Bronson looked serenely out his window.
In some ways, the view never changed. All around him, the stars were in the same places, more or less. Far below him, the Earth spun past like it always did.
The ship orbited at better than 17,000 miles an hour, which was faster than Bronson could easily comprehend. But it was at moments like these, a break in his tasks, a quiet gallery, that he tried.
At length, though, Bronson came to be distracted by a distant object. Though it was just a dot to him, its shape seemed to change rhythmically. Like one of the drops of water that were occasionally set wobbling around the day cabin by one of the more careless crew members. He found that he was staring it at it.
The object was light blue and seemed to be in a similar orbit. Though, Bronson quickly realized it was not moving at the same speed — the blue dot was slowly growing in size.
At first, he did nothing. The actual navigation of the craft was none of his affair. And although he did not understand everything that went on on the bridge above him, he had more than a rudimentary knowledge of the physical forces involved.
Anyway, he assumed that things like where the ship was actually going were well planned out.
Still, the blue dot grew larger.
It was now about the size of a pea, and it had lightened in color. He reached into his pocket and produced a small digital computer. He thumbed through the calendar page for the day to see if he had forgotten about a supply delivery.
Or a docking exercise. An astronomical event.
The dot grew larger. It was now about the size of a grape. And it seemed to him that it had short appendages, giving the whole the appearance of something like a crushed insect. It turned over and over in its orbit, and Bronson could see sunlight playing in shadows on its uneven surface.
He clicked on his communicator.
“Command? This is Bronson, over.”
“This is Command.”
“What is that,” he paused, briefly, racking his brain for a suitable, technical-sounding bit of vocabulary, “thing?”
Bronson continued: “About 9 c’clock, right off the,” he paused again, “thing?”
A short scratching noise came back over the radio. There was silence, then more scratching.
Finally, Command said, “Bronson?”
More silence. “Hold on,” Command said.
Bronson raised his eyebrows, and let his communicator drop to his lap. The whitish grape was now a whirling golf ball.
The door to the chamber he was sitting in slid open, and Packwood walked in.
Packwood was a middle man, not quite spaceman and not quite scientist. He was wearing the same orange jumpsuit Bronson was, but Packwood had a way of making it look comfortable.
Bronson looked over and noticed Packwood wasn’t smiling.
“Yeah, listen,” Packwood said. “I don’t know what is going on. And we don’t know what that is and, anyway, you got to stay off the communicator. I can never remember which channels are being streamed over the thing, but the captain is getting all, you know.”
Packwood let that sink in and then added, “And Central is freaking out.”
“Freaking out about what I said?” Bronson said.
“Freaking out about that,” Packwood said, pointing past Bronson and out the window at the object, which was now more of a knuckleballing baseball.
Bronson followed Packwood’s finger back to the window, and noticed two things at once. The first was that Packwood had stopped speaking. And the second was that he could see the object much better.
At first, he did not know which of these caused more alarm, that the normally garrulous Packwood had kept his trap shut for more than a few seconds. Or the slowly rotating mass coming into clear focus outside the window.
Bronson shifted his weight and leaned closer to the glass, straining his eyes at the object. His communicator slid slowly off his slick cabin pants and hit the floor with a crack. Neither man noticed.
“Are those feet?” Packwood said.
They were. It was apparent by now that the object of interest was a collection of about a dozen human forms, bound together in a fairly symmetrical, slowly rotating mass about the size of a beach ball. A frosted, horrible beach ball.
Bronson never admitted it, but his first thought after having realized what it was that they were looking at was that it had been well constructed. The forms were fitted together with geometric care so that the end result, had it not been floating in a low orbit above the Earth, had the appearance of a clever circus trick.
“Those are feet,” Packwood said.
Though the object — by now as big as a clothes dryer — was remarkably round over all, there were several places where a hand or foot or something other object protruded beyond the circumference.
Bronson squinted and pressed his face up against the porthole like a golden retriever. He started to make out facial expressions, which were all eerily similar and in the category of startled fright.
He could see (or thought he could) buds of ice spattered across patches of exposed, bluish-white skin. He could see clothing. He could hair. A hat.
For a while, the two men said nothing. The object grew larger and larger.
“It’s slowing down,” Bronson said.
Packwood shook his head. “We’re backing up,” he said.
As soon as Packwood said this, Bronson knew it was true. Relatively speaking. He could feel the rumble of the front thrusters. The approach of the object outside the window, which by now was just a few yards away, had been slowing.
Just then, from the left of their view out the window came a spacesuited figure on a bright orange tether. It floated into view, facing away from the window. And from behind, Bronson and Packwood immediately recognized their crewmate.
“Lutz,” Packwood said.
“Lutz,” Bronson said.
On an ordinary day, they might have made a joke about having recognized Lutz from his back side. But the ball was growing larger and larger.
Bronson and Packwood watched silently as Lutz guided himself closer to the floating mass. Lutz slid to one side and began fastening a rectangular pack to the front of the object. It registered with Bronson and Packwood that Lutz was holding a portable rocket in the hope that the object could be moved out of the way.
The ball grew larger and larger. Lutz continued to work. Bronson stayed still, his face pressed against the porthole. Packwood stood behind him, his mouth in its usual open position. But both men were quiet.
Outside the ship, Lutz seemed to be having a problem with the pack. And abruptly he pulled it toward himself, and scooted slowly back from the object, which was now so close that it was darkened by the shadow of the ship.
Lutz’s efforts had slowed its rotation. But it still grew larger and larger.
Until finally, it nudged silently against the porthole, with Bronson coming nose to nose with a frozen grimace set in a sickening panoply of faces, arms and feet.