It was a dream, or it was like a dream. Alone, on Intrepid, with Mars spinning below him and the immense cylinder of the alien ship hanging above him, everything in his field of view defied the understanding of the most primitive parts of his brain. It left Rothmeyer mildly and continuously unnerved.
Below, on the planet, Heinz and Meade were packed like sardines in the MEM – the Mars Lander – watching the Polixaci building their embassy. They were the first and second men to walk on Mars, respectively. Gerald Rothmeyer, on the other hand, stayed on Intrepid.
There was little to do besides sit and watch the comings and goings above. Smaller subsidiary vessels – freight landers, themselves larger than an oceangoing aircraft carrier – would approach from below and dock for loading, then detach and drop towards the planet. It had been going on for two days, since just after the MEM touched down and the invitation to join them had gone up.
Rothmeyer slept a lot. It was quiet, peaceful, on Intrepid. The only noise was the whine of the air system. Quite a change from the weeks in transit, bumping elbows and knees with the other two men. When they had slid down into the MEM and detached for their de-orbit burn, he'd been too relieved to be jealous.
There had been a handshake meeting down there, performed in suits on the open surface. They'd gotten up close and personal with the Polixaci, the first to do so besides the old ISS crew. They were talking. They were in the Rollabout driving around the periphery of the building site while aliens in mech-suits built the temporary facility they would live in while they built the main embassy dome. He was jealous now.
During the weeks in transit, with Earth shrinking behind them, Meade had taken to calling him 'Collins'. Good-natured ribbing between comrades. Friendly. Michael Collins had stayed behind in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, and become the answer to a trivia question. It didn't bother him. Not really.
He was asleep when Captain Heinz's voice erupted from the comm system. “Intrepid, Hellas Base.”
“Intrepid here, go ahead Hellas.”
“Intrepid, we're going to try something here, we're hooked up our comms to the Polixaci communications system, we've been talking to Mission Control real-time. They want to talk to you, we're going to patch it through our system. You should hear Mission Control next, over.”
Real-time... instead of an half hour round-trip light-speed delay. “Roger, Hellas Base. Ready, over.”
There was nearly a minute of dead air, and then came, “Intrepid, this is Mission Control, do you read, over?”
“Mission Control, Intrepid. I read you five by five. Go ahead.”
“Rothmeyer, Houseguest is asking if you want to visit Mother. You'd EVA, they'd come pick you up and then bring you back. What do you think, over.”
'Houseguest' was the robotic Polixaci representative secretly observing the mission from NASA. 'Mother' was the liner; the immense alien ship hanging in orbit just above him. “Mission Control, Intrepid.” He couldn't formulate a response. “Mission Control... Intrepid. No one would be on duty on the flight deck, over.”
There was a pause, and then: “Intrepid, Mission Control. The consensus here is that it's acceptable under the circumstances. The P... Houseguest says Mother will bring you back to Intrepid if there's any problem. Bill's call is that it's up to you. Over.”
He studied the alien ship; it was more than a kilometer long, a series of cylinders – some overlapping – around a central spine, with a tapered spike at one end and a bulbous projection at the other. There were reportedly tens of thousands of beings aboard, from hundreds of different races. There was unimaginably advanced technology; Somewhere inside that cylinder was the secret to super-luminal travel.
How could he say no?
The Captain's voice replaced Mission Control. “Jerry, we're on private now: we're agreed down here, you should definitely go. The Polixaci guarantee a ride back if anything goes wrong with Intrepid. That was my condition. What do you think?”
He was exhilarated and terrified all at once. “I guess I'm game.”
“I'll tell Mission Control, and Houseguest will tell Mother. I'd expect company pretty soon. Over.”
“Roger, Hellas, Intrepid out.”
By the time he had his suit on, an elongated black egg the size of a two-story house had appeared outside the viewport, close aboard. He made his way to the lock and cycled through.
Mostly for the log, he spoke. “This is Rothmeyer. I'm leaving the spacecraft for my rendezvous with the Polixaci support craft. If I'm not back in an hour, send Flash Gordon.”
It wasn't his first EVA. He'd been engineer on one of the first second-generation shuttle missions. The new suits were thinner, though, tighter, more form-fitting and. This was as naked to the vacuum of space as he'd ever felt. He willed his muscles to pull the rest of his body out into the speckled darkness.
There was an oddly-shaped figure standing on the hull of the alien craft. The Captain's description of their suits as 'mechas' was apt. Rothmeyer resisted the urge to wave.
It was waiting to see what he would do. Fine. “I'm moving away from Intrepid now.” He activated his suit's maneuvering system and slowly, carefully, traversed the distance between the two vessels. When he was close enough, the alien reached out and grabbed him by a carabiner on his suit. Rothmeyer was passive as the alien pushed him with practiced ease down into his craft.
First human to set foot on an alien spacecraft. None of the ISS boys did that. “Aboard the alien support craft now. Roomy inside. Laid out pretty much like ours; form follows function, I guess. Chairs are different.”
The alien wasn't a Polixaci. It was a bit smaller than a man, and heavily furred, with a mouth and nose out of a horror film. Rothmeyer spent the last few minutes of the ride up to the liner trying to get a good high-def photo of its photo with his suit camera.
The unidentified alien never took off his suit, and so neither did Rothmeyer. They docked. The alien gestured towards the airlock, which was already in the process of opening to him when he looked over at it. His pilot stayed behind. “I'm moving from the support craft into the liner now.”
There was gravity without spin. He pulled himself awkwardly into it, and stood up. There were dozens of them, mostly Polixaci, but others also.
The compartment was large, and there were observation galleries above. Both spaces were brimming with aliens, all fixated on Rothmeyer. He was the only one wearing a pressure suit. He knew the Polixaci breathed a mix close enough to an Earth-normal atmosphere; he reached up and unfastened his helmet. “I'm inside. I'm on board the liner.” He allowed himself the luxury of wondering how jealous of him Heinz and Meade were right now, knowing that he'd always be the first human to board an alien starship.
What was walking on Mars next to that? Mars wasn't going anywhere...