Thomas B. Macy
P.O. Box 927
Windsor, Colorado 80550
Whoops and cheers surged within Dannie. She was about to prove them all wrong. Her parents had put up with it; friends accepted the quirk; peers laughed about it; Dannie learned to live with it. And marriage? Not yet, especially not now. Her job paid a minimal salary. She could have earned more working anywhere else. But this was her heart, her love. A laugh rose uncontrollably and shook her. She might even become famous. No one really expected her to succeed. Yet reality was on the screen before her. But now wasn't the time to celebrate, no matter how much she wanted to. She moved the cursor back to the top of the analysis screen to review the results again. The existence of extra-terrestrial life wouldn't be just a pass-the-time conversation subject anymore, not if these numbers in front of her contained what she hoped they did.
The signal standing out from the background noise was not a major repeating pattern. Yet minor elements did occur more than once, and this is what caught Dannie's attention. A stream of bits on a communication line does not inherently repeat. Still, they are arranged in an order that conveys intelligence. She recalled conversations from her past. Well, USUALLY patterns convey intelligence.
"We're working kind of late aren't we?"
She jumped. “Bob! What are you still doing here?”
He worked in the university's math department on automating a natural language translation algorithm. From all appearances, his exercise was limited to moving his fingers up and down on a keyboard. But he was good at what he did.
"So, are we still wasting money listening for little green men?" He pulled up a chair next to Dannie, adjusting his glasses which were way too big to be fashionable.
"No..." Dannie drew out the word like a question, fighting back the urge to be in-your-face. "Tell me again why you think the Drake Equation indicates we're alone." The equation that predicts the number of alien civilizations willing to communicate with others was on her wall— N = R x P x E x F x I x C x S
"We know that the universe is old, and that the stars we see were created over millions and millions of years. We know they’re born at a rate of about 10 per year…"
Ah, same arguments. But this time, each one will dig him a little deeper.
"…Say 1 out of 10 stars has planets. Now consider Earth. Any closer to the sun and it would be too hot for life. Any further away, too cold. A moon for tides, elements for life and a magnetic field for protection. Maybe 1 in 10,000 would have the conditions suitable for living creatures. And does anyone know for sure how life develops? No one's seen the process work. With everything just right, let's say 1 in a 1,000 might produce life. But how many of these will develop intelligence? Maybe 1 in 100. That's being generous. How many would want to communicate with us? I hope none. But say all of them did. And what if they each survive 10,000 years. Let's see, hmmm?" He performed some calculations on paper. "The Drake Equation says the number of extraterrestrial civilizations with which we can communicate is 1/100,000. That's quite a bit less than one, Dannie."
Usually, Bob's argument raised feelings of doubt. Her gut would twist and rumble. But not this time. Dannie just smiled and looked at her friend.
Bob stared back as if waiting for the usual tortured response. Gradually, his smile took on more of a questioning look.
Dannie loved it. "Could your estimates be wrong?" She used her coy demure tone, the one that men liked.
"Sure. You pick a factor. Make it what you want."
"Oh, maybe the civilization hangs around for a million years."
Bob raised his eyebrows, smiled incredulously, and crossed out some zeroes. "That's still 1/1000."
"And what if every planet with adequate conditions produced intelligent life, too?" She found it easy to mimic simple excitement.
"Get real!" He scribbled a little more. "There might be 100 civilizations in the whole galaxy."
"See? It's possible."
Bob laughed. "You wish! You’re wasting your time. An old universe means we’ll never contact extra-terrestrials."
An odd sensation enveloped Dannie. She was amazed and justified at the same time. The Drake Equation said the search would probably be fruitless. But it wasn't...it wasn't!
“Well, what do you make of this?" She pulled back from the computer screen inviting Bob to take a closer look.
Pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, her friend scooted in, always hungry for interesting facts. "What am I looking at?"
When she explained the signal, and that it had come from the Milky Way's halo, Bob just stared at the screen, concentrating on the numbers and plots. "You really did it!"
"Yup!" Dannie jumped up and did a victory dance across the laboratory ending with a crunch pulling her knee up and her elbows back. "Yeah!"
A cold chill rippled up her back. She didn’t have to see Malik Sparks to know he just entered the room. She stopped, tense.
"So, what do you think you're doing?" Malik spoke softly and drew his S's out just enough to sound like a snake, a creature she avoided. But, given the choice, she would prefer the company of a snake to him. However, avoiding her boss was difficult.
