POINT OF CLOSEST APPROACH

Anthony George is an up-and-coming young writer who has recently sold to Buried Letter Press, Cleaver Magazine and Eclectic Flash. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

***

Day 1

We broke orbit this morning, to great fanfare. Today we’re heroes. In two months, we’ll be dead.

Boris had tears in his eyes. Sentimental fool.

Day 2

I’m alone on the flight deck, watching the moon swell in the window like the headlamp of an oncoming freight train.

Boris was up here for a while, wearing those stupid GoSpecs and watching 3-D images of Earth with tears streaming down his face. He left when I refused to look at holos of his home. I said I was busy.

The truth is I have no desire to wallow in a puddle of maudlin Russian sentimentality. I plan to spend the next fifty-four days re-reading my favorite books and listening to the greatest music ever written. If Boris wants to go on a terminal crying jag, that’s his affair. It won’t bother me. I have headphones.

But first I have to provide Mission Control with a status report. NASA and RSA are very fussy about contact. A year ago, they couldn’t have cared less whether either of us lived or died. But now that we’re celebrities, they want to speak with us every two hours.

I wonder what they’d do if I told them the brave Hero of the Rodina is curled up in a fetal position bawling his eyes out. Probably instruct me to “comfort” him. Right. Like I’m going to waste one minute of my last eight weeks of life playing nursemaid to a clinically depressed Siberian peasant. I’ll call the bureaucrats in Houston—on schedule—but I won’t say a word about Boris.

Then I’ll lose myself in Vivaldi and Atlas Shrugged.

Day 3

We passed the orbit of the moon today, on our slow climb outward from Earth’s solar orbit toward our rendezvous with Little Stranger. I did all the work, of course. I’m the pilot and mission commander. Boris is just the payload specialist.

We’ve burned a sizable fraction of our fuel already. We’ll use the rest in two more maneuvers that will put the orbiter on course for rendezvous—our point of closest approach with the alien probe.

In the meantime, we have nothing to do but keep our sanity. Easier said than done for two condemned men trapped in twenty-six hundred cubic feet of space for the rest of their lives. That’s roughly the equivalent of two twelve-by-twelve rooms—larger than the average cell on death row, but with no exercise yard, gym, or prison library. And no showers. A jail cell would be luxury by comparison.

We’re now farther from Earth than anyone else has ever been. That’s probably important to someone. What matters to me is that we’re also farther than ever from the eight billion people who infest the planet like some kind of four-limbed plague. I won’t miss them at all.

Boris is still crying. I’m amazed that he has any tears left. If he keeps this up, I may have to sedate him. Eight billion people on the planet, and I got stuck with him. Just my luck.

Day 5

I’ve moved my sleeping bag up to the flight deck. I can’t get a moment’s rest with this idiot constantly mooning over his dead wife and daughter. I’m starting to wonder if he’ll even be alive when we reach the fly-by point. He strikes me as someone who might just take an unscheduled EVA one night—in his long johns. I suppose there are nastier ways to suicide than a spacewalk without a pressure suit—but not many.

Why is he here? I know he volunteered, but how he got past the psych tests is beyond me. The secretive bastards at the Russian Space Agency should never have chosen him, and the petty little bureaucrats at NASA should never have let him on board. NASA will ground an Orion launch for a loose bolt—but it’ll send a clinically depressed suicide risk on a two-man mission that could save the planet? Morons.

I’ve finished Atlas Shrugged. Next up: The Prince. Or maybe The Art of War. I haven’t decided yet. But the music will definitely include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. If I told Boris, he’d probably start sobbing again.

Day 7

The latest images from the doddering and decrepit Hubble (held over for the fourth straight decade!) show Big Stranger still sitting serenely on orbit around Mars while Little Stranger creeps relentlessly toward Earth in its lazy Hohmann orbit. The astronomers tell us that the larger object is a cylinder roughly seven meters high and seven wide, while the smaller one is a misshapen lump with wings, barely a meter by two by four. From Earth, both are little more than fuzzy specks of light. I wonder what the hell they are.

