Glimpes of supercivilizations could either have stimulating or stultifying effects on our society.
-Sir Arthur C. Clarke
A quiet had fallen on the base camp. Our voices were subdued as we murmured amongst ourselves, almost cowed before the violet star in the sky. We couldn’t look at it directly for risk of blindness, and that only added to the sense of silent anxiety we all felt.
I glanced over at Rudak. I was only starting to understand his facial cues, but even then I could see just how nervous he was through his visor. His large ears were flattened against his head, and his posture had changed, lowering his stomach to the ground.
“Odysseus, are you seeing this?” Wilhelm said into the radio, almost whispering it.
“Yes,” Luís replied, unusually quiet. “It… mother of god, it’s so bright. I had to dim the windows in the command center to one percent. I don’t think even Odysseus’s flame is that bright.”
“Do you have any idea of its distance?”
“It’s hard to tell at this point; there’s so many factors to consider. Hold up.” A minute or so passed, then Luís came back on. “According to some basic calculations, it could be anywhere between one and three billion kilometers away.”
Wilhelm fell silent, brow scrunched in thought. Pulling out a pad, his fingers danced across the surface as he made some rapid calculations, occasionally murmuring equations to himself.
“Based on that flame, along with the Doppler effect, it must be moving at a considerable fraction of c,” he finally said. “The acceleration the craft must be under is astounding; we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred gravities.”
“I can’t imagine anything organic being there, save for microbes,” Valentina said. “Anything larger would be crushed to paste.”
“We’ve been proven wrong before,” I interrupted. “They might be using liquid-immersion techniques, or they could be completely different from us.”
“Different from us… how, exactly?”
I threw up my hands. “A number of ways. It’s possible for them to have a biochemistry that uses different bases from life on Earth and Rudak’s world, or they could even be on a much smaller scale. Perhaps they’re advanced enough to engineer themselves for such flights; there’s too many possibilities to discuss here.”
Wilhelm glanced my way. “I have to agree with you on this. You’re the expert on what aliens could be like, and what tech they could use. If they’re advanced enough to use what I’m thinking is an antimatter engine, then they could be advanced enough to endure the acceleration. Maybe it’s just a smart probe, or maybe it’s something else. Either way, it’s definitely going to be coming here.”
“I find myself growing concerned,” Rudak said, lightly brushing his nose against my upper arm. “What could make someone as advanced as you nervous?”
I remembered that he was left out of the conversation. I glanced his way, then gave him a reassuring pat.
“Whoever’s coming, they’re likely more advanced than either of us,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good thing, either,” Rudak retorted. “However, I believe their intentions are not malicious; with such technology, they could have destroyed us already if they desired.”
He was right, though it was a sobering thought. If any interstellar civilization went to war, the losing side would be dead before they knew it. Of course, there were plenty of incentives against that; any surviving spacecraft could pay back the favor. Just like with the 20th century’s cold war, any conflict would result in mutual destruction. It was far more constructive to engage in diplomacy, not war.
But it could be a lot harder. To win a war, you had to defeat your enemy. To make peace, you oftentimes had to defeat yourself.
“Do we have any idea on the arrival time?” Valentina asked Wilhelm, drawing me out of my reverie.
“Can’t really tell at this point,” the physicist replied. “It’s decelerating right now, but it did so an astronomical stone’s throw away. I don’t know why, and I can’t really tell how fast it was going beforehand. To be honest, it was like it appeared out of nowhere, and that’s a terrifying thought to consider. For all we know, it could be here within the day.”
I relayed the information to Rudak. He took a few moments to digest the information, then glanced up at the new star in the sky. His eyes were like little black buttons, almost lifeless, yet I could sense the intelligence behind them.
“This is not a coincidence. They are here because of the beacon. And it would be logical to assume they are the builders. It seems that our expedition is to be postponed, and we must wait for them to come.”
“And then the difficult part comes,” I said.
For the next few hours, we did next to nothing. I prepared my translation software, and did some more chatting with Rudak. When he retired to his dome for a few hours, I decided to read some more of the manuscripts he gave me. It was interesting, seeing the beliefs and theologies of his people; it gave me a good insight into his species’ cultures.
Valentina, in the meantime, did some more work on the soil and air samples, trying to make sense of the planet’s ecology. There was plenty of oxygen in the air, but we hadn’t seen any vegetation on the surface, which begged the question of where it all came from. If it weren’t for the fact that an incredibly-advanced alien spacecraft was heading our way, I probably would’ve found it very interesting.
