• Published 30th Jun 2021
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The Children of Planet Earth - Chicago Ted

An exploration of linguistic xenohippology.

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Chapter 1 - Into the Blind World

The last thing Adam remembered of his native Earth was stepping into Cape Canaveral for one last time, before being whisked away into the Kennedy Space Center. He remembered feeling afraid, but knowing as well what he had signed up for. He also remembered stepping into a coffin of glass and steel, a pinprick in his elbow, his eyes already heavy from the dropping temperatures. . . .

And then he woke up here, in a coldly-lit room, with several other similar containers lining both sides of a corridor. From what he could see, he was at the end of this corridor, with most of the other passengers on his right side, extending beyond the view the glass permitted.

He remembered a moment later where he was – aboard the space-faring colony ship, Zodiac-Altair – or just the Zodiac part, at least. The culmination of a decade of coöperation, work, and progress from both sides of the Iron Curtain – and he was one of fifty applicants chosen to travel the stars aboard this vessel.

As the buffer fluid drained from his tube, he became acutely aware of a figure of a man standing before him – or rather, just the knees of one. Adam shifted his limbs, and quickly regretted it – the muscle stiffness sent a wave of pain coursing through his body. At least he knows I’m still alive, he thought. Right?

Finally, both glass barriers slid open: first the inner, then the outer, exposing him to the blistering cold air of the Zodiac. “Dr. Somerset? You can hear me?”

Adam noted the moderate Russian accent as he stiffly nodded with a slight wince.

“You are wanted on the bridge. Follow me.” This man wasted no time with pleasantries; surely something must have happened that required his urgent attention. But why me? Why a linguist? Surely an engineer would be more useful. He looked at the pod across from him, and saw it belonged to a soldier – one Argjend Gjebrea. Gotta think of everything, I guess.

Slowly, Adam climbed out of his tube, putting his feet on the ground – and immediately fell against the wall behind the tubes. “Centrifugal gravity,” the man explained. “You will need to use the ladder.” He tapped one of the bottom rungs. “Here. I help you.”

“Thanks.” He placed his feet upon what he thought was a wall, and other than a bit of weakness, he found his footing stable on the floor. Right, centrifugal gravity – Zodiac’s spinning, and I have to climb up to the middle. He firmly grasped a rung, and tried to pull himself up. After some straining, the man grabbed Adam’s waist and boosted him up.

That proved greatly helpful, and he found the rest of the climb a cinch. With each rung, the gravity grew weaker and weaker, and soon he found himself inside Zodiac’s central hub. Four hallways opened up to three sections of the Zodiac – in front of him, for instance, was the entrance to the Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius sections. He looked behind him – Aries, Taurus, and Gemini. The left side had another entrance, but was sealed off, but the right was wide open – “To Altair” the sign read, and below it, “К Альтаиру.” That makes sense – gotta show both worlds around.

“The bridge is through that way.” The man stumbled on the last word – Door? Doorway? What word did he mean to use? Even so, he pushed off the wall behind him and floated into the long central hallway. He couldn’t tell where Zodiac ended and Altair began; the merge was smooth, flawless.

Altair contained the bulk of the ship’s cargo, mostly stowed at the far end of the vessel. Around him were six doorways, each paired with heavy doors – heavy at least under Earth’s gravity. Four of these were for “TPRU,” or “ТПРУ,” numbered one through four – he had no idea what a TPRU was, but he assumed it was something the Soviets had built for the task.

Below him was a vertical column of an unknown purpose, and above him: “Мостик – Bridge.” Now we’re getting somewhere, Adam thought. He pushed himself off the edge of the doorway, and drifted ‘upwards’ to the bridge.

There was no gravity to be found here, but that didn’t bother him too much. He looked around, but couldn’t see or hear anyone else in this compartment. “Hello?” he called aloud.

Hoo!” Another man jerked his head up from a computer terminal on the ‘ceiling,’ startled by the voice. He cleared his throat after calming down. “Dr. Somerset, I presume?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Splendid.” He thrust himself away from the terminal, spun to orient himself upright to Adam, and offered a handshake. “Commander Louis Darcy, if you do not recall. Anton and I were the last to board before departing.”

Adam looked around. “Anton?”

Da, ja Anton.” The man he met earlier had come up behind him. “I am cryogenicist, for the ship. I watch over colonists, as they sleep in cold.” As he entered the bridge, Adam noticed the patches on his international-orange-colored jumpsuit – one was the mission badge for Zodiac-Altair, another his name, “A. KONSTANTINOV – A. КОНСТАНТИНОВ,” and the third was a golden hammer and sickle. Right. Because they didn’t have time to sew new patches for a post-Soviet world.

And Darcy’s uniform bore the same, save for a red maple leaf patch. “Though of course, Dr. Konstantinov and I have also been sleeping in cryo ourselves.” Louis pointed behind himself, to two cryo pods at the far end of the bridge. “As have you. And forty-seven others, or so I’ve been told. Speaking of – ” he turned to the Russian – “how are the others holding up?”

Adam could watch the gears turn over in his head as he tried to figure out the idiom – and a moment later, he answered, “All others are well, Commander. Alive, with no problems. We can awaken at any time.”

“Excellent!” The commander snapped his fingers. “Would you start preparing TPRU-1, please? I’ll need a few moments to confer with our star linguist here.” Charming.

Anton raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. “He is only linguist, no? I do not find any other ones in the manifest.”

“You know what I meant, Doctor. If you would kindly excuse us. . . .” As Anton dipped out of the bridge, Louis turned back to Adam. “Now – you’re probably wondering why I pulled you out of your sleep, Dr. Somerset.”

“You have no idea.” Adam chuckled. “Why me?” His mind started racing with all sorts of possibilities – what do they need me for?

“Nervous?” Louis asked. Adam nodded. “I’m sure you have every right to be. Come over here.” He gestured to an observation window on the port side of the bridge. “Look – there is our destination, Rhysling, can you see it? And no, before you ask – it really isn’t Earth.”