Boris has stopped crying at last. Thank God.

Day 10

Boris spoke to me today. Actually set aside his GoSpecs, with their endless images of his wife and kid, and floated up to the flight deck to start a conversation. I thought it meant he’d turned the corner. I was wrong. He hasn’t stopped obsessing over his lost family and his lost life. He just wanted to share his misery with me.

I threw him out.

Not literally, of course. It’s damned hard to throw anything in zero gravity—much less a ninety-kilogram cosmonaut. But I told him to stop whining like a baby and start acting like a man.

I told him I’m sorry that his wife and child were killed (which is true in the sense that if they were still alive, he’d never have volunteered for this mission, and I wouldn’t be saddled with his oppressive company for the last eight weeks of my life). But I also reminded him that he has a duty to humanity. (That wouldn’t motivate me, of course. I don’t owe those people anything. But I said I’d do this, and so I will. No globe-hugging sentimentality required. Just a sense of professional pride. Something Boris wouldn’t understand.)

He left looking deflated. But at least he left.

Time for some Stephen King and Mussorgsky’s eerie Night on Bald Mountain.

Day 11

Boris has stopped speaking to me—even about the mission. During the radio checks, he tells Mission Control that all is well, then he puts his GoSpecs back on and communes with his dead family. Maybe I could break through if I tried. But why bother? We’ll both be dead in forty-five days. And I don’t need him to complete the mission. We’re fully cross-trained, so I can handle the payload release if he’s checked out.

I’m also monitoring the environmental systems, just in case. If this mission fails, it won’t be because Boris the Baby forgot to switch out the CO2 scrubbers.

Day 15

I’ve finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (and, mercifully, Wagner’s Ring cycle). It’s amazing to me that people still froth at the mouth over how monstrous the Nazis were, as though those preening psychopaths were some kind of aberration. One look at the history books reminds us that the Holocaust was different only in degree, not in kind. Don’t agree? Tell it to the million dead in Rwanda, the half million dead in Darfur, and the quarter million dead from the Tel Aviv dirty bomb.

We’re a race of butchers—and someday the bill will come due. Maybe the Strangers are here to collect.

I think I’ll try something lighter now. Lord of the Flies, maybe. Or Catcher in the Rye. And some cheery Mozart.

Day 18

We just set the record for longest space shuttle mission ever. I bet they’re popping corks at Mission Control. Good for them. Me, I’d rather have a hot shower and a glass of cabernet.

I’ve completed a thorough environmental inspection. (Boris doesn’t even pretend to help anymore.) All systems nominal. Heat, light, and atmosphere well within acceptable parameters. Not bad for a spacecraft that spent thirty-five years in an Air Force hangar.

When the president announced that the only way to rendezvous with Little Stranger before it reached Earth was to launch the (formerly) secret military shuttle and mate it to a fuel tank in orbit, you could hear the hoots of laughter on seven continents. But I guess the last laugh was on the doubters. Russia, China, and the European Union all insisted that they could reconfigure their current spacecraft faster and easier than the U.S. could dust off DOD’s untested twin of Space Shuttle Endeavour and turn it into a translunar interceptor. But all the current ships (like our silly Orions) are too damn small, and there’s no practical way to combine them. So the Chinese attempt is still on the launch pad, and the European design is still on the drawing board. And the Russians threw in the towel and threw in with us—hence my useless companion below.

They butchered the orbiter, of course, to reduce mass, stripping out everything we wouldn’t need for a one-way mission—like thermal protection tiles for re-entry, and landing gear. And it looks absurd, hauling around a giant orange fuel tank with a pair of boosters strapped to its nose for stability. The most beautiful spacecraft ever built now sports a monstrous penis with tusks. Ridiculous idea. Impossible to accomplish in six months. And yet, here we are.

The Pentagon dubbed its shuttle X-30B (to hide its budget behind another project), but it’s identical to Endeavour—and I’m glad. I flew Challenger’s replacement three times before the NASA hacks retired us. She was the best of the fleet. I can’t think of anything I’d rather have as my coffin.

