Maybe this is just a probe and not an actual ship. Maybe there’s no atmosphere inside because there’s nothing alive inside. I might be looking at an alien artifact instead of a ship.
Still the most exciting moment in human history.
So it’s Astrophage-powered. That was the steady Petrova-frequency glow I saw earlier. Interesting that they have the same propulsion tech as we do. But considering it’s the best energy-storage medium possible, that’s not a surprise. When European mariners first came across Asian mariners, no one was surprised they both used sails.
But the “why.” That’s what gets me. Some entity aboard (either a computer or a crew) decided to come to my ship. How did they even know I was here?
Same way I saw them, I guess. The massive IR light coming off my engines. And since the rear of my ship was pointed at Tau Ceti, that means I was shining a 540-trillion-watt flashlight in their direction. Depending on where they were at the time, I might have appeared even brighter than Tau Ceti itself. At least, in the Petrova frequency.
So they can see the Petrova frequency. And so can I.
I flip through the Spin Drive console screens until I find one labeled “Manual Control.” When I select it, a warning dialog pops up:
MANUAL CONTROL IS RECOMMENDED ONLY FOR EMERGENCIES. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO ENTER MANUAL CONTROL MODE?
I tap “Yes.”
It brings up another dialog.
SECOND CONFIRMATION: TYPE “Y-E-S” TO ENTER MANUAL CONTROL MODE.
I groan and type Y-E-S.
The panel finally takes me to the Manual Control screen. It’s a bit scary. Not because it’s complex, but because it’s so simple.
There are three sliders labeled “Drive 1,” “Drive 2,” and “Drive 3,” each presently at zero. The top of each slider is labeled “107 N.” The N must mean “Newtons”—a unit of force. I guess if I threw all three drives to maximum, it would give me 30 million Newtons. That’s about sixty times the thrust a jumbo jet’s engines produce during takeoff.
Science teachers know a lot of random facts.
There are a bunch more little sliders. In groups labeled “Yaw,” “Pitch,” and “Roll.” There must be little spin drives on the sides of the ship to adjust its orientation. I can definitely see why it’s a bad idea to mess with this panel. One screw-up and I’ll put the ship into a spin that tears it apart.
But at least they thought of that. There’s a button in the middle of the screen labeled “Zero All Rotation.” Good.
I check the Petrovascope again. Blip-A hasn’t moved. It’s on my port side, and slightly forward.
I flick the Petrovascope back to Petrova-frequency mode, and the screen turns mostly black. As before, I can see the Petrova line in the background, occluded by Blip-A.
“Let’s see if you have anything to say…” I mumble. Spin drive 2 is in the center of the ship. Its thrust will be along my central axis and hopefully won’t introduce attitude change. We’ll see.
I set it to 0.1% power for one second, then back to 0.
Even with just one engine, at one one-thousandth power, for one second, the ship drifts a bit. The “Velocity” value for Blip-A on the Radar panel shows 0.086 m/s. That tiny thrust set my ship moving about 8 centimeters per second.
But I don’t care about that. I care about the other ship.
I watch the Petrovascope. A bead of sweat separates from my forehead and floats away. I feel like my heart is going to beat out of my chest.
Then, the rear of the ship lights up in the Petrova frequency for one second. Just like I did.
I flick the drive on and off several times: three short bursts, a long one, and one more short one. There’s no message there. I just want to see what they do with it.
They were more prepared this time. Within seconds, the other ship repeats the pattern.
I gasp. And I smile. Then I wince. Then I smile again. This is a lot to take in.
That was too fast for any probe to respond. If it had remote control or something, the controllers would have to be at least a few light-minutes away—there’s just nothing around here that could be housing them.
There is an intelligent life-form aboard that ship. I am about 200 meters away from an honest-to-God alien!
I mean…my ship is powered by aliens. But this new one is intelligent!
Oh my gosh! This is it! First Contact! I’m the guy! I’m the guy who meets aliens for the first time!
The Blip-A (that’s what I’m calling their ship for now) fires up its engines again briefly. I watch closely to memorize the sequence, but it’s just a single low-intensity light. They’re not signaling. They’re maneuvering.
I check the Radar panel. Sure enough, the Blip-A brings itself alongside the Hail Mary and holds position at 217 meters.
I flick through the Scientific panel to bring the normal telescopic cameras back up. The Petrovascope’s normal-light camera is just to orient things for the main scope itself. The telescope has much better resolution and clarity. I guess I’m too excited to think clearly because it took me until now to think of it.
The image is far clearer through the main telescope. I guess it’s just an insanely high-resolution camera, because I can still zoom in and out with no loss of clarity. I have a very good view of the Blip-A now.
The ship’s hull is a mottled gray and tan. The pattern seems random and smooth, like someone started mixing paint but stopped way too early.
I spot motion in the corner of the screen. An irregular-shaped object slides along a track in the hull. It’s a stalk sticking up with five articulated “arms” coming out of the top. Each arm has a clamp-like “hand” on the end.
It’s only now that I notice a network of the tracks all along the hull.
It’s a robot. Something controlled from the inside. At least, I assume it is. It doesn’t look like a little green man, and it certainly doesn’t look like an alien EVA suit.
Not that I have any idea what either of those things would look like.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a hull-mounted robot. Space stations back at Earth have them. They’re a nice way to do stuff outside your ship without having to suit up.
The robot works its way along the hull until it reaches the spot closest to the Hail Mary. One of its little clamp hands holds a cylindrical object. I don’t really have a sense of scale, but the robot is tiny compared to the ship. I feel like it’s about my size or maybe smaller, but that’s a wild guess.
The robot stops, reaches toward my ship, and gently releases the cylinder into space.