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Next, award-winning Aussie writer Lezli Robyn takes us on a journey in which the first female aborigine astronaut discovers the NASA probe Voyager 1 has come back to life for surprising reasons in . . .


by Lezli Robyn

Tyrille Smith checked that her tether to Voyager 1 was secure, and confirmed the oxygen, radiation and pressure levels on her biosuit were within acceptable parameters, before painstakingly detaching the thermal blanketing on the panel in front of her to reveal a section of the spacecraft’s control hub. She’d spent the better part of the last three years studying the specs of the dated systems, while travelling to the far reaches of the Solar System, and beyond, so she traversed the space probe with ease, checking the radios, propulsion equipment and various computer systems for anything out of the ordinary.

While former NASA specialists had been able to verify that the flight, science and command program parameters hadn’t been altered using computer diagnostics completed from Earth, none of the scientists had been able to confirm why the space probe had powered up all its systems again in 2027, two years after it had gone completely dark. Over the years the science systems had been disabled, one by one, to preserve its most basic thruster and altitude control functions. Now, not only were the twelve science instruments on the probe completely active—including the plasma spectrometer and the photopolarimeter systems that had been previously determined to be defective—but Tyrille had just confirmed on her previous EVA excursion out to the probe that the radioisotope thermoelectric generators were now running at full efficiency and the propellant tank was almost filled to capacity again. Not with hydrazine, but another foreign—very alien—substance that she had to use specialized equipment to take a sample of.

Tyrille sealed the panel she had been working on, and gingerly opened the next one. Voyager 1 had been in operation since 1977, and while it had not deteriorated in the vacuum of space, it had become an antiquated time capsule, in its own way. She carefully replaced the data storage and tape recorder with much more modern, but equally low-energy drawing, digital equivalents, and then hesitated, biting her lip. Why would someoneno, something—refuel and repair the science instruments, only to then disappear? They clearly had the expertise to contact Earth. If they could reach Voyager 1, why not announce themselves?

The implications were staggering, and so very exciting for Tyrille. All her life, she had wanted to become the first Aboriginal Australian astronaut to walkabout amongst the stars. Not only did her name literally mean “space” or “sky” in her native tongue, but she was descended from the fabled Boorong clan, who had been renowned for their astronomical knowledge. Believed to have been the oldest astrologists on Earth, most of the clan had died out long before she was born, although some of the last members were scattered around the northwest region of Victoria. She had been blessed to have been the great-granddaughter of one of the last Elders of the clan, and remembered many a night spent around the campfire as he told her the Dreamtime stories of how the deeds—or even misdeeds—of the creation spirits, Nurrumbunguttias, had led to the formation of the constellations. She had grown up wondering, if there were extraterrestrial life in the nearby stars, what form would they take? And would they have their own Dreamtime story about how the Solar System was created?

“Are you in some distress, Tyrille?” asked the disembodied voice of I.R.I.S. her Interstellar Robotic Information Support drone. “You are holding your breath. Please exhale.”

She signed. “No need to worry, Iris. I am just woolgathering.”

“I do not understand the context of that term and how it affects your breathing.”

Tyrille sighed, again, a little exasperated. “It’s not important. Can you please confirm my connections are secure before I close the panel?”

I.R.I.S. ran the relevant diagnostics. “Confirmed.” Then a second later: “To gather wool, would you not need sheep?”

“It’s an expression, Iris.” Tyrille wrapped the data storage and tape recorder up and tethered them to the EVA assist drone, then attached most of the bulkier tools to it before sending it back to her spaceship. “I use it as a way to say I am lost in thought.”

“You are not lost, Tyrille. I have our location stored in my navigation array. We are exactly 198.027 374 55 astronomical units away from Earth. For clarification, that is 0.000 960 063 833 22 parsecs or 29 624 473 571 kilometers, or —”

“I get the point,” Tyrille interrupted, bemused, “but thank you for the reassurance.” She rotated to confirm the drone’s return to her vessal, the sight of which never ceased to impress her.

