Luís and I woke four hours before sunrise. It was definitely a strange sensation, and an exhausting one, considering that it was throwing off our circadian rhythms. Both of us woke up groggy, and it would be a while before we adjusted. Nonetheless, I appreciated it as a reminder that home was very far away, farther for anyone in history.
I used to read about the Apollo astronauts, and how lonely they felt when orbiting over the far side of the moon. Cut off from home, they were a quarter million miles away from the world they left behind, with only the stars and rugged lunar landscape for company. The loneliest adventure, they called it.
We were more than twenty million times farther from home than they were.
Of course, it didn’t feel like that. We were on solid ground, with a sky above us; if it weren’t for the lower gravity, we could’ve imagined that we were back on Earth. There were a few water droplets on the portholes, left there by a gentle rain that ended a while before we woke up, and that was something you never saw on Mars or Europa.
Breakfast was quiet, but there was still some lingering energy from yesterday. Luís’s eyes seemed to have brightened, and his motions were more animated as he worked around the habitat, making sure that life-support was still operating at a good efficiency. The same could be said of me; despite how poorly I slept, it was like I’d drunk a gallon of coffee.
That led to our meal’s only conversation. At first, it was about the events of yesterday, then it segued into another topic.
“You know, I don’t think we really established a meeting time,” Luís said, after finishing a bite of eggs.
I leaned back, sipping my tea. “I don’t think Rudak and I agreed on when. Perhaps it was just as excited as us, and forgot?”
“Hard to tell with a face like that. It was one ugly mo-”
I cut him off. “I don’t think making quotes like that is good for a diplomatic mission.”
Luís chuckled. “I didn’t think little miss dainty ambassador would know that joke.”
“How do you think I got interested in xenoanthropology?” I shot back. “I was really into sci-fi as a kid.”
“Makes sense.” Luís took a swig of his coffee. “Now, how are we going to agree on a meeting time with Rudak?”
“Like before,” I replied. “Radio. Either it’ll contact us first, or we’ll contact it, depending on how quickly we get ready.”
“All righty, then.” Luís finished his breakfast, then rose to his feet. “Let’s get started, then.”
I rose as well. “Sounds good.”
First order of business: contact Odysseus. They were receiving regular pings from the habitat, a way of saying ‘still alive’, but we needed to discuss certain operations with them. As the contact specialist, I had ultimate authority on our dealings with Rudak, but a lot of our operation was beyond my jurisdiction. We needed to set up equipment to study the planet’s conditions, we needed to get the rover ready, and there was the matter of future landings.
After a short conversation, it was agreed that Valentina, as the ship’s doctor and biologist, would land next in Calypso, while Luís took Penelope back up. That was still a long day from now, however, which gave plenty of time to properly set up shop.
When morning came, and Kapteyn’s Star slowly heaved over the horizon like a cresting red wave, we found that Rudak had been busy overnight. A fairly large communications dish had been firmly planted in the ground, pivoted to a brilliant white star that still shined in daytime, and it seemed that various pieces of research equipment had also been placed. The black dome we’d seen earlier had inflated even more, to the point where it was larger than our own hab.
“Well, that doesn’t look ominous or anything,” Luís remarked.
“Their planet is a lot hotter than ours,” I said, peering closer through the porthole. “From what we know, it’s likely they live on the dark side of their planet, so perhaps the opacity is to help better mimic their natural surroundings as well.”
“Guess so. Have you tried radio yet?”
I shook my head. “I was going to, actually, but I got distracted by this little conversation.”
“Doesn’t seem like there’s a rush, anyway. We should probably contact them first, but part of me wants to see what they do first.”
As if on cue, the radio crackled. I hurried over, taking care not to leap up into the ceiling of the hab, then opened the channel.
“This is Rudak,” it said in Mandarin. “Inquiry: receiving, are you?”
“I am receiving,” I replied. “This is Liu.”
“Prepared for exchange and teach. Inquiry: in mine?”
“Request: please wait.”
A pause, then, “Understood.”
I glanced at Luís. “It wants me to go to the dome for a dialog.”
“You want me to come with you? Can’t say I feel comfortable with the thought of you in that enclosure with it.”
I shook my head. “Wouldn’t make much of a difference. A bulk like that, on a world with such gravity? Not like you could do anything to it.”
Luís gave me an exasperated look. “Very reassuring.”
“It’s the truth,” I replied. “You can start setting up shop while I’m in there; it sounds better than worrying.”
“So I have to do the heavy lifting?” Luís let out a fake sigh, then grinned. “Alright, that’s a plan. I should be able to talk to you in there, and vice versa. If there’s any trouble, just be sure to holler, okay?”
“Okay.” I smiled, then turned back to the radio. “I will come to your dome for a dialog.”