Day 22

Second main engine burn complete. We’re now in a new solar orbit.

Boris slept through the whole thing. The word “useless” doesn’t begin to describe him.

Day 26

We’re half-way to rendezvous, and it’s a damn good thing we cross-trained. Boris is drunk. I found him drooling and mumbling incoherently—like some street bum passed out on a public sidewalk.

I don’t know how he did it, but he has a case of A-Pops masquerading as borsht-in-a-tube—or whatever putrid concoctions his people were supposed to send along to keep him fed. One pill dissolved in water equals a pint of eighty-proof liquor. No wonder he’s been so depressed.

And that explains how he passed his psych tests. He was probably sober when he took them. I’ll bet dollars to donuts something in his personnel file says “recovered alcoholic”—a little detail the RSA never bothered to pass along to NASA. Pity there’s no test for “likelihood an ex-drunk will fall off the wagon and sneak alcohol pills aboard a spacecraft on a one-way mission.” Boris would have aced that one.

I should destroy the pills, of course. Or cycle them out the airlock. But to what end? He’s been useless since launch, and I’ve never counted on him to pull his weight (a rather ridiculous metaphor in a zero-G environment—but “pull his mass” sounds a bit pedantic, even to me). If he wants to spend his last month of life hiding in a bottle (or the pill-sized equivalent thereof), who am I to stop him?

I’ll tell NASA that he had a seizure and went into a coma, and that I have everything under control. If they give me any trouble, I’ll switch off the radio. What are they going to do—fire me again?

Day 28

Halftime. We’ve been outbound for four weeks, and in four more we’ll be dead. NASA could have given us life support for another week or more, but why bother? We can’t get home again, and no one can reach us. Once we complete the fly-by, keeping us alive much longer would simply be cruel.

Boris is effectively dead already. As soon as he wakes up, he dissolves another A-Pop in a bag of water, puts on his GoSpecs, and slowly drinks himself into a stupor. I found an empty food tube floating around the middeck this morning, so I guess he’s eating something. Not that it matters in the long run.

Mission Control has stopped pestering me for details and progress reports. I don’t know whether they believe my story, think he suicided, or suspect I killed him. And I don’t care, as long as they leave me alone. I have one month left and more books than I could read in a year. (The blessing and curse of a digital library.) Every minute without interruption is another few pages read.

In a way, I suppose Boris and I aren’t all that different. I have my books and music. He has his pictures and pills. Who’s to say that my way is better?

Day 30

I’ve started on the Heinleins. I promised myself I’d wait, but my old favorites were calling. Rocket Ship Galileo. Starman Jones. Time for the Stars. The books that shaped my childhood and led me to NASA. I’d almost forgotten the thrill of those adventures—and I wonder what the author would think of my little adventure. Would he bet on the Strangers being magnificent saviors, charming visitors, or murderous invaders? Knowing him as I do from his five decades of writings, I’m pretty sure he’d tell us to hope for visitors, prepare for invaders, and slam the door in the face of any self-professed savior. Sound advice, I think. We need to learn to save ourselves.

Day 33

I fired the main engines for the last time—and jettisoned that damn tank. The burn went without a hitch and put us perfectly on course for intercept in nineteen days. I always was a hell of a shuttle pilot. If NASA hadn’t grounded me when it finally retired the big birds, I’m sure I’d have made a great Orion pilot too. But why teach an old dog new tricks when the kennel is crawling with young pups eager to learn and far less jaded?

So my last time at the stick is also my first time in more than fifteen years. But I guess it’s like riding a bike—because we’re right in the groove. It took every drop of fuel in the tank, but I’ve shaped our orbit sunward again, nearly parallel with the path of the incoming alien probe. Nearly—but not near enough to make it home.

Day 34

I thought I caught a glimpse of Little Stranger in the telescope this morning—a tiny firefly glowing dimly against the jeweled curtain of space and falling slowly toward its rendezvous with Earth. Bringing what? Salvation? Destruction? A housewarming gift?

