RETURN TO SENDER

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Scientist Paul Kent becomes the focal point of humanity's first contact with visitors showing us we are not alone in the Universe, but by the end of the day he might wish we were.

Submitted: November 15, 2017

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Submitted: November 15, 2017

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RETURN TO SENDER

By

Brian P. Baldwin

 

Paul watched his breath roll out into the calm early morning air and it lingered much longer than he expected. He didn’t know what the temperature was, but pain in the tips of his ears convinced him it wouldn’t be surprising if his breath crystalized right in front of him. I thought the desert was supposed to be hot he thought and wondered how anything could live in this desolate place. He couldn’t believe it was the same place he’d arrived in the day before. When they lowered the huge ramp at the back of the plane, the heat of the late afternoon desert air raced inside and hit him in the face like a lava pie. But all of that paled in comparison to the bizarre fact he was waiting for what many would consider the biggest moment in human history, and it was only 3 days ago he had never before heard of Mesa Verde; after today it will be on every humans mind.

“You look cold son,” said Professor Sorenson with a broad grin behind his thick grey beard and moustache. His eyes were alive and lit with juvenile like splendor as he rubbed his thighs vigorously.

“I should’ve worn a sweater under my jacket,” replied Paul with his arms folded and rubbing against his shoulders. “I had no idea it could be this cold after being so hot yesterday. I can’t believe you’re not cold.”

The professor blew some steamy breath in front of his face and still smiling said, “I guess I should be. Hell, I probably am, but I’m just too damned excited to feel it!”

Paul thought the old guy’s enthusiasm was fantastic, but it also made him wonder why he wasn’t just as thrilled. He wondered how many hours of his forty some years had been spent in countless theatres, books, and trashy television that tried in vain to emulate this exact moment in history. He wondered why he wasn’t as excited as everyone else seemed to be.

The professor clapped him hard on the back to bring him out of his daydream and said, “The briefing is about to start.”

Paul shook it off and regained his senses bringing him back to the reality. He watched Sorenson and thought for certain the old guy was actually bouncing in his chair. He even took a moment to look around them to take stock of everyone who was there to render aid just in case the professor had a sudden bought of too much excitement. He wondered if it would be prudent to move to a different chair so he could be the one to go get help instead of helping to do chest compressions. He spotted a good unoccupied chair near the back of the tent, but it was too late as General Harris entered with a train of aids following.

“All right be seated,” boomed out Harris more out of habit than anything else. He hadn’t bothered to notice that no one bothered standing up for his entrance. He stepped up to a pile of equipment containers stacked to form a makeshift lectern so he could address the group. “I’m certain many of you know each other or at least have heard of each other. In case you don’t know, I’m General Harris from Joint Operations Command. I am in command of this operation and I answer to the president.” He paused for a moment to take a look around the gathering and giving them a chance to take it all in. “Now that we know who the boss is, I’m handing the reigns over to Mr. Grant to continue the briefing.”

Neville Grant, a portly grey bearded man just starting his sixties came forward to where Harris had been standing and looked out at everyone. He couldn’t help noticing that they all looked both intense and excited like he did admitting he hadn’t felt like this since he was a boy waiting for Christmas. He was waiting for the perfect words to fit an occasion like this to come to him, but they were late if they were coming at all. Realizing he couldn’t wait any longer, he cleared his throat with a loud deep growl almost shocking everyone watching.

“Thank you, thank you very much General. I’m very excited and pleased to see so many of my colleagues here today, especially those I’ve only known by name.” Grant paused for what he thought was long enough for them to take it all in and then continued saying, “I know it’s cold out this morning, but for some reason I just don’t feel it.”

Paul silently scoffed at him while clutching his arms closer to his chest trying to retain a bit more heat. He was surprised his anger for not wearing something a lot warmer wasn’t enough to raise his temperature alone.

“Now you’ve all had a chance to take a look at your info packages,” continued Grant, “I realize they are quite large. You can appreciate security had to be maintained with so many involved we had to keep it all to a bare minimum.” He fumbled with his package for a moment until finding the right spot and said, “If you could, please turn to section 3. This is a detailed account of the main information we were withholding until now.”

Everyone, including Paul, opened their packages and turned to the section 3. There were a few groans from some spots in the room. Following the sound he spotted one fellow civilian flipping through his package which was still the redacted version given out by mistake.

The groans were not lost on Grant since he was expecting them. There were mistakes and even a hard core task master like Harris admitted things go wrong when you throw something like this together in such a short time. “I realize not everyone’s package is complete, so I ask you to share where you can and I’m going to review the contents with all of us together.” Pausing for more groans from the crowd he swept them aside and continued, “Now most of you are here because of the initial message that went out from S.E.T.I. and we needed consultation on some very anomalous readings. But by now, after realizing we are in a different situation than originally described, also with a good many more of your colleagues than you have ever seen in one place before, you now know, that briefing was false, but there is some truth to it.”

