Songs of Lalande (2002) my first novel (complete)

Brandon Nobles

Songs of Lalande

1: THE MYSTERY IN CETUS

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There was no question about it now: Tomos was real. Even the people who protested the launch of the Ceti Probe, that now approached the distant star at incomprehensible speeds, conceded and put away their protest signs.

     All the long lines along the roads in Washington D.C. dissipated. Everyone scratched their heads.

     Geniuses, philosophers, poets, farmers, no one-no one could make one bit of sense of the discovery.

     A plumber’s opinion on Tomos would be just as credible as the opinion of an astrophysicist or astronomer.

     The planet was a mirror image. An exact match. Landmarks, rivers, even manmade artifacts-they were all there. All orbiting a distant star in a lifeless system.

     How did the Great Wall of China end up in Tau Ceti? How was the Eiffel Tower spiraling out of control towards a star twelve million light years from the Earth? What was the Sears Tower doing in the Cetus constellation? No one had a clue.

     At first it was thought of as an elaborate hoax by the mainstream media. After making the information surrounding the discovery public, its existence was confirmed by thousands of observatories and independent astronomers from around the globe.

     They named it Tomos, the Twin. Pictures, posters, and even t-shirts bore its fuzzy image. Astronomers basked in their newfound credibility and celebrity. The Mystery in Cetus swept the world. Thousands of people held inconclusive meetings, conferences, and press briefings. They debated the possibilities on all the late night talk shows. Scientists, who never made it into the spotlight, were being interviewed by celebrities on prime time television. This was a sure sign of making it: being interviewed by someone famous. But everyone left the question with the same conclusion: there was no conclusion to it. No one had any real idea of what Tomos meant to them or to the human race.

     The possibilities were endless. Science fiction fans even made public their own interpretations of the discovery. But no one knew. There were, of course, a variety of theories circling through the tabloids and newspapers, internet forums and newsgroups. Some of them originated from respectable sources. Some originated from less than respectable sources. Some of them originated from conspiracy theorists that lived in their basements wearing tinfoil hats and t-shirts marked The Truth is Out There.

     Some opinions, invoking the name of various Gods, came from religious groups around the world. There were those who believed it to be a sign of the impending apocalypse. And there were those who just thought all of the religious hokum was clouding up any attempt to make a scientific discovery. And there were those who just went to work, played the lottery, and paid little attention to social matters.

     “Shiva has made a copy,” said many Hindu’s around the world, “Because she will destroy our world when she sleeps. Then, when she wakes, she will beat her drum and make it anew.”

     Many attempts had been made to stop the launching of the Ceti Probe. Many people were arrested. Even a man named Roger, and he just showed up to watch the fireworks. He ended up in a scuffle with a dozen or so half crazed fundamentalists throwing crosses at the launch site.

     The National Security Advisor summoned a small group of professional astronomers.

     At the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. they held an official briefing. The intent behind the meeting was to attempt to abate the public’s interest in time to figure out what the Twin, which now spiraled around Tau Ceti, really meant.

     Elise arrived late. She stood not too far before the stage, putting on makeup and fixing her hair. Her hair was short and auburn, curled at the ends, and in perfect contrast with her freckled face.

     “Tau Ceti is a sun like star,” a young astronomer explained before the gathering crowd. He sat at a long table, covered with a blue cloth, before a large group of reporters. He fidgeted with his pen, waiting. To his great relief, Elise sat down beside him along with two of her colleagues. Cameras flashed and the news cameras began rolling. Now he could safely disappear from the public eye, which now focused intently on Elise and her colleagues from the Bureau.

     The small panel of astronomers had gathered at the President’s behest. They sat before cameras from around the world and were prepared to accept questions. Answers were a different story.

     “Tau Ceti is right at twelve light years away,” Elise spoke into her microphone, “and, shockingly, as of this moment, we believe it is incapable of supporting terrestrial life.”

     “Isn’t it true,” a reporter questioned, standing, “that Tau Ceti has been long thought of as a place that could harbor extraterrestrial intelligence? Numerous science fiction works have been published on these possibilities. Even books of credible science…”

     “It is,” explained Dr. Elise Manwell, wife to the prominent molecular biologist Dr. Roger Manwell, “but, the speculation in most of those areas of fiction is the possibility of alien intelligence in the star system. From our preliminary findings, Tau Ceti could not, as of now, support carbon based life forms.”

     “Dr. Manwell,” another reporter called, holding up a pen, “How does the Bureau of Astronomy account for these findings? Is there still a possibility that this could be a hoax?”

     “As far as we’re concerned,” Elise said, “this planet is there. Tomos is physically there. Any observer on Earth can see it plainly. We can get physical readings from it and even radio signals. All possibilities that it could be a reflection have been exhausted.”

     “Dr. Manwell,” another called, “could this be considered dangerous? What are the implications?”

     “There are a few of those,” Elise said. She chuckled. The uneasy crowd managed to laugh a bit as well. “The most pressing, and only real scientific explanation, is the possibility of a wormhole in our system. The only possibility we’ve managed to come up with, at least moderately feasible, is that somewhere in our orbit around the sun, we managed to pass through a wormhole. It could be possible that the wormhole took the landmass to another part of the universe, making a physical replica of it. In a matter of speaking, this suggests that wormholes allow one physical object to exist at two different points in space. In a few days, the Ceti probe will land and we’ll be able to get images from the surface.”

     “Would there be replicas of us,” a different reporter asked, “if this theory was solidified with the Ceti probe? If the wormhole made a physical copy of the planet, wouldn’t it have made copies of us, too?”

     “If the wormhole made copies of us,” the elderly Dr. Horace Daniels said, “they would all be dead by now. Oxygen is something we humans are quite fond of.”

     Elise took a sip from a glass of water and cleared her throat. Sweat beaded off her forehead. She looked at all the eager faces in the crowd, searching for her husband. Roger was asleep in the second row. The hat of a foreign delegate was being used as a pillow. She coughed, forcing herself not to laugh.

     Roger always showed up at her press conferences to ease her nerves. Sometimes he’d ask absurd questions, purely for her enjoyment, or sometimes he’d end up in jail for disorderly conduct, purely for his enjoyment.

     “Well,” Dr. Daniels spoke up, drawing focus from Elise, “we’re not sure how to account for it, honestly. Right now, anybody’s guess is as good as ours. The wormhole is just a semi-educated guess.”

     The crowd laughed a bit. Roger yawned and fluffed the foreign delegate’s hat, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

     “Dim the lights,” Elise shouted to an engineer in the background. The lights dimmed and she rose to her feet, pulling down a projection screen. In the rafters a man turned on the slideshow projection unit. Images flitted on the screen. Elise grabbed the clicker from the table and changed images, bringing the projection screen to life. An image of the Cetus constellation appeared on the screen.

     “This,” said Elise, pointing to a sparkling dot, “is Tau Ceti. Tau Ceti lies in the constellation Cetus. The Whale.”

     Roger stood and applauded raucously. Her pale face flushed, turning her pastel cheeks bright red. Her colleagues tried, and failed, to hide their amusement. Roger was well liked among the Bureau and among anyone with a sense of humor.

     “This is the planet,” she gestured to a small blue dot on the screen. “This is Tomos. Yes, Tomos appears to be a perfect geographical replica of the Earth. That much is true. That’s the only thing yet established as truth: it’s there.”

     She zoomed in on the blue dot, allowing for the crowd to see the features of the planet.

“At first it was hard to see,” she continued, “because of all the asteroids and dust in the system. My husband, as you know, Dr. Roger Manwell, suggested that it might’ve been hidden in the system.”

     There was moderate laughing from the crowd again. Dr. Daniels smiled. Roger was snoring loudly. Elise struggled not to laugh.

     “It was also significantly faint in comparison to the star,” Elise continued, “This is a picture NASA produced of the Tau Ceti system ten years ago. Ten years ago, Tomos was not in the Tau Ceti system. That is also fact. Astronomical records from the last ten years have shown no signs of Tomos in Tau Ceti. They’ve shown no signs, no reports, nothing of Tomos.”

     She pressed the button on the clicker. The screen changed and it showed the same star. The image showed a dense star system full of dust and asteroids. She navigated the image through the rocks and dust in closer to the star and then drew back, showing the uninhabited system. People whispered amongst themselves. Casual astronomers in the audience explained things to their friends. Roger snored.

     “See,” she pointed, “this is a system that is ravaged by asteroids and comets…It’s hard to make out anything in the outer recesses of the system, even with our most powerful Long Reach scopes. Tomos, when first discovered, even seemed wrapped in a cloud of dust.”

     “Isn’t it true,” a large, heavy set reporter from the back of the room called out, “That Tau Ceti is a metal deficient star?”

     “Well, yes,” Elise said.

     “Then,” the reporter continued, “wouldn’t it be less likely to have planets in orbit with geographical features?”

     “Yes,” Elise said again.

     “And isn’t it also true, that this planet wasn’t found in orbit, but merely appeared on the astronomical radar one night out of nowhere? One day it was there, one day it wasn’t. Something is being hidden from the public.”

     “That is unsubstantiated gossip,” Roger shouted at the man, “plucked from the tabloids. It’s nice to know you can read, but why don’t you sit down and allow for more professional questions to be proffered or perhaps you’d like me to tuck you in and read you some sort of bedtime story?”

     Elise laughed to herself, realizing he had simply pretended to be asleep for her amusement. Roger’s lack of shame always eased her nerves, and reminded herself not to take herself so seriously.

     “Or maybe we can wait around on you to get arrested again!” the man shouted back, “Just like you did at the Symposium of Satellite Technology three months ago.”

     “Those charges were trumped up and you know it!” Roger said. “I didn’t even have a knife!”

     “Sit down, both of you!” said a security guard. “You are not on a playground. You’re in the Nation’s Capital.”

     The man huffed and puffed and sat his angry ass down. For the rest of the evening he sat with his arms crossed, looking around all huffy, and casting mean glances at Roger. This suited Roger fine, he enjoyed the attention.

“Actually,” said Dr. Nigel Lauren, Elise’s coworker, “that is precisely what has happened.” He forced a professional looking smile and took the clicker. “This,” he said, changing pictures with the clicker, “is Tau Ceti ten years ago.”

     The image of the lone star and littered system came back into view.

     “This image was taken by Hubble in 2037. See the scattered rocks and debris? It was thought to be a sun capable of supporting life early in the 20th century, and even into the 21st century. Until the Long Reach scopes were created, we couldn’t get into range to make any assessment regarding potential planets in the system. This system has been closely monitored by radio telescopes and even amateur astronomers. Last week, an observatory in Sweden reported an artificial object floating in the system.”

     “And by way of the Long Reach scope,” Elise said, standing, “We determined what the object was.”

     “Tomos?” a rigid looking reporter asked.

     “Yes,” Elise responded.

     Nigel clicked and a blurry image came on the screen. By all standards, it was an exact replica of the planet Earth.

     “This was taken a few days ago,” he said, clicking again, “and this is a close-up of Africa…” He adjusted the resolution, bringing the features into focus.

     A small hush washed over the small crowd of reporters and family members when the distinct shapes of Mount Kenya appeared on the screen.

     “And,” Nigel continued, “of Africa at night.” He clicked the mechanism again. A highly illuminated picture of Africa appeared. In all the familiar spots, there were distinct signs of artificial lighting. Human lighting in all the familiar places.

     “Questions?” Nigel asked, motioning for the engineer to rouse the lights.

     “Will you tell that guy those charges were dropped?” Roger asked. “I really didn’t have a knife. They searched me at the police station.”

     A small bit of laughter rose in the otherwise stilted crowd.

     “Serious questions?” Elise asked. She couldn’t resist a smile.

    “What is the probability due to the diversity and vastness of the universe that another planet in another star system could take the shapes and forms of a planet in ours?” Roger asked. “If our planet became the way it is by specific repeated patterns over time, then another planet could be formed to look like ours if the same processes are repeated. But, what is the statistical likelihood of a planet being so similar to our own? Are we arrogant to think the Earth is a one of a kind jewel, and that it’s possible that thousands of planets identical to the generic Earth exist in space?”

     “That’s an idea,” Elise said. “But like you said, the probability of such an exact formation process occurring in separate solar systems is negligible.”

     “Has it been confirmed that it isn’t artificial?” a young reporter from the back asked, standing up.

     “The planet itself,” Elise responded, “appears to be natural. As natural as ours in every way.”

     “And the atmosphere?” pressed the young reporter.

     “That is where the main difference is,” said Nigel.

     “Venus,” Elise conceded, “has an atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Tomos, is similar to Venus in this respect.”

     “Then there could be no life on the planet?”

     “Certainly no human life,” Elise said, looking to Roger. He was sleeping, or pretending to be sleeping, again. He’ll never change, she thought.

     “We have some working theories,” said the Director of the Bureau of Astronomy, “though they are a bit farfetched.”

     “Let’s hear ’em!” Roger shouted. “Farfetched theories are my personal favorites. They’re harder to prove and require more imagination than intelligence.”

     “The first,” Dr. Nigel said, “is that it might be some sort of extraterrestrial beacon. Kind of like holding a candle in the dark, letting us know they’re there and that they know we’re here.”

     “We’re inviting public opinion on this one,” Elise said, “You know what that means. It means we really have nothing on the shelf.”

     “Could it be some sort of sign from God?” a bald man asked. He was sitting right in front of the stage.

     Roger roared with laughter.

     “Could be,” Elise said, “but, there are quite a few questions we’d have to ask this God. When and if he becomes available,” she said to the news cameras, “he must contact us at once. I’m sure he has our number.”

     “In what way does this finding differ from discoveries in the past, Dr. Manwell?” a man in a fine silk suit asked. His hair was black, combed to the side, and he smoked on a hand rolled cigarette.

     There was no smoking allowed in the building, but he didn’t seem to mind.

     “There is something that makes this significantly different. Unlike the discoveries of Pluto’s new moons, the habitable planets in the Centauri system, and the countless discoveries we’ve made in the last twenty years, there seems to be no reasonable hypothesis. With all the other discoveries, moons, nebulae, dust clouds and galaxies, there seemed to be a natural reasoning behind their findings.

     “With this discovery, the purpose, origin, reason, everything lies outside our reasoning. It’s as though you painted an increasingly intricate portrait by hand and discovered that it one day appeared in Hong Kong. The exact same drawing, mind you, exists in two different places at once. Forgive my language, but what can be made of this?”

     The man nodded and took a drag from his cigarette.

