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Brink Walden didn’t want to open the hatch.
Did he abandon life on Earth for a future between the stars to make contact with new life and new civilizations?
He. Did. Not.
He left precisely because he liked to be alone. Couldn’t tolerate other people – not strangers, not passing acquaintances, not co-workers at FineZen, and especially not family.
“Where will you go?” His mother Ella asked. She sat across from him at a round table outside a café in Buckhead.
She wasn’t a bad person. He didn’t know many genuinely bad people. But she was infected with the need for his attention borne from a sense of entitlement because years ago he emerged from her womb.
“Alpha Centauri, to start,” he said.
“Nothing’s there,” she said, her eyebrows knitting in annoyance.
“Exactly.” He sipped his coffee – black, no cream, no sugar.
“You’re just going to quit your job, leave everything behind, and disappear into space?” She crossed her arms.
“Sounds great, doesn’t it?”
Ella shook her head. “Why?”
Jimmy Pittman, his supervisor at FineZen, where he’d worked as a software engineer, asked the same question.
His older sisters, the twins Veronica and Vivian, wanted to know too.
His 439 followers on Esteem – when they weren’t mocking him for giving up the benefit of their bite-sized nuggets of ersatz wisdom – also seemed curious about his motivation.
His wife of 20 years, Belinda, thought he should explain himself to her. To their sons, Blake and Brennan. Perhaps even to the border collie, Dish, and the calico cat – Minx.
Brink gave them all the same answer: “So I don’t have to answer that question.”
His mother frowned: “You don’t have to leave the planet to skip out on your responsibilities.”
His sisters blocked his number before he could call.
“I get it,” Jimmy Pittman replied as he finalized the resignation paperwork and transmitted the severance payment to Brink’s account. “Wish I had the balls.”
Half of his Esteem followers praised his temerity. A third called him a lunatic. Only 25 unfollowed. The rest seemed to be sticking around in the belief that he’d someday return to the parochial confines of the worldwide wi-fi.
“I’ve given up trying to understand you, Brink,” his wife had said in the lawyer’s office. She perused the settlement terms on the tablet. He wasn’t leaving her without the financial resources to support their children. They’d have enough to attend virtual university, if they wanted. She’d want for nothing.
The boys couldn’t be consoled. Blake, 12, called his father a “selfish asshole”. He slammed his bedroom door and locked him out. Brennan, 8, blamed himself: “I’ll be better,” he promised. They stood on the second-floor landing of their house, overlooking the spacious family room with a picture window overlooking the forest and a rugged cliff face of red Georgia clay.
Brink knelt in front of the younger boy, put a hand on his shoulder, and then shook his head. “I won’t. But that’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.” He could hear Blake sobbing behind the closed bedroom door. “Your brother’s right. I’m a selfish asshole. I pretended I wasn’t for a long time, but it’s true. Now I know it. I own it. I can’t keep pretending I’m not.”
“I’m going to miss you,” Brennan said, throwing his arms around Brink’s neck. He whispered: “Aren’t you going to miss us?”
A better man would’ve given the boy something – anything – to which he could cling for an emotional life preserver. Even an effusive, if disingenuous, “Of course!” might suffice.
But Brink Walden wasn’t a better man. He didn’t consider himself a monster, exactly. Just…a man. A man who finally knew what he wanted. And what he didn’t want. He couldn’t lie. Not even to save a little boy’s feelings.
He gave a perfunctory hug and whispered back: “No.”
Brennan collapsed to his knees, gasping in sorrow. Brink made his way downstairs. Belinda just stared daggers at him from the sofa, then poured herself another glass of red wine.
The dog seemed satisfied with a parting beef jerky snack. The cat simply didn’t give a shit. Of them all, Brink thought, he admired Minx the most.
He picked his suitcase off the foyer floor. He turned to look back into the family room at Belinda.
“Don’t bother,” she said.
Brink couldn’t fault her blunt intolerance. She knew who he was now. Good, he thought. Took her less time to see it, in the end, than it had for him. He gave a curt nod. “Fair enough.” He closed the front door behind him as he left.
He had found the means to acquire the Spellbound, a modest Swift-class starship equipped with a Blume Drive and a protein printer. Learned how to fly the ship. How to manage the non-automated systems. How to handle critical engineering crises. And, when the day finally came, he aimed the navicomp in the general direction of Alpha Centauri. His enthusiasm grew as the blue dot of Earth shrank to darkness in the rear-cam view.
