Our sun is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies populating the universe. It would be the height of presumption to think that we are the only living things in that enormous immensity.
-Wernher Von Braun
“Do you think they’re waiting for us to make the first move?” Luís asked.
“Not sure,” I replied, staring across the clearing.
The alien lander looked almost like how writers in the 1950’s had envisioned spacecraft. Much like the larger ship in orbit, it was roughly bullet-shaped, with a short and squat frame. A large porthole was visible on it, though I couldn’t see through the material, especially from such a distance. Did their eyes see different spectrums than ours? It was possible, though I imagined the differences were not as much as some liked to believe.
“I wonder if they’re doing the same thing,” Luís said. “Maybe there’s a dashingly handsome alien engineer staring out the window at us, wondering if we’re going to come out first.”
“Maybe,” I conceded. “I think we should engage in radio contact first. At this distance, we could just send a message over without worrying about tightbeam or anything like that.”
“Well, what does the commander think? Wil, are you reading?”
Wilhelm’s voice crackled over the radio. “Loud and clear. Your helmet cams are functional; I’ll be able to see what you’re seeing. And, a few years down the line, Earth will as well.”
“Heh,” Luís muttered. “By the time we get back, we’ll all be in our sixties or seventies.”
I smiled. “I have to say, I don’t look bad for fifty.”
“I’m just wondering what kind of fancy medical tech they’ll have waiting for us when we get back. Immortality treatments would be pretty nice. Or maybe I’ll get a fancy new robot body, eh?”
“We’d have to actually get back, first,” I said. “Let’s focus on the imminent first contact we have to handle, no?”
“She’s got a point,” Wilhelm said, a hundred kilometers overhead. “You two are going to be humanity’s ambassadors to an alien race, in what will probably be the single biggest event in the history of our species. Please don’t mess it up.”
Luís pouted. “Well, if only because you asked nicely.”
“You have the go ahead for radio contact, by the way.”
“Understood,” I said, brushing by Luís to access Penelope’s comms. “I’ll try the water hole frequency we used earlier.”
I fiddled around with the lander’s radio for a few moments, then made sure the transmission was pointed towards the alien craft. Clearing my throat, I began to speak, reminding myself to use Mandarin.
“Greetings. Are you receiving?”
After a few tense moments, I received a reply.
“Received. Preparing for meeting, I am.”
“I will soon leave my vessel and move towards yours. Inquiry: will you do the same?”
Another pause, longer than before. Luís and I were as still as statues, waiting for their response. For all we knew, they could’ve been deeply offended or even frightened by our suggestion. We were dealing with an alien mind, and we knew little of it.
“Walking forward, I will,” finally came the reply.
“Understood.” I turned off the comms, then turned to Luís. “They’ve agreed to meet us out there. Let’s go.”
“Got it,” he said. “Want the honors?”
I furrowed my brow. “For what?”
“Be the first to step on an extrasolar planet.”
“You can have it.” I held up the olive branch in my hand. “I’m handling first contact, remember?”
“Yeah, you’ll have enough publicity when we get home,” Luís said as he secured his helmet. “Now, let’s go talk to some aliens.”
“Best of luck to you,” said Wilhelm. “Make Earth proud.”
I put my helmet back on, securing it with a click. Life-support was functional, though it wouldn’t be a complete disaster if that failed. The planet’s atmosphere was breathable, if rather thin and cold; it’d be like walking in the mountains. The real danger was the possibility of pathogens, though Penelope had failed to detect any. The likelihood of an alien planet having anything to infect us was slim, but we didn’t want to take chances.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Me too.” Luís brushed past me, and I followed him into the airlock. “Cycling now.”
We waited together for a few moments, then the light turned green. Luís opened the hatch, and stepped down the ramp. He paused at the edge, then stepped over onto the red sands of an alien world.
“Way to make an immortal quote,” Wilhelm said.