The head of the university's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI project, never slept. He was the one man Dannie was not surprised to see in the office at any time. She didn’t really know him, not even his age. He could have been 40…or 70. The light from the hallway gave his salt and pepper hair a glow as if a halo floated upon it. But the man was far from an angel. His presence demanded acknowledgement. Malik was a man who got things done. Tentacles of his influence serpentined out into the University and related businesses in the community and beyond. His designs were the foundation of Dannie's SETI research. The man's theory was integral to Bob's language conversion application. NASA and other government agencies considered him an expert.
"We've got a signal, Dr. Sparks."
If that was excitement on his face, it passed before Dannie could be certain.
There, the snake again!
"...not answer my question."
Dannie's palms began to sweat and her stomach tightened. She looked down. "We were celebrating, Sir."
"Now is not the time to celebrate. Why do you think we search the sky for intelligence? Just to know it's there?"
Bob stared at the floor. He wasn’t going to help.
Malik’s eyes cut into her. She grabbed her chair for support. "To communicate, Sir" Any success was no more than a minimal expectation to Malik Sparks.
"Yes. So what is this celebrating? If you don't want to work on my project, I know I can find someone else to help, especially now." Dr. Sparks turned and walked off.
"Old Sparky's on a rampage tonight." Bob looked up with a nervous smile.
"I heard that." The voice came from down the hall without a hint of jest in it.
When the door at the end of the wing clicked shut, Dannie finally breathed. "What did you mean by communicate?" asked Bob.
"Just what I said." Common wisdom held that a roundtrip message would take years, even at the speed of light. But then, wisdom also indicated that no civilization should be out there. "Dr. Sparks came up with the idea to listen for binary communication buried in wavelengths of light. And his thought is that whatever conduit carries such messages is probably based on some process that supercedes linear space."
Bob would no doubt understand the equations; but, right then, Dannie didn't want to take the time to explain the theory. Besides, what were the odds an alien race would communicate in the way Dr. Sparks thought? "I've got to get back to work."
"Can I help?"
"And waste more money?" Dannie smiled.
“To watch a friend succeed.” The serious tone of his voice raised a sense of homecoming in Dannie, like she’d finally arrived at a long sought destination.
The equipment was there; Sparks had made sure of that. But nobody ever bothered to set it up. She and Bob began connecting the pieces.
"What did you mean by saying you hoped none would want to communicate with us?" asked Dannie.
"Look around! We’re a bankrupt world.”
“We’ve got a lot to offer.”
Bob shook his head. “If they can send us messages, our technology offers them nothing. Socially, we’re a world at war? Spiritually, what would they gain? Christianity more concerned with entertainment than truth. Islam purging the world of anything that disagrees with it. Eastern mysticism that does nothing to relieve suffering. There are no moral absolutes today, no right and wrong. Everything is relative. You want to spread such inane philosophy to other worlds?"
"A little pessimistic aren't you?" Dannie imagined no greater thrill than bringing humans and aliens together. "Perhaps we could learn from them."
They worked and argued about what could and could not be. Laughter bound it all together as affirmation welled up within Dannie. Just after the clock showed midnight, they successfully tested the laser on the roof by firing a message. It went nowhere in particular but proved the computer controlled the laser. Dr. Sparks had determined what should be transmitted in response to any alien signal—Hello. Short, simple, pregnant with anticipation.
"Does Sparky really think they'll understand the word?"
Dannie shrugged. Dr. Sparks expected the word to be transmitted, so that is what she would do. If another message were heard, the computer would automatically fire a reply in the direction of the received signal.
Bob yawned. "Let's call it a night. We’re done here." His hair was a mess, and his glasses hung crooked.
Dannie laughed, but he was right. Another message, if it came at all, would be handled by the software. As they headed out the door, a bell from the computer sounded. Dannie ran back with Bob close behind.
The computer went silent.
How long would they wait? Years? Probably. But she didn’t want to leave.
The terminal sounded. Another message was logged.
What was it? What did it mean? Something needed to be done. Again Malik's message was sent. Could this actually be their reply? Was Dr. Sparks right? His protocol didn't cover what to do now.
Sweat beaded on her forehead. This night was a vindication of all she'd hoped, all she'd believed, and at the same time a nightmare of indecision. She had an urge to act, to not lose this opportunity. Yet what could she do! She rubbed her hands against her pants and stared at the monitor.
"Come on, Dannie. Let's go."
She shook her head.
“Let me at least buy you a coffee.”
Her arms hung at her sides. Bob was right. Coffee would keep her awake until Dr. Sparks returned in the morning. Her friend opened the door to the stairwell at the end of the hall.
"Stop!" The hiss raised goose bumps on Dannie's arms. The hair on the nape of her neck bristled. "Where do you think you're going?"
