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Tayacan
Dec 8, 2012

Fucking nerd

In.

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Tayacan
Dec 8, 2012

Fucking nerd

Signs of Life
1649 words


The first hour was all fun and games.

It was Alaya’s first trip in the small scouting ship, and Lilian - older, worldlier - was proving to be a fine companion. As they’d undocked and zipped away, Lilian had turned one of the external cameras to look backwards, so Alaya could watch the huge transport ship getting smaller and smaller on the screen. Once this was no longer interesting, they’d watched the stars, entertaining each other by making up completely new constellations while the computer took them ever further into the new solar system.

About half an hour in, Captain had radioed for a status. “Well on our way,” Alaya had replied.

“Lilian?” Captain had asked. “How’s the rookie holding up?” Lilian had taken over the microphone, and Alaya had laughed while the two of them traded banter.

They talked about what they might find. They were not the first scouting mission, nor the last, and this was not one of the systems that the scientists had really high hopes for. Still, the conditions were good enough to merit a visit.

“They might look completely different from us,” Lilian said. “Adapted to a totally alien ecosystem.”

Alaya nodded. “I can’t even imagine what they might look like. Like, my brain doesn’t even know where to start.”

“Imagining the unimaginable.”

They’d had training from the scientists in what to look for. Tool use, of course, even if the tools and their purpose was incomprehensible. They couldn’t expect buildings, not as humans understood them - an alien species on an alien world might not even need shelter - but they could look for other signs, breaks in the patterns of nature. They’d memorized mathematical sequences, and they’d had endless lectures from linguists about detecting patterns in foreign noises that might indicate language.

They broke out of FTL speed, and there was Captain’s voice on the radio again, right on time. “Status?”

“All clear. Entering orbit around K-11.” Lilian was fiddling with the screens as she spoke, bringing up a view of the system’s 11th planet and beckoning Alaya closer. It was a far-off view, seen through the ship’s camera, but it was growing closer by the minute. The surface was a mottled grayish blue color, darker than Earth’s moon. They were supposed to take half an orbit around it, get some photos of the surface, and then accelerate back up to FTL speed until they reached K-9 -- K-10 was somewhere on the other end of the system right now. They’d repeat the procedure with K-9, and then it was on to the real prize: K-5, where the scientists judged that conditions were good enough for carbon-based life-forms to develop.

As they reached the end of their half-orbit of K-11, Lilian announced that she was taking a nap. She squeezed past Alaya into the single tiny bunk in the back of the ship, rolling onto her side and closing her eyes. Alaya took the pilot’s seat, adjusting the head rest and kicking Lilian’s bag off to the side to make room for her feet. It was another two hours until they’d reach K-5. Until then, with Lilian asleep, Alaya would have nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs and try her best to stay awake. The computer would take them where they were going, but protocol dictated that somebody had to be awake, and anyways, there were check-ins from Captain that had to be answered.

“Status?”

“All clear. Passed K-11 fifteen minutes ago.” Alaya wanted to say something clever, like Lilian would’ve, but she couldn’t think of anything. She closed the connection.

An hour later, her eyes were drooping, and she had to pinch herself every few minutes to stay awake.

“Stat--" The word ended in static.

“You’re falling out a bit there, Captain.”

“Status?”

“All clear. Approaching K-9 in just under an hour.”

“--”

“Sir?”

“--ling out, try again. Status?”

“All clear, Captain. Confirm?”

“Confirming, status received.”

Lilian awoke from her nap, coming forward to brew a cup of instant coffee. Alaya told her of the radio problems. “Probably just a solar flare,” Lilian said, yawning into her plastic mug.

Lilian took the pilot’s seat again. “Your turn for a nap,” she said, but Alaya shook her head. She’d been sleepy before the last check-in from Captain, but she felt wide awake now. Instead, she drew her knees up to her chest and watched the screens. The external camera showed stars and empty space. She’d been looking at very similar views for months, ever since they came out of the wormhole, but it felt different now. Space had always been big, unimaginably so. In this small space craft, though, with just herself and Lilian, Alaya felt tiny in a way she hadn’t before. Not back on the planets of Sol, or on the large transport vessel, which was as crowded a place as she’d ever been in.

