Stirring, I cracked an eye open and looked at the open door to my quarters. A shadowy figure stood in the archway, silhouetted against the light coming in from the hall, and I briefly thought back to how my father always wished me goodnight that way. Glancing at the clock, I saw I had only been asleep for three hours.
“Whuzza?” I slurred.
“Liu, we need you up in the command center with us.” It was Wilhelm talking, and he sounded urgent. “We’ve detected another spacecraft.”
I don’t think I could’ve jumped out of bed faster if my life depended on it. I was in the nightclothes issued by the mission, so I didn’t have to waste time getting dressed. Instead, I immediately brushed by Wilhelm, and padded over to the ladder.
“Where was the spacecraft coming from?” I asked as I began to climb up. “Out of system?”
“No,” Wilhelm replied, climbing after me. “It’s coming from the first planet.”
I paused at the top rung of the ladder. “What?”
“Exactly. That’s why I didn’t wait to wake you up; we need your expertise immediately.”
I took a deep breath, then climbed up into the command center. Luís was there, manning one of the consoles while Valentina peered over his shoulder. The lights in the capsule were dim; most of the illumination was coming from console’s viewscreens. Kapteyn’s was still a faint dot of red light, but it had grown over the past few days.
Luís craned his neck and looked my way. “Morning, sunshine. Wanna see an alien spacecraft?”
I leaned over to look at the console. The viewscreen showed the high-g planet’s nightside, fringed by red light. A small point of light was near it, too big to be one of the stars. It was consistently flickering, not in a way that could be explained by natural phenomena.
“It’s an Orion drive,” I murmured, with more than a little awe in my voice.
“You gotta be joking,” Luís said. “Even we’ve never been that crazy.”
“The spectrograph does indicate a high amount of gamma and x-rays being emitted with each flash,” Wilhelm interjected. “That’s consistent with an Orion-type spacecraft.”
Valentina cleared her throat. “Could someone explain? I’ve never heard of this Orion you’re speaking of.”
“Basically, it’s when you propel a spacecraft by detonating nuclear bombs underneath,” I replied. “A massive pusher plate would protect the crew from the blast and radiation. The thing would actually be good for getting tremendous payloads into orbit, unless I’m mistaken.”
“You’re not,” Wilhelm said. “Even when it was first suggested, the technology of the time could allow for payloads measured in the thousands of tons. The idea came up back in the fifties, but it was shelved.”
“Yeah, because it was utterly batshit insane,” Luís exclaimed. “You’d be vaporizing the launch site every time you wanted to send one up, and that’s not counting the fallout.”
“Well, the fallout could be negated if you armored the launch pad and coated it in graphite. I’d imagine they figured it out, if they’re advanced enough to leave their world in the first place. Couple that with a remote launching site, and the complications should be at a minimum.”
“It’s also their only way to reach space, so they might be willing to weather the consequences,” I interjected.
When no-one replied, instead simply staring, I continued on. “Think about how difficult it is for us to get stuff into orbit, and we have a fifth of their world’s gravity. An Orion drive is their best option if they want to become a spacefaring community.”
“Without vaporizing a continent in the process, anyway,” Wilhelm added. “There are other methods than Orion, but they’re either too high-tech, or too dangerous. Or both.”
Luís glanced back at the viewscreen. “Well, that still begs the question: why now? We didn’t detect any launches en route, so this has to be their first. Or, at least the first in a pretty long time. So why now? Seems like too big a coincidence to swallow.”
“It’s not a coincidence,” I said. “I think they might be launching because we’re coming. Our drive could probably be seen for light-years.”
“Scratch ‘probably’,” Wilhelm said. “A high-powered fusion flame could be seen for several star systems over.”
“Which means they probably saw us when we began deceleration,” I continued. “They might’ve been preparing this launch for years. Luís, do we have any idea of where they’re heading?”
“Lemme see…” Luís muttered, typing a few commands in.
The viewscreen shifted to show a stylized map of the Kapteyn System. The orbits of the two habitable worlds were like a narrow pair of rings around the bright red dot that was the star, while a blinking triangle represented us, at the far edge of the system. A faint line spooled out from us, and wrapped itself around the outer planet- it was our trajectory.
“It’s hard to tell their course at the moment, since they just launched,” Luís explained. “But, an Orion-type ship wouldn’t need to do a Hohmann transfer like other surface-to-orbit craft. It can go from planet to planet like we travel between stars, in a brachiosaurus trajectory.”
“A brachistochrone trajectory,” Wilhelm corrected, with more than a little amusement. “Accelerate in one direction, decelerate in the other, with course corrected depending on planetary motion. And yeah, an Orion-type ship could do that, though it actually isn’t the best for such a mission. Our engines could never lift Odysseus out Earth’s gravity well, but there’s a reason why we never used space-based Orions for long-ranged missions.”
