August 25, 2048
Everyone in the Berkner family except for Troy, the youngest, sat in the theater room, watching the Amazing Mysteries of Science show. Dale and his wife, Sarah, sat on the overstuffed recliner sofa. Shelly and her younger sister, Leslie, had flopped on beanbags so they could sprawl in style.
Troy peeked around the corner. Dale caught sight of him. “Did you finish your carrots?” Silence. “Go back and finish your carrots, Troy.”
Troy scowled as only a four-year-old could scowl.
Dale said, “Troy, those carrots are good for you, and you're going to eat them.”
Troy stomped his foot and howled. “They're yucky!”
Sarah leaned up to confront the prodigal son. “Troy Allan Berkner, you get in there and eat them carrots and you don't argue any more or I'll give you double carrots tonight and every night this week! Now get in there and finish them all.”
Troy turned and shuffled back to his unfinished carrots.
Sarah got up. “I'll help him finish them. Bless his heart, but he puts up a fight at supper.” She crossed in front of Dale, who leaned first to one side and then the other to see around his wife, who moved slowly to avoid stepping on the sprawled girls and the myriad toys on the floor.
The commercial ended and stunning special effects segued the show back to the wizened announcer. “Aliens. The mere mention of them used to send the imagination flying. But now, we have an actual visit from them. But does that give our imaginations a rest?”
Something stirred way back in the back of Dale's mind.
The announcer's voice continued as the show presented a montage of photographs and video loops of the anomalous object, now definitely known to be a vessel with aliens on board. “But instead of answers, we have countless new questions. For instance, what of the strange shapes on the moon? Do they have parallels with the Nazca lines in Per-“
The stirring thought flashed forward to Dale's frontal lobe. “Quanta!”
Leslie and Shelly both said, “Wha?” in unison.
“Quanta! It's on public television right now! Switch over there!”
Both kids got up, but Leslie, the eight-year-old, got to the computer first. She shook the mouse to bring it out of sleep mode and started clicking around on the satellite control system.
Cartoons, old movies, and monster trucks flashed by on the screen before Leslie settled on an animal show about rabbits. “Can we watch this one, daddy?”
Dale sat up. “No. We're watching Quanta. It's real science and they're having a two-hour special on those aliens. I want to watch that.”
Shelly, who seemed very partial to the bunny show, tried her luck. “But, dad, this is interesting.”
“So is the other show. Now turn it to the Quanta show and don't make me have to get up.” Dale mentally cursed the day one of the kids lost the remote for this television.
Shelly had just turned thirteen, so Dale wasn't surprised to hear her argue more. “So what was wrong with the other show? It was cool. It had that guy from Blue Badge on it.”
Dale sat up higher and the recliner returned to the upright position, depositing his feet on the floor. “So help me, if I ever find that remote again… You kids get it on channel 34C, now!”
Leslie frowned. Shelly reached for the mouse. Leslie countered Shelly's move with a shrieking, “Mine!” Shelly wedged her way between Leslie and the mouse, but Leslie kept her tenuous grip on the input device. Both made unpleasant growling and whining noises.
“God bless America!” Dale stood up and the kids scattered. “You kids just hush.” They started to leave the room. “And you have to watch this show with me.”
Dale couldn't tell which one said it first, but both had to stop. “Because you were fighting and this is how I'm grounding you. It's educational, anyway, so it's good for you.”
“Boring, more like it.” Shelly muttered just loud enough for Dale to hear her.
“Hush and sit right back down.” Dale pointed at the floor. “Both of you.” The girls got back to their beanbag chairs. The bunnies flopped around and nibbled on carrot greens. Suddenly, the logo for American Public Television appeared on the screen. Dale smacked himself upside the head. “Man!”
Sarah returned with a broken and carrot-fed Troy in tow. “What's all the racket in here for?”
“I'm trying to get Quanta on.” Dale typed away at the computer.
“What was wrong with the other show?” Sarah sat down on the recliner and popped the footrest back up.
Leslie said, “Daddy didn't like it.”
Sarah said, “What was wrong with it, Dale?”
“It's fake science. Quanta is doing a two-hour special on the aliens and I remembered I wanted to see it.” Dale kept typing and smacked the keyboard.
“What are you doing, Dale?”
“I am trying to get the blasted show to come on up.”
“Didn't it come up automatically?”
“We didn't renew our contributions to APT.”
“Well, type in the credit card number and let's go.”
“Well, I did, but it's not taking it.”
“Did you get the expiration date right? There was an error on the first cards they sent us.”
Dale looked at his credit card. “11/51?”
Sarah shook her head. “11/52.”
Dale muttered and typed in the correct expiration date.
