5 - Debriefing phase

Following the immersion into a hyper-awareness of time you can’t help but drift in an and out of your current surroundings, sometimes even stopping mid-sentence to muse on things and activities that before might have seen menial or boring or anything else but note-worthy.

The mental care facilitators encourage you to try a wide variety of focus-inducing effects, but you shrug off their constant attempts to force chemicals down your neck because you know this state of yours, like many other things in this world, will soon pass.

And much like waking up after a dream, one day things go back to being their own dull selves, no longer revelatory or extraordinary, but simply there. You have another Test Phase coming up, you should get ready for whatever will be thrown at you or will be thrown into. A parcel is delivered to 8-B hall, under your specific number, 36-8-B.

Inside the brown yellow-ish envelope is a simple card, specifying the time and place, nothing more, nothing less. Unusual. Information here is usually relayed in a direct manner although the timing might sometimes be off.

The room specified is in Wing Epsilon. You know this because it was the Wing you were in when the details of the Program were presented to you on your first visit. You encounter no troubles getting there, no hidden traps or riddles to solve or maze-like corridors, no, you are on your way and there effortlessly.

Still expecting something to happen, you can’t help but stare at everything going outside of the hall, from the passers by to the flickering neon lighting to the other candidates, forlorn and worn out, some nearing the very precipice of their ambitions only to fall ingloriously into obscurity.

But enough of that, others seem to be eager to be there, waiting almost cheerfully. There’s 14-7-C, he used to be an actor before the mad dash towards Pluto that started the greatest space-age project of mankind to date. He looks alright, he’s probably not as much muttering to himself as he is getting into a character suited for whatever he expects might come next.

Just above the entrance to the room, the speaker comes to life and speaks through the droning voice of a bored office-lady: “Debriefing for Nautilius A in room 47, Wing Epsilon to commence in 3 minutes. Debriefing for Nautilius A in room 47, Wing Epsilon to commence in 3 minutes. Thank you.” The loudspeaker cuts off just as abruptly as it turned on.

There is a general murmur and restlessness about the corridor now, candidates are wondering just what hidden meaning Nautilius holds. ”Wasn’t that in a story somewhere? A ship or a submarine?” asks one inquisitively “No! It’s a species of sea snails,” says another convincingly.

It could be all of these things together or it could be nothing all, you muse. Perhaps it’s a name like any other or perhaps you will be thrown into the depths of the ocean in a pressure suit on some absurd worst-case scenario mission. You do feel a slight chill, thinking about all of this, but somehow you retain your cool.

An acquaintance of yours, 13-5-B, drops by to see how you are holding up. She looks somewhat worried and sympathetic at the same time.

“Hey, 36, how are things?”

You notice her staring at your new arm, almost feeling her pity touching the metal layer. You would like to give any number of impressive responses but just as you open your mouth, so does the room door open wide right on cue.

“I’ve been through worse”, you mutter just before entering the room with the rest of the candidates scheduled for the debriefing.

13-5-B smiles and nods although somewhat forlorn. You give her a second fleeting look, just before awkwardly waving while being pushed inside by other candidates rushing in through the door.

The room looks like any conference auditorium, 6 rows in 3 sections forming a half-circle, all seats facing a stage at ground level. The walls, curiously enough, are adorned with framed space-themed posters, each showing off an idealised version of missions past. One in particular, shows a square-jawed man in a retro-spacesuit looking intensely and pointing one thick kevlar-woven finger to somewhere above and behind the viewer and the caption reads: “We are reaching the stars, one celestial wonder at a time!”.

What the mission the poster is showing, is nothing more than a routine supply drop to the Mars I Observation Unit-1 on Phobos, the red planet’s satellite: an asteroid captured, slowly nearing towards the Roche Limit only to be torn apart in a flimsy ring of space dust, but the poster showed it as being a formidable stepping stone in mankind’s ever-increasing steps into outer space.

“Welcome to the debriefing concerning the Nautilius test, dearest candidates, I am sure this will be very informative for all of you.”

