by Lou Antonelli


"What the heck is that?” asked Nazrullah.
“Someone’s at the air lock,” said Rios.
“Without calling first?”
Rios shrugged as he walked towards his console.
“What can I say? Someone must have gone out the back air lock, and wants in the front.”
Commander Nazrullah frowned.
Rios turned when he was halfway across the room.
“It’s quicker just to look out the port.” He walked around the corner.
Nazrullah heard the Mars Base comlink ping. As he leaned forward to press the button, he heard Rios scream.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“Oh crap, what now?” thought Nazrullah.
Andries, who was in the other wing of the station, came on the comlink.
“Uh, Commander... have you taken a look outside your air lock recently?”
Rios ran around the corner. He was pop-eyed and red-faced.
Nazrullah stood up. Rios stammered incoherently.


“I see what he saw,” said Andries. “You better grab your weapon."
“What the hell is out there?” Nazrullah barked.
Andries voice quavered, but was still controlled. “An alien. Pushing the airlock button. And he’s folded his hands in front of him, like he’s waiting for you to answer the door.”
Rios was nodding rapidly.
“This is crazy,” though Nazrullah. He sauntered around the corner and looked out the porthole.
A six-foot tall creature that looked like a cross between a gorilla and a hippopotamus covered in blue-black bristles--and obviously wearing some kind of breathing apparatus--was standing in front of the air lock.
He saw Nazrullah—-and waved in a friendly way.
Andries had run over from the other wing.
“Do we all see this?” asked Nazrullah.
Rios gulped. “Yep. What do we do?”
Nazrullah thought hard for a minute, and like all commanders are trained to do, adopted the most direct, effective and elegant solution.

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"We let him in."
Actually, Nazrullah harbored a strong suspicion he had fallen asleep at his swivel desk and it was all a dream--but he opened the air lock, equalized the pressure after the creature entered, and then opened the inner door.
The creature’s head skimmed the ceiling. It was a bimanual hexapod, but its four legs were so articulated that the pair on each side could fit together and move as one, so it could walk as a biped.
It lumbered in and brushed Nazrullah as it passed. Its thick blue-black fur had a musty smell.
“Is this for real?” he asked himself. “Dream’s don’t smell --at least mine don’t.”
The creature sat down in a squat sort of way, and removed its breathing gear. “Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate your courtesy in allowing me into your habitation.” By now, Smedley had run in from the sleeping quarters. He hung back with Rios and Andries. Nazrullah spoke to the creature.
“You’re very welcome. I had hardly expected first contact to be so informal.”
Nazrullah saw the creature’s four eyes blink rapidly in a response he took to be the equivalent of laughter.
“My name is Ajo.” He looked past Nazrullah at Andries, who was punching frantically at his cellcom.
“I’m sorry. For the time being, your communications are blocked.”
Andries looked up, even paler than usual.


“I would like you to hear me out uninterrupted.”
“Of course.” Nazrullah took his seat behind his swivel desk.

Commander George Nazrullah’s hair was a bright silver and his face a pale tan. When he laughed—-which wasn’t often-—wrinkles danced along his face.
He was “The Old Man” at 51, and some mornings, he felt every day of it.
His grandfather had watched the television news in black and white when Grissom, Chaffee and White died in the Apollo capsule fire. His father had told him how he lowered the flag outside his high school to half-staff when the Challenger exploded.
He was in the 1st grade when his Saturday morning cartoons were knocked off the air by the breakup of the Columbia shuttle.
It was now over a year since he and the other crewmembers had left Earth. The Mars Base was finished five years behind schedule and ten billion dollars over budget. Some people never thought it would get done--but the collapse of the Islamist Jihad and the end of the Second Cold War had freed up a great deal of American and European resources.
The Mars Base project sought an Arab as team leader.
“No hard feelings, and all that,” said the human resources director in Milan.

