Raul was pre-breathing oxygen. He still had twenty minutes left before we could shove him out the airlock. He kept dropping the mask away from his mouth and looking out the view port though. A decade of training, and steely nerves only get you so far.
“Come on, come on, you need to focus,” I told him.
“Do you blame me?”
“You can look all you want when you’re out there.”
“I need a stiff drink,” he said.
“Yeah, that will go over well in the history books,” I said. “Why don’t you bring the bottle with you while you’re at it? Maybe they’d like to share?” I heard a couple of quiet chuckles. So much for cutting the tension.
I took a quick look through the window as well. The alien ship sat there, seemingly only decametres away, perfectly matching our course and velocity.
“You should show them long addition,” said one of the senior engineers. He held a bulky vacuum pen and erasable pad under his arm. “You know, where you write the numbers under each other?”
Several people nodded, figuring out where he was going with the idea.
“It works for all number bases, so they’ll probably have something analogous,” he said. “It might make a good starting point.”
One of the cargo handlers pushed their way through, lugging an inflatable life raft, interrupting the conversation. Once deployed, it would form a translucent, pressurized sphere, several meters across, with its own self-contained airlock. By placing it, with Raul inside, exactly halfway between our ships, we hoped it would be an obvious invitation to a meeting.
“Sing songs,” said an anthropologist.
“Songs? What songs?” Raul asked.
“Children’s nursery rhymes. They’re designed to teach language basics.”
“I’m not going out there and singing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to some damn bug-eyed extra-terrestrial,” he said. “This isn’t a kindergarten. Are you crazy?”
“Easy, Raul,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “We’re all trying to help.”
I looked around. “Doc, you have anything safe that you can give him to calm him down?”
“He’s breathing pure oxygen,” said Doctor Narang. “I’m not giving him anything.”
“Okay, okay.” I took a look at my watch. “Let’s get him in the airlock.”
I waited for everyone else to leave. The helmet on his suit was locked down already, but there was a dedicated intercom system in the lock for just this purpose.
“Cap’n,” he said.
“They’ll name schools and spaceports after you,” I said. “They’re not even going to remember anyone else in the crew. Maybe I’ll get a footnote.”
“Why am I doing this?”
“You’re the one trained for this. You’re the expert.”
“Yeah, but what if I screw up?” he said, plaintively. “We’re gambling with everything, everything on the table here.”
I thought for a moment. “You know what? I’ll bet you there’s somebody over on that spacecraft having exactly the same conversation we’re having. I bet there’s some little ET, even greener around the gills than they usually are, getting a serious pep talk from somebody with more patches on their shoulders.”
I gave him a light rap with my knuckles on top of his helmet, and clambered out of the airlock. I leaned in to look at him, before I closed the inside door.
“If things go wrong, we’ll have backup with you in seconds,” I said.
He nodded. “Wish me luck.”
“Not luck,” I said. “Destiny.”