Who are the Strangers, and why are they here? Those are the questions burning in eight billion brains.

And where are they from? And how the hell did they get here? One day, we’re swinging carelessly around the sun, lords of creation—raping our planet, murdering our brothers, and half-heartedly planning our conquest of the solar system. The next day, “We Are Not Alone.” There’s something new on orbit around Mars. Something artificial. And a few months later, there’s something else—a smaller speck of light against the blackness of the heavens—separated from its mate and drifting down the gravity well like a snowflake.

Except that it wasn’t drifting at all. It was in a very specific orbit. A Hohmann orbit. The most fuel-efficient way to get from Mars to Earth. And it would reach us in less than nine months.

A flock of headless chickens would have reacted with more dignity.

Day 38

Boris is dead.

I floated down to the middeck to check on him and found him zipped up in his sleeping bag, cold and stiff. Alcohol poisoning, I assume.

I don’t think he’s with his family now. I don’t believe in any of that mystical claptrap. But at least he’s no longer suffering.

Now I have to do something with the body.

Day 39

I suited up and put Boris in the payload bay, strapped into a corner where he won’t be in the way when it comes time to deploy the package.

His name wasn’t “Boris,” of course—any more than mine is “Joe.” Those were simply the wholly unoriginal nicknames we gave each other when we started training for this mission. He was Georgi Antoninovich Ustinova. Colonel in the Russian Air Force. Fighter pilot. Cosmonaut. Husband and father. Volunteer for a suicide mission. Not-quite-recovered alcoholic. And apparently far more despondent over the death of his family than he (or the Russian Space Agency) realized.

When NASA’s number-crunchers finally gave up hope of bringing the shuttle and crew back safely—making this a one-way trip—Colonel Ustinova seemed the ideal volunteer. He had more EVA time than four-fifths of the Cosmonaut Corps, he was a skilled jackleg mechanic, and he had nothing left to live for. RSA had laid him off during its latest round of budget cuts, and he had lost his young wife and only child to a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The perfect candidate for a long walk off a short pier followed by a posthumous medal from a grateful nation.

Well, almost perfect. My pastor—in the days when I actually went to church—used to say, “there is perfection only in death.” I guess he was right.

Day 40

Forty days and forty nights in a wilderness of stars. And I am wholly alone. But, so far, Satan hasn’t appeared and tried to tempt me with anything. Pity. I might be open to a deal.

I’ve read almost eighty novels and short-story collections, and I’ve listened to more than five hundred hours of the greatest music ever conceived by the mind of man. I thought that would be more than enough to keep me fully occupied.

I was wrong.

Day 41

Ten days to payload deployment, and I’m actually nervous. I don’t want to blow it. If this mission fails—if I fail—two very large nuclear warheads will obliterate Little Stranger when it crosses the orbit of the moon. And that could be humanity’s biggest blunder since a certain lady in a garden took fruit from a snake. What if the Strangers are friendly? What if they’re just here to say hello—a sort of interstellar welcome wagon? Nuking their emissary would not make a good first impression.

I understand the logic behind the bombs. I was a fighter pilot. I know there’s evil in this world, and I’m willing to bet Earth isn’t unique in that respect. With all of mankind’s eggs in one fragile basket (to paraphrase Heinlein), we can’t afford to assume that Little Stranger carries nothing more dangerous than an alien version of “The Watchtower.” It might be a world-wrecking super-missile (think Hiroshima times a million) or a species-killing bio-weapon—a kind of planetary roach bomb. If we can’t divert this thing peacefully, we’ll have to destroy it.

And that could make someone—or some thing—very angry.

With Boris gone, it’s all on my shoulders now. I’d better not screw this up.

Day 42

I talked with Sally Greer today. She’s lead CAPCOM for this mission—the official voice of Mission Control. She was also my backup for this particular one-way ticket. Former shuttle pilot, like me. Husband dead. No kids. Sixty-three years old (two years older than yours truly), and a life expectancy of about twelve months, thanks to a metastasized recurrence of cancer.