     “Voodoo,” Roger mumbled. “It’s plain as day.” Get arrested one time on a trumped up assault with a deadly weapon charge and no one takes you seriously…he spoke under his breath. That guy brought it up. I should kick his ass. It’s his fault… This kind of thought went on through the rest of the presentation.

     “Are there any unresolved questions?” she beckoned.

“How did it get there?” someone asked.

     “We don’t know,” Elise responded sadly, beginning to get nervous again, fantasizing about the bottle of valium she had on the lamp-stand beside her bed.

     “Why don’t you know?” another asked.

     “Because they’re baboons,” Roger opined, still fussy. “They’re all baboons in lab coats here.”

     “Because, Roger, there is no data to suggest its trajectory is any different than a natural planet orbiting a sun.”

     The crowd was silent for a minute.

     “Are you one hundred percent sure that it is an exact replica of Earth?” a young woman asked.

     “Tomos has been confirmed by extremely powerful Long Reach telescopes to have The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, cities such as New York and Tokyo, all of the buildings can be seen. We can’t however, get too far into the atmosphere to see anything other than the larger monuments and buildings. When the probe lands, it should land in the section where New York is located on our planet. This will tell us if there is life there and how exact and precise the replica is.”

     The crowd was silent.

     “I should have gotten drunk,” Roger muttered. “We all just gathered here to admit we have no idea what’s going on? Sounds like church.”

2: A LIGHT IN RAMSES

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Two hours later Roger pulled in front of National Geographic Society building and honked the horn. He flicked his cigarette in the gutter before Elise had a chance to catch him. It had started raining in the late evening. Elise ran down the main steps with her briefing report over her head. Roger had the radio up and the windows down.

     “Wormholes,” he said and went on in silence. Elise made no comment, purposely annoying him. It worked to full effect. She began fiddling with some of the analysis reports in the report she carried. She fanned the water off it and rubbed it on Roger’s twilled sweater. He was shaking with fury. This delighted her. One of the few pleasures in her life was annoying Roger.

     “Wormholes!” he shouted. “Is there more to that?” she asked, “Or are you content to repeat it over and over?” It’s ridiculous,” he said, “and you know that.”

     “It’s just as credible as any other theory they’re kicking around in the tabloids,” Elise said.

     “But do you really expect people to believe that somehow a wormhole has opened in space time allowing the entire planet to slip into it? Wouldn’t we have all gone with it?”

     “Are we staying at your house tonight?” she asked, avoiding his questions intentionally. She leaned against his shoulder. “You think you can shut me up with giving me some?” he asked.

     She kissed his neck.

     “I can always masturbate,” he said. “It’s worked so far. It’s cheap, easy, and effective. And my hand has never cheated on me.”

     “Are we staying at your house?” she repeated.

     “Yes,” he said, “We’re staying at my house. How come you always do that to me?”

     “Because I know you,” she said, “and, it always works.”

     “What do you think it really is?” he asked, lighting a cigarette. She smacked it out of his mouth. For a moment he wondered about the price of a professional assassin. Then he wondered if he had enough money in the bank for it. If it was worth doing, he better pay somebody else to do it for him. He didn’t want to leave something this important in his own hands. That was a fuck up waiting to happen, he reasoned.

     Elise’s cell phone rang. Snapping it open, she said, in her jovial, sensual tone, “Hello?” “Oh,” Elise said, motioning for Roger to roll up the windows, “Hold on a second.”

     “Can you turn this off?” she asked, turning the radio off.

     “No I can’t,” he said. He gritted his teeth and wondered if professional assassins ever had two-for-one deals or coupons for frequent customers.

     “Yes,” Elise went on, “he’ll be there to pick you up for school. I’d come with him, but I’ve got a press conference to attend. No, sweetheart, I’m not cheating on daddy anymore. He learned his lesson the first time.”

     Roger felt a creeping sensation in the back of his throat. He felt as though he’d explode before the ride was over. This little quip guaranteed Elise at least thirty minutes of quiet time.

     “What time do you have to be at the office tomorrow, Roger?” Elise asked, putting the phone down.

     “Earlier than usual,” he replied, “we’re taking a field trip to the morgue to evaluate the three subjects.”

     “Daddy has to go to the morgue,” Elise resumed her conversation, “but he’ll pick you up afterwards. No, no, I’m sure he’ll take a shower first. Okay, love you too. Bye.”

     She flipped her cell phone shut and stuck it in her purse.

     “You have to pick Galilee up at three from school tomorrow,” she said, “I have to be at the observatory when the probe touches down.”

     Roger nodded and lit another cigarette. She slapped it out of his hand again. He went back to thinking about hired assassins and then after a moment realized he couldn’t afford it. Then he sulked for a bit in quiet.

     “What are you hiding from the public?” he asked after a pause.

     He turned the radio up a bit.

     “What makes you so sure we’re hiding something?”

     “Because you’re working in concert with the government.”

     “Ah yes,” she said, smiling, “Roger, why do you always think the government is hiding something from the public?”

     “Because, um, the government always hides something from the public. People wouldn’t know what to do with their lives if they had an honest government. It’d take the zest out of things.”

     “You’re a silly man, Roger…”

     “Agreed.”

     “But, you are, I’m sad to say, justified in your paranoia. This time, that is.”

     “Well,” he asked, “What’s being hid?”

     “When Tomos was first discovered,” she paused, looking out the window, “…some of the features were, how do you say, a bit different.”

     He glared at her. “What do you mean,” he asked, “different? Different how?”

     “The Pyramids weren’t there when the first pictures were taken. Neither was the Great Wall of China. Most of our largest monuments weren’t there on the first couple of pictures.”

     “So it’s being added onto?”

     “In one picture they weren’t there. In the next picture, they were. Yes; it’s like something is adding onto the planet. Maybe the whole thing was manufactured by someone or something.”

     Roger glared at her. Hopefully throwing her off course enough to light a cigarette.

“After the geographical features were finished, and the monuments were up, it stopped.”

     Working so far. He took a long drag, savored the rich and tasty cancer. Her attention was elsewhere.

     “Stopped?” the nonchalant subterfuge continued.

     “It’s not in orbit around the sun. That much is a lie, but it’s a necessary one. Tomos isn’t in orbit. It’s sitting still.”

He nodded. Obviously he wasn’t paying much attention.

     “Put out the god damn cigarette and listen!” she shouted. He took another draw and flicked it out the window. It rolled against the curb and drifted into one of the gutters.

     “Fine,” he said, trying to tune her out. It didn’t work. It never did, but divorce was too expensive. “I have the right to kill myself with cancer if I wish,” Roger said. “That’s the American dream!”

     It was after one when they arrived at Roger’s apartment in Cottage City. He opened the door. Keys and all sorts of digital locks, primitive or fancy, had been replaced by a touch sensitive doorknob. The doorknob was programmed to allow movement when the matching print of the owner’s hand was wrapped around it. This made burglary a lot more entertaining and clever when and if it happened.

     His apartment was stuffy and looked as though he hadn’t cleaned it in months.

     “It probably looks this way,” he said, “because I haven’t cleaned it in months. I’m a writer; I can make this pile of garbage beautiful with the right words.”

     The corridor just behind the door led into a small resource room. Tiles lined the floor and squalid mirrors lined the wall. He never really cared for this decoration, believing it only reminded him of how bad he looked every morning.

     The passageway led into a small living room. In front of an entertainment center there was a small couch with plush pillows, in front of it a small coffee table, covered with overflowing ashtrays, and beside it was a small desk lamp.

     Under piles of respectable reading material, such as Dostoevsky, Kafka, Nabokov, Immanuel Kant and so on, there was a huge stack of Just Eighteen, Raunchy But Nice, and some other deplorable examples of humanity.

     Roger was standing in his kitchen, lined with cabinets that wrapped around the circular wall and a freezer. He stood by the sink mixing a drink.

     “Do you have your Long Reach scope installed?” she yelled.

     “On the rocks? The fancy equivalent of ‘with ice’?” he called back, busy fixing his favorite drink – Jagermeister and soda. She wagered he’d be drunk within the hour. He wagered that if he wasn’t drunk within the hour, he’d lose the bet anyway and have to listen to Elise babble about planets all night.

     “Do you have the LRS installed?” she yelled, flipping through an unread copy of The Brother’s Karamazov. It was highly decorative, however, and respectable biologists rarely keep Playpen in their living rooms.

     Roger’s unflinching curiosity was the Earth. The gardens, the plants, the flowers, the copies of Playpen magazine. He was infinitely fascinated with anatomy and things that grew. Elise took little pleasure in listening to him talking about the Earth and instead preferred the stars.

     “Yes,” he said, “it’s in the bedroom.”

     “Bring my gin,” she yelled, putting Dostoevsky back on top of the dirty magazines. She told him to throw them away. She told him she’d leave him if he didn’t. She left him and he didn’t but she later came back anyway because she admired his resolve.

     He strolled into the room with a large smile on his face.

     “How many have you had?” she asked him, flipping the LRS switch on the wall and reclining back. He sat beside her on the bed.

     “Five,” he beamed with exuberant pride.

     She was obviously impressed.

     The panel of drywall on the ceiling receded, revealing the Long Reach digital transmission screen. It could be used for astronomical research, searching the stars, a skylight, or for a regular movie. She took the remote from under his pillow and logged into the server.

     The server, the satellite from which the images came, was located in orbit. With the LRS device, Elise connected to receive the satellite images as they came in and had the ability to navigate, zoom in, and plow her way through the stars at her leisure. Roger will be too drunk for sex in ten minutes or so, she thought, and if he wasn’t she could always fake one for the team and then return to her research.

     She made her way out of the Sol system, passing Jupiter and Saturn without much interest. She was navigating the screen with a joystick that took it further from the Earth if pushed forward, and brought it towards the Earth when pulled downward. A red button situated on the top stopped it and allowed digital zoom. Roger enjoyed watching the storms on Jupiter. Fifteen minutes later Elise was poised above Tomos in the Tau Ceti system. Roger was pleasantly drunk.

     “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” she asked, moving the LRS screen forward, stopping it just before the dust fields surrounding Tomos. Small bits of blue and white drifted through the hovering dust fields. She lay on the bed for a while staring at it. Roger had passed out and was snoring beside her. It made her wonder if they’d had sex after all.

     She pushed the joystick further. The image on the screen was blurred at first. With the remote she adjusted the resolution and cleared it up. On the screen was a beautiful close-up of Tomos. Africa was in view and all the familiar lights were lit up. It nearly covered the entire screen.

     Tomos was not in orbit around the sun, as she said, but it was oscillating on its axis. The cloudy planet was slowly turning, bringing Europe and India into sharper focus. She pressed forward. The LRS device plunged into the thicker clouds in the top of the atmosphere and hovered just above Cairo. All the familiar lights were on, burning as brightly as they did on Earth. She rolled the joystick on, trying to get into see some of the upper areas of some of the skyscrapers. As far as it would go was close enough to see the faint lights of modern Cairo. In particular, she resolved to sit and watch the screen until she saw some sort of movement.

     This was as far as any of the Long Rang scopes would go. They were marvels of science and their inventor sold them for the same price as televisions. They were installed in the ceiling. After installation an account would be set up with orbiting NASA satellites, and with them astronomers could explore the universe from their bedrooms.

     One of the more amazing things about Tomos, Elise thought, was the clouds. It seemed to be cloudier than Earth on a normal day. Bands of clouds seemed to obscure the faint lights in a towering skyscraper, reaching high above Tomos. The Ramses II radio satellite observatory in Egypt used a more modern LRS than Roger could afford, and it was the building Elise had stopped to stare at.

     It was nearing four when the clouds cleared from the upper reaches of the building. This afforded Elise a better view of the structure – or at least the top of it.

     Most of the lights were off. This would be normal on Earth, but the fact that only random lights were on struck her as irregular. Roger snored on beside her. Just as she turned off the lamp, turning her head for a moment, out of the corner of her eye she saw a window, high up on the tower, fill with light. She was sure of it; the light hadn’t been on when she turned away.

     “Roger,” she whispered, rolling him off her shoulder, “listen to me you bum.”

     “That,” he said immediately, “sounds like bad advice. Highly suspect.” He went back to sleep.

     She slapped him on the back of the neck – something he hated – and he sat up in bed. He reached for a cigarette reflexively. She would’ve slapped it out of his hand, as she always did, but she figured that waking a drunken man with a slap on the neck was bad enough. She could at least let him enjoy this cigarette. Or at least most of it.

     “Please tell me,” he said, “what you have for me that’s more important than a giant pool full of women without opinions covered in pudding?”

     “There’s a light in the window,” she said, pointing to the screen, “It came on while I was looking at it.”

     “So?” Roger asked groggily. He reached for his remaining bit of Jager. He downed it and looked over at her. His grayish hair was thin and disheveled. His cigarette was hanging out of his mouth.

     “That means someone,” she paused, gaping at the window, “or something turned it on.” She ran the joystick further again but it stopped. The LRS range was amazing when it came to planetary astronomy and distant observation. However, seeing the surface of a world twelve light years away was something for science fiction. Roger stared at the screen dumbly. For a Nobel Laureate, he seemed more like a college dropout amongst his friends instead of the highly respected gentleman that won the Nobel Prize for suspending the animation of biological systems, allowing longer life in some animals. To meet him at a bar, however, you’d never think of him standing before the Nobel Committee. You’d imagine him before a judge and jury. In fact, he’d been before both. Despite his eccentricity, Roger was respected as a brilliant writer, artist, musician, and biologist.

     “Do you think it could be extraterrestrial intelligence?” she asked.

     “I don’t even think there’s intelligence on Earth, Elise. I think it’s four in the morning,” he replied, dropping his cigarette butt into the remaining bit of Jager. It fizzled out and he rolled over. He tried, in vain, to go back to sleep.

     “Roger,” she said morosely, “there are greater things you could do in life than drink, look at those filthy magazines, and try to have sex with me.”

     “I succeed sometimes,” he added, “but this ‘greater things’ business – what else would you like me to do? I’ve written twenty seven books, I’ve lectured at

Harvard, Cambridge, and MIT. I won the Nobel Peace Prize for god’s sake. What else do you want me to do? Brush my teeth?”

     “I can’t even talk to you. Look, there are more important things you can do in life than what you currently do.”

     “Like? You’ve got to be kidding. There’s nothing better on Earth than a glass of Jager. Elise, baby, living is just learning how to die in style.”

     “You confuse me, Roger.”

