“Sir, we have an Australian on the phone.”
Major General Frank Richards cleared his throat and straightened his tie as he glared at the red handset extended toward him with ill-disguised contempt. He never needed to communicate with the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex before, nor had he ever expected to. Monitoring the Voyager probes was a cake walk, nothing anyone thought would actually produce results in their lifetime. Just the thought of assigning American scientists to study drifting wonky boxes filled with pictures and music for aliens to find seemed like liberal bullshit to a man such as Major General Richards. Such a task was a waste of money and time, therefore certainly best exported to the Australians, in the Major General’s humble opinion.
But now, here he was, woken up in the middle of the night just because Australia had misplaced the damn probes. What a crock. The Major General wanted to get this over with as soon as humanly possible, go back to bed, and then wake up in a world that definitely included no Australians.
“Yes, 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 and he gave the phone an abhorring glance meant to travel directly to Pete for his casual attitude.
“Pete, do you realize who you’re talking to? Please state your rank and address me appropriately. 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 could smell 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.”
“You mean to say you have information to report, sir!” barked the red-faced Major General.
“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 this ordeal over and done with surpassed his need for formalities. After all, he felt that getting Australians to be civilized 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 vessels were traveling away from the planet. Now they’re not.”
This seemed to be such a minor problem, an obvious operator error not worth his time, that Major General was about to erupt into a tirade on the brink of insulting Pete’s mother, but then the words the Australian spoke caught up with him.
“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 filled with pictures, and music, and Carl Sagan’s soothing voice, and you blokes called them 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? Have we found extraterrestrial life?”
“That would be the guts of it, mate. See, I’m sitting here, and Voyager 1 just ups and offs. Bugger all. Now I reckoned that something just went pear shaped with the monitor. So I get the fella to gear up the last photos. You know, from the server. And while I’m waiting, Voyager 2 goes full stop.”
“You mean…Voyager 1 is missing? And Voyager 2 is…not moving?”
“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 saw an image downloading from Canberra, incomplete.
“Still waiting on that image, Pete. And Voyager 2 isn’t moving? That’s not possible!”
“Absolutely. But she’s sure motoring now. But, 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 involuntarily grabbed his flask and offered his mouth a generous helping of its contents. The Major General could not speak. A small sound escaped his lips, as though he were only able to say the first letter of every question on his mind at the same time.
“You still there, mate?”
“Massive alien megastructure? You’re making a joke. Aren’t you?”
Staccato belching peppered the conversation.
“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 seems 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 tell ya! The missus won’t be denied! Ta, Major!”
But a dial tone greeted the Major General instead of a response. This had to be some sort of prank, a sick Australian idea of a joke. The Major General growled at himself for buying into the prank. He turned around to face the control room, hoping to receive a “gotcha!” followed by him enjoying firing half the room, but the tension held on. His team gave no indication of being in on the joke.
“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 at their screens. The images had come through. The Major General drifted toward the nearest man, who was staring wide-eyed at his own screen.
“What is it? What the—Jesus jump roping Christ! What am I looking at?”
It was no sick, Australian joke. The last image sent out from Voyager 2 looked to be a close up of a gigantic, mechanical alien planet with squirming, sleek, white tentacles wavering outward 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 before.
“What is that thing?”
No one said a word, because no one knew the answer to that question. The Major General resigned himself to this fact and shook away his disbelief in a rush of self-preservation and power hunger.
“Well, damnit, whatever in the hell that thing is, can we verify that it is headed toward Earth?”
“It is,” spoke a woman behind the Major General. “And it’s probably using the coordinates to Earth that we included in both probes.”
“Gosh, that sure seems like it was kind of a bad idea, in retrospect,” said another man.
“Silence! Let me think!” demanded the Major General.
A flurry of thoughts ran through the head of Major General Frank Richards, a man whose life’s purpose had been to retain control of as many things as possible at all times. He never expected to have to handle a potential alien invasion, let alone one introduced to him by a fucking Australian. No. This was all wrong in the Major General’s mind. This couldn’t be happening. For the first time, ever, the man felt himself breaking.
“Sir, it appears the Voyager 2 will make its way here by approximately 0200 hours tomorrow morning at its present velocity,” said the woman behind him.
The Major General made no attempt to hide his guzzling the remains of his flask.
“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 could it possibly be?”
“The other image…from Voyager 1.”
Realizing his time of making great, senseless orders might be coming to a close, the Major General demanded the image be projected on the big screen at the front of the control room. The staff obliged, and when the photograph blinked up in front of the room, the Major General nearly passed out. If he had a million years to guess what the last photo taken by Voyager 1 would have been, he still would’ve missed the mark by light years.
“Is that? It can’t be…that’s Voyager 1’s last photograph?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“But that looks just like…”
“It appears to be a large Victorian-style home, sir.”
“But…in space? In deep space?”
“That looks like a lovely wraparound porch on it, too,” offered another man.
The Major General swallowed hard. Talking to the Australian suddenly seemed easy.
“Get me another drink. Anybody,” he said. “Then someone get me the president.” The Major General cleared his throat as he restudied the images of the tentacled beast and the Victorian house. “And someone call my wife…please.”