When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer

by Jamie Todd Rubin

This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Issue #5 (July 2007).

This is my first published story. I sold the story to Edmund Schubert at InterGalactic Medicine Show in early January 2007 and the story appeared in the July issue.


When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected to fall in love, discover intelligent alien life in the universe, and end up in jail. Up until the moment our lips first touched, I had never so much as been sent to the principal’s office. My biggest infraction had been fibbing to my folks about looking for after-school employment. Up to that point, my biggest discovery had been (much to my dismay) a complete lack of any visible talent in chemistry lab. This made me think twice about becoming a doctor, veterinarian, chemical engineer, or any other profession that required mixing skills (including chef), and which resulted in yet another change in my major.

As for love, well, there was Summer Halfast, but I’m not sure it counts when the person for whom you pine over doesn’t recognize your existence.

Tracing back the chain of events that led to my accidental fame and incarceration, it boggles my mind to think that it might never have happened if I hadn’t been on that particular shuttle to the moon, and hadn’t been assigned that particular seat. I’m no predestinarian, but it’s hard for me to swallow the fact that it was all just happy circumstance. Yet what else could it be but happy circumstance?

And to think it all started with that kiss. Well, not quite . . .

#

It all started with the summer solstice.

The fact that it was summer solstice would, under ordinary circumstances, never have entered my mind. However, it was also my graduation day and the high-noon sun would allow none of us graduates to forget that summer was upon us. The graduation ceremony was like a final exam: one in which we demonstrated that we were smart enough to follow one another in an endless procession, under a blazing sun, draped in black. We sat there baking while the speaker cast his arms about the similarly-dressed audience, praising our individuality. Finally the dean of the school conferred upon us our respective degrees, and we tossed our sweat-drenched caps into the air and plotted our escape.

After four years of struggle, and a half dozen changes in major, I had finally settled on political science, mainly because I thought that the science part would impress my folks. It must have worked because after I’d threaded my way through the black-bean mass of fellow graduates and found my folks, they presented me with a most amazing graduation present.

“Here you go, son,” Pop said, handing me the envelope, which I assumed contained money.

“Where’s your diploma?” Mom asked, “Where is it? Let me see it. Come on, Danny, let your poor mother see it!”

I had to break the news to her. “We don’t actually get the diplomas today, Ma. A replica will be sent out in four-to-six weeks, and the proper entry will be made in my academic record.” She frowned, and I imagined that she would remain suspicious of the whole affair until that piece of paper was produced.

“Let him open his present, willya!” Pop said.

Ripping off the end of the envelope revealed the red-white-and-blue stripes of the Lunar Transit Authority. I pulled the LTA shuttle ticket from the wreckage of the envelope and flipped it open.

A round-trip ticket to the moon!

I looked up in surprise and Pop was beaming. How did they know I’d wanted the tickets? I’d never said anything about it. He patted me on the back and said, “I’m proud of you, son.” Mom dabbed at the corner of her eyes and hugged me tightly. Suddenly graduation was a distant memory. I was going to the moon.

#

Someone once told me that two hundred years ago it was traditional for college graduates, freshly armed with their degrees, to announced themselves to the world by spending the summer after their graduation backpacking across Europe. I never understood that. Here these graduates had just completed four years worth of reading about the place so often in their history books and science books that you’d think they’d be sick of it! Eventually, I guess, they did grow sick of it and the tradition progressed from romping through the ruins of Stonehenge to hopping across the Ocean of Storms. That’s where I was headed and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Mind you, I was not one of those troglodytes who’d never been up in a shuttle before. We’d taken family vacations and I’d rocketed to Japan and New Zealand. But those were little lob shots, the kind that the girls on my sister’s softball team tossed to one another. Going to the moon was like a fastball — or at least a hanging curve — in comparison.

Thus it was one week after graduation that I found myself climbing aboard the shuttle that would boost us into orbit. I was anxious, and perhaps a little nervous too, but as I looked around the cabin, no one else appeared worried, and so I did my best to ignore the feeling and focus on the flight. I calmed myself by humming “Fly Me To the Moon” under my breath (I am a fan of early-twentieth century music; it’s my personal quirk!) Not long after we’d fastened in, the engines shuddered and thundered and I was flattened onto my couch for the ten longest ten minutes of my life.

When the shaking and rattling had reached the point where I thought my head would burst, it suddenly stopped. There was a momentary silence among the passengers and then the gentle three-note chime of an electric tone, followed by the voice of a flight attendant making the traditional announcement: “The captain has turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. You may now feel free to float about the cabin.” And that’s just what I did.

#

How does one expect to meet the love of one’s life?

For me, I’d always imagined that it would be love at first sight, that we would stroll past one another in some exotic port, our eyes would lock, and the rest would be history. Or perhaps she would see me from afar, and come ask me for directions, and one thing would lead to another, and –

It’s never quite how you play it through your head. Thus, I met Audrey on the free-return trajectory to the moon. In later months, I would leave off the last detail, telling people I met Audrey on the free-return trajectory, adding that if she didn’t like me, she could feel free to return me from whence I had come.