Adam couldn’t help but see it – the new world filled the window’s entire viewing angle, a world of blue, green, and white, ripe with alien life. Rhysling looked like Earth, to be sure – but then none of the landmasses matched up. “Amazing” fell out of his mouth without him realizing it.

“Isn’t it?” The commander cleared his throat, which snapped Adam out of his reverie. “I’ll tell you the story. For reference, today is the thirtieth of June, 1997.”

1997!? Adam recoiled at the news. Three years had gone by in the blink of an eye. He knew the voyage would take that long, but at the same time, it was a lot to take in. He wondered how his students were doing, current and former, back at MIT.

“Easy there, l’ami!” Louis put a hand up. “There’s more to this. After three years, seven months, and fifteen days in transit, we reached Jupiter early this month. That’s when our cryo pods woke us up – triple-redundant timers, plus Anton has heating pads on the back of his, so we’re up and at it during Jovian injection no matter what.

“From there, it was my job to ‘thread the needle,’ so to speak – the Flandro Object is about the size of a small asteroid, which might sound large, but it’s all too easy to slingshot around it by mistake instead.” He held up his left arm vertically, and the right horizontally, fist pointed to the left. “We went in – ” he shot the fist to the left arm – “and we went out – ” the fist crossed to the other side of the arm. “Simple as you like.”

“And that was it?” Adam had to ask. “No violent shaking, no parts falling off? Nothing?” It really can’t be that simple.

Louis laughed aloud. “Perish the thought! It was a smooth, easy transition – it happened in a second, hardly a bump. Perhaps the worst was that Anton almost spilled his water in the Zodiac’s galley.” He cleared his throat again. “So, where was I? Right – it was another four days of transit from the other end of the Flandro Object to Rhyslinger injection – ” he snapped his fingers, pointing out the window – “where we arrived on the twenty-first, on the Earth’s Solstice. Well. . . .”

Louis shot away from Adam and to the terminal. He hit some keys, and a moment later turned back to the linguist. “It’s actually the second of July on Earth today, when accounting for time dilation.”

“That’s all?”

“Two days, that’s all – and pray for no more. Anyway – ” with a hand motion, he ‘brushed aside’ the digression – “once we were in orbit, we needed a place to, well, run aground, for lack of a better word. But where, exactly? That is the question. After scouting that green area somewhere around there – ” he swirled his finger around a general locale, though it really didn’t help Adam much – “we dropped a probe. It’ll give us readings on atmospheric composition, climate and soil conditions, and so forth – that is, if we can get it back.”

He muttered something under his breath – Adam couldn’t make it out, but he was sure it was French. “For the last two days, we’ve been trying to hail it, and get back scientific data – but nothing! Rien de rien! It’s as if it had died at the worst possible time!” Tightly clenching his fist, he eventually let out a tense breath. “Pardon. We’ve tried every solution we could think of – everything short of physical intervention, in fact.”

“So that’s why you pulled me out of cryo?” Adam asked. Of all the things they need me for. . . . “I’m sure an engineer would do just as well – or a soldier.”

“That was the idea at first,” Louis replied. “Câlisse, I could’ve done that myself! But then Anton threw a wrench into the cogs. No, it wasn’t his fault – and besides, I’m glad he did.” He gestured to the terminal, signaling for Adam to watch the screen. A few dozen keystrokes later, he pulled up an image on the monitor. “This is the approximate area where we dropped – and, not long after, lost – the probe. Obviously it’s a forest, that much is clear – but look due north.” He traced the direction with his finger.

Adam had to lean in, close enough that he could see the dark traces between the pixels. When his eyes properly focused on the subject matter, he recoiled – hard enough to set himself spinning. He caught his ankle on the “ceiling” and stopped himself. “What was that, a human settlement?” Have I gone mad? Have we spent the last three years and whatever going in a circle!?

“A settlement, to be sure – but it’s not human.” He snapped his finger at Adam. “And that is why I’ve ordered you out of cryo. That is why I’m having Anton prepare one of the TPRU landers.” Oh, so that’s what they’re for. “Once you reach Rhysling’s surface, your mission is threefold.”

He started counting on his hand. “First: you will document the local language or languages in a way that we the rest of the colony can learn, so that we can communicate with the Indigenous. Second: you will negotiate a landing site with the local rulers. Do make sure there isn’t a local conflict over the area – the last thing we want is to be dragged into a war.” Even though we have soldiers? he thought. Well, I guess we can get outnumbered pretty quickly. “Third: you will locate and reactivate the probe, to transmit the scientific data that it likely already has, by any means necessary.

“These objectives are ranked in order of importance, though of course all of them are vital in some form. The last of these of course I can leave to a grease monkey, but the others require a degree of finesse from a relevant expert, like yourself. Necessarily on the ground.”

Seemingly satisfied with his explanation, the commander crossed his arms. “Any questions?”

Adam instantly had a few. “Why not send an engineer as well? What’s the risk of having two people on the ground?” I could really use the company, now that I think about it. . . .

“It’s more efficient this way, Dr. Somerset. The engineer can fix the probe, but once that’s done, now what? Besides, you’ve been trained for this sort of scenario. Plus – ” he snapped his fingers at the ‘floor’ – “I’d rather not send out additional supplies than what’s already loaded on TPRU-1.”

“Why not drop a second probe?” he asked next.

The commander was quick on the draw. “We’ve thought of that,” he answered, “but unfortunately both other probes have malfunctioned in transit. Worse, both of their parachute deployment systems have malfunctioned, and there’s no way to repair those without contaminating them. We can’t drop one even for spare parts – it would be charred by the time it impacted the surface.”

It just had to be this way, didn’t it?

“Which is also why I want you to work quickly,” he added. “Do a good job, of course, but don’t waste any more time than you have to.”

And if the Indigenous are time-wasters themselves? How would I deal with that? But Adam suppressed that question and asked a different one: “Can you at least tell what kind of Indigenous I’m about to deal with?”

“So sorry, Doctor, but I’m afraid your guess is as good as ours.” He pointed at the photograph on the screen. “This is as good as it gets on our ship-mounted cameras.” The commander sighed. “Look, I realize your head might still be spinning after being jolted awake from cryo, and something like this has only happened a handful of times in human history – but I simply cannot overstate that you have perhaps the most important job of anyone aboard Zodiac-Altair. We’ll support you however we can from orbit; just get it done.”