I took a deep breath, then walked down the ramp. For a few moments, I stood there, looking around me, then stepped onto the surface. The sand crunched beneath my feet, and I briefly imagined that I was back on Earth, training for different environments. It was a fleeting thought, but it helped to calm me down. My heart pounded in my ears; years of training was finally about to culminate in the zenith of my career.
Of history, really.
“You know, there’s a perfect quote from the beginning of the Space Age that fits this,” Luís said, spreading his hands wide. “Magnificent desolation.”
It was magnificent. Kapteyn’s star took up half the sky, like a swollen red tomato, while the sky was a pale blue-white. The horizon was closer to us, since the planet was smaller than Earth, but I could still see for miles around. The sand was very fine, and almost blood-red; years of being untouched left many small patterns in it, made by the wind.
“The helmet cams should be capturing it,” I said. “Let’s start moving towards the lander, now.”
“On it. Lead the way, hoss.”
I walked past him, and began to trudge over to the alien craft. The gravity was a little more than one half of Earth’s, so it wasn’t too troublesome to wear my spacesuit, but it was still a bit of a stressful activity. Luís followed a short distance behind, then decided to walk by my side. Perhaps he didn’t want to come off as a subordinate?
“I think one’s coming out,” he said, pointing ahead.
I followed his direction, and my breath caught in my throat. Sure enough, the hatch of their lander was opening. A ramp extended down, wider than ours, then a figure emerged from out of the craft.
It, too, wore a pressure suit, though the material was far bulkier than ours. Even without the suit, however, it was huge; it looked as though it was bigger than the two of us together. The arms, if those were indeed arms, had to be thicker than my waist at the bicep, and its legs were even bigger. The alien’s head was hidden beneath a helmet, but it definitely seemed larger and longer than a human’s, and a thick tail dragged behind it as it emerged.
“A quadruped?” Valentina murmured. “How do they use tools?”
“That’s what you noticed?” Luís said in a low whisper. “Jesus Christ, the size of that thing… it’s like a giant space bear-gorilla thing.”
“Quiet,” I hissed. “We don’t want that in the history books, do we?”
Our attention was drawn back to the alien. It carefully walked down the ramp on all fours, in a manner that reminded me a lot of a gorilla. It paused at the edge, then took a step onto the surface. It was surreal, to see such human-like behavior in such a strange thing, and I felt almost… detached, out of body, as I observed.
We moved closer to the alien, and it trudged closer to us, almost breaking out into a light trot. When it was about ten feet away from us, it stopped, and we did the same. Though the alien was standing on four legs, it was still tall enough to look me in the eye. Looking down, I saw that it walked on its knuckles, deepening the analogy to an ape. Of course, gorillas didn’t have three-fingered hands the size of dustpans.
“I think that’s your cue,” Luís whispered over a private channel.
Taking a deep breath, I slowly offered the olive branch, making sure to not come off as threatening. The alien tilted its head toward the branch, and I knew it was looking at it. Chinning a display on my visor, I activated the suit’s external speakers.
“Walanvang,” I said in a poor imitation of their voice; the word meant peace.
The alien took a few steps closer, almost wary to my eyes, and extended its left hand forward. There was a moment of hesitation, as if it was waiting for permission, then it reached out to grab the branch from my hands.
Its gloved hand brushed with mine, and history was made.
The alien gingerly took the branch away, then held it close to its visor. It studied the offering for a few moments, practically touching the branch to its helmet.
“Walanvang,” it replied, then, in Mandarin: “Peace.”
“What did it say?” Luís asked.
“It’s accepted the offer,” I quickly replied.
The alien leaned back on its haunches, using a broad tail to further support itself. It now towered above Luís and I, and I briefly felt nervous. With its free hand, it reached for its helmet, undoing the clasps with a dexterity that belied its bulk. Cautiously, it pulled the helmet an inch away, and I could hear it take a loud sniff, testing the air.
Then, it removed the helmet entirely.