An hour later, they entered a lazy orbit around K-9. Alaya stared at the dark red surface of the planet, broken only by thin white swirls of clouds.

The radio spurted out a burst of static.

“Captain?” Lilian asked. The only reply was more static.

“Captain, you’re not coming through,” Alaya said.

“It’s no use,” Lilian said. “Connection’s dead.”

“Then we should go back.”

Lilian fiddled with the instruments for a second. Turned the camera so it showed a small section of K-9, and the stars and darkness above the horizon. “It’s only another hour until we reach K-5,” she said. “We should swing by. We can give Captain the full update when we get back.”

Alaya bit at her thumb nail. Then she noticed what she was doing, and stopped. “What if something goes wrong?”

“Nothing will go wrong. We probably won’t even find anything. But we’ll regret it forever if we don’t at least look.”

Slowly, Alaya nodded. This was the most important thing she’d ever do. To have this chance, to possibly be the one to find the source of the mysterious radio waves that had first led humanity to the wormhole -- she shouldn’t throw this away just because things got a little scary.

They rounded K-9 half an hour later. Alaya had been dozing, but woke up when Lilian shook her shoulder roughly. “What?”

Lilian pointed at the screen with the camera feed. “Look.”

At first, Alaya didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Black space, glowing dots in the distance. Then she rubbed her eyes and took a second look.

“They’re moving. The stars are moving.” The little dots were swirling, making circles and spirals across the screen.

“Not stars.”

Alaya looked up at Lilian. “You think we found them?”

Lilian nodded. “The radio is transmitting as we speak. Fibonacci, Shakespeare, the whole shebang.”

Together, they watched the darting patterns on the screen.

It was several minutes before Alaya noticed it. “I think they’re coming closer,” she said.

As they waited, it became clear that Alaya was right. Soon, the lights were swirling all around their ship, making dives towards the surface of the planet, and swooping back up from the clouds.

Alaya tried the radio again, because Captain really ought to hear about this, but only static came back. She turned down the volume.

“Wait,” Lilian said. “Turn that up again.”

Alaya did so.

“There’s a pattern in the noise,” Lilian said. “Can’t you hear it?”

They listened in silence for a few seconds. Lilian was right, there was a sort of pulsing pattern to it. “This is it, then,” Alaya said. “This is exactly the sort of thing we were taught to watch for. Those beings out there are intelligent, and they’re trying to talk to us.”

Lilian nodded. The lights were close, now, enough that the two women could make out what they looked like. They weren’t spaceships, at least not like any spaceships Alaya had ever imagined. They looked a bit like sea creatures, giant jellyfish, if jellyfish were sleek and made of light and had hundreds of long, long arms trailing behind them. They moved with a grace that put the little scouting ship to shame. It was hypnotic to watch, a dance that seemed slow and fast at the same time.

One of them twisted in front of the ship, coming to a halt. It was enormous, taking up the entire screen despite being over a hundred meters away. It floated there, tentacles spreading out in a wiry mass below it.

One of its arms came up, moving towards the ship, very slowly.

“Alaya.”

“Yeah?”

“I just had a thought.” Lilian’s voice was very small and shaky.

“What?”

“All those signs and patterns we were taught to look for…”

“The signs of intelligent life.”

“Yeah. I was just thinking…”

“What?”

“What if the aliens weren’t taught?”

Alaya swallowed. The long, glowing arm was very close now, cutting across the screen and obscuring their view of the alien. Up close, they could see the small hooks that protruded from its skin. It was very bright.

An alarm went off. “Hull damage registered,” went the robotic voice of the ship computer. Lilian’s hands flew to the control panels, mashing buttons. The ship started to move, far too slowly, turning away from the light. Then it was yanked to a halt. “Hull damage registered.”

Alaya tried the radio. “Captain,” she started. Then she stopped. What could they do, back at the transport ship? They’d never get here in time.

She could warn them. “Captain, we found them. We found aliens. Stay away from them. They’re not-”

The ship jerked, throwing her away from the microphone. The radio spouted static. She clambered back into her seat and spoke again. “I don’t think they understand-”

“Hull damage registered.” Lilian was still struggling to get the ship moving, but they were being dragged now, backwards, into the light. The side of the ship was bulging inwards, the metal groaning.

“They’re going to kill us.”

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