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“I’m 50 and ready to retire,” said Nazrullah. “I’m also completely burned out after all these years of waiting.”
“You’re also the only Arab-American member of the astronaut corps who had the right certification and credentials,” said the HR director. “Consider your ass drafted.”
The other crewmembers were half his age. The original complement was an even dozen, but five only went along for the shakedown and debugging. They had left orbit yesterday.
The permanent crew of four had just started to get into what they thought would be a normal routine.
I’m old and tired and not a little bit scared--and I get to handle first contact, thought Nazrullah. He spoke up. “Whatever you have to say--I’m all ears.” As he said this, he noticed Ajo didn’t seem to have any.
Ajo’s four eyes puckered towards the center of its face in what appeared to be an expression of concentration. “Would you like to know the answer to Fermi’s Paradox?”
Nazrullah could see everyone else lean forward.
“I would welcome that,” he said.
“It will also explain why I came here today.”
“Your grasp of conversational English is excellent,” Nazrullah smiled nervously. “And you obviously have studied our culture. Otherwise you wouldn’t know about the Fermi Paradox. But why contact us here? Why now?”
Ajo shifted around a bit before he began. A few exhalations from fur-covered breathing holes along his solid torso seemed to be

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the equivalent of clearing one’s throat.
“One answer to that paradox is obvious. There is intelligent life outside your stellar system, and it has been concealing itself while you have been under observation.”
“Very well, then, why have you revealed yourself now—-and in such an informal fashion?”
Ajo looked around at the rest of the crew, standing there like wooden soldiers. He waved a blue-black hand expansively.
“Gentlemen, please assume a more relaxed posture! I am not going to eat you!”
He turned to Commander Nazrullah and winked three of his four eyes. “Yet!”
Nazrullah chuckled inside despite himself. “This lug has a sense of humor,” he thought.
“Returning to the Paradox, an answer I know which has been suggested among your people is that, once a species reaches a certain level of scientific and technological innovation, it either destroys itself in war, or is annihilated by sophisticated weapons.
“In truth, this is a hazard all emerging sentient races must deal with,” Ajo continued. “A few have failed to escape this pitfall. You will find their ruins on dead worlds you may explore in the future.”
The room grew especially quiet.
Nazrullah spoke up. “Have we cleared that hurdle yet?”
Ajo lowered his massive head. “In all likelihood, yes. You were actually quite fortunate to develop fission weapons as early in your civilization as you did. They were only used strategically twice, but their potential was quite evident. If you had developed them in mass quantities and then went to war, there might have been wide scale deployment. Instead, you never engaged in that major


“What about biological weapons,” Cedric piped up, “or other types of weapons of mass destruction?”
Nazrullah looked at Ajo, who exhaled again
“Your people are following a quite predictable and necessary path of development--the implementation of a totalitarian planetary regime to prevent such destruction,” said Ajo. “It is a uniform law of social evolution--robust technologies require strong governments.”
Ajo shifted his squat form again. “In a few hundred years, terms you now use, such as freedom and privacy, will be meaningless to your descendants.”
Nazrullah propped his chin on his fist.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I feel like an instructor in one of our creches,” said Ajo. “I hope you don’t think I’m speaking down to you.”
“No, please, continue,” said Andries from the back. “This is fascinating.”
“Eventually, all technologically-advanced species develop planetary totalitarian regimes, and they find deep space is too difficult to control, much less govern.”
“This is the answer to Fermi’s Paradox, why other worlds have never contacted yours," Ajo continued. “They aren’t interested.”
“Home worlds aren’t concerned with establishing relations with other species,” he continued. “In fact, most prefer to conceal their location to avoid potential attacks.”
He shifted and focused all four eyes on Nazrullah. “Most other species aren’t nearly as inquisitive as humans.”
“So why the visit today?” asked Nazrullah. “Is this just a

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social call?”
“Not at all, commander. You see, space travel is an inevitable outgrowth of technological development. At some point, all sentient species that reach a certain level of development begin to send out space travelers. But...” and he seemed to look around for emphasis, “the qualities that are most valuable for space exploration--daring, innovation, flexibility and curiosity--put the space-faring members of a species in conflict with its home world residents and regime. The off-world members of a species inevitably secede from the home world.”
“So who do you represent?” asked Nazrullah.
“The fraternity of space. You may call us The Ardents.”
Puzzled looks passed among the members of the Mars Base crew.
“We are a group that includes members of all the species that have struck out into space. It is a system that has evolved among the various sentient species over eons.”
Ajo looked at the men's startled expressions.
“I know it’s hard to grasp, for you, so closely tied to your home world now,” he said. “Some day your descendants may never visit Earth—-or even know of it.”
“We detected artificially produced electromagnetic waves coming through a nearby wormhole over 200 of your years ago. I was delegated by our officers to come to your system and observe you moved off your home world,” he said.
“When I jumped off my portal at the end of a nearby wormhole, I saw you were using electromagnetic waves for communications, and a few years later, you achieved atomic fission—-a milestone in the evolution of any species. I set up my observation post here, on Mars, because I deduced this would be the


