Story Excerpt

The View From Proxima Centauri

by Susan Pieters

 

The thawing was more painful than they’d led Rosemary to believe, but InterSpace Agency had been right about one thing. “No dreams,” the tech had said. “That’s the weirdest part. It’s like you get turned off.”

Now she was being turned back on. The shell of the Eleazar series cryo pressed warm against her, a three-dimensional laser tanning bed. The gastric tubes down her throat felt like she was swallowing scalding coffee. She was impossibly cold and hot at the same time as blood pumped into her arteries to push out the antifreeze serum. Parts of her swelled tight as a balloon, and her nerves were needles that screamed as they came back to life.

She tried to blink away the dark, but her eyes weren’t working yet.

An alarm went off. She didn’t know if it was her alarm or Cheng’s. She pulled out her tubes and hit the release. The alarm got louder.

She stumbled out of her cradle and crawled on all fours to the second unit. Half blind, she found the emergency lid release and reached inside.

Cheng was still cold. Her hands got lucky and found the kinked hose, put his lid back down.

The alarm went silent. She sat in a pool of her own condensation until he emerged.

“Cheng? You alive?” she asked.

“Almost.” Cheng’s eyelids were swollen. “Have you taken a look outside yet?”

“No, I’ve been waiting for you. You had a blocked hose.”

“What if someone’s already knocking at the door?”

Rosemary stood up, using her hands for support. The gravity wasn’t so bad. She went to the console and flipped switches.

The screen came on. Four cameras showed similar views of an open plain lit by an enormous rusty sun. Orange-tinged rocks stretched in all directions.

“No welcoming committee yet.” Rosemary didn’t see any structures, either. “We landed in the middle of nowhere.”

Cheng tipped his head and winced. “That’s good. Gives us some time.”

Rosemary half-smiled back, one side of her face still stiff. “You’re not ready to play ambassador yet?”

Cheng opened his eyes a little wider and then shut them tight. “It might be a good idea for us to get some clothes on before we meet the aliens.”

*   *   *

When Rosemary’s grandmother was a girl, early in the twenty-first century, the nearby Proxima Centauri system had been written off as a viable host for life. Even when Proxima’s only exoplanet had surprised astronomers with a ten-hour rotation—a fast spin that had anchored a substantial atmosphere—it had been assumed no life could have evolved under the flares and radiation of a Red Dwarf sun.

That assumption changed when passing probes picked up the planet’s local radio signals.

“It’s not as beautiful as a humpback’s song,” InterSpace experts said. “But it’s a definite series of whistles and clicks. The computer recognizes a complex rhythm.”

Earth had gone wild. In the aftermath of the extinction of African elephants and the depletion of the Ghawar oil field, it was the glimmer of hope everyone had been waiting for.

The dire “Hawking prophecy” was ignored. Humans clamored to make contact with alien life, the consequences be damned. And they didn’t just want to send a radio reply. The plan was to put Earth’s best foot forward and show up in person.

The voyage would be prohibitively expensive, so logistics were worked out for a bare-bones two-person crew. As InterSpace accepted applications from elite astronauts around the globe, the only question was who would help with the trillion-dollar price tag. EnergyCorp stepped up to the plate with matching funds, and with a fever akin to the Olympics, twenty countries entered the ring to pledge support and sponsor a candidate for the most expensive mission ever conceived.

Thus began the intensive screening process to select the first interstellar ambassadors to Sol’s nearest neighboring sun, Proxima Centauri.

*   *   *

Rosemary and Cheng followed protocol. As much as they wanted to don their suits and explore, they rested for two Earth days, taking turns watching the screens for visitors while they waited out the aftereffects of cryo.

“I wish they’d thought to give us an extra sweater.” Rosemary had felt chilled as soon as the giant red sun had dipped beyond the horizon.

“It’s a perfect 21C in here.” Cheng still hobbled as he crossed to the consol. “But why do I feel like I’m suddenly an old man?”

Rosemary stretched her stiff legs. “We’re actually fifty-five now.”

“No,” Cheng said, stopping typing. “We’re still only thirty.”

“Technically, cryo years count,” Rosemary said. “I was born fifty-five years ago. I could get a senior’s discount.”

Cheng rolled his eyes. “If we have to go back, you can enter a marathon in the octogenarian category and set some records.”

Rosemary smiled but didn’t push the joke too far. Whether or not they returned home depended on what they found outside.

Cheng turned back to the console. “Our landing report’s ready to send when we’re in position. They’ll get it in 4.3 years, if the laser relay works right.”

Rosemary leaned back against the wall, then stopped herself. Every spare surface in the cabin was decorated with artwork and relief carvings representing scenes from Earth. “I wish they hadn’t used real gold in here. I feel like I shouldn’t be touching it. Like I’m out of bounds inside a museum exhibit.”

Cheng didn’t seem bothered. “It’s good shielding against radiation. They would have had to use a whole lot more if we had been in orbit around the planet first. But I like the gold. The aliens will be impressed that we travel first class.”

“They may have a different idea of first class.” Rosemary put a careful finger over the etching of a famous skyscraper. “Do you think they’ll understand these engravings?”

“Do we understand cave paintings?”

Rosemary shook her head and shivered. “It’s a good thing we’re alive to explain Earth to them.”

“Yeah. I’m glad we’re alive too.” Cheng rubbed his thumb over a gilded palm tree. “Although it would have made one hell of a tomb.”

Rosemary agreed. “We would have put the pharaohs to shame.”

