Author : Aldous Mercer
It was a deathbed recantation. The Astronaut lay, sunken and frail amidst his bedclothes, as they set up their equipment. There was a window on the other side of the bed, framing a portion of the nearby mountain range.
“Beautiful view you’ve got,” said the man from NASA. “Peaceful.” Remote.
“We’re ready, sir,” said a technician.
Everyone took their places, duly time-stamped their notepads.
“I was mistaken,” began the Astronaut, age-mottled skin stretched tight over his hands as he gestured. “It was a late-stage booster shell. Couldn’t have been anything else.”
“That’s what you were told when you reported it,” said the NASA official, stern and somewhat smug.
The Astronaut nodded. “I’m sorry, Administrator, for all the embarrassment I caused the Agency. Convinced myself—wanted to convince you all.”
“Why?” Not publicity—the agency’s heroes had too much of that as it was.
The Astronaut was silent for a while. When he continued, his voice was quiet. “I saw auroras dropping like curtains of fire beneath my feet. A sunset, and a sunrise, every 90 minutes. More stars, Administrator, more stars than any human being has ever seen before. I touched the outer edges of what humanity found possible, and I found… that I couldn’t go further. I desperately wanted to believe that there was something more out there. That the threshold of our reach was not limited…”
When it was clear he wouldn’t say anything more—his water-pale gaze was fixed on some faraway memory—they gathered up their equipment and their papers, and respectfully let themselves out. The doors were left unlocked for the nursing service’s nightly visit.
The Astronaut lay on his bed till the long rays of the sun were angled low enough that they brushed the tops of the mountains in his window. Not the Ozarks, but they would do. The Astronaut nodded to himself.
“This will do.”
He expelled a breath. But before he could take another, his dulled—trained—hearing picked up the blue-shifting Doppler screech of an approaching ballistic. Confused, the Astronaut scrabbled weakly at the bed-sheet—the sound of a plane in a nosedive where there shouldn’t be a plane—automatically calculating descent rates, vectors.
He braced for impact.
Light bloomed, outside his window, scattering incoherently onto his upturned face, the creases of the sheet, the window-sill. But there was no impact. When the light faded, the Astronaut saw the burnished metallic lines of a cylinder—about 75 feet in length, impossibly wider than it was long—hovering a foot above the newly-laid sod in the backyard.
Then he heard the footsteps coming towards the bedroom.
The Visitor, upon entering, found the Astronaut on the bed, wheezing with silent laughter.
“I swore, up and down, I’d never seen…” the Astronaut gestured towards the window. “Not a UFO nut. Not anymore.”
The Visitor’s head tilted to a side in amusement. “We are not gods, Commander, to require belief in order to justify our existence.” When the Astronaut shook his head, the visitor hesitated, then stepped forward. “My name is—”
“Could you speak up please?”
The Visitor raised his voice. “I wished to congratulate you on your iconic flight,” he said. “One test-pilot to another.”
The Astronaut squinted in the Visitor’s direction. “You were there.”
“In a ship,” said the Visitor. “Beside yours. We passed each other, in the eternal night.”
“A long time ago,” grunted the Astronaut. “Why are you here now?” A slight odor—half-absolved bitterness—clung to his last word.
The Visitor smiled. “I don’t suppose you could call it an abduction, per se. More like…an invitation…”
Author’s Note: “The threshold of our reach is written in neither support nor skepticism but love: of certain astronaut-stories that have a tendency to embarrass the agency.”
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