Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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First Contact

by Jonathan Snyder




8 Months to Contact

At first, Deborah Pratt could not believe what her blurry eyes were telling her. She gazed at the bright computer monitor on her desk and continued to blink away the exhaustion. It was only her third week on the night shift at Arecibo Observatory, and her body had yet to figure out how to keep the strange schedule.

Even with the air conditioner running, the thick, muggy air of Puerto Rico still clung to her skin from her walk to work from the quarters. It was strange to live so near the giant antenna dish in the ground.

“James!” she called to her companion who was dozing in the corner of the room. The man with sandy hair and an abundance of freckles blinked away the nap and flopped out of his worn chair.

“Let me guess! Aliens!” He joked, rubbing his foggy glasses and placing them crookedly on his face.

Deb put her thin finger on the computer screen. “You tell me.”

James Lane became alert and pushed her roller chair out of the way. Deborah waited as he crunched a few numbers and then looked at her.

“It’s not following a typical path of an object passing that close to Jupiter. The planet should be tugging it away or at least capturing it.”

The excitement was brewing inside of her. Had they actually done it? Found a UFO. “That’s what I thought, but it's right there, and it’s heading straight for us.”

6 Months to contact

“No Mister President,” Deborah said with her red folder clutched in a death grip on her lap. “I can’t say if the object is hostile or not. We have yet to confirm it is even a ship.”

“But there is a chance,” The tubby man with a horrible toupee said across from her, his suit barely keeping him in it.

She felt claustrophobic the expansive oval office and desperately wanted air.

“There is a chance for everything, sir. At present, we are still getting as many pictures and readings as we can. It’s still six months out at its current speed. We will be able to confirm if it’s a spacecraft soon.”

Why she had to be the one to brief the President of the United States, Deborah did not know. It was probably because the man was disliked by the scientific community for his dismissive nature towards their profession. She had thought global warming would have been the subject of the century, not an alien craft.

The briefing continued on with the President asking the same question multiple different ways, but she gave him the same answer. The Hubble space telescope was still trying to get into place, and the new satellites were being programmed to focus on the approach.

“We don’t want the public to panic,” the Vice-president was saying. He was a lean, thin man who looked more like a skeleton than one of the leaders of the free world. “We’ve informed our allies and are preparing a report for the United Nations. You can bet those damn Russians have already seen it.”

“What is your department suggesting we do?” The Secretary of Defense cut in. Deborah jumped, forgetting the demure woman was sitting beside her.

The president had turned his beady eyes back towards the red couch she sat on. Drawing out a piece of paper, Deborah slid it across to him. “We want to send a communication beam to them. Start out on the right foot. We can send them a packet on our culture, language, and other items so that they have time to digest it and find a way to communicate back to us.”

“Before they digest us you mean,” the Vice-president muttered.

“I will reiterate again,” Deborah responded with a cold tone spreading through her words. “There is no evidence that they are hostile and to do so would be foolish.”

“I think that’s all we need from you today, Miss Pratt.” The Communication Director broke in hastily. “Let me see you to your car.

3 Months to contact

It had taken three months from Washington to finally come to a decision on what to do, but NASA had not bothered to wait. This was a chance of a lifetime, and the collective body of science was not going to wait on decrepit politicians.

Deborah had been called back to Washington from her post in Puerto Rico, and she had still yet to get used to it. The sun had set hours ago when her eyes refused to focus on the page. Deborah threw the large binder on the desk with a huff.

“What do you think, James? Have they come to kill us all?”

James had never left her side the entire time and had become a close friend since the discovery. He shrugged from his side of the room, dried coffee stain loudly proclaiming its presence on his white shirt.

“Some great minds think they are coming to destroy us. They do have valid points.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard. The aliens want our water, our resources. I listened to a crackpot on a morning show pretty damn sure they want to breed with us.”

“How would that work?” James mused as he absently, stirred his cold drink.

Deborah threw the discarded binder at him.

2 months to contact

The cell phone shrilled loudly beside her bed, causing Deborah to sit straight up in a momentary panic. Where was she? Had they arrived? Who puts olive oil on pancakes? She tried to multitask and turn on the headboard lamp while reaching for the phone. It was a fumbled failure. She finally hit the on button.

“He…hello?”

“We’ve detected an energy burst from the alien vessel. Washington just put us on, FP Con Charlie.”

The fog cleared immediately though her brain still struggled with the words. She scooped up the discarded bra by her bed and rushed towards the laundry pile that accused her of household neglect.

“James...What?”

“New Hope space telescope detected a massive burst of radiation from the alien vessel and the wave is traveling our direction. We’re struggling to get an idea what to expect when it gets here.”

“When?”

“45 minutes from now.”

