Risk is our business!
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek
“The signal’s gone,” Wilhelm announced at breakfast.
We all stopped eating when he said that. I chewed thoughtfully for a few moments, then looked up. There was an anxious look on the commander’s face, and there was no doubt I was mirroring it.
“Overnight, the beacon shut off. Luís reported seeing Diplomat fly over, which leads me to conclude that it was deactivated.”
“Or destroyed,” Valentina said.
Wilhelm shook his head. “There was no sign of an explosion. Either Diplomat’s species-”
“Tianlong,” I interrupted. When the others looked at me, I said, “It means ‘celestial dragon’.”
“Well, either the… tianlong are the actual builders of the beacon, or it’s just simple enough to deactivate.”
I straightened in my seat. “So it’s not just Rudak and I who’s suspicious about all of this.”
“Rudak caught on as well?” Valentina said. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Everything that came out of Diplomat’s mouth was vague, to say the least. Didn’t help that they seem to know so much about us. Why?”
“Could be a number of reasons,” I replied. “Perhaps they’re lying, or they just want to hide their strengths… or weaknesses. Diplomat hasn’t made any demands of Earth, but it’s definitely rushing for something. Whatever it is, I want to find out.”
“Sounds easier said than done,” Wilhelm said. “It’s not like we can just ignore making contact with another intelligent species. If we focus on the beacon instead, we’d just alert it.”
“Hasn’t stopped it from ignoring Rudak,” I replied. “I could count on one hand how many times it directly addressed him. Why?”
“Maybe it just feels there’s little Rudak could offer?” Valentina suggested. “I mean, we might be the first interstellar civilization they’ve ever encountered; in comparison, a species that’s just left their home planet might seem incredibly backwards.”
I shook my head. “Technological development isn’t linear. A spacefaring species isn’t necessarily more advanced in every way than one who hasn’t left the planet. Ktrit has five times Earth’s gravity; we’d take forever to achieve spaceflight under similar circumstances.”
“It’s a fair point,” Wilhelm said. “Now, have you considered that maybe Diplomat is just acting disinterested?”
I threw up my hands. “It’s a possibility. There’s just too many variables that we don’t know, which is why I want to head out to the location of the beacon. At the very least, it could answer a few of our questions.”
“I know, but as I said before, we can’t just ignore Diplomat and do that. We’d need to be… subtle. At least, that’s the best I can think of. Maybe we’re just being paranoid, but if there’s nothing to worry about, it’ll just assuage our concerns.”
The faint whir of an engine drew our attention to the window. Diplomat’s craft was landing again, in the same spot as before. In the distance, I could see the airlock hatch of Rudak’s dome open.
“Well, I guess it’s time for another chat,” I sighed.
Diplomat’s body language seemed to have changed since we last met with it. Its tail swished from side to side more often, and it seemed to be almost hunched over. There was no telling what that meant, unfortunately; it could be experiencing a number of emotions, perhaps even ones we didn’t know.
“Good morning,” it said. “I hope you slept well.”
“We’ve been discussing what you’ve told us,” Wilhelm replied. “I hope you’d be able to expound upon some things.”
Diplomat bowed its head. “Naturally.”
“We’ve noticed that you turned off the beacon.”
“It served no further purpose,” came the steady reply. “It was meant to bring you here for contact, and you are here. Now, we may focus on more pressing topics at hand.”
“I don’t see how it can be pressing,” I said. “It’d be years before either of our worlds are affected by this meeting, no?”
“On the timescale of both our civilizations, years can be all too short. There is a lot to be done in that time, such as a proper delegation.”
“How so?” I asked. “I also hope you don’t mind if I translate for Rudak.”
Diplomat clicked its teeth together. I got the impression of blue gums, and something almost like a barbed tongue.
“Though you are not allowed to make decisions for your world, I am allowed to act on the behalf of my people,” it replied. “Therefore, it would be logical that I accompany you on your return to Earth. This system’s largest and furthermost world is a gas giant, which has hydrogen you can use to refuel your starship. Personally, I will need to collect energy with which to replenish my own fuel, which necessitates a flyby of the sun. This will take a few Earth days, though the journey time will take longer.”
“How much longer?” asked Wilhelm.
“Approximately the same time it will take for your starship to voyage to the gas giant, refuel, and return,” replied Diplomat.
Rudak chose that time to speak up. “And what of my people?”
For the first time in that conversation, Diplomat glanced over at the ktrit’zal. For a brief moment, I wondered if Rudak actually made the tianlong nervous, all things considered. After all, it was a rather spindly creature, while Rudak… wasn’t.
“Your ship is not capable of interstellar travel,” Diplomat said. “However… your world has the right to engage in diplomacy with ours. Are you allowed to act on the behalf of your species?”
“No,” Rudak replied. “As Ktrit is rather close by, they decided that they could handle any negotiations.”
“This is a… complication. Does Ktrit have any more spacecraft?”
