Preface: Keep in mind that this story is not about the details of the science. I don’t explain what was wrong with the shuttle, how the space program works, or much detail in what the astronauts profession or skills are. Feel free to make up the finer details in your own imagination where it’s lacking. The reason is because it’s trivial to the actual story. The story is about a different way of thinking and how it affects the two cultures. As we get past the this chapter, the true exploration of the Harbingers begins.
Chapter One: The Atom & The Owl
When Earth finally began its one-way mission to Mars, they expected mysteries, discoveries, exploration, and amazing things. They also expected complications and fear. They got everything they expected but not quite as expected. They were too far away, now, for anyone to help them. They tried to fix things, but there was nothing left to do but hope that someone would come up with a genius idea to save them. That’s when the first telescope saw the giant atom-shaped entity in space. There was a huge sphere with three rings circling it. At first, it was kept quiet while officials figured out what to do. However, once Mars One could see it, it was now caught on video by the highly televised Mars One trip. They had enough to worry about and, as expected, this only added more stress. What was it? Was it going to crash into them? Was it aliens? Was it hostile? Would it save them? It was a feint hope, but it was all they had. At this point, they were already broadcasting their crying goodbyes to loved ones.
When the Atom finally approached, it was significantly larger than the Mars One. The astronauts were feeling the lack of oxygen and they considered if this whole thing was a hallucination. One of the rings around the Atom had a window that they could see through. There was a man and a woman floating behind the glass. They were humanoid, but obviously not from Earth. They did not look hostile… a look of wonder in their eyes. They had pointed ears, much like an elf, catlike or doglike fangs when they smiled, and a spot above each eye brow. The spots were closer together, rather than perfectly aligned with the eyes. They were towards the end of the brows, closest to the nose, but did not touch the brows. The female was fair skinned with ginger colored spots. She was wearing feather-like clothes that looked like a sort of blue owl; especially the hat with two tufts like an owl. The outfit was quite adorable, and she was very pretty with a crooked smile and blues eyes. Out of place was the lightish red ring she wore around her neck. The male had the same ring, but he wore a simple all black outfit with an asymmetrical design. His spots were a deep red, his eyes hazel-like in color (green with a gold outer ring), and long black hair. He too was fairly good looking and was taller than the female. The female pressed her palm to the glass and smiled wide. In a gesture of peace, the Earthling followed suit… but she could not muster up a smile. Instead, she darned a sullen expression.
The two aliens looked at each other and with a single fingered motion, a hologram screen appeared. The Earthling could have sworn that the image on the screen was a schematic of the Mars One shuttle. The aliens did not appear to speak, but rather gave each other looks and made gestures and motions. Then they looked at the Earthling again, and floated away out of sight. The Earthlings watched in anticipation… and hope. After a few mere moments, the Atom began to move toward them. In fear, the Earthlings huddled together and closed their eyes. They didn’t know if this was the end, or if they would be saved. Several minutes had passed, and no one was brave enough to look up until they heard a tapping on the glass. One of the female Earthlings rose from the huddle and approached the window to see what was happening. She was met with a smile from the Owl adorned woman, who was just on the other side of the shuttles glass. It was obvious that the Atom had taken the Mars One aboard. The Owl woman beckoned her out with a motion of her hands.
What if they couldn’t breath the air on the Atom space ship? At this point, they were loosing oxygen anyway, so what else could they do? Sit in fear waiting to die, or exit the shuttle and take their chances? The Atom was far more sophisticated than the Mars One, from what they could see, so chances were that the aliens were smart enough to know what air they breathed. They agreed it was the only rational choice… and the Earthling woman opened the shuttle door. She breathed in deep and smiled with gratitude. She and the other astronauts floated out of the shuttle and peered up at the on-lookers. There were many of these aliens standing steadily on a terrace above where the shuttle was floating securely. They noted that the people on the terrace were not floating, but the Owl woman, and the male that accompanied her, were floating along with the Earthlings and the shuttle.
Suddenly, the crowd ooo’d and awed at the sight of one of the astronauts. It took him by surprise “What? Never seen a man of color before?” he said with a nervous chuckle. He was the only African American aboard the shuttle. There was a pair of blonde twins on the terrace that giggled when he spoke. The Earthling astronauts whispered among themselves, but the aliens did not. It was strange that none of them spoke to each other… not even a whisper. The Owl woman motioned for the astronauts to follow her, which they did. She was unabashedly unmodest, as the group could see that she wore no underwear under the dress as she floated up to the terrace. As she climbed over the terrace, she set foot on the floor steadily and it was clear that there was an invisible threshold that provided artificial gravity up top. The aliens assisted each astronaut where needed and then they simply stared, gestured, and giggled from the terrace. With a glance around, there was a clear lack of modesty, as many of the aliens were scantily clad, some topless, some bottomless, and others fully clothed. Some of the more bashful astronauts blushed and averted their gaze respectfully.
