“I have Canberra on the line, sir.”
Major General Frank Richards cleared his throat and straightened his tie as he glared at the red handset extended toward him. He had never needed to communicate with the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex before, nor had he ever expected to. Monitoring the Voyager probes was a cakewalk, and he’d never actually thought the task would produce results—at least not in his lifetime. The thought of assigning American scientists to study drifting wonky boxes filled with pictures and music for aliens to find was goofy liberal bullshit. In his humble opinion, such a task was a waste of time and money, thus best exported to the Australians.
But now, here he was, woken up in the middle of the night because Australia had misplaced the damn probes. What a crock. The men and women sitting among him in the control room of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory didn’t deserve to be robbed of their time over such a silly fuck-up. The Major General wanted to get this over and done with as soon as humanly possible, go back to bed, and wake up in a world without any Australians.
“This is Major General Richards. To whom am I speaking?”
“Oh, g’day mate, most folks call me Pete.”
The Major General’s brow crinkled.
“Pete, then. Do you realize who you’re talking to? Please state your rank and address me with appropriate respect. I am the head of NASA, a Major General.”
Some lip smacking that sounded like gum chewing traveled from Australia and into the Major General’s earpiece, followed by a slurp and satisfied sigh. The Major General swore he smelled beer through the phone.
“Aw mate! Great bloody timing! Exactly who I need to talk to,” said Pete. “And no ranks here, sport. Now if we can get a wriggle on, I have a report to make before I knock off. I promised the missus I’d be home for tea.”
“Sir! You meant to say you have information to report, sir!”
“Nah, no need to call me sir, mate. Told ya. No ranks. Nothing’d ever bloody get done. Call me Pete. Every bugger does.”
The Major General procured a flask from his lapel, attempted a stealth swig, and returned it as though everyone in the room had not noticed. His need to get through this ordeal far surpassed his need for formalities. After all, he knew that civilizing Australians was like herding feral cats.
“Alright then…Pete…what is happening over there?”
“It’s not so much as what’s happening here, mate. It’s deep space. We’ve got a problem. The Voyager probes were traveling away from the planet. Now they’re not.”
This was such an obvious operator error that the Major General had to restrain himself from erupting into a tirade that would no doubt include insulting Pete’s mother.
“Pete…what do you mean when you say the probes were traveling away from the planet? Tell me more about the probes.”
“Well, mate,” said Pete, “you see, there were these probes carrying Golden Records filled with pictures, and music, and Carl Sagan’s soothing voice, and you blokes called the probes Voyager 1 and 2, and you sent those bastards into outer space back in the seventies, and—“
“I know damn well what the Voyager probes were doing! What’s happened to them? Are you saying we’ve found extraterrestrial life?”
“That would be the guts of it, mate. See, I’m sitting here, and Voyager 1 ups and offs. Now I reckoned something went pear shaped with the monitor. So I get the fella to gear up the last photos from the server. And while I’m waiting, Voyager 2 goes full stop.”
“Wait. Are you trying to say that Voyager 1 is missing and Voyager 2 is…not moving somehow?”
“Well, sorta. Voyager 1 has scarpered. Done a complete runner. I’ve sent you over the last shot she took. Not something you see everyday.”
The Major General noticed a few incomplete images in the process of downloading to the NASA server from Canberra.
“Still waiting on that image, Pete. What do you mean when you say Voyager 2 isn’t moving? That’s not possible!”
“Absolutely. But she’s sure motoring now. And, fuck me, she seems to be heading home. And she’s got some legs. Probably on account of the massive alien megastructure attached.”
The Major General’s eyebrows contorted into a vicious letter W over unblinking eyes. His hand grabbed his flask of its own accord and offered his mouth a generous helping of liquid courage. He tried to speak, but only produced a small noise that sounded like the first letter of every question on his mind spoken at the same time.
“You still there, mate?” checked the Aussie.
“Massive alien megastructure? You’re making a joke, aren’t you?”
As though it were his grand finale, Pete peppered the rest of the conversation with staccato belching.
“Sorry, mate. No chance. This is fair dinkum. Sent you a pic of that as well. You’ll get it in a tick. You’ll see your Voyager with its new, gigantic friend. And, I’m not kidding, the world is about to go arse over. My missus will be pissed off. It’s lasagna tonight. All the best, mate. I’m outta here.”
“Wait! Pete! What’s in the pictures? They haven’t come over yet!”
“Soon enough. Keep your pants on. Voyager 2’s got some sort of electromechanical spherical space squid attached, and it looks kinda pissed, really. Mate, that’s a huge bastard. And Voyager 1’s got a picture of something that…well…don’t say I didn’t warn ya! The missus won’t be denied! Ta, Major!”
The tritone beeps of a lost connection greeted the Major General in lieu of a response.
This had to be some sort of practical joke, a sick Australian idea of humor. The Major General growled at himself for buying into the prank. He faced the control room, hoping to receive an uproarious “gotcha,” but the tension held on. His team gave no indication of being in on any sort of joke. Shit was officially serious.
“Can anyone back up that fucking Australian?”
A mouse couldn’t get away with a fart in the stunned silence. The men and women all stared as the images from Canberra came through. The Major General drifted toward the nearest man gaping wide-eyed at a screen.
“What is it? What the…Jesus jump-roping Christ! What in the hell am I looking at?”
It was no sick, Australian joke. The last image sent out from Voyager 2 showed a close up of a colossal, mechanical alien structure. Its squirming, sleek, white tentacles wavered out toward the Voyager, ready to snatch it up out of deep space. Nothing like it had ever passed through the Major General’s worst nightmares.
“What is that thing?”
Silence. Not one of the genius-level scientists in the room could answer that question.
“For fuck’s sake, whatever in the hell that thing is, can we verify that it’s on a trajectory toward Earth?”
“It is,” spoke a woman.
"How could it possibly find us?" asked the Major General.
“We did include the coordinates to Earth in both Voyager probes,” said the woman.
“Gosh, that was kind of a bad idea, in retrospect,” offered another man.
“Silence! Let me think!” demanded the Major General.
A flurry of anxiety broadsided the punctilious mind of Major General Frank Richards. He sensed the situation falling out of his control, a first in his life of strict adherence to order. He never expected to have to handle a potential alien invasion, let alone one introduced to him by a fucking Australian. This was all wrong in his mind. This couldn’t be happening. For the first time ever, the imperturbable man felt himself breaking.
“Sir, Voyager 2 will make its way here at approximately 0200 hours at its present velocity,” said a woman to his left.
The Major General made no attempt to disguise his guzzling of the flasks’s remains.
“Get the president on the phone.”
“Sir, you may want to—”
“Get the goddamned president on the phone!”
“But sir, you might want to see this first.”
“What is it? What is so important?”
“The other image…from Voyager 1.”
Realizing his time of making great, senseless orders might be coming to a close, the Major General demanded to have the image projected on the big screen. The staff obliged, and when the photograph blinked up in its full glory, the Major General’s mind cracked.
“Is that? It can’t be…that’s Voyager 1’s last photograph?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“But that looks like…”
“It appears to be a large Victorian-style home, sir.”
“A house? In space? In deep space?”
“That’s quite a lovely wraparound porch on it, too.”
The Major General swallowed hard. Talking to the Australian seemed easy all of a sudden.
“Get me another drink. Anybody,” he said. “Then, someone get me the president.” The Major General cleared his throat as his eyes darted between the images of the tentacled beast and the Victorian house. “And someone call my wife…please.”