“You are a woman, after all,” Roger said. “And it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”

     “You can spend five hours in a garden or an hour looking at a watermelon seed, but you can’t look at the sky once in a while? What about that human spirit? The need to improve yourself or explore?”

     “Bunch of rubbish if you ask me,” Roger said. “That proverb doesn’t only apply to cats, Elise.”

     “Which one?”

     “The one about curiosity. It has nothing to do with the noble feline.”

     “Why are you fencing with me? Just come out and say what you mean instead of playing your little games.”

     “But I like my little games.”

     “Damn you!” she shouted, “I won’t have sex with you for a month if you don’t tell me what you really think.”

“That’s not fair,” he said, finally taking things seriously.

     “I bought you dinner.”

     “I paid for it!”

     “I paid you back!”

      She threw off the covers and jumped to her feet. Roger sat up as quickly as his drunken bones would let him.

     “Look,” he said, “come back to bed and I’ll tell you what I think.”

     She stood at the door for a minute with her back turned. This pause gave him time to feel bad about his irreverent attitude towards her work. He never wanted her to go into astronomy. When they met in college, she was more concerned with medicine. Roger had always been concerned with living things. Always wanted to go into biology, molecular biology, or even marine biology. At one point he had a serious obsession with botany.

     “What then?” she asked, sitting down on the side of the bed.

     “Ok,” he began, “I believe that the appearance of Tomos coincides with the equinox by no strange turn of coincidences. I believe that this, coupled with the arrangement of buildings and artificial structures on its surface were designed by something or someone to lure us into trying to reach it.”

     “Why would they want us to reach it?” she questioned.

     “Maybe they’re selling something,” he said immediately, “Why wouldn’t they? Where’s your sense of human adventure now? Say it’s a beacon in the dark, like a lighthouse or something. Would the sailors have hope of land without the lighthouse? No. So here, this creature sets up a beacon for us just to prod or trick us into attempting to find out what it means.

     “Shouldn’t we then allow for the equally possible scenario that it could be some sort of trap designed by an intelligent race looking to lure our attention elsewhere at a critical moment for some unknown purpose?”

     She stared at him for a minute. He often spoke too quickly for her to follow.

     “I don’t think so,” she said, “I believe this is designed to help mankind in some way. What have we had in the past like this? You’ve said it yourself. There has been nothing like Tomos. We see things we can’t understand at first, but after a bit we began to wrap our heads around it.”

     “Tomos,” he said, “presents the sort of challenge human beings haven’t faced in a long time. Finding out what it means, how it got there, what it’s for, etc, would be a significant step in understanding the physical universe and the way in which it’s constructed. How would the hominids feel about the random appearance of an electromagnetic storm in the lower reaches of the atmosphere? What would they think about a jet breaking the speed of light? What would they think about the possibility of the LRS machines? This is too far beyond us, Elise.

     “But that’s the entire point behind it. It does something for us. It wasn’t designed specifically to cater to human beings as many egocentric people might believe, their heads clouded with the notion that human beings are such vastly important creatures.

     “By the attempt to understand Tomos, we tax our brains and give ourselves the chance to think of the universe and everything in it in new terms and we have the possibility with this discovery to determine whether our long held beliefs about the physical dynamics of the universe have been incomplete or marginally inaccurate.”

     “So you think it’s some sort of test? I don’t follow.”

     “It’s not your fault,” he said, withholding something.

     “My fault?”

     “It’s not your fault that you were naturally deprived of the Y chromosome.”

     She glared at him. “Do you think it’s a test or not, Roger?”

     “Yes, I do. There is no other explanation. Whatever put it there, wants us to know its there. Whatever turned on the light for you, wants you to know it knows you know it’s there. Psychologically speaking, holding something just over a human’s head is the best way to keep them interested in it. The lighthouse is on now; all you have to do is find the shore. And if you’re done torturing me by making me think at this ungodly hour, I’d like to have a drink, a cigarette, and go back to sleep. Or at least go watch cartoons.”

     She liked him much more when he played the fool. Roger was a brilliant man, a bit eccentric of course, but nevertheless his brains were intact. An intelligent man is every woman’s dream. A genius is every woman’s nightmare.

     For a while she was silent. She stared wistfully at all the lit up windows that lined the building. They looked like headlights peering out of a thick fog. Many of the broad clouds had wrapped around the higher story windows, but she saw a few glimmers of the ones that managed to peak through the thinner clouds.

     Roger was snoring again. She didn’t know if he was feigning sleep or not. Roger’s mind games were without limit.

     It was just after six when Elise called Nigel. Roger would kill her if he knew she was talking to “Dr. Douche” again.

     Roger’s hatred for Nigel goes back to a comment Nigel made in Astronomy Weekly. The quote, which Roger had taped to his desk, was, to Roger, staggeringly offensive.

     “The Earth is our mother. But sooner or later, children have to move out of their parent’s house.”

     Another infuriating line was found in the same interview.

     “The Earth is limited,” it read, “but space is not.”

     Roger emailed him following the publication of the article with the following comment: “The Earth is limited, that I grant you. But the complexity of life on Earth and the detail with which it’s structured is immeasurable. Constellations were mapped thousands of years before the human genome.”

     “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Nigel asked groggily.

     “Yes Nigel,” she said, “Yes I do.”

     “What can I help you with then?”

     “Did you get on the LRS network last night?”

     “Nah, I wanted to get some sleep. The probe will be landing today, so you know we’ll pull a double shift. We always do. Is there anything specific you wanted to share with me?”

     “There is something on Tomos.” Her hands were shaking and she gripped the phone tightly. He didn’t answer right away. The sound of his heavy breathing made Elise even more nervous.

     “What,” he said, clearing his throat. He paused for a minute “What makes you think something is on Tomos, Elise? It’s a bit early to spring this kind of shit on a guy, you know. You could’ve emailed me.”

     “Run your LRS,” she said, walking into Roger’s kitchen, “and go to Tomos. See if you can find the observatory in Cairo.”

     “I’m not going to hook it up this early, Elise. Just tell me what it is.”

     “I got to look down at the tops of some of the taller buildings. Nothing really new about them,” she paused, “This is nothing in comparison with the appearance of the pyramid at Giza and the Sphinx. But this is significant.”

     “Well?” he probed. Nigel sounded irritated. He was probably having an affair on his mistress again.

     “I ran the LRS,” she replied, “and I took it to Tomos. In the observatory building in Cairo, most of the lights are on. Other astronomers have confirmed this already. But last night, I saw one of the lights come on while I was watching it. Something is in the building.”

     Nigel was silent. All she heard was his labored breathing coming through the receiver. She went to shower, fixed her hair, and got ready for work.

     Hopefully the Ceti probe would give them something from the ground that nothing in the sky could show them.

3: THE BLANKETS CUSP

________________________________

Reporters were waiting outside of the Bureau of Astronomy and Sciences building when Elise arrived. She kissed Roger on the cheek and reminded him to pick Galilee up from school. Galilee was their twelve year old daughter.

     She had just returned from visiting her grandparents in the south. It had been seven horribly blissful months since Roger last spent time with her. Hopefully things went well for him at the morgue, Elise thought. She was wearing a long, navy blue skirt with shell down the sides, a white t-shirt and a darker blue blazer on. She wore her best earrings. If she was going to make history, she wanted to make it in style.

     The building was small except for the giant telescope enclosed in its tortoise shell dome. All the side was done in brick. At the front door there was an awning, beside it a small picnic table. She’d spent many lunch hours out there making up excuses to be late for work. She carefully dodged the long line of reporters, thrusting their microphones to her, and made her way into the front room. She headed immediately for the main control room.

     There were a long panel of computer screens surrounding the walls and a giant LRS telescope module attached to the roof. All of the various Ceti control team operatives busied themselves at their workstations, lined with statistical readouts and computer monitors. On the central view screen, the image was being transmitted from the probe – it was descending into the thick and cloudy atmosphere of Tomos.

     “It’ll be on the ground in ten minutes, Elise,” Dr. Daniels said, coming up behind her. He was wearing a headset and holding a professional, sporty, and extremely sophisticated looking clipboard that put Elise’s clipboard to shame. She stared at the main view screen nervously, biting at her nails.

     “Nigel told me what you saw,” he said, checking something off his fancy pants clipboard, “To be frank, a few other LRS observation stations have reported similar such sightings.”

     “Yeah?” she asked, “What kind of sightings? Anything to suggest extraterrestrial intelligence?”

     “With the shit I read in the newspapers,” he said bitterly, “I’ve seen nothing to suggest terrestrial intelligence.”

     “You got that from Roger’s book, ‘Songs of Galilee’, didn’t you?”

     She glared at him. Her lobes began to sweat as they did when she got excited. Roger called them pheromones and enjoyed their scent. But, that’s Roger.

     “Well?” she pressed.

     “A woman in New Guinea reported, and recorded, an indistinct shape hovering over Paris. She said it resembled a broom. Crazy, ain’t it?”

     “What does this add to the speculation pool?” Elise asked, miffed. Every new development, she thought, only makes whatever purpose there could be more obscured.

     “Nothing at all,” Dr. Daniels acquiesced. He turned and walked toward the restroom. Elise went to her station and sat down. Her computer was up and running in no time, and, with some help, she managed to broadcast the feed, coming directly from the probe, to her monitor.

     The Ceti probe was shaped like a tire. Its outer surface was designed as a wheel shaped land device. Wheels sprung from each intersecting side, east and west, north and south, and cameras were lodged along the belting. The cameras were lined up in a full circle so that everything from outside the probe, back and front, could be recorded and transmitted at the same time. Positioning the cameras facing outward in a circle allowed for exceptional ground coverage in short times.

     Around the top of the probe was a similar array of cameras. These were positioned to look up. They were fitted before leaving earth with the same lenses that made the LRS systems so powerful. Astronomers assigned to different cameras could zoom in, zoom out, pause, freeze frame, and record as the probe bounded along.

     “Landfall in fifteen minutes,” a voice intoned over the intercom.

     Nigel came up to Elise’s station. She pretended not to notice him long enough to make him apologize for being rude earlier that morning.

     On her screen, from the A-12 camera, she could see the faint shapes of buildings rising to meet the drifting craft. It would be landing in New York. The main purpose of the probe was to figure out whether or not the copy extended past physical imitation.

The probe opened its chute and began to filter through the lower clouds like a wafting dandelion seed. The tops of all the skyscrapers began to filter in, flashing onto her computer monitor. For some reason, she thought, all the skyscrapers looked like tall and tangled trees.

     The crowded monitoring station was shocked when the probe sat down in the middle of a forest. Thick and darkened trees surrounded the probe in all directions except for one: a small path cut through the woods. Shimmering vines ripe with moisture gleamed under Tau Ceti, sending reflections of light through the woods.

      “Check the sound,” Nigel yelled at a small collection of men hovering around a wall of speakers.

     “The speakers are on,” they confirmed, “but we’re not getting any sort of sound.”

     “Amplify the signal,” he called to them.

     A muffled hiss at a very low decibel level pulsed from the compacted speakers. The trees were still, unmoving; they didn’t blow or shake or sway in the wind. It was similar to watching the flag standing motionless on the moon.

     Dr. Daniels, with control of the direction of the probe, sent it down the narrow path between the trees and dark. The terrain was uneven in places, causing the probe to bob and waver. This sent tiny tremors through the monitors that guided it.

     Towards the end of the pathway there was a light. To Elise it resembled a streetlight. It bobbed up and down above a table. From all of the panoramic camera views, only five around the front took in data from the light and the table below it. The cameras around the sides and back of the circular probe scanned the woods.

     It was eerily quiet all the way to the end of the path. None of the upward mounted cameras got much of a view looking up. Fog circled around the trees and obscured the faint rays of Tau Ceti.

     “This can’t be New York,” Elise said to Nigel, “It’s too clean. And there are trees everywhere.”

     Nigel nodded and walked over to Dr. Daniels. Daniels stood there with his relay communications headphone glued to his ear, skimming over something on his clipboard that seemed vitally important.

     “Can we get a positive trace on the probe?” Nigel asked, dodging a group of astronomers passing by.

     “New York,” he said, “that’s where it’s headed.” He didn’t bother to look up.

     “There is no way it’s in New York unless the images of the cities and buildings were faked.”

     Dr. Daniels motioned for him to follow. They walked over to a giant monitor on the wall. In the center of it was a circular map of Tomos that detected radio signals. They managed to get a good reading and determined that the probe had drifted while in orbit. It didn’t land in New York. It landed in Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.

     “What’s on the table?” Elise asked, now that a small concert of astronomers and scientists had gathered around her. No one was paying much attention to the panoramic camera views. There was nothing along the way but trees and dark and more trees and even more dark.

     No one wanted to say aloud what they saw on the table under the light at the end of the path. The path forked off at the light. One path led west towards a building like structure, and another led east towards another patch of soundless trees.

     Everyone stood in silence for a bit. They heard only the slight whirring of the digital modems as each new bit of information poured through. With a side camera, a technician had managed to zoom in and identify the structure to the west. It was a building. It was a small cabin.

     In front of the probe was the table. It wasn’t too big or sturdy looking, just a regular sort of table. The wood had faded.

     On the table was a bunch of random animal parts. It looked as though someone had taken a rhinoceros apart and had trouble getting him back together. His massive head had been removed, hollowed out, and his tongue lay protruding from his mouth. His organs were arranged as they were in nature. The arms and legs were just shy of their sockets.

     The skin was missing, of course, but all of the pieces were in the right place. There was no blood, signs of struggle, footprints in the sand, nothing at all.

     “Are you getting this?” Elise yelled to Howard, “Record this from camera A-12. Is there any way to leave camera A-12 on the table and zoom in to the west with the A-9 camera?”

     The camera positions were designated by where the hands on a clock would be. Twelve was straight ahead, three was to the east, and nine was to the west.

     “We can take the A-9 camera as far as the landscape stretches,” an engineer boasted.

     “Go see if there’s any sign of life in that cabin.”

     The man ran the joystick forward and the camera lens zoomed in, bounding smoothly towards the rough surface of the log cabin. The door was facing A-9 but the fog around the foundation obscured, or had obscured, what they found next.

On a dirty welcome rug there was a mouse. Its head had been removed from its torso, its arms had been removed and lay beside where they would fit in their sockets, the organs were arranged perfectly throughout his body, and even his tail lay where it would naturally connect. It looked like a furry disassembled Mr. Potato Man.