As they followed the Owl, the most striking thing they saw (besides the aliens themselves) was the plant life integrated within the Atom space ship. While the plants were beautiful and unfamiliar, the amazing part was how everything was integrated into the ship. On the opposite side of the terrace, there was even dirt and grass down below, as if part of the ship itself was living. The temperature was cool on board the Atom, which was fine for most of the Earthlings, but the smaller astronauts thought it was a little chillier than what they felt was comfortable. They came upon a room that had four levels of beds built into the wall, but there was no ladder. There were five sets of these beds along the back wall which had large trees between them, merged with the wall itself. There was other plant life and flowers integrated in the room as well. They could easily get into the first two rows of beds, and with 10 astronauts that was just the right amount of beds needed. It was strange to see the dirt and grass that encircled the room with a non-organic floor for the inner portion of the room. The floor actually gave way a little, much like a padded mat, but it wasn’t too soft either. It was obvious that this would be their guest room for the time being.
The Earthling women turned to the Owl, looking down at her (she was under 5ft at best guess), and extended her hand, “Thank you. My name is Laika.” (pronounced LYE-kuh). The Owl smiled again, tilting her head curiously. She took Laika’s hand into her own and pulled it up to cup her face. In return she placed her free hand to Laika’s face. The Owl’s hand was surprisingly warm compared to the surrounding climate. Again she said her name “Laika” as she motioned to herself. The Owl looked confused and turned to her male counterpart with confusion on her face. The Owl looked back at Laika and spoke her name with quite ease “Laika” and then she nodded to herself. When the Owl did not reply with even a hint of a name, she decided to introduce the rest of the crew.
“Tyson… Nellie… Marie… Yuri… Dr. Teacher… Dr. Faraday… Leonard… Aldin… Harlow…” she pointed to each crew mate as she spoke. The Owl repeated their names slowly. Marie tried to stifle a yawn, because it was getting late in Earth time, and it was an exhausting few days. Most of the crew looked pretty tired and the aliens must have recognized it because they bowed slightly and took their leave from the room. There was unfortunately no door for the room, no privacy screens, and no bathroom. There were some cup fountains built into the wall with a sort of open river of water that traveled within the wall. There were no leaves or foliage in the water and it looked clear and pure. They decided to get some sleep for tonight. It was hard to relax, but they managed to get some rest. They took turns keeping watch just to be on the safe side. What they had learned from their watch, was that there wasn’t a defined sleeping schedule for the aliens. It seemed like the people of the Atom never slept, but they did see people napping in various places throughout the night.
When the astronauts had finally woken up for the day, they stepped outside their guest room to take a closer look at everything. Right outside the room was a bridge from one side of the terrace to the other, which was a shorter distance than from left to right. In the center there was a median with four rows and four columns of bunk beds, like in their guest room. There were vines and other plants, including purple and pink blueberry-sized berries, integrated into the median. Each bunk had an awning above it for, presumably, shade… since there wouldn’t be any rain inside a space ship. On the left side of the median, below the terrace was the Mars One shuttle. On the right side of the media was the commons area where the aliens frequented.
Laika instructed her crew to stay within the vicinity of their shuttle, guest room, and the median, and always stay in groups of two. They also had to ask permission to venture anywhere else, which she was not currently approving. She had a conversation with Misson Control and, at this time, it was agreed that observation of the aliens was the best course of action. Their camera man Leonard Berry would continue to broadcast their adventure. During their observations, one of the first things they noted was the technology. They had cute little robots that looked like plush toys. It seemed that almost every aliens had one. The Owl had a white rabbit with long floppy ears, and the Wolf had a wolf or K9-like robot at his side.
They also noticed that at there were no unattractive aliens. In fact, there was no obvious signs of illness or health issues of any kind. No visually identified disabilities, no obesity, and not so much as a simple cold. In terms of obesity, it was that no one was particularly too large or too skinny… although, in earth society, most of the aliens would be considered plus size. They were healthy. Though they were all attractive, they were not necessarily perfect. There were imperfections but it didn’t diminish their attractiveness. For example, the Owl had a beauty mark on her left cheek near her eye. Also, her smile was crooked, but it was cute and quirky. Yuri had commented that perhaps the aliens embraced the little imperfections that make them beautiful. It was a pleasant thought.