first planet you would colonize. Your missions to your rather large satellite don’t meet the admittedly subjective standards we set for expansion into space.”
“And now that we have small permanent base here,” asked Nazrullah, “you’ve come to tell us—-what?”
Ajo rose and spread his feet apart so he stood as a quadruped. “I would invite you to become the first members of your species to join our fraternity.”
There were shouts and exclamations.
“Holy shit!”
“Such an honor!”
“This is nuts.”
Nazrullah cleared his throat. “You expect us to join some kind of intergalactic free masonry?”
Ajo winked three of his eyes again. “An excellent comparison, Commander! You see, the news we bring and the relations we propose would cause severe ramifications on Earth. But with the help of some you who are willing to embark on this long process, we can begin to establish Humanity’s place in The Ardent.”
He looked around the room. “Just because we exist in the interstices of space doesn’t mean we have no homes of our own. There are a number of planets we control—-planets with no indigenous race, that we colonized and organized.”
Nazrullah's throat was dry, but he still was able to speak. “What do we have to do?”
“I am prepared to administer a solemn oath to the Ardent--an oath of utmost secrecy. Not only must you never divulge the existence of our lodge, you must be willing to die--to kill yourself if necessary under the threat of torture--never to divulge the

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coordinates of our base worlds. There are terrible empires constantly attempting to gain control of any or all of our resources for their own selfish ends.” His gaze slowly drifted across the men again. “You are all intelligent creatures. I know you understand the reason for secrecy, given the undeveloped state of your civilization. But in return for this oath, I promise you explorations and adventures beyond your wildest imaginings at this time. The galaxy—literally—will be at your fingertips. What is your answer?”
Nazrullah turned and faced the rest of the crewmembers.
“What do you say, men?”
Everyone cried out in the affirmative. Ajo raised an extremity, and all four men followed suit.
“Well, this is going to be something,” thought Nazrullah, as Ajo began to intone the oath.
Sent: Friday, July 26, 2048
Subject: Re-Up
Well, I have to say we were all somewhat pleasantly surprised to see you’re willing to stay on another year at the Mars Base. I recall I had to “draft” you for your first tour. I’m gratified you’ve found the first year at the base both so rewarding.
Your continuing on will be a boon both in terms of stability and expansion. I am also gratified to see that everyone else except Lt. Smedley is staying another year. I understand he has family problems he needs to attend to.
The next transport lifted off from Kazakhstan on schedule, June 15, and so should be there by November. It will have the modules for the next phase of expansion, and the new complement of ten crewmembers, as well as a replacement for Lt. Smedley.


Thanks, George, for having faith in the program.
“That’s enough,” said Smedley. “You obviously have them bamboozled."
“Your grandmother really is sick, isn’t she?” asked Nazrullah.
“Of course. If you ask her, she hasn’t had a healthy day since 2020.”
They both smiled.
Rios walked in, holding a palmer.
“Ajo double-checked the list of what you need to do when you get back,” he said as he handed Smedley the palmer.
He peered at it. “Look’s like I got my work cut out for me, Commander,” he said with a grimace.
“The four of us have a lot of work, but we’re only the first humans to join the Ardent,” said Nazrullah. “Besides, once we establish a base of operations back on Earth, our numbers will grow. You’re our point man for now.”
Smedley saluted his commander. “I appreciate your trust, sir. I’ll be off.”
Rios entered as Smedley left. “Ajo and Andries are almost done with the wormhole-grabber,” he said. “It should be ready in a few days.”
Andries followed into the room.
“Ajo says to come. In the meantime he has established a real-time comlink with a lodge in the Barnard System. This system shoots through the wormhole.” He rubbed his hands. “Instantaneous communication through deep space!"
Rios turned and took off down the corridor.
Andries paused. “Ajo said to make sure you came along. He said you wouldn’t want to miss this.”
Nazrullah broke into a jog and zipped past Andries.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he laughed.

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