Monday Stories

New Fiction on Mondays

Tag: Space


Listen, before you go out there, it’s important to understand some things. You know how we see ourselves, but you don’t understand how we’re seen. I don’t want to make light of all you’ve accomplished here in the academy, but no matter what you’ve done, well… listen, let me tell you a story, and more importantly, let me tell you how the story was told.

Tiil’ik settled down, folding its wings down neatly under its carapace. If you saw Tiil’ik, you’d think of a very burly, rocky-skinned preying mantis. Six legs, long body, segmented eyes, wings and carapace, like I said, you’d think bug. Just remember Tiil’ik would look at you and think “meat sack”. It’s all perspective.

Anyway, Tiil’ik settled quietly to one side of Aaastoret, who for the purposes of our discussion we’ll call a big sentient Komodo dragon. Aaastoret would also look at you and think “meat sacks”, so don’t get cocky. The two of them are from pre-Ascendence cultures. They’ve been in space so long they don’t remember not being in space. These two, they’ve worked together before, they’ve flown freighters around, maybe even owned ships themselves once or twice, but they don’t think of things like that the same way we do, meat sacks. Listen to their words, try to see us from the outside.

Aaastoret opened one eye, and seeing Tiil’ik, clicked a switch with a claw. The little pool that Aaastoret was laying in turned from blue to red, lights around her letting anyone who was watching know that this cold blooded one was going to become more active. Tiil’ik saw this and held still, not waiting, but inactive. Waiting requires a heart beat that splits time up into little bits. Tiil’ik was just traveling the fourth dimension.

Then Aaastoret spoke. “I see you again, Tiil’ik,” she said, her voice like rocks in a tumbler. Tiil’ik understands the meaning, it means “I’m glad to see you again, friend” in Aaastoret’s particular idiom. “And you’re here too,” Tiil’ik said.

“Much time has passed with you,” Aaastoret commented.

“I was a nymph when we were both aboard the Giolet” Tiil’ik said. “Now I am in my penultimate form, and my full power. I am saving for a nesting place.”

And Aaastoret, who will not mate for another century or so, understood Tiil’ik’s meaning. Tiil’ik had maybe ten Solar years left, then it would choose a gender, mate, and die. But neither of them would express it that way.

“I wonder something,” Tiil’ik said. “I have the opportunity to join the crew of the Denali. I have never traveled with a Captain before. But I understand that you have, and I wonder, what are the Captains like?”

That’s us, by the way, meat sacks. Out there, in the stars, we get called “Captains” as often as we get called “Humans”. Wanna know why? Keep listening.

Aaastoret stirred a little, moving more warm water around her skin, raising her body temperature, quickening her thoughts. “Is this captain a he captain or a she captain?” Aaastoret asked.

“I…didn’t think to notice. Is it important?” Tiil’ik asked.

“Not terribly, but they seem to think it is, and it’s best to refer to them by their chosen pronouns. If it’s too much bother you can usually just avoid the pronoun and call them ‘Captain’,” Aaastoret said. “But let me tell you some things about them. First, they do not call their species ‘Captains'”

“But all of them are named that,” Tiil’ik said. Curious, but not confrontational.

“Not all, not all. ‘Captain’ is a title they invented. They call their species ‘Human’. To them ‘Captain’ means, effectively, ‘one who leads’.”

Tiil’ik fluttered its wings and was silent for a moment. “Perhaps I do not understand. What does it mean that a Captain ‘leads’?”

“To them, a leader is one who takes care of the others on their ship, who makes hard decisions, who stands between the ship and disaster…”

Tiil’ik’s wings fluttered again, this time noisily. “Do they think the crew is made up of children? Surely it is the responsibility of every being to ensure its own survival.”

“Just so,” Aaastoret said. “But these humans are pack creatures. Like the glimmer-spete that live in this place. They tend to pack-bond, meaning that they will risk their own survival for that of others, if they feel it is required.”