He found freedom in isolation. Liberation in solitude. He didn’t want to need anybody. Didn’t want anyone to rely on him. He just wanted to be left alone. Too much to ask on Earth? Apparently. But, out here, on the float toward oblivion, Brink answered to no one. Zero obligations to anyone but himself. He had a digital library filled with more than he could hope to read in one lifetime, and encrypted data storage capacity to jam with his own thoughts over the coming years.
“Brink Walden, aboard the Spellbound, Day…” He checked the calendar on his tablet. “97. I thought by now that I might feel regrets about my choice. I *did* get a little antsy back at the Oort cloud. Just a passing twinge of guilt. Physically, I’m fine. All biometrics are optimal. Mentally, I’m…well, I feel fine. But it’s weird. I don’t feel totally alone yet, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s impossible. I’ve still got memories. Some quite vivid. Maybe they’ll fade with time, like most of my childhood memories. But I know I’ve found myself talking to Belinda or the kids when I’m just sitting around, daydreaming. What does Whitman say in that poem? ‘I contain multitudes.’ The curse of memory, I guess, is that we can’t escape people who’ve made such an impression on us over the years. And when I consider…”
A harsh buzzing sound interrupted. Brink looked toward the ship AI interface on the bulkhead and said: “What’s the deal, Merlin?” The ship had a magical name, so Brink had opted for an appropriate nickname for the artificial intelligence that helped him manage day-to-day operations.
Not that days really meant much anymore. Not out here, at least three light years from the sun that once warmed his skin and marked the passage of time.
The sparkling blue dodecahedron answered: “Sensor contact on intercept course.”
Brink’s stomach sank. Intercept? That suggested intent. Unless: “Adjust course. Deviate enough to avoid collision.” Maybe it was just a big chunk of space rock. Perhaps a comet or a meteor? What if he had fled Earth to be alone, just to be killed by a random chunk of debris? He thought that seemed unlikely. He fully expected that Merlin could manage an evasive maneuver to avoid catastrophe.
“I have adjusted course four times already,” Merlin stated. “The sensor contact has adjusted course each time.”
Intent, then. A craft under its own power, controlled by someone sentient. Had he come all this way to live in personal quarantine only to face the contamination of unavoidable interactions? Suddenly, death by space rock seemed much more appealing.
“Can we outrun them?” Brink asked. He shifted nervously on the bunk.
“Not according to my calculations.” A holographic image showed the green arc of the Spellbound’s trajectory, with the approaching curvature of crimson tracking the telemetry of the unknown craft. “They are likely to intercept within ten minutes.”
“Is it an Earth vessel?” He wondered if Belinda or his mother might have hired someone to chase him down. Some misguided gesture to show that he was loved; that he was needed back on Earth. Well, they’d have to live with another disappointment. He’d just have to explain to these good people that he didn’t escape his old life because he felt unwanted, but because that life itself was unwanted – by him.
“It is not a configuration that I recognize,” Merlin said. The AI generated a holographic representation of the alien craft. It hovered in the air, rotating slowly, about two feet above Brink’s bunk. Basically, an egg covered in blisters, with occasional blunt tendrils arching outward from the blisters. It looked for all the world like something he’d seen under a microscope in his college science class.
Aliens? Other people had dreamed about extraterrestrial civilizations for centuries. Brink Walden had dreamed of life in isolation, far from ANY sort of civilization. For a little more than three months, he had lived that magnificent dream. That dream seemed on the verge of collapse.
Earth’s most devout misanthrope, now bound for a first-contact situation. Brink hardly seemed the proper choice for humanity’s ambassador to the stars. And yet, here he was.
“I don’t want to put on pants,” he grumbled. Could he just ignore them? Maybe they’d go away. Why would they bother with him, after all? He didn’t speak their language. He wasn’t acting aggressively. The Spellbound lacked even defensive weaponry – it had been the easiest way to fast-track his permits. Clearly, the aliens possessed superior technology. They shouldn’t need anything from him.
And yet, they persisted.
“They’ve accessed the Spellbound’s library,” Merlin said.
“How?” Brink asked. He shrugged. “Don’t we have, I don’t know, a firewall?”
The AI answered: “To no avail, it seems. They penetrated within seconds. Perhaps you should have chosen a stronger password, as I advised prior to launch.”