Adam’s head was swimming with myriad wild thoughts. I’m now putting myself in the shoes of those who came before. Plymouth, Botany Bay, Zanzibar – each of those areas were alien in their own right, yet being on Earth, they had human constraints. Here? Nobody here knows how they could communicate.

Flashing lights? Those I could see, but only in my visible spectrum, and I’ve no practical way to reply. Pheromones are right out, if I don’t want to break contamination protocols. A sign language I could pull off, but it’d be limited to the joints in my body.

Even so, if I could figure it out under the hood, at the fundamental level, maybe this could get Chomsky off his high horse. And a chance to make history. . . .

Adam let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Alright,” he said. “I guess I’m ready. When do I start?”

“As soon as you’re ready – hopefully in time to save whatever data was gathered before shutdown.” With an open hand, he indicated the hatch to Altair’s central spindle. “Dr. Konstantinov should have finished with preparations himself.” And in a louder voice, “Is Dr. Somerset’s lander ready yet?” he asked.

Da, gotov,” Dr. Konstantinov’s voice echoed ‘up’ the way. “We should launch in ten minutes next.”

“Then the question is,” he next asked, “are you ready?”

Adam firmly nodded. “Yes!”

“Then we’ll not waste any more time,” Louis told Adam. “Step into the capsule there; we’ll seal it up and start the oven.”

Oven!? Adam was speechless, but his face held in shock.

“Poor choice of words? I’m sorry,” The commander turned away from him briefly. “Crisse, comment on-dit ça? – The autoclave, yes! The thing used to clean for hospitals and such.”

“Oh, for the outside.” Adam breathed his relief. “That makes more sense, alright.”

The commander raised an eyebrow. “Memory still foggy?”

The linguist nodded. “Yeah, but it’s all coming back to me. I’ll be fine.”

“Dr. Somerset, if there’s any chance of you forgetting something vital – ”

He shook his head. “No, nothing at all. Honest!”

“Then I hope you’re right about that – after all, you may have our voices to give you a reminder or two, but your boots will be the only ones on the ground. I pray you understand that.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam pushed off the walls of the bridge, climb-crawled his way to the exit, and once he found the way to TPRU-1 – hard to miss with Dr. Konstantinov floating nearby, waiting for him impatiently and holding a Sokol spacesuit. “Right, thanks.”

Putting it on was a straightforward affair, even with its several steps – slip in his legs, let his colleague zip up the back, hook oxygen tanks to a valve, slip on some gloves, flip up a helmet – done. “Like a glove.” A quick leapfrog found himself climbing inside the admittedly-spacious capsule.

Bonne chance, professeur,” Commander Darcy said behind him. “We’re all counting on you.”

Dr. Konstantinov swung the heavy door closed, pressing it in to create an airtight seal. The commander switched over to a radio inside the suit. “There’s another hatch on your side, you’ll have to close it on your side. Push it in good and tight, too.That’s what she said.Last thing we want is for you to come down with some Indigenous bug. When the handwheel stops turning, let me know. Over.

A door like this still had considerable heft, even in microgravity. The hinges were plenty stiff, but he was able to guide it right into place. He gave it a firm push – it took a while for the door to be properly seated. Five cranks of the handwheel later, Adam had locked himself into his fate. Salvation? Duty? Or a coffin? He grabbed the suit’s radio. “The hatch is completely sealed, Commander.”

Copy Tango-1, starting the autoclave. Zulu-Alfa out.” A moment later, Adam heard the sound of rumbling air at the doorway. High heat, high pressure. . . . Yet there was no creaking of metal, no hiss of air between any cracks in the seal. I should probably find a place to strap myself in – reëntry can’t be comfortable.

It was then that he really started looking around TPRU-1. The interior seemed like a small apartment with all the utilities more or less crammed into one room. He found himself floating in what seemed like a cargo hold, full of food, water, spare filters, everything for an explorer of a new world. To his right was a seat, with straps jutting out of the wall – probably where I’m supposed to go. Or we, if the engineer idea had actually panned out. Oh well. . . .

He pushed himself off what he figured to be the ceiling (where the hatch was) and drifted over to the seats, with more force than he meant; he barely stopped himself with his arms. He swung himself into place. The straps came loose rather easily, almost like in a car seat. He clicked them together, and heard the retractors ratchet the slack back, so he was held firmly in place. I just hope Commander Darcy can actually fly this thing remotely, he prayed. I don’t see how I have any control from here.

From his new vantage point, he noted the rest of the ship. Right next to him on his right was a crude galley of sorts, where he could prepare food – really an assortment of freeze-dried stuff, dense in calories and nutrients to keep someone going for longer – using water from whatever powders were packed away over there – and opposite the kitchen was a toilet, one looking as though it was meant to work under gravity. Makes sense – gotta avoid contamination even in the same biosphere.

On the wall opposite, between an oxygenator, an observation window and a water reclaimer, was another door. Adam thought it strange, and felt tempted to unbuckle himself to go and close it – then he noted a ton of equipment packed inside the ‘door’ and realized it was an EVA suit – one adapted for the ground, no doubt. All that equipment must be for water, oxygen, temperature regulation, and so forth.

And on the wall right to the left of the seats was a red canister with a black hose. Fire suppression – of course. Don’t leave Earth without it.

But where am I going to sleep? He looked all around him, but found no obvious sleeping arrangements. Then he looked behind him, and realized why the seat was jutted out – oh yeah, I’m supposed to flip it down when I land. Adam knew memory loss was a possible side effect of cryostasis, but even this was obvious.

Okay, I know how to eat, where to sleep, where to do my business and wash up, he thought. I should be all set for however long it’s going to take.

A moment later, the rumbling above his head started to subside. Then the commander’s voice reäppeared over the radio. “Tango-1, the lander hull is fully sterilized. Jettison is due in T-minus one minute. Please strap yourself in if you haven’t already, Dr. Somerset. Over.