“Well then what the hell is it,” called out a frustrated bearded scientist from a back row that looked a lot like all the others.

Grant stretched forward looking for the source and called out, “Please identify yourself!”

The man rose from his seat grabbing at his tweed jacket collars and spewed out, “Doctor Jacob Bronstein, Jet Propulsion Laboratory-.”

Grant was quick to cut off a known blowhard by saying, “Yes, yes Doctor Bronstein, what the hell all this is about, is the purpose of this briefing, so if you will let me continue?”

Bronstein grunted in compliance while shooting a look at the others around him. He groaned a bit more and folded his arms as though having struck a blow for everyone against the establishment and took his seat.

Paul watched him thinking the poor old guy was in for a serious shock, and about to have his scientific pompous ass handed to him. He’d never met Bronstein, but so far he didn’t deviate much from his description.

“Thank you Sir,” replied Grant as condescending as possible without being to blatant; he knew this crowd would get it. “Now, as promised I will be getting to ‘What the hell this is all about,’ but first I am bound to turn this portion of our briefing to Mr. Smith.” Grant ended by extending a hand to a man in a dark suit seated behind him who then came forward.

Clean cut, with a fresh shave and a well pressed dark suit the man was taller than Grant which meant he had to be well over six feet tall. His broad frame was as square as his jaw and Paul couldn’t help but notice the shoulder pads of his suit jacket were not required. As he stepped in front of the make shift podium, Paul expected him to remove his mirrored Ray Bans but the mystery was to continue.

“My name is Special Agent John Smith from the NSA, and this, ladies and gentlemen is your security briefing!”

Paul turned to Sorenson saying, “This guy looks intense.”

“Careful son,” said the Professor out of the side of his mouth, “I think they can shoot you for not taking it serious.”

Smith cleared his throat loudly again giving a definite vibe of irritation. They were far from the front, and Paul couldn’t tell for certain, but he would have put a sizable bet that the special agent was directing it at them.

Smith went on, “I am going to say this now for everyone so there can be no mistake. This operation is classified and designated as Top Secret under Special Access. The code name is ANDROMEDA.”

“Uh, that one is taken,” said General Harris from behind him.

Smith turned back in anger replying through gritted teeth, “Is everything taken these days. I cleared this one through NSA, CIA, State Department.”

“Airforce,” said Harris thrusting his chest under the blue uniform out.

“Shit! Alright, everyone note this down. We are calling this one SKIPPY!”

Harris came forward looking just as dumfounded as everyone else in the briefing. He just stood at the side staring at Smith looking for an explanation without saying anything.

“What? You going to tell me the Airforce has that one too, or how about the Ladies Auxiliary?”

“It’s sort of goofy Mister Smith. Don’t you think this deserves a serious name?”

Paul watched them thinking they reminded him of a couple of behemoth monsters from an old film about to do battle. On any other day it might even have been entertaining, but as one of the few people there to know what all this was about, he wanted to get on with it. He summoned all his available morning bravery and stood up saying, “I think Mister Smith has a point General.”

Harris spun around in Paul’s direction focusing in on him saying, “Who the fu… Who said that!”

“It’s uh, Paul Kent General.”

“Where the hell do you get-“

Harris was quickly upstaged and cut off by Smith saying, “Hang on there. Kent right? What did you mean by that?”

Paul was in the spotlight now, a place he wasn’t used to and didn’t like, but he did have a point to make. He thought, if ever there was a day to stand out, this was it. “I was just trying to point out Sir, that as a code name, SKIPPY is goofy and that would sort of help it remain in the background. It doesn’t sound very cool, and that might throw the conspiracy bloggers off for a bit.”

No one could tell if that’s what Smith had in mind when he came up with it, but he was going to run with it now. “Exactly what I had in mind! Who brought him in on this?”

Never afraid to take credit for anything good Harris stepped up saying, “I recruited Professor Kent. He is one of the finest experts in exobiology.”

Smith had no idea what that meant bud nodded in agreement like he did. “Fantastic. Promote that man!”

“Um, I’m a civilian Sir.”

“No need to apologize Kent. You are still a valuable member of the team.” said Harris.

Paul sat back down and turned to Sorenson saying, “Unbelievable. He doesn’t even know what I do.”

“It’s OK Paul. These guys barely know what they do.”

“I know, but there’s a big difference between working with reality and trying to dream up how stuff might be like on other worlds. Hell, most of the time they just take an existing species and slap a couple of antenna on their head.”

Sorenson laughed and said, “At least you got the one with them on the head. You don’t want to know what they sent me to look at.”

They had been enjoying their side conversation so much that they didn’t even realize a lot had been going on without them, but now the stage was silent with most of them looking in their direction.