The disembodied voice seems to be coming from everywhere at once, until someone shouts and points at the desk in the middle of the auditorium, from under which a figure was slowly dragging itself out. A mess of black hair reveals nothing save for a pair of glasses perched among strands of hair. Much like a ghost, the figure then straightens out and puts the tangle tuft of mess in a slight bun that might burst at any moment. The face revealed is remarkably attractive, with striking jet-black eyebrows.

“My name is Dr. Sybil, thank you for arriving on relatively short notice.” She coughs lightly and changes the pitch and volume of her voice to a more powerful effect.

“You are all aware that, even though this Program is based on your abilities, wit and resourcefulness for each Candidate separately, teamwork is unavoidable and so for the good of your development here you will be assigned into teams. You will be working together and maybe entrust your lives to one another.”

Candidates are looking somewhat distraught as until now all the tests pointed toward individual hardships and challenges, some bordering on the fringes of how much a human being can go through without breaking. Teamwork and camaraderie had never been an issue until this very moment. All Candidates were solitary islands with each singular hardship and challenge taken alone and struggled with on own terms.

 “Now, as you very well know, we have up until this point encountered an alien lifeform, first contact has happened and it was… underwhelming for everyone, to say the least. I am talking about the Exotrylocites, the bacteria found on Ceres, just on the fringes of the habitable zone and snug warmly under a vast freshwater ocean. We had finally found proof that life can exist outside of the confines of earthen atmosphere in an environment untouched by man.

Unfortunately, no matter how far we searched further in the ocean beneath the dwarf planet, we found no other lifeform that had yet to evolve from bacterial form.” There was an almost tactile sadness to her words.

“And yet we were elated, it was a small triumph but a triumph holding proof that there was life outside Earth and suddenly the Drake equation didn’t seem as daunting as it had before, there was renewed hope. We would press on ever further into the cosmic beyond in search of knowledge and races we would perhaps call peers, equals, sharing wisdom taken from different corners of the galaxy.The knowledge you are about to hear next is privy only to the upper echelons of the MIMA and people involved in the Zeus I mission. Yes, the mission which was finally going to bore into the icy crust of Europa and reveal what we thought was hiding in the ocean beneath after all this time; life. And what we found surpassed even our wildest expectations: intelligent life.”

You wince at the dryness of your own eyes. A quick glance reveals others much like yourself, are awestruck with their lower jaws hanging between disbelief and amazement. Intelligent life was something so rare on the cosmic scale of things that finding signs of it in our own solar system would be like finding the lost city of Atlantis in your own backyard.  But why wasn’t this made known to every denizen of the world? Such a revelation would reverberate and change the culture and future of humans everywhere.

Another light cough. Dr. Sybil is now facing a massive whiteboard and at the slightest flick of the wrist, the lights start to dim. The whiteboard lights up. While you can no longer see her face, you notice a sombre and almost weary tone in her voice:

“Intelligent life was for a brief period right on the other side of the fence. The things we could have learned from each other were limitless in possibilities...

Shortly after it entered planetary waters, the Zeus probe noticed that all the elements were present and that the oxygen and iron levels were astoundingly high, much over what we had until then encountered in any body of water, frozen or otherwise.The first few days were quiet for the probe, until an error in calculation caused the probe to go deeper than designed, being unable to properly adjust to the surrounding water pressure. That caused a few of the systems on board to malfunction, among which was the lighting system.”

“While I do not undervalue the collective intelligence of the people here in this room, I still feel inclined to remind everyone of the Morse code and how invaluable it has been in the past for seafarers while using luminous signals. Many experts believe that the irregular flickering must have been interpreted as a message, how eloquent we may never know, but it did however elicit a response from… them.” 

The lit whiteboard reveals the image of an octopus-like creature. Its head not necessarily elongated but smaller, rounder and with thicker tentacles, ending in...lights?!

“The malfunctioning lights triggered a twinkling of faint light, equally irregular. The lights were immediately disregarded and led us to believe that the optical cameras had also been damaged. However, what happened next changed everything. They came in a blur, only stopping for a few seconds at a time to transmit luminous signals to the probe. What you are seeing right now on the screen is one of them in the brief moment of communication.”