     Sticking out from the other side of the cabin was a pole with a wire suspended on it. From the looks of it, a sort of cloth was hanging from it without motion, like the flag had on the moon.

     The sound of the pulsing hiss came harsher through the speakers.

     “What’s that? Hey! What’s that?” Elise shouted, jumping from her seat. She ran over to the wall of camera monitors. B-12, pointing straight up, had turned blood red. B-11 and B1 were seeing the outer edges of a flaming ball that hurtled towards the probe.

     “Take all the pictures you can of the cabin!” Elise shouted, running back to her workstation, “Take as many pictures as possible with each camera. The probe is being destroyed.”

     The flaming ball overwhelmed the tiny space probe. All the monitors turned to harsh and hissing static, crawling with grey lines.

     Elise was still in her office when Roger came by with Galilee. Her leopard striped book bag was thrown over her right shoulder.

     She always wore a pleasant, content smile. Elise shuffled through the pictures the probe managed to take before it was destroyed. Everything on the probe had been destroyed except for a small, scarab shaped tracking beacon welded to the bottom of one of the circular wheels. It was wrapped in a micro-cellular film capable of transmitting sound and video from its vicinity. The dot still gleamed on a monitor in the main control room.

     The A-3 through A-9 cameras showed little more than a panoramic vista of tangled trees and woods replete with fog. The same was true of more or less all of the upward aimed cameras. Most of them recorded nothing but fog and the swelling canopy of trees that towered above the ground.

     Elise had watched the video carefully, inspecting every minute detail. She expected she would find some sort of clue if she waited long enough. Galilee sat down beside her and began looking through the captured photographs.

     A tape of the descent of the fireball was being looped on a television screen panel that folded into Elise’s desk.

     “Did you have a good time visiting your family?” Elise asked Galilee, who poured herself as eagerly as her mother over the photographs.

     “It was fine,” she said, “Things are a lot different down the there. The people are really nice though.”

     “I’ve never been to South Carolina,” Roger said, lying, “especially not a replica that’s twelve light years away.” He knew nobody was listening to him, so he kept talking anyway to amuse himself with the possibility of making them feel sorry for him. If they felt sorry for him, they’d talk to him he figured. He was unutterably wrong.

     “What I don’t get,” Elise said, rubbing her head, “is what this object sticking out from beside the cabin is.” She handed the photograph to Roger.

     On the photograph they captured a metal pole sticking out of the ground. A wire was tied to one end of it and suspended.

     “It looks like the wire runs to another pole,” Roger said, “and for some reason – for some reason, it’s suspended over something.”

     Galilee took the photo from him and stared at it with her dark brown eyes. They lit up suddenly as though she realized something.

     “You don’t know what that is?” she asked her mother. Elise shook her head when Galilee held the picture up for her to see.

     “Just some metal sticking out of the ground,” Roger replied, “Tacky if you ask me.”

     “It’s a clothesline,” Galilee said, “It’s a clothesline. Look,” she stood up and leaned over her mother’s shoulder, placing the photo down in front of her. “Do you see the small piece of fabric sticking out from the side of the cabin?”

     “Yeah,” Elise said, “so? What does it matter?”

     “One second,” Galilee replied.

     Galilee ran the tape of the fireball again. She paid special attention to the way the trees stayed still as something of such force struck the ground. The grass didn’t stir, the pebbles didn’t scatter, and not so much as a leaf moved as it plunged to the ground. She paused it just before it hit the probe.

     “Oh god,” Elise said, cupping her mouth, “Roger, look at this.” She turned the screen to face him. He was looking at a National Geographic and apparently enjoying the artistic shots of bare breasted tribes in Africa.

     The screen was frozen. The B-12 camera looked straight up and the photographs it took showed only the upward angle of it. The A-12 series of photographs photographed the ground behind it. On the screen, the fireball was poised to strike the ground. This was the image from the B-12. Galilee dug through the photographs on Elise’s desk and found the A-12 that matched the exact moment the B-12 was frozen on, just before the impact.

     The A-12 had one compelling image. The last B-12 image came in at a quarter after five. The last A-12 image came in at the same time. On the B-12 there was nothing but the rippling flame poised just above the probe. The A-12 showed a large, heavy shadow. The shadow was about an inch thick and six feet tall. It stretched out on the ground; but it was too well shaped and rounded to be a tree or any other natural phenomenon.

     “Ok, mother,” Galilee said, “look at the small corner of the fabric hanging from the clothesline. Do you see how it looks?”

     “I’m not following you,” Elise admitted, rubbing her aching head, “but go on. I’m sure daddy is listening.”

     Daddy was asleep. Roger had a healthy opium habit to keep his severe anxiety in check, and was prone to nodding off.

     “Look how the corner of the fabric is flipped slightly upward. That suggests it was moving. But why would it move if the trees and leaves and dirt didn’t move when the fire came down on the probe? Nothing was moved by any sort of air. This picture suggests that something was causing it to wave and blow like that.”

     “How do you know this kind of shit?” Roger asked. His daughter’s intelligence was intolerable.

     “Don’t cuss in front of her, Roger,” Elise commanded. Roger rolled over and played dead.

     “I spent the last seven months in South Carolina,” she said, “and grandmother always made me hang out the sheets and blankets.”

     “Can I get the A-3 shot of the cabin please?” Elise asked and buzzed her intercom. The image came up on the small monitor in front of her.

     “This package has all of the A-3 images. I’m going to skip up until the cabin comes into focus.”

     She clicked her mouse looking through one picture after another. In every picture it looked the same. There was a small bit of light inside it, as from a lamp or something similar, but in the first five images she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She continued clicking her way through the images.

     “Wait,” Galilee shouted, “go back. Go back three pictures.”

She clicked the back arrow and skipped back three pictures. On the first picture, the light in the cabin was visible. It was in the second picture. But the camera through the window saw a barren floor, lit by some sort of lamp or candle, but there was nothing abnormal about it.

     “Ok, go to the next one,” Galilee pressed. Elise clicked onto the next picture. Galilee pointed to a small, stick shaped shadow that had found its way onto the floor. It couldn’t have been a broom, Elise thought, even though it was certainly shaped like one. In the first picture of the cabin, the round shadow on the floor was barely visible. It was barely recognizable and hard to see if you weren’t expressly looking for it. In the picture after that, the stick like shadow had extended halfway across the floor. In the third picture, the stick like figure was gone and the cabin was empty again.

     Elise reclined and closed her eyes. She imagined being a young girl again, playing in the sand, making sand castles. She remembered when the stars lingered above her like an impossible grail. She remembered sitting on her deck with her hands stretched out to the heavens.

     The stars were there for man. Waiting for them to advance enough to explore them. The Tomos mystery, however, lay just beyond the shore of human understanding. It challenged the brains of men and women like no previous problem had. The clues added up and added up, but after everything – no one had a clue.

      Around the office, for years after, “Tomos” because a word used to explain something inexplicable. It became a word to describe a mystery with an impossibly remote chance of being solved.

     Cold fusion was a Tomos. The creation of the pyramids was a Tomos.

     “What I don’t understand,” Roger said after a while, “is why the probe was destroyed. Something doesn’t want us to see what’s happening on that planet. I think we should just leave this scab alone. The more we scratch it, the worse it gets. The worse it gets, the more we want to dig at it. That proverb isn’t about cats, Elise.”

     “How can we just let it go? How can we let a question like this hover over us forever?” Elise shouted, “We can’t just walk away without figuring out…”

     “Why does the meaning of things matter so much? Just hang up your hat, admit you’ve been defeated, and walk away from it.”

     Elise turned on a collection of nocturnes by Friedrich Chopin and reclined again.

     “I have to ask,” she said, with her eyes still closed, “What did you make of the disassembled rhino? That just adds to the confusion.”

     “It looked delicious,” Roger said, licking his lips, “but as for the rat, I don’t like Spanish food.”

     “Tell me what you really think, Roger.”

     “No.”

     “Why not?”

     “Because you didn’t say please.”

     “Please Roger,” Elise sighed. “Stop being childish and tell me what you think.”

“To me,” he began the subterfuge, lit his cigarette, “it seems as though this is an actual replica made by something. Something has made the planet and is now trying to make the animals.”

     “You believe whoever this creature is, he’s trying to recreate a rhino?” she asked. She suspected his usual irreverence towards everything.

     “He? Why does it have to be a he? Don’t be so naïve. There have to be different sexes in the universe. There has to be something more rewarding than being male or female. Imagine having the full, luscious breasts of a woman, the will to finish chores like a woman, the brain of a man…”

     “Roger,” she said firmly, “I love you. I do, I really do. I married you and I stand by that. But right now is not the time for you to play your games with me. Tell me what you think. Honestly, I’m tired of giving a shit.”

     “We know there is no air, right?” he asked, enjoying his Turkish cigarette.

     “Yes,” she nodded.

     “Then how do we account for the discrepancy between the trees and leaves not blowing when it’s clear that the blanket behind the cabin is being moved somehow?”

     “The blankets,” Galilee said, “were being fluffed by something. I can tell by the cusp, the corner – I watched grandma do it over and over. That picture there,” she gestured to the frozen image of the blanket, “tells me that something is on that planet. And whatever it is, needs to have dry blankets.”

     “Elise,” Nigel said, coming into her cramped office, “come and see this.”

     She walked out into the main control room. Roger and Galilee followed behind her. Roger was mumbling something about hiring assassins and Galilee was humming a strange sounding song.

     “Where’d you hear that song?” Roger asked her.

     “I don’t know,” she said, “Just came to mind.”

     On the main screen, on the wall opposite Elise, they had the last ten seconds of the video from the Ceti probe recorded and stored. They ran the tape in slow motion.

     The cabin sat in front of a long patch of trees. A bit of light from the probe reflected off the metal on the beam. In the reflection on the metal rod, on which the blanket hung, they could clearly see their probe. And they could clearly see the creature that stood behind it.

     “Oh God,” Elise exclaimed.

     “What did he do this time?” Roger asked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4: THE DRUMS OF SHIVA

________________________________

Elise stared at the rust along the railing. She ran her slender fingers over the screen, squinting to get a better glimpse of what stood behind the Ceti probe. “Are those…” she paused, “Are those wings?” From the grainy image, digitally enhanced to maximum, all Elise could clearly see was a pair of wings. Not like angel wings, she thought, but more like the wings of a bat. If the image had been captured seconds earlier, the shot of the creature from the front might have been more clear.

     “So what,” Roger said, puffing on his cigarette, daring all creation to stop him, “if we find out that it’s made by something. Then what? Do we wait around until we get some sort of clue? Even if we found out why it’s there, there’d be other questions. The questions never stop. The most pressing question hasn’t even been addressed. The Earth has shown up in Tau Ceti. Ok, ok. There have been important questions asked. How did it get there? How is it possible? Do they have resources we can steal? But the most important question hasn’t even been asked.”

     “What would that be?” Elise asked.

     “Why does it matter?” Roger asked. He smiled his trademarked half-smile.

     “Not everybody can look at all the world and laugh, Roger,” said Elise.

     “I don’t laugh at all the world, Elise. When confronted with the ocean, I take it quite seriously.”

     Elise glared at him.

     “The only way to deal with life is to laugh at it,” Roger said. “That isn’t so hard, really. Convincing yourself it’s funny – now that is difficult.”

     The image on the screen zoomed out. Left there was the image of cabin and the trees behind it.

     “Nigel,” Elise called, “look at the cusp of the blanket.” Nigel zoomed in on the corner of the blanket and froze the image.

     “Looks like someone is trying to dry it off.”

     “Ok,” Roger said, “let’s go over the facts.”

     The few astronomers standing at their computer stations took little notice of him. Horace was gone, since he never worked late, and everyone else was looking over the recorded video frame by frame.

     Nigel stood near Roger without a bit of worry. He had tried to poison him at dinner once, after all.

     “Tomos appears on the astronomical radar,” Roger began. “No one knows why. We discover that it is an exact replica of Earth. We discover that it has man made objects on it. We discover that the atmosphere wouldn’t support terrestrial intelligence. We discover that more and more objects, manmade objects, are appearing on the surface. We discover that it’s not in orbit, but merely sitting in place behind a dust cloud. And then we discover animals, looking as though they’re being assembled. And now we know there is a creature on Tomos…” he paused, waiting on everyone to nod, “There is a creature on Tomos with wings.”

     Galilee tugged on Roger’s shirt.

“Yes?” he asked, kneeling down to patronize her size.

     “How do you know that is the creature on the planet? Couldn’t it be a reflection?”

     “What did you say?” Elise asked, walking over to her.

     “Zoom out,” Galilee said, “Look right around the edge of the metal post.”

     Around the edge of the post glimmered a bit. A indistinct outline seemed to hint at something around it.

     “Do you see the outline? It looks like a mirror.”

     “So,” Roger said, walking over to the grainy image floating on the wall, “something is holding a mirror behind the post…Why would it do that?”

     “Because,” Elise said, “it wants us to see the creature with wings? Why would it want us to see that?”

“Because it doesn’t want us to see what it really is,” Roger said.

     A man with glasses and a bald head sat before a computer screen in the main control room at the Bureau of Astronomy in Washington D.C. He was listening to the static radio waves surrounding the Tau Ceti star. Elise, along with her ridiculous husband, bounded past him with their daughter. They rushed to the door.

     “Where you rushing’ off to?” the man asked, taking off his headphones.

     “We’ve got a press conference tonight,” Elise said, putting on her coat. Roger lit a cigarette.

     “Do you want me to monitor the audio channels for the rest of the night then?” he asked.

     “Yeah,” she said, “although we haven’t heard much more than static on any of the lower bands or frequencies. Just listen,1  and contact the Director if anything comes up.”

     She disappeared into the street.

     He put his headphones on and rolled back over to his crowded desk. He played solitaire for a couple of hours. It was time for the press conference, so he took off his headphones, got up, and went to turn on the television.

     The cameras were focused on Elise. He didn’t much care for television, so he resigned himself to watching without listening.

     Then the sound came, distinct, without mistake. The first time he heard the sound he thought there was a glitch. The sound was unmistakable; it sounded like a low pulse, or a drum. It was like sudden thunder with no after sound.

     At first he thought nothing of it. Perhaps it was interference. He ran a scan with a radio telescope. He connected to it with his computer. He turned the volume up as loud as it would go.

     On a monitor beside him, he logged into the LRS position astronomers reserved to observe the system. Tomos swam into view. It was circled by a ring of dust and ice, much in the way that Saturn is.

