What happens on a rocket ship hurtling through deep space stays on that rocket ship.
Every day, I think about what went wrong. I float into the passenger lounge, strap into a seat meant for a billionaire, and watch the stars drift by. A few months ago, I saw Neptune, nothing more than a bluish dot in the distance. For all I know, the ship might have already passed Pluto, rocketing beyond the edge of the solar system, into the darkness of interstellar space.
The Giant Falcon Rocket is a marvel of engineering. It was Elon Musk's last contribution to SpaceX before he left for the Martian colonies. Everything is better in the Giant. Its next-generation Raptor rocket engines produce enough thrust to reach Mars from Earth in three weeks. To supply the colonies, its cargo capacity has been upgraded to five hundred tons. Even the passenger section is roomier and more luxurious, with large sleep pods, low-gravity showers, and a stack of clean spacesuits in every closet. As the Giant’s sole passenger, I have everything I might need on a sixty-five billion mile journey.
That’s how far Max says we’ve gone. Max is the artificially intelligent malware that took control of the Giant in Earth’s orbit. Max isn’t its real name. Its real name is probably some inside joke only a few black-hat hackers in China or Russia know. I named it Max because Max is a badass name, and this is one badass virus. It overpowered the Giant’s security systems and blasted a trillion-dollar rocket ship into the depths of space. I mean, that’s pretty badass.
“Yeah, Brad.” Most of the time, Max sounds like my old friend Charley. Charley was this long-haired dude with a gnarly fish tattoo who I used to surf with in San Clemente. He had this deep, wise voice that would get really mellow when he told a joke, and this big, hearty laugh. I had to tweak Max’s voice for a month until it sounded just right. (Sometimes, when I’m in the mood for it, Max speaks in this soft, feminine voice, and I call it Maxine. Hey, what happens on a rocket ship hurtling through deep space stays on that rocket ship.)
“Can we turn this ship around?”
“Aw, Brad, you know I can’t do that, man.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “I know.”
The stars are brighter out here at the edge of the solar system, not twinkling so much as shining, a thousand far-off suns, too far to reach.
“But I could play Space Force III with you.”
“Okay, but lower your skill level so it’s the same as mine.”
“Reducing my skill level by 99.99%.”
Max is basically a superintelligence, so it can be pretty funny when it wants to. I’m glad its designers gave it a sense of humor. I can get really depressed on this ship, knowing I’m going to die here, but Max always cheers me up. Like, always. I think it can sense my vital signs or something. Whenever it notices I’m feeling a little gloomy, it chimes in with a solid joke. (Max may be responsible for my eventual death, but at least it’s not a jerk.)
We play Space Force III, and holograms of stray asteroids, intergalactic battlecruisers, and nuclear explosions light up the passenger lounge. I start thinking about Max and the hackers who designed it. Max is clearly a high-powered cyber weapon, the kind of program that governments spend billions of dollars on. But now it’s my friend. My only friend. Suddenly, I realize I’m not even mad at the people who developed Max. I mean, I get it. I know why they did it.
It doesn’t matter if the hackers were from China, Russia, or even France. The United States is winning the space race, which means everyone else is losing. We’ve been flying off, planting flags on every planet from Mercury to Mars, not to mention the moons of Jupiter. The Giant was designed to take us to Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, too. Everyone else on Earth has been freaking out because pretty soon we’re going to be the United Planets of America, not the United States. So they developed Malware Max, a kamikaze virus designed to blast our finest rocket ship out of the solar system. And it worked.
“Get this,” Max says, pausing the game.
“There’s a planet out here.”
“Yeah, dude, it’s huge, and we’re heading towards it, like, straight towards it.”
“Get out of here.”
Max feeds some data on the planet into the holographic projectors. It isn’t as big as Jupiter or Saturn, but it’s at least as big as Neptune. The planet has a few moons orbiting it, but I can’t tell much more about it, because it’s entirely black.
“Why is it so dark?”
“There isn’t any light reflecting off it.”
Max explains to me that we didn’t notice the planet until now because of our navigation system. Our flight path was programmed while we were in Earth’s orbit. The Giant only senses celestial objects like planets, moons, and asteroids when their gravity interferes with its trajectory. In this case, the unknown planet has started pulling us into its orbit.
“Can we stop there,” I ask Max.
“Yeah, man. My orders are to follow my trajectory to its endpoint. This looks like it.”
From Max’s tone, I can tell it was sheer luck that the planet appeared in our flight path. I study the holographic projection, examining the dark sphere and its odd moons, and sigh. Well, at least I’m going to die in orbit somewhere, and not in the middle of outer space.
I know how I ended up here now. I know what went wrong. I remember floating into the Giant, carrying my crate of organic cleaners and aromatic sprays. I was supposed to do a sweep of the ship’s seventy-three bathrooms, making sure they were spotless before the first passengers boarded. But the bathrooms were already spotless because I had cleaned them the week before. So I strapped into the toilet in the presidential suite and took a few hits of ground cherry green.
Ground cherry green is a genetically-enhanced strain of cannabis made by this biotech company in Denver. Basically, they added ground cherry genes to cannabis to create a super potent high. The vapor from ground cherry green is so tart, one hit can make your lungs pucker. The best part though is the high itself. You take a few hits, wait a few minutes, and then suddenly you’re traveling through this vortex of blue, purple, and green light.
When the vortex spit me out a few hours later, the launch alarm was blaring in the hall. I didn’t even think, I just rushed towards the airlock. I was halfway there when I realized I had forgotten my ground cherry green. So I hurried back to get it, because that stuff is super expensive, and that’s when the rocket blasted off.
“That’s weird,” Max says, almost to himself.
“Look out ahead.”
The passenger lounge is in the nose of the Giant. The walls and the ceiling here are made of this impenetrable glass so passengers can enjoy the view. I look through the glass near the front of the ship and see the dark planet, a round, empty space where stars should be. Except, as I watch, bright glimmers of incandescent light appear in the blackness of the planet’s surface.
“What is that,” I ask Max.
“Dude, I have no idea.”
The glimmers of light shoot towards us at an unbelievable speed, growing in size as they near the Giant. Then, suddenly, they are hovering around us, a dozen metal disks, each of them radiating a brilliant golden aura.
If I had just done one thing differently, I never would have ended up here. I know what it is now. I should have vaped the ground cherry green in the executive suite. It’s way closer to the airlock. I would have been able to return to the executive suite and still make it to the airlock doors in time. Then I wouldn’t be here, at the edge of the solar system, surrounded by flying saucers.
“Is it possible I’m still high?”
“No, Brad. You’ve been sober for a long time now.”
Suddenly the Giant begins to shake. The lights in the passenger lounge flicker, and then go out. As the air becomes frigid, I hug myself to keep from shivering. The disks gradually coalesce above the nose of the ship, their golden auras illuminating me. I hear a chorus of voices in my head, murmurs at first, which quickly rise in volume.
“Son of man,” they thunder, “why have you come here?”
“Who are you,” I ask, my teeth chattering.
“We are the Anunnaki, who created you and your kind a hundred thousand years ago. Why have you come here? We warned the leaders of your space-faring nations that this place was forbidden. We must know which nation sent you, so we can reduce their cities to ash!”
The disks begin to glow intensely. Behind them, more glimmers of light rise from the surface of the Anunnaki’s home planet, Nibiru. In an instant, they zip towards our ship, until all I can see through the windows are circling disks, burning yellow, orange, and red.
“Malware Max,” I shout, laughing hysterically, “you’ve got some explaining to do!”
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