She remembered vividly, the first time she saw the Venturer. Ten thousand metric tons of spacecraft had dominated Earth’s orbit, with the nuclear power source stored in huge radiator wings attached to a body composed of seven nuclear-electric propulsion modules. It was no wonder the construction team had dubbed it ‘The Dragonfly’—for that was what it resembled.

Well, what it used to resemble.

The chemical rockets used to boost the Venturer out of Earth obit into an escape trajectory were ejected first. Then the nuclear-electric modules took over flight control, boosting the spaceship up to an acceleration of three hundred and ten kilometers per second within a year. It spent the next fourteen months rocketing towards the space probe at that speed before four of the modules were ejected. Then the spacecraft spent another year decelerating to match velocities with the space probe.

The last two modules were ejected just before she reached Voyager 1, leaving just her life support module, so that her spaceship now resembled nothing more than a common housefly; albeit the most important space fly in human history. It had enough juice to return her to Pluto’s perihelion by 2038, where mankind was scrambling to build a waystation she could refuel at, to ensure she could rendezvous with Earth before her resources ran completely out.

They had expended more fuel than had originally computed to reach the space probe, and by her calculations, she only had two more days to complete all her tests of Voyager 1 before needing to—

“Gathering more wool?” I.R.I.S. interjected, interrupting her thoughts.

Tyrille grinned sheepishly, and returned her gaze back to Voyager 1. When her ship had first pulled alongside the space probe, thirty-eight hours earlier, she should have been able to see the lights from her spacecraft reflect off a distinctive piece of polished metal attached to the side. Yet the Golden Record—the disk containing Earth sounds, images and salutations in hundreds of languages that had specifically been placed on Voyager 1 as a greeting to extraterrestrial life—had been removed from the probe. Presumably taken by those it had been intended for.

In shock, she had reported the news of the discovery on the next scheduled data pulse, and while the response from Earth was delayed, it was by no means devoid of excitement. For the first time in fifty-eight years all propulsion on Voyager 1 had been halted so she could perform a serious of evaluations, tests and upgrades—with the expressed focus of trying to discover any evidence extraterrestrials could have left behind.

“Iris, can you please confirm the helmet cam is in operational order?”

“Yes, Tyrille,” the robot replied with perfect intonation, “it is functioning within nominal parameters.”

Tyrille loosened the tether, and pulled herself around to the one part of the space probe she had deliberately avoided until this moment. “Iris, in a minute you are about to witness history in the making.”

“Technically, every minute becomes history, once it has passed.”

She groaned, fogging up her helmet for a split second. “Have I ever mentioned you are too literal for your own good?”

“Yes,” I.R.I.S. replied. “However, accuracy is a fundamental component of my programming.”

“A fundamental flaw, mayhaps,” she muttered, more to herself than the benefit of the robot. She pulled out a small handheld probe she’d nicknamed the Screwdriver, after her favorite science fiction series, and began an array of tests on the small area of paneling that had once held the fabled Golden Record. At first she saw nothing, which is exactly what she had expected, but then when the light passed directly over the center, it seemed to reflect off a small geometric shape imprinted on the surface of the panel. It looked somewhat akin to a snowflake to the naked eye, but her device registered that the crystalline-appearing substance pulsed with energy.

Strewth! It’s alive!

Better still, the readings displayed on her helmet’s holoscreen confirmed it was alien.

For a moment, Tyrille couldn’t move. She could barely breathe.

She made the effort to exhale, and then inhale—or risk I.R.I.S.’s ire—but continued to float there in a state of shock.

“The readings indicate there is a foreign object attached to side of Voyager 1, Tyrille.”

No bloody kidding, Tyrille thought, nodding, before realizing I.R.I.S. couldn’t see that action. “I see it, too, and am ascertaining what to do with it . . .whether it’s safe to bring aboard or not.”

“It appears to be extraterrestrial in origin.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious. I am aware of that.”

As usual, I.R.I.S ignored her sarcasm—or simply didn’t recognize it. “I would note that its location is presumably an important indicator of its function.”

Tyrille frowned. “How so?”