     He heard the sound again. It was deeper this time but louder. It came a third time and Tomos disappeared. The rock and ice surrounding it scattered through the system.

     He ran to the phone.

Elise was nervous again before the small group of reporters. Millions of people from around the world had been watching when the ball of fire from the sky destroyed the Ceti probe.

     Religious groups claimed that it was the wrath of God. Anti-religious groups claimed that this was stupid and that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon that just happened to hit exactly the same place the probe was in.

     Roger, not that anybody wanted his opinion, offered his opinion anyway. Nobody wanted it so nobody paid any attention.

     He was working on his routine when Elise approached him behind the curtains.

     “What are you going to tell them?” he asked, “I wouldn’t recommend the truth. An entertaining lie would be much better. They like clowns! I could go out and do my standup routine to lighten the mood if you’d like. Nah, I’m not drunk enough to be silly in public.”

     “Roger,” she said, “we’re going to tell them that we have pictures that confirm there is no life on the planet.”

     “That’s kind of true,” he said, “but, not completely. You have pictures that prove the atmosphere couldn’t support terrestrial life. Are you going to tell them about the rhino and the rat?”

     “We’re going to confirm that the replica reaches to the surface. That the surface has been replicated even down to clotheslines.”

     “What have they seen?”

     “The public was given access only to the B12 camera. So they know that it was destroyed, but we haven’t disclosed what it was that destroyed it.”

     “What kind of lie are you going to tell them?”

     “We’re going to tell them it was a bit of comet that made it through the atmosphere. It is consistent with what the public knows about the Tau Ceti system. It’s amazing that more comets and rocks and asteroids haven’t destroyed some of the more important monuments.”

     “You know,” said Roger, “I’ve been thinking about that too. Who monitors the atmosphere?”

“Nigel was doing so,” she said a bit nervously. Roger’s eyebrows raised.

     “So, Dr. Douche is in charge of monitoring the atmosphere?”

     “Yes.”

     “What has he reported?”

     “Nothing of interest, really. There have been a few odd coincidences, but nothing serious.”

     “Such as?”

     “Well,” she said, fidgeting with her earrings, “he noticed that there have been, as would be expected in Tau Ceti, thousands of asteroids and meteors near the

planet. But most of them dissolve before they’re far enough into the atmosphere to do so naturally. Some of them explode just as they’re getting near the planet.”

     “And you think this is just ‘something odd’? That’s conclusive. That says ‘something is protecting the planet.’”

      Nigel walked over to them carrying drinks.

     “Gin for you, Elise,” he said, “and a Jager and Coke for Roger. And dry gin for me.”

     Roger accepted the drink grievously, thinking again about his morose money situation and his inability to hire assassins. He would kill Nigel himself, but he had an upcoming book release and didn’t want court to get in the way of his deadline.

     “How many people are out there?” Elise asked. “Roger took the rest of my valium!”

     “Just some people from international news, local D.C. news stations, and some people from astronomical websites. You should be fine. I’ve got some xanax if you need it.”

     “I do,” Roger said. “Anxiety tries to eat me.”

     “Hopefully we get some entertaining conspiracy theories,” Nigel said. “All of this official discourse has started to bore me.”

     “You’re bored with this?” Roger asked, downing his Jagermeister. “You’d rather go back to watching dust storms and nebulae? This is entertaining stuff here. This is like something from the sci-fi channel, and we all have a little part in it.”

     “A part in it?” Nigel asked, smirking, “You’re a former biologist and novelist, Roger. You have no part in this.”

“I’m banging Elise and she is the head of the research project. That includes me.”

     “Yeah,” Nigel replied, “but it certainly has nothing to do with biology.”

     “It has everything to do with biology,” Roger replied, taking Elise’s gin, “How else do you explain the human race and its place in space? We are here because of natural biology. You are alive right now and … and capable of your pursuits because of your biological makeup. Every astronomer owes a tremendous debt to biological science.”

     Nigel rolled his eyes and forced a professional, “Of course, Roger.”

     Dr. Horace Daniels called Elise and Nigel over. He talked to them for a minute and they disappeared behind the curtain. Roger found Galilee and went to look for a friend of his.

     “Did you take what daddy asked you to take?” he asked Galilee. She nodded and unzipped her book bag. She handed the photo to Roger.

     “Excellent,” he said, “my own daughter knows how to steal. I’m so proud of you.” She smiled her warm and comforting smile.

     “I’m going to talk to a friend of mine for a minute,” he said, “Go find us a seat.”

     Galilee nodded and headed off to find a seat. A few minutes later, Roger returned with a big smile on his face.

     “What are you smiling about?” she asked.

     “You’ll see.”

     Roger was shaking with fury at this point. In his head he kept hearing Nigel’s “smug bullshit.” And, as far as he knew, homicide was still against the law. This saddened him.

     Elise, Nigel, and Horace came out onto the stage and most of the talking died down. Behind them a projection screen was lit up with golden letters, reading, “The Tomos Research Project.” It was a horribly pompous and impressive shot of Tomos floating amongst the rock and dusty backdrop of the dim Tau Ceti star.

     They sat down behind the microphones. On the table there was a pitcher of water, some glasses, and a couple of small plants.

     “We’d like to start,” Elise said, sitting down, “by acknowledging all of the people who supported and helped fund the Ceti probe. And all of the people who worked to guide it to the ground safely.”

     Roger hated all of the formalities involved in talking to the press. Nothing to him was as dreadful as polite conversation.

     “The Ceti probe was destroyed by a comet,” she continued, “This has been confirmed. The only real confirmation, of importance, was confirming that the replica does extend to the surface and the ground. Even down to something as intricate as a clothesline and a blanket.”

     “The images released to the public,” a reporter said, rising, “and the small clips broadcast on the news and the Bureau’s official site, show a comet. This is true. But, observatories around the world that tracked the planet and the system have made public the fact that there were no signs of comets until one hit the probe.”

     “It must’ve been a glitch in the system,” Nigel said. “Most of the monitors were related to the cameras…”

     “There are other observatories you know,” a man in the crowd said, “and no one saw any signs of approaching debris or comets or asteroidal activity…”

     “Are you not aware,” said Nigel, “that Tau Ceti has more than ten times the amount of asteroidal material orbiting it than Sol? And that there is a giant disc of dust orbiting the planet produced by collisions? It’s hard to keep up with all the elements in the Tau Ceti system. There are too many to keep track of.”

     “So the official position,” a young reporter asked, “is that it was natural? The comet was naturally in the vicinity and just happened to hit the exact place where the probe was?”

     “As strange as it sounds,” Elise said, “that is our position. We don’t see any other possibility.”

     “Scientific possibility,” Roger said, standing up, “is what you mean? Possibility isn’t restrained by science. Science is restrained by possibility. If you’ve restrained yourselves to looking for explanations in science when it comes to Tomos, you might as well give up now. You’re not going to figure this out with probes or telescopes or LRS machines. You have to consider other possibilities.”

     “But Dr. Manwell,” Nigel shouted, “you’re a writer and an artist, and very talented, and a former biologist. I acknowledge your intellect and your talent, but why don’t you leave this to the professionals?”

     “The professionals are exactly the kind of people that this shouldn’t be left to. Their minds are fixed, locked, held back by predisposition. All you look for is scientific evidence. Evidence for what exactly?”

     “Evidence of extraterrestrial life,” Nigel responded.

     “We have all the evidence of extraterrestrial life we need,” Roger said, “Chuck, dim the lights.”

     The engineer, with whom Roger was good friends, dimmed the lights and brought the image of the cabin and the clothesline on the projection screen. Reporters and photographers gasped. Cameras flashed throughout the audience, lighting up the dark auditorium.

     “This proves there is extraterrestrial intelligence,” Roger said, “Now what? We’ve proven there is extraterrestrial intelligence. Now what do we do?”

     “We attempt to make contact with it,” Elise said, “We might be able to learn from it…”

     “Chuck,” Roger said, “scroll to the next picture.”

     The image of the disassembled rhino appeared on the screen. More cameras flashed. The hands of more than a few reporters went up.

     “What do we make of this, then?” he asked, pointing to Nigel, “What is the scientific explanation for this?”

     “Whenever the planet was copied,” Elise said nervously, “the animals must have materialized … the way they are in the image. Something about the atmosphere or particle transporter or …”

     “You can make up as many bland scientific explanations for this as you’d like, Elise. Science takes the presumption that it can explain anything much too seriously. You take the evidence and then find a way it can fit into the parameters of your science. You don’t try to solve the puzzle; you try to find a hole to put the peg in. Tomos cannot be explained by science.”

     “Then explain it, Roger,” Elise said angrily. Galilee looked up at him with the “you’re not getting laid tonight, daddy,” face.

     “There is an intelligence on Tomos that is capable of making and destroying planets. The planet was hid in a dust cloud, our probe was destroyed, and meteors and comets inexplicably blow up before getting near the atmosphere. Something is protecting the planet. Perhaps a demigod or God like creature is trying to recreate life, and is using the life on Earth as a model for his experiments; hence the rhino in its disassembled state.”

     “What do you recommend we do?” Elise asked. She glared at him with the very specific “you’re not getting laid for a month” type look that wives tailor to their needs to deal with their husbands.

     “We leave the planet alone,” he replied, “We’re obviously not meant to be messing with it.”

     Neither Elise nor Nigel nor Howard called on any reporters. Questions were being asked anyway, much of them in the manner of accusing them of withholding information. A crime of which they were vehemently denying and vehemently guilty of.

     A man with a white jump suit came from behind the curtain onto the stage, walked over to Elise, and whispered in her ear. Her eyes widened. She covered the microphone and whispered to Dr. Daniels and Nigel. They both got up. Elise made her way for the curtain. The reporters and cameramen were yelling questions and taking pictures.

     “Elise!” Roger yelled, “What the hell is going on?”

“Tomos,” she said into the microphone, “has disappeared. Tomos is gone.”

     Elise rushed off the stage.

5: A SCARAB IN URSA MAJOR

________________________________

Everyone agreed to forget about Tomos over the next couple of weeks. There was a great air of disappointment hovering over every city on Earth. And with Tomos gone, everything else seemed to be tedious repetition. As a whole, humanity knew the feeling of a worker ant.

     Elise agreed to take a small vacation with Roger after lots of begging and false promises. They went to a hotel across town and left Galilee with a babysitter. She called all the time, of course, and let them know which reporters were calling or coming by the house or calling to say they’re coming by the house.

     The conspiracy theories raged over the internet for the next few weeks. Elise turned down countless interviews on late night talk shows. Roger complained about not receiving his due credit. He didn’t know what the credit was for, but he did know that he hadn’t received it.

Nobody knew what happened to Tomos when it disappeared. Elise talked to David, the man that heard the drum-like sounds from the Tau Ceti system.

     Thousands of people had been watching from their LRS machines. They observed, recorded, and documented the disappearance. No one necessarily knew where it went, but most people seemed relieved that Tomos had disappeared. They no longer had to confront the problem.

     Roger was babbling away on the edge of the bed on the balcony of a seedy hotel on the edge of town. Elise was looking down into an empty glass of gin. Roger was looking down into the empty glass of his twelfth double vodka.

     “So I tell the guy, ‘the world is half-full of pessimists’ and I sit back to let him tell me how clever I am. You know; let him bask in the wit as it washes over him. He just kind of looks at me, you know, like there’s a cog in the gerbil wheel inside his brain. So, I say, ‘ever hear about the scarab and the dung beetle?’? and he says ‘no.’ So, I’m done with this guy because he’s bland and I’m too sober to be bothered with bland people.”

     “What did you say?” Elise asked, sitting up.

     “Which part?” he asked drunkenly, “The half-full of pessimists? Yeah, I thought it was pretty clever too. But I could’ve done better with my second joke. The scarab and the dung beetle … same thing! Of course, he wouldn’t know that.”

     Roger frowned.

     “A scarab?” she asked, turning her head to the side. She looked to the window thoughtfully.

     It seemed as though her mind had found some sort of present and was trying to unwrap it.

     “Yeah,” he said, “scarabs are no better than dung beetles. They both play around in feces. I’ve seen it; truly a depraved and thoroughly interesting species.”

     She was silent.

     “Yeah, I’m going to shut up for a while.”

He flung himself backwards to the bed. He sat up immediately.

     “Make me a drink!” he shouted, “Else I do bad things to you!”

     “I’m not in the mood for sex,” she said, still fighting with the wrapping in her brain.

     “Good one,” he said, “but if I wanted to do something bad to you, I’d cancel your credit cards. Women can deal without sex, but not without three primary payment methods. Then I’d wait behind your door with a solution of chloroform and blank out your brain for a few hours and tattoo ‘I think Roger is the sexiest and most intelligent man on Earth’ all over your body… when I was done abusing it through and through, of course.”

     “A tracking beacon!” Elise yelled, finally getting the wrapping off and looking at the present, “We can find out where Tomos is. There was a scarab shaped tracking beacon on the underside of the Ceti probe. We can find out where it is. We can also receive video and audio transmissions from the beacon.”

     Roger was ignoring her, randomly flipping through channels on the television. He stopped at an evangelical program.

     “We’ll be able to find Tomos,” she repeated. He was howling with laughter.

     “Look,” he said, “we’ve looking from Tau Ceti to Altair and all the way from Eta Cas to Del Pav. Just come to bed, baby. Have sex with me. You like comedies.”

     “We’ve checked for thousands of light years away from it…”

     “Elise,” he said firmly, “this program is morally offensive to my person, and here I am watching it just for you and you’re talking about work. Can’t we just get drunk and watch this evangelism?”

     “Roger!” she shouted, running to the phone.

    “Fine,” he said, “fine. I’ll find a channel with some big ‘ol titties flopping around in some milk. You know… something moral like that; full of strong, American virtues.”

     Elise was already dialing the phone. Roger was clapping along to some nudist sing along on a Spanish station. “I can count! I can count,” he shouted, “One, two. Two tits! Hoorah! They’re not covered in milk…yet.” He frowned.

     “Order some milk,” he shouted at Elise, “and also a couple of pizzas. And if I can’t cover you in milk, I’ll feed the vagabond cats gathering at your stoop. And pizzas! I’m going to want to eat large amounts of food when and if I’m turned down for sex. It’s always been like that. Either way, I will be satiated. And by the looks of things, I’ve been turned down again. No matter. Eating lasts longer.”

     “David,” Elise was saying into the plastic hotel phone, “you’ve checked other stars right?”

     “Yes,” said David, “far, far out. All the way out to GJ 408, and that is over twenty one light years away. We’ve got people looking even further than that.”