She was almost the perfect candidate for this trip. Just her bad luck that my estimated life span measured out even shorter. Stage III testicular cancer trumped Stage IV breast cancer. My balls beat her boobs, you might say. Which means she drew the short straw. We’ll both be dead by Christmas, but I’ll live on in the history books.

Sally’s one of the few people at NASA I actually liked. But it’s hard to carry on a meaningful conversation with half the planet listening in. So we mostly talk shop.

She did tell me that Big Stranger is still circling Mars, doing nothing we can detect. And that none of Earth’s brightest have managed to come up with any new theories to explain how the hell it got there without us seeing it coming. Logically, there are only three possibilities. One: we simply failed to notice. Two: it didn’t travel through normal space. Three: it was invisible.

The astronomers insist that number one didn’t happen. Big Stranger is seven meters wide in its smallest dimension, they say, and shiny. If it entered our solar system in any conventional way, we’d have seen it long before it reached Mars.

Most of the physicists are equally adamant that faster-than-light travel—“warp drive” or “hyperdrive” or whatever—is flatly impossible.

So that leaves some sort of stealth technology. Not as fancy as a star drive—but still enough to scare the hell out of the military types. On the other hand, if they can cloak their ships, why aren’t they doing it now?

Personally, my money’s on an astronomer screw-up. I think we just overlooked our visitors until they were right under our noses—interplanetarily speaking. Human beings are terrific at making mistakes and lousy at admitting them.

I wonder if the Strangers have that same flaw?

Day 43

Sally was off today. Too bad. I would have enjoyed hearing her voice. Instead, I read the exquisitely depressing On the Beach and Level 7 and listened to Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Part of the second concerto is on the Golden Records, the metal disks carried by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts on their twin journeys out of the solar system. A million years from now, space-faring aliens may find one of the Voyagers and play that record, and Bach’s genius will live again.

Maybe aliens will find me too, someday—in a hundred years or a hundred thousand—as Boris and I loop endlessly through the solar system in our space-age Flying Dutchman. My books and music won’t survive that long, of course. Electronic data decay too quickly. But they’ll find the bodies—Boris in the payload bay and me up here on the flight deck—well preserved in the frozen vacuum of space. I wonder what they’ll make of us.

Will they already know Homo sapiens as that brilliant young species that burst out of its cradle and took the galaxy by storm? Or will Earth be nothing more than an interstellar Pompeii—a set of ruins to tantalize countless generations of alien archeologists?

The answer may depend on what we do with Little Stranger in the next two weeks.

Day 44

I dreamt of home last night. Mom and Dad. The house on the cul-de-sac. The woods out back where Tim and I used to play. Tim was in the dream too—flashing that infectious grin of his and calling me Dave-O. The way he always did before an Afghan sniper blew his head off.

I dream about him fairly often. But for the first time I can recall, I woke up more sad than angry. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age.

Day 45

I put on Boris’ GoSpecs today and watched some of his holos. It felt a bit ghoulish, but I don’t think he’d mind.

His home was nothing to crow about. An apartment complex overlooking a river in Irkutsk or Yakutsk or one of those other gobbledygook places on the game board in Risk. Greener than I expected, but still no kind of vacation spot.

His family, on the other hand… His wife—Raisa? Rada?—was absolutely stunning. Long black hair, huge brown eyes, high cheekbones. And his daughter Anna looked like happiness in a dress. It must have hurt like hell to lose them.

Janet and I wanted children, but it never happened. We met in Houston, and those first few years I was too busy learning the ropes and clawing my way to the top of the roster. Then I was the golden boy, flying or commanding five shuttle missions in twelve years—including the penultimate flight of Endeavour. Raising a family was always something we would do “later.” Then Tim died, and NASA grounded me, and things just seemed to go south.

Janet’s remarried now, and living in Dallas. She called the day before launch, to wish me luck. That was kind of her.