They also noticed that there were no children nor elderly folk. Given that they were on a space ship, it actually made sense. There were no children or elderly on Earth’s shuttles either. However, it was worth noting that their people appeared between 16 and late 20’s in age, which was still somewhat curious.
Then it was noticed that some of the aliens did not have the two spots above the eyes and those aliens seemed to be the only working class on the ship. The others didn’t seem to actually work. They were leisurely and indulgent. There was no obvious currency either. They just took whatever they wanted and some times traded. The unspotted aliens were obviously servants. The unspotted also did not have the robot companions nor the metal ring around their necks, like all the spotted aliens had. Tyson was the first to suggest the possibility that they might be slaves. He was more upset than anyone else.
“They seem pretty happy, though.” Yuri said as she observed a young unspotted female smiling to everyone and humming cheerfully as she swept the dirt from the center floor back to the outer areas where the trees were rooted.
“Oh… they look happy… Great! Then it’s clearly okay to enslave a race of people in that case!” Tyson replied with bitter sarcasm.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Tyson. It’s just that you’d think if they were slaves, that they wouldn’t look so happy.”
“They could be forced to look happy… or what about the slaves we don’t see?”
“Alright…” Laika raised her hand to interject, “I understand your concern, Tyson. Regardless, we are in no position to protest or help. We are out numbered and out of our depth.”
“And… ” Dr. Faraday added, “we can’t assume they’re slaves. We need to learn how to communicate with them and then maybe we’ll understand.”
“Maybe the spots are a symbol of ranking or maybe they’re earned by working towards it.” Dr. Teacher agreed with Faraday’s assessment.
Tyson took a deep breath and agreed internally that it was a fair possibility. However, he was still emotional over the topic and decided it would be best to step away from the situation. “I need time to think.” he said as he made his way back into the guest room. It was obvious that the Owl and Wolf noted Tyson’s dismay as they frowned in his direction. Though they did not pry and gave him his space. After a couple of hours, everything seemed calm. Tyson rejoined the team but simply didn’t bring up the topic… for now. The day was going well otherwise, and for the time being they decided to avoid eating or drinking any alien food. They had no way of knowing if it was safe to consume and they had plenty of rations inside the shuttle to last them for months. But then they realized that they had never seen a bathroom or a toilet anywhere.
“You don’t suppose they go in the grass?” Nell postulated.
“I hope not! And I’m not willing to do such a thing and risk offending them.” Marie commented.
“Agreed.” said Laika and some of the other crew, nodding.
Dr. Teacher had been observing their habits and assessing their social activities all day, “I’ve not seen anyone so much as squat or duck behind a tree or bush. Given their advanced culture, even given that they integrated nature into the ship, I highly doubt they soil the floors were they live.”
Aldrin looked up and gestured, urging his team mates to look around “Actually, this room looks pretty big, but it must be tiny in comparison to the ship. It’s huge! This can’t possibly be the only place on the ship.” Everyone agreed after recalling how huge the ship looked from the outside. They debated on the best course of action, to which Harlow pointed out that they could still use the facility on their shuttle until they found a bathroom equivalent on the Atom. It was agreed that they’d keep an eye out for a bathroom, but it was not a priority at this moment.
During the course of this eventful day, the Owl had been observing the astronauts and copying every word she heard. She even copied their tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. It was obvious that she was attempting to learn. It was awkward to be followed and mocked all day, but it was also reassuring. Laika decided to take Dr. Teacher with her to ground level to get a closer look and help the Owl learn their language. She pointed at everything she could while saying the name of the object… chair, pillow, table, tree, leaf, grass, flower, water, red, green, blue, hair, eyes, and so on. The Owl seemed to never forget a word and could name anything she had been told once. It was quite remarkable. It also seemed that other aliens were picking up words as well.
There was two solid days of shadowing and the aliens pretty much stayed out of the astronauts way. They stayed primarily on the ground level but there was occasionally activity on the terrace. There were routine joggers around the terrace and unspotted aliens that fetched food from the kitchen periodically, which was the next room over from the guest room. The aliens liked to make cute and funny faces at the astronauts and often made gestures or waved, and enticed them to come down to ground level. They declined, as deemed by their leader Laika. However, the astronauts did partake in the routine jogging which delighted the aliens. At the end of the second day, they began to sleep easier.
On the third morning, the Owl came to greet the astronauts with an unspotted male servant at her right and the white bunny robot at her left. “Good morning.” she said with a smile.