by Russell Lutz

An excerpt from
The Department of Off World Affairs.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E





The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,

Meditations, XI, 27


Vanessa Hargrove’s hobby didn’t make sense to anyone outside the field of astronomy. She accepted that, finally, while having dinner with a friend of a friend of a friend. Her date—a man with the unfortunate name of Trevor—had some sort of god-awful consulting position, traveling from city to city, telling retail corporations how to reduce costs. Ironically, he seemed willing to charge exorbitant rates for this information.

“I study the heliopause,” Vanessa told him between sips of a very mediocre red wine. Their pasta had not yet arrived. By extreme force of will, she hadn’t devoured the entire basket of breadsticks while listening to Trevor’s consulting anecdotes.

“Is that anything like the menopause?” Trevor smirked. Vanessa choked back a nasty comment. She needed reminders of her advancing age like she needed another breadstick. However, the disdain she now felt for Trevor did not diminish her innate need to teach.

“The heliopause is like a bubble around the solar system. It’s where the solar wind finally slows down as it brushes up against the interstellar medium of gas and dust.”

Trevor’s blank stare was pointed directly at her breasts. Only three-plus decades of experience maintaining generally pleasant and conflict-free interaction with other humans kept Vanessa from tossing her wine in Trevor’s face and storming from the restaurant.

That and the fact she had a free plate of chicken alfredo on the way.


On September 5, 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 to the heavens. The probe’s primary mission was a tour of Jupiter and Saturn, sending back to Earth unprecedented imagery of the two largest planets in the solar system and their rings and moons. After that, assisted by the gravity of Saturn, it shot off, out of the plane of the ecliptic, toward interstellar space, soon to become the most distant man-made object in history.

On September 12, 2006, two days before Vanessa’s eighteenth birthday, she attended her first class at the University of Washington. She was one of only one hundred eighty-two entering freshmen that year who graduated with a degree in their declared major. Her chosen field was astronomy.

Now, in April of 2021, Voyager 1 was about to make history as the first human-built object ever to cross the largely theoretical border of the heliopause. Vanessa’s models and data analyses put her in the vanguard of scientists interested in this distant, ephemeral phenomenon, which averaged something over 150 AU in radius around the Sun.

This obscure topic garnered only slightly more interest within the scientific community than it did for laymen like Trevor. Vanessa believed herself to be the only person on the planet currently interested in Voyager’s continuing progress out of the solar system. She had watched, horrified, during her junior year at UW as JPL finished a complete shutdown of the Voyager project. Vanessa had written a passionate letter to the director of JPL, making a plea for continuation of operations at least until the spacecraft crossed the heliopause. The letter she received in response was as polite as it was disheartening—they saw no future in monitoring the aging spacecraft.

Now, at the age of thirty-two, Vanessa had made it into JPL herself as an analyst. Her duties involved monitoring data from a necklace of interconnected orbital telescopes that sought to answer the most vexing questions of star and planet formation in the local region of the galaxy. It was interesting work, even rewarding. But Vanessa still longed for a more direct connection to the cosmos. Passively receiving electromagnetic radiation didn’t seem nearly as thrilling as building a real spacecraft and flinging it to the stars. In the six decades since man escaped the gravity of the Earth far enough to orbit the planet, only four interstellar craft had ever been built. Only four times had something designed and built by human hands left the gravity well of the sun. To Vanessa, that was more than a shame; it was a crime.

Two years ago, Vanessa carried out a plan that had been a childhood dream. First, she searched through the archives at JPL, looking for the original frequencies and control programs for Voyager 1. Even eleven years after the official end of the project, the pack rat mentality common to most scientists held sway; she found everything she needed to resume contact with the forgotten probe in the dusty back rooms of JPL.

Next, in the attic of her modest Pasadena home, she built transmitter and receiver hardware from scratch. The transmitter weighed only a pound and sat on the north end of her roof, pointed to the sky over the branches of a severely pruned mimosa. Designing the receiver took a bit more ingenuity. The signals from Voyager were very faint and not particularly directional at this distance. She needed the equivalent of a hundred-foot-wide parabolic dish to get any kind of clarity of reception at all. She solved the problem by creating a web of tiny receivers—connected through a standard wireless networking scheme—which she spread all through her neighborhood. Each receiver measured only inches and looked quite a bit like the roofing material used by most of the homeowners in her neighborhood. Her neighbors never questioned the little squares she had secreted on their roofs over the course of a couple of weeks.