She happened to be sitting in the seat just to my right, and I took no notice of her until she spoke to me. And the first thing she said to me was:

“I hate space travel. Only six hours into the flight, with half a day to go and already this stuffy little tin can just wreeks of an imperfectly washed humanity.” And she glared at me when she said it.

I tore myself away from the view of a quarter-crescent Earth, ready to see if she could take it as well as she could dish it out, but when I saw her, actually looked at her, all thought of malice left my mind. I looked into her green eyes, from which she brushed away dark curls of hair, and in that instant, I longed for a washroom where I could scour away the scents of my imperfectly washed humanity.

I don’t know what she saw in my face, but she must have taken pity on me because her face suddenly softened and she tilted her head slightly and said, “I’m sorry. You must think I’m rude. It’s just that I get edgy on these shuttle flights. I don’t like being closed in like this with no escape. It happens every time.”

“You do this often?” I asked.

“About a dozen times, I guess. Mostly during the last few years, while completing my degree.”

“Oh, did you just graduate?”

“Yes.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Congratulations. What did you study?”

“Political science.”

“Ugh,” she wrinkled her nose.

“What, not a fan of constitutions and elections and nation-building?”

“Let’s just say I’m not a fan of bureaucracy and its petty rules and regulations.”

“What are you a fan of?” I asked.

“That,” she said, and leaned across my lap to point out the window.

“You’re a fan of the earth?”

“Space, the stars, the whole universe!”

“Come on,” I said, “you just graduated, didn’t your professors tell you to start small?”

“I can’t. Comes with the territory.”

“Why? What do you do?”

“I’m an astronomer,” she said. I detected a quaver in her voice when she said it, as though it were some secret thrill for her.

“So maybe you can explain something to me, oh learned astronomer.”

“And what might that be?”

“Why haven’t we found any other intelligent life in the universe?”

“Now whose getting ahead of himself. Don’t you think we need to find the intelligent life we have right here at home first? Beside,” and her voice grew momentarily grave and confident, “if they’re out there, I’ll find them.”

“You’re very self-assured. Ever think of running for office?”

“The only office I ever run for is the one in which I keep my computer and research notes,” she said. “Now maybe you can explain something to me, Mr. President.”

“And what might that be?”

“What on Earth are Wilson’s Fourteen Points?”

“Six field goals and two free-throws,” I said, and this time she laughed.

“I’m Audrey,” she said and held out her hand.

“Dan,” I said taking it, “but my friends call me Danny.”

“So you’re a basketball fan, are you, Mr. President?”

I nodded.

“I should have guessed, what with your fascination with rules and all. Wait until you see them play basketball on the moon.”

On the moon, I thought. I turned back to the window and glanced at the crescent Earth, which seemed to grow smaller each minute. The moon wasn’t visible in our current flight path, but I couldn’t wait until the moment that the descent shuttle touched down on its dusty surface.

#

One might suppose that meeting the love of one’s life in an unexpected manner would lead one to conclude that just about anything can happen, and I must admit that my view of the universe was altered a bit on the day I met Audrey. But I must further admit that it was altered to a greater extent several days later when, completely by accident, I discovered the Drifters.

I should clarify that we assume that the Drifters are intelligent; we don’t know for certain, and we may never know. But the evidence is pretty strong in our favor. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but what I did know was that aliens would likely be discovered in one of three ways:

1. The rationalists felt that aliens would be discovered by some signal they sent out, some code, written in the language of Nature that would be detected by Earth’s scientists, the discovery of which would open a new era of peace and prosperity.

2. Warmongers felt that the alien spaceships would one day appear out of the blue, descending through the atmosphere on an invisible tether, and firing their death rays which would destroy whole cities. Humanity would band together to do battle against the threat, but do so too late for any meaningful action.

3. Conspiracy theorists felt that the government would be forced to admit regular dealings with aliens who had been visiting our planet for years. And having heard the truth, the conspiracy theorists would detect a trap and announce that the government was only placating them, and that these were not the real aliens, but a decoy to cover up some ever more nefarious plot.

Need I say that the discovery of the Drifters turned out to be very different from any of these possibilities? And the irony is that while such a discovery could not possibly seem connected to my meeting the love of my life in a most unexpected manner, in truth, it would not have happened if Audrey and I had not met on that shuttle to the moon. Let me explain . . .

#

It is often hard to objectively gauge the effect a woman has on you. Friends might point out that you talk differently when she is around, or that there is a little more pep in your stride, or that your apartment appears less a shambles. On the shuttle down to the Ocean of Storms, none of my friends were around to gauge my reactions to Audrey, and yet I know she had an effect on me.

I know it because on that shuttle, she got me into some trouble.

The ride down started out like a roller coaster: sudden acceleration followed by freefall. I can’t say that I enjoyed it. We’d been served a meal just before arriving at the transfer station and for the entire twenty minute descent, I had the distinct feeling that the lunch I’d eaten a few hours earlier was not only floating free in my stomach, but was beginning to crawl back the way it had come.