I didn’t really know what I expected to see. Perhaps too many science fiction movies had clouded my mind, providing images of downright fierce creatures with anatomically implausible features. Rows of needly teeth, perhaps, or maybe an insectoid carapace dripping with slime as it regarded us with a single red eye. Anything could’ve been under that helmet, from something earthly to something Lovecraftian.
The alien’s face was not fierce and, surprisingly enough, quite terrestrial in many aspects. Its skin was a mottled hue of dull brown and green, with a texture to its skin that reminded me of an elephant’s. A pair of large ears were folded against its long, mole-like head, and a quartet of black beady eyes blinked innocently at me. Two bony plates of armor ran down its head, between the eyes, and seemed to continue down its spine. Its mouth had no lips; instead, it was almost like its jaws had a jagged edge to them, as though someone had carved them like they would a jack-o-lantern. Several long palps graced the tip of its snout, quivering in the cold air.
It was almost cute, actually.
It was only fair to return the gesture. I reached up to the clasp of my helmet, and began to undo the seal.
“Liu,” Valentina warned.
“Haven’t found anything yet,” I replied. “You can quarantine me if you’re concerned enough.”
Twisting my helmet, I pulled it off. A bitter cold greeted my face, but it wasn’t unbearable. Inhaling deeply, I became the first human in history to breathe in the air of an alien world. The air was thin as expected, but manageable. Completely removing my helmet, I offered a slight bow to the alien.
“Hello,” I said.
The alien rumbled the same, in its own language.
“We’re humans,” I said, gesturing to Luís and I. I patted my chest. “I am named Liu.”
“Ktrit-click-zal,” came the booming reply. The alien pounded his own chest. “Rudak-click-en–click-ziz. Rudak, I am called.”
“Rudak,” I repeated. “It is good to meet you, Rudak.”
Rudak stepped closer, very close, to the point where its hot breath washed against my face. Its palps twitched and writhed, then it suddenly stopped short.
“Inquiry: your face, Liu, may I feel? It helps with memorizing.”
“Yes,” I replied after a moment’s hesitation.
The palps flicked and brushed against my skin, surprisingly cool to the touch. Rudak breathed in deeply, as if taking in my scent, then pulled back. It looked over at Luís, who had yet to remove his helmet.
“Inquiry: removed, why hasn’t the other?”
“Luís,” I said in English. “Do it.”
He sighed, then took his helmet off.
“Luís,” he said, patting his chest.
Rudak did the same to him, though he looked a lot more uncomfortable. Thankfully, it only lasted a few moments, and Rudak pulled away, putting its helmet back on.
“Much to learn,” it said. “Your peace offering, I take. I shall return to my vessel for now, and prepare for exchange of culture.”
With that, it turned away and trotted back to its lander, taking care not to damage the olive branch clutched in its hand. I stared back for a few moments, then turned to Luís.
“A-amazing,” I breathed,
“I’ll say,” he muttered, putting his helmet back on. “His breath smells worse than a dead raccoon stuffed in a hot locker for a week.”
“Poetry,” Wilhelm said over the radio. “It’s good to see the contact went well. Swimmingly, I might say.”
“It was pretty short,” said Luís. “How long was that? Five minutes, maybe?”
“Well, this was a cursory greeting,” I replied. “We’re going to have longer, more intensive meetings in the future, once we’re able to better breach the language barrier. Luís, I recommend you brush up on your Mandarin.”
“I’m not happy with that stunt you pulled,” Valentina chided. “Who knows what kind of pathogens are in the environment, or on that Rudak alien’s skin? You need to undergo full decontamination, and I want you to check yourself with medical scanners hourly.”
“We’ll do that when we’re back at Penelope.” I grinned widely. “It was worth the experience, if you ask me.”
“You must be practically bouncing off the walls, but be sure to get some rest,” Wilhelm said. “I have a feeling we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“I can’t wait to get started.”
With that, Luís and I began to make our way back to Penelope, a little more spring in our step.