     “David,” she said, “did everybody forget the tracking beacon? There was a tracking beacon on the underside of the Ceti probe. It won’t show up any LRS scopes. It will be received by anyone listening at the exact frequency and time in the right section of the sky. But the only way we have of tracking it is your computer down at the Bureau. Can you meet us down there in thirty minutes?”

     “Sure, sure,” David said, “I’ll have the computer running. Might be a little late, though, have to get some cigarettes.”

     “The search for intelligent life in the universe,” Roger stammered, “should begin on Earth.”

     “Put your pants on,” Elise said, snatching the keys from the lamp stand beside the bed, “We’ll be able to find Tomos.”

     “We can find Tomos without my pants. What the hell is with your enthusiasm for this, Elise? If you find it, it’s still just a planet. Can’t you just shelf all of that and come to bed?”

     “Roger,” she screamed, “there are more important things in life than fucking.”

Roger’s eyes widened. “Really? No there isn’t. How would you be pursuing all of this mystery in the sky had your parents been as cold around the crotch as you?”

     “There are many things more important than sex.”

     “And none of them would be possible without sex.”

     She looked at him angrily. He was swaggering back and forth, learning to count, and had begun a new sing along when Elise ran out.

     She shouted something about him not paying attention but he really wasn’t paying attention.

     “Elise!” he called after her, staggering to his feet, “All of this excitement bores me. You can’t convince me to go. I’m putting my foot down! You always get me to do whatever it is you want me to do and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of exploring, I’m tired of hearing about the human spirit, and I’m sure as hell tired of hearing about that god damn plagiarized planet! Nothing you can say will make me go.”

     No answer.

     “I’m serious!” he shouted triumphantly.

     There continued to be no answer. There was one roach on bed and he seemed unimpressed.

     After trying to strangle himself for a minute, he decided to leave.

     He sighed and finished another glass of vodka. He walked out the door into the cool evening air. As soon as he got in the car and saw her smiling, he tried to strangle himself again.

     “Why are you doing that?” she asked.

     “Keeps me busy,” he replied instantly, “It’s nice to have constructive hobbies. And, for the record, you’d never have tricked me if I was sober.”

     “I trick you all the time when you’re sober,” she replied.

     “No,” he said, now with an unimaginable air of sobriety, “I allow you to think you’ve tricked me.” His clown hat had come off, revealing the manipulative genius underneath. This was not the Roger anyone wanted to see.

     “What purpose would you have for that, Roger?” she asked, “That’s stupid.”

     “It has a very definite purpose. Because it flatters you to think you can trick me, and then while you’re busy being flattered because you’ve tricked me, you start to feel good about yourself. I’m widely thought of as a visionary and a genius and all that bunk, so to fool me, must make you feel pretty special. You, a regular country girl, who studied for exams when I was out of college by age twelve, get to fool the famous polyglot genius from Galilee. Then… and then you realize you’re feeling good about yourself because of me. That’s when the ultimate purpose of feigning gullibility comes in.”

     “Which is?” she asked him, her eyes now wide with revulsion.

“The better a woman feels about herself, the more superiority the role of benefactor allows them to aggregate, the more open to susceptibility they become due to the role of superior they think they have acquired. Then, the female starts to feel bad for tricking the man, and cajoles him proper so he’ll forgive her. You know how many times you’ve apologized to me for me manipulating you? Ha! I know where all your strings are, and if I wished, I’d make you dance. But, for those I love, I wear this clown hat of irreverence. It’s easier for them to deal with a drunken clown than a genius.”

     He lit a cigarette and smiled. She stared at him for another minute, without turning on the car. This was the distinct look that wives reserve for their husbands which says “this is going to cost you a lot of money.”

     “You’re making this up, aren’t you?” she asked.

     “Of course I’m making this up; I’m not clever enough to fool you. Genius though I be.”

     This, he thought, will certainly flatter her. It worked. It certainly flattered her. He felt good about himself for salvaging his best psychological defense system.

     They walked into the main control room of the crowded Bureau of Astronomy. A lone computer light flickered in the corner, illuminating the bald head of the night shift worker. He was reclining in his computer chair, watching the trajectory printout of a crisscrossing search over a few stars just outside the vicinity of Tau Ceti system.

     “No match for the radio signature,” he said, taking a bite of a candy bar, “No planets have been reported by the LRS observatories. We’ve got half of the world looking for this place.”

     “Where did you start the search?” Elise asked.

     “We started at Tau Ceti,” he replied. She picked up a readout of statistics. She skimmed over them briefly. Roger was headed for Elise’s office to fish out a bottle of gin. She found another present in her mind and began unwrapping it.

     “We’ve got lots of overlapping searches ranging within a few light years as well, with radio telescopes listening on a large variety of different frequencies.”

     Roger was laughing in the other room. He’d obviously found Elise’s gin.

     “Roger,” she called, “get back in here. This is a lot more serious than getting drunk…” She realized this train of thought was going nowhere, so she decided a new strategy in dealing with him.

     “Roger,” she called again, more sensually this time, “if you don’t come in here right now, you’re not getting laid for three months.”

     The door swung open immediately. Roger sauntered back into the room. He was talking to someone on his cell phone. It seemed to be going well.

     “No,” he said, “they’ve looked everywhere. What do you mean ‘have they looked closer’? Why would they bring Tomos closer to Earth when it would be easier to detect?”

     Elise finally got the wrapping off and ran to the tracking system in the corner. It was dark and lifeless.

     “David,” she called, “come and get this on. We’ll be able to find Tomos using the tracking beacon implanted on the bottom of the probe.”

     “Have you looked at any stars closer to Earth than Tau Ceti? Like Sirius or Alpha Centauri?”

     “No,” said David, shaking his head, “Let me boot up the tracking program.”

     He flicked on another monitor to his side, plugged auxiliary wires into it from the hard drive, and booted it up. A tracking grid with red intersecting points of references, with a Local Group map behind it, lit up the screen.

The grid scanned over the closest stars, beeping as it skipped over vast coordinates of space. Then it panned towards Ursa Major, locked, and began zooming in.

     “Oh my,” Roger said, standing behind Elise. Elise had leaned over David’s shoulder to watch the search. Roger had stood to stare.

     “The signal is coming from the vicinity of Lalande 21185,” David said, “We can run the LRS in the other room, and I’ll set up the equipment to download the audio and video data from the tracking beam.”

His mouth stood agape as the tracking grid zoomed into the Lalande system, buzzing and blinking.

     “Let’s go to my house,” Roger shouted, “We’ll run the LRS.”

“But you haven’t paid for your subscription in months,” Elise interjected.

     “I don’t plan on paying for it for many more months, Elise. We have to use a high powered LRS, and I have a high powered LRS device. One plus one equals two. Me,” he pointed to himself “Tarzan. You,” he pointed to Elise, “Jane. Let’s go.”

     “There’s one in the adjoining room, Roger.” She glared at him in a particularly unsettling manner.

     It made her look depressingly older, he noticed.

     “With the LRS,” Roger asked, “how far in can you get? I mean, Lalande is a lot closer to Earth than…”

     “Lalande is only about 8.21 light years from earth. Not too far from Tau Ceti, actually.” Elise couldn’t resist showing Roger up in front of other people.

     “We can see ants on the surface if they’re there,” David said. He turned on a small lamp and flipped through pages of a manual. He thumbed the page he was looking for. “Aha,” he said, “I can tune into the frequency and listen, and view, the video and audio recorded by the Scarab in the time that’s lapsed since Tomos disappeared.

     “Go about it then,” Elise said.

     She and Roger decided to have a drink while David hooked up his headphones. He turned the volume of the static indicator and begun downloading the audio message.

     A separate system had begun dragging the video from the tiny Scarab that now crawled the sands of Tomos in the dust filled system of Lalande.

     “Whatever moved it there has a keen understanding of human psychology,” said Roger, obviously awed.

     “What do you mean?” Elise asked.

     “Well, they had the sense to know that if they moved Tomos further away, we’d look until the end of the galaxy. And they knew, because of our predispositions and our ‘we must go further than others have gone’ nature, that we’d look further out than Tau Ceti. Another thing, it was moved to a system known to have terrestrial planets – so if someone noticed the sign of a terrestrial planet in the system, they’d write it off as one of the preexisting ones. The creature behind Tomos moved it to a place where it knew that we knew there was the possibility terrestrial life. This is a clever creature, certainly not omnipotent, but clever.”

     “I’m going to get a drink,” Elise said. She made her way through the dark cubicles towards her office. There was a small bottle of Gin in a freezer under her desk. It was hidden behind some microwaveable dinners. These helped a lot when she worked late.

     “Half of the audio has been downloaded,” David told Roger, who had tried to talk to him of some of the more interesting obscenities.

     “How long for the video and audio?” he asked.

     “Audio will finish within ten minutes,” David replied, pushing his glasses back onto his nose, “Video, within an hour.”

     Elise brought Roger an empty glass. He looked at her in fury.

     “What the hell is this?” he asked. “What am I supposed to do with this? Put it up to my mouth and fantasize?”

     “Audio is done,” David said. Roger flung the glass across the room. It shattered on a poster which bore friendly illustrations of the planets, bearing the phrase The Universe and You.

     “Let’s hear what Tomos has to say,” Roger said. He stole a chair from one of the other cubicles. He dragged it over beside David and sat down. He made it known that he had considered getting Elise a chair.

     “You can fantasize about sitting down,” he said.

     David plugged the audio cables into the main speakers. He turned the volume all the way up and reclined, putting his hands behind his head.

     All they heard at first was the sound of a low murmur. Elise thought it sounded like the beating of a small drum. Roger paid more attention to the digital gargling and hissing that flooded from the stereo speakers. Then they heard it.

     The voice was soothing and musical. It had a particular melancholy to it. Roger closed his eyes for a moment to listen.

     “It’s really pretty,” said Elise. “Do you think something in Lalande is trying to make music?”

6: THE GLASS UMBRELLA

________________________________

They listened for a while transfixed. The low, somber and ominous and musical humming continued amidst the backdrop of what seemed to be glass atop a marble floor. It seemed as though something was being thrown onto a table. There were distinct sounds of heavy objects hitting wood.

     “The table with the disassembled rhino on it,” Elise said, “…He’s trying to put the rhino together.”

     The humming stopped. All that came through above the hiss sounded to be something flapping in the wind, ruffling like blankets on a clothesline. They remembered where the probe had been destroyed – in South Carolina by the cabin, near the table, not too far out of audible rang from the clothesline.

     The sound kept on for a while, humming and vocal intonations of orchestral music. After an hour of listening, when the video was finished, they heard something more distinct and mechanical. The previous song of Lalande faded out. They huddled around the sole computer light in the dark office building, listening attentively to whatever happened on Tomos when the probe was destroyed. They heard a thud – something falling to the ground – and the song arose again. There were heavy footfalls on barren dirt.

     “He must’ve got the rhino working,” Roger said, “Peculiar business to be involved in. Rhino manufacturing, peculiar indeed. Not as crazy as, say, being sober this time of night. This is ridiculous, baby. Let’s leave.”

     She thumped his ear.

     “Son of a bitch!” he shouted, “I paid for that hotel room.”

     The heavy footfalls of the rhino faded. They were replaced by the continuing melancholic humming.

     “That’s coming out of a human mouth,” Elise said.

     “And you’re an expert on what comes out of human mouths,” Roger said, “and what goes in. Harhar.”

     He ran the tape forward. It seemed the song had faded too, so they turned to the video.

     David plugged the video cables into the machine that downloaded the data. He ran it on a larger projection screen across the room. They hurried over to it.

     The vision on the screen, being transmitted by the Scarab, showed only the billowing of the air as the probe drifted through it idly. The ground swelled as it dropped further into the atmosphere. Buildings came into view and disappeared, replaced by trees. The probe landed. It lurched forward.

     It moved along the pathway through the woods, up to the table by the cabin.

     “Plug the audio back in so we can have both,” Roger said, “It’s much more entertaining that way. If I’m going to sacrifice a night of television, I might as well do it for watching television.”

     The audio cycled through the passing air that rushed past it in the atmosphere. They synchronized the audio and video at the exact point the probe was destroyed. There was a flash of light on the screen. The smoking remains of the probe appeared on the screen, revealing the surroundings. The microfilm was projected in all directions – they navigated its field of vision towards the cabin and the clothesline.

     “Something’s wrong with the video,” Roger said.

     “Stop being so god damn critical Roger,” Elise shouted, “Just be patient.”

     “No,” said David, “he’s right. Look, right here.” He rose and pointed at a circular section of the screen that looked to be hovering in front of the trees.

     Roger did a celebratory dance.

     The expanse of trees was black and tangled. Hovering in front of one of the taller trees was a small circle which had rough black outlines, cast by the trees in front of which it hung. It looked like a mirror was being held in the air, floating along the trees. The diameter of the floating mirror, or paneled glass as it would seem to reflect different directions, was roughly three feet.

     It was noted most clearly when it drifted from the air towards the table. A hanging circle of reflected light bobbed above the stand. The rhino on the table was near completion – its head was screwed on correctly, it would seem to anyone that knew how to put together rhinos, and, aside from the ears being inverted, it was perfectly assembled except for one missing limb.

     The mirror, or glass or whatever, drifted above the table for five or so minutes – when it drifted back into the air above, the rhino kicked its legs and rolled from the table. The other leg appeared as the mirrored glass gravitated. It hit the ground with a thud and the mirror swooped down to greet it. After a moment, it sauntered down the pathway like a giant windup toy.

     The floating circle reflected the smoking debris of the Ceti probe as it drifted to the cabin. It stopped for a moment in front of the varnished door as though it were thinking. It looked to one direction, shifting sideways, and then to the other. The circle drifted to the edge of the cabin, obscuring the view to the clothesline. After a moment, it returned to the front of the cabin.

     The cabin door swung open and the concentric circle, still reflecting the probe, disappeared into the cabin. Through the window they saw the rounded shadow again. In the audio they heard the song resumed.

There was a natural curiosity to the motions of the mirror. It seemed inquisitive, alive – inspecting something thoroughly. The rhino disappeared into the woods.

     “Whatever is there,” Roger said, “whatever is humming that song is carrying around some means of reflecting, or deflecting light. It looked like a pale mirror floated from above the table to the door. Don’t you agree?” He looked at David.

     David rewound the tape. He paused it as the circular figure first appeared above the table.

