Thankfully, the last leg of the flight into the system was uneventful, despite some concerns. Kapteyn’s Oort Cloud was much thinner than the Sun’s, to the point where you could go for tens of billions of miles through it before hitting anything bigger than a pea. Which, for a ship still going at a fraction of the speed of light, was very fortunate. The cone of ice over the habitable portion of the ship served as a good shield from radiation, but it wouldn’t be able to stop anything bigger than a fleck of paint.
Another of the many dangers and obstacles of interstellar travel. Interstellar travel was one of the, if not the, riskiest endeavors humanity had ever partaken in, yet there was something different about it. When you’re climbing a mountain, the dangers are upfront- you can feel yourself grow weaker from the thinner air, the freezing winds bite into your skin, and each rumble reminds you that an avalanche can swallow you at any second. The risk of death is at the forefront of your mind.
In interstellar space, however, you wouldn’t know the dangers until they’d already gotten you. If Odysseus hit a rock the size of my thumb, and was promptly torn apart, I’d be dead before I realized it. If the reactor failed, and engulfed us in plasma, we’d be atomized before our brains could even process the information. The risks would be at the back of our minds, until they suddenly weren’t.
That was probably for the best. I slept easy, free of the stress that should’ve been driven me mad. The problems that didn’t kill us immediately could be handled, and there was no point in worrying about the problems we wouldn’t be able to handle.
My tasks during that time were trivial, for lack of a better term. The rest of the crew had managed the ship for twenty years without me, even if they spent most of that in stasis, and between them they could handle just about anything. I was a xenoanthropologist; not an engineer, or doctor, or physicist. Sure, I had to be well-educated in those areas, incredibly so, but there was no way I’d be able to outperform them. They were the best that humanity had to offer.
I was the best for my area, too, but that wouldn’t be important until we actually met the aliens. Or, at the very least, found whatever they left behind.
So, for around a fortnight, I assisted the others in their tasks. I helped Valentina maintain the autodocs in the medical bay, and ran check-ups on the spare stasis pods we had. Luís had me keep an eye on the reactor’s systems while he ran maintenance, and I checked for errors in our flight path with Wilhelm. All useful roles, but not crucial. Everything I did could’ve been done by one of them, or by Athena. In fact, I was probably making things more difficult, by interrupting their groove.
Not that they’d show it. They weren’t just the best humanity had to offer when it came to the sciences; they had been picked for their personalities as well. Low levels of aggression and spotless criminal records and all of those things. It was a trend that had been around since the history of spaceflight- would you really want the greatest achievements of your nation, or even your planet, be represented by horrible people?
In this case, the fact that we could be potentially making first contact made the matter more important. It was one thing to embarrass your world; it was another to embroil it in a war just because you couldn’t keep a lid on your temper or fear.
All the while, Kapteyn’s Star grew nearer and nearer. We cleared the Oort Cloud, then the orbit of the outermost planet. We weren’t passing by it, of course; we never got closer than ten million miles. I spent some time studying the frozen gas giant through one of the ship’s telescopic cameras, when I was off-duty. In some ways, it almost reminded me of Neptune or Uranus, though it was smaller than either planet. We had sent a probe, before I woke up from stasis, but it hadn’t found anything of note.
One day (as far as there were days in space), I decided to head up to the command center on my off-shift. Climbing into the cramped deck, I saw that Wilhelm was also there, lying back in one of the chairs and gazing out of the window. The lights were dimmed, leaving only Kapteyn’s for illumination, and the cabin was silent, save for the faint whir of life support systems.
I began to climb back down, only for him to say, “Come on up.”
After a split-second’s pause, I quietly floated into the command center and took the seat next to Wilhelm. Leaning back in the seat, I stared out the window, gazing into the inky black void. The stars were finally returning to normal, now that we were slowing down; if I tried my best to ignore the red glare of Kapteyn’s, I could pretend I was back on Earth, staring up into the night sky.
A bright point of light caught my attention, and I realized it was the deceleration sail. It’d detached from Odysseus a while back, catching the light from the laser and reflecting it back towards the ‘rendezvous’ sail we were still part of. Despite how small it looked, I vaguely remembered it had around the same surface area as Jiāngsū Province.
“Sorry about the work we’ve given you,” Wilhelm said softly, breaking me out of my reverie. “I can only imagine what it must be like to feel so…”
“Useless?” I offered.
He nodded. In the low red light of Kapteyn’s, his graying hair was almost black, and the faint wrinkles around his eyes were highlighted. He was the tallest of us, though I came in close, and that only seemed to add to his gaunt features. With his long nose and narrow face, he reminded me of a bird at times.
“It’s not all that bad,” I admitted. “At least it’s only for a little while longer.”
“Fair point.” He adjusted himself in his seat, arching his back. “You know, this view used to be very strange. Stranger than it already is, anyway.”
“It’s an effect of relativistic travel, one that most don’t really know about. Space seems to scrunch up a little from your viewpoint, if you’re looking at where you’re heading. It gets more severe the faster you go, and we were going fast enough to see some, er, interesting things.”