It was a small wonder Vanessa didn’t have a boyfriend when she spent her nights sneaking onto her neighbors’ roofs, installing electronic devices she had designed and built herself. And, on top of that, the love of her life was a dying spacecraft from the 1970s, flying through space, several billion miles away.


The day was Thursday, April 22, 2021. Vanessa devoted this evening to reviewing last week’s transmission from Voyager’s CRS. The cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft had been growing of late, a possible indicator it was nearing the heliopause. She hadn’t fired up any of the other instrument packages in months. Voyager’s power had dropped so low only one instrument at a time could function. The CRS tended to give her the most reliable results, so she left it on.

As Vanessa reviewed the recording from last week, tonight Voyager sent her an update of the probe’s systems, primarily a report of the power remaining in the tiny reactor. She switched to her receiver program and saw that the binary code was trickling in at the normal, glacial rate. She almost turned away, almost minimized the window, almost missed it.

The signal stopped mid-word. A pause like that was common enough with hardware this antiquated. Voyager often had to stop and resend entire messages. Vanessa sighed. Then the transmission restarted…

Except something was wrong. The signals were too fast. Voyager’s computer shouldn’t have sent its pulses like that. They accelerated. The pings of binary code, represented by 1’s, ran left to right across the screen, filling line after line. Faster still, whole screens of 1’s flowing past every few seconds.

Vanessa knew what had happened. She lived in constant fear of her Voyager frequencies being sold off to a cellular phone company, or a communications company for one of their satellites. They might have been handed over to an airline or the military for communications with their planes. How would she ever find the heliopause now?

Was there any point in trying to fight to retain her radio frequency? Did she have the slightest chance of changing the mind of Verizon or Southwest Airlines or the US Navy? No. Pure and simple.

She imagined Voyager out on the edge of interstellar space trying to sort through a howl of nonsense signals coming from Earth. Pitch and yaw telemetry from a commercial jet crossing the US. Weapons targeting instructions from an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Grocery shopping lists from hundreds of spouses waiting at home in New York and New Jersey. Vanessa, not normally an overly sentimental person, found the idea sad, in its way. The best thing to do would be to put Voyager out of its misery.

She rolled her desk chair across the floor to her shelf of research books “on loan” from JPL. Her fingers ran over the titles until she found the one that included a complete description of the command language for Voyager. She flipped to the back of the tome and found the page she needed—“Shutdown Procedures”. She had already turned off most of the equipment on the craft. To put Voyager to sleep once and for all required she send five more strings of simple, binary pulses. That would shut down the CRS, turn off the receiver, and allow the RTGs with their lumps of radioactive material to slowly decay, unused and unbothered, until the whole ship was nothing more than a lifeless collection of metal and plastic, hurtling through the dark.

She keyed in the sequences and sent them into space. In about twenty hours, Voyager would receive its last command.

Saddened that a chapter of her life had come to such an anticlimactic end, Vanessa shut down her tablet and went to bed.


Phone ringing. Loud. What?

Vanessa rolled over, fighting her blankets for control of the bed, and grabbed her cell off the bedside table.

“Huh?” she said into the phone.

“What is Voyager doing?” Shao yelled into the phone.

Somehow JPL found out she had shut down the probe and they were mad at her. Vanessa’s built-in humility before authority kicked in.

“Sorry. I didn’t think there was any point in continuing…”

“Make it stop. They’re all going nuts.”

Make what stop? Who’s going nuts? Vanessa swam up out of the remnants of her deep sleep, confused. JPL had long since given up on Voyager. They had given her the codes and the frequencies and the research materials willingly. It was that much less they’d have to compost.

“Shao, use small words.”

Voyager is blinding us!”


Vanessa pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans. At 2:30 in the morning, she didn’t much care what she looked like. She tied her overlong red hair into a ponytail with a rubber band in the car while sitting at a red light. She caught sight of her face in her rear-view mirror and was suitably horrified, but she certainly didn’t have time for makeup. With no traffic to speak of, she made it to her lab in record time.

