dr. Liú?” came the gentle voice of Odysseus’s dumb AI.
“Pull up some white noise and lighting from my personal archives. Your choice.”
“Yes, Dr. Liú.”
The lights dimmed, and familiar sounds came to me. The rustling of leaves in the wind, and the creaking of the old scholartree that had once been in my family yard. The walls changed color, giving the impression of rolling hills under a starry night sky.
Satisfied, I plopped down on my bed, and pulled the sheets over me. I felt drained, completely exhausted, but yet my mind was buzzing with ideas of what we would find when we arrived. It took a while to finally go to sleep, but it finally managed to claim me.
That night, I dreamt of drowning, with the stars shining brightly overhead.