The command center had become a lot busier since we’d made radio contact. Now, we were there even on our off-time, just to be ready for when the alien ship sent its response. The lower sections of the ship were virtually abandoned, save for when we had to check up on equipment. We all managed to keep up professional appearances, but there was no doubt that we were all as excited as schoolchildren.
I had no idea when they were going to send back a response. Odysseus had advanced linguistics programs, which were incredibly helpful for translating their language, but there was no telling if they had similar programs. It could be around a day, or maybe even a week before we received a reply from them in one of our own languages. If the crew was capable of speaking with their homeworld, then maybe there was a think tank there, working on deciphering our lexicon.
As it turned out, we received a reply in three hours.
Once again, I was summoned up at a bad time: I had to cut my shower short as I hurried up to the command center. Of all the times, it had to be when I wasn’t already there for once…
Luís chuckled when he saw me. “So much for English as the universal language, huh?”
Before I could ask just what he meant by that, I received my answer when I heard the alien voice coming from the radio. It seemed to be the same speaker as before, though there was no actual telling if that was the case.
“Hello,” it said in Mandarin. “Lexicon translated. Repeat: lexicon translated. Hello…”
I floated over to the console, then spoke.
“Message received,” I replied in Mandarin. “Hello.”
“Voice sound different,” the alien said. For a new speaker, its accent was, admittedly, impeccable.
“My vocal organ cannot reproduce your language. I had to use an artificial voice.”
“I express interest, for later time. We must meet properly.”
“I express agreement. When shall we land?”
“When my ship complete next orbit from current time, I will land at location specify.”
“Understood,” I said. “We will land shortly thereafter.”
There was a second’s delay, then, “Understood.”
The alien ship signed off, and I turned to the others.
“Well?” Valentina asked.
“They’re going to land first, after they’ve completed an orbit, and it’s near the location of the transmitter.”
“Then we’ll be there soon,” Wilhelm said. “Now, did you find out if they were the ones who put the transmitter there?”
I shook my head. “I was a bit caught up with organizing the landings. It didn’t mention it as ‘our’ transmitter the last time we spoke, so maybe they weren’t the builders. A small possibility, but still there.”
“Either way, we’ll figure it out soon enough,” Luís offered. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a crash course in Mandarin.”
Wilhelm chuckled. “Sounds like a good idea. And they were able to translate it pretty quickly.”
“They might have advanced translation programs like us,” I said. “Or, they’re simply very quick learners.”
Valentina scratched her chin. “Speaking of: they were able to perfectly mimic human pronunciation, where we can’t do it the other way around. A good synthesizer, or something else? Perhaps they have vocal organs like the birds’ syrinx.”
“Maybe we can ask them when we meet them,” Luís said. “We all have a bunch of questions about them that we want answered. Personally, I wonder what these guys look like.”
“Considering their home planet? Squat,” Valentina said. “Short, powerful bodies to better move around in such high gravity. Efficient way of disposing of excess body heat, and the harsh conditions may call for some natural armor. Maybe. Hard to tell at this point, with how little we know.”
“I think we should save this discussion for later,” Wilhelm said. “In the meantime, we need to prepare for landing. Luís, is Penelope ready?”
“Clean as a whistle, Wil. I readjusted the thrusters, and the heatshields are secure. We’re good for landing on a planet even like this.”
“Good,” the commander said. “You and Liu are going down first.”
I sat upright, or as much as I could in microgravity. It was an old habit from being used to gravity, and I had to loop one of my feet into a hold before I hit the ceiling.
“Just the two of us?” I asked.
“There has to be at least one of us aboard Odysseus at all times. I’d also send Valentina down with you, but I might have to take the other lander down in case of an emergency. So, for now, it’ll just be you and Luís. I’ll probably come down on the second descent.”
It was a fair point. I knew that there had to be a presence in the ship, but something didn’t feel quite right about having only two down there to meet the aliens. For all we knew, they’d send down a landing part of five, or ten. We had nothing on their physical size; there could be fifty of them in the ship.
Luís straightened, then gave me a pat on the back as he drifted down to the cargo bay. “You heard the boss; after me. Let’s start the preparations.”
Wordlessly, I followed after him.
Penelope is one of two landers held in the massive cargo bay. It’s an all-purpose craft, and so it’s built like a brick, with stubby little wings on each side. For planets with low gravity or nonexistent atmospheres, it could simply hover down vertically like the old lunar landers. It could also aerobrake like a shuttle, however, which was good for planets with similar gravity and atmospheric conditions to Earth. The mission planners had to account for any number of environments, which led to it being, in Luís’s words, an ‘over-engineered abomination that’s a bitch to handle’.
The two landers, plus their cargo, accounted for most of the mass of Odysseus‘s payload.
Over-engineered? Maybe. But it allowed for a lot of storage. We had a rover with its own life-support system, along with spacesuits, meteorological equipment, and all the gear we needed for extended surface missions. We could stay down on the planet for two months with just the craft’s life support, theoretically speaking; the small habitat could extend it near-indefinitely.