Shao paced the floor of the white, fluorescent room, phone hanging over his ear, shouting. He looked at her and pointed to one of the monitors.

“No, the expert just got here… No, I said she just got here!”

Vanessa rolled a chair across the tile floor to the computer station and sat. An amateur’s vision of astronomy involved pretty pictures of the Crab Nebula or the galaxy of Andromeda. Very little of their work involved visible light, so visual representations from the telescopes were often confusing, or worse, misleading to the untrained eye. This screen showed a map of a tiny sector of the northern sky, a sector with which Vanessa was very familiar. These were the stars toward which Voyager had sailed for decades.

On a background of white, little pinpricks of color indicated sources of infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, any and every flavor of EM radiation. Most were stars. Some were more exotic beasts, like pulsars or black holes or distant quasars. Any sector of the sky would look similar.

A dirty smear, like a bruise, filled the middle third of the screen. Streaks of yellow and brown and purple, in a vague starburst pattern. If Vanessa read the screen correctly, the sheer power of these sources dwarfed anything else in the sky, with the exception of the Sun or the Moon.

“I don’t get it,” she admitted. “It’s like someone is shining a flashlight right into the telescope.”

“I’ll call you back,” Shao said, then tapped the phone to hang up. Shao Miller was a study in contrasts. A blond Asian. A pragmatic scientist. A humble genius. Vanessa considered herself lucky—and cursed—to work in the same lab with him.

“Well, either Voyager somehow exploded in a nova-sized, nuclear fireball, or we’re looking at the end of the universe.” He leaned over Vanessa, poking at the screen with a long forefinger. “I found this three hours ago, when the feed from OT14 started to wobble.”


“Interference, from this. Problem is… it’s growing.”


Shao pulled up a series of smaller images in little windows around the live feed. “Midnight. Midnight-thirty. One. One-thirty…” Each image showed the same sector of night sky, but the bizarre radio source grew slightly larger, frame by frame.

“It’s got to be an object, a meteor or something, heading for Earth,” Vanessa said.

“Nope. Off-axis confirms these signals are light-years away.”

“How far?”

Shao frowned. “Just figured this part out a couple of minutes ago. Maybe you can confirm for me?” His phone rang. He reached up to his ear and shut it off. “Not all of… this… is from the same place.”

“I don’t follow,” Vanessa admitted.

Shao cleared the screen and brought up two images, side by side.

“This is the… I’m gonna call it a cloud. This is the cloud from OT5.”

Vanessa looked up at a clock to check the time. “Somewhere over the Pacific.”

“Right. And this is from OT23, on station above Europe. If I do an off-axis plot…” He brought up a third image.

“Dear God,” Vanessa murmured.

The whole point of off-axis was to use the parallax of widely spaced telescopes to determine the distance of an object. It was the same concept behind depth perception in human vision. The left eye and right eye could see the world from just slightly different angles. The differences between the images tell a person’s brain how far away things are. The differences between the images of orbiting telescopes on either side of the Earth can tell how far away stars and galaxies are.

On the edges of the screen, outside the “cloud”, individual stars were labeled with little numbers, showing their distance from Earth. 14 light years. 135 light years. One galaxy in the sample pushed the limits of the method they were using, and was simply labeled with an infinity symbol.

The cloud itself was carpeted with numbers, thousands of them. She saw numbers as low as 5 and as high as 3,300. This cloud wasn’t an explosion or a single object flying through space. This was a collection of radio waves from sources scattered through the Orion spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

“Okay… Is it a problem with the array? The data looks like garbage,” she said.

Shao pulled up a mail program and opened a message. “We got this from Green Bank ten minutes ago.” Green Bank was a medium-sized, land-based radio telescope in West Virginia. Green Bank’s image looked identical to the ones from JPL’s orbital telescopes. It wasn’t a hardware or software problem. It was real.

“I don’t even know where to begin,” Shao admitted. “But that…” He pointed to the center of the cloud. “…is where Voyager is right now, isn’t it?”

Vanessa nodded.

“So this can’t be a coincidence! It must have something to do with your probe!”

“How? I don’t… Here. Can we focus the image right here? In the exact center. What are we getting from there?”

Shao moved to his own console and grabbed his mouse, clicking and dragging furiously. The image blanked to white except for a very small, mostly yellow dot.