“There is another under construction, much larger, but it will be another local year until its completion.”
Diplomat fell silent for a few moments. “This further complicates the matter, though there is a possible solution. If you are able to convince your world that you may act on its behalf, it should be fairly simple to tow your spacecraft.”
“That may be possible,” Rudak admitted.
Seemingly satisfied, Diplomat turned back to me. “The optimal orbital transfer will be within seven Earth hours. Is that acceptable?”
“The decision falls on the commander,” I replied.
Wilhelm looked at me, then at Valentina. I could see the gears working behind his eyes as he weighed the decisions.
“It is,” he finally said.
“Commander, I’d like to stay here while you go to refuel,” I interjected. “After all, someone needs to continue a cultural exchange with Rudak, and I might be able to, uh, help convince Ktrit that he’d be able to act on their behalf.”
That last part was a silly reason, but Wilhelm knew what I was really getting at. He glanced at Rudak, then back to me.
“Permission granted. It’d probably only take a few days off our schedule; what’s that to the return flight?”
Diplomat began to click to itself again, a bit louder than before. Was it suspicious of my attention? There was no way of telling; even if I could understand its facial cues and body language, that damn mask would be in the way.
“I don’t see any issue with it,” it said. “Energy expenditure would be… minimal. And if Ktrit acquiesces, then I’ll need the extra day or so to better tow the vessel.”
With that, Diplomat returned to its ship, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well, let’s get started,” Wilhelm said. “Something tells me it’s going to be a long flight.”
“The soil’s burnt, you know,” Valentina offhandedly mentioned to me, a few hours later.
I helped her carry a crate of equipment back into Calypso, then turned. “Burnt?”
“I’ve tested it up to three meters. There’s life down there. Well, it used to be life. I’ve found microscopic fossils, but nothing else. Something happened, scorched the earth and left it barren. I’ve taken separate samples all over the site, and still found nothing alive.”
“Do you have any theories as to what happened?” I asked.
“Well… I’d imagine it was something to do with Kapteyn’s Star itself,” Valentina replied. “It’s stable, and very long-lived, but red dwarfs are known to have spectacular flares, if what Wilhelm told me is correct. Ktrit’s magnetosphere is insane; there wouldn’t be any trouble there, but this planet… all it takes is one unusually strong flare…”
“And everything is cooked,” I said.
Valentina nodded. “Hard to ascertain a date with such minimal research, but it appears to have been fairly recent. Fifty to a century, at the latest.”
“That date doesn’t quite feel like a coincidence,” I said.
A shrug. “Maybe. Perhaps not. Something tells me we’ll find out soon enough. Wilhelm’s also been talking about the trajectory Diplomat must have taken to get here. Apparently, from the angle it came in, the closest star is many light years away. Even taking into account star movement, and we have another enigma on our hands.”
Wilhelm came by, carrying two crates with him. Once he placed them inside the shuttle, he began to remove his exosuit.
“The habitat should keep you alive for a long while,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any trouble by the time we come back. Be sure to keep the hydroponics maintained, and continue your good work with Rudak.”
“Thanks for the compliment, Commander.” I smiled.
Wilhelm let out a small chuckle. “Now, remember: never go out on a long sojourn. It would be a bad idea to take the rover out for a spin, and you’re not officially allowed to drive it. In fact, it would be a pretty dumb of me to remind you that we’re not taking it along, as it might give you ideas. I explicitly forbid you from leaving the site.”
I grinned. “Loud and clear, commander.”
“Good.” Wilhelm put a firm hand on my shoulder and smiled warmly. “Take care, Liu. See you in about a week.”
“It’s… surreal, isn’t it?” I said. “Every action we take is going to have a tremendous impact on humankind. And yet, I feel so… small.”
“It’s because we are small. That doesn’t mean we don’t matter.”
Wilhelm walked up the ramp, and Valentina followed after him. The hatch to the shuttle closed, and I backed away to give it a wide berth.
Then, Calypso rocketed away into the sky. Some distance away, Diplomat’s ship did the same; unlike Calypso, a piece of it stayed behind, pushing it up with a laser. The staccato of sharp pops was enough to draw Rudak out of his dome again, and he trotted up to me.
“Do you think you’ll be able to convince them to have me act on their behalf?” he asked.
“Oh, that? Not really, but it gave me a reason to stay on the ground.” I turned to him, and smiled. “I have a question for you, Rudak.”
“What is it?”
“I’m going to find the beacon that Diplomat shut off. Technically speaking, I’m acting against orders, and the result could have a huge impact on all three peoples, not necessarily for the better. The path could be fraught with danger, and there is no need to come with me-”
Rudak let out a loud hoot, and thumped his tail against the ground. “You don’t need to say anything else, Liu. I will go with you, no matter the risk. If I wasn’t willing to lay my life on the line in the pursuit of knowledge and the benefit of my people, then I would have never made it here. To walk that path with a friend only gives me more reason.”