*   *   *

Of the twenty short-listed astronauts, Rosemary Murphy had been a long shot. She was from Canada, and her Israeli friend Deb Levine, a former fighter pilot, said Rosemary was too nice to get picked. But Xu Cheng from OneChina, who’d spent most of his tenure on the ISS playing video games, said Rosemary would never get chosen because she was a ginger.

The three of them sat together for lectures by noted African linguist and communications theoretician, Dr. Joyce Malasa.

“We’ve got to get over the assumption that they’ll use a mouth to speak,” Dr. Malasa repeated. “Or a beak.”

Cheng’s reply was to squeak his little red Audubon birdcall instrument. Rosemary elbowed him to stop. Candidates had joked about the “Big Bird” aliens since the best imitations of the planet’s radio noises could be produced by the friction of metal twisted against rosin and birch wood.

Dr. Malasa rapped her hands on the lectern. When it was silent, she rapped again.

Rosemary and Deb promptly repeated the pattern.

Cheng shook his head at them and whispered, “Keeners.”

Malasa surveyed the classroom. “Hands can talk. Africans used to communicate vast distances with drumbeats. Maybe the aliens talk with rhythm. The whistles could be a by-product.”

“Or the whistles could be tones to interpret the rhythm,” Cheng added. He was fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, in addition to Russian and English. Malasa often pointed to him as the most multi-lingual of the candidates.

Malasa scratched her close-cropped hair. Her face was shiny with perspiration under the bright lights. “If it’s tonal, we’re in trouble. The patterns are so complex, it could be a language based on a thousand tones. Or a million.”

The American in the front row spoke up, as usual. His name was Alan, but Deb and Rosemary called him Alpha Boy behind his back. “How are we ever going to translate messages if the computer can’t even figure out what they’re saying?”

“That’s why we’re going in person,” Malasa said. “Or one of the reasons. Body language, as I keep repeating, is the biggest communicator. Today’s unit will be on nonverbal animal behaviors.”

“Are we going to study fish?” Alan asked. “Fish signal each other with lights, and we know there were bright flashes on the planet.”

Predictably, Deb steered the class focus away from Alan. “If we’re going to work on body language, we should study dancing. Like bees.”

Alan looked at the back row. “Or spiders.”

Deb blew him a kiss.

Cheng nudged Rosemary. “C’mon.”

Rosemary raised her hand. “What about smells?”

Malasa looked tired. “Smells?”

“Odor is a powerful communicator. Not just for animals mating. The most basic life forms use smell, like plants and flowers. Trees give off pheromones to warn other trees when there’s a fire. If we’re looking outside of the box, let’s consider all the senses.”

Alan pointed his military-shaved jaw at Rosemary. “The aliens are not trees. InterSpace better not send a Canadian, she’ll try and tap them for syrup.”

But Malasa put her hands together and clapped once. “Smells. I never thought of that.”

 

After three Earth days, Rosemary and Cheng suited up for their first excursion. They went through the locks and opened the hatch, standing outside the ship on a narrow platform. Proxima Centauri was at its zenith and glowed like a lava lamp overhead, spilling a vast, dim light that left soft shadows.

“Ladies first.” Cheng moved aside for Rosemary. “Let’s do this right in the new solar system.”

Rosemary went down the ladder and planted her boot on the tan rocks, which were brittle and crumbled underfoot. The gravity was only slightly stronger than Earth, but the suit weighed her down. “One small step for Earth,” she said, waiting for Cheng to reach bottom.

“One quick trip to the bathroom,” Cheng said, jumping off the last step with both feet.

“You didn’t just say that.”

“It’s not being recorded.” Cheng wiggled a bit. “And besides, it was true.”

They were out on an open plain at the feet of a mountain range. If it had been on Earth, it would have been a flood plain for rivers from the mountains, but so far the atmosphere had been clear, and they hadn’t been able to understand the precipitation patterns. There was no ice on the mountains, but at low elevations, there was supposed to be liquid water.

Rosemary pointed. “Let’s walk to that boulder.”

Cheng followed behind her, the crunching of their boots keeping time. “The rocks are loose, like scree.”

Rosemary paused to look down. “But it’s a flat plain. There should be dirt underneath.”

“Windswept? Washed by precipitation?”

“Or maybe the aliens tidy it with a vacuum cleaner. It could be their front lawn. Like a rock garden.”

Cheng did a 360-degree turn. “It’s a pretty barren garden. I don’t see signs of anyone yet. And the computer on the ship isn’t recording any change in the radio signals.”

“They must not know we’re here.” Rosemary turned back and led the rest of the way to the boulder. When she reached it, she raised her glove and gave it a pat.

“Stand there a minute, Rosemary, I want a picture.”

“Of this rock?”

“Of your hair. You wouldn’t believe how red it is in this lighting.” Cheng tapped his helmet cam. “I can’t wait until you get ginger space freckles.”

Rosemary made a face at him. “That won’t be happening through this shielding, Cheng. Shall we take a few samples?”

Cheng bent down and collected rocks the size of his thumb, inspecting them first. “I hope I didn’t just disturb a microscopic colony.”

“Horton Hears a Who?” Rosemary shook her head. “Something that small would have a hard time producing the bandwidth of radio signals we’re getting.”

They picked their way back towards the ship. It looked to Rosemary like an oversized ear of corn, now that the thrusters were laid out flat as stabilizers. “But if we want to imagine aliens on a different scale, they could be so large we don’t see them.” She glanced back at the mountains. “They could be the size of lakes. Or oceans.”

Cheng stopped to pick up another sample. “Well, if we’re standing on the back of a monster, I have bad news for him.” Cheng crumbled the rock in his hands. “He’s got a dandruff problem.”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. Pandora's Pantry by Stephen L. Burns

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