“Fifteen megahertz, give or take, mean distance of ninety-six light years,” Shao said.

“What is it?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

Vanessa reached across and took control of the mouse. She dragged the incoming radio waves over to a graphing tool. They were frequency modulated… kind of like FM radio.

She looked at it, wondering. It didn’t seem possible that… No. Be rational. The graph looked impossibly chaotic. It could be anything…

Screw it. She transferred the feed to an audio program.

High-pitched, screeching white noise poured out of the speakers.


She turned down the volume. “Narrow it. Give me a band width of a hundred kilohertz.” The graph shrunk in width, the highest peaks and lowest valleys gone. The sound loosened up a bit, but still seemed entirely random. Vanessa twiddled with the equalization controls on the player. She shifted the pitch down a couple of octaves. Now, instead of nails on a blackboard, it sounded like coarse sandpaper running over wood.

“I’m still getting too much stuff. You said the mean distance of the signals is ninety-six light years.”


“What’s the range?”

“Uh…” Shao sifted through some screens. “Between about five and about 2,400.”

“Can you… Can you limit the feed to just signals coming from a small range? Maybe… between ninety and one-ten?”

“Never tried that before… Gimme a second.”

While Shao worked, Vanessa flipped over to the live feed of the entire cloud. It had grown a bit just while they’d been talking. She took a series of the pictures and measured the width of the phenomenon. It was growing at about a half of a percent of a degree every hour. In four days, the cloud would be larger than the Sun in the sky, though it would never be visible to the human eye, of course. These signals were mostly in the radio frequencies, not visible light. She frowned, then redid her calculations. Impossible.

“It’s growing too fast.”

“What?” Shao said.


She took a stylus and did the calculation by hand on an old tablet. If the phenomenon was growing at that rate, it literally couldn’t be very far away. The speed of light said so. At a distance of a hundred light years, this thing would be expanding… about seventy-five times the speed of light. Impossible. So, whatever was causing the cloud to grow was closer than that. How close? That was the question.

“Got it,” Shao said. He clicked. The sandpaper sound reduced to a low whisper. Vanessa had to increase the volume on the player just to hear it. A chill ran up her spine like she’d never felt before in her life. She shared a look with Shao, making sure he heard the same thing she had heard.

A conversation. They were listening in on a conversation between two people, on an unused radio band, from somewhere a hundred light years away from Earth. They couldn’t understand the language, of course, but it was clearly voices. Alien voices.

Vanessa looked again at the live feed of the cloud with all its overlapping splotches of color. Thousands of frequencies. Millions of conversations. And the cloud continued to expand at a ridiculous rate.

“Well then,” she said.

After a beat, they both broke into hysterical laughter.


Forty hours after Vanessa sent her signal to shut Voyager down, a super-cooled ball of liquid hydrogen streaked across the skies of southern California. The object was too small to be tracked by civilian or military radar—it measured only a centimeter in width. Because of its temperature, only a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, it lost very little mass slicing through Earth’s atmosphere. The ball slowed over the town of Pasadena and headed straight and sure for the home of Vanessa Hargrove.

Vanessa’s next door neighbor, Margie Dupont, watched from her porch, dumbfounded, as a ghostly, transparent figure of a man, faintly glowing blue, appeared at Vanessa’s front door. The man knocked. He wasn’t much of a ghost if he could knock on a door like that.

There was no answer from within Vanessa’s home. The man’s faint, ill-defined head turned to Margie. When he spoke, his lips did not quite match the sound of his speech.

“Where is the owner of this house?”

Any other time, Margie would have given someone asking a question like that a sizeable piece of her mind. She would have said, “I don’t know you, and I don’t know your business, so you better just move along or I’ll call 911 on your ass!” But Margie had little experience dealing with ghostly blue figures who could knock on doors.

“I… uh…” she stammered. The figure started walking toward her. Margie snapped, the words pouring out of her. “She’s gone! She’s gone to the White House.”

“In Washington, District of Columbia?” the ghost asked. Margie nodded, hating herself for cracking under pressure like that.

The ghost collapsed in on himself, until he was just a small speck of blue, hanging in the air over Margie’s lawn. Then, with a whizzing sound, it was gone.