“There’s no time to be bashful today Professor Kent, so don’t make me have the MPs drag you up here. Let’s give him a hand of encouragement,” said Harris leading them all into a round of clapping.

Paul got up both in shock and embarrassed by it all. He wasn’t expecting it and Sorenson was right when only a few days ago, Paul mentioned to him that they could do a better job running the operation, and now he was giving him a solid told you so kind of look. He took his time getting up there while Smith finished the end of his security briefing.

“In closing, I’d like to pass on a special message from the President. He wants all of you to know that your country deeply appreciates your help in this important and historical matter. But, I have to emphasize that everything you experience here today is of the highest classification. You will not disclose anything you see, hear, smell, taste or any other sense I haven’t thought of yet, to anyone outside of this group. Violators will be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent of the law.’

“What? No shooting on sight?” said a larger man in the front row adding a chuckle on the end.

Smith paused for a moment to stare at the man through his mirrored glasses and then said, “Anything is possible.”

Paul watched Smith’s victim squirm in his seat and thought if he had planned on scaring the shit out of him, there was a good chance it worked. He walked to the pile of boxes used as their podium and looked at Harris giving him a slight smile and nod of his head. Harris responded with a very authoritative nod to send him on the way but Paul could tell he was about to save someone’s ass.

“Thank you General Harris and Mister Smith. Like everyone here, I’m grateful for this opportunity, and knowing how excited a lot of you are, I’m going right into the briefing.” Paul paused to open his folder to check his notes and continued, “Everyone here knows that this gathering is the result of something coming out of SETI. Many of us are used to the so called WOW signal and there have been a few over the years but his is something quite different. A few weeks ago we got the ‘Holy Shit’ signal!”

There were a few gasps from the group and sudden mumbling between a few of them. A fellow professor whose name escaped him now rose from his seat and shouted out at Paul, “What do you mean!”

 Paul took in a deep breath and grasped the sides of the podium, because what he was about to say aloud made his head spin every time. “Three and a half weeks ago, we received a transmission on the Voyager 2 data stream frequency. It was uncompressed and in the clear coded for our system.”

Paul paused for a moment to look out at all the attentive faces. His mind wandered for a moment as he tried to remember the last time he saw so man bespectacled bearded faces gazing at him. Half of them had hungry mouths open like baby birds waiting for him to regurgitate his knowledge to them.

“What it means,” said Paul grabbing hold of the boxes, “is that we got a clear message about when and where we are going to meet them.”

There were gasps, shudders, and great excitement. Paul looked out at a divided room. There were those completely shocked and barely responsive. They had waited a lifetime for this moment and now barely able to comprehend all it meant. In an instant their lives were changed while the others that were in the know, simply felt this was one more point to confirm what they were told. For some, every time there was any official reference to this incredible thing, each in their own way teetered on the verge of possible disappointment. Each briefing brought the fear of a hoax looming over them.

Perhaps thought Paul, this gig, the briefing was in some way therapeutic. Now, he was the one giving the details out. That meant he couldn’t hold back surprises for himself. This was it. There was nothing to hold back and it was going to happen.

There was still a lot of noise going on in the room and he held out his arm shouting, “All Right! Let’s settle down!”

 Harris popped forward and let loose with one of those ear splitting whistles someone makes with their fingers in their mouth. That was enough to shock them all back to the moment at hand 

 Once they were calmed down again Paul started up saying, “It was a very specific message and clear. We are at this location because this is where they want to meet.”

A tall slender Professor stood up. Paul recognized him but couldn’t remember his name. “Doctor Kent,” he said formally while gripping his lapels, “how can we be sure about their intentions? How can you be certain this meeting is safe?”

“We can say with a high level of confidence,” replied Paul while looking over at the General for a nod that he was saying it correctly, “There is nothing to indicate we would be in any sort of danger.”

Another one from the other side of the room jumped in saying, “Doctor Kent, How can you or anyone be so certain?”

Paul didn’t know what to say at that moment and he thought something had to be done. The room was starting to turn ugly on him. He turned looking to the General for some support. Then General Harris looked back at him and nodded while gesturing with his hand and pointed down at the ground with his index finger.

Paul recognized the signal that meant he could tell them what they had agreed to earlier. He took a deep breath and said, “I’ve been authorized to share a small portion of the transcript of the alien transmission.”

There were some gasps and a few excited hisses, but they soon calmed down. Paul fumbled with his notes until finding the correct page. Once he had read it out to them, “This excerpt is the final segment of the last transmission from DTG 142354Z MAR 21, the response is, ‘Cool guys, see you soon.’ End of transmission.”

Other than the General and himself, there were less than five others in the briefing that had seen the official transcripts. The place was now dead quiet and looking out at them in the cool morning desert air he could see their breath while looking at each other. It was as if each of them was looking to the other for an answer to it or at least a sign as to what it could mean. Paul waited with them until he heard a noise off to his left.