“I-I’m glad that you see it that way,” I said, a sudden swell of emotion welling up. “You think of me as your friend?”
“We’ve known each other for some time already,” he replied. “You may be from a different world, and your form is unlike any I’ve seen, but your inner self is kindred to mine.”
I wasn’t expecting such a positive answer. Rudak and I got along, sure, but I didn’t knew he thought that highly of me…
“I’ll get the rover ready. Be sure to bring whatever equipment you think you’ll need.”
It was tough work, getting everything ready for the sojourn. The rover had ample life support, but I needed to bring my translation equipment, along with some tools, and the cultural items. The solar panels on the roof would provide power for the trip, but we would need to stop during the night, which meant I could get some work done in the meantime.
Rudak carried some equipment and crates with him into his cabin, stuff that I couldn’t quite recognize. He was a fast worker, and his strength made quick work of tasks that required heavy lifting.
An hour after Calypso launched, a new star shined in the sky as Odysseus activated its drive. There was no such flourish for Diplomat’s starship, which was quite the contrast to last time. We waited half an hour after the drive’s activation before beginning the final preparations for our journey, so it’d take considerable delta-v for Diplomat’s vessel to return in case it realized what was going on.
We’d have a good ten hours of sunlight before we needed to stop for the night, so I was naturally anxious to get started. Noontime found me in the driver’s seat, doing the last checkups on the life support. It was then that the radio chimed, signaling a message from Rudak’s cabin.
“What do you need?” I asked.
“I wish to do this before we set out, on the chance that this voyage is my last,” came his reply. “Please, come to my cabin.”
After a few moments, I stepped out and walked over to the capsule. The hatch opened quickly, and I hopped into the airlock. Once I was through that, I blinked in surprise at the items Rudak had laid out on the floor. There was a bowl of black fluid, along with a container of grey dusts, both placed to the side. Right in front of Rudak was a smaller bowl, along with a small blue blade that seemed to glow softly.
“What’s going on?”
“I wish to make you sedenbrok,” he replied. He was completely naked, though I couldn’t see any signs of genitalia. “Do you wish to?”
He was essentially asking me to be his blood-sister. I simply stared at him, struck by his offer.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Now, tradition states that the two must be nude, but I understand that it might be best for your health if you skip that part.”
I shook my head. “No. There aren’t any allergens here, Valentina told me. As for any pathogens, I can just go through decontamination later, and that’s even assuming we can even infect each other.”
With that, I began to strip. Rationally, I knew the whole thing was silly. Risking infection to engage in a ritual and become the blood-sister of an alien, one whom I had only known for a fortnight? Yet, for some reason, it made sense to me. Despite the short time I had know him, I felt close to him; I could trust him. It was like we’d been friends for years.
Carefully laying my clothes to the side, I knelt down. Rudak grabbed a small stone, glittering in greens and oranges and purples. There was some small kindling beside him, and he started a contained fire with it, then dropped the stone in.
“This is the bloodstone of En,” he said. “It has been carried down my ancestral line for thousands of my years. I am the first male to use it in ceremony.”
Next, he got the bowl of black fluid. Carefully, he tipped some of it down his head, letting it soak into the small cracks of his plates. It welled around his eyes, though it did not actually get in them, and it served to make him look rather frightening. Offering the bowl to me, I did the same. It actually smelled pleasant, like lavender.
“Paint made from the sacred plant; it is to never be eaten or used for any other purpose.”
Taking the bowl from me, he set it down, the grabbed the grey dust. Pinching it in two handfuls, he sprinkled it over my shoulders and chest, letting it stick.
“Now, do the same to me.”
I did as told. Once that was done, Rudak placed the bowl aside.
“Blessed soil, from the Sacred Mountain of Wa. It is down that slope the Allmother descended, and it is from that dust we were molded by Her in Her image.”
Much like the legend of Nüwa, I thought to myself.
Rudak grabbed the blue blade, and made a small cut on his finger. A single drop of neon orange blood fell into the small bowl. He offered the blade to me, and I used to the other side to cut my thumb and let the blood drip into the bowl. Red and orange, together but never mixing.
“Red blood?” Rudak asked. “Hmm.”
He chuffed, then resumed his original posture. Grabbing the now red-hot stone between two claws, he dropped it into the bowl. The two liquids crackled and hissed, and thick smoke rose from it. Briefly, I got the scent of lilac.
Rudak watched the smoke rise, then he sang. It was not a song in words, even the ones in his language; no, it was almost like the call of a bird, mixed the songs of the long-gone whales. My mind raced to think of what he was singing, but failed. It was indescribably beautiful, and I felt tears well in my eyes as he continued on.
Finally, he finished. “Your blood and my blood are one and same. I am now Rudak’en’ziz’haipeng.”
“And I am Liu Haipeng’en,” I finished.
He bowed his long head. “You may clean yourself, and dress once more, sedenbrok. Now, there is a mission to do.”