Vanessa thought she had fallen into some science fiction movie. Two days ago she was an unknown researcher in the backwaters of astronomy, and today, she was leading a briefing at the White House! She barely had time enough to pack her one decent business outfit. Her hair was a disaster, lying on her head like a tied off mop. Thankfully, Shao was at her side, providing much needed support.

Ranged around the decadent, glossy conference table were the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, the President’s Science Advisor, the Secretary of State.

And the President of the United States himself, of course.

Vanessa finished her nickel tour of the Voyager program and moved into the new material.

“Clearly, the Voyager 1 probe has caused some significant event out at the farthest edge of our solar system. Since Voyager’s nuclear power source is nearly depleted, the only energy she has to impart is kinetic energy.”

“Energy of motion,” the President offered.

“Yes, sir. The probe is—or was—traveling a little under a quarter of a million miles per hour. To put that into perspective, the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles from Earth. Imagine traveling from the Earth to the Moon in an hour.”

The Science Advisor piped up: “So, what did Voyager hit?”

Vanessa took a deep breath. “She hit the heliopause.” Dumbfounded stares answered that statement. “Our sun sends out more than light and heat as it burns. It also sheds radiation we call solar wind. Most of the solar wind is blocked from the Earth’s surface by our atmosphere, but it can exert a not insignificant force. In fact, with Mylar sails, we could build craft that would—” Shao nudged her. She reigned in her flight of technological fancy for the moment.

“Anyway. The solar wind blows off the Sun in a very similar way to normal, atmospheric winds. Out in the interstellar wastes, there are also tides of radiation that we sometimes describe with the catchall phrase cosmic rays. These are the remains of supernovae, x-rays from black holes, as well as the solar winds of other stars.

“The heliopause is the place where the solar wind has expended so much of its force fighting against the cosmic rays that equilibrium is reached.” She held her hands out in a spherical shape.

“Like a soap bubble,” the President suggested.

“Exactly, Mr. President, except that the heliopause has never been considered a physical object. It’s merely a term for a theoretical location in space, much like the equator on Earth.”

She brought up a graphic on the screen behind her. It showed a tiny Solar System, surrounded by a vaguely teardrop shaped bubble. “Based on the evidence of the anomalous radio signals and the timing with Voyager’s position in space, we believe that, at the theoretical position of the heliopause, an actual barrier has been sitting for at least recent human history.” On the screen, a hole ripped into the topside of the virtual heliopause. “Voyager tore a hole through this boundary, here, causing the barrier to unravel at an extraordinary speed.”

The Secretary of Defense perked up at that. “How fast?”

“A million miles an hour.” She received a few smirks at the use of that phrase. “It’s actually 1.17 million miles per hour. We have to assume the barrier is rather lightweight. It was, perhaps, held in place entirely by the competing forces of the solar wind from inside, and the pressure of the interstellar medium from the outside. A break this size might be enough to destroy the barrier completely.”

“And this… barrier…” the President said, “has been shielding us from these alien radio signals.”

“Yes, sir,” Vanessa said. “Incredible as it may seem, the barrier can let natural light of any frequency through, but it completely filters out artificial sources of radiation. That’s why the sky seems normal—at least, as we define normal—everywhere else. But through this hole, where the barrier has peeled away, we are receiving an astounding number of signals that are clearly the work of extraterrestrials.”

“This barrier could not be a natural occurrence. It was designed; it was built. That implies intelligence,” the Homeland Secretary said.

“Significant intelligence. Transcendent intelligence,” Vanessa said. Shao tugged on her sleeve, indicating again that she tone down the rhetoric.

“How long will it take for the entire barrier to fall?” the President asked.

“Assuming the rate of breakdown remains constant, about eight years.”

“Eight years?”

“The heliopause is very large, Mr. President.”

If this had been a movie, this would have been the scene in which the valiant scientist makes a case for benevolent aliens, for sending messages of greeting, for throwing off the yoke of militaristic thinking. Then the closed-minded government functionaries would have responded with fear, assuming the worst, precipitating a significant tragedy, which only the valiant scientist could avert.