“Let us descend now into the blind world,” began the Poet. . . . Reëntry would definitely take a while, so Adam would have liked something to help occupy his mind in the interim. Nothing he could use was in reach from his seat. “Strapped in already, Commander,” he confirmed.

Copy. T-minus thirty seconds.

Adam steeled himself against whatever apparatus would shove him off Altairoff this mortal coil? Man, I should stop thinking about my impending doom.

Ten. . . nine. . . .

Deep breaths, Adam. Deep breaths. You’ll be fine, just fine.

. . . five. . . four. . . .


. . . one.

Foom! The capsule lurched downward. Then as quickly as the sound came, it went – only a soft hissing as topside thrusters pushed him further and further away from Zodiac-Altair. After about ten seconds, even that sound cut out too – and Adam was left alone with just his thoughts to keep him company. Of course he knew that no air meant no sound, or something like that, so the outside was completely silent. The only sounds he could note were from himself – his breathing, heartbeat, and thoughts, the last of which tried to drown out the others, but didn’t always succeed.

Then he heard faint static as the radio came back on. “Dr. Somerset? If you can hear this, please acknowledge. Over.

“I’m still here, alive and well,” he radioed the bridge. “Over.”

“Très bien,” Louis radioed. “I figured you’d want some company on the final descent – I can’t imagine how lonely it would be to descend alone in a small chamber built for three. I’ll try not to spook you – being strapped in a lander by yourself is frightening enough as it is, no? Over.

Adam shrugged, even though he knew Louis wouldn’t see it. “Hasn’t been that bad so far. I’ve got my basic needs met. Food, water, sleep – I think I’ll be fine, though you may have to transmit the coördinates of the probe again – I forgot where it was with news of Indigenous activity. Over.”

Oh sure, oh sure! Just bug us when you’re ready to receive it – you’ll want to write it down for later. Any other concerns? Over.

Now that I think about it. . . . “Actually, two questions,” Adam said. “First, given that the ship was orbiting Rhysling, how long of a window will I have to talk to you as you pass overhead? Over.”

We have deployed small relay satellites in Rhysling’s orbit,” Louis replied, “so that window is essentially unlimited. It’s meant so that any data transmitted from the probe is guaranteed to reach us, but you’re free to take advantage of them as well – and I have a feeling you will. What’s your other question? Over.

“Second,” Adam asked, “how long will it take for me to land? Over.”

Good question” was the best Louis could do. “You’re doing a sort of Apollo-style landing procedure, where you basically drop like a rock and then slow down for the last leg. Only difference is the addition of a retrorocket, and considering Rhysling’s gravity, you’re going to need it.

In Apollo’s case, that took about twelve minutes from the Kármán Line to sea level. Space Shuttle, add twenty minutes, since it’s actually gliding instead of dropping. TPRU-1 measured a landing time of about ten minutes from the Line to the ground – which may not be sea level. Just to remind you, your mileage may vary, over.

As though Louis had uttered a magic spell, Adam started hearing a soft, low rumbling outside the craft. “Funny you should say that, Zulu-Alfa,” he radioed. “I think I just hit the uppermost layer of the atmosphere. Please advise on what to expect. Over.”

Good, good – means I don’t have to correct your trajectory remotely. However, at some point we’re going to have to black out communications. Nothing personal, but reëntry doesn’t like it when we talk to each other. That should last four, maybe five minutes. But feel free to radio us back first, please. Over.

Well, so much for keeping me company, I guess. “When does the comms blackout occur? Over.”

I’ll give it about a minute. Any last words?” There was a crackling chuckle on the other end. “Sorry, bad joke. Over.

Even if that was a serious question, Adam didn’t have anything to add. “Nothing, Zulu-Alfa. I’ll ride out the silence. Somerset out.” He was not a religious man, but Adam prayed to whatever deities held domain over this world that he would survive unscathed, that he would safely land upon the new world, that he would do his job and pave the way for the others to come along as well. Even as the rumbling of falling through air built up outside, it could not drown his mounting heartbeat. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, each one assuring him that he was still alive – but for how much longer? Thump-thump, thump-thump. Anton said this suit would save my life – but what about on the surface? Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. Can’t I talk to someone? No, no I can’t – you’re out of contact for this leg of the journey, remember? Gotta wait it out. Wait forever? Oh, shut up about your impending doom, would you!? It’s not helping in the slightest!

Adam became aware of how fast he was breathing, and tried slowing it down by holding his breath. Not enough air to be panicking like this – come on now! You’re supposed to be braver than this. Adam craned his neck around the capsule, trying to find something to distract him from the landing – but invariably laid his eyes upon the observation window. Even though he should be descending into daylight – at least, he thought so – it was still pitch black. What’s blocking the view?

Even as he watched it, it started glowing orange, brighter and brighter, as the apparently spherical heat shield started heating up around he lander, doing its job to keep the craft – and, by extension, its sole occupant – safe from the harm of reëntry. Like a great steel meteor, Adam thought. Let’s hope I don’t wipe out any dinosaurs. That’d prove bad for publicity.

Then he felt jolting beneath his feet, then scraping of metal as his question was answered – the heat shield was done with its job; he had felt explosive bolts firing, and heard the pieces of the shield fall away from him. I hope those don’t hit anyone important. Would make negotiations that much harder. He felt tempted to look out the window, but saw that no, there was a shutter across the glass, so he couldn’t see outside. But if he had to guess, he was landing in the part of Rhysling where sunrise was imminent. Early bird gets the. . . first lander, I guess. May as well set up shop while I wait for the sunrise. Come to think of it – how long is a local day? Does the sun just whip by in an hour, or will I have to stay awake for a week straight? I’ll have to ask about that.

And then another jolt. Overhead, he heard what sounded like ropes rapidly slithering out. Parachutes! We’re almost there, I’ll bet.

I wonder if that means radio works again. Only one way to find out! “Zulu-Alfa, this is. . . .” What did he call me again? Oh yeah – “Zulu-Alfa, this is Tango-1. The heat shield has fallen away, and parachutes have been deployed. Please acknowledge, over.”