“You mean their own offspring, for I’ve heard they survive beyond Bearing,” Tiil’ik asked.

“Yes, but beyond that. They will offer their own energy and goods to extend the lives of any with whom they have pack-bonded, which they will call ‘friends’.”

“Like the Dalien clans? Each would give his life to protect the clan?”

“Yes, but without such a formal structure. There is a reason we bring Captains on our ships. They are not physically impressive; they weigh as much as you, perhaps. They are clever but temperamental. They are not particularly robust in high-radiation environments. But they are… I can’t think of a word in Common, though perhaps there is one. Their word is ‘Tenacious’. Consider: suppose you were stuck on a hostile planet, alone. You are deeply injured, and the last ship for at least six years has just left. You have no food, minimal supplies, and neither food nor supplies will last until help arrives. What would you do?”

“I would die,” Tiil’ik said, without thinking about it. “What else?”

“This happened to a Captain…a Human…when they were just leaving their home planet. Instead of dying, this human tended to their own wounds, discovered a way to grow food out of their own waste, and traveled halfway around the planet, while signaling to the others that they yet lived. And the others came back and retrieved the injured human.” Aaastoret said.

“But why? What reason would they have for expending energy and risking others to retrieve an individual?”

“I told you, they are pack animals. Each member of the pack is important. And when you are on a ship with a Captain, you are part of their pack.”

“But we do not share genetic identity.”

“Even so.”

“Saving me can in no way ensure the human’s genetic future.”

“Even so.” Aaastoret shifted again. “Our people have found that for any twelve missions with a captain present, eleven are completed with all crew alive. Of those without, it falls to roughly eight in twelve.”

Ah, statistics. A language every sentient species speaks. Tiil’ik is suitably impressed. But Aaastoret continues.

“Consider: long ago, when the humans were embroiled in a war with another species, a human captain and one of their enemies crashed on a small remote world. This captain and their enemy found each other, but the enemy was injured. What would you have done in this situation?”

“I would have dispatched my enemy. But I sense a pattern in your examples.”

Aaastoret sighed, her species’ version of a laugh. “Even so. This human, who was in fact a captain, restored this enemy to health. They then brokered a peace not only between the two of them, but between the humans and their enemies. This human eventually gave their own life to cement that peace.”

“But this is incredible,” Tiil’ik said. “If the captains…the humans…are so beneficial, why is there still this…stigma, this wariness of traveling with them?”

Another sigh-laugh from Aaastoret. “They are not perfect, they are in fact quite odd. Have you chosen a final form? Will you be a he or a she of your species?”

“I haven’t decided, but I think perhaps I would like to be a she,” Tiil’ik said, partially out of politeness to Aaastoret. Choosing against her gender would seem rude to Tiil’ik, although Aaastoret would not have seen it that way.

“Do not say this to the human on your ship. Even if they try not to, the humans differentiate based on gender. They try hard to treat all beings as ‘equal’, meaning ‘as if they were also human’, but also ‘as if they were the same gender as this human’. They think themselves the pinnacle of biological development. It is perhaps the result of being the lone sentient species on their home world.”

“Ah, they are bigots,” Tiil’ik said.

“It would hurt them to hear you say that. A few of them are, of course. There are humans who truly believe themselves to be the best of all worlds. But most of them are….let us say myopic. They genuinely want to do what is best for everyone, but they have a hard time believing that what’s best for them isn’t best for everyone. Expect them to treat you as if you were another human, and understand that they mean it well.”

Tiil’ik stirred. Its species has been in space longer than we’ve been walking upright. The thought of being called an “equal” to one of us meat sacks rankled a bit. Or not, who am I to try to interpret its feelings?

“You have given me much to think about, Aaastoret. If I may ask you one last question, and forgive me if this is somewhat subjective question…”

“You may ask.”

“On the whole, am I correct in interpreting your comments as an overall recommendation for traveling with a human?”

“Just so.”