Audrey was sitting next to me and we had been chatting, but I had become silent as the queasiness overcame me. I suspect she knew I wasn’t feeling well because after the descent burn started and the flight attendants disappeared into their compartment at the front (I thought of it as the “top”) of the shuttle, she looked around carefully and then said, “Come on, I’ll show you something really amazing, get your mind off the motion sickness.”

“How’d you know?” I asked.

“I’d say ‘woman’s intuition’ but the real giveaway is the color your complexion has taken on in the last ten minutes.” She unfastened her safety restraint and took my hand, which thrilled me enough to help me forget my queasiness. “Come on, you don’t want to miss this.”

I looked around at the other passengers, many of whom looked worse for the wear. “We’re supposed to remain seated,” I said weakly.

Audrey leaned in, unlatched my restraint and pulled until I floated free in the cabin. Nervously, I stole another glance at the passengers, but they all seemed to be too concerned with the ride to notice our sudden acrobatics. Audrey pulled me “down” toward the back of the shuttle and as we became more noticeable, I began to feel the sting of an occasional stare from one passenger or another. I was sure that my face had turned a bright red, but Audrey didn’t seem to mind at all. She pulled us to a small panel with an embossed sign that read: Crew Only. She took one quick look toward the front of the shuttle, and then slid the panel over and slipped inside the opening. There was nothing I could do but follow her down the rabbit hole.

I came to rest inside a compartment so small, it was clearly designed for a single person, perhaps a child. I didn’t mind so much, because it meant that I was pressed up against Audrey’s soft body. Before I could get my bearings, however, I was overcome by another wave of dizziness.

There, below my feet, the surface of the moon rolled by and I could see it moving closer and closer!

I reached out to grab something to stabilize myself and found I had clasped onto Audrey. She giggled but she didn’t move my hands. “I told you it would be amazing,” she said.

“What is this?”

“Docking compartment. The shuttle backs into the dock at the transfer station in orbit. If they have to dock manually for some reason, the navigator will use this room to get visual bearings. But it’s usually empty and most passengers don’t know about it. And since ‘back’ is ‘down’ on the descent, it makes for quite a view.”

And what a view it was! Craters and mountains slid by and as we descended closer, I felt as though I could make out ripples in the lunar soil. My stomach had calmed down, but my nerves! — the view thrilled me, filled me with a rush that I’d never felt before, although I didn’t know if it was the rising surface of the moon, or the profile of Audrey’s face, caught in the fiery light of the descent engine, that had a greater effect on me.

Within a few minutes, we’d circled back around and the edge of the Ocean of Storms came into view on the horizon. We were much lower now, and had slowed down considerably. The view gave the illusion of floating down to the surface; graceful, poetic –

“What’s going on in here?”

We looked up and saw that one of the flight attendants peering down through the open panel.

“We were, we just, uh, we –” I said helplessly. I could only guess what he was thinking. Audrey just grinned.

“I must ask you to return to your seats at once. This is a restricted area,” the attendant said.

I pushed my way up through the panel and tried not to look into the eyes of the other passengers. I didn’t even look back to see Audrey pull herself up and sit down next to me. All I could think of was how much trouble I’d be in if my folks found out — and I hadn’t even made it to the surface yet.

“Don’t be sore,” Audrey said, “it was fun.”

“We could have gotten into serious trouble,” I said.

“But we didn’t.”

“Not yet, anyway.”

That’s when she leaned over and kissed me. Just like that. Her lips were soft and warm, and though my eyes were closed, I held her image in my mind and it told me all I needed to know: I was in love. That kiss drained the anger right out of me.

I was floating so high that I never felt the shuttle touch down on the surface of the moon.

#

The sea has many traditional romantic qualities, but when the great literary lights of the ages wrote their masterpieces, I don’t think it was the desolate, slate gray sands of the Ocean of Storms they had in mind. And yet when I cast my eye back across the years and think of romance (as one is bound to do when one wonders in somber moments how the magical devolves into the mainstream), it is the Ocean of Storms I see. It was my first venture onto the surface of the moon, and I played the role of hopeless romantic, for I was certain I was in love.

It had been my idea to settle into the hostel, and then leaf through the guidebook and determine the best order in which to view all of the tourist attractions in Conrad. I wanted to get the most out of my trip and I was intent on being methodical about it.

It was Audrey who suggested that we head out into the Ocean of Storms and visit the Intrepid. Blinded by the unfamiliar emotions I was feeling, I agreed — anything just to spend time with her — even though it meant my sneaking out onto the surface with her because I lacked a permit for doing so. (As an astronomer, Audrey had a permit and had made numerous treks out onto the surface, and so I felt I was in good hands.)

We never made it to the Intrepid.

Once we were on the surface (I had a hard time thinking of it as “outdoors”) I was lost in the scenery. It may appear drab and gray; it may have been described as “magnificent desolation,” but as we bounded across the surface, I finally understood what Robert Conway felt upon reaching Shangri-La. Audrey’s presence only magnified the effect.