“I would’ve loved to see it.”
“We actually have footage of it, taken by the ship’s cameras. Still, it pales to seeing it with your own eyes. I wish you could’ve been there to see it.”
“Maybe on the return trip.”
For a few moments, we just gazed out the windows in silence. I could see why Wilhelm came up here; it was tranquil, a place to relax and just think. It almost reminded me of the treehouse my father had made me, the one in the mountains, where I could spend the night staring at the sky without interruption. I had spent a lot of nights in that little wooden thing, until the tree had to be cut down.
“I can’t imagine twenty years in this ship,” I said, finally breaking the quiet. “Even if you slept for large parts of it.”
“Wasn’t so bad. We’d sometimes arrange movie nights with an old projector Luís cobbled up from spare parts, and we do have an entire library’s worth of film and literature stored in the data banks. And there’s always communications with Earth. We’re twelve years behind on everything, but that still leaves plenty of news and events to sort through. I still haven’t caught up on all the football matches I’ve missed.”
“Never took you for a football fan.”
Wilhelm shrugged. “My folks were the ones really into it. Luís is a big fan, too; you should’ve seen his reaction when his favorite player on the Brazilian national scored the winning goal for the 2062 cup.”
“They won again? At some point, they have to let other countries take a crack at it.”
“It was the only cup they’ve won since we left, actually,” Wilhelm said. “I take you haven’t been following it that much.”
I scratched my nose absentmindedly. “I actually haven’t really looked through the data Earth’s been sending us. Sure, I read about the big events, like the space elevator they’re now apparently constructing, but it’s been mainly at the back of my mind.”
“What about family? I read your dossier; I know you have some uncles and aunts back home.”
I shook my head. “Never was close to them. They sent me a few congratulations, talking about how they missed me, but…”
“I see.” Wilhelm sat upright, rubbing his face. “I won’t pry any more. Still, I thought you’d be gobbling up everything from Earth. I know I have. What’s the old saying again? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, that’s it. Well, I’ve been away from home for twenty years, even if I was only awake for seven, and we’re a hundred and twenty trillion kilometers from good old Earth. We’re moving farther and faster away from home than anyone in history. So, it’s natural to feel a little homesick.”
A longer silence. My gaze fell to Kapteyn’s Star, a small dot at the edge of the window. It was weird, staring at it- all of my instincts told me not to stare at the sun, but that was Earth’s sun, the hot yellow star. This one had a hundredth of the luminosity; I could stare right at it without fear of damaging my eyes.
“How far away is it?” I asked. “I know we’re still two weeks out, but how far are we, distance-wise?”
“Oh, about five AU’s, but that’s changing fast.” He leaned forward, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve been wondering about what you said, about how intelligent life could develop on the other planet. The bigger one, I mean.”
“Are you asking me how feasible it actually is?”
“I have to consider every possibility, even the slim ones. It’s my duty as mission commander, after all.”
“Alright then.” I sat upright, turning to face him. “Five g’s, right? You’d weigh a quarter-ton there; you’d be barely able to breathe, let alone move. A slight fall could shatter every bone in your body. But the thing is, we evolved in an environment of one g, not five. Our muscles, bones, even the materials our bodies are made of, were meant for Earth’s gravity. Life on that world, on the other hand, might’ve evolved very differently from us.”
“I’ve already gathered that, but I’m still hazy on the details,” Wilhelm said. “How exactly could they differ from us?”
“Well, even life on Earth has demonstrated the ability to produce body parts with amazing resilience,” I continued. “There are deep-sea snails that can incorporate metals into their physiology. All Europan life can withstand the heat of thermal vents without problem. An alien, with billions of years of evolution in a certain environment, could produce equally surprising results. The fibers and matrices of their connective tissues, if they have them, could be far stronger than anything on Earth. Their muscles may be made from stronger stuff, or at least less dense material.”
I paused to let it settle in, then pressed forward. “Even assuming that their physiology isn’t too different from Earth’s life, think about this: the largest land animal on Earth was most likely Bruhathkayosaurus, and that could’ve weighed as much as a blue whale. If life on a world with five g’s could only reach a fraction of that size, that still leaves enough room for a species of animal with a sufficiently large braincase.”
“Valentina mentioned that once,” Wilhelm said. “She did some reading on xenobiology on the flight here. I had a feeling that could be the case, but I wanted your opinion on the matter, since you’re the expert on the subject.”
I sighed. “Of course, it’s all just speculation. And even if an intelligent species could evolve on that planet, they probably would never be able to develop spaceflight. So that leaves that planet out for possible creators of the radio signals.”
“Well, at least I heard it out,” Wilhelm offered. “Still, I do have to wonder just who’s making those radio signals. The red planet has no signs of civilization, the other planet is likely in the same ballpark… just who could’ve done this? An extrasolar civilization that dropped some beacon by, or something else entirely?”
I smiled. “We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?”