Tango-1!” There was a tone of relief to Louis’s voice. “We thought we lost you! Alright, touchdown is imminent. If I had to guess, you have five minutes until the rocket fires. Seriously hold on this time, it’s a lot of force, and you might not be able to hear me through the blast! Zulu-Alfa out.

Well, so much for my question. A lot of force, did he say? Adam looked at his feet, or tried to – the suit’s helmet did not let him get a good look. Not that it mattered, he’d tell exactly when the retrorocket would fire. All he could do was heed the commander’s advice, and steel himself against the coming blast. I wonder how they’ll interpret the blast – it’ll be hard to miss. Would I be a god?

Far sooner than Louis had predicted, a sharp lurch and strong rumbling told Adam that the parachutes had detached from the lander, and the retrorocket had ignited. He looked out the window – the bottom half was bathed in an orange glow, as were the nearby surroundings. I could probably judge the altitude. Probably. But as tempted as he was, he refused to get up from his seat – lest the landing knock him down.

For the first time since TPRU-1 separated from Altair, he felt truly at ease. What was I worrying about? I’ll make it down here fine and dandy, I’ll do my job, write my paper, teach the other colonists the language of the Indigenous, and start a new life on a new world.

. . . if only it weren’t so daunting to blaze a trail.

Before that thought could go any further, an especially strong knock thrashed him in his seat – but the rocket had switched off. He looked out the window – the scenery was completely still. It was still early daylight, but that would change in time.

First things first.

“Zulu-Alfa, Tango-1 has landed,” Adam announced to the ship. “Repeat, Tango-1 has landed. No sign of damage on the ship, crew unharmed, ready to begin mission. Please acknowledge, over.”

There was only silence on the radio. Not even static to show that they were transmitting.

Did they not hear me?

“Zulu-Alfa, Tango – ”

“Mon dieu, Tango-1, that is wonderful news!” Adam could almost picture Louis jumping for joy inside the bridge. “You’ve safely touched down on a planet outside our own Solar System! Why, I can just feel Monsieur Armstrong’s envy from here.” He heard a muffled sound of a throat being cleared. “Anyway, setting up. You’ll have to switch on power for the rest of the lander. Locate the breaker box – it should be inside the cargo hold. Might have to move a few things around to get to it. Over.

I guess that means I should get myself unstrapped. Adam hit the release button on his chest, and felt the straps retract into the seat rapidly. Standing took a bit of effort – God, gravity hurts – but he knew his muscle mass would return in time. Just gotta keep using my limbs, just gotta keep using them. Okay, cargo, find the breakers. . . .

There were a lot of crates to sort through, and every single one of them was strapped down for the trip. Undoing them one by one was a pain, especially when looking past them yielded nothing that looked like what he needed. Finally, on the wall just to the left of the crates, he found a thin panel with the universal yellow triangle-with-lightning-bolt symbol for power. He popped it open and flipped the main breaker to ON.

In a moment, the rest of TPRU-1’s systems roared to life. Fluorescent lights blinked on, the oxygenator started up, the water reclaimer went into standby, and a radio hidden in a wall recess started crackling. Apparently Louis was already tuned in, since Adam thought he could hear him mumbling a sea shanty.

How do I get to it? Adam noted a switch just at chest-height – pushing it sideways caused a table to fold down, revealing a few cubbies in the wall filled with various items, including the flight controls for the which was the radio. He’ll probably want me to use that right now. Adam, therefore, carefully started shimmying out of his pressure suit – first the gloves, then the helmet, then carefully reaching behind himself to undo the double zippers – and he was free. The table, he found, also had a foldable chair, which he promptly unfolded and used. Good – God knows I could use a sit-down after. . . five minutes? That would sound pathetic on any other day.

“Zulu-Alfa, this is Dr. Somerset, on Tango-1’s radio,” he opened. “All vital systems are powered on and functioning properly at this time. Please acknowledge, over.” I hope I got that right.

Louis stopped mumbling. “This is Zulu-Alfa,” he responded. “I’d say you’re ready for work, Doctor. You’re going to feel some smarting in your muscles for a while, that is normal, you’re just fresh out of cryo in zero-gravity. Please don’t feel tempted to use the chair or bed all the time, since I’m sure you’ll know exercise is the only cure for that weakness.

Damn! Just when I was getting comfortable.

Anything you’ll need for supplies are in those crates, contents labeled in English and Russian, so nobody can miss them. If you have any questions, you know where the radio is in the lander, so don’t be afraid to ask us anything. Over.

Finally have a chance to ask. “Actually, I have one question, Zulu-Alfa,” Adam radioed. “Do you know how long a day is on this planet? Over.”

Funny you should ask,” he announced. “As it were, it’s so perfect, so easy to memorize. Each day on Rhysling lasts exactly sixteen Earth hours – half daytime, half nighttime. So three days down there would be two back home.Yeah, that does seem a bit too convenient – but then, Jupiter’s moons are perfectly in sync as well, aren’t they?Good thinking about that – nobody likes a sleepy doctor, no siree! Anything else? Over.

“Negative, nothing else. Somerset out.” With a great deal of effort, Somerset stood back up from the chair, and drew a deep breath. This is gonna be hell, isn’t it? He looked over to the seat – he still hadn’t flipped over the cot. One switch later, and it swung down with a sharp bam!

He decided to peek out the window. He grabbed the knob on the bottom and twisted it, which opened the shutter – just in time to watch the sun rise. A new day had begun for the Indigenous, whose settlement he could just see past a few hills. None of them are here right now, Adam realized. They’re either afraid of me – or arming for an attack. Let’s hope the former; that’s easier for me to work with.

His stomach rumbled.

Drat. Well, good time as any to fix myself some breakfast, isn’t it? After closing the shutter, Adam strode over to the supply crates. Let’s see. . . food, food, food – bingo! One crate was labeled “RATIONS, COUNT 240 – ПАЙКИ, 240 ШТ.” I wonder how long I can live off just this one crate. Two weeks, maybe? Then what?

Wait, how long is a week on this world anyway? What about a month? A year? What’s their calendar?

Shut up, Adam. Food now. Calendar later.