Sarah said, “Well, if you just left the information on the computer like a sane person…”
Dale turned to go back to the sofa. “It's not as secure that way.”
The screen flashed with the face of Seiji Sakai. Oblivious to the new viewers, he continued with the thought he had already started. “—moved from Mars to Mercury to Venus. There, it did something very interesting. It launched a--”
Dale couldn't let Dr. Sakai continue. “Troy, get out of my spot.”
“But I wanna sit next to momma.”
“Move over. I was sitting there.”
Troy scowled, but after Sarah's “Come here, sugar,” he minded his pa and made room for him.
Dr. Sakai kept going. “—continued on to the Moon from there. We have no idea what the probe found in Venus' atmosphere or if it reached the surface, but we did know this ship very likely had intelligence on it and was surveying the system. These guys are looking around, we're quite sure of that. At least that's what we would do.”
The show's calm and reassuring announcer voiced over video of the alien craft landing on the lunar surface. “On April 27th, the craft landed on the moon. Shortly after that, humanity caught its first glimpse of the visitors from afar.”
The video now showed fuzzy, out-of-focus things emerging from a hole in the side of the vessel. They moved very slowly across the lunar surface. Dr. Sakai spoke as the video continued. “We never got a good view of the aliens, no matter how high we cranked up the resolution. We could see their smooth, metallic, highly reflective ship in high detail, but the aliens remained constantly fuzzy.”
The announcer took over as the video showed another man walking across a college campus to an ivy-covered building. “At MIT, Dr. Thelonius Baker had an answer.”
Dr. Baker entered a room with extensive banks of controls and two large video screens. He sat down and pointed at the screens. “We see here two identical images. Both are in a vacuum, much like the non-existent atmosphere on the moon. Now, we see them in good, sharp detail. We see, though, that…” He flipped a switch and the image on the left screen blurred beyond recognition. “… when we have it emit a cloud of thick gas, the light becomes distorted and there's no way we can see through it.”
The video cut ahead to another shot of Dr. Baker. “But then we had to ask, what is in that gas and how are they able to keep it coming out constantly? Even if they weren't moving around, a cloud around a stationary object would dissipate in the vacuum very quickly. We never got a clean shot of those aliens, so they had to be emitting gases continuously.”
Sarah thumped Dale on the shoulder. “Maybe they should ask you.”
“You emit gas continuously.”
The kids all laughed.
Dale got mad, but in a playful way. “Now, hush, everyone, or I'll let you all sample my continuous gas!” The kids kept laughing. “Now, hush, really. I want to watch this.” He looked at Sarah. “I love you, darling, but I'll have to get even with you later.”
“Now hush, honey.”
Sarah and the kids got quiet in time to see some other scientist person spread out a bunch of charts on a table. The scientist, a middle-aged woman, had already started her explanation. “Basically, they are emitting constant clouds of organic molecules. That's all we can see on them, and we can't tell what the molecules are made of from this distance. They are complicated and they are constant.”
The narrator picked up the thread of the subject again. “A likely explanation for the constant output of chemicals would be respiration. Another would be waste elimination. But, how could either of those activities happen in a vacuum?”
Dale saw the next scientist's name was Zbig something because Shelly just jumped up to scream at Leslie. “Stop touching me!”
Dale didn't want to have this discussion. “Sit down. I can't see with you standing.”
“Leslie keeps bugging me!”
“I am not!”
Shelly kicked at Leslie's beanbag. Leslie screamed and cowered in a fetal position.
Zbig whoever kept talking, oblivious to the two screaming girls.
Dale was not oblivious. “That's enough! Shelly, sit back down. Leslie, move over there.” Dale pointed to a spot outside of Shelly's contact zone. “And both of you hush!”
Troy looked up at Sarah. “Momma, what's for dessert?”
Sarah said, “You didn't eat your carrots until I told you to, so you don't get any.”
Dale switched attention to Troy's whining in spite of Zbig hoo-hoo's amazing-looking graphs. “She said no, and she means no, and you will get grounded if you keep bugging her about it. Do you want trouble?”
“Then hush and let me watch this.”
“And go wipe your nose clean.”
“All right, then.” Dale turned back to the screen in time to see the next segment start. The screen displayed a stunning image of the myriad telescopes, transmitters, and other instruments in the L5 Array. The announcer said, “While we can't yet get a clear view of the aliens, we can see the enormous patterns they have constructed on the lunar surface. L5 Observatories has trained its instruments on the patterns and, in a Quanta exclusive, is prepared to reveal some of its preliminary findings.”
The names on the screen identified Miriam Gordon and Jesus Calderon of L5 Observatories. Leslie had to comment. “Daddy, that man's name is Jesus!”
“It's pronounced hay-soos. Hush.”