Would we need it? There was no telling, so we didn’t take chances.
“How many times have you made a landing?” Luís asked when I finished securing myself in the cockpit with him.
“Including this one? At least dozen, if we don’t count Earth. Europa, Luna, Enceladus, and Mars.”
“Wilhelm lived there for one of its years,” Luís said. “Mars, I mean.”
I grabbed my helmet before it floated away, and put it on with a soft click. The risk of decompression during flight was small, but still present.
“I think I remember reading that in his dossier. Which dome?”
“Bradbury, down in Hellas Basin. Small population, but it was growing before we left. I think they’d even installed a theater. His parents were actually part of the first wave, though they had him on Earth; the laws were still in effect. He lived in Bradbury from twelve to fourteen.”
“And then he moved back to Earth for schooling, and you two met,” I said. “I do remember a few details, though I still don’t get why he doesn’t have a middle name like other Americans.”
“Wilhelm is his middle name.” Luís cracked a grin at my confused expression. “He doesn’t like to talk about it.”
“Then what’s his first name?”
“Don’t,” Wilhelm warned over the radio, sighing.
Luís chuckled. “Here’s a hint: it starts with a Z.”
“Huh,” I said. “Z. Zachariah?”
“Nope. Not saying any more. Try and figure it out yourself.”
I sighed, and went back to work. We prepared in silence for a few moments, then I frowned.
“Wait… they got rid of the birth laws?”
“Yep; they did it last year from their perspective. Now you don’t need to be born and raised for the first few years on Earth, but it’s still legally required to get some centrifuge time during gestation and childhood. Ceres Station’s what they’re using for Martians and the Gals.”
“Maybe you should read up on home more often,” Luís said, eyes fixed on the monitor. “Does affect family, you know. My folks in Texas were pissed when my sister had my niece on Ceres.”
“Texans always have something to be pissed about,” Wilhelm muttered. “Now, we’ve detected a lander detaching from the alien craft; it’s heading towards the location of the transmitter. Begin detaching.”
There was a jolt and a clunk, and we were free of our restraints. Luís took control of Penelope, and pivoted around.
“Wil, open the pod bay doors.”
“Opening. And next time, get the quote right.”
Luís chuckled, then his expression became serious as he scooted the lander out of the storage bay. The thrusters puffed, and he turned Penelope planetside. The planet was like a great red desert below us, and I had a faint feeling of vertigo as I stared down.
“This planet’s got a fairly substantial atmosphere, as far as rocks go,” Luís said. “We’ll aerobrake down, and that should bleed off enough speed to land with thrusters.”
“And if we get the math wrong?”
Luís wiggled his nose, like he was trying to get an itch. “Impromptu lithobraking.”
I shot him a look.
“We crash,” he explained. “But hey, any landing we walk away from is a good one.”
“Very reassuring,” I deadpanned. “Are all Texans like this?”
Luís paused, thinking. “A good chunk, actually, though the stereotypes give us a bad rep. You should visit, sometime; we have some good barbecues.”
“It’s only a dozen lightyears away,” I said. “Quick pitstop for these barbecues you speak of?”
“Heh. Glad to see I’m rubbing off on ya.” Luís’s smile fell, and he said, “Deorbiting now.”
There was a lurch, and I knew the engines had fired. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath, trying not to think about how we were essentially hurtling a hundred kilometers down at hypersonic speeds.
The lander began to rock, and a red glow began to shine through my eyelids. Opening them, I saw that the windows were bathed in hot plasma; we were in reentry. There was no way to maintain radio contact during this time; if Odysseus saw a problem, we wouldn’t know until after.
For many, it’d proved lethal.
“Heatshield’s holding up,” Luís said, over the rocking of the lander, then saw my expression. “We’ll be fine; it’s normal to be nervous. Even the most steely-eyed missile men sweat during this bit.”
After a few minutes, the plasma gave way, and a massive red expanse lay below us. It looked almost like the heart of the Painted Desert, with its vivid colors, though it was far flatter and colder. There were few outcroppings of rock protruding from the ground, and the red sand contrasted neatly with the pale blue sky.
“There’s a small mountain range up ahead,” Luís said. “Close to where- wait, I think I see their lander. Silver and bullet-shaped, kinda like the big one, in a big clearing.”
“Go in for a landing,” Wilhelm ordered. “Maintain a distance of five hundred meters; we don’t want to make them nervous.”
Luís began to slowly fly Penelope from side-to-side, in a serpentine path. It bled off speed better than just flying in a straight line, and had been a staple of aerobraking since the old Space Shuttle.
We began to slow down, and I heard the puff of the thrusters as we glided in. The ground came closer and closer, whizzing by, then began to slow. Eventually, the lander stopped in mid-air, and began to descend. Some red sand began to kick up, obscuring our view, then there was one last lurch. Then, the craft settled.
We’d made it.