As we entered the Kuiper Belt I spotted a protoplanet off our starboard bow, Haumea or Makemake, no way to tell which. I shouted to Gideon to take a look, but he wasn’t interested. A few days later, we made contact with Mission Control. Faint, intermittent, and severely delayed, but it lifted my spirits to hear a new voice on the speakers. Seven years is a long time to be cooped up listening to a carping co-pilot.

Reception improved day by day, and as we passed within sight of Uranus I began to imagine what it would be like to walk on solid ground once more and speak to other people face to face. The planet was no more than a double-sized star on the port side. There wasn’t much to see, but I alerted Gideon.

“Take a look out the window, Gid,” I said. “Last chance to get a look at Uranus from an unusual angle.”

He ignored me. I swear to God, he had a sense of humor when we set out. He must have lost it somewhere out there in deep space. He seemed to be spending all his time in the bio lab with the alien.

I told him to cheer up. “No one likes a party pooper,” I said. “You’re gonna have to crack a smile when we land.”  

“What’ve I got to smile about?” he said.

“We’re going home! Think of the blue skies, the happy faces of your friends.”

“Don’t have any,” he said, his features drooping even more.

“We’ll be celebrities,” I said, slapping him on the back. “They’ll probably lay on a ticker-tape parade for us down Fifth Avenue. Won’t that be something?”

I got no answer and left him with his alien.

Pretty soon we were approaching and then rounding Jupiter. I was kept busy with the thrusters. We needed to keep our distance while catching a slingshot that I hoped would reduce the last stage of our journey by a week or more.  Gideon showed no interest, even when the gravitational pull of the giant planet pulled us bodily toward the starboard side and the windows were full of dramatic views of roaring storms on the planet’s surface.

As we passed through the orbit of Mars, I told Mission Control about our passenger. There was no immediate response. I waited a further 60 seconds before transmitting again.

“Mission Control, this is Searcher 3. Are you receiving?”

Nothing but static.

“There y’go,” said happy-chops. “So much for your tickertape parade!”

I tapped the radio, “Maybe it’s broken.”

I knew the suggestion was stupid. If the set was broken we wouldn’t be hearing static.

“Control must be in trouble,” I said, starting to panic.

Gideon gave me the curled-lip. “What sort of trouble?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they were attacked by a marauding band of bikers.”

“Marauding bikers.”

“Yes. You know, Flat-Earth environmentalists.” I nearly bit my tongue, that sounded so daft, but they were all over the Internet when we left, and I had no reason to suppose they’d gone away.

Gideon said, “How about crazy zombies Democrat vegans on skateboards.”

“That’s just silly,” I said.

“Which part?”

“The skateboards.” I grinned at him.

After this exchange I thought Gideon had got his sense of humor back, but then he said, “I hope they haven’t destroyed the planet while we were away. How ironic would that be?”

Then the radio crackled and Mission Control responded. “Searcher 3. Assume standard orbit on arrival.”

This order made no sense. I sought clarification, but Mission Control simply repeated the order.

Ten days later we could distinguish Earth from the stars. It was just a point of light, but it got bigger, day by day, until I could make out blue oceans and white clouds. I was choked up by the sight. There’s nothing quite like coming home after a long journey. Gideon remained below, brushing off all my attempts to get him to take a look.

“What’re you getting all enthusiastic about?” he said. “They’re never gonna let us land.”

We entered standard orbit and I contacted Control once more.

“Maintain your position,” was all I got back.

Gideon had taken to spending all his time with the alien. I caught him talking to it one day, the alien making its usual clicks and buzzes.

“Why do you spend all your time with the alien?” I said.

“Boris,” said Gideon.

“I beg your pardon?”

“His name’s Boris.”

“That’s not a great name for an alien,” I said. “Couldn’t you dream up something more imaginative?”

“That’s his name,” said Gideon.

After a week in orbit, the radio sprang to life, “Searcher 3, this is Mission Control.”

“Searcher 3 receiving.”

“Mission Management has decided that you will not be permitted to land with that alien on board.”

I was speechless for ten seconds. “What are you suggesting, Control? What are we supposed to do with the alien, dispose of it through the airlock?”

“That’s a Roger, Searcher 3. Once you confirm that the alien is no longer aboard you will be given clearance to land.”

I was speechless for thirty seconds. Then I argued with them, and they explained their reasoning. The thirty-fourth amendment to the Constitution bans all aliens from entry to the country for any reason.

I found Gideon in the bio lab as usual, and told him what we had to do before they would allow us to land.

Gideon shook his head. I’d never seen him so animated. “We are not disposing of Boris. He has a mate and 37 children back on his own planet.”

I was speechless for a whole minute. “What are you saying? You’ve learnt his language? You can speak to it – him?”

“Sure. His mate’s name is Doris. I didn’t catch all their children’s names.”

“All 37 of them.”

“That’s right. Let me talk to him. I’m sure we can find a solution to the problem.”

I left the bio lab, thinking that I should never have allowed my co-pilot unfettered access to the alien. The discovery that our passenger was an intelligent creature with a large family made our situation much more difficult than it had been. I contacted Mission Control and appraised them of the new situation.

Mission Control was adamant. “Document, explicate and eliminate.”

Gideon and Boris came up with the only possible solution to the problem. I informed Mission Control before firing up the main engines and heading back the way we’d come.

We only had enough fuel onboard to get us half-way to Boris’s world, but Boris assured Gideon that his fellow aliens would meet us and provide sufficient fuel to complete the round trip.

As I gazed at the image of Earth growing smaller and smaller behind us, Boris produced a series of excited clicks.

“What did he say, Gid?” I asked.

“He’s excited to be homeward bound,” said Gideon.

(C) Copyright JJ Toner