Dr. Wilton Davis was a portly black scholar from MIT. His chuckle was starting to percolate its way into becoming a full blown belly laugh. Rather than stand, he preferred to lean way back in his chair curbing his laughter long enough to say, “Doctor Kent! You really are too much man! I’d tip my hat to you if I had one. I needed that to help break things up.”

Paul looked back at him and scratched at his temple and then to the General. He didn’t have any sort of suggestion on how to deal with Davis. The room was getting loud again as others started to think they were being let in on a good joke. Most seemed to just pile on to ride with it as though they should join in or risk being seen as unable to see the humor.

Paul steadied himself taking a stern stance saying, “I’m sorry Doctor Davis. There’s been a terrible mistake here. I apologize if I didn’t make it clear at the time. The transcript I read was real. There is no joke here.”

Davis rocked forward in his chair with a sneer at what he thought was an insult. “There must be some serious translation errors with this. You can’t seriously expect us to believe some advance intelligence has crossed vast distances to great us, and you fellows think they speak like ninja turtles.”

The General start moving forward to take control of things but Paul put up a hand stepping further up saying, “Doctor Davis, we can’t control what has been said to us. At this point we are only the messengers of what has been sent.”

“Then I suggest the translation program or the algorithms being used are somewhat skewed.”

“The only problem with that Sir, is we did not have to make any translations. This is exactly how it was sent by voice.”

Now the room had a new level of quietness. Finally someone Paul didn’t know broke the silence saying, “Did you say it was by voice?”

“That’s right,” said Paul, “It took us a while to realize the signal could be modulated into full audio. The data stream was meant to hold basic data only. Once we realized it was there, we could play it back and get the message.”

“What else was there?”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose any more than I have already.”

“Do we at least know where they come from,” cried out someone he couldn’t see.

“I don’t have any information on that right now.”

“Does that mean you won’t say, can’t say or you don’t know?”

Paul thought that question was a bit sarcastic and said, “How about all of the above?”

Neville Grant stood up asking, “Did you say they spoke? Did you mean they can talk the way we do?”

Choosing his words carefully Paul responded, “I haven’t actually heard the audio myself, but that is what I’ve been told.”

Grant huffed and brushed a hand in the air at Paul and said, “This makes no sense. There must be a mistake with this. How could they have any idea how to communicate with us?”

Paul didn’t appreciate Grant’s attitude so he took his time to make sure everyone was paying attention to him. He raised his arm and looked at his watch and said, “Well, I guess you can ask them that in about 30 minutes.”

That was enough to snap them all back to the moment at hand. Paul could see the visual cues on the faces as the reality of his words sank in. That’s right kids, he thought, in 30 minutes you are about to face the truth of something you’ve either dreamed or dreaded your entire life. He considered, for some, it must be like meeting your maker without having to die for the appointment. He felt ready but also knew he’d had a lot more time to prepare for this moment than a lot of the others. A slight sneer appeared at the corner of his mouth as he thought, ready or not, here it comes.

General Harris came forward stepping in front of Paul and held up one of his large hands to quell the crow saying, “That’s enough for now gentlemen. Thank you Doctor Grant. It’s time for everyone to get organized. We are at T minus 26 minutes and counting. Your briefing packages tell you your groups, team leads and where to assemble. So let’s move people. This is going to be a crash course in interstellar relations!”

Harris and his main team left the briefing tent fast with several guards and they dragged Paul along with them. They walked direct with purpose to a nearby tent like enclave with several vehicles backed onto the structure. Once inside Paul saw a number of technicians at work stations with headsets, presumable talking to others he could only imagine.

There was one single large screen bigger than all the others, but then Paul realized it was actually a bank of several screens. He didn’t recognize the program running, but he was able to tell it was some sort of tracking display. He looked at it with a slight cant of his head thinking a different angle would reveal something, and to his surprise it did. He saw there was a sort of main target at the bottom of the screen. He was beginning to get the impression he, and all the others there were the target and the flashing blip moving on it was unsettling.

Paul almost jumped out of his skin when the General put one of his large meaty hands on his shoulder. He starred at the same screen as Paul saying, “Mesmerizing isn’t it?” He didn’t even bother to turn his head to see Paul’s nod agreeing with him. “Yup, shit’s about to get very real.”

 

It was still cold out but Paul could feel the slight glow of the rising sun on the side of his face. He knew it would only be a few hours before this desolate place would return to a sun scorched plane, but for right now it was looking like the most important place and moment in human history. He didn’t think it could get any quieter that it was right now wondering if this was what they meant by the calm before the storm. Just when he thought he couldn’t get any more anxious about the day, his inward emotional crisis was put to immediate rest when an ear splitting claxon sounded three times. Paul had to grab onto the railing of the observation platform to save him from falling down.

