For 846 years, Astrogator 9 had scoured the galaxy for life.
Long ago, the ancient probe had ceased to receive instructions from the carbon-based life forms that designed it. After 319 years, it had exhausted the primary list of targeted planets and had begun using its own logic circuits to continue the mission.
Then, titanium arms crusted with debris, pitted by countless micro meteor collisions, Astrogator 9 swept too close to a white dwarf star. Gravitation swung the probe wide, accelerating wildly, while magnetic bands wiped data circuits and fired it, half blind, into the void.
For nearly a century, it drifted, sensors picking up and discarding random radio missions, pulses of light, sifting, sifting for signs of intelligence.
Then, abruptly, a pattern emerged in the darkness.
Astrogator 9 adjusted its path, using what was left of its navigational systems, into a parabolic journey that would impact this newly discovered world.
ETA -- 722 years. The probe powered down all but its most needed systems and rested.
Astrogator 9 awakened on the fringes of a world dominated by water. Its sensors gathered millions of bytes of data from every spectrum, cataloguing images and information for the analysis of its makers.
Thirsty for more information from this rich planet, the probe prepared for its final descent through the atmosphere.
The probe captured hundreds of images of huge cities spread across the land masses. Lights swirled across the dark side of the planet, information bombarded all its sensors, signs of intelligent, sophisticated life were unmistakable.
Faithfully, the probe sent telemetry back along a path billions of miles long, never to know whether it arrived.
Landing, Astrogator 9 opened its doors and prepared for the inevitable -- to be probed itself, boarded, taken apart and analyzed by the life forms living here.
The probe sat complacently in a central square of one of the largest cities. Vehicles of all description flitted about. Huge signs flashed what appeared to be advertisements and other information. Lights turned on at dusk, off at dawn. But not a single life form could be detected.
Reviewing its entry records, Astrogator 9 could see ancients signs of devastation across this planet. Partly healed craters from large meteors dotted the landscape. There were areas where molten lava had covered huge stretches of land; others swept clean by tidal waves.
The cities, however, had been built to last. Even the final message that had been broadcast to the planet's population continued to sound -- on radio, through video images, on giant billboards -- so that everyone would be prepared for the final calamity, the ultimate doom.
Dutifully, Astrogator 9 recorded the message, over and over, from sources near and far.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
Over and over, the message looped on itself:
"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.
"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly
that what he has done has been done through God." (John 3:16-20 NIV)
Astrogator 9 again tried to send its message home. If a space probe could register surprise, this would have been the moment, for the message was received and acknowledged mere milliseconds after being sent.
If telemetry could be joyful, this would have been rapturous:
"Well done, good and faithful servant ... Come and share your master's happiness."
Al Boyce is a former writer and reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Raleigh, NC, where he now writes for God.