Fortunately, Leslie's interruption didn't impact much. Miriam spoke first. “— complex linear approximation, but we soon found there wasn't any way we could account for the amazing level of detail the aliens put into those patterns. Jesus here speculated the pattern was more than a two-dimensional representation.”
Jesus spoke. “We looked at images from many sections of the four patterns and found identical details on all parts of the surfaces and even in the internal structure of the patterns. It was far more complicated than we originally suspected.”
Miriam took a turn. “We're still working on getting the precise equation to define the construction of the three-dimensional fractal.” She smiled in a way that revealed her frustration. “It's not at all easy.”
The announcer launched into a discussion of fractals and how to construct them mathematically. Dale nudged Shelly with his foot to make sure she was paying attention. She yalped out, “Owwww!” and shot Dale a hurt puppy-dog look.
Dale said, “I did not hurt you. I barely nudged you.”
“You got my hair!”
Sarah sat up. “Hush, both of you.” The announcer now described the project to create a replica of one of the patterns on earth. He said we could create as close a replica as possible thanks to countless surveys of the signs on the moon and would do it in an area offering both good contrast and a lack of cloud cover: the Sahara. Scenes of machines unloading Stonehenge-sized monoliths from huge cargo planes and moving them around in the desert flashed on the screen to be supplanted by views of people operating laser etchers working on computerized patterns. Dr. Gloria Manitzas mentioned how getting the pattern on the inside was most difficult and went into a discussion of the engineering feats that made it possible. Professor Ian Standish talked about how they worked to control the wind and sand, to prevent unintentional marks on the sign. If the aliens made their sign as detailed as they did, we wanted ours to be identical to it.
The announcer then asked, “But why aren't we going to the moon to meet the aliens?” Seiji Sakai had the ready answer.
Dale noticed Shelly was paying close attention and Leslie and Troy had fallen asleep. No wonder he could enjoy the show in peace.
Dr. Sakai said, “We thought about sending up a manned mission, but had to reject it ultimately in consideration of the difficulties that could generate.”
As Dr. Sakai spoke, an animation began on the screen. “It's a variation of Pascal's theorem about belief. Pascal said that if there is no God, then it doesn't make a difference if we believe in God or not.” The animation illustrated Sakai's point as he talked. “But if there is a God, then we should believe in him, if doing so prevents negative consequences in the hereafter. Likewise, we can reason that if we stay here, then the aliens may ignore us or visit us on their own terms. But, if we go visit them, we risk driving them off or provoking their sense of territory or committing some other interstellar faux pas and, quite frankly, we don't want that on our hands.”
The screen went back to Dr. Sakai in his office. “Let them come to us. If they come here, it's our home ground and we're better prepared to meet them and offer them hospitality if we can. If they're hostile, we're close to our supplies and resources. If they're friendly, we can communicate with them and not have to deal with the hostility of the lunar environment.”
The camera zoomed in on Sakai's face. He spoke straight into the camera. “And if they take off without seeing us, at least they wouldn't have had a bad experience to sour them from returning here. It's all speculation, but it's based on some pretty sound reasoning and soul-searching.
“We hope our copy of their image invites them down here. We hope they're peaceful. We hope we can communicate with them and have both our cultures be the richer for the contact. We could just as easily fear them, but I think the human thing, the truly human thing to do is to give them a benefit of the doubt in our irrational emotions when the evidence we have gives us nothing to base a negative reaction on.
“These past few months have been the most extraordinary in the history of mankind. We hope it's just a beginning for more extraordinary times to come.”
Sakai's face faded to a background of the stars, giving way to a moon whose surface was now forever altered by the four new fractal images.
Then the credits rolled.
Shelly asked, “Can I go now?”
Sarah said, “Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed. It's a school night.”
Shelly got up and went to the bathroom. While Sarah woke up Leslie and Troy, Dale went to the computer to get more information on the lunar images, particularly the new data from L5 Observatories.
Sarah asked, “Honey? Why are you starting that? We still have to get the kids in bed and all.”
“I know. I just wanted to get started while they brushed their teeth.”
“All right.” Troy and Leslie shuffled off to the bathroom in silence. “How late you gonna stay up, Dale? You're on call this week.”
“I thought it was Evan?”
“Nope. You didn't know?”
“Then you were lucky you didn't get called up last night.”
Dale scowled and got up. “I guess I'll just have to read up on it in the morning.”
“Or if you have to work a server crash tonight.”
“Please don't say that, darling. I want to sleep through the night.”
Sarah laughed. “It's the price we pay for working from home. They expect us to work from home.”
Dale turned off the light in the theater room and prayed quietly that his job wouldn't get in the way of his research interests.