“It’s been placed in the exact same position the Golden Record was once located. The logical conclusion would be that it was—”

“— the extraterrestrial’s response to the Golden Record!” Tyrille exclaimed. “Or at least their equivalent.”


Tyrille’s mind raced with the implications. If this specimen was somehow an alien life-form’s greeting to the human race, that could explain why Voyager 1’s fuel tanks had been replenished and its systems automatically turned on again: it was the most unobtrusive—and even courteous—way for the aliens to alert humans to their presence. And perhaps, to even encourage them in their goal to make contact.

Or it could be the extraterrestrial version of a Trojan horse, Tyrille thought wryly. “Iris, is there any indication that the specimen could cause any harm—or come to any harm—if we were to bring it onto the spaceship?”

There was a long pause. “No, Tyrille, there is not. However, while it does not appear to require a breathable atmosphere, due to being discovered in the vacuum of space, the composition of its crystalline structure and its method of power conduction are unknown variables. I could not give you a definitive calculation of how it would react in the Venturer’s oxygen-rich environment without further testing.”

“Which we do not have time to do, given our short window.” Frustrated, the astronaut bit her lip. She had to decide now. Even if she sent their preliminary scientific readings to Earth for analysis and a decision, she couldn’t wait the amount of time it would take for them to simply receive her data pulse, let alone wait for their reply to wing its way across the expanse to her. Not when Venturer had to start making its long voyage back to Earth within forty-eight hours.

Well . . . bugger. I suppose that settles that then. Tyrille looked down to see her hands were in no condition to carefully excise the specimen; they were shaking in anticipation and fear. She closed her eyes, trying a breathing exercise to settle her nerves, then opened them again, her gaze darting around vast darkness until it settled upon the familiar golden glow of the sun.

The first Dreamtime story she had ever been told had been about how the Solar System, and the rest of the Universe, had come to be. Earth had been a featureless black disc until Pupperrimbul (one of the Nurrumbunguttias that had taken the form of a bird with a red patch) had cast an emu’s egg into the sky to create Gnowee, the sun. Eventually, all of the Nurrumbunguttias left Earth to form the many other bright lights across the cosmos; the smoke from their campfires forming the Warring, which was still visible from Earth as the Milky Way.

That knowledge comforted Tyrille. She liked the thought that the spirits were surrounding her, guiding her, so when she eventually returned her gaze and concentration onto Voyager 1, her hands were much steadier. She felt much more grounded in her heart and mind.

She used the laser setting of her “Screwdriver” to cut out a small a section of the side panel. She was careful to take a wide birth around the specimen, so as to not damage it, but also ensured she left as much paneling behind as possible to protect the probe’s vital instruments.

Wary of allowing anything to touch the delicate-appearing crystalline structure—even a specimen bag—she made her way to the spacecraft, holding the panel segment gingerly in her open palm.

I.R.I.S. met her at the open airlock, sealing the outer hatch after she had entered and then helping divest her of the equipment she wore about her body—tasks Tyrille usually completed on her own. She grinned. Sometimes she forgot how curious the robot could be. It was such a human affectation. “Would you like to see it, Iris?”

The robot inclined its titanium head in acknowledgement, and after ascertaining permission, lifted the panel with very precise, very gentle movements, turning it this way and that to study the life-form’s construction.

“It is beautiful,” I.R.I.S. stated, quite earnestly.

Taken aback by the giving of a compliment, Tyrille could only nod.

“The mathematical computations in its physical structure alone ensure physical perfection, but . . .”

“Prepare for environment stabilization,” the ship’s computer interface intoned.

Tyrille waited until oxygen levels reached breathable limits, and for the inner hatch door to automatically unseal, before she released the pressure lock on her helmet and pulled it free of her unruly close-cropped curls.

Pushing off by her feet, she propelled her body through the zero gravity into the main compartment and started to search for a specimen container large enough to contain the excised panel piece. Not able to find the one she was seeking, she turned to ask I.R.I.S., to discover it had followed her into the main chamber, but was still transfixed by the specimen.

The robot looked up at her. Eventually, “Shall we ask it what it wants?”