About halfway to the Intrepid, Audrey suddenly headed up a small rise and then bound over the peak and out of sight. I followed as quickly as I could and as I crested the rise, I saw that it formed the lip of a small crater into which an observatory of some kind had been built.

“What is it?” I asked over the radio built in to my helmet.

“A research station,” she said. “It houses a small telescope, but has a hookup to the Korolev radio telescope on the far side, as well as a couple of orbiting telescopes. You can get a view in here that you’d never be able to get on earth.”

After a moment, the airlock door slid open, spilling light onto the shadows of the crater. “Come on,” Audrey said, and I followed her in.

We got out of our surface suits, but the suits were covered in moon dust and that fine dust transferred itself to our clothing.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to strip down,” Audrey said arching an eyebrow.

I laughed and joked back, “Okay, but ladies first.”

To which Audrey replied by slipping out of her pants and pulling her shirt over her head so that she stood in her underwear. The light was dim but there was enough of it to fill me in on any detail that I might otherwise have missed. I’m normally not an observant person, but in this case –

“Come on, Mr. President, your turn.”

I snapped back to attention and hesitated. “I thought you were joking,” I said, “Someone might see us.”

“Aw, is the President shy?”

“Well, no, but –”

“Look, there’s no one here. It’s a remote station these days, used to be staffed, but it’s cheaper to link up the equipment to the network. They keep it operational for grad students and the occasional observations that have to be made directly. We won’t be bothered.”

I couldn’t argue with logic, so I stripped down to my boxers.

We brushed the remaining dust of one another (which, though flirtatiously pleasant, reminded me of the way chimpanzees groom one another). As I flicked sand from the crater that formed in Audrey’s shoulder, I had a thought:

“Why do we have to strip?”

“Lots of sensitive equipment,” she said, making a final swipe at my chest. And then as an afterthought, she added, “The dust can cause it to malfunction.”

Audrey tapped at the door panel and the door to the station proper slid open and then closed behind us as we moved out of the lock and into the station. There was a musty smell inside, old air, the way that I imagined a cave would smell.

“That’s a small telescope?” I said looking at the massive tube that angled up three levels through the dome.

“Small compared to some,” she said. It was surrounded by a catwalk structure and at its base was a computer console which I presumed controlled the instruments. “I want to show you something, but it will take a moment to make the adjustments.”

Her bare feet slapped across the tiled floor and my eyes followed her to the computer terminal. She tapped in some commands and a moment later, the room was filled with a low hum. I felt slightly disoriented, and then realized that the whole room was moving as Audrey adjusted the direction at which the telescope pointed at the sky.

When the humming stopped, she hopped up from the chair and said, “Follow me,” and bounded lightly up the catwalk stairs to the second level of the structure. She led me to what appeared to be a dead-end that was blocked by the telescope itself. But then I saw Audrey lean over and peer into an eyepiece. The room was suddenly quiet. I could see the rise and fall of her chest. I imagined that I could hear her heart beating.

“Okay, take a look,” she said. She was smiling as though she knew something I didn’t. I smiled back at her, stepped in front of her just close enough to brush up against her, and then bent down to look into the eyepiece.

My entire field of vision was suddenly full of stars. It looked almost three dimensional, and far too many to count. Not only that, but there was what appeared to be a gaseous blur of color, like an explosion frozen in time, just off the center of the image.

“It’s over ten-thousand light years away,” she said when I looked up at her. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It sure is,” I said, and it was, but I was looking at her.

Audrey’s cheeks grew a shade pinker, the first time I’d seen her react that way, and that stirred me to a new level of courage.

“How about some music?” I asked.

“I think that can be arranged,” she said.

“Is there an interface on the terminal?”

“Of course.”

“Well let me do it then.” And I bounded down the catwalk stairs, found the environmental controls and queued up the song that I was looking for. I called up to her, “I think this will be perfect!”

When I reached the top of the catwalk, Audrey was looking into the eyepiece. The music started as my foot touched the top step, the soft background choir fading in. And after a few beats, Bing Crosby crooned, “Far away places . . .” Audrey stood up suddenly and looked at me.

“How do you know this song?” she said.

“I’m a fan of old music.”

“I’ve loved this song ever since I was a little girl.”

“Would you care to dance?” But I didn’t really give her the chance to answer. I stepped forward and put my arm around her waist and pulled her close to me and for the next two minutes, we danced in the Ocean of Storms.

When the song ended, I said, “Okay, show me more.” But Audrey just kissed me and it was quite a while before we got back to the telescope.

#

We did get back to the telescope though, and though we didn’t know it yet, this nearly perfect evening was about to gain an unexpected crowning jewel.

Audrey spent quite some time showing me a variety of astronomical objects: nebula and planets, comets and clusters, all of them far away places.

Noting my enthusiasm, she asked, “Is this the first time you’ve ever looked through a telescope?”

“Yes,” I said, even though that was a little white lie. There had been the time back in high school when I was at my friend Derek’s house and we’d pointed his (very small by comparison) telescope at Summer Halfast’s window nearly a half a kilometer down the block. But that didn’t really count since I wasn’t looking at stars.

