Discover more from Land Beyond the World Magazine
Welcome to the Universe (January 2022)
By M.A. Dosser
At six seconds to liftoff, the main engines ignited and my entire world shuddered. I was a drop of water on the head of a snare drum. All around me, an unseemly amount of metal clanked, clanged, and clattered. It didn’t sound like the airtight ship they had promised. But, of course, it was. Technicians had moved in and out of this ship like ants for months. Running diagnostics over and over to ensure everything was exactly to code. They knew what this launch meant. Nothing was going to go wrong. At least not yet. Again, I asked myself if I was ready. I still couldn’t tell myself yes.
Three seconds, and I was at the top of a skyscraper during an earthquake. The ship no longer felt rigid. It was made of Jell-O. So was I. My nostrils filled with the scent of newly secreted sweat. Great. I’d be smelling that for a while. Were Janine and Gerald feeling this way too? Was it just me?
Two, one, and the 2.5 Gs of force from the rocket boosters slammed me backwards into my seat, the padding sticking past my cheekbones. Lifting my head was a herculean feat and I just couldn’t do it. The forty-five seconds and seven million pounds of thrust it took to tear through the lower atmosphere simultaneously felt like an eternity and a blink of an eye — which was also proving quite arduous. The scream of the slipstream outside the cabin overwhelmed even the vibrating interior. It faded as we passed out of the atmosphere, but the pressure on my chest grew, like a bus was driving full speed into me. I could barely breathe.
Then, all at once, it was all over. I looked around. We all sat floating under our straps. Behind us, Earth spun. Ahead, seven days in space — once around the Moon and back. We were officially the first flight to leave Earth’s orbit.
I whooped. I couldn’t help myself. Then I whooped again, loudly. Janine and Gerald joined in. We sounded more like monkeys than the highly educated, respectable astronauts everyone back on Earth wanted us to be.
A burst of static came through the comms, and I remembered myself. I flipped the switch to connect to our Deep Space Network of radio antennas and said, “Lieutenant Stanley Barker here. We have successfully cleared the atmosphere.” A smile spread across my face. Janine and Gerald were beaming too. “We have entered outer space.”
Rather than the expected return message, there was another burst of static and a garbled voice. It didn’t sound like English. Barely even human.
“Are you two hearing this?” I asked, cranking the gain and adjusting our internal receivers.
“I can’t make it out at all,” Gerald said.
“Me neither,” added Janine. “It’s not white noise though. There’s something there.”
This was not good. If all went exactly to plan, we wouldn’t need to contact home, but when had anything ever gone exactly to plan? Without communications, if something went wrong, our odds of making it through were less than a micrometer above none.
Suddenly, the static resolved, and a voice asked, “Is this better?” We looked at each other. That didn’t sound like Dr. Kruska. My display didn’t show the transmission being routed through the DSN either. It was coming from ... impossible!
“Sorry. It took longer to adapt to your communications array than we anticipated,” the voice continued. Behind me, Gerald jabbed at his display. Janine stared at her readout, open mouthed and amazed. “Are they hearing me?” the voice asked. “Is this translator working?”
With a tremolo in my voice I hadn’t heard since sixth grade, I said, “This is Lieutenant Stanley Barker. Who are you and how have you cut off our communication systems to Earth?”
“Greetings, Lieutenant! I’m so glad the connection is working. We overestimated the technology you’d be using. It took a bit of configuration to get ours to mesh, but don’t worry, you’re still able to communicate with home. We just wanted to introduce ourselves first. Also, thank you for asking who I am instead of what. We were expecting a bit more xenophobia based on our observations of your planet.”
“What does that mean?” Gerald asked in a hushed tone. “Who, not what?”
“I think,” Janine answered in a similar sotto voce, “that we’re making first contact.”
“Well,” the voice said. “We’re making first contact, but what’s your expression? Tomato, Potato?”
I cleared my throat. “Do you have a name?”
“You can just call me Cheiwe. I’m a representative of the Transgalatic Trade Organization.”