Finally finding sweatpants and a T-Shirt proclaiming her love for Star Trek, Deborah tore through the streets of Washington, jumped a curb and charged inside the NASA administration building. James was there with an ever-present cup of coffee, smile, and a one for her.

“We think we figured it out. We think they have some sort of powerful energy drive and they have begun deceleration. Their ship has distinctly slowed down since our last reading.” He explained as they charged through the hallway towards the command center.

“And the wave?”

“It’s gonna fry some satellites if we don’t get them turned off. ISS is also in danger.”

How could she have forgotten the International Space Station and its present position? There were twenty-three men and women up there, and now she found them in the way of a raging energy storm.

“What’s being done for them?”

“We’ve got some contractors prepping supplies for repairs, but they are shutting down every system they can get away from and deploying some makeshift shields. We think we can preserve 93% of the station functionality.”

Oh, she would not want to be up there right now.

“Let’s hope it’s enough.”

12 days to contact

The pictures that Hubble was providing was not what she had expected. The first snows had fallen over the NASA grounds, but Deborah had not paid attention. She struggled to believe how alien their arriving guests were.

It was a spheroid with what looked to be an opaque membrane which contained water of all things. The redshift was undeniable.

The International Space Station, having survived, had finally gotten the pictures they had been taking transmitted and more were on the way to her desk.

“Wow,” Deborah muttered.

“What?” James asked, coming through the door and throwing a pile of papers on his desk.

“Just...just how alien these beings are. How are we even going to communicate with them? Their ship doesn’t even match anything we would conceive of building. No metal, water inside a membrane. How?”

“We’re going to find out, fiancé.” He chuckled.

Deborah glanced down at the engagement ring he had given her a week before. It felt strange to think of weddings when something so weird and wonderful was about to happen to the entire planet.

“I’m sorry, James, I know I haven’t had a chance to meet your parents but—“

“You,” he said, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “Never have to explain yourself. You just need to keep those religious lunatics from convincing people that it’s the end of the world. It’s gotten bad out there.”

The picket line outside the gates was not pleasant to drive through. She had taken to sleeping on site so she could avoid them. Instead of uniting together, the divisions of their culture had broken into violence.

“President still wanting to fire nukes at it?”

“Yeah,” Deborah said, sipping the coffee. “Told him that a ship capable of coming from another star system is going to easily shrug off a nuke. And it’ll piss them off.”

“Idiot.”

“You’re telling me.”

13 hours to contact

Mandatory curfews had been implemented a few days earlier. It was pretty much when amateur astronomers and the curious with telescopes could see the emerald green ship passing the moon and approaching for an upper equatorial orbit. There had still been no transmissions back from the alien craft. A few more braking maneuvers had fried the majority of the communication satellites. It was now up to the ground-based equipment to hear anything if it came at all.

Deborah was curled up under a blanket on the floor of her office with James snoring away beside her. She could not sleep knowing that first contact with an alien race was only hours away. The President had made it clear that she was the one who was going to communicate with them when they reached out, and that was a burden she did not want.

What was she going to say to them? They could be a race so advanced that their very thoughts could be impossible to fathom. How do humans communicate with lowly ants?

The world was silent. The fighting had ceased, and everyone was holding their collective breaths for the end. Only a random beam of a headlight went through her half-open curtain showing her that life still existed on the planet.

What was she going to say to them?

Contact

The transmission had begun. A tremor of terror had shot through Deborah when the Director of NASA came in and told her that the alien vessel was attempting to. There seemed to be an issue with compatibility, so all they could do was sit and wait.

She sat by the printer and computer that would receive the first message from an alien race. The new keyboard seemed to mock her inability to form words in her brain. The bile tried to force its way up her throat. Deborah made a mental note of where the nearest wastebasket was.

The printer jumped to life, causing everyone to panic. Deborah felt ashamed at the squeak of terror, which escaped her mouth. The head of the printer shot back and forth, and the little words began to appear. When the paper was kicked out, Deborah took it up with a mixture of terror and anticipation. She began to scan the words that were transmitted in English from the mysterious vessel in orbit. The fear in her face ebbed away. It was replaced with astonishment. She laughed.

“What? Why are you laughing?” James asked, concerned.

Clearing her throat, Deborah Pratt read out the first words received from an extra-terrestrial race.

“We are lost. Do you know the way to Alpha Centauri?”



THE END


© 2019 Jonathan Snyder

Bio: Mr. Snyder has been writing stories since his mother handed him a college typewriter at the age of twelve. With a love for stories and the written word, he has continued to share his work with anyone willing to hold still long enough to be caught by it. His publication credits include Aphelion, JukePop and Gateway Science Fiction Magazine.http://www.jtworld.net His last Aphelion appearance was Hitchhiker in the Storm in our December, 2015 issue.

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