Tyrille blinked, bemused. “It’s probably a data core of some kind. Why assume it can understand what we are saying?”

“Why assume it does not? What am I, if not an interactive data core?”

Tyrille blinked. The robot was right. She looked down at the specimen with new eyes. And more than a little suspicion. What is your purpose, pretty one?

As if in response, the snowflake-like structure lifted off the panel segment and started spinning in the air, growing in size and luminosity, until it broke apart into many crystalline orbs that spun around each other, coalescing to form an angular head, then broad shoulders, a well-muscled torso, and . . . a tentacled tail.

The alien was a merman?!

Oh my. “G’day . . . Er, I mean, hello. Welcome.”

The extraterrestrial’s shape solidified so she could clearly see the alien cast to his features. His long platinum white hair was a floating nimbus around his head; his skin was so white, it was almost translucent. Luminescent blue light pulsed hypnotically underneath his skin, radiating out from a crystalline snowflake positioned in the center of his chest, to course through what appeared to be his version of a circulatory system.

To say he was beautiful was an understatement. He was breathtaking . . . and so very, incredibly alien. “Can you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes,” he replied, simply, without preamble; his voice as silky as his hair.

How? She opened her mouth to ask, but then closed it again. Where was a First Contact manual when you needed one? She was at a loss as to how to proceed.

“Is my appearance displeasing to you?” he asked, eventually, his every intonation measured and devoid of any helpful emotional cues.

“Of c-course not,” she stammered. Just too bloody distracting, she thought.

I.R.I.S. turned to Tyrille. “The life-form is likely noticing from your contorted facial expressions that you appear to be in some distress, Tyrille.”

She grimaced, adding yet another expression to the mix. “I understand, Iris. I will take it from here.”

She scrambled to find the right words, as she watched the alien float there calmly, his tentacles undulating back and forth. She didn’t want to botch First Contact, but the impact he had on her was almost hypnotic. She had to struggle to form words into coherent sentences. “You look very . . .er, different from what I am used to, but also confusingly familiar,” she finally responded. “Your form is very similar in appearance to that of a fabled creature on our world.”

As if in response, his form shifted perceptively, becoming a little more alien, and a little less merman. “I apologize. That was not my intention. This was just the most accurate extrapolation I could create,” he replied, as if that answered everything.

I.R.I.S. turned back to the alien, studying his features. “Based on the mathematically symmetrical beauty of your form, I would presume that you are using an algorithm to compute a guise that would be most pleasing to the human eye, but yet still retain some qualities of your true form and racial identity to set yourself apart.” It turned to Tyrille. “He wants to appear humanoid to help alleviate the impact of First Contact.”

Something flashed in the alien’s eyes, his gaze becoming more intent as transferred his attention to the robot. “Very perceptive,” he acknowledged. Then: “You, too, are beautiful in form.”

Tyrille’s eyebrows rose. Well, that answered the question of whether he had been listening to everything we have been saying. She tried to remember what she had learnt in biology, all those years ago. “Can I presume that your race comes from a predominantly liquid or heavy gas planet of some kind? One where your sun’s rays don’t penetrate to the depths that your race commonly dwells? Your tail, coloring, and ability to luminesce seem to imply your race lives in a denser, darker environment than what humans are accustomed to.”

The luminescent glow pulsing through his body dimmed for a second, as if he was trying to suppress his reaction. “Yes,” he said simply.

Tyrille wasn’t sure how she knew, but she felt certain the tone in his voice just ended that current line of inquiry. For now.

Suddenly it felt important for her to know why his race was wanting to make First Contact. “Why did you reach out to us?”

He looked at her for a long moment, as if considering his reply. “You were the one to reach out. We discovered your invite and responded.”

Ah. She nodded. “The Golden Record.”

He took a long measured glance around the command capsule, his hair falling about his shoulders in a manner that would make a romance novel’s cover model jealous. “We had not been prepared for your race to develop the means to reach interstellar space for at least another of your human generations.”