“Very well. I thank you, Aaastoret.” Tiil’ik said. Then it turned to me. “I will join your crew, Captain Miller.”

Hello. My name is Jala Jones. I don’t know why my parents decided to give me a name that sounds like an Old Earth comic book character, but I’m not changing it now. And anyway, these days most people just call me…

The Queen of Space.

Jala Jones, Queen of Space

Ha! Hey look at that! I just did a text version of a cold open! That’s pretty cool. 

Anyway, I wasn’t always queen of space, you know. And it was a long road from being the only child of two of the galaxy’s wealthiest people to being the queen and ruler of all space. It’s a great story, and nobody ever asks me to tell it, unless I order them to. And that’s no fun. So now I’m going to write it all down. Or, well, dictate it to this cute robot. The robot can write it down.

Anyway, it all started when I turned forty two and my mom announced that it was time I made a name for myself. She and dad had built their company, Larry Antares Shipping, up from just Dad and a single star freighter into the largest interstellar hauler in the galaxy. 

“So your father and I feel that the best thing for you to do now is go out and make a name for yourself,” Mom said when she kicked me out. Well, gave me the keys to an apartment on the next planet over, and my own freighter. Same thing

“A better name than ‘Jala Jones’?” I asked, sarcastically. 

“Now dear, Jala Jones is a name with character and personality.” Dad said. He was going over the company finances, because of course he was he always was. That was his job. For the past hundred years he’d been the Chief Financial Officer of LAS, as well as the co-founder.

“And let’s face it, Jala dear, your degree in Anime Astrophysics, while undoubtedly enlightening and good for your soul, isn’t exactly bringing jobs to your door,” Mom said. 

Doctorate in Anime Astrophysics,” I corrected. 

“Yes, yes, very impressive, Doctor Jones,” Mom said with a little smile. “But we think it’s time you got a real job. So we’re giving you one. As a hauler.”

“Mom, I don’t want to be a hauler. That means I have to haul stuff and…and go to loading moons and….yuck!”

“Your father was a hauler for decades and is a better man for it,” Mom said. And I kinda sunk inside. She was using her super reasonable voice. I hate that voice. So we argued a bit more, but in the end, yeah, I became Jala Jones, Space Hauler.

Chapter 1: Jala Jones, Space Hauler

That’s really fun! I like speaking in titles.

Anyway, let’s jump forward a few days. Here I am, on my hauler, looking at my first “assignment”. I’m supposed to pick up some Megapuppies and take them to Arcturus. Considering my hauler could hold over seven thousand cubic meters of goods, one of the following three things was true, and none of them were good:

Megapuppies were huge, meaning they’d make huge messes and need huge amounts of huge food.
I was carrying a lot of megapuppies, which would make a lot of messes and still need huge amounts of food, or
I was going to lose money on the trip. 

And I didn’t like any of those options. 

“Actually, your cargo bay has bio-stasis capabilties, so you shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of the megapuppies,” said Kibbet. 

Kibbet has just told me that a lot of people don’t know who he is, so I’ll explain. I’d put a picture in, but Kibbet tells me that pictures are really expensive to download over the InterGalactiNet. Like, one picture apparently costs as much as one thousand words, so I’ll just describe him. 

Kibbet was genetically engineered in one of Daddy’s labs to be the perfect pet for a young girl going to college. Imagine a firefox; you know, a red panda. Now imagine it has six legs. And bat wings. And huge, shimmering, green, faceted eyes. And can talk. Now imagine that whole thing can fly and also has an IQ higher than most college graduates. Got it? Okay, now imagine it’s super cute and you’ve got Kibbet. He’s a super sweet darling cutie and I once fired my Minister of Imperial Finance for saying otherwise. Which is how Kibbet got his job as Minister of Imperial Finance. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Let’s go back to me and Kibbet on my freighter, my very first day.

“Ugh, fine, So I don’t need to feed them,” I said. “But are they huge? Am I taking three megapuppies or thousands?”