     “Look,” Roger said, pushing Elise out of the way, “you can see a handle. Look!” he pointed to a black cylindrical shape not too far under the floating mirror.

     “It’s a handle,” he said, “but what for?”

     “I have no idea,” Elise said, trying to force herself back into the conversation.

    “What’s new about that?” Roger asked, “I think I might have an idea.”

David and Elise glared at him expectantly.

“It’s just past one,” Roger said, “If we leave now, we’ll be able to have a round of drinks before the bar closes. Now this will require taciturn, the cordial brand of taciturn to which we yet have the inordinate ability to properly display. Now, if I order ten vodka’s at $3.25 I’ll have the reasonably small bill of $32.50. The savings, of course, could be proportioned to work out a deal with one of the strippers for David and I … I mean look at the man. He needs a couple of titties in his face…”

“Roger!” Elise shouted.

“Ok,” he stammered, “ok. Look, it’s a device for reflecting what’s in front of whatever it is, right? Look at it,” he gestured, “It’s meant to hide whatever is hiding behind it by reflecting whatever is front of it. So, if we stood directly in front of it… We’d see ourselves. It’s like an umbrella of sorts, I’d figure, the intention of which is to deter us from being able to glimpse whatever it is that carries it.”

“Why do you think it wouldn’t want us to see what it’s done?” Elise asked, “Or what it’s doing? Surely it must have taken due consideration that perhaps the planet would someday be discovered. If it really didn’t want to be destroyed or discovered, but had the power to move a planet a couple of parsecs at a time without much effort, surely it could avoid being discovered. It wants us to see it; it wants us to think about it; it wants us to discover it.”

“Your ego,” Roger laughed, “is amazing in its scope and grandeur. Why is it a preoccupation for human beings to believe themselves the center of every action in the universe? Even the planets line up to help us win the lottery, Elise. Venus has positive bearing on my sex life. These are absurd egotisms of a delusional race gone mad with the increasing possibility that they are really alone. When a single creature, or race, finds out they’re alone – what do they do? They cower because they know their fate is in their hands and the only person to whom their faith should be entrusted is themselves – the only person not capable of handling it. Sure, sure, you can find someone down the street to look after your soul for a small fee. You’ve taught yourself all of this by rote. It’s diminished over the generations, of course.

“Humans have thought themselves to be the center of the universe, the creation of a divine being with a special interest in what we do sexually, the object of attention for cosmic deities and other terrible inventions of delusional creatures, and now they think the only terrestrial planet in which life has been observed is simply existing to beckon them to show up.

“What do we bring with us, Elise? A package of creamed corn? Sneakers with lights in the heels or phony laser beams that go ‘beep-beep’ or do we take to them our miraculous inventions? The true demonstration of the ingenuity of the capability of the human species – nuclear fission and weaponry. Why do you have so much stock in this planet? The same reason anybody has any faith in anything; they’re convinced it’ll make them live, in someway or another, forever. That’s what faith comes down to – the delusion that something will make sure

you never die. That’s what Tomos is to you, isn’t it? A sign that something greater is going on? Things just happen, Elise. We can either enjoy them, or I’m going to continue taking things seriously and end up with a headache again. I’m tired of these kind of headaches, headaches from thinking. My body is telling me to abandon a habit which has caused me an unending amount of torture and torment that I most undoubtedly deserve.

“You’re too pessimistic,” she said simply, “You don’t want to see any sort of wonder in life. It pleases you, doesn’t it? If all there is to life is booze and sex, you can go about it without much of a burden on yourself. But if there are higher callings, you repeat to you the same sort of delusion you accuse me of repeating to myself.”

“Elise,” Roger said firmly, “I almost had you convinced I gave a shit, didn’t I?” He lit a cigarette and laughed.

“You’re so cute when you get all riled up,” he said, blowing her a kiss. “Let’s have a drink.”

He turned toward her office again. He whistled a tune as he walked in great strides. He’ll never change, she thought.

“Wait, wait,” Elise said, “go back. David, look in the bottom corner of the umbrella. Do you see what I see?”

“The same winged creature we saw on the clothesline ride,” Roger interrupted, “It appears as though whatever is hiding behind that umbrella wants us to think this creature is what’s doing all of this. That, or the angel looking creature wants us to think that something is trying to make us think the angel is what’s in control of the planet. Thus, it deters suspicion from itself by obvious pronouncement. Hiding something where it’s expected to be found is the best place to hide something, because it’s the last place anybody looks.”

“When the mirror goes up to the door,” Elise said, tracing her fingers along the digital projection screen, “Pause it and zoom in on the image.”

He ran the tape forward and paused. He zoomed in. Though it could barely be recognized, the distinct visage of the angel by the probe appeared. The angel’s face was blank, but it stood there motionless; it followed the bobbing of the drifting mirror. It’s wings were folded down dejectedly.

“Run the LRS,” Roger shouted, “We’re going to find out what’s on Tomos tonight if it kills me. If we don’t find out, and it doesn’t kill me, I’m not going to make you not stop me from not killing myself.”

They stared at him for a second with a sort of wonder.

“Roger,” David said, motioning towards the auditorium LRS facility – the most powerful in the United States, “you are probably the craziest human being I’ve ever met. But you’re certainly fun to be around.”

“Tell my wife that,” he said, “You can call her when Elise leaves.”

Elise forced a sympathetic type of smile as they headed towards the LRS auditorium. They found their way to the main control remote and loaded the program. They logged in to the floating Hubble telescope. The LRS machines all start from a vantage point orbiting the moon. From there you could zoom digitally, like a telescope zooming in on the earth from space, to almost any point in space that could be redirected and reflected towards inner reflecting digital monitoring

mirrors. It’s range was up to ten light years with crystal clear clarity – and had the clarity of a decent telescope up to one hundred million light years. Many planets had been discovered in the Milky Way because of it – and in Andromeda – but none of the planets had been inhabited.

It had long been the vantage point for optimistic scientists that human beings could not possibly be alone in so vast a universe. They repeated this as to absolve themselves of inward doubt and insecurity. But it remained; the Earth was the only known planet to support life in all its manifest joys and terrors.

But there was life, in a sense, on Tomos. It was possible that all life on the planet was a replica of life on Earth. This made people joyous, even though they had even less of a perspective on the workings of the physical universe since its appearance. Obviously, along the way, the scientists of Mother Earth forgot some rudimentary fact about space.

David ran the LRS machine, and in within minutes they hovered around the red dwarf star Lalande. There were two small planets in the system. One was a gas giant named Melas, named after the astronomer who discovered it, and the other was a planet similar in size to Neptune named Ahrum. Neither of the planets could support terrestrial life.

In the glare of Lalande in a cloud of dust and ice, Tomos drifted out of the dark and into view. It swam up on the monitor, casting light on David’s face.

The city’s were lit up on the side that faced the Earth – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the other lights that lined the outer edges of Mexico.

On all perceptible radio frequencies, all they heard was the musical, even joyful humming. It was being beamed from the star and both the planets in the system.

“Roger,” said Elise, “Listen. I can hear it outside.”

7: THE MESSAGE FROM TOMOS

________________________________

Everyone stood in front of their homes with their heads reclined, staring into the sky. The sound was unmistakable in every nook and cranny of the earth.

     The musical humming and slow chanting of Lalande filled all the aural channels of the Earth. From Alaska to Washington D.C., just outside the Bureau of Astronomy, you could hear the ominous humming from Lalande.

     There was a strange quality to the songs. Without much effort, they could easily be mistaken for the kind of chanting that primitive hominids made in song. The notes were perfect as they drifted through the woods and cities, through cars and bars and homes. Each note passed through wind chimes, rattling them together in perfect harmony.

     Roger and David debated the physics of hearing sound through the vacuum of space. They debated on hearing humming from Ursa Major. They wondered if somehow the entire planet had gone entirely mad.

     Of course, they drew no conclusions. Humans, Roger thought, were more capable of suggestions and possibilities than they were of definitive answers.

     The people in California climbed from their cars on the interstates and parked, looking up. With their children, their dogs, their cats, and friends – they all looked up with their eyes transfixed on the glittering blanket of night that spread above them. The stars were serenading the Earth.

     Elise showed up late for work again, finding herself in the midst of another media circus. They planned to answer a few of the questions directed at them. Roger decided to hang around the carnival. He called in sick at the pharmaceutical testing facility where he worked, and settled near the back of the room.

Only a few reporters were allowed in the main room. Dr. Daniels stood talking to a businessman by the door, and Nigel was fighting for air time in one of the small consortiums of reporters. Elise had prepared to give vague answers. Just enough to abate interest long enough for them to figure out something more substantial that could be used to abate their interest.

     A blank screen hung on the wall. Chairs were gathered before it. A few people sat idly at their stations with their headphones on, listening to the soothing sounds that poured from the sky.

     Galilee sat beside Roger with her leopard skinned book bag. Roger never wearied of it; he always imagined opening it, seeing leopard organs spilling out of it. Apparently, she had been the only person on Earth to think to search for Tomos in stars closer than Tau Ceti.

     Even as Elise stood before the reporters, amid a backdrop of the indicating dot of the Scarab tracking beam – pinned with a red tack – the soothing songs poured from the sky. They couldn’t drown it; putting on earphones did nothing to muffle the sound.

     None of the major television news stations could make much of it. Astronomers were being interviewed around the world. Many of them being awoken in the early morning hours. Most of them were awake and staring out their windows when the calls came in.

     The National Security advisor was in attendance as well. He sat in a lifeless silk suit by an open window with his arms crossed, randomly jotting notes in a black, leather bound notebook. They proposed to Dr. Daniels that the Scarab could be used to detonate an explosive charge on Tomos.

     This way, he claimed, any threat it might pose would be eliminated along with the unnecessary and more pressing mysteries surrounding it.

     By reversing the signal, it was possible to overload the Scarab tracking beacon with the information it sent out. This could possibly create a substantial explosion if concentrated enough and for a long period of time.

     Elise was to address the already fidgeting and restless crowd. She was to provide answers for questions she desperately needed the answers to. It was like asking for answers from someone who has yet to even take the test.

     Where did it come from? she wondered. Why was it there? What did the animal parts mean? What held the glass umbrella? How could there be a replica of the Earth in Ursa Major? Where were the now dubbed the Songs of Lalande coming from? What could we learn from it? Could it be dangerous?

     By all conventional science, the Songs came from the Lalande system. The voice was aimed directly towards our solar system, and this was unmistakable.

     “Tomos,” said Elise nervously, “has been relocated. We traced the tracking beacon originally welded to the bottom of the Ceti probe. Tomos is now drifting in the vicinity of Lalande 21185.”

     “Could this be a threat to national security?” another nameless reporter called, “Should we seriously look into attempting to destroy it?”

     The songs continued to swell in volume and intensity. It was the same slow, vocal and melancholic humming. It was eerily reminiscent to chamber music.

     “There is, as of yet anyway, no reason to suspect a threat. All we know is that there is intelligence on the planet. It hides behind some sort of glass umbrella. That’s why none of the LRS machines can find it. All they see are minor distortions in the atmosphere. It also seems that animals are being somehow manufactured on the surface of the planet.”

     No one seemed to have a question for that. Another reporter pressed, “What are the chances of being able to really find out why Tomos appeared in Cetus to begin with?”

     “I really don’t know,” said Elise, her eyes swelling, “but I do know why it’s there. I don’t have to be told why it’s there – and I don’t have to be right. My husband,” she motioned to Roger, who was, of course, asleep, “suggested this early on, but I dismissed it. It’s easy to dismiss an opinion when the person is related to you.”

     She forced a weak smile and continued, “I think Tomos never really had any significant external purpose. It had one for everybody.”

     “An example?” the National Security advisor shouted.

     “It gave us a reason to wonder again. It showed us humility; it gave us a purpose to advance our culture and our ideas. It transcended all logic, and I think it showed that logic isn’t always as sound as we believe it to be.”

     “But isn’t this the kind of scientific copout you’ve been making for years?” someone called. This upset Elise greatly.

     “Copout?” she said, “Tomos gave us a riddle that seemingly had no answer. It’s made us tax our brains – which isn’t something that’s very popular in today’s culture. People just drink beer, watch TV, play the lottery and have few interests in social matters.

     “The amount of hostility shown towards the research and effort made to figure out what happened in Cetus and why shows how far our race really has to go.”

When she finished speaking, the sounds that filled the air came to a sudden stop. Everybody on earth that listened heard the sound cut out. It didn’t fade, but was instant.

     The biggest monitor in the room clicked on. The screen was full of static at first, and then it panned out to show the office they were in. All of the people in the room were in the room on the screen. Though they didn’t move, they were perfect replicas.

     Of Roger, Elise, Nigel, Dr. Daniels, even the National Security Advisor. He sat lifeless in the same sort of chair. He appeared frozen above his notebook. Elise backed up to get a better look at the screen.

The people around the room looked like mannequins. Then a young girl walked to the screen and spoke into it. There was a melodic quality to the voice.

     “My name is not important. You have to leave this star system alone. You call this planet Tomos. This is our planet. Please don’t bother us anymore. He is not a threat; he just wants to sing. We are not a threat.”

     Elise knew exactly who the young girl was.

     The image of the adolescent flickered and the screen went blank.

     Everybody in the room stirred. Hushed talking turned into borderline panic. Elise called Nigel over to her, whispered something to him, and he went out of the room.

     “He’s going to check the signal,” Elise said, “to make sure it’s not a prank.” She fiddled with the controls for a moment.

     “Look, look,” she pointed, “I’ve got it recorded.”

      She played the video again. At the appropriate screen, she paused it. Allowing everyone in the room to see the screen. Everyone there was in the room on the screen. Roger was there too, sitting in the back beside Galilee. It looked like an elaborately designed dollhouse full of rigid, doll-like people.

     Nigel ran into the room. He whispered something to Elise. She could see herself in the video as well, not too far from the back of the room. Her face was frozen.

     “It appears,” she said, “We’ve been contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence.” She was silent for a minute.

A reporter raised his hand. She called on him.

     “Dr. Manwell,” he asked, “We’re all on that screen. How can we be contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence, if we’re all here?”

     “Because,” she said, “that signal is coming from the Lalande system. For the first time in known history, we’ve been contacted by another civilization. Strangely, it appears as though we’ve been contacted by ourselves.”

     The tape, along with the briefing, was made public. Scientists from around the world identified that the message had indeed been broadcast from Tomos, still drifting near Lalande. Why, or how, an entire room full of mannequin-like human beings had been produced to send us the message, was purely speculation.

