When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer
by Jamie Todd Rubin
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
"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
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
"Oh, did you just graduate?"
"Me too," I said.
"Congratulations. What did you study?"
"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
"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.
"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 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
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
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
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
"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
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
I was floating so high that I never felt the shuttle touch down on the surface of the
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
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 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?"
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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 --
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
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.
"But you were out on the surface?"
"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
"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
"Did your friend there know that you lacked a permit?"
"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
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
"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.
"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."
"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
"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
"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.