“Do you want to try controlling it?”

“Sure, what do I have to do?”

Audrey showed me how to manipulate the controls so as to move the telescope (or the observatory as a whole) and I fiddled with them until I had picked out a swath of sky that, from the ground, looked devoid of stars. I leaned down to the eye piece to look at the result.

Sure enough, there were hundreds of stars that simply could not be seen with the naked eye. One star in particular shone strongly as a small pinpoint of very red light. “What’s the red one?” I asked Audrey.

She stepped up to the eye piece and took a long look. When she stood up straight, she had a puzzled look on her face.

“So what is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said furrowing her brow.

“Well, it doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “With umpty-ump billion stars out there, you couldn’t possibly know all of them.”

Audrey grunted, but still looked puzzled. Then she snapped her fingers. “These stations do regular sky surveys as part of providing data to astronomers and scientists across the network. Let’s go pull up the most recent one and find out what it is.”

“It’s not really not that important. I was just wondering.”

“Science is all about answering questions,” she said seriously. Then her face twitched and she smirked, “Unlike politics, which is all about avoiding answers.” And before I could grab her and repay her for her denigration of my life’s work, she bounced down the stairs to the main terminal.

By the time I’d caught up with her she’d already pulled the image onto one of the plasma screens. “That was fast,” I said.

“Oh, that’s just the image on the telescope right now. I’m going to have the computer pull up an image of the same section of sky from the last survey and then we’ll see what our little friend is.” She tapped away and in a moment, the same image appeared on a second plasma screen.

Audrey zoomed into the first image and highlighted a section of space that contained the red pinpoint star. She tapped some more keys and the second image zoomed in as well.

“It’s not there!” we said at the same time.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that you, Mr. President, may very well be the discoverer of a new star.” She paused. “Hmm? The survey image was taken only a few weeks ago, so this must be a really new star.”

“Do I get to name it or something?”

Audrey rolled her eyes, “Going to your head already, huh? Let’s find out about this little guy so we can submit the necessary records for independent confirmation.” Audrey tapped in more commands and the image of the star on the first screen was replaced with data. I tried to skim through it but it might as well have been Martian for all I could make of it.

“This can’t be right,” Audrey said. She issued some more commands and a moment later, said, “Same thing, but it can’t be right.”

“What can’t be right?”

“The light from the star runs very close to infrared, still visible, but that’s why it appears as red, which isn’t too unusual. But I also ran an analysis of its spectrum and it’s completely missing any hydrogen lines.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Hydrogen is the primary fuel of the stars. They burn it and convert it to helium and other elements. But there’s no such thing as star without hydrogen. And that, Mr. President, can only mean one thing?”

I stared at her blankly.

“What you discovered is no star,” she said, and though it was not cold, I shivered.

“Then what is it?”

Audrey seemed lost in thought. “I should run this by Nate,” she said.

“Who’s Nate?” I asked.

“Professor Nathan Cauldwell. He was my thesis advisor,” she was tapping away at the telelink as she spoke. A moment later, a fatigued-looking, middle-aged man appeared on the screen. “Nate, it’s Audrey. Did I wake you?” The fact that she was in her underwear didn’t seem to faze her in the least.

There was a delay of about two seconds before a smile of recognition appeared on the professor’s face. “Audrey, my dear. How are you?”

“Perplexed. I’m up here at the outpost observatory in the Ocean of Storms, and I’ve got something I can’t identify. I was wondering if you could confirm it for me and tell us what it is.” She explained what I had found, pointing out that the object was not in the last sky survey. “You can find it here,” she said, feeding him the coordinates.

While this conversation took place, I could not help but feel a little jealous. After all, here was another man who seemed interested in Audrey and I wanted her all to myself. But the romance of the evening had already dissolved into mystery and so I tried to go with it as gracefully as I could manage.

Several minutes later, “Nate” turned back to face the video screen. “I can confirm it, Audrey. The object is there. And it is missing the hydrogen lines in its spectrum. How is it you came to find this thing in the first place? That section of sky wasn’t scheduled for another survey for two weeks?”

“I didn’t discover it. My friend Danny here did.” I smiled at the screen, giving the professor on awkward wave. “So what is it, Nate? It’s got me puzzled. What kind of natural phenomenon would appear as a star but be completely lacking in hydrogen?”

“Who said it had to be natural? There is another possible explanation for this.”

“Aliens?” Audrey asked. That got my attention. “Intelligent life? An artifact of some kind?”

“Let’s not get head of ourselves. We need to broaden the investigation, get some others involved.” Audrey looked as though she were about to protest, but the professor waved her off. “Don’t worry, you and your friend Danny will get priority, whatever this turns out to be. Get back to Conrad and get in touch with Jordan Duvall there. She can help. In the meantime, I’ll get the ball rolling on this end.”

What started off as a pleasant evening with interesting possibilities had turned into what would become an historic night of incredible improbability.