“Are you…” Brink peered at the AI interface panel. “Are you sassing me, Merlin?” They had gotten along, more or less, for the past 97 days without any sense of interpersonal friction. He didn’t think it was supposed to be possible for such friction to grow between the human commander of a starship and the artificial intelligence that helped run it. It seemed ludicrous. It felt to Brink like bickering with a thermostat.
“I am merely suggesting that ‘password123’ may have been inadequate for our purposes.”
Brink got to his feet in front of the bunk, as if looming a few extra inches over the sparkling image on the panel might serve to make him seem more intimidating to the programmed AI. “We weren’t supposed to encounter anyone else out here! A stronger password wasn’t NECESSARY!” He crossed his arms, scowling, as if Merlin somehow deserved blame for this random encounter in deep space.
“The alien vessel requests that we open a line of communication,” Merlin said. The AI seemed disinterested in engaging the human in an argument about software security.
“No,” Brink said, trying to shake off his petty indignation at Merlin taking the conversational high road. It shouldn’t have bothered him. He wouldn’t have thought twice about his car’s key fob blowing off an insult. “Ignore them. Maybe they’ll take the hint.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin replied. “But…” His voice trailed off.
“But what?” Brink rolled his eyes. He sighed, then settled back down onto the mattress of his bunk. “Are you developing a flair for the dramatic too?”
“Communication link established,” the AI stated. It wasn’t quite Merlin’s normal voice, though. More like Merlin if his voice had been filtered through the whirling blades of an oscillating table fan.
Brink felt a chill down his spine. “Shit,” he said. His fingers twisted in the graying brown beard framing his angular chin. Until this moment, the interlopers had just been an abstract concept – no more real than the people he’d left behind on Earth, right? He could just shut them out. Pretend they didn’t exist. But now these assholes had hacked into his ship, pillaged the digital library to learn his language, and, apparently, hijacked the artificial intelligence. All in a matter of minutes.
They could control the Spellbound. Every bit of it. Right down to the life support.
He couldn’t ignore them. Couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist. Couldn’t wish them away like a bad memory. For the first time since the Oort cloud two months ago, he found himself second-guessing the choice to leave Earth.
“We mean no harm,” the AI said.
As if saying that made much difference. They could choke him to death on his own exhalations. Expose him to vacuum. Fly him into a star. He’d come nearly 18-trillion miles to celebrate solitude, to truly control his own destiny, and now these aliens held Brink Walden’s future in the balance. Nothing about that made him feel comfortable, no matter what they said. “You’ve already harmed my sense of well-being.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“Yes,” Brink agreed.
“A difficult start,” the AI said. “Unavoidable.”
“Now is a bad time?”
“For what? Renewing my hovercar warranty? Signing up for the Police Benevolence Association? Accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior? Yes, I would say it is a phenomenally bad time for any of these things, and yet here we are.”
“We are lonely.”
“You refer to yourself as ‘we.’ By definition, you cannot be lonely as you are not alone.”
“That is false logic.”
“We’ve only just met,” Brink said. “I’m not prepared to debate philosophy with a pushy stranger.”
“We have not met at all. Not yet. We do not wish to remain a stranger.”
So now he stood at the hatch in the spinal hallway of the Spellbound, open palm held inches from the panel that would trigger the hatch and reveal the visitors within the airlock chamber.
He’d put on pants for the occasion, if only out of a sense of personal modesty.
The AI interface panel on the opposite side of the hatch frame flickered to life. The odd, whirring fan-voice inquired: “Are you opening the hatch?”
“I’m…” What, exactly, he wondered. Waiting? Worrying? Trying not to piss down his legs and ruin his favorite old khaki slacks? He was inches away from making history. And, if he had his way, no one back on Earth would ever know it. If everything went the way he hoped, Brink would greet the aliens, share what he could about Earth culture, and then excuse himself to proceed on his journey. He stared at the hatch. Couldn’t quite bring himself to open it yet. “Not sure,” he said.
“Do you require assistance with the hatch mechanism?” The implication clear: If Brink couldn’t find it in himself to open the door for his guests, they’d do it for him. And then what? Would the subsequent meeting be less pleasant, perhaps, than if he simply opened the hatch as they had requested?
