Meet the pilot who made first contact with aliens in Elite: Dangerous

It was supposed to be a routine trip. Commander DP Sayre, known in real life as Robert Bettig, slumps into his captain's chair and cracks open a beer. Thirty-six jumps is what his navigation computer tells him—an almost 50 minute trek from his home in Kisatsya to the star system of Maia. There, he plans to get some engineering work done on his Corvette. But unlike most of the populated star systems of Elite: Dangerous, Maia is far outside the sphere of colonized space. Between Kisatsya and Maia is a vast gulf of lifeless, empty space far colder than the Michigan winter that Bettig is used to. For years, pilots like him had been excitedly searching for alien life in those uninhabited places, but he never expected that they would be the ones to find him. 

First contact 

"I was headed out with three magnetic emitter coils in my hull and that was it," Bettig tells me. His gravelly American accent only reinforces his persona of an Elite: Dangerous veteran. All told, he has more than 2000 hours in the captain's chair. He tells me that while he spends most of his time helping newer players get to the level of familiarity he has with the game, his heart really lies in exploration. "I love it," he says. "I have no problem going out by myself for weeks or months at a time and just exploring." His journeys have taken him all over, so a boring jaunt to Maia was nothing—even if a couple of bounty hunters were on his tail.

"I knew it was going to be a long, boring trip so I just settled in and grabbed a cold beer. I wasn't even really paying attention," Bettig tells me. But just as he makes his way through the Aries Dark Region, he experiences something that is supposed to be impossible. Seconds into his hyperspace jump, a warning appears on his heads-up display.

"Hyperspace conduit unstable."

Suddenly, travelling at hundreds of times the speed of light, Bettig's Corvette begins to violently pitch and roll. His hull groans with the unimaginable strain and around him strange noises roar out of the abyss. Seconds later the tunnel collapses. "Uh, guys?" He says over his comms channel to the rest of Ryder's Rangers—the faction Bettig flies with. "I just got pulled out of Witch space [Elite's name for hyperspace]."

His comrades aren't buying any of it. While players can be interdicted at slower supercruise speeds, no one in the history of Elite: Dangerous had ever been forcefully pulled out of warp as they moved between star systems in hyperspace. "There's nothing in the game that can do that," Bettig assures me. "Nothing."

This kind of thing is supposed to happen to other people, not me.

As his ship returns to normal space, his systems malfunction. Rolling helplessly, the lights on his dashboard die while Bettig desperately tries to convince his friends that the impossible just happened. A second later, the bounty hunter chasing him warps in and immediately opens fire. Bettig, his ship offline, is a sitting duck. "I had no idea what was going on," he says. "My first thought was am I going to survive this? I have no idea what is happening. And then the first thing I see is that stupid bounty hunter in an Anaconda. I'm just glad that my Corvette has shields."

As the shots bounce off his Corvette's shield, Bettig gets another opportunity to reevaluate what he thought was possible in Elite: Dangerous. A massive ship that Bettig had never seen before comes into view above him and the laser impacts of the Anaconda become the least of his worries. From behind, the vessel has the distinct likeness of a flower, but its sinewy surface makes it look more like dead muscle tissue. The space behind it ripples and tentacles of orange energy trace its path. "My first thought was, how bad is this going to hurt?" Bettig tells me. "At this point, I felt like anything was possible."

"I'd thought I'd seen it all."

Then, almost unexpectedly, the ship makes a sharp turn to face Bettig. As the front of the ship comes into view, each of its flower-like petals begin glowing erratically and a distorted cry pierces the emptiness of space. Then, to Bettig's horror, its petals begin to extend. A moment later, his speakers fill with a harsh wail as yellow light explodes from the central bulb. "I thought I was getting microwaved—that this guy was just going to eat me for dinner," Bettig confesses. "I had no control over my ship, all I could do was look around. At that point I just resigned myself to it."

"I was shaking so bad."

Frantic, he tries to relay everything he sees but even despite his rattled tone, his friends don't believe his story. "You try telling someone that something the size of a space station that looks like a jellyfish and a flower all at the same time is baking you with yellow light and yeah, they tell you to go fly a kite," he laughs.

You try telling someone that something the size of a space station that looks like a jellyfish and a flower all at the same time is baking you with yellow light and yeah, they tell you to go fly a kite.

Just as suddenly as it started, it stops. The petals retract, the light dissipates, and the ship sets off. Seconds later, Bettig's systems are back online. Before what happened can even sink in, another volley lances his hull from the NPC bounty hunter seemingly unphased by the ordeal. "I still had that 'Conda to deal with, so I didn't stick around. I punched the [Frame Shift Drive] button and just got out of there."  

As Bettig makes his escape, his friends finally began to believe his story. Fortunately, Bettig also captured video of the encounter but would need to wait for it to render before he can prove he isn't crazy. One friend who happens to be nearby jumps over to meet him and take him the rest of the way to Maia.

Then, three jumps later, it happens again.

Bettig jumps to hyperspace, the conduit becomes unstable, and he is forcefully ejected and left stranded. His friend makes his warp just fine but Bettig isn't so lucky. "This time I was more prepared," he says. "Without having a bounty hunter on me, it was a little bit easier. I didn't die the last time, so I wasn't too afraid to stick around a little bit longer. I just wanted to keep watching it. As soon as I had control of my ship, I spun it around, hit the gas and started following it."

As the alien vessel takes off, Bettig tries to keep pace. He manages to scan it just as it warps away. "I love the scan data. I got a full scan on it and even after the scan is done it just said 'unknown,'" Bettig says excitedly.

At that moment, what happened begins to sink in. Bettig just became the first person in Elite: Dangerous to make contact with an alien species—twice. 

We are not alone 

When the videos of the encounter were ready Bettig shared them online so his friends could see them. Before long, another Elite: Dangerous pilot happened across them and shared it to the official forums and community subreddit—both of which immediately exploded with excitement over the news. Then, almost immediately after, others began posting videos of their own encounters. Speculation over what the aliens want, what the yellow light is, and where they come from is running rampant. Like the Roswell UFO Incident, thousands are voyaging to Maia in hopes of having an encounter of their own.

I think we're going to see war. At this point, it's hard to say what to prepare for—you're preparing for the unknown.

Right now, there are more questions than answers. The popular consensus is that the ship belongs to the Thargoids, an alien species from earlier Elite games infamous for their bloodlust and cruelty. If that is the case, as even Bettig believes, life in the Milky Way is about to get a lot worse. "I think we're going to see war," he says grimly. "At this point, it's hard to say what to prepare for—you're preparing for the unknown."

But at least one question is answered: "We are not alone."

For Bettig, the experience has been overwhelming—not just the encounter but the community's reaction to it. When I first reached out to speak with him, it was his brother who responded. "He's still sleeping off a long night, and asked that I help him with some of the publicity since he doesn't have any social media presence at all and is not a huge fan of all the attention," his brother wrote. 

"It still hasn't sunk in completely," Bettig admits. "Messages are still coming in as we're talking. So far everyone has been extremely supportive and congratulatory. I feel honored. Did I ever think I'd be the first? No. This kind of thing is supposed to happen to other people, not me."

And while he's still adjusting to his new status as a celebrity in the Elite community, Bettig is more concerned about the future. "There's a lot of politics in Elite: Dangerous—not just from the local factions but also the big players. These aliens, we don't know anything about them. If they are Thargoids, we're up 'shit crick' without a paddle. We're going to have to stop beating ourselves up over petty, little things and really come together and focus as a human race to deal with this."

"This is a game-changer." 

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.