“So what do you want? Is this welcoming a recruitment, a declaration, a what?”
“To the point. Perfect,” Cheiwe replied. “Recruitment is closest, but really, it’s up to you. We’ve found that if we try to go through official channels, contacting various leaders and whatnot, decisions get bogged down. Too much bickering back and forth. Sometimes there are delaying tactics, buying time to try to aim a missile or ten at us. We’ve taken to reaching out to whoever actually makes it out of orbit and asking them to serve as representatives of their world.”
That meant we would be the ones making this call. My rank of lieutenant felt woefully unqualified.
“If you agree,” Cheiwe continued, “we can bring you into the union, provide technological aid, and help your civilization develop at a more expedient rate. If not, we’ll leave and check back in a few hundred years or so.”
This decision would change life on Earth either way. Janine and Gerald looked like the ancient Greek theater masks: Janine cautiously excited; Gerald stricken.
“And what’s required of us for membership?” I asked.
A tinny, mechanical chuckling came through the comms. “Whoops,” Cheiwe said. “The translation software isn’t great at conveying non-verbals yet. Short answer: nothing. The long answer is more technical. Our organization is peaceful, and our goals are to explore the infinitude of space, connect intelligent life, and try to foster a better universe for all.”
“How many other intelligent species do you think they’ve found?” Janine asked, excitement creeping into her voice.
“If you’re interested, I can show you,” Cheiwe answered.
“What do you mean?” Gerald asked.
“I’m just one representative. We have members from every union planet here waiting to speak with you, if you choose to join, that is. We’ve been following the construction of your shuttle, waiting for today, so we’re all pretty excited. But, what’s the expression? No pressure. Do whatever you think is best for your planet.”
It was hard to wrap my head around. There were multiple planets with intelligent life decades, if not centuries, ahead of us. How many were there? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? How would Earth respond knowing how far behind we were?
“So,” I asked, turning to Janine and Gerald, “what do you think?”
“I don’t know what I think,” Gerald said, still looking like he was moments away from losing his last several meals. “There’s no telling what this could mean. What ramifications it could have. I mean, what if this Cheiwe is lying? Humans could be an alien delicacy. We’d be handing them humanity on a silver platter. Or worse.”
“Or worse?” Janine asked. “I think that, either way, we’ll never be able to unknow that there’s more out there. More that we could use to improve lives. To save lives. If we say no, we’re going to spend the next few hundred years searching for someone like Cheiwe just to say we changed our mind. The Earth’s hungry for knowledge, and they have what we want.”
“Or we are what they want,” Gerald said.
Janine glowered at him. They felt like the angel and devil on my shoulders. Yet, neither one was going to make the call, all because months and months ago someone had deemed me mission lead. Sometimes I really hated the military hierarchy.
I wasn’t the right person to make this decision, but, really, who would be? Pandora’s Box was opened, and it would never close. Could never. Not now. But, honestly, I don’t think I wanted it to.
“Cheiwe,” I said. “We’re in. What do you need us to do?”
“I’m so happy to hear that, Lieutenant. Give me a couple moments.” The connection cut. Nothing but static on the comms. The seconds stretched, tension rising. Had I made the wrong call? Then my display went dark, and the readings were replaced with a video screen.
“Welcome to the universe,” said the newly visible face on the monitor. Cheiwe was covered in greenish-gray scales. A horn protruded from the center of their forehead, and their eyes were twice the size of a human’s. All around Cheiwe, videos of other species appeared. Some covered in red-brown fur, others hairless with night black skin. There were humanoids, gelatinous blobs, and everything in between. A few even appeared robotic. It was horrific, terrifying, and so, so beautiful.
Another smile spread across my face as Cheiwe said, “We’ve got a lot to show you.”
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: M.A. Dosser (Twitter / website) is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. When he isn’t researching speculative fiction fandoms, music communication, or animated media, he’s writing about heroic blueberries, raven knights, and long voyages in outer space. He is the co-founder and editor of Flash Point SF.