“Whatever. You’re the physicist, not me. Anyway, since it can do that, and assuming it doesn’t do a radical course correction, we might get something like… this.”
A second line emerged from the inner planet, and spooled itself around the outer one. My eyes widened as the realization hit me- they were going to the same destination as us.
“When do you think they might arrive?” Valentina asked, a twinge of excitement in her voice.
“Hard to tell,” Wilhelm said. “Orion never got off the drawing board for us, but assuming that their calculations only have minimal errors… they’ll arrive five days before we do. I’ll have to observe them for a while longer and make some proper calculations before I say anything concrete, though.”
My breath hitched. “They had to have planned this, then. We’ve been visible to them for years; they should’ve been able to guess our speed, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they could estimate our trajectory. This… this is a rendezvous mission. It has to be.”
We all fell silent for a few moments, as the realization washed over us. Even with only three hours of sleep, I could feel myself growing more excited, as though the exhaustion was lifting off my shoulders.
A broad grin broke out on Luís’s face. “Well, I’ll be damned. And I thought we weren’t actually going to meet aliens.”
“Bozhe moi,” Valentina murmured. “Seeing them face to face… or whatever counts as faces for them.”
Wilhelm cupped a hand to his chin. “If you’re right, then they must have a transmitter and receiver separate from the one they use to communicate with the home world. We might be able to open a dialogue with them over the radio.”
And thus, it was my time to shine.
“I’d recommend starting with the ‘water hole’ bandwidth, but only when the distances are closer” I said. “The ranges between us are still measurable in the billions of kilometers, and we don’t know the effectiveness of their communications equipment. When we do begin the dialogue, however, the water hole bandwidth has been agreed to be the best. It’s quiet, so it helps rule out random noise, and there’s a bit of symbolism to it.”
Wilhelm blinked. “I’ll, uh, take your word for it. What’s the frequency for the water hole?”
“1420 and 1666 megahertz. We might have to try a number of methods for communications, such as Lincos and Astroglossa, depending on the equipment on the other side.”
“And if those don’t work?”
“We keep trying. We send basic math, or maybe even verbal communications. Anything that could be considered communication. Or…”
“Or what?” Luís asked.
“Maybe we should let them make the first move. I’d imagine the crew of that ship must have their own ideas and methods as to making contact with us. If they speak first, we might be able to send a response in a similar fashion, and that could lead to an open dialogue.”
I rubbed my eyes, then took a seat. “I’m going to have a lot of work on my hands. I need to prepare a proper contact package, but that might change based on how they communicate, which means I have to edit the ones I’ve made, or start from scratch.”
“They can’t be totally different from us,” Valentina said. “Carbon-based lifeforms that likely metabolize oxygen, that use water as a solvent. Even the Europan life isn’t completely alien, despite how they may look.”
“It still leaves a lot of room for difference,” I replied. “If they don’t see, then it’d be no use sending pictograms, and verbal communication wouldn’t work if they can’t hear. I could send the package in a number of methods, but we don’t know how advanced their receiver is. For all we know, they can only get basic binary, or a local equivalent.”
Wilhelm put a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll have plenty of time to work on that, if we’re waiting to communicate. Get some sleep, Liu.”
“Sleep?” I asked, a chuckle escaping me. “You really think I can sleep with all of this going on? We could be making first contact, real contact, and I have to be ready.”
“Yes,” said Wilhelm, “and that includes being in good health, Liu. This discovery doesn’t change our schedules, even if it’s something as big as, well, this. This final approach is one of the most crucial parts of the mission, and we all need to be ready to respond to any trouble that crops up.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Alright. I’ll head back to my quarters and try to get some shut-eye, but wake me if there’s something new going on.”
“Of course,” Wilhelm said. “Good night, Liu. See you in the morning. Or whatever counts for morning here.”
Yawning, I rose from the seat and climbed back down the ladder. The door to my quarters slid open, and I stepped inside. The lights were still off, and the darkness helped to calm me down. Maybe I would be able to sleep a little for the night.
Turning, I saw Luís staring down the ladder at me. His brow as scrunched, as if in deep thought.
“Yeah?” I asked, stifling a yawn.
“I just realized something. If this is their first ever launch… then how did the outer planet send us the signals? I don’t think these guys went over, dropped off a transmitter, then abandoned spaceflight for a few decades.”
“I was considering that, too.”
“We’ll just have to figure it out when we get there.”
Luís fell silent as he considered the information, then disappeared from sight as he went back to work. I yawned again, then shut the door.
If I thought I was going to get even an iota of rest with that thought lurking at the back of my mind, then I was badly mistaken.