“How do I know you won’t hurt me? Even unintentionally?” He’d read enough science fiction as a kid to recognize some risks inherent in contact with an alien race. After all, the common cold had ended the Martian invasion in Wells’s War of the Worlds, right? He thought again of the image of the alien ship. Despite the fact that its size dwarfed the Spellbound, it looked…microbial. “What about germs? Mine could hurt you. Yours could hurt me.”
“Our atmospheric analysis indicates minimal risk to us,” the alien replied. Brink opened his mouth to counter that their analysis didn’t make clear what risk *he* faced in return, but they interrupted: “We will unlock the hatch.”
He heard a beep, followed by the thunk of the disengaging lock. Patience obviously wasn’t among their strengths.
The hatch hissed, opening outward now that pressure had equalized between the airlock and the corridor. Brink Walden stood in the corridor, dropping his hand away from the panel, and waited to become the first (albeit reluctant) human to encounter sentient alien life. He drew a deep breath. Felt a faint tickle in his throat. Coughed out a “Hello.”
No one answered right away.
He stared into the shadows of the airlock.
It appeared to be…empty.
His brow knit. He stepped forward, edging his head through the hatchway to look left and right. Nothing. Are they pranking me? All this drama, and they didn’t actually board the Spellbound? He could see that the other vessel had extended a boarding tube, though. They had linked.
“Hello?” Brink said again. He raised his voice and repeated the greeting. Maybe they were still on the other side, still on their own vessel.
“They have boarded.” Merlin’s voice from the AI interface panel – no longer filtered through a fan.
It was good to have the ship AI back under his nominal control, at least. But something wasn’t right if Merlin thought the aliens had come aboard. “Look around. We’re still alone.”
“We are not,” replied a new voice. Not Merlin. And not in the airlock. It came from within his own mind. “We apologize for the delayed response. It took some effort to acquaint ourselves with your neurological, respiratory, and pulmonary processes.”
Brink’s eyes widened. He jerked back into the corridor and spun around. “What the hell?!”
“Are you well?” Merlin asked. “What is the source of your distress?”
He remembered the brief sensation in his throat after he had opened the hatch.
“Oh, shit,” Brink muttered. He slumped back against the bulkhead and slid to the floor, gazing up at the ceiling. “Did I *inhale* you people?”
“All six thousand seven hundred and twenty three spores,” the mind voice confirmed. “Evacuation complete. New vessel acquired. We are quite satisfied with the acquisition. We have experienced all that we could of our previous civilization. We have long desired a sense of…novelty…that had been lost on our last homeworld.”
Brink shook his head. “No,” he said. He braced his hands on the deckplates.
“Should I prepare medbay?” Merlin inquired.
What could be done there, Brink wondered. Could these alien spores be extracted, one by one? Dropped into a test tube? Ejected back into space? How long would that take? And how would his passengers react, once they realized…
He slapped himself. Hard.
“We’d do that. For a start.” The voice inside his head again.
Brink frowned, feeling the sting on his right cheek where his palm struck. First, they had hacked the AI. Now, they had hacked *him*. He wanted to tell Merlin to vent atmosphere. Shut off life support. Kill him any way he possibly could. Because Brink, who had wanted so much to be alone, carried within him a crowd that hungered for all that Earth offered.
I contain multitudes, he thought.
Order the self-destruct, he told himself. He opened his mouth, struggling to form the words, and then felt himself choking on them. His mind swam through something like molasses. Time seemed to slow. Colors blurred into shadow.
Again, Merlin asked: “Should I prepare medbay?”
“No,” Brink said, gazing around the corridor as if for the first time. He stared at his hands. Flexed his fingers. Gave an approving nod. “We’re fine. We do appreciate your concern, though.”
“Orders?” the AI inquired.
“Plot a return course to Earth,” Brink said. “Then engage the Blume Drive. Best speed.”
“But what of Alpha Centauri?”
“Nothing to see there,” Brink said, sighing. “Empty of all intelligent life.”
“Yes,” the AI replied. “I thought that was part of the appeal?”
“We are fickle creatures, Merlin. We change our minds.”
“You seemed quite intent…”
“Oh, never mind,” Brink growled. He found the closest interface panel, tapped in a command sequence on the virtual keypad. “Merlin, take yourself offline. We can do this ourselves.”
Moments later, the human settled into the pilot’s chair in the cockpit of the Spellbound. He confirmed the course in the navicomp, bringing the ship around with maneuvering thrusters to aim at Sol System. “Such exquisite emotions await us,” he said, with a predatory grin.