“Understood,” said Rudak.
“Last chance if you want me over there with you,” Luís said over the radio. “At the very least, you might feel a little better.”
“I’m telling you, I’ll be fine,” I replied, tightening my grip around the data pad. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Be sure to not let any biological material contact your bare skin,” Valentina cut in, a hundred miles above. “Even if you can’t get a virus, it’s possible that you may suffer some kind of allergic reactions to their biochemistry. And make sure to decontaminate when you return.”
“Got it,” I replied.
“I’ll inform Luís as well, in case you get too nervous and skip something.”
“I’m not nervous,” I said.
If anything, I was more anxious than anything else. The dome was a stone’s throw away, now, and I found myself wondering what was inside it. Luís was probably wondering the same thing, which was why I’d decided to take some pictures while in the dome. The insulated hazmat suit I put on didn’t have a camera like the EVA model, but my data pad could take some images of lower quality.
When I was around ten feet away from the dome, the hatch opened up. After a moment had passed, Rudak stepped out into view, garbed in its spacesuit. There appeared to be some moisture on its gloves, which I found odd. Was there a hydroponics farm inside? We had one; it wasn’t a stretch to assume they could do the same.
“Follow me after,” it said, voice muffled by its helmet. “Come.”
Rudak stepped back inside, and I warily entered the airlock. It was dark inside, to the point where I could barely make out my hand, and a cold sweat began to work down my spine. Even if there was no malice involved, it wouldn’t be a stretch that I could end up dying from an accident while inside. Perhaps even slight movements from Rudak in an enclosed space would be enough to cripple me, considering how much muscle it seemed to have.
I stopped when my foot bumped against Rudak’s tail. A large bulk moved in the darkness, and I could hear a hiss as hot air entered the chamber. Water began to condense over my mask, and I was immediately grateful that the suit regulated temperature, otherwise I would’ve been cooked. Glancing down at my wristcom, I saw that it was seventy degrees celsius, and air pressure was at 2 bars.
Then the inner hatch opened, and I sucked in a gasp as I looked inside.
I’m not sure how to properly explain the interior of the dome. Jungle doesn’t seem to quite cut it, if only because of how alien the interior was. The floor was covered in something almost like moss, but thicker and damper. Numerous stalks rose from the moss, some of them tall enough to scrape the ceiling, and their shapes looked more fit for the bottom of the ocean than anything else. The walls, too, were covered in a film of algae-like substance.
And it was all glowing. Everything was bioluminescent, casting a variety of soft colors. Purples, greens, blues… they came in all shades, casting their light on every surface. There was a console opposite the airlock, along with a few other devices I couldn’t identify; they were the only things not covered in the stuff. It was like stepping into a kaleidoscope; I simply stared at it all, enraptured by the sight.
Valentina would’ve given up more than a few vital organs to see this. I made sure to take an image of the interior with my data pad, just so she could study it later. The bioluminescence explained why Rudak’s species had eyes, despite living on the nightside of the planet, but it still raised a few questions regarding their biology.
Rudak walked towards the center of the dome, soft splashes accompanying each step, and began to remove its suit. In half a minute, it was stripped down to something resembling a pair of shorts, along with thick cloth over its forearms. Now, I could fully see just how powerful it looked; its arms were almost like those of a gorilla, except with even more muscle packed on, and its legs were as thick as those of an elephant. Diamond-shaped armor plates ran down its spine, reminding me of something almost like a pangolin.
“Suit is irritate,” Rudak said. “Inquiry: is there issue?”
“No,” I replied.
With that, I stepped onto the mossy material, and had to repress a small gag when I sank up to my ankles. Water washed against my boots, and apparently the microorganisms inside were also bioluminescent, if the green light emanating from my footprints were any indication. The slurp noises each footstep made did little to make me feel less squeamish.
Rudak rested on its haunches, and I sat down in a lotus position. After a few moments, I could pretend that I wasn’t sitting in alien moss, as long as I didn’t move a muscle. Something pattered against my visor, and I realized that all the steam inside was condensing at the top of the dome and raining back down. A miniature ecosystem, down to climate.
“Inquiry: suit is stay on?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s too hot for me, here.”
Rudak made a small clicking sound, then produced a thick block of bluish material. The material flapped a little in the air, and I realized it was like some kind of paper. Grabbing a small reed from the floor, it squeezed until a black fluid began to ooze from the sharp tip, then looked back at me. With its other hand, it grabbed some fronds from another plant and chewed the stuff absentmindedly. Bioluminescent ichor dripped to the floor, only to be subsumed.
“Inquiry,” it said, somehow capable of perfectly talking and chewing at the same time, “language lesson go first?”
“Yes,” I replied, clearing my throat. “Let’s start with some of the basics of Mandarin grammar…”