In my alternate-history science-fiction space opera setting, it’s well-established that first contact with alien intelligence was made by Ilmatar of Thalassa on, well, Thalassa (a planet of Proxima Centauri) around the year 2060. What’s not so well-established is that the Thalassans aren’t the closest alien intelligence to Earth: there is in fact a sapient species native to Enceldaus, 27,000 times closer!
It’s just that it’s a more exotic kind of intelligence, consisting of squid-like forms that are mostly brain with a very slow metabolism and thought process, their disposition secretive, cold, calculating, focused on the long-term; as another science-fiction series would put it, “wheels within wheels within wheels”. They live in the coldest, darkest, deepest waters of the icy moon, making them hard to detect; the fact they don’t want to be found or talked to until they’ve had more chance to observe from a distance the space aliens who come to their world in submarines.
Long before 2060 it’s been well-known to humans that Enceladus was a world rich in life. From “The Hunt for Count Gleichen’s Treasure”:
The floor itself had artistic illustrations of marine animals and sea monsters that didn’t have any terrestrial counterpart, inspired instead by Enceladan marine fauna.
Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to think there’s anything more than microbial life swimming about in that icewater in real life, but I want in my world there to be at least one subsurface ocean in the outer solar system with complex life under all that ice, and Enceladus seems to be uniquely vigorous among the ice-encrusted waterworlds. Plus, Saturn is the coolest planet for such an ecosystem to be in orbit of, with the rings and all. It was just too tempting to not include!
In my universe microbial life exists virtually everywhere it can survive, including the clouds of Venus, the soils of Mars, and all the outer solar system’s oceans, but complex life is much less common. Mars has a bit in the form of lichens, but Enceladus as of 2020 seems to be the only known site of macroscopic animal life aside from Earth. The likes of Europa or Ariel just have microbes, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that a planet in the Kuiper Belt, for example, has sea monsters in my universe. I’m rather definite about Enceladus being the only site of sapient life, though, among all these worlds.
From Space Legends to Space Fact: meet the Enceladans
As for the squidly brains of Enceladus, long before 2060 there are rumors from submariners of fleeting contacts with sea monsters that display intelligent behavior, but nothing remotely definite; all their reports are dismissed by most as space legends. Not too long after 2060, however, definitive first contact is made, shocking human civilization with the revelation that alien intelligence was, compared to how far they had to go to meet the Thalassans, right under their noses!
As with the Thalassans, the Enceladans are integrated into human, Gaian, or what later (after genetic engineering progresses to the point of speciation) comes to be known as Gaiagen civilization. Their role isn’t nearly as prominent as the Thalassans’, owing to their predilection for reclusiveness well away from the hubs of cosmic civilization, but they do find a niche for themselves; being few in number and seemingly dormant much of the time, they somehow always come out ahead, on top, and getting everything they want. They might not have the raw numbers of Gaians or the raw intellect of Thalassans, but what they do have is an extraordinary talent for long-term planning and plotting, which shows itself in the few members of their race who decide to assume high-profile roles in Gaiagen society.
They might also know more than they let on; after contact is established they evince knowledge of the universe outside their ice-encrusted sphere, and imply they’ve breached the surface with domesticated sea creatures on more than one occasion. There are also cryptic references to “other visitors” they’ve met in the distant past, long before humanity had even achieved sapience, let alone built a civilization.
Unlike Thalassans, Enceladans are biologically mortal; they grow old and die, but only over very long timescales. Before old age does them in they experience a very low mortality rate (ironically giving them a much longer life expectancy at birth than the ageless Thalassans, who tend to be risk-loving hotheads), suggesting they’re not nearly as vulnerable to the many fearsome sea monsters of their homeworld as it might seem at first glance. Humans eventually clue in to them having carefully tailored the entire planetary environment over geologic time scales to suit their own needs.
Their technology is rather rudimentary even considering their circumstances, but in terms of personality they seem much more inclined to pursue the highly-abstract life of the mind. Philosophy and mathematics are more their style, not science and engineering. I wouldn’t be surprised if Enceladan advances in pure mathematics ultimately proved foundational to the development of wormhole technology, even if the actual engineering and technological research was predominately done by Thalassans. Yes, Perun of Atlas was a human, but he was the exception.
Speculation is rife that in the fullness of time the Enceladans might have sent out probes or even people into space, but if so they aren’t talking to Gaians about it, at least not in the 21st century.
Letters from the Airy Deep: the Aftermath
I’m thinking maybe they’ll be discovered a decade or two after “Letters from the Airy Deep”. That provides enough time for the Thalassan contact to sink in (complete with “Letters from the Airy Deep” becoming a seminal text: yes, it’s supposed to be a text in-universe), and seems more realistic anyway than the idea of two contacts both occurring at around the same time. That also gives time for the Thalassan colonists to send biological samples of the ecosystem to the Gaian system and back again, several round trips’ worth.
In the mid to late 21st century the maximum speed a space habitat can attain is 22% of light speed or thereabouts, 10% from the full power of nuclear pulse plus an additional 12% from advanced solar sails. Laser sail technology isn’t advanced enough for even matching that speed to be practical, let alone exceeding it. However, for small payloads it’s no problem; indeed, for payloads as small as biosamples accelerating them for the whole trip at a constant 1g, and the attendant maximum velocity of 95% of light speed, is easy by this point, which means it takes only 6 years to make the trip (3.5 years ship time, due to time dilation).