"We need some coffee." Bob's voice sounded surprisingly strong.
"No, you don't."
Dannie’s muscles tensed, every nerve rising to attention.
Malik Sparks held up his hand and curled his fingers. The door behind them clanked shut followed by a click.
Bob tried the door. He shook it. It would not open.
Dr. Sparks watched Bob quick-step down the hall trying the doors one by one. None moved.
She wanted to go.
"…Much is happening. History is taking a turn and you are at the cusp of change. The universe will never be the same after tonight. Come." He opened the door, inviting them back into the laboratory.
"Look." Bob pulled on the door to the stairwell. His voice carried a hint of anger. "I don't know what you did, but open the door. I want out. Now!"
"No.” He turned to Dannie. “You are needed tonight."
Her heart almost leaped from her chest. She wanted to run…somewhere…but her legs wouldn’t move.
He turned his attention to Bob. "You implemented my conversion design?"
Her friend gave no answer. How could he ignore the question?
Dr. Sparks reached a hand toward the rebel. Across the hall, Bob's arms jerked to his throat and his eyes opened wide like a man in the midst of choking.
"Now that I have your attention, listen well to me. You will apply the translation algorithm to our communication and you will do it tonight. History shall not be kept from this path because you are...tired." Malik flicked his fingers and Bob moved like a marionette toward the open door. "Come, Dannie. Your hopes will be more than realized before the sun sets tomorrow."
Dannie's legs carried her, as if in a dream.
"I have other important work to do this night. You two will train the conversion program and translate the communications. Send my message. Do nothing more. I will return in the morning."
The door shut. A click sounded, and Malik Sparks retreated down the hall. Tentatively, Dannie reached out. Their door would not open. She turned back.
Like a whipped dog with its tail between its legs, Bob leaned against the wall staring her way.
Dannie collapsed into her chair. "You okay?'
Bob mouthed words but none were audible. His eyes darted around the room. "He...he...he's not...human." The words were a whisper.
Dannie nodded. "Maybe he's one of them." A laugh arose unexpectedly from within followed by an uncontrollable shiver. She forced slow and deep breaths. Her friend did the same.
Bob at last stood under his own power. "That would explain a lot." Rubbing his neck, he hobbled to Dannie's table. "We gotta get him out of here. Maybe his home is wherever your message came from."
"One way to find out. Let's see if your translation algorithm will work. Sparks seems to think it will."
"Yeah." Bob's voice dripped derision. "It's based on his design. It should work."
"I'll bet he was marooned here. You know, all that Area 51 stuff and all. He could be calling home for help."
Until that night, Malik Sparks had never given any indication that he was anything other than what he appeared—an influential, driven man. But, no human could do what he did to them. If he were an alien, that would explain his obsession with this project, and his insights into what to look for. Dannie scooted over as Bob pulled a chair up to a computer next to hers.
He logged onto the intranet, connected to his test environment, and ran the user interface. He directed it to the files saved by Dannie's observation program.
Though Sparks provided specifications for both applications, Dannie was surprised at how compatible they were. The conversion program's input modules required only minor modifications before they crunched away on the files saved from communications received earlier that evening. But the program only came up with some generalizations, no specific conversions.
Bob hit the table with his fist. "We need a controlled exchange of messages."
Like fire burning through paper, fear flashed upon Dannie, jumping in and out and all about her. "But Dr. Sparks didn't say to do that."
"He said we should translate the messages. That can't be done without a more controlled exchange."
"But he said..."
"Listen!" Bob's voice cut her off. "If we're going to communicate with them..." He spoke slowly. "...I need more information."
Dannie wrapped her arms tightly about herself and rocked back and forth in her chair. To send a translated message, they needed to communicate beyond what Dr. Sparks specified. But why did he want us to limit communication? Surely the translation was most important. "Okay." Dannie was still uncertain, but what choice did she have? "We'll need to wait for the next message from them." After the third signal earlier that evening, they knew the conduit, whatever it was, stayed open for only a short while, a minute at most, with no transmissions.
"We'll start with mathematical relationships." Bob spoke more to himself. "Then address syllabification." He bent over the keyboard furiously entering data and mumbling.
Dannie's watch read four a.m. Two hours had slipped by. When they received another signal, Bob's program would initiate the transfer, and not just Malik's simple message. She sighed and tried to slow the speed of her beating heart. She wanted to complete the translation but dreaded taking a path Dr. Sparks didn't give them. A cold sweat covered her.
Another transmission began. Her concerns were now academic. The first of Bob's set of messages was delivered.
Another message sent.
And so on.