“Shit son! That’s just the two minute warning. You going to be all right?” said the large heavy set older man.

Paul nodded while trying to get a little distance from him. He didn’t know him and the guy did sort of save him from falling, but he was just too embarrassed to stay near him. It was more like a reflex to get away from the scene of the crime. He thought the longer he stayed the greater chance others would remember him freaking out at the alarm. It wasn’t brave but it was all he knew.

General Harris came forward to the center of the observation platform getting everyone’s attention. Paul noticed the big man looked even more menacing than usual having put on an expensive looking pair of mirrored sunglasses. He was either smiling or grimacing; Paul couldn’t tell which until he looked over in his direction and gave a little nod. He realized he was standing near a few others so it might not have been for him. If it was then he was definitely grimacing, but for the group, it could go either way.

Harris held up his hand and with the other held a microphone to his mouth. “It’s time people. Less than a minute to go so get your shit together. We don’t know exactly what to expect, right Doctor Grant.”

Paul recognized his cue wishing he could ignore it. He knew it was no use. The old bastard would just come over and get him. He shuffled over to Harris and spoke into the microphone. “Yes General that’s right, especially when it comes to radiation so if you don’t have proper eye shielding, you better look down.” He took a moment to check his own glasses and watched a bunch of the others do the same while several scrambled to find theirs. And that was the last real coherent moment he could remember because just seconds later the claxon started again, but this time it just kept going rhythmically. Then it just happened.

 No matter how hard he tried, Paul just couldn’t come up with a way to explain what he was seeing. This was it. This was the biggest moment forever. There will never be another one like it and he didn’t know what he was seeing. Was he seeing anything at all he thought, no it wasn’t something to see. It was something he felt deep inside of his body. He tried looking around but it was dark, but how cold it be dark here in the middle of a desert morning? Then he realized it wasn’t a feeling, it was a sound. A deep hard rumbling sound that started at his toes and traveled up through his entire body. Suddenly he felt panic realizing he wasn’t breathing. He wanted to, he wanted it badly but there was no air to be had. It was impossible for him to process all of this at once. Every one of his senses seemed to be conspiring against him understanding what was going on. No air to breath he thought, then why does my face feel like it’s being sandblasted? Worse yet, the sound came, but no it wasn’t a sound. It was a vibration of a sound passing through everything around him and coming up from below vibrating at his bones till they began to rattle in his head. Then from no place he could tell there was brightness like he had never known consuming everything like the way he thought it would be at the center of an atomic blast. Then, it was followed by nothing.

No sound, no wind or hint of a gentle breeze. It was as if the world had suddenly stopped and he looked around him half expecting to see all others frozen in time and space like a cheap science fiction movie from his youth, but they were just like him; standing around, looking around, and trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Eventually they all got around to spotting the massive cylindrical object on the desert floor in front of them. It was silver metallic shaped like a huge tube on one end and the rest jutting up to the sky. Paul looked at it struggling with the dimensions unable to tell how far away it was or how high it went. At moments, it looked like it was 4 or 5 miles away and then it also seemed like he could reach out and touch it. But most importantly, he was stuck with trying to figure out what the hell it was. Could this be it, could it be the space ship they were waiting for he wondered, or was it some sort of illusion brought on by everything else. As he looked at his colleagues he could see on their faces they were left with the same questions.

He was about to ask General Grant what he thought when there was a new loud noise booming out over them like a wave crashing in from the sea. It was a thundering deep voice that said, “Behold!” And then the massive cylinder solid in the center from top to bottom and opened like a giant can. Within was a black seamless void with the disturbing property of looking like it reflected nothing. Paul thought it was blacker than he thought was possible including the view into space. He was starting to squint and fixate on the blackness looking for any kind of variation to cue on.

Frustrated Paul said out loud, “Behold what?” He then turned to see if the General saw anything but he didn’t look like he could see anything either. He turned back to the blackness and wondered when the general got compound eyes. “Holly shit!” screamed Paul turning back to the creature beside him while trying to step back away from it.

It was the strangest thing he had ever seen. To Paul it seemed like someone in a leisure suit had donned some sort of prosthetic bug head or elaborate mask complete with moving antenna and a very large set of mandibles sticking far out from its face. On the side of the head were very large compound eyes that were so detailed with each one reflecting back the image they could see. Sticking out of the sleeves of the suit were some very basic insect like limbs with very coarse hairs over the green and brown skin. But strangest of all was the incredibly bushy 70’s porno mustache above the mandibles. The insect head turned its attention to Paul.

The mandibles clicked and it said, “Oh, hey there, I’m Larry,” and its thin appendage whipped out a small business card.

Paul didn’t know what to do. He was still in a state of shock and bewilderment and kept switching his view back and forth from the card to the insect head. “Hey, it’s cool man. You can take it.” said a new voice from behind him.