There no doubt will be a flurry of biologists, paleontologists, and the like studying every inch of every sample they get back. So let’s say it’s 2070 or 2080.
The Return of Imogen?
My vision for the expeditionary fleet is they take 20 years to get to Thalassa, they all stay there 20 years, and then part of the fleet will carry whoever wants to go back to Earth for another 20-year journey. 20 years gives the Thalassan colonists enough time to get settled, experience and study the system, and construct replacement habitats. Given they arrived around 2060, the returnees should depart around 2080, giving an arrival date of 2100 or so. Neither Ilmatar or her husband Ilmarinen would be interested in going to Earth, but I imagine Ilmarinen’s grandmother Imogen (the same Imogen from “Dear Future Me”) would be.
Assuming she’s about 20 in “Dear Future Me”, she’d be 40 upon departure from Earth, 60 upon arrival at Thalassa, 80 upon departure from Thalassa, and 100 (!) upon return to Earth. Where no doubt she’d be a celebrity once again like she was in her youth, and could embark upon a brand new chapter in her life as an honored elder, inspiring a new generation of girl space explorers, maybe even founding a whole institution dedicated to that purpose. I don’t know.
Doing all this in her 100s might strike some as a stretch, but we know nothing about Imogen’s family background; for all we know she might have very good genetics to begin with, and she seems to lead a very healthy lifestyle.
That might be fertile ground for a story…
In addition to this old fleet coming back in 2100, long before then, and especially after 2060 when first contact is revealed, there will be waves of human colonists departing for Thalassa, and perhaps for the neighboring Alpha Centauri system as well. I’m sure the revelation of first contact, after it reaches Earth in 2064, will galvanize interest in moving to Proxima Centauri.
I’m wondering if, after they contact humans circa 2070 or 2080, a few of these Enceladan brains might volunteer to go to Thalassa themselves and join one of the human-led expeditions. As such these intrepid brains and grandmother Imogen might pass each other like ships in the night (literally!) sometime in the 2080s or 90s. Or maybe not; you know, a close passage of these two fleets might make for a really interesting little story.
Imogen is still hell-bent on returning to Earth, but she might be tempted by the prospect of lighting up an advanced laser sail, turning around, and joining those squid brains on a journey back to Thalassa. Maybe she makes meeting their Helian (the demonym for Gaia’s solar system) counterparts a top priority upon her return to Earth. With her might be a descendant who was born on Thalassa but wants to accompany his or her dear ancestress to Earth, being intensely curious about the bright center of the universe.
Might be something of a bookend for “Dear Future Me”, completing the circle of student and mentor, as well as completing a round trip between Gaia and Thalassa. She’d be among the first group of humans to accomplish the latter feat, by the way.
Man’s interstellar Expansion: faster than you think?
By 2100 it will have been over a century since the first interstellar probes were sent out. All the nearest stars should have been well-covered by then, and perhaps, with the more advanced laser-sail technology, stars far beyond the nearest few. If they started using the technology around 2040 (when the Thalassan expedition, which possesses it, launches), then microprobes (nanoprobes?) may well have reached 50 light-years downrange of Earth by 2100, though due to the light-speed communication lag only probes 25 light-years out will have been heard from by Earth yet.
I expect all the nearest stars will have been colonized or will be on the way to being colonized by 2100; even without Earth-like worlds the temptation of living in a whole ‘nother solar system will be too much for thousands, if not millions, to resist.
What will the World of 2100 look like?
One obstacle to me writing up all this as an actual story is a lack of definitive ideas about what the world of 2100 in the beating heart of the human universe would look like. But I can take a good guess: a more mature version of the world of 2020 or 2040, with the seeds of what would become dominant factors in my far-future era starting to make themselves felt a bit. Genetic engineering will have made itself felt, but even in the early 22nd century still in the “spruce people up a bit” stage, not the “immortal perfectly-beautiful geniuses” stage seen by the 31st century.
Sort of a transitional form between the near future and the far future of my space-opera setting. In “Spectres Call for Me” we see a distinctive element of what one might call my mid future: a rather cool high-acceleration relativistic spaceflight method involving human hibernation and liquid breathing, but in my mind that’s a technique that postdates the 22nd century somewhat (I don’t imagine a readily breathable liquid without much side effects like in that story will be all that easy to develop!).
Perhaps the biggest change from the early 21st century might be nuclear fusion reaching maturity and seeing widespread adoption as a technology; for example, aneutronic fusion reactors could provide you a nuclear-powered bicycle! Nuclear pulse propulsion has reached maturity as well, with it becoming increasingly common and economical as a spaceflight method for even small craft (back in 2020 it was largely restricted to billionaires with money to burn like Count Gleichen). It might even be economically viable to use it for point-to-point transportation on-planet; Earth to orbit would cost $0.01 per pound, which is comparable to a 1000-mile trip by a semi truck today. In any case I expect it to be much more common.
Another big change is the social order; it was already starting to make its presence felt even by 2020, but by 2100 I expect crypto-anarchy will have swallowed up even old-line terrestrial states to the extent they’re receding into quaint relics of historical memory.
Anyway, that’s my latest bout of worldbuilding that’s poured forth from my mind. I find I’m in a mood to fill in the gaps of my timeline lately, and this exercise gets me a big part of the way there. Sometime when I feel like writing a new story I might just go for this memoir of Imogen’s elderhood, or even something else altogether that incorporates these elements. Might be fun!