The crate was easy enough to open – just undo a latch on the front, and it swung open like a chest. Inside, as promised, were sixty clear vacuum-sealed packets of what looked like freeze-dried nutrient blocks. Because that’s what keeps better in transit. Never mind that the shuttle crews had fried chicken, the lucky bastards.

Preparation instructions were printed on the front, again in English and Russian. The first one he pulled out said it was “dry cereal mix – хлопья, сухая смесь,” and as for instructions, “No water – Не требует воды.” Works for me!

He stood up and went to the galley, packet in hand. A dotted line showed him where to tear it open. A quick tug, and the plastic parted. Let’s hope I don’t get crumbs everywhere. Could prove bad for lander functionality.

He tipped his head back, and took a bite. The slight shower of crumbs he expected to go flying and land on his face. . . simply didn’t. Apparently an oily additive worked as an adhesive to avoid that exact fear. He tipped his head back forward to keep eating.

– And as he did, he got a feeling of a change in the scenery outside. He pushed that thought aside until he was finished with his meal – which took another minute, followed with a shot of water from one of the galley’s hydration guns to wash it down – then, on a whim, decided to take a second glance outside. He reached over and twisted the shutter knob.

He was being surrounded.

“Guess I’m the one being contacted,” Adam said to himself. That was easier than I thought.

The galley had a receptacle for plastic waste, where he used for the now-empty packet. I’ll empty that out once I get through that crate. Probably. If it holds enough. He then got up to get a better look outside the window – at the Indigenous.

And as it turned out – the Indigenous appeared to have a healthy equestrian tradition in their culture. Horses in every shape, size, and color circled the landing site, as far as his eye could see. Most of them, he could see, simply stood there, staring at this curious apparatus that fell from the sky. Did I land in a pasture?

Probably should inform the others. . . . Adam got up to head to the radio. But before he could touch the receiver, he heard a loud pop outside, then a louder clang of metal hitting metal. He raised an eyebrow. Surely that can’t be good. Slowly, he turned around to see what that was.

One of the horses was standing right outside the window, looking right at him.

He blinked.

It blinked.

Slowly, slower than before, Adam started to approach the window. His heart was racing – is this an invitation? An initiation? A declaration of war? So many possibilities – he had to remember, this being was not from Earth, equine-like behavior from Earth need not apply. Does eye contact mean anything? Too late to look away now. This showdown of sorts could mean literally anything. Then of course came the question of talking to it. Do they speak? Use sign language? Pheromones?

Finally, Adam was at the window, and close enough to get a better look at this creature. It was equine, like the others further away. A unicorn, more specifically, judging by a conical growth in the middle of its head. Its eyes were absolutely massive – why? It’s not that dark out there. . . is it? Its skin – hide? – was a striking violet, and its hair and tail were indigo, with rose highlights. Fashion? Or genetic? Its body was turned to his right, and he could note a starry pattern on its hindquarters. Okay, that has got to be fashion, there’s no way a pattern as sharp as that occurs naturally.

Do I make the first move? How would it react? . . . only one way to find out. Adam raised his hand, straight out, and planted it firmly on the glass, with no further motion, as with a wave. He maintained eye contact as much as possible, to make sure it wouldn’t do anything too drastic, and endanger him – or the biosphere. And yet instead, the equine returned his gesture – it raised a corresponding hoof, and placed it right on the glass, precisely over his hand. Then his question about the mode of communication was answered – it opened its mouth and words spilled out:

[n̥ɑpɑˈtɑ ... ɹiˈkě ɑlˈβu]

Author's Note:

Let’s start with some biographies for our three human characters (there is a fourth, but that will be revealed in due time).

Adam Somerset
Born: 26 February 1964
Tacoma, Washington, United States
Role: Linguist
When Adam was in high school, his cousin introduced him to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He found these books fascinating, but most of all he was enthralled with Quenya and Sindarin, which sparked a fascination with language. Fueled by this, he started reading up on language during school. This moved to teaching himself linguistics, before graduating in 1987 from UC Santa Barbara with a doctorate in the field. He was teaching linguistics at MIT when applications opened up for crewing Zodiac-Altair. He applied on a dare from his students, and was surprised to see that he was accepted a year later.

Anton Konstantinov
Born: 11 January 1951
Leningrad, Soviet Union (now St. Petersburg, Russia)
Role: Cryogenicist
Born in the Stalinist regime, Anton grew up happy to be serving the Greater Good. One day, on his way to school, he found a frog frozen under a bush. He took it to school with him, only for it to thaw out in the middle of class. The teacher instilled the fear of disappointing the People with his folly, but after seeing how the frog survived the cold, he dedicated his life to studying how it was done, and to replicate it for humans. When the Soviet Space Program caught wind of his work in 1985, he was promptly recruited to help with colonist hibernation for Zodiac-Altair; he was grandfathered into Roscosmos in 1992.

Louis Darcy
Born: 19 May 1955
Saint-David-de-l’Auberivère (now merged with Lévis), Québec, Canada
Role: Commander
Louis was always a fan of exploration – to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” as his favorite show, Star Trek, put it. He enlisted in the Maritime Command in 1975, serving six years patrolling the waters of the Northwest Territories, and retiring with the rank of Able Seaman. When applications for crewing Zodiac-Altair opened, he saw the chance for discovery and promptly signed up.His tenacious attitude and quick problem-solving skills ensured his place as the spacecraft’s Commander.

As for Argjend Gjebrea – if you know, you know.

So, what’s happened in the background? Where the heck are we? What are we doing on the other side of a wormhole? Why is it the year 1997? My first long description for the story had a rough sketch of the alternate history of that timeline:

In March 1979, as Voyager 1 was studying the Jovian system, it noted a strange anomaly orbiting the gas giant, between Ganymede's and Callisto's orbits. It was initially dismissed until Voyager 2 confirmed its presence three months later -- a wormhole, leading to a previously-unknown star system.

By Christmas, NASA had dispatched the Einstein probe to study it further. It found that the image it projected showed a life-bearing world on the other side.