She could understand why. The majority of NASA’s funding had been withdrawn in the wake of the Great Depression of 2024. While NASA had still retained their research grants, government funded trips out of Earth’s orbit were grounded until the economy recovered; shuttle engineering projects for foreseeable future had been shut down. The US government had to watch as Russia, China, and other privately owned space programs from around the world filled the void in creating prototypes for the next generation of space travel.

But once Voyager 1 had powered up again, the scientific community exploded into action. With the implication of an extraterrestrial response, the United States President had waived any legal prohibitions on the use of nuclear power in order to create a spaceship that could make First Contact, effectively quashing all anti-nuke political arguments on U.S. soil. What was left of NASA then teamed up with the most preeminent experts from around the world, to share whatever expertise they had on nuclear-electric drives with privately owned space companies, who—working in concert—built the first manned spaceship to reach the edge of our Solar System; pooling their resources to “scoop” liquid nitrogen from Earth’s upper atmosphere to create the majority of the reaction mass needed to power the craft.

There were setbacks—what great endeavor didn’t have them?—but that feat of human cooperation alone was another giant leap forward for mankind. As a race usually divided by its national borders, and at war with each other for the better part of their entire existence, it was no wonder extraterrestrials wouldn’t have been prepared for Earth’s sudden technological advancement.

She studied the alien closely. There was something about what he said that didn’t sit right with her. Something she was missing. Why would they place their calling card on the Voyager if they weren’t prepared to be contacted now? What preparations did they need to make before they could say hello?

“Did it take you long to reach here?” she asked him politely, fishing for more details.

He inclined his head in a formal manner so unexpectedly Old English in style that she almost didn’t notice the aberration. For a split second all the lights of the ship dimmed, and the fluorescent current flowing beneath the alien’s skin flared brighter in a seemingly symbiotic reaction.

Tyrille felt a chill run down her spine. Something was wrong. So very, very wrong.

She turned to I.R.I.S., plastering a pleasant smile on her face. “Could you please show our guest the hydroponic recycling system, and explain to him how it has provided me with enough sustenance for the voyage.”

I.R.I.S. assented, escorting the alien to the other side of the module.

Tyrille waited until the robot started to bore the alien with the most thorough explanation of the hydroponics equipment, and then glanced at the nearby monitors, looking for a telltale symbol alert that would indicate what could have caused the power drain. She was unwilling to use any of the terminals on the off chance an inquiry would tip off their alien guest to her suspicions, so she read the primary systems panels first, confirming the radiator wings and propulsion components were operating within sufficient idling parameters. Since the oxygen tanks also displayed the correct levels, she was at a loss as to what else she should be looking for.

She glanced desperately across the boards, looking for something—anything—that would give her some clue.

Then she saw it: a small flickering light amongst the other minor computer lights she was so used to tuning out after three years of travel. She squinted to see it was an up arrow flashing on and off, and frowned. That symbol usually only flashed when she was receiving a data pulse from Earth, but the next one wasn’t scheduled to arrive for eight hours.

She looked to see that the memory banks were measuring a marked increase in activity and gasped in understanding. The extraterrestrial was downloading something into the computer.

The alien was the Trojan horse!

She had no idea what he was downloading, or why he was doing it, but the “why” didn’t really matter as much as working out a way to let I.R.I.S. know of the threat. But how? The robot wouldn’t recognize subtlety if it walked up to it and introduced itself.

Think, Tyrille. Think. Somehow she had to trigger the robot’s emergency mode. Her human reflexes weren’t quick enough to interrupt the upload without alerting him, but she knew I.R.I.S could do it.


Then the solution dawned on her.

She drew in a deep breath and held it. And kept on holding it until I.R.I.S was alerted to a discrepancy in her vitals.

The robot halted its commentary about the hydroponics waste disposal system and turned to see a forced smile straining the astronaut’s face. “Do you require my assistance, Tyrille?”

She exhaled. “Not at all, Iris,” then sucked in another deep breath, holding it until the robot realized that while she was saying one thing, her body was warning of something much more serious.

The alien turned his keen gaze onto her and she struggled to keep her expression calm. Fair dinkum, robot. Work it out!