It seemed that everyone here had already seen that movie. Like any group of competent world leaders, the men and women in the room took steps to ensure that they prepared for every contingency. Homeland Security would raise the alert level for the nation. The State Department would send out feelers to other world governments to take their temperatures, and to notify those few who had not yet learned of the phenomenon. The Defense Department would, in consultation with NATO, make ready for defense against an off world invasion—a scenario that had, amazingly, been written up decades ago, just in case. And the Science Advisor would work with State to fashion a message to send out to the stars: a hello of sorts. If the barrier had worked both ways, and all of Earth’s television and radio broadcasts of the last hundred years never left the vicinity of the planet, maybe humanity could make a good first impression after all.

A nondescript man in a black suit entered and spoke a few words into the President’s ear.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the President said, standing. Everyone stood with him. “We are going to adjourn to the Situation Room in the basement.” Eyes flitted back and forth, between the powerful and the secondary, like Vanessa. Only the President and the Secret Service agent seemed to know what was happening. The entire roomful of people marched through the immaculate halls of the West Wing and down a stairwell to the dark and somewhat dingy confines of the Situation Room, escorted all the way by stone-faced agents of the Secret Service.

A heavy door closed behind them with a thud that Vanessa in particular found troubling.

Half the people in the room continued to lay their plans for dealing with this crisis. The other half muttered about the strange way they had been shuffled into perhaps the most secure room on the planet. The President stood in a corner whispering with quiet men in uniforms and dark suits.

Vanessa turned to Shao. “Is this normal?”

“I’ve only been to the White House once before,” he said. “They sure didn’t bring me down here.”

The tension in the room continued to mount. Any pretense at working fell away. The President came out of the corner to address the twenty-some people standing around a more lackluster conference table than the one upstairs.

“There’s been a breach of security. An intruder has infiltrated the West Wing. It appears to be headed to our location.”

“It?” the Secretary of State asked.

“What sort of weapons is it using?” the Secretary of Homeland Security asked.

“None. The entity seems…” The President was at a loss for words.

A loud boom sounded at the entrance to the Situation Room. Everyone near that end of the table—including Vanessa—scurried away. Boom. Vanessa heard the Secret Service agents chattering to each other over their radio feeds. Their colleagues must have been out in the hall, watching the attack. Why didn’t they stop it? She heard the muffled stutter of automatic gunfire on the other side of the door.

Boom. Whatever the agents outside were doing, it made no difference to the invader. Previously hidden weapons came out of dark jackets. The President’s bodyguards pushed him to the back of the room.

Boom-crack. This time, the heavy metal door gave way just a bit.


Had the agents out in the hall finally finished the intruder off? Had it given up?

A pale blue mist slipped through the newly created fissure in the heavy door. Voices shouted for everyone to hold their breath. It was a gas attack. They all crowded farther back into the room. Vanessa, holding her hand over her mouth like everyone else, watched as the pale blue mist, the color of a natural gas flame, slowly took shape at the far end of the room. The mist coalesced into the form of a human. The figure looked like a low-quality CG image of a man. No coloring, no shading. Indistinct features. When the man spoke, his voice was strong and steady. It carried no accent, in that it sounded like someone from mid-America. It also carried no hint of malice.

“Who sent the signal?” it asked.

The Secretary of State, clearly believing her role as spokesperson for the United States extended to aliens, stepped forward.

“We have many people, sending many signals all the time. We did not know until recently there were any other intelligent beings in the universe.”

The blue man considered this. “Who sent the final signal?”

Final was a word that carried too many negative connotations for those in the room. Fearful mutterings rose. The Secretary soldiered on. “Can you describe the signal you’re referring to?”

The man began to beep. The beeps were simple tones in a seemingly random rhythm. It took him about fifteen seconds to finish relaying the message.

“It will take some time for our experts to determine where—”

“I sent that,” Vanessa said. The looks on everyone else’s faces were priceless; Vanessa wished she had a camera. “That was the shut down sequence for Voyager. The final signal. I sent it two nights ago.”

The blue man turned to Vanessa, everyone else in the room now forgotten. “You must answer the question.”

“The… question?”

“Do you wish the barrier restored?”