All the while, the star grew brighter as it approached. Wilhelm spent some time analyzing it with a spectrograph, and came to the conclusion that the craft was indeed using some kind of antimatter engine. We still had no idea of the vessel’s size, however; it was still an enigma to us. It could’ve been as small as a school bus, or as massive as a battleship, for all we knew.
We grew a bit worried when the drive shut off after seven hours, and began to coast the rest of the way. Its velocity had to be tremendous still, and we were wondering just when it’d arrive. Odysseus was scanning the skies for it, but Luís spent half his time on the other side of the planet, where he couldn’t see it.
The pilot of the alien craft, if there even was one, seemed to be aware of that as well. When it finally arrived in orbit, it was on the opposite side of the world from Odysseus. Our microsats were simply communications relays; there was no way of telling what the ship looked like, and Kapteyn’s Star was still up, meaning we couldn’t use ground-based telescopes to get a look at it.
They were going to meet us on their terms, not ours. All we could do was go along.
“Do you think they’ll be landing soon?” Valentina asked.
“It’s possible,” I murmured, eyes to the sky. “We were in orbit only a short time before landing here; they might do the same.”
It was a quiet night on Mulolowa. The stars were shining above, many of them different from the usual night sky, and the Milky Way dominated it all. I stood there for a while, just taking it in; one of the advantages of being on a lifeless world was the lack of light pollution. On Earth, I’d be lucky to see a few constellations.
“It is beautiful,” Rudak said, craning his head up as high as possible. “I’ve only seen these when I went up the mesa to work. So many of them…”
“On Earth, we gave groups of them names,” I said. “If they formed a rough shape. We call them constellations.”
“Constellations,” he repeated. “What are some of them?”
“Well, a few of them look different here than back home,” I replied. “And different cultures have different names for them.”
“What do you call them?”
I smiled. “Well, if you look over there, you can see part of the Azure Dragon. He represents the East, and the season of spring.”
“I forget that you’re world has no tilt. Do you have parts of the year where the climate changes a little?”
“Yes. When our world nears the sun, it grows hot, and the rain comes more frequent, more powerful. Many plants open up to taken in as much water as possible, in case of drought. The wind comes in from the nightside, and there are great storms. When we are farther, it grows cool and dry.”
“Monsoon,” I said. “That is what we have on Dìqiú’s equator. But towards the polar regions, our seasons become more varied. Our world is titled, so the poles get opposite seasons from each other. As the weather cools, our plants change color and become dormant, to conserve themselves. We call it autumn. Then the year becomes coldest, and water actually freezes in many places. This is winter. The farther from the equator, the longer winter lasts.”
“It sounds horrifying,” Rudak said. “Freezing water. How do you survive this?”
“We’re used to it. We build shelters and wear warm clothing. Now, winter does end, and the frozen water melts. The land warms, and the plants sprout once again, bringing in an abundance of life. We call this season spring.”
“I now understand. It’s fascinating.”
“It is,” I said. “And humans everywhere in these lands hold spring in importance. We see it as a symbol of rebirth, and new life. When spring comes, we hold festivals to celebrate.”
“I would like to see these spring festivals,” Rudak said.
“I could show you images and videos of them,” I offered.
Rudak let out a small hoot. “Yes, that would be good. Now, tell me more of your constellations.”
We spent a good while talking back and forth about the constellations, as well as the mythology behind them. I had to be clear what creatures were real and what weren’t; I wouldn’t want him to go about thinking dragons were real, after all, or that turtles were a myth.
Our conversation ended when there was a terrible sound above us, like the sky itself had split open like an egg. We both reflexively looked up, just in time to see a streak of light arcing across the sky. Just as soon as it came, however, it faded away, leaving an afterimage in my eyes.
Then, something descended.
I couldn’t see it very well, save for the delta-outline of its form. In that respect, it reminded me a bit of our own shuttles, but this craft was clearly more sleek, not meant for carrying huge amounts of cargo. That, or its engines were far more powerful. If I had to make a guess, it looked to be around the size of a jet fighter.
Wilhelm ran up to my side, eyes wide as the craft came down. Wind began to whip at our feet, and I was glad for the mask I was wearing, otherwise I would’ve gotten sand in my eyes. Rudak sidled closer to us, back arched and stomach low to the ground.
The unseen engines of the alien lander eased to a stop. A full minute passed, then a hatch began to hiss open, light pouring out of it. I shielded my eyes, then forced them to open to look at the silhouette standing in the entrance. Even then, I couldn’t discern anything about the shape of our new visitor.
Then, it stepped into view, and I sucked in a gasp.