“They’re about twice as big as me,” Kibbet said, “And we’re only hauling three hundred. But the cost per megapuppy is sufficient that we’ll make a decent profit on this run.”

“Well that doesn’t sound so bad. So what do we do? Just wait for the loading guys to put them in the cargo hold and then fly them to Arcturus?”

“The dockworkers will bring them to the loading dock, but it’s our crew’s job to get them on board.” Kibbet said, looking over the shipping manifest while hovering at eye level. 

“We don’t have a crew.”

“We have you and the robots.” 

“And you, Kibbet. Are the puppies already in bio-whatever?”


“But they’re in cages, right?”

“Yeah, but you can’t have the cages,” said the dock worker. (see what I did there? it’s like a smash cut, but in words!) “Them cages belong to the docking moon.”

“Okay, well, we’ll just take the megapuppies and load them into bio-stasis one by one.” I said. It was going to take forever, but what are you gonna do?

“Nah, ain’t got time for that sweetheart,” the dock worker said, and flipped a switch. All three hundred cages popped open. Three hundred megapuppies came bounding out.

Have you ever seen a megapuppy? They’re, like, a special kind of dog that’s bred to be super cute, and to stay super cute forever. They’re basically always puppies, even when they’re old. and they live to be like, seventy. But these were puppy megapuppies, meaning they were all energy and tails and lots of yapping and licking. 

Our friendly dock worker shut the door and left us in there, just us and the puppies in the loading bay. And the puppies decided it was time to claim some territory. I didn’t think I’d ever get that ship clean. 

“Kibbet! What do we do? How do we get them into stasis? Kibbet?” I yelled as the puppies marked the ship and everything they could find and ran and barked and did all the things that Kibbet never did. I grabbed two, one under each arm, and hauled them close to the glowing blue edge of the bio-stasis field, where the robots were waiting. I pushed the two puppies across the edge and they went limp, instantly asleep. The robots, who aren’t bio so don’t go into stasis, hauled them into place and returned waiting for more. 

“Kibbet! Help me!”

“Are you kidding, Jala? They outweigh me two to one! I don’t have the wing strength,” Kibbet said from his perch on the roof of the ship. 

“Well, then, maybe try to herd them into the stasis field!”

“Jala, dogs herd sheep, They aren’t herded by…by me!” Kibbet pointed out.

“Get. Down. Here. NOW.” I pointed out. Kibbet flew down. And the puppies found their new favorite toy ever. 

“They’re going to tear my wings off!” he yelled, but I had a good idea. “Kibbet, fly into the stasis field!”

“I’ll go into stasis!” 

“Sure, but the robots can toss you back out! And the puppies will follow you!”

“You do it!” Kibbet shouted.

“They don’t like me as much!”

It was kinda fun watching Kibbet skim low over the puppies, then head into the stasis field, where a robot would catch him. Most of the time. I told him the robots always caught him. But I didn’t have time to stand there watching. I was trying to gather and herd the megappupies to the edge of the field. Once or twice my hand cross the field, which felt terrible, like having all your nerves go to sleep. I didn’t tell Kibbet that either. I told him it was no big deal.

Two hours later the last megappupy was stored in bio-stasis, and I had launch clearance.  Kibbet was still complaining of a headache from going in and out of stasis that many times. (and hitting the bulkhead once when the robots didn’t catch him) The robots cleaned up the ship, inside and out, and the dock worker said we had to clean the loading by as well. We didn’t. We just opened the door and flew out and figured decompression would do the rest. 

Two days later we were en route to Arcturus. Truth to tell, once we had the puppies on board being a hauler was kinda nice. The ship knows where to go and so Kibbet and I played games and read and slept and watched movies and there were still four days to go before we got there. So we were hanging out in the lounge (oh,yeah, my freighter had a lounge. It’s a really really big freighter) and I asked Kibbet why the megapuppies were so expensive.