“We couldn’t believe what was happening, a race more advanced and more refined, millions of years ahead in evolution from the algae-eating bacteria we were expecting. And they were trying to communicate with us, hairless monkeys from a different planet! The next week was spent analyzing patterns and light intensity on the entire spectrum of light, formulating a possible alphabet through which we could communicate both ways and relay a coherent message. By the end of the week we had grasped the basics of their bio luminescence-based language and surmised that we could use impulses outside of the visible spectrum of light. This seemed to trigger a response although not as enthusiastic. And so, we turned off the remaining lights and used infra-red emitters.”

“We didn’t speak as much as we whispered: “Hello” says Dr. Sybil.

“They called the probe Wounded-Metal. The constant flickering was interpreted as a cry for help and the manner in which they spoke was very much matter-of-fact. They didn’t understand that the probe wasn’t a living being but still they kept asking if it was hurt and how they could help.”

“As you know by the time of Zeus I, human spaceflight was more than viable and astronauts on board were very much the norm. Mission Control suggested that one of the two astronauts submerge himself in one of the pressurized diving rigs which would have been deployed at a later stage in the mission, just so that the Luminoids understand who or what we were. They signaled no signs that would be normally interpreted as aggression but displayed remarkable care and concern for a being unknown to them believed to be hurt.”

“Captain Mark Maji volunteered to go down and greet them using their own language. And so, after gearing up, he entered the second probe and followed the path already laid out through crevices of radioactive ice. First Contact, the First Real Contact was imminent.”

The silence in the room was denser and heavier than a chapel vigil.

“After reaching a depth of 65 km, just a bit above the first probe, Cpt. Maji activated the light signals in wait for them to come. A little over an hour they appeared, graceful and curious. They responded, “Who are you? What are you? Friend of Wounded-Metal?”

“Maji was by this point transfigured; there he was, talking to a race intelligent enough to communicate their thoughts in a coherent and organized manner. The plan was for the Luminoids to see the man inside the metal can and understand who they were communicating with, not the cylinder surrounding Cpt.Maji. However, Maji, without any prior clearance, put on the deep-dive pressure suit and emerged from the manned exploration module.

“The Luminoids were shocked to see another being coming out of the belly of the being they were talking to. The same being was now beckoning them closer to greet them in the earthliest way: a handshake.”

“Maji stretched out his hands and through luminous impulses said “I greet you from the blue dot above the ice.” “We believe the luminoids must have understood that the gesture implied some form of salute as one of them reached a feeler to Maji’s outstretched hands.”

“Contact was lost swiftly after. We neither saw nor heard from the astronaut or any of the Luminoids again, nor will anyone ever again.”

“Subsequent data analysis revealed what we had feared, the Luminoids somehow became aggressive as a massive electrical discharge tore through most of the circuits and the deep-dive suit of the astronaut.

It wasn’t until a week later that we realised what had really happened once the exploration module woke up and used the exo-arm to retrieve Maji’s body. As it turned out, the tips of the fingers on the right arm had been contaminated with what we later realised were… remains of a virus, transmitted through… mucus, the captain had recently recovered from a cold and he must’ve sneezed at some point during an EVA prep and so contaminated his glove with germs, germs which when in contact with the fleshy, almost translucent tissue of the Luminoids caused a violent reaction.”

“Just a week after the last contact we noticed the concentration of iron absurdly high in the water levels and that it had become a few shades darker. Only one Luminoid could be seen drifting towards the first probe, now no longer the object of attention. The last Luminoid was unlike any of the others spotted until then, it was white and almost transparent. It flickered feebly the following: “The green mist is eating us, the great end. Run.” just before dissolving and leaving a blue stain behind.

 “The greatest achievement mankind could’ve attained in modern history as a spacefaring entity, gone, on an impulse.”

You’re seating a bit too far away and the room is still dark but you’re almost sure she is holding back a few tears.

“Reflect on that.” she says, before each candidate is handed a sealed envelope.