I.R.I.S. cocked its head, a trait picked up after years of travelling with Tyrille, and then closed its eyes, a sign that it was linking to the spaceship’s main computer. Running a quick diagnostic, it took only a fraction of a second to recognize the incursion, and only a fraction of a second more for I.R.I.S. to slam its fist into the chest of the alien and rip out the crystalline power source.

The crystalline snowflake let out a piercing squeal as the merman apparition blew apart into a flurry of blue orbs, only falling quiet when it was crushed within the robot’s titanium grasp.

Tyrille glanced over at the systems panel to see that the arrow symbol was no longer flashing and grinned in relief. “No one back home is going to believe what just happened.”

I.R.I.S. didn’t respond. It simply opened its hand to look at the shards lying within. “I took a life.”

Tyrille gently laid her hand on the robot’s face, pulling it up so that she could look straight into its eyes. “No, you saved a life. Mine.”

“We don’t know if it would have harmed you. It was like me.”

“No, it wasn’t, Iris. You wouldn’t have deceived someone for personal gain.”

Tyrille felt the spaceship’s propulsion system power up, her hand dropping in shock. She propelled herself to the viewscreen, to see the black expanse outside her window rotating until Alpha Centuri was fixed within its navigational crosshairs.

“Please do not be alarmed,” the spaceships address system announced, suddenly. “The course correction is necessary.”

“Like hell it is.” Her fingers raced across the control panel, typing a flurry of codes and passwords. None of them worked.

She turned to I.R.I.S., who shook its head. “I can no longer perform an uplink,” the robot confirmed.

Tyrille smashed her fist into the nearest panel in frustration. They had not stopped the upload in time. “Why?” she asked simply, when no other option was left to her.

“My creators have need of the technological advancements on this ship.”

“So do I,” she responded through gritted teeth, now recognizing the silky smooth voice of the alien coming out of the Venturer’s speakers.

“You will not be harmed. You may continue to utilize all the systems on the spaceship that do not involve the navigational or propulsion systems.”

“Do you really want to get on Earth’s bad side?” she asked, incredulous. “You are not going to be able to get very far without more fuel.”

“In about one and a half of your solar years we will meet up with another ship to refuel at the edge of what you humans call the Oort cloud. Once we enter that expanse, no one will be able to find us.”

Tyrille was incredulous.

When her application to man the mission had first been accepted, Falcon Heavy rocket systems were still shuttling parts of the spacecraft up into Earth’s orbit to be assembled, and she had thought that her first sight of the Venturer was the most surreal moment in her life. Then when she saw that Voyager 1’s Golden Record had been removed, she’d thought she would never be so excited and scared in her life ever again.

She couldn’t have been more wrong—on both counts.

There was, literally, no turning back for her now. She knew this was one walkabout that she would never return home from.

Tyrille did the math quickly in her head and realized she might not even have enough resources to live long enough to make the rendezvous with the alien ship. And if she did make it, she didn’t know if she was going to be considered a guest or a prisoner. What she did know is that there was something—no, someone—else who could represent mankind’s interests in her stead, and plead their case, if needed. Another of Earth’s creations.

She turned to see I.R.I.S. still watching her, shards still in hand. The robot looked so lost, so vulnerable. Why have I never noticed that before?

Tyrille gestured for it to come over. “Come sit by me. I have a lot to teach you.” She muted the computer address system and turned on the holographic display, telling it to display the night sky across the ceiling of the Venturer, as seen from the coordinates of her hometown. “I’m going to start by telling you the Dreamtime story of Berm Berm-gle; of how the two pointer stars, Alpha Centuri and Beta Centuri, came to be . . .”

* * *

Lezli Robyn is an Australian multi-genre author, currently living in Ohio, who frequently collaborates with Mike Resnick. Since breaking into the field, she has sold to prestigious markets such as Asimov’s and Analog, and has been nominated for several awards around the world, including the Campbell Award for best new writer. Her short story collection, Bittersuite, is due to be published by Ticonderoga in 2015. She has just been nominated again for the Ictineu Award, a Catalan award she had won previously in 2011, for a novelette written with Mike Resnick.

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