“well, they’re the result of literally thousands of years of breeding programs,” he said. 

“Sure, but so are you.”

“I am not! I’m the result of some very specific gene splicing, and I assure you, I’m far more expensive than those balls of drool.”

“Don’t get defensive! I’m not looking for a new pet, Kibbet. I just want to know why people in Arcturus are willing to pay so much for puppies. Don’t they have any puppies of their own there?”

“Well, I gather they’re something of a local delicacy…” Kibbet began.

What? A local what? Something of a what? What kind of delicacy?” I said, covering all my bases. 

“Some…some people think they’re fairly…tasty.” Kibbet could see I wasn’t in the mood. He switched from explainy flying pet to worried fliying pet in an instant. 

“Jala, where are you going? What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Who do you think you are?” He said, covering all of his bases. 

“I’m not flying six days across a quarter of the galactic disc to deliver…puppy Popsicles!”

“It’s your contract! You signed it! The buyers have already paid for them!”

“Well, we’ll give them their money back. Or Mom’s company will. Or something. We’re going to find a planet…”

“Where you can raise three hundred puppies as your very own?”

“No! Where I can set up shop.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m gonna sell those puppies to good homes.”

 Chapter 2: Jala Jones’ Megapuppy Adoption Agency

“Jala, do you have any idea what this is going to cost the company?” Mom was asking me over the comms. 

“How much were you selling those puppies for?” I asked, already en route to another system, far from Arcturus. 

“Immaterial. The breach of contract lawsuit, the extra fuel…”

“Have Daddy send me the total amount I need to make to come out ahead on all of that and I’ll make it.” I said. I was using my super-reasonable voice now. Mom hates it as much as I do. She was about to argue when somebody said something off screen. “What? Yes but…The principle…Jala, hold on.” She muted her microphone and I saw her talking.

Finally she came back. “Jala, your Father says that if you can make one hundred fifty thousand credits you will have come out ahead on this deal.”

“Five thousand per puppy? What were the cooks gonna pay?”

“Three hundred. and you need to make five hundred per puppy,” Mom said, looking slightly pained.

“Okay. I can do that. Okay. Fine. Jala out.”

“Not quite, Jala. You need that money by the end of the local month.”

“I need to sell ten puppies per day for a month. Okay. Fine. NOW, Jala out”

So, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to sell three hundred puppies, but here’s how you do it. First, you find a planet with a lot of families, but also money. Your best bet is a planet that’s been settled for about two hundred years or so, so the locals have gotten down to having an economy and raising kids and stuff. Then you fly over the planet a few times and beam down messages about how megapuppies are the best possible gift for whatever local holiday is coming up. It works better if you know the name of the local holiday. Then you land in a couple of the major cities, thaw out five or ten puppies and let people see them running around like cute crazies. 

In this way I was able to sell two hundred ninety five of the puppies. But somehow, not the last five. I don’t know what law of economics makes it so a  planet of ten million people reaches total megappupy market saturation at two hundred ninety five, but that law seemed immutable. 

I walked into the hold where Kibbet and the robots were playing with the last five. They were bouncing around, jumping and barking and basically being puppies.

“What do we do with these ones, Kibbiet?”

“They’re pretty cute,” He said, flying just out of range and ahead of them. The puppies lined up and jumped to reach him, running in a tight circle that had a bump in it where he was hovering. And that gave me an idea. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Solaritus Six, but if you have you might have heard of Dan Seeburg and his Puppy Pals. turns out a little training goes a long way.

Any way, with a full three days to spare I deposited the full amount in the company bank account and called Mom.

“Mission accomplished, boss.”

“Not bad, Jala. Not bad. But you need to get to Arcturus now.”

“Ugh, why?”

“Because that’s where your next cargo is waiting for you. And no side trips this time. It’s time you started doing this job right.”

And with that, I began my career as a space hauler, for real this time.

Chapter 3: Jala Jones: Actually a Space Hauler for Real This Time.

