A question to consider: how should you try to talk to an alien?
It’s a debate that’s been ongoing for nearly a century, with no real conclusion. After all, there hadn’t been any actual aliens to communicate with and work out the kinks. There are too many assumptions that need to be made, and it’s a real headache for someone who’s trying to start a dialogue.
Some scientists back in the 20th century suggested pictorial messages. Engravings, photographs; a nonverbal way of demonstrating Earth and humanity. There wouldn’t be a need for translation, they argued, which was a problem for other methods. The aliens could simply study the photographs, and thereby ascertain a great deal of knowledge about the human race.
Of course, that had problems. For one, it assumed that the aliens could even see. And certain symbols, such as arrows, might be incorrectly interpreted. The same went for auditory communication: for all we knew, they were deaf. Or, if they could hear, their range might be in a different frequency from ours.
The method most likely to garner success was mathematics. After all, any intelligent species would need knowledge of math if they were to ever become a civilization, let alone a spacefaring one. They’d recognize prime numbers, or the Pythagoream, even if they had different names for them. Translation could still prove troublesome, especially if they used a different base system from ours, but it was better than the other methods.
But how to initiate it?
If this was an intended rendezvous, then the alien craft would likely be able to communicate with us via radio, but there was no telling how powerful or complex their systems were. They might be able to receive prime numbers and other signals that basically stated ‘intelligence!’, but what about something more complex? Could they receive images, or would something like the Arecibo message be too much?
So, I went to work, preparing for each possibility. We’d been given a ‘first contact package’ before leaving, and I worked to transcribe it in as many methods as possible. Lincos was the best, but I also prepared Astroglossa, and I worked on non-math methods. I prepared the verbal recordings we had, and transcribed them into whatever I could use.
I wasn’t so much worried about how to communicate. If anything, I was more worried about what they’d say.
All the while I prepared for rendezvous, the distance between us and the aliens grew ever smaller. Luís was right; they had taken a brachistochrone trajectory, and had swiftly reached the outer planet. In a matter of days, we’d be inserting ourselves into orbit around the red world, and the suspense was killing me.
We still had a lot on our hands during that time, though. We had to make sure the thrusters were in prime condition, and that was a nail-biting experience. If the thrusters were damaged in any way, we wouldn’t be able to properly rendezvous with the ship, and any issues with orbital insertion could result in Odysseus smashing right into the planet’s surface at hypersonic speed.
That’d be a damper on the mission for sure.
Thankfully, the thrusters were in prime condition, and the other systems had held up during the long flight. The landing craft were checked and double-checked, and repairs had been made when needed. Luís worked the most during this time, as the ship’s engineer, but we all had our fair share of labor. We needed to be ready for the orbital insertion, and we needed to be ready for the rendezvous. We drilled ourselves again on proper spacesuit use, and made sure our ground equipment wouldn’t fail.
One of the more mundane -but no less time-consuming- tasks we need to do was to strap everything down, and switch out even the simplest items for ones meant to be used in zero gravity. The only way Odysseus could simulate gravity was via thrust; there was no centrifuge on the ship. Our food would have to come in pouches and bulbs while in orbit, and our beds would require straps to keep us from floating off and bumping into a wall. Our personal effects had to be carefully packed away, and I paid a lot of care to my old Yixing pot. The thing was centuries old, and I’d never forgive myself if it got a crack.
Preparations went smoothly, thankfully. The red outer planet finally became visible as we neared; it went from a red prick of light, almost like its parent star, to a detailed world. If I used the telescope, I could identify crevasses in the ice-caps, or the sharp peaks of mountains. In some ways, it did remind me of Mars, but it also reminded me of Earth. The haze of the atmosphere, the way clouds swirled over the land; it was remarkably Earth-like.
Yet, it was not the full subject of our attention. No, we were transfixed by the tiny point of light circling the planet, one that hadn’t been there until a few days past. It was still too small to see in detail, but one could tell that it was clearly artificial. The ship had stopped detonating detonating, and was in a low orbit around the planet, silent.
I spent a lot of time watching the light through the telescope. My mind wandered a lot during that time, about what I’d see, or who I’d meet. What could they teach us? What could we teach them? If they weren’t the ones who put the transmitter on the planet, then who else could’ve done it?
Hopefully, I’d receive my answers soon enough.
“Nervous?” Wilhelm asked.
“A little,” I admitted. “How difficult is it to deactivate the fusion drive?”
“Not that difficult. It’s doing it safely that has its problems. The magnetic field is going to shift when we cut the engine off, and we don’t want it to suddenly disappear. If that happens, then we could be dealing with superheated plasma spewing out of the reactor.”
Luís chuckled. “It’d make for a hell of a fireworks display. Hopefully they’d appreciate the show.”
I turned to look out the window of the command center, even if I knew the ship would be too small to see. We were on the last leg of the approach, and we’d be in orbit soon enough. The target planet was actually behind us; we were still decelerating, which meant our backs had to be to wherever we were going. The cameras would allow for us to better make course corrections, but it was still a thought that made me nervous.
“There’s no way the ship hasn’t seen us arriving,” Valentina said. “Do you think they’ll try to come to us?”
“It’d save on fuel, that’s for sure,” Luís said. “Though, they might be thinking that we’ll make the first move. After all, we’re the gigantic alien spacecraft pulling up into their system. How big’s their ship again?”
“Forty meters long, fifteen wide,” Wilhelm replied. “They actually have more mass than us, but they might find something as long and spindly as Odysseus unnerving.”
An alert chimed on the console. Luís looked down, then took a deep breath.
“Well, engine cut-off’s going to be in about…” he trailed off, and I could feel my heart skip a beat, “now.”
The low hum of the fusion engine above us stopped, and there was a strange lurching sensation in my gut. A moment passed, and I realized my feet were no longer touching the floor.
Odysseus had finally arrived in orbit, after a journey that spanned more than fourteen years and dozens of trillions of miles. The first ever interstellar flight in the history of our species had been successfully completed.
“Woohoo!” Luís cried. “We made it!”
We all began to smile and congratulate each other on a successful journey. Yet, another thought lingered at the back of my mind.
The easy part -for any definition of ‘easy’- was over, but the hard part was just beginning.