Day 46

No one’s ever accused me of being warm and fuzzy. I’ve always been better with machines than people. At the academy, one of the upperclassmen said I was “the chilliest son of a bitch” he’d ever met, and he started calling me “Mr. Freeze.” The name stuck and became my call sign when I got my wings. It even followed to me to NASA.

This morning, I woke up thinking of Boris’ frost-covered face in the payload bay, staring sightlessly at the stars. It felt like looking in a mirror.

Day 47

Three more days until things start happening. I’ve checked and rechecked every system. There’s nothing more to do until then. I’m too keyed up to sleep—too distracted to read. My mind keeps wandering.

Sitting alone on the flight deck, I find myself thinking about friends I let slip away, colleagues I kept at arm’s length, women I failed to pursue. And the woman I failed to keep. Just before the divorce, Janet said I’d become so distant she could barely see me. She accused me of withdrawing from the human race. I told her she was being silly. So why do I keep replaying that conversation in my head?

Three days with nothing to do but think. That’s way too much time.

Day 48

Little Stranger is no longer just a point of light. It presents a visible disk in the telescope, arcing inward from Mars orbit and overtaking me from astern—with eight billion lives hanging in the balance.

Here’s a thought that kept me awake last night. Out of all those billions, how many did I actually meet in my sixty-one years? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? And of all those thousands I met, how many did I actually get to know? A few hundred? And of those hundreds, how many did I actually care about? Ten. Fifteen. Maybe twenty. Tops.

Is that possible?

Mom and Dad, of course. The ideal parents. And Tim, the perfect little brother. Who else? A couple of buddies and one girlfriend in high school. That’s pretty much it for childhood. I didn’t need anyone else.

I made a few friends at the Academy, but none that lasted beyond graduation day. No girlfriends, of course. I had no interest in the female cadets and no time for townies. If you want to graduate first in your class, you have to make sacrifices.

Posted to four bases before joining NASA and made a friend or two at each. Lots of women. Lots of women. But none I gave a damn about. Until Janet, of course.

A handful of people at NASA, including Sally Greer.

One or two neighbors over the years. Jim Rechtenwald, who shared my taste in music. Denny Cotter, who shared my taste in wine.

That’s it. Maybe two dozen people in my entire life.

And of those, how many did I love?

Day 49

One more day.

I wish Boris was here.

I wish anybody was here.

Day 50

Show time. Thank God.

I reoriented the orbiter for payload deployment and spent most of the day prepping the package remotely. In just under forty hours, we’ll pass within half a kilometer of Little Stranger—our point of closest approach. Of course, we’ll have a combined closing velocity of more than a hundred miles an hour, so it’ll be a bit like watching the Indy 500 from the cheap seats. But I’ll be able to see something. And I’ll see it before anyone else does.

But first I have to deploy the payload. And that means I’d better get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s the big day. If I screw up…

Enough of that. I’ll take a sleeping pill and listen to some Brahms while I drift off.

Day 51

I did it.

Using the shuttle’s robotic arm (the “Shuttle Remote Manipulator System” in NASA’s chronically-stilted parlance), I gently lifted the payload out of the bay. And when I sent the activation command, the package come to life just as the techies had promised.

I suited up—very carefully, since I had no one to double-check my seals—and cycled through the airlock. I passed Boris’ (Georgi’s) body in the payload bay, his face a white mask of frost beneath an infinite sky. Then I spent the next hour inspecting the package.

The payload was basically a big box of aluminum alloy, two-by-four-by-fourteen meters. Picture a giant refrigerator box twice as wide as deep, open on one side, with maneuvering thrusters at the eight corners, fuel tanks on top, main engine on bottom, dish antennas and power cells front and back—and a very special foam-maker inside. That was the package I’d come seven weeks to deliver. Hard to believe that such an ungainly contraption might save the planet.