#

We were back out on the Ocean of Storms, heading toward Conrad. Audrey wanted to get there as soon as possible so she could make contact with Jordan Duvall and turn additional resources to the mysterious object.

I, however, wanted to see the Intrepid.

“You can see it anytime,” Audrey said as we bounded across the surface. “But it’s not everyday that you discover an alien artifact in the universe.”

“You don’t know for sure it’s alien,” I replied. “Even if it is, it’s not going anywhere. And besides, we’re a kazillion light years from that thing and we’re only half a kilometer from the Intrepid.”

“First of all, how do you know it’s not going anywhere? It wasn’t there a few weeks ago, and it could disappear just as quickly as it appeared. And secondly, it’s about 300 light years away, based on my initial estimate, not a kazillion. Come on, Danny, the Intrepid has been sitting out there for nearly 300 years and we know that it’s not going anywhere. But this discovery of yours, it’s — amazing.”

Audrey was right, of course, but all of this was over my head. There was a reason, after all, that I’d chosen political science. Still, at this point I would do anything just to be around her, so I begrudgingly agreed to return to Conrad.

We proceeded back to the city, and while I tried to cheer myself up by cracking jokes, Audrey was unusually quiet. Inside the lock, we went through the ritual of unsuiting, and cleaning off the dust (this time using a water vapor rinse), then we headed into the city proper.

“Uh-oh,” Audrey said as soon as the lock doors slid shut behind us.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Permit check,” she whispered to me.

I was about to ask what that meant, when a city official with a round face and bright blue eyes, said, “Next!”

Audrey stepped forward and handed the official her permit. She looked back at me nervously.

“Next!”

I stepped forward, still uncertain of what was going on.

“Permit,” the blue-eyed official said.

“Uh, I don’t have one.” I looked over at Audrey and she shifted uneasily and then stared at the ground.

“You don’t have one?” the official echoed.

“No, sir.”

“But you were out on the surface?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you know that surface visits without a permit are illegal?”

“Well, sir, I’m new here, it’s my first visit and –”

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” he said.

I knew the law very well. I also knew forced bureaucracy when I saw it.

“Identification,” he said. I handed him my ID card and he scanned it through his computer. “Well, Mr. Duncan, what were you doing out on the surface without a permit?”

“As I already pointed out, sir, I didn’t realize I needed one.

“What were you doing out there?” he snapped.

“There’s no need to be rude,” I said. I glanced at Audrey whose pitiful eyes pleaded with me. “I was just sightseeing. I’ve always wanted to visit the Intrepid.”

“Did your friend there know that you lacked a permit?”

“No.”

“I see. Well, Mr. Duncan, you’re going to have to come with me. We have to process the infraction and you will need to wait in a cell until we’ve done so. Also, there’s the matter of the fine to be paid. Shall we notify your parents?”

I knew that I didn’t have the money to pay the fine, so I really didn’t have a choice.

The official turned to Audrey. “You’re free to go ma’am,” he said sweetly.

Audrey looked at me and then looked toward the city proper. Finally she said, “I’ve got to go, Danny. I’ve got to get this information to the right people. If I can confirm our theory, your discovery will be huge!”

“So go then,” I said coldly.

“I’ll be as quick as I can and meet you as soon as I’m done.”

“What are you waiting for?”

She stepped forward and put her arms around me, but I just stood there. Then she whispered into my ear: “You don’t understand Danny, what you found just may very well answer the question that people have been asking ever since they first looked up at the stars. You asked me why we haven’t found evidence of intelligent alien life in the universe. Maybe now we have.”

“Come on, Mr. Duncan,” the official said.

Audrey released me and stepped back. “I’ll go as quickly as I can,” she repeated. And then she turned and headed off into the city while I was dragged off to jail.

#

One might suppose there is no better way to clarify one’s true feelings for a woman then to spend three days in jail because of her. But then one has not suffered the agonizing humiliation of having to explain to your parents just why you are in jail in the first place. The truth is, I felt somewhat betrayed by Audrey. It was the second time she had lured me into trouble.

And yet, in neither case did Audrey hold a gun to my head. It was I who decided to follow her into the docking room on the shuttle, and it was I who decided to follow her onto the Ocean of Storms, knowing full well that I lacked a permit.

I thought about the Ocean of Storms, and our dance inside the observatory and what followed, and although I was still angry and distressed, I realized that I was just as much at fault as she. What really bothered me was that the entire time I was in jail, I didn’t hear from her. Not once.

I did make a friend, however. Kind of. His name was Brahm and he was the official who stopped me when I tried to reenter Conrad without a permit. He was not so bad after all. He explained to me that life on the moon was different, and related a number of gruesome tales of surface accidents that led to the establishment of the permits in the first place. In turn, I described to him how Audrey and I met, our adventures on the shuttle, and our excursion to the observatory. On the third day, still uncertain of how I felt about Audrey or about what I should do, I posed the question to my new friend.

“Do you love her?” Brahm asked me. He had come to sit in the cell with me to keep me company for a while and was propped up against the opposite wall.