Some Words With a Comet


“Outgoing pulse to comet 4938-B, expected turnaround time: 4 minutes 29 seconds.”

The man who would spend the rest of his life known as “The World’s Most Influential Grad Student” was less than five minutes away from earning that title. At the moment he was still known as Bradley Green, and his thesis work “What if Comets Are Messengers from Extra-solar Intelligences?” was largely mocked and seen as wasted time on some very expensive radio telescopes. His advisor, who would have a career almost as illustrious as soon-to-be-Doctor Green himself, had encoraged him to stand up for his project and get his results, regardless of what everyone else said. And that’s what Brad was doing right now.

Hissss wwwEEEeeeWWEeeeeeooo pop

“Return pulse from comet 6212-C, results in file.”

Brad had the radio results running through his speakers just to give him time points to record in his notes. The computer was listening as well and could make far more of the random hisses and pops that came back from the comets than Brad could.

Even if Brad’s research wasn’t going to change the world in roughly three minutes, he was still getting some good data. The radio signals he was bouncing off of various celestial bodies was returning information about their relative albedos, velocities, likely trajectories, and some preliminary data about their chemical makeup as well. All of this would be added to the collected body of human intelligence, like snowflakes being added to a glacier. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t flashy, but in time it would change the world.

In this case that time would happen right after Brad looked at his outbound signals, when they should return, and decided to go get a Diet Doctor Pepper.

The telescope he was using was in Hawaii, and Bradley wasn’t. So he was all but alone in the Astrophysics department of his university. He nodded to the cleaning staff, mostly undergrad students, and got his soda, then got back to his desk.

He checked Facebook, liked a couple of pictures of his new nephew that his sister had posted, and then sat and looked at the monitor. His time on the telescope would be over in about two hours, which meant he could go to bed. He stretched.

“Beerop EEEEEEEhweeeeeeeeeeeeshhhewereeoooooo…”

“What the…”

Later Brad would wish he had said something more intelligent. This wasn’t a return pulse, this was a long, long signal. He looked at his outbound times and turned the microphone back on.

“Return…signal from 4938-B, on…ongoing.”

the first Return Signal from 4938-B (known thereafter as “RS1”) was seventeen seconds long, and would be played over and over again for years. Brad looked at his data, looked at what the computer was trying to do with that seventeen second signal and hastily re-wrote the program that was scheduled to bounce a pulse of another comet to hit 4938-B again.

“Readings are…anomalous from 4938-B, retrying signal. Outgoing pulse…now.”

Brad’s phone rang. Someone in Hawaii had noticed the results as well. Someone who would get their name on Brad’s doctoral thesis and would even end up as Mrs. Green a few years later.

Various professors were woken up, and had the signal played to them in its entirety. The second pulse resulted in a second signal, almost identical, but tantalizingly different. After a few fevered hours the astrophysicists realized they were out of their depth and started waking up their friends from other departments as well. These return signals were clearly the work of something or someone intelligent, and frustratingly, whoever it was hadn’t sent their message in UTF-8 encoding.

But whatever 4938-B’s message was, it was remarkably willing to share that message with anyone who wanted to hear it. And it was frighteningly accurate. Any satellite that sent a radio ping to the comet got roughly seventeen seconds of something sent back on an astonishingly tight beam, directed to the sender. Bradley Green sent the message “Um. Welcome to the solar system” to the comet and soon that message was encoded in all the responses sent back. The comet, it seemed, was trying to provide a Rosetta Stone.

Gravity is heartless. Before the sun had risen on Brad’s home, humanity knew exactly how long they had before 4938-B would be back out beyond their reach: Four months. 4938-B was traveling quickly, and would achieve perhielion in two months, slingshot around the sun, and then shoot back out of the solar system, back into the nearly empty Oort Cloud, not to return for almost half a century.

This gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions. How long had the alien or alien artifact been on that comet? Had it been there the last time this comet passed through humanity’s part of the solar system? History, or at least, the part of history that had occurred fifty years ago, suddenly became very important. Humanity was suddenly very self-conscious about anything their parents might have been saying on radio frequencies, hoping their parents hadn’t embarrassed them in front of their new guest.

Four month’s wasn’t enough. Time tables were changed, satellite launches were cancelled, and satellites that had spent decades in planning and construction were hastily modified. We needed to get something out there, to take a look at this thing. Radio signals were useful, but we are a visual race and we needed to see what it was we were talking to. Probes and telescopes were launched to finally get us some visuals of our new friend.

Slowly the image started to form. The comet itself wasn’t anything special. But there, on the side facing Earth, there was the Visitor. Two domes, one roughly twice the size of the other, made of some highly reflective material. No visible portholes or antennae. It was apparently smooth, or perhaps slightly crenelated. Maybe the surface was moving? It was frustratingly hard to tell from the static images that came back agonizingly slowly from all our eyes in the sky.

4938-B was causing waves beyond the scientific community, of course. The comet never ventured too far from our sun, cosmically speaking. Which meant that whoever put The Visitor on that comet had been basically on our doorstep, looked at us, and had decided not to come see us in person. An embarrassed species looked at our behavior and quietly wondered if maybe, metaphorically, the aliens had heard us arguing and decided not to get into the middle of a domestic dispute. Various groups decried the signals as a fake, a plot started by the capitalists. Or the communists. Or the Illuminati, the NSA or CIA or FBI or SS or MI6 or any other of a number of strings of letters and numbers.

But overall humanity learned to accept the Visitor for what it was: a message from someone else, somewhere else. And the question was: what do we say back?

Bradly Green found himself caught up in this discussion. Grad student though he may be, this was his idea, indeed, this was the stated goal of his project. he had tried to contact aliens hitching a lift on comets and had done so. What next?

He was unprepared for this eventuality, of course. But he rallied beautifully. “How hard would it be,” He asked on international television, “To respond in kind? Can we land a probe on 4938-B? Can we settle our probe next to theirs, and tell them we heard them?” Feverishly the engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists went to work.

“Nope,” they said. The comet was moving too quickly, was too far away, with no launch windows open to any of the currently available rockets to intercept it.

“But,” said the third-largest private space exploration company in the world, “We can launch a probe that will be within two light-minutes of the comet by the time it passes Pluto.” The “2LM” plan caught the public imagination, and the world worked together to make it a reality. The launch vehicle was set up in Texas, probe modules were built in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and India. The modules were then flown, in some cases by military aircraft, to Texas for final assembly. ad hoc treaties to allow these fighters to cross boundaries were signed quickly and the probe was built. Wheels and sometimes palms were greased to get clearance for an untested rocket to bypass a few safety inspections in order to launch on time.

The first and second largest private space exploration companies quietly pointed out that the probe would continue straight out of the solar system when the comet curved back, and that saying “two light minutes” is a way to make “22.35 million miles” sound “close”. But they were largely ignored in an effort to do something, anything, to greet our visitors and welcome them back.

The day approached. The comet had made its turn around the sun. Humanity waited as earth approached the optimal position for launch. Data centers were temporarily converted to streaming relays to handle nearly every person on earth watching the countdown.

A stormy morning notwithstanding, the vehicle was cleared for takeoff. A world watched as it sped skyward. Amateur and professional telescopes were trained on the craft as it separated from its boosters (which were recovered, but nobody much cared, not this time) and sped still outward. The species heaved a sigh of relief when the probe sent back its first telemetry data, confirmed its course and that all systems were functioning.

And then… well, then there wasn’t much else to do. People kept sending messages to 4938-B as it sped away, for as long as they could still get a message to it. And the world kept trying to decipher the messages that came back, but where do you start when you don’t know the code and don’t know what the message will be when you decode it?

And most people just went back to their lives. But something had changed. The skies were open now, and we were being watched. It was time to make a good impression.

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