I inspected everything as though my life depended on it, a thought that actually made me laugh out loud—the first real laugh I’d had since launch. I made sure that the thrusters and antennas were properly aligned, that the hydrogen fuel cells were generating power, that the engine was operational, and that the redundant computer processors were talking to each other and to the engine and thrusters. All the while giving a complete play-by-play to Sally at Mission Control for transmission to the waiting world.

With inspection complete, I returned to the payload bay and released my safety lines. I sketched a quick salute to Boris, cycled back through the airlock, and returned to the flight deck still in my suit—just in case the payload’s engine blew up and punched a hole in the ship. If that happened, we’d lose the intercept, of course, but I could still get pictures of Little Stranger as it sailed past.

When the time came for ignition, my hands were actually damp. That’s a new one. Mr. Freeze does not get sweaty palms. I counted down the seconds, and when the clock said zero, I pressed the button.

It’s hard to cross your fingers in a pressure suit.

I actually sighed with relief when the payload’s engines fired. Then I waited impatiently for the telemetry.

Thirty minutes later, Mission Control confirmed what my own numbers showed. The payload was on course and perfectly aligned—leading the alien probe to Earth, but at a slightly slower velocity. Chalk up another victory for American engineering.

This time tomorrow, Little Stranger will overtake the payload. And if all goes according to plan, it will drift gently into our big metal box and be engulfed in a flood of ZG Foam—Marczyk Industries’ zero-gravity sealant that hardens into a putty and can be dissolved later with a simple aerosol. Our ungainly contraption will then maneuver slightly with its thrusters and fire its main engine again to carry our visitor safely into lunar orbit—where it can’t harm us and we can study it at our leisure.

If the engineers are right, the putty will prevent Little Stranger from firing its engine when it nears Earth. If they’re wrong, it’ll make a big bang. But that’s still better than nuking the thing.

Pity we couldn’t just launch something straight at it to achieve the same goal—without throwing away one spaceship and two astronauts in the process. But the math didn’t work—and no one really liked the idea of firing something straight down the visitor’s throat anyway. Too damn provocative, and too much risk of damaging it. The only way to do it surely, safely, and non-confrontationally, was to throw out a net to catch it gently. Hence the last flight of one David J. Sullivan.

When the president announced to a startled world that an alien probe was headed toward Earth, half the planet wanted to welcome it with open arms, while the other half wanted to blow it to kingdom come. Neither course seemed wise—or safe. Eventually, the politicians and the scientists figured out a third option.

Quarantine.

But that’s still a few days away. Today I’ve thrown out the net. Tomorrow I get to see the fish.

Day 52

Oh my God.

By now, everyone on Earth has seen the pictures of the alien probe. But I was the first. I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. This changes everything.

During Little Stranger’s eight-and-a-half month crawl across the solar system, many wondered why a race capable of crossing interstellar distances would use such a slow and primitive method to travel between planets. Now we know.

We reached the rendezvous point exactly on time (naturally)—“we” meaning me, the orbiter, and Boris’ lifeless body in the payload bay. I had all the hull-mounted cameras set up and running. Infrared, ultraviolet, and three videos—including one of the new ultra-high-speed jobs from New Delhi Digital. And I was out there with them, suited up, securely tethered, and watching Little Stranger race toward me through the telephoto lens of a hand-held camera.

I wondered what I would see when the alien probe came into view. Something we might build a few centuries from now—sleek and powerful and imposing but ultimately comprehensible? Or something so far above us—or so fundamentally alien to us—that we could not begin to fathom its purpose, much less its manner of operation?

In mere moments, I would be the first human being to see an artifact designed and built by non-human intelligence. My hands were dripping inside my gloves, my heart a trip-hammer inside my suit. My tongue was sandpaper.

I watched the probe swelling against the stars until it was suddenly there, flashing past at race car speed. And I saw it.

For an instant, I was dumbfounded. Then I shouted for joy. Sally says I kept yelling, “They’re us; they’re us.” I don’t remember that. I just remember what I saw—and what the whole world saw shortly thereafter in real time and then replayed endlessly in slow-motion video on countless televisions and computer screens and smartphones around the globe.