“Yes, ” I said. “No. I don’t know. To be honest, I’m pretty ticked off. She hasn’t even come to see me.”

“You’ve know each other, what, five or six days? That’s nothing. You’ve barely scratched the surface. If you really like her, you’ve got to give her a chance. Really get to know one another.”

“I do like her,” I said, and as soon as I said it, despite all of her mischief, I knew it was true. “But I’m still pretty mad.”

“You’re locked up in a jail cell, of course your mad. Ask yourself, Danny, are you angry enough not to give this a shot? Years from now, will you regret not taking a chance?”

“Taking a chance on what?” said a new voice. I turned, and there she was, standing outside the jail cell. She looked radiant. I might have been angry, but seeing her again made me realize I did want to take that chance.

I tried to look angry. “Take a chance on breaking out of this joint,” I said.

“Don’t bother. The charges have been dropped.” She handled some papers to Brahm, who looked them over.

“She’s right. You’re free to go.” He opened the cell and Audrey stepped in.

“It seems we’re famous, Danny,” Audrey said, “And the city didn’t want to press charges against one of its most famous visitors.” I must have given her a confused look because she punched me in the shoulder and said, “The object you found — the one Professor Cauldwell suspected might not be a natural phenomenon — we’re pretty sure it’s an alien starship.”

I had to sit down. “I thought you guys were pulling my leg. What on earth makes you think it’s an alien space ship”

“It’s no joke, Danny,” Audrey said as she sat down beside me. “These last three days have been so hectic I’ve hardly gotten any sleep. After Professor Cauldwell confirmed the finding, he went ahead and alerted other astronomers and astrophysicists. I helped coordinate the effort from up here. Dozens of experts have looked at this object and most of them agree that it is not natural. And they’ve not only come to the same conclusion, they’ve improved upon it.

“Remember when I said that the star was missing the characteristic hydrogen lines in its spectrum? Well it turns out that an antimatter photon propulsion system would produce visible light in the spectrum just as you discovered. And this light would lack the characteristic hydrogen lines in the spectrum.”

“And from all that you guys figure it’s an alien starship?”

“No, there’s more. The simplest explanation might be that it is some stellar event that we’d never before witnessed. So we decided to attempt to prove ourselves wrong by measuring its movement against the background of stars. By looking at the light, and measuring its relative movement against stars that appear to be in its vicinity and its Doppler shift, we’ve been able to determine that it’s moving away from us, and between two stars at a rate of about one-tenth the speed of light. This is all consistent with an antimatter photon propulsion system.

“And you discovered them, Danny!”

We sat there in silence for some time. It was a lot to take in. I had never expected to find myself in a situation like this one, but then again who ever does.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Let’s go look at them again.” As excited as I was about the possible discovery of other intelligent life in the universe, it didn’t measure up to the possibility of once again being alone with Audrey in the observatory. That could bring us closer. We could talk, get to know each other better. But there was one problem.

“You seem to forget the reason I’m sitting in this cell in the first place is because I went out there without a permit.”

Audrey brushed my concern away. “You’ve been granted a waiver,” she said. “You’re famous now, Danny. It’s all over the news!”

#

When I was younger, I often imagined what it might be like to be elected to some high office, and hold my first press conference. In my imagination, it was anything but the cliché repartee between speaker and press. I would dazzle them with my skillful answers, I would impress them with my all-encompassing knowledge, and I would have them rolling in the aisles with my humor and wit.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when Audrey and I stepped out into the main city concourse to make our way back to the observation station and the press hounded us with questions, I said I would be glad to answer a few.

It should come as even less of a surprise that most of the questions were far over my head and Audrey had to handle them.

“If this all happened 300 years ago, why is it we didn’t discover these aliens sooner?” one reporter asked.

“Because the light from this starship’s propulsion system is just reaching us now,” Audrey said, “The star from which it appears to be leaving is 300 light years away from us. That star could be its home star and it’s possible that the starship is leaving its solar system. But until it turned on its engines, so to speak, there was nothing to detect.”

“Do we know where it’s going?”

“Based on its current vector and assuming that doesn’t change, it appears to be heading toward another star, several light years away from the home star. Keep in mind,” she continued, “that because what we are seeing actually happened centuries ago, it is possible that the star ship is well underway by now. It may have reached its final destination. We have no way of knowing.”

There was a murmur among the throng and then one of the reporters asked, “What are you calling these aliens?”

Feeling that I could handle this one, I said, “To be honest, I haven’t thought of a name yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.”

“Would you like to see the starship for yourself?” Audrey said, before another question could be squeezed in. The press must have liked that idea because they grew even rowdier. “We’re heading back to the observatory now. Anyone who’d like to come along is welcome to join us.”

So much for the quiet alone time together. Alien starship or not, I wanted to be with Audrey. But she clearly had other interests. And though gravity on the moon is one-sixth that of Earth, I felt crushed.

