NASA director Jason Garrett stared at the shimmering orb from the window of his office. The moon was vibrating in the sky, as if someone had attached it to a paint shaker. Just beyond its edges, the stars rattled in an unnatural motion. It had been going on for two nights now, and all over the globe people were in panic. Some thought it was the end of the world. Others thought it was a prelude to a possible appearance by God himself – or perhaps an alien invasion.
The telephone rang. Garrett snatched it up and answered. "Yes?"
"Sir," said a voice on the other end, "we lost telemetry on the probe about five minutes ago. I'm sorry."
"Any idea what happened to it?"
"No, sir. When it reached the area of the anomaly, it simply vanished."
"How about data?" Garrett said. "Did you gather any data at all?"
"Not really, sir. Dr Mason and his team think it may be a space-time anomaly, or an unknown type of wormhole. But no one is sure."
"Is it moving?"
"No, sir. It just sits in the same spot, about eighty miles above the lunar surface. We do know it's bending light somehow, and that's why the moon and the stars near it appear to vibrate. Other than that, we don't know what the hell it is."
"All right," said Garrett. "Thank you." He clicked off the telephone and then tapped another number; his special line to the White House.
"White House operator," answered a polite female voice. "How may I direct your call?"
"This is Jason Garrett from NASA for the President."
"Just a moment while I verify your identity, sir." There was a short pause. "All right, Mr Garrett. The President has been expecting your call."
A click sounded on the other end. "Hello, Garrett."
"Hello, Mr President."
"You have some good news I hope? I've got people camping out by the thousands on Pennsylvania Avenue. Only the Marines are keeping them off the White House lawn. It's getting pretty crazy around here. People are frightened, and frankly, so am I."
"We lost contact with the probe a few minutes ago, sir. I'm told no data was returned by the spacecraft."
The President groaned. "Damn it all to hell," he said. "Is it a threat? Is it dangerous? Should we fire a nuke at it? And what about our guys on the International Space Station? They must have a better view of it. Anything from them?"
"They can't make any more sense of it than we can, sir. All we know is that it bends light somehow. My best physics team thinks it may be a wormhole, or some kind of space-time..."
"I'm not a scientist, Garrett. I need to know what the hell it is. How about sending a manned mission?"
"That would take six months to a year, Mr President. And if the probe already disappeared..." He left the rest unsaid.
"I suppose you're right," said the President. "Do we have any other options?"
"Well, some of our people want to send up another probe, but this time with a sort of welcome message."
"I don't understand," said the President. "Welcome for whom?"
"Well, sir...one theory going around is that the anomaly is an alien spacecraft. They think the shimmering effect is because it does not want to be seen, or is doing something they wish to hide from us. Our top research team wants to approach it slowly and broadcast a friendly message in all the known languages."
Garrett noticed the skeptical tone in the President's brief response. He obviously doesn't believe in aliens.
"You have anything else for me, Garrett?"
"All right. Thank you for calling." The line went dead.
Garrett turned his gaze back to the midnight sky.
Thirty minutes later, a dozen ballistic missiles with multiple independently-targetable warheads roared from their silos in Montana, racing for the moon.
The alien commander stood quietly in front of the main viewing port on the bridge, his hands clasped behind his back. He stared at the twelve dots of light rising from the surface of a jeweled blue-and-white world.
The First Officer cleared his throat politely.
"You're sure about the nature of the devices?" The commander said.
"Yes, sir. They are crude atomic-based weapons. We can dispose of them easily. However, if they should detonate too close to us, they could still cause damage to the ship."
"All right," said the commander. "I had hoped they would demonstrate something positive, anything I could use to ask the Council to request a stay." He turned away from the viewing screen. "Destroy the incoming weapons at once and transmit the warning message."
The First Officer straightened himself to his full height. "We all know this is the most difficult duty in the galaxy, sir. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary for the safety of all. These humans are beginning to reach out into space. Their xenophobia, their rabid enjoyment of war, and a desire to ruin their own world by polluting it until..."
"I don't need an Earth history lecture," said the commander sharply. "It is well known. Carry out your orders."
It was three a.m. and Jason Garrett was asleep in his office. He startled awake as the telephone rang. He fumbled for the receiver. "Garrett here."
"Sir, this is Dr Mason. I'm down at Cape. I'm afraid I have bad news."
"What is it?"
"Can you see the moon from where you are?"
Garrett glanced out the window. "No. What's wrong?"
"Its light is now being blocked by a giant asteroid."
"What?" Garrett took the telephone with him to the window and studied the sky. He spotted a ragged white ring hanging in the sky where the full moon was supposed to be. "I see it," he said into the telephone. "You're saying an asteroid is causing that? I don't understand."
"It's heading for the Earth," replied Mason in a quiet voice. "It should impact us within the hour. We think it will hit somewhere in the Pacific Ocean."
Garrett's heart was pounding in his chest. "How large is the asteroid?"
"It's several hundred miles in diameter, sir."
"Oh my God."
"It means the end of life on Earth," said Mason in a flat voice. "There's no way to stop it. The President ordered nuclear missiles fired at the anomaly a couple of hours ago. Those missiles were destroyed about halfway to the target. A few minutes later, the anomaly disappeared and was replaced by the asteroid."
Suddenly, Garrett was unable to breathe. He stared at the black hole covering the moon and dropped the phone to the floor. It hit with a thud and rolled across the carpet. He stumbled toward the door. I have to go home now, he thought dully. I must go home.
The commander watched silently as the asteroid hit. Even from his far vantage, he could easily see the massive fireball spreading away from the impact in all directions. At least most of them will die quickly, he thought, although this gave him little comfort. He turned to his First Officer. "Was our message received? Did they understand why this had to be done?"
"They did not say one way or another, sir. They only pleaded with us not to do it."
"It's a natural response for a species to want to live," said the commander bitterly, "even if they don't deserve it."
"You have full samples of the new life forms to be seeded when the surface is again suitable for life?"
"The entire Earth stock is in cryo-storage, even human DNA."
"Not human," the commander growled. "That goes back for research. You know the ones I mean. The new custodians of this world."
"Yes, sir. The Earth term for them is 'dolphin'. They will be the dominant life form, once we increase their intelligence capacities."
The commander watched impassively as the fireball enveloped half the planet and continued to sweep beyond the horizon. "We can hope that these 'dolphins' do a better job of it than the humans did." He pressed a switch and the viewscreen closed. "Let us return home. We're finished here – for now."
(*Escape Velocity is the magazine of science fact and fiction from Adventure Books of Seattle)