An awkward device of silver tubes and silver foil, roughly drum-shaped, with bits of insulation sticking out here and there. Two small dish antennas. A pair of solar panels. One large nozzle and several smaller ones that looked like a main engine and maneuvering thrusters. And what had to be a video camera. Later, in the replays, I saw an image of a planet painted on one surface, surrounded by symbols in a feathery script that looked vaguely Arabic.

No wonder I yelled. I was expecting something as incomprehensible as the black monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey—or at least as futuristic as a Star Trek shuttlecraft. Instead, our much-dreaded visitor turned out to be about as sophisticated as the Mariner 9 probe we launched in the 1970s. No fancy space drive—not when they use nozzles for propulsion and tiny reaction jets for maneuvering. No futuristic scanners and sensors—not when they rely on video cameras with glass lenses. No “subspace radio” or other faster-than-light communication—not when they sport dish antennas like those our spacecraft have used for more than sixty years. And nothing the least bit strange to human eyes. Give me a few hours with that probe, and I’m confident I could tell you exactly what every piece of it does.

Sure, it could be a trick. A dummy. A decoy. But I don’t believe that for a minute. I’ve seen the thing. When our people start poking and prodding it in its lunar quarantine, they’ll find that it’s precisely what it appears to be—a simple planetary probe that we could have built fifty years ago. And that means the Strangers aren’t really so strange after all.

We have met the aliens, and they are us. Or close enough to make no difference. They obviously think as we do, build as we do, solve problems as we do. We’ll be able to talk with them—and understand each other.

We have neighbors now.

I’m glad I lived to see it.

Day 53

I slept like a baby last night—and woke to good news. The payload did its job. Little Stranger is safely on course for lunar orbit. If those who sent the probe are as much like as us as we think, they’ll surely understand what we’ve done and why. If they try to change its course and send it to Earth anyway, we’ll destroy it—and be justified in doing so. If a stranger knocks on your door in the dead of night, you can let him in or tell him to go away. But if you ask him to wait on the porch and he tries to force his way in, he’s no longer a stranger. He’s an invader.

I’m betting that this stranger will wait patiently on the porch.

And it won’t have long to wait. The Americans, the Chinese, and the Europeans are all prepping lunar missions to study the probe. And both of the manned Mars missions (the international one and the Chinese one) are being retooled as missions to Big Stranger.

Of course, I won’t live to see any of that. The flight plan called for fifty-six days of life support—just long enough to learn whether the missiles actually destroyed the alien if the quarantine option failed. I guess NASA (and the RSA) felt they owed us at least that much. But Boris checked out eighteen days early, so I find myself with three weeks to live and absolutely no work to do. Too short for a retirement. I think I’ll treat it as a long vacation. This place may be short on basic amenities, but it has one hell of a view.

And, as it turns out, a bar. I found Sally’s note this morning—and her gift. A case of cabernet sauvignon disguised as fruit juice. Wine in a bag won’t win any awards—but it’s infinitely better than no wine at all. The note was taped to today’s breakfast entrée (reconstituted eggs in a pouch), so that I would find it the day after fly-by, when Boris and I would no longer have anything important to do. Damned thoughtful of her.

The note said simply: “Congratulations, David. You’ve made us all proud. Raise a glass to yourself. Your friend, Sally.” After Tim’s funeral, I promised myself I’d never cry again. So much for that.

I’m on the flight deck now, listening to Mahler’s Ninth. I read somewhere that he wrote it at the end of his life and that the fourth movement represents the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I don’t know about that. Psychobabble was never my strong suit. I just know that it’s possibly the most beautiful symphony I’ve ever heard.

Earth is dwindling in the windshield, blue and white against the blackness of space as I sail on toward infinity. Somewhere behind me—alive and well, or dead and buried—are the handful of people I loved, the dozens more I cared about, the thousands I met in my journey, and all the rest of the teeming billions who make up the human race.

I’ve never felt so close to them in my life.

Copyright © 2019 by Anthony George