Slowly, a smile sneaked across Vanessa’s features. She understood now. The heliopause barrier was not designed to keep humanity in the dark. It was designed for protection. There had to be a thousand, ten thousand, maybe a million different civilizations out there in the galaxy, and nearly every one of them was far more advanced than humanity. The barrier had been placed around the Solar System in an effort to let humanity evolve and grow. When they had the ability—and the desire—to venture far enough from their home to break the barrier, they were given the opportunity to join the galactic civilization… or not.

It was the answer to the age-old question, sometimes attributed to Enrico Fermi: “Where are they?” If intelligence was common, or even just rare, then the galaxy had to be littered with aliens, sending messages, altering the luminosity of their stars, leaving behind footprints of their passage, footprints made of light—radio transmissions.

Some assumed the darkness of the heavens meant that humanity was unique. Life is precious, these people would say, intelligence more precious still. The only interstellar civilization will be ours.

Others, unwilling to accept the uniqueness of man, posited elaborate theories for why other intelligences remained so silent: point-to-point communication schemes, societies driven underground, alien cultures approaching technological singularity and winking out of normal existence into an alternate state of being.

The truth was far simpler. They weren’t missing and they weren’t silent. They were out there all the time, loud and obvious, just as they should have been. We simply couldn’t hear them. They were hidden from us, patiently waiting for us to make contact with them.

And now, humans had broken the barrier themselves, though by accident. Accidents of this type had to be common in the galaxy. If humanity wasn’t yet ready to expand their understanding of the universe to this extent, they could decide to remain hidden. Theoretically, they could lock themselves away and never talk to another extraterrestrial again.

How many civilizations might have taken that path? How many barriers remained in place around shy solar systems, their inhabitants living quiet, bucolic, insular lives?

And how many more had taken the plunge, had allowed themselves to be part of something greater?

“But…” Vanessa said, suddenly daunted by the scale of the decision. “You don’t want to talk to me.”

“You sent the message,” the blue man said again. “You controlled the spacecraft.”

“Well… I suppose that’s true.”

The others standing behind Vanessa came to life again, realizing the importance of the conversation. The President came forward to talk to the blue figure.

“I’m sure you understand,” he intoned, “that we have a hierarchical structure to our society. Miss Hargrove is a member of my team.”

“I am?” Vanessa asked.

“JPL is a government entity,” he said, still smiling for the blue man.

“Not really,” Vanessa persisted, momentarily forgetting she was contradicting the President of the United States. “It’s funded by—”

“Vanessa,” Shao warned.

The blue man raised one ghostly hand and pointed at Vanessa. “She will answer.”

Silence dropped, except for the continuing, muffled sounds of desperate military personnel still trying to break into the Situation Room through the non-functional door. Vanessa turned to the others in the room. She almost asked for a show of hands. She almost asked for each person’s best pitch. Should the barrier be replaced or allowed to fall? In twenty-five words or less, please. Most of the faces looking at her seemed to be pleading with their eyes.

It’s too much. It’s too fast. We can’t handle it.

Vanessa wasn’t naïve enough to imagine that the galaxy was a utopian wonderland filled with benevolent creatures with uniformly pure motives. There had to be danger out there. But there was also some sense of order. If what she understood about the barrier was true, someone had put it there, specifically to shield the Earth from the rest of the galaxy until such a time that they were ready—or at least possibly ready—to interact with other civilizations. And more, the rest of the galaxy had conformed to this order. Maybe Earth was too backward to offer anything of value to these advanced societies. Maybe most of them didn’t even know Earth existed until today. Vanessa imagined that if the forces at work in the galaxy could be capable of such a compassionate act as protecting the Earth from intrusion for a few thousand years, then the dangers they would face would be manageable.

It’s too much. It’s too fast. We can’t handle it.

Vanessa had more faith in humanity than that. She turned back to the visitor.

“Let the barrier fall,” she said to the blue figure.

The man nodded once, then dissipated in a flash of super-cooled air that blew across Vanessa like an ocean breeze.






Copyright © 2008 Russell Lutz

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Russell Lutz began his publishing career in the 2000s with several short stories, among them "Fall", which won the Best Short Story award in 2005 from SFFWorld.com. "Athens 3004" was part of the anthology volume Silverthought: Ignition in the same year.

He published his first novel, Iota Cycle, in 2006. The tale of interstellar colonization won the DIY Festival award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and a New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Science Fiction.

Lutz lives and works in Seattle.

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