#

The station was like a completely different place when we got there. Aside from the ungainly pack of reporters that followed us out, the observatory was buzzing with other people, most of whom I assumed were astronomers like Audrey. They took holographs of me and Audrey together, and they took more when each of us peered into the eyepiece of the great telescope. When it was my turn, the scene looked no different to me, but it suddenly took on new meaning. That wasn’t a star I was seeing; it was a ship (or the exhaust thereof) and some life form had been curious enough, and talented enough to build it and head out for the stars. We humans had not come close to doing that yet.

“It hardly looks like they’re moving at all,” I said.

“Believe me, they are. One tenth the speed of light is about 108 million kilometers per hour. The fastest drone ships that we’ve sent out can’t do much better than 100,000 kilometers per hour.”

“Still, to me it just looks like they’re drifting.”

“Maybe that’s what you should call them, ” Audrey said.

“Drifters?”

“Why not?”

“Do you think we’ll ever get to meet them?” I asked. It was hard to hear with all of the commotion and I desperately wished for some privacy.

Audrey’s face darkened a bit. “Probably not. That’s the irony of the whole thing. We have what seems to be irrefutable evidence of intelligent alien life, and we will probably never know more about them than we do today.”

“Why not?”

“That starship was on its way before we’d even colonized the moon! So it’s not like we can go and catch it, even if we had the technology to do so, which we don’t.”

“And so that’s it?”

“It’s a lot Danny. It answers a question that we’ve wondered about for ages. Not only that, but we can see from the ship itself that they’ve developed a working antimatter propulsion technology capable of boosting them to a measurable percentage of light speed — which means that it can be done.”

“But we’ll never know who they are or why they’re drifting between the stars?” It was sad in its own way.

“Never say never,” Audrey said. In the light she looked as she did the last time we were here, dancing across the catwalk. “In a way, we’re lucky that they’re so far away. Their existence is much less of a threat now than it would be if people felt that they could come here. And we can still attempt to learn about them. It’ll be a tough job, but it’s also the discovery of a lifetime, worthy of every effort.”

We sat down in front of the telescope and I was steadily nerving myself to the task of talking to Audrey about us, about learning more about one another, about our future. It was hard to tune out all of the activity going on around us.

“There’s something I need to tell you, Danny,” Audrey said.

Maybe she was about to say the same thing to me?

“I’m leaving the moon,” she said. She looked down at the grating of the catwalk lattice. “Professor Cauldwell is forming a commission that will explore the possibility of building a large-scale detection system. The idea is to focus it on the region of the Drifters and see if they send anymore ships. ”

“And he wants you? Even with all of these other astronomers?”

“He needs me for PR purposes. Co-discoverer of the Drifters. Good for fund-raising. But the truth is, I want to help. This is what I have been preparing for my whole life.”

“So you’re leaving?” I said. I could feel my heart beating within my chest and something about it didn’t feel right. “For how long?”

“The commission is just the beginning, Danny. The real work comes afterward. A detection system like this will be most efficient if we build it in the outer part of the solar system. This could take twenty years,” she said, and the words echoed with the sound of a stone door sealing a tomb. My heart fluttered, and I chewed on my lip, and told myself that I wasn’t in love, that I’d never been in love. But nothing I could do seemed to prevent the tears from coming.

I blinked repeatedly and said, “I think I managed to get some of that moon dust in my eye.” I rubbed away the tears.

“I know this is happening so fast,” Audrey said, “And I won’t be leaving right away. But just knowing the amount of work involved, the travel. I can’t –”

I gathered my composure as best as possible and said, “I was going to tell you that I was heading back to Earth, too. All this excitement and publicity is a little too much for me.” I forced a laugh.

“What will you do?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find something. You know, lobby some cause, run for office maybe, discover more alien life forms in the universe. The usual.”

Audrey laughed. She stood up, put her arms around me and we were soon hugging and kissing. Another holograph was taken. Champagne was being passed around. My face was wet once again, but this time I realized it was her tears, not mine. “Good luck to you, Mr. President,” she said.

“Good luck to you, oh learned astronomer.”

#

When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected to fall in love, discover intelligent alien life in the universe, and end up in jail. But it’s what you don’t expect that makes life interesting. I never did get to see the Intrepid, yet I discovered the Drifters. Go figure.

When I returned to Earth, I was something of a celebrity and that was something I could handle — for a while. I was interviewed by news agencies the world over. I received messages from scientists, politicians, clergy, sports and movie stars. Several years after I returned to earth, Audrey left on an expedition to the outer solar system to do preliminary testing of a new detection system. I imagine she is still there today, working on the detection system she was so eager to be a part of.

I told my story far and wide, in much the same way that I have told it here. And this is where the story ended, and slowly my life returned to its (relatively) quiet ways and I faded out of public view.

After I returned to Earth, I never saw Audrey again. Not once.

That’s not to say that I never look for her. Even today, after the kids have been put to bed and the wife is busy working on her next book, I head out into the big corn field behind my house, listening to Bing Crosby sing “Far Away Places.” And when the sun has set, and the Milky Way spills its dusty light across the sky, I turn off the music, tilt my head back, and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

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