Despite NASA's reluctance, public opinion swayed Congress into granting increased funding, for the express purpose of building an interstellar colony ship. The result of international work over the intervening decade was Zodiac-Altair, an amalgam of first- and second-world parts and crew cobbled into a utilitarian whole.

After a three-year expedition, Zodiac-Altair was in orbit. Complicating matters further, reconnaissance showed an extraterrestrial civilization on the surface. Obviously, for the colony to go anywhere, they would need to open negotiations.

Good thing they packed a linguist. . . .

Of course that’s an extremely bare-bones backstory, and I seriously doubt the politics measure up to reality – but then again, the space race officially ended in 1975 (in both timelines) with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Artist’s conception of the famous docking procedure. Source

So joint ventures in spaceflight across the Iron Curtain would not be out of the question, in my opinion at least.

As for public opinion – well, America had just come out of the Vietnam War, and what President Carter called the “National Malaise” had set in. It’s unlikely NASA would have convinced Congress or the public about exploring any sort of wormhole with human intervention, no matter what promises lie on the other side.

But hey, it’s fiction. Let’s have some fun.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of the work, no, there’s no literal children aboard Zodiac-Altair. That’s actually from the Voyager Golden Record, which includes, among other things, greetings in 55 languages.

While I’m fond of the Turkish one (“May the honors of the morning be upon your heads”), there’s something to be said about the English one – “Hello from the children of planet Earth.” Not just the fact that it was spoken by Carl Sagan’s son, Nick, then six years old.

No, I think, in a grander, cosmic sense, we’re all still children. We may have built probes to study our own system, we may have briefly walked upon our own single Moon, but really, how mature are we as a spacefaring species? We don’t even rate Tier I on the Kardašev scale – we don’t use every available bit of energy on this planet. We have a long way to go before we reach childhood’s end.

Naming celestial objects can be fun, but I wanted to avoid any conflicts with named bodies that already exist.

For the planet, at first I considered Sagan, after that one nerd mentioned above, but since in this timeline he would be still alive during the wormhole’s discovery and would have overridden any such attempts out of humility, I went with “Rhysling” – after the blind singer in Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Green Hills of Earth.”

As for the wormhole, I initially just called it “the wormhole” – but realized weeks later that something so significant should have a more meaningful name than something that blunt. And then it came to me – and I’m afraid this is going to call for its own lecture.

While I was reading up on the Voyager program, I learned that it was actually the remnants of a much more ambitious Grand Tour program. It was conceived at a most opportune time, actually – in 1964, an engineer at NASA noticed that the planets of the outer Solar System were soon to be arranged just so that, in theory, a space probe could use them to slingshot from one to the next.

With these findings in hand, NASA started commissioning not two but four probes to be launched within such a window. All of them would visit Jupiter and use that as a slingshot – from there, two would visit Saturn and Pluto, and the other two Uranus and Neptune. Such an arrangement occurs only once every 175 years, so the next Grand Tour won’t be until the 2150s.

I remembered this detail, even the period in which it occurs, but the engineer’s name took some trawling on Wikipedia. That engineer, I soon found, was named Gary Flandro.

Mind you, he’s still alive and well, and while no longer employed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, holds a chair at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, and is also the Vice President and Chief Engineer at Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories.

While Flandro does not have experience in theoretical physics like Einstein would, since his discovery fueled the Voyager program to discover in turn the wormhole opening in this alternate timeline, that wormhole has been dubbed the “Flandro Object.”

While I don’t have the expertise to calculate a spaceflight trajectory properly, I can make a few educated guesses. I looked up previous missions to Jupiter – all unmanned, of course – and was surprised to see how most of them went directly to the gas giant. More often than not, Jupiter itself was used for gravitational slingshots, mostly to head to Saturn and beyond, though Ulysses used it to change its orbital inclination to get views of the Sun’s poles. Galileo and Juno were the only Jovian-specific missions to require slingshots (both Terrestrial, though Galileo also needed a Venerean). Interestingly, Cassini-Huygens also used Veneran and Terrestrial slingshots, but it was on its way to Saturn.

(The Endurance in Interstellar used a Martian slingshot, but not a Jovian one, despite its destination being a wormhole near Saturn, which I find rather interesting.)

But I’m getting way off topic. Anyway, I also looked up charts of the Solar System for departure and arrival dates, and as far as I can tell, a straight shot from Earth to Jupiter is not out of the question, even for what is essentially two space stations welded together. Even if the opportunity for a Martian slingshot presents itself, I don’t think it very necessary even for course correction.

At one point in the writing process, Cmdr. Darcy used the word “Aboriginal” instead of “Indigenous,” since, coming from Canada, he’d find the former more natural to use. I changed it up for much the same reason – he would be picturing First Nations people, not extraterrestrials.

A group of Cree, one such example of First Nation people. Source

And I imagine my readers would picture either that or those of Australia.

Perhaps the hardest part of Alkarasu’s job here was coming up for a backronym for the TPRU. Why’d I choose these letters? I once read that, to get a horse to stop in Russian (where we use “Whoa!” in English), you’d roll your lips (a bilabial trill, if you want to be technical) – spelled тпру (tpru) in Cyrillic.

That’s it. That’s the only reason.

There’s a reason why Adam’s putting on a spacesuit for traveling inside a spacecraft, and it’s a dark one too. On 29 June 1971, a Soviet recovery team flew out to what is now central Qazaqstan to recover the crew of three, who had spent the last eighteen days aboard Saljut-1, the first space station. Instead, they were shocked to find all three of them had died. (To this day, these three are the only people who have died in space.)

After investigation, it turned out that a faulty valve that was supposed to shut off automatically during stage separation failed to do so, and the capsule vented in a matter of seconds. One of them, Viktor Pacajev, tried to shut off the valve manually, but could not do so in time. On the ground, Aleksej Leonov, another cosmonaut who warned them about the valve, tried shutting it off himself, and found it took nearly a full minute – inappropriate for an emergency.

The disaster prompted massive changes across the board for the Sojuz program. The capsule was redesigned for two people, to make room for a new pressure suit, named “Sokol.” Still flying to this day, it’s meant to be worn during critical stages in flight – namely, launch, docking, and landing.

