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On First Contacts and Second Chances

Markus Lauerer is a medical student from Munich, Germany. Apart from annoying patients with a reflex hammer, he spends his time trying to make stories sound half as good on paper as they do in his head. "On First Contacts and Second Chances," is his first English-language publication.
We've had a hard time accepting the fact that our first and only contact with an alien civilization must ultimately be considered a failure. Our overwrought imaginations simply hadn't allowed for the possibility.
All the books and movies we had loved as kids and still treasured as adults--nostalgia endowing them with an authority they probably did not merit--had ingrained in us some very specific ideas of what to expect from an extraterrestrial visit: technological marvels heralding an era of unimaginable prosperity, metaphysical insights that would fundamentally change our understanding of the universe, cold-blooded extermination of the entire human race. A true paradigm shift, in any case.
Reality turned out to be a lot less grandiose. It took the better part of three long, arduous months and a lot of fumbling in the dark by a team of world-renowned linguists until some approximation of meaningful communication with the Makrinoi could be established. Still, much of it was based on guesswork.
What little we managed to learn about their science and culture was more of philosophical interest than of any practical use. Replicating their way of producing energy or their mode of space travel using Earth's resources was out of the question. Their gadgetry proved useless in human hands. And their biology, from what we understood, was so radically different that any medical advances applicable to terrestrial organisms seemed highly unlikely. At some point even initially optimistic voices had to concede that besides the admittedly monumental revelation of humanity not being the only intelligent species in the vastness of the universe, there was probably not much to be gained from this intergalactic meeting.
When the Makrinoi ships disappeared into the silence of space a year after their arrival, there was no sense of accomplishment, no promise of a golden future or threat of annihilation. More than anything, it felt awkward. Like leaving a party which, despite everyone's best intentions and efforts, never really took off. Here and there you'd see groups of people gathering outside, their heads turned upward watching the metallic sheen of the alien vessels slowly coalesce into the blue tranquility of a familiar sky. Some of them waved, looking like fools. Others just stood there, looking no different.
By now, things have largely returned to normal. We do our jobs like we used to, spend our money like we used to, love our families like we used to. Our scientists are dedicating themselves more than ever to tackling the tremendous challenges we face these days. Everyone is playing their part to keep the machine running smoothly.
And yet deep down, some place that we force ourselves to keep sealed tightly, there's this nagging suspicion. That we didn't try hard enough, didn't have enough patience. That it is better to live with hope that might never be fulfilled than to have it taken away forever. Sometimes, when we are alone and the fading light of the sun falls through the windows at a certain angle, we grow weary. And for just the fraction of a moment we admit to ourselves that we might have missed our chance.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 11th, 2019

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