Bips the penguin looked out the porthole into the deep blackness of space. Stars twinkled in the distance, seeming colder than they did on Earth.
“What happens when we get there?” asked Bips.
“We get a new home.” Cpt. Flip was in charge of the mission. She knew everything about it.
Bips thought of Earth. “Will it be different from our old home?”
“Not really. Not much.” Cpt. Flip shrugged, more or less, as much as penguins can shrug. “There will be less radiation, we hope.”
Bips wondered if less radiation were a good thing. It was the nuclear winter that had led to the penguins’ rise to a spacefaring species, after all. It was all that stray radiation that had allowed them to multiply across the whole Earth.
Bips wanted to ask more questions, but Cpt. Flip was glaring at him. He thought better of continuing to annoy her, and instead waddled off the bridge and into the long tube that separated the living quarters from the rest of the ship.
“Hey, Bips!” Mizzles, his good friend from hatchlinghood, caught up to him. “Did Flip say how long?”
“No, I didn’t ask.” Everyone on board was excited about landing soon. The journey from Earth had not been a short one. “She seemed annoyed with me.”
“Well, she has her flippers full, doesn’t she?” Mizzles rocked from side to side. “I mean, the big day is almost here. Our new home!”
“Yeah.” Bips couldn’t quite share his friend’s enthusiasm. “Are you worried?”
“About what?” Mizzles cocked his head. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
“I dunno.” Bips shuffled his feet. “What if it’s too hot? Or too cold? What if there’s nothing to eat?”
Mizzles waved a flipper. “The scientists have thought of all those things. They wouldn’t steer us wrong.”
Bips sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
The alarm pinged loudly, causing both penguins to jump. A tinny, recorded voice squeaked through the passageways. “Approaching destination. Prepare for atmosphere entry.”
Mizzles looked at Bips, his eyes gleaming. “It’s time! We finally made it!”
Bips nodded and they both filed into the living quarters to huddle with the rest of the nonessential personnel. Old instinct grouped them into a large circle, its members shifting their weight from foot to foot.
The ship vibrated hard, tossing back and forth as it tore through the new planet’s atmosphere. The living quarters became uncomfortably hot, and penguins began to shuffle away from each other. Some hid their heads under their flippers. Bips was thankful he had outgrown such chickish behavior.
With a final lurch, the ship came to rest, throwing most of the penguins into a pile against one wall. With effort, Bips slid out from under his fellows and glided on his belly to the door.
Cpt. Flip stood at the ship’s main hatch, making notes on a pad. Slowly, penguins filed in behind Bips, until the whole ship’s population stood before Flip, shuffling anxiously.
“Friends!” she cried. “On this great day that will go down in history, we arrive at our new home. It has always been the destiny of penguins to reach across the skies, to find and colonize new worlds. Today, we take our first step. Welcome to your new planet!”
She flung open the hatch, and a blast of noxious gas hit Bips in the beak. He tried to cough, but sputtered. As much as he breathed in, he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. His vision clouded, then went dark.
In millennia to come, visitors to Hyaris, the small methane ice planet in the Phagus system, would marvel at the well-preserved wreckage of the alien ship. Its black-and-white passengers and crew, their bodies mummified by the planet’s dry conditions, raised more questions than they answered. Why had these beings traveled to Hyaris? Where had they come from? Why had they landed or crashed on the planet? Why had they opened the door without appropriate protective suits?
The answer, of course, is because penguins are stupid. But the intergalactic community could not have known that.