Ol’ reliable. Source

The Americans developed their own analogue for the Space Shuttle program, the ACES – or as the astronauts call it, the “Pumpkin Suit,” for its international orange color.

Sorry Charlie Brown, it’s not the Great Pumpkin. Astronauts suited up for STS-130 in January 2010. Source

Dr. Somerset notes an open door, which he later realizes is a spacesuit. Its placement might sound strange, but that’s a real emerging concept known as the suitport.

Basically, it’s like an airlock, but it’s just big enough to stick in your suit’s backpack. Pull a few levers to unseal and open the back, and you can climb out. Getting in’s just as easy: climb inside, pull some levers to close and seal, and walk away. No waiting for pressurization!

It’s also easy to use for exploring a life-bearing world outside of Earth (which I’ll get more into in another part): where you think you’ll have to sterilize the entire suit in an autoclave or, God forbid, an irradiation chamber, here instead you’d only have to sterilize the backpack. It’s an extra step and it takes longer, but it’s far safer and takes up much less space.

And the best part is? As far as engineering it is concerned, we’re already halfway there with the Orlan spacesuit family.

Backpack could use some size reduction, but you know what I mean. Source

And NASA has been building suitport-compatible models for years, in preparation for a manned mission to Mars. They’re called the Z series, nicknamed “Buzz Lightyear Suits,” due to their color scheme.

To infinity. . . and beyond! Source

You might think I’m placing a silly amount of emphasis on keeping everything clean, but there’s a very real reason for this: interplanetary contamination.

Take a real-world example: when the Europeans first landed in the New World, they brought several surprise weapons with them to get an advantage over the natives. One of these, though they didn’t intend it, were their diseases: measles, smallpox, rubella, all sorts of nasty stuff that we have vaccines for today (in fact, smallpox had been eradicated from the wild in 1979.) According to Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel, it’s estimated that those diseases alone killed off 90% of pre-contact native populations.

And that’s just within the same biosphere. We don’t know what life is like beyond Earth, so precautions especially need to be taken to prevent another event like this. NASA for one has set up an Office of Interplanetary Protection, which oversees every mission bound to any place where life may exist, to prevent contamination. You can’t put so much as a screw on Mars without going through them first.

So no, it’s not enough for explorers to filter out the bad gasses or bringing your own air. You’ve got to do better than that, if you want to stay alive, and want to keep the planet alive.

And now you’ll never watch Avatar the same way again. You’re welcome! Source

If you’re wondering why Louis is calling Zodiac-Altair “Zulu-Alfa” and TPRU-1 “Tango-1,” those are letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet. It’s designed so one can spell something over the radio with zero ambiguity, as none of the words sound remotely like each other. So Louis is just saying Z-A and T-1.

Earlier drafts of this story had misspelled it as “Zulu-Alpha,” but Shinzakura (a Navy vet himself) was quick to correct my mistake.

“‘Let us descend now into the blind world,’ began the Poet” is a quotation from the Divine Comedy, in case that went over your head.

Eating in space wasn’t always easy. Until John Glenn (of the Mercury Seven) ate some applesauce aboard Friendship 7, nobody knew that it was possible in microgravity. After that mission, NASA went with freeze-dried foodstuffs, which astronauts would need to rehydrate in-flight.

For instance, consider this packet of chocolate pudding. Source

This was designed for the Apollo program – no, I don’t know if this specific packet ever flew. The instructions on it tell the astronaut to inject 4 oz. (118mL) of cold water into a straw blown inside the packet (Apollo astronauts had the choice of hot and cold water, while the previous Gemini spacecrafts had only cold), then wait 5-15 minutes to rehydrate completely. The astronaut would then drink the pudding out of the straw, and when the packet was empty, the astronaut would stopper it with a small antibacterial tablet.

Now that I mentioned Gemini, I feel obligated to share a funny story from that program. Way back when during the Space Race – 23 March 1965, to be exact – Gemini 3 was launched, with Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young (both part of the Mercury Seven) crewing. During the flight, Young offered Grissom a corned beef sandwich he had smuggled aboard, which he accepted. They each took some bites out of it, and the resulting crumbs threatened to short out vital equipment. NASA reprimanded them as a result when they returned, but no further disciplinary action came out of it. To this day, no corned beef sandwiches ever flew to space again.

Dietary options really started opening up in 1973. The galley aboard Skylab carried a refrigerator and pantry caned goods that could be heated before opening, and dehydrated goods were limited to conserve water. Ice cream became a hit amongst the crew.

Nowadays, on the ISS, we’ve got lots of options to work with. Yes, some stuff is still freeze-dried, but only for stuff where it makes sense, e.g. cream of mushroom soup.

The only difference is that water amounts are given in milliliters, and instructions are labeled in Russian as well. Source

And if you really want to, you can buy freeze-dried ice cream right now without leaving Earth.

For this story, since we’re going way outside low Earth orbit and even Lunar orbit, I went old-school and picked all freeze-dried stock.

As you might’ve guessed from that last line (which is transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA), this story contains an Equestrian language. I’ve spent maybe four or five years working on it off-and-on, though in the last year I really got cracking on it. I’m not going to reveal anything on it – not yet, anyway. I want you to figure it out first, just like a real linguist in the field.

Like I mentioned last December, I wanted to write a language-barrier novel. First attempt? Rubbish, and I’ll be the first to tell you that. So I started reading other similar fanfics to get a lay on how they’re executed. Two stand out for me: Tystarr’s A Voice Among the Strangers, and Starscribe’s Message in a Bottle.

A Voice Among the Strangers’ idea of a language barrier admittedly makes it easy to read, but to me comes off as lazy, e.g. ~This is a sentence in Equestrian.~ Don’t take this as a jab at the plot, the characters, etc. of the work, it’s just – for something that’s considered a classic, it felt like a letdown for me.

Message in a Bottle does use a real language. Unfortunately, it’s Esperanto, e.g. Ĉi tio estas frazo en la Ĉevala. The author, however, did disclaim that he wasn’t “skilled enough to invent my own fake language for them.” Starscribe, if you’re reading this – I gotchu fam.