He turned around hoping that it would be something that would make more sense than Larry, but he was quickly disappointed. The new creature was a lot more familiar in basic design. Like Larry it was wearing a very casual looking suit but with thinner lapels. He looked at it trying to sum it up in simple terms; he was looking at a very small version of Bigfoot. It pulled out its own business card handing it to Paul and said, “Hi, I’m Gerry.”

Paul took the card and moved back away from both of them and found himself surrounded by all of the others on the platform with each of them looking as dumbfounded as him. Larry and Gerry took a position at the railing so they could see everyone else while providing an excellent view of their craft. Paul looked over at Grant hoping for some kind of sign for what to do, but Grant was stunned like everyone else. No one could figure out how they got there and what the hell happened.

Gerry took a small step forward and said, “I can see we’ve surprised you guys a bit so since I most closely resemble what you are used to, I’ll take the lead here.” Gerry put his furry hands on his hips and continued, “Larry and I are just thrilled to meet you guys and we both want you to know what a great planet you have here, right Lar,”

Larry stood up straighter while rubbing his back legs together and said, “You know it Ger, this place is fantastic. I can’t believe we’ve never been here before.”

“No doubt Larry, and the way you guys greeted us. This is fantastic! Do you treat everyone who visits your world this way? This is some reception!”

Paul didn’t know what to make of them and he looked around in desperation hoping someone anyone would become the focus of Larry and Gerry. Everyone else seemed to be in the same stunned trance like state like they were watching a train derailment in slow motion. He managed to muster up a little bit of courage and decided he better say something. “Uh, I’m, or we’re glad you like it.”

“Like it!” Said Larry with his compound eye bugging out extra, “I think I can speak for Jer and say we love it.”

Paul watched the strange giant insect thing stroke its ridiculous bushy mustache where there just shouldn’t be one. He leaned forward a little apprehensively and asked, “Can you uh, guys understand me?”

Gerry came up beside him saying, “Hey, you got to love this guy, always with the Jokes.”

Larry’s mandibles clicked together rapidly and Paul thought he was either laughing or getting ready to eat him. The only thing he was sure of was that this day was going in a direction he could never have imagined. He wasn’t sure where to go from here, but he saw the General moving towards them. For once he was glad to see him.

Tugging at his tailored tunic, Harris cleared his throat loudly and stepped into the middle of them saying, “Now listen up! I’m General Harris and I’m in charge here.”

“Wow, that’s great,” said Gerry and turned back to Paul saying, “Now you’re Paul Kent right?”

Paul just nodded. He wanted to say how the hell do you know my name, but he could only stand there and wonder.

Harris did his best to seem a bit taller and puffed out his chest to be a little more intimidating. “Now look here. I demand to know what all of this is about.”

Larry brushed past Harris bumping him out of the way so he could get in front of Paul. “Hey there Paul, it’s great to meet you. I love this place. It’s a bit dry and hot for Gerry. He’s got all that fur you know, but I’m right at home here.”

“I can see how that might be hard for him,” said Paul trying his best not to recoil in fear as Larry put one of his massive insectoid limbs around his shoulder. “I guess you’re wondering why Gerry and I are here.”

Paul was still fixated on the creepy arm on him and all he could do was grunt his interest.

A few of the other observers were now huddled around the observation platform and started calling out to them. It was a jumble of general questions and Paul couldn’t tell one from another or who was asking what. They just wanted to know what was happening and why it was happening. Paul just wanted to know why it was happening to him. Harris finally managed to get around Gerry and he got in front of them blocking the way.

“Look here space bug! I want to know what all this is about!” Shouted Harris with a menacing finger pointed at Paul and the aliens.

Larry took his arm of Paul and stepped in front of him like he was protecting him from Harris. “Alright, I can see this is going to be a problem and you want to step on our buzz, so I’m going to let it out.”

“Yeah, we were hoping to get to know each other a bit better first you know but,” added Gerry stepping in. “If you’re going to be a bummer all the time then we can tell you.”

“What?” Said Harris in a long drawn out way and Paul was sure he heard a few others say it with him.

“It was supposed to be a surprise,” said Larry and he pointed to the giant open cylinder they had come in.

“You brought us a giant tube?” said Harris.

“No, no. Just watch.”

Like everyone else, Paul stared into the black empty space that was the same as when it first opened, but now something was starting to happen. At first, it was only tiny specks like bits of dust floating in a morning sunbeam began forming and swirling about. Then they began moving and grouping together causing minor sparks to fly in all directions and constantly increasing. It was like watching a massive pinball machine going into overload until most of the activity began to focus on one spot in the center near the bottom. As the shimmering slowed it began to take the shape of something round with a large parabolic antenna plus regular stick shaped ones. The entire round structure was attached to mast like structure with crisscrossing metal support beams.