"Dannie, it's working. He was right." Bob's voice overflowed with excitement. His monitor was divided into two halves. As the top half filled with gibberish, the bottom half filled with words in English. Then it stopped.
"What's happening?" Dannie sat on the edge or her seat.
"Would you like to ask them a question?"
"What do you mean? If you've completed the translation, let's turn everything off and wait for Sparks."
"Aren't you the least bit curious? It's like we're on the phone with an alien here. And you want to hang up on him?"
Of course she did. Sparks told them to only send the short message.
But Bob didn't give her time to answer. "Well, not me. I want to find out what Sparks is."
Really, so did Dannie. And that just turned her stomach into tighter knots. What was Dr. Sparks capable of doing? What would he do to them if they didn't follow his instructions? Someone like Sparks might take the world anywhere. He could rule it all. More shivers rippled down her back. The man was evil. The last thing the earth needed was more aliens like him. Dannie pulled her seat closer to Bob's and watched the monitor as her friend talked with a creature on another world.
Home: Who are you?
ETI: We are all people of the Garden.
Home: We call our planet Earth.
ETI: We know.
She leaned forward. Eyes wide. "Ask them how they know."
Bob returned a "Duh!" look.
Home: Have you been watching us?
ETI: Not as you say it.
Home: How do you know we call our planet Earth?
ETI: We <untranslatable word> space to talk to each other. Sometimes other worlds come into focus. We've glimpsed Earth for quite a while.
Home: You didn't study us?
ETI: Why should we?
Home: You aren't curious about us?
ETI: Too much curiosity is not beneficial.
Home: We wonder about you.
ETI: We knew you would.
Home: How do you see us?
ETI: You are the dark world.
She wanted this done. Worry was growing in her like a worm chewing up computer memory. He could be back anytime. "Find out about Sparks."
Home: Have any of you visited Earth?
Home: Are you sure?
ETI: Of course.
Home: Do you know if there are worlds that send visitors to other planets?
ETI: Some of us do visit. There are many stars, many planets.
Home: Would any visit Earth?
ETI: We are uncertain of what some may do but can see no reason why any would visit you.
Home: How would you visit another world?
ETI: By <untranslatable word> space.
“Ask about Sparks!”
“But he’s not one of them.”
“Maybe they know aliens like him.” But what question could he ask? “He’s bad news. Ask them about that.”
Bob thought just a moment.
Home: What is evil?
ETI: We do not know...evil.
Home: The opposite of good.
ETI: We do not know...good.
This was taking much too long. "Turn it off." With uncontrollable pangs of impending danger, Dannie breathed in short quick breaths. They had already completed Spark’s goals.
Bob hesitated; he obviously wanted to go on. But he hit the return key and the application exited. They hung up on the alien.
"Can you imagine a world where there is no concept of sin?" Bob leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, and looked to the ceiling.
"What do you mean?" Her voice quaked.
"Their scale for judging does not include extremes of good and evil. One choice may be more beneficial than another, but neither is bad. How much easier life would be!"
"What does that say about Sparks? If evil exists, it’s in him."
"They said some do visit other worlds. Sparks must be from one of those places that find us interesting, one where curiosity is an asset. In any case, we know it's possible for him to leave Earth."
Dannie had come across snakes on the path when jogging and changed direction in mid-air to avoid them. That same feeling burst upon her.
"...the obvious does not escape you." Dr. Sparks stood in the open doorway.
Bob spoke up. "The Drake Equation is wrong. Other worlds are out there. Not just yours and ours."
The man ignored Bob. His eyes gripped her. "You felt civilizations fill the universe. You have no idea how right you are. The universe is not nearly as old as you believe it to be."
The comfort of satisfaction settled upon Dannie. Her feelings were true. Yet little tremors covered her body.
"But, you did not listen to my instructions." Sparks raised his hand toward them.
"Wait!" Panic carried Bob's voice. "You can go home. Your algorithm’s design worked perfectly. They said there's a way to travel between worlds. We didn't understand how, but you must."
Malik Sparks tilted his head back and laughed. Dannie had never heard more derision in any sound.
"We can find out how." Bob's words came faster now. "We can probably still reach them."
Every foul idea Dannie had ever seen or heard emanated from the man in front of them. She stared at the upraised hand. She felt it, around her, through her.
"I know what they told you, the simpletons. Potential will never be realized without temptation. Curiosity fuels life. The drive for more is what makes us who we are. So it has been for you, so it will be for them. Man's home may be my prison, but where you go, so can I." Malik Sparks' roar sounded more like the hiss of a serpent. "Thanks to your help I have found my way back into the Garden." He squeezed his hand and two friends slumped to the floor.