“Grab the kids, honey!” Walter dropped the paper on the table next to him and placed his glasses on top. In a well-practiced motion, he pointed the remote at the TV and turned the volume up.
“—the probe has just reached the end of our solar system. Hopefully we’ll finally be able to see the unidentified object just off the orbit of Pluto. This moment has been years – “
“Did they figure it out yet?”
“No, not yet. Where are the kids? They’re going to miss it.”
His wife didn’t have a chance to respond, instead the thundering footsteps of children coming down the stairs answered. A boy raced down the stairs, threw himself on the couch with reckless abandon and glued his eyes to the TV.
“Did it happen yet?!”
“Not yet, Bobby.”
A younger girl moved to the couch and sat calmly, making an effort not to wrinkle or ruin the pink dress she wore.
“Good morning, Baily.” His wife said with a smile, “that’s a lovely dress you’re wearing. You and Rosie match!”
The girl looked at her doll, then back to her dress and smiled shyly. She brought the doll to her face and slunk down, embarrassed.
“They just breached Pluto’s orbit. They’re close now.”
“Coooolll…” Bobby responded, he held his father’s old NASA Orion model in his arms.
“I see you brought Teddy with you.”
The paint on the edge of the model was worn and part of the metal was badly dented from a drop that happened at some point, yet the boy eyed it like it was brand new. He hugged it the same way a little girl or boy might hug a doll or stuff bear.
“—NASA reports they’re close to the object now. It seems our boys at Houston know what they’re doing. This is the fastest thing we’ve put in space, isn’t that correct?”
“That’s right, Brook,” another voice responded. “The E.T.O.S.S. probe is the quickest, biggest and best(est) thing that’s come out of our Earth’s orbit.”
“For the viewers at home, what does E.T.O.S.S. stand for?”
“Extra Terrestrial Outer Solar System probe, Brook. It was created with the support of over thirty nations. The biggest and most expensive global cooperative project to date!”
“Bigger than the Mars colonization, Dan?”
“Much bigger. For those who don’t know, this mission has been in the making since the UO first showed up seven years ago, it’s needed a lot of cooperation and money from everyone to find out was this darned thing is! We had to create relay satellites, orchestrate repairs, launches and of course make the probe itself. ”
“Is that true, Dad? How could it be bigger than what you did?”
Walter smiled and rustled his son’s messy hair. Bobby was not much different than he, at that age. Witnessing the first colony on the moon at the age of six, he had the same childlike wonder in his eyes that his boy had now.
“We had been going to Mars for several years by the time I went, son,” he responded. “Besides, all I did was some drilling and rock collecting. Nothing this big.”
“Yeah, but you did it best.” His son said, saying it more to convince himself than his father.
“Perhaps,” Walter said, and again smiled.
“—ok, yes. I’m getting confirmation now that the probe is close enough for visual contact. It’ll only be a few minutes, thank you for bearing with us! Our satellites are relaying an image back to us now.”
“What does that mean, Dad?” A question he asked his dad several times a day, and each time his Dad knew the answer.
Walter turned his head towards his son, “Satellites.” He grabbed a few coasters from the table next to him and set eight of them up in a line.
“Our solar system has eight planets – nine when I was a kid – you know all of them, right?”
“Yes!” Bobby shot up, Teddy still firmly gripped under his arm. “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And Pluto is a dwarf planet!” He did his best to hide a smile on his face, half proud, half smug with his information.
“That’s right. So I have eight coasters here, like our eight planets. The first one in the line is Mercury, then Venus, then Earth and so on…”
“Mhmmm,” Bobby said, emphatically.
Walter reached into his pocket and grabbed some loose change. “At six of the planets, we have a relay satellite orbiting a moon or the planet itself.” He placed dimes, nickels, quarters and pennies next to every planet except the first and second coaster.
“Why aren’t there any at Mercury or Venus?”
“Because it’s too close to the sun, and much too hot. Also, NASA is more concerned with things towards the end of our solar system than things closer to the sun.”
“Ohhhh,” Bobby said, he edged closer to the mock solar system. “So what do the satellites do?”
“They let us send information back to Earth faster. When Mom and Dad drive somewhere far away, where do we stop all of the time?”
His son pondered on it for a second, “the gas station?”
“That’s right. Information is kind of the same. It doesn’t need gas, but it does need a relay point. It needs a pit stop, just like us. It basically gets launched from one satellite to the next. The satellites increase the speed in which the information, like pictures or words, get sent back to Houston—to us.”
“I see…” Bobby was nodding his head. With furrowed eye brows and tight mouth, his six year old brain was starting to understand. Then, as if hit with understanding all at once, he jumped up and shouted, “Cool!” Orion extended from his outstretched arm he made airplane noises and ran a brief circle around the coffee table. He turned towards his younger sister, “isn’t it awesome, Baily?!”
She looked up at him and didn’t respond, just smiled shyly and hid her face behind Rosie again.
“Alright folks, the image is just finishing up now. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: a detailed, high resolution close-up of the unidentified object. And here it is on my screen now, wow the detail is amazing, I’m looking at a–“
Jim stopped, his eyes glued to his monitor in the same fashion Bobby had earlier. He froze in place, “I… I…”
“Jim, what is it?” Dan craned his neck over to Jim’s monitor and took a look, “Oh my God…”
Then the image plastered itself onto the TV set. In the center was a rectangular object, lights had been placed on the edges of it making it look like an out of place old diner sign. The false light was queer in the impossibly black void of space. In the center, more lights fashioned themselves in a pattern which at first looked foreign but upon closer inspection it became obvious; words.
“What does it say, Dad?” Bobby asked.
Walter didn’t respond, his eyes were transfixed on TV showing an object that floated in space some 3.6 billion miles away.
Without breaking his stare, “It says, ‘You are not alone.’ ”
“What does it mean, Dad?” Bobby repeated the question as he had a hundred times before. The child could sense the uneasiness in his father; his own eyes had grown wide with worry.
“I don’t know, Bobby. I really don’t know…”