The General moved to the railing trying to get just a few more inches closer to this wonder. He was joined by Paul at his side and they both stared with unequal wonder. “My God,” said Harris unable to take his eyes off it. “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Paul agreed and said, “Is it real or an image.”

Larry started rubbing his back legs together again in excitement and said, “Oh yes Paul, it is quite real.”

Harris was on the verge of salivating asking, “Is it ours?”

“You’re damned right it is General,” said Gerry trying to play to the mood.

“Just look at that Kent. That’s some real alien technology shit, and it belongs to the U.S.A. Boy!” Said Harris getting more excited every second. “That’s ours. Just us, and we don’t have to share that shit with anyone.”

Paul took a long look at the General and then back at the alien gift and then back at the General just to make sure he was seeing things right. “General, that’s Voyager 2.”

Harris pulled it back a bit to look at Paul saying, “I think it might be a bit early to give it a name just yet Kent, and you’re a big part of all this but you don’t get to decide stuff like that.”

“No Sir, I mean it’s our Voyager.”

“Holy shit Kent. I heard that thing the first time. Shut the hell up or they won’t let us have it.”

Paul felt like slapping himself in the head and doing the same for Harris. “General, it is our Voyager 2 from JPL and NASA launched in the 70’s. Of course it’s ours, We built in and launched it into space. It isn’t super-secret alien technology. There’s more computing power in your phone than there is in that thing.”

Harris looked at him like he might be some kind of traitor or something. He kept looking at Voyager and then back at Paul trying to piece it all together. The more it sank in the more he wanted to hit someone. He couldn’t hit one of the aliens because there was no way to know for sure if he could get away with it. He could hit Paul, but that would probably make him look bad in front of everyone. But still, he was pissed and someone owed him a damned good explanation.

“What the hell is going on here Kent?”

“I’m not sure Sir, but I think these guys are bringing our stuff back,” said Paul doing his best to make sense out of it all. He turned away from Harris and back to the aliens saying, “Larry and Gerry, could you explain this. We don’t understand what’s going on here.” He ended by making sure to point to the space craft.

Larry and Gerry looked at each other, more so Larry because of all the eyes, and then Larry said, “It is from here isn’t it? I hope we didn’t make a mistake.”

Paul could see they had genuine concern, or at least he was certain that it was the way a giant bug would look concerned. “It is our space craft, but we’re confused on why you have it and why bring it here.”

“We found it,” said Gerry with a large grin. “We came across it just past your furthest planet and it didn’t take long to figure out where it came from.”

“We figured you sort of lost control of it and it got away on you,” added Larry.

“We didn’t lose it,” said Paul trying to put it delicately, “we launched it into space.”

“But it was in the middle of nowhere,” said Larry.

“That’s the idea. It’s a deep space probe. We’re trying to see what’s out there.”

Gerry took another look back at Voyager and said, “There’s nothing there. We thought you lost it.”

Paul was about to explain his limited knowledge of the space program when there was a thud at his feet. A fist sized rock had landed there and he scanned in the direction he thought it came from. He caught a glimpse of Doctor Bronstein looking for another rock. Once he found a good sized one he threw it at them almost catching Paul in the head. “You assholes!” he shouted and started looking for more rocks.

“What’s that dude’s problem?” asked Gerry.

“That’s Doctor Bronstein. He’s from JPL. They built Voyager and most of his career has been based on the information coming back, or rather the info that used to come back from it,” explained Paul. “He’s been working on that for close to 40 years now.”

“He must be glad we found it then.”

“Yeah, uh I don’t think space exploration means the same thing to you guys as it does us.”

General Harris was on his radio having some guards get a grip on Bronstein and then came over to Paul and the Aliens. “Larry, Gerry,” he said, “so is this it? Is this the big deal we’ve been waiting for, you guys bringing back something we sent out to space? There’s got to be more to this?”

Gerry got his big toothy grin back while Larry got his mandibles going as well. “Really, there was nothing to it,” said Gerry, “but if it will make you guys feel better about the whole thing then just some sort of modest finder’s fee would be fine.”

“Yeah, don’t go embarrassing us with anything large and garish,” added Larry.

“What the hell are they talking about?” mumbled Harris with his head canted at Paul.

“I think Sir,” said Paul quietly, “they expect to get paid in some way for bringing Voyager back to Earth.”

Harris was trying to process all of this and the only thing he was sure about was that he wished he wasn’t in charge of the operation after all. He didn’t even know if there was anything or any way to pay aliens. While he thought about all of it, he was gazing out watching a couple of airmen fighting with an elderly professor who just had his life’s work reduced to the equivalent of your neighbor finding your Frisbee in his yard. He let his mind wander a bit as he thought how Bronstein looked pretty spry for a guy his age, or at least for the age he looked. He had to turn away after watching the professor kick an airman it the nuts. He wasn’t squeamish at all but rather wanted to be looking the other way for the moment of retaliation.