     Throughout most of modern history, human beings have always imagined and wondered what contact with another civilization would be like. What would they look like? What would they want? They expected giant spaceships and aliens with glittering skin and long robes to descend on us with open arms to take us to the galaxy.

     The message from Tomos was played over and over. It even leaked onto the internet. The songs from Lalande could be heard again. They were much fainter, but they were there. The distinct humming couplets filled the morning, as Elise made her way to a meeting in downtown Washington D.C. They were as violins. She had been summoned, along with Dr. Daniels and Nigel, to a confidential location to meet with the National Security Council.

     The room was dark except for a monitor on a single table. On the screen the image of the cloud wrapped Tomos was spinning slowly. Lalande flickered in the distance, casting light on the polar ice caps.

     A small group of men sat around smoking cigarettes. The smoke danced in the rays of light cast by the monitor, darkening their eye-sockets and starker facial features. Elise was urged to sit down and she obliged. She put her briefcase on the table and opened it.

     Another man entered through a different door and sat down beside her.

     “Can I offer you something to drink?” he asked.

     “Gin,” she replied, “straight. That’d be good.”

     He nodded and stood, wandering off to fix her drink. Dr. Daniels sat beside her on one side and Nigel sat on the other.

     “Your drink,” the man said, handing it to her.

    “Thank you,” Elise replied, accepting it graciously.

    “We’ve called you here to tell you some things,” the man said, “Many of which you’ll find disagreeable. But I have strict orders. We are here to inform you and perhaps get some information.”

     “We’ll do what we can,” Dr. Daniels said. He cast a nervous glance at Elise. She had finished her drink and was visibly more worried than he was.

     “This planet,” the man continued, “Tomos? Yes, that’s what the scientists call it. We have orders to acquire the coordinates from you. We intend to destroy the planet.”

     Elise stood. “How can you even think about that?” she shouted, “This planet has made no hostile moves towards us. It’s merely asked us to leave us alone.”

     “Didn’t you notice, Mrs. Manwell, who was on that screen? There were human beings there being kept against their will. That much is obvious.”

     “Sir…” she started.

     “Call me Conrad,” he interrupted.

     “Conrad,” she began again, “if you didn’t notice… everyone in that room down at the Bureau was on that transmission. The young girl that appeared on the screen was my daughter. And as far as I know she’s only left the country once, much less the solar system. If there are human beings there, chances are – they are just replicas of us.”

     “Then we’re already planning to destroy us,” said Conrad. “Why would an alien species recreate us to make contact with… with us? I always imagined that one day an alien race would contact us. I never imagined that we’d contact ourselves from another region in space. Don’t you think that’s a bit strange, Dr. Manwell?”

     “You know about the animals,” Dr. Daniels said, “the way we found evidence of animal manufacturing on the planet?”

     “We heard about the rhino and the rat,” Conrad said, circling the table, “but maybe this creature has found a way to recreate human beings based on a biological blueprint. The only reason we’d be replicated by an alien species should be obvious. They wish to enslave us, or figure out a way to create more effective weapons to use against us.”

     “That’s absurd,” Elise shouted, “This intelligence, whether it is a single entity or more, has the ability to replicate an entire planet down to specific details. It managed to move Tomos from Tau Ceti to Lalande in what appears to be no more than a few seconds, and we have the nerve to assume this creature, whatever it is, doesn’t have the ability to destroy us if it wishes? What threat could we pose it, really?”

The men across the table, who up till this point had been silent, gave a small chuckle.

     “What?” Elise asked.

     “You’re forgetting about the angel,” one said, “by the clothesline. Have you established what that means yet?”

     “I think, again, that whatever the creatures motive, it used the angel to comfort us. It contacted us with … ourselves. This was to make sure we didn’t panic. Perhaps it didn’t realize that we could’ve more easily handled a message from any creature in the universe than from ourselves. The angel should’ve been a comforting image to us. It’s comforted religious zealots for thousands of years. I don’t see any sort of ill-intent in any of the actions. We should leave the planet alone, study it of course, but let it be. We have no right to police the universe and destroy everything we don’t understand.”

     “So,” Conrad intervened, “this creature can make a planet skip through parsecs in space, but has trouble in social situations? It’s smart enough to move a planet from one place in space to another, but is dumb enough to send us a message from Tomos with ourselves in the video?”

     “I don’t really think intelligence has anything to do with that,” Nigel said.

“Surely,” Conrad said, “a creature would have to be intelligent to move such distances in space.”

     “Do you think it requires intelligence to create an electric light show?” Elise asked, looking at Conrad intently.

     “Of course,” he responded, “You’d have to have a fundamental knowledge of electricity, which takes intelligence.”

     “High intelligence?” she continued.

     “Well, a high school graduate level of intelligence should be able to do it.”

     “There are thousands of animals in the ocean that can do it,” she said, “and I doubt any of them have their degree.”

    “Exactly,” Nigel said, “Maybe this creature has the natural ability to move through space like that. It doesn’t have to be a product of intelligence.

     “Tomorrow we’re going to vote,” said Conrad, “We’ll let you know if Tomos goes or Tomos stays. But frankly, it makes us all uncomfortable. It just hangs there, immobile, not orbiting or moving. It has no reason to be there and it shouldn’t be there. And we will, Dr. Manwell, destroy it. A radio signal can be generated at greater distances. It’ll build up near the surface. When the charge is good enough… Tomos disappears.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8: THE MYSTERY REVEALED

________________________________

Then everybody saw it, glittering in the loving warmth of Sol, the iridescent glass umbrella drifting to the Earth. The faces of each mother and each child, from all around the world, drifted upwards to the iridescent glass umbrella. The powers that be on Earth were ready to destroy the planet. They were ready to remove the potential threat and mystery forever from the Earth.

     It drifted all the way down to the Bureau of Astronomy building in Washington D.C., where the meeting was being held. They would vote for the go ahead. They’d vote for its destruction.

     It drifted with the handle pointing down, dropping steadily to the floor. Scientists had gathered, astronomers, people of the Presidential Cabinet, and more than a few civilians had come to figure out the fate of Tomos. Roger was there. This time, for the first time in a long, long time, living a life of amused detachment, he was wide awake. He was, however, more than pleasantly drunk. Elise sat beside him in the front row. They came, along with the rest of the Bureau, to find out what was to be done with Tomos.

     For a moment the umbrella balanced on its handle in the center of the room. Then the handle rose to the ceiling and turned upside down, scattering the light around the room. With each face in the room reflecting off it, the handle disappeared when the glass canopy came to rest in the center of the room. Something was above it as it drifted, cradled inside it, and an iridescent light beamed off all corners of the room. Now it was comfortably hidden under the mirror-like panels.

     Roger sat up, wiping the drool off his face, and watched it hover above the ground. Everybody looking at it saw themselves, save for one slender silver hand, with four primary digits and two opposing thumbs, which gripped the cylindrical handle. He was surprised that no one fled the room.

     No one approached it except for Elise. She walked over to the umbrella top and knelt beside it. Small, tangled lines swiveled around the cap.

     “Why did you make Tomos?” she asked, “Why did you put it there?”

     “It was placed in Tau Ceti because of the debris in the system. I thought it would be comfortably hidden long enough for me to finish.”

     “Long enough to finish? What exactly were you trying to make?”

     “A replica of Earth,” the umbrella replied, “because Earth is the only place I found. I’ve attempted making many more copies, but never finished any of them. They resemble Earth, and they’re spread out across the galaxy. Search long

enough and you will find hundreds of derelict worlds resembling your mother Earth. But Earth is the only place I’ve found…”

     “Found?” Elise asked, “What do you mean?”

“I’ve been in this galaxy for thousands of millions of years. Time for me is different than it is for you. For me, time is like a bath. Someone of the moments stick to me. For you, time is like a river and you’re sticks and leaves stuck in the stream, heading for the wide mouth of a dark and unknown ocean. I have lived for a thousand millennia, but remember only the past one hundred thousand years or so, it all fades as I continue to age.”

     “You’ve traveled through our entire galaxy?”

     “Not only this one, in others. I’ve traveled in and out the star systems of Andromeda. There were oceans there, but never life. Not even an ant or mealworm.”

     “And you don’t even know how you got to be?”

     “Do you?” the voice continued, “I don’t know how I got to be here anymore than a rhino or a rat. I might have known shortly after my creation, but that was so long ago. If I ever knew my creator, or my God, I must have forgotten his name and face.”

     “Oh,” Elise said thoughtfully, “You were trying to remake all the animals on Earth?”

     “I thought it was essential to make everything the same, down to the last crack in the concrete of New York City, in order for life to arise. There is nothing in the universe as wonderful as the oceans of the Earth. I’ve seen nebulae and supernovas, gas clouds, globular clusters, super massive black holes and proto¬stars. But nothing I saw in the universe, is as beautiful as the process of one flower growing on the Earth.”

“I’ve been trying to tell everybody that,” Roger said. “Have you ever found any hint as to how life began?”

     “Nothing. One night I wasn’t; the next night I was. That’s all I remember. So I decided to search for some other form of life. Looking for company, for friends, or anything other than just rock and dirt, automata and lifeless gas giant planets. Earth is the only place I found.”

     “Earth is the only place you’ve found life?” Elise asked. She felt deeply saddened. “That can’t be possible.”

     “It is. It’s a giant universe. It is massive. And it’s terrifying to be alone for such a time. That is why I created the planet you call Tomos. I wanted to recreate life. Of all the planets I’ve encountered, I could never get life to arise. On Earth, yes, I came to earth generations ago, I could make things grow in the dirt with ease. I saw infinity in a drop of water.”

     “How did you come to know of Earth?”

     “I was far away. Millions of light years, understand. Then I heard an echo. Not of sound but of visions. I saw the Earth in my dreams and in my dreams I saw the faces of the animals on Earth.

     “I arrived in the Sol system over a million years ago. I hovered in the air, under this umbrella, and watched life change and grow. So I leave and take with me all the elements needed to create a world to match it. Sooner or later, though not this soon, I was sure that life on Earth would be capable of finding me.

     “So I assembled the structure of the planet and then, when it was finished, took it to Tau Ceti to work on the animals. None of them worked longer than a couple of days. I’d failed before to even get the planet to take shape. I’ve made lots of worlds that have vague similarities to Earth. But with Tomos, I got everything right. But life couldn’t be sustained for more than a few days or hours at the most. The humans that arose, that lived for a few days, there were alone. They were scared, as scared as me.””

“How were you capable of moving Tomos from Tau Ceti to Lalande?” Elise asked skeptically, “There is no scientific evidence to support that as a possibility. Did you use a wormhole or a series of black hole?”

     “The science of Earth can’t explain everything on Earth, much less the mysteries of the universe. I don’t know how I did it,” the voice answered, “I guess I was born with the capability. It was as natural to me as it is for a human to want to mate.”

Roger giggled.

     “You had parents?” Elise pressed. No one else in the room said anything. The glass umbrella sat lifeless in the center of the room. The voice that came from under was soothing and listening to it, all of Elise’s anxiety disappeared.

     “Not that I saw, but then again, the first living creatures I ever saw were on Earth, or at least that I remember. So I made what you call Tomos and hid it away. It was so hard to protect the planet… and I protected it like a mother would protect a child.

     “That’s why I destroyed your probe. It took me such a long time to make it, and with such infinite care, and none of the humans I’ve made can do anything but sing. They’re afraid, I’m sad to say, but they sing. They were alone and afraid so I taught them how to sing to cope with the vastness of it all. They sung to push away the massive, pressing empty of the galaxy.”

     “What was the angel-like creature by the probe?” Elise asked.

     “I knew the angel was a symbol of beauty amongst humans. I didn’t think you would want to destroy a planet made of angels. But I didn’t know you were so curious. I met with ancient human cultures and some embraced me and some hailed me. They weren’t capable of what you’re capable of, and certainly not capable of monitoring stars as far away as Tau Ceti or Lalande. Some scorned me and tried to burn me. They called me different names because I wore different costumes. But I had nothing to do with humanity’s developing, other than one thing.”

     “Which is?” Galilee asked with a childlike curiosity.

     “I taught some of the first humans how to sing. They were far less advanced than you are, but they were just as inquisitive. They hummed at first, but after a while they started to remember certain patterns, vocalizations. That’s the sound you heard from Lalande, the songs I taught the humans there to sing. They can’t reason and they’ll die. But I’ll find another system. As I’ve been doing all along. I just don’t want life to end forever when the Earth is swallowed by Sol’s supernova. It’s too beautiful a thing to let slip away. Tomos will be made again and made better. Because the design isn’t perfect, but sooner or later I’ll perfect the design. Trillions of seemingly inconsequential processes led to life on Earth. It’s really hard to duplicate. That’s why you’ve found no other life in the universe. That’s why I haven’t.

     “You call the planet Tomos … there are millions of planets resembling Earth now. All of them look like experiments. There’s a signature, near the core, of

every single one. It looks like a symbol I showed the ancient humans, and a

symbol that survived through racial memory. You call it a treble clef.”

Elise backed away from it and sat beside Roger.

     “Is there anything anyone would like to know before I leave?” the umbrella asked.

     “Why did you make Tomos?” a reporter asked, “Just a plain and simple answer. We need something the people can digest easily. This has left a lot of people scratching their heads for quite a while now.”

     “I wanted to make another planet full of life. There is nothing in the sky as beautiful as the variety of life on Earth, and to waste all of that space on lifeless rocks and dust is sad.

     That’s why we sing in Lalande. We sing because it fills the empty. This is the song I taught them:

     Humanity is seen at night,

     More clearly than in day;

     And one look up,

     Is just enough,

     To greet Miss Milky Way.
With scattered stars amid the
curls,
Draped over night and day.

     “Sing this and remember me.”

     With this the umbrella top floated back to the ceiling. It spun for a moment and disappeared.

Roger looked at Elise with unease.

     “Makes you think,” she said. “Doesn’t it?”

     “Yes,” said Roger, “It really makes me think.”

     “About what?” Galilee asked him.

     “Life is too short to stay sober too often,” he smiled and lit a cigarette, “Let’s hit the bar.”

     “But Galilee’s too young,” said Elise.

     “That never stopped you,” Roger replied and walked to the door.

     Elise and Galilee gathered beside him in front of the Bureau of Astronomy and watched the umbrella float up high up in the atmosphere. It’s silhouette cast by the sun winked out and disappeared, leaving but the memory of those sublime songs.

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