Harris took a deep breath thinking it was time to get back to work and said, “OK, let me see if I have this straight. You guys steal our deep space probe-.”

“Found,” said Larry correcting the General.

Harris didn’t like being corrected, even by the President. “Uh, yeah,” he replied eyeing them suspiciously, “we can agree to disagree on that one. So you guys think we should pay you for bringing our craft back here.”

Larry and Gerry looked at each other and then over at Paul who just shrugged his shoulders. They looked back and Harris and nodded. He was still trying to process all of it and said, “How about a little help here Doctor Kent?”

Paul nervously pawed at his mission folder, but quickly realized there were no answers in there for this situation. He knew all he could do now was wing it and said, “Of course, Larry, Gerry, we appreciate your recovery of Voyager 2, but you see, it’s been on a mission for over 40 years.”

“Wow man,” said Gerry with a little whistle added on the end, “We had no idea.”

Larry nodded his head with him, “You guys must be happy with that. I misplaced my drilltrinium coupler for like a week, it damn near drove me crazy.”

Harris slapped his hand to his forehead hard like it might shake something loose in the heads of the aliens. It wasn’t lost on Paul and he tried to recover quickly saying, “No, no. Sorry guys, I guess I’m not making this clear. See this craft, Voyager is a probe. We sent it out there to learn about space.”

“Yeah, we got that,” said Larry looking to Gerry for agreement, “but we figured it sort of got away from you reaching escape velocity from your system.”

“OK, I can see where you might think that. Once it was done its primary mission to look at some of our planets, we kept the mission going.”

“Going where?” asked Gerry.

“We want it to study the space after Pluto, past the edge of our system.”

It was hard to tell with Larry but Gerry looked confused asking, “Study what?”

“Interstellar space.”

“There’s nothing there man,” said Larry with his mandibles clicking in what Paul assumed was a sympathetic manner.

“We know there isn’t anything there, like there aren’t any extra planets or stuff like that, but we’re gathering data,” explained Paul.

“How do you gather data on nothing?” asked Gerry.

Harris was getting fed up and jumped in saying, “Look here. What we do with our space craft and what we use it for is none of your business. You just ruined a 40 year mission of exploration, discovery, and shit like that.” He lost the point he was trying to make and turned to Paul saying, “The President isn’t going to like this Kent. For Christ sake, do something.”

Paul could feel the General’s panic plus it was starting to look like he was going to look for someone to blame all of this on. He had no idea why the aliens seem to gravitate towards him, but he couldn’t argue that there was something between them. It suddenly occurred to him there might be a way to salvage all of this and make everyone happy. He held up his arms to try and gather the two strangers closer to him and he said, “Look guys, there’s obviously been some confusion on all sides here,” he paused noting what he thought looked like confusion from them. He couldn’t be sure but everyone human nearby sure looked confused. “You thought you were doing us a big favor and we thought, well we didn’t know what to think, but we can all agree it wasn’t this,” and he ended by pointing at Voyager 2.

By now he had the full attention of the Aliens along with General Harris trying to see where all this was going. In fact everyone on the platform and a few on the ground wresting with Nobel laureates were paying close attention to him. “I’m guessing it’s safe to say, you guys came here with the expectation you were sort of helping us out,” he paused watching Gerry and Larry nod their heads vigorously with Harris joining in as he got closer. “And, I guess it’s fair to say you had hoped our gratitude would include something for you guys since you went through all this trouble to be such nice guys.”  The nodding continued and now Paul realized it was the moment of truth, or had he talked himself into a corner he wouldn’t be able to get out of? He took one step closer to them and leaned in hoping to maximize their interest and very calmly said, “Do you guys have any guns?”

 

Professor Paul Kent sat down on the edge of a very large packing container sipping on a can of beer coming to the realization he was either going down in history as the man who brought peace to the world or the one who ended it. Before the sun went down on the Arizona horizon General Harris was marveling at the workings of a hand held matter disruption gun and how on its lowest setting could reduce a modern battle tank to puddle of liquid he didn’t recognize. His men were still offloading cases of the things. At the same time, truckloads of beer were being loaded onto the interstellar craft of two drunken aliens. They were so drunk, they were taking turns riding on Voyager and shouting, “Let’s explore nothing!”

Harris watched Larry tumble to the ground with a loud thud. He turned to Paul saying, “It’s a good thing he’s an insect. That fall would have killed me.”

Paul nodded in agreement saying, “Yup, me too. Did you see, they’ve gone through about 20 cans so far. I don’t think that fall is the only thing he’ll feel in the morning.”

“I just hope they don’t crash that thing into the moon. Time to go home Kent.”

 

The End

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Brian P Baldwin. All rights reserved.

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