Authors: Ben Bova
But even if we encounter life on the other planets of this Sun, it seems most unlikely that we shall meet intelligence. The odds are fantastically against it; since the solar system is at least five thousand million years old, it is altogether unreasonable to expect that other rational beings will be sharing it with us at this very moment.
To find our peers, or more likely our superiors, we must look to the stars. There are still some conservative scientists…who would deny that we can ever hope to span the interstellar gulf which light itself takes years to cross.
This is nonsense. In the foreseeable future…we shall be able to build robot explorers that can head to the stars, as our present ones are heading to Mars and Venus. They will take years upon their journeys, but sooner or later one will bring back news that we are not alone.
That news may also reach us, more swiftly and in richer detail, in the form of radio or other messages…. Even now, if it was felt worthwhile, we could build a transmitter that could send signals to the nearest stars.
ARTHUR C. CLARKE
Voices from the Sky
Harper & Row
Stoner pecked hesitantly at the computer keyboard. The typewriterlike terminal was perched shakily on the dining room table. The video screen readout unit sat next to it, flickering with pale green letters and symbols that danced across its screen. The dining room was littered with stacks of printout sheets and photographs. The entire side wall of the dining room was filled with bookshelves that Stoner had cobbled together out of boards and bricks, with the help of his security guards. Every shelf bulged with books.
He didn’t have the house to himself, though.
In addition to the brawny young Navy guards who patrolled the grounds and prowled periodically through the house, cluttering the kitchen and checking all the doors and windows, there was a growing stream of visitors from Washington and elsewhere taking up the big living room, next to the pool. Military men, most of them, with bundles of logistical plans in their briefcases. Stoner could hear them arguing, sometimes shouting at each other, through the thick sliding doors of the dining room. Arguments about food requirements and bedding, insurance tables and electronic spare parts.
Stoner tried to avoid them as much as he could. They were welcome to the living room as long as they didn’t interfere with his work. He shut their brassy voices out of his mind and concentrated on tracking the orbit of the spacecraft, using the Big Eye photographs and the computer to analyze its path.
It has to be a spacecraft, he kept telling himself. It can’t be a natural object.
McDermott came to the house regularly, and not even the heaviest oaken doors could muffle the old man’s deep, booming voice. Tuttle was there often, as well, but the little lieutenant commander was too deeply engrossed in planning their move to say anything to a mere astrophysicist.
Despite himself, Stoner could hear bits and pieces of their discussions. The project had acquired a code name: Project JOVE. And their arguing was mostly about where to place Project JOVE. McDermott kept bellowing about Arecibo. But more and more the other voices countered with another name: Kwajalein.
“What are you doing?” Jo asked.
She sat up in the bed, tucking the sheet modestly under her armpits. It was early morning, a quiet Sunday in mid-November. Crisp sunshine filtered through the bedroom curtains of the New Hampshire house.
Jo had arrived on Friday evening, as usual, with a heavy folder of photographs from Big Eye under her arm. They were stamped Confidential and addressed to Stoner. The photos were beamed by laser from the orbiting telescope to NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland. From there they were transmitted by secure wirephoto cable to the Navy headquarters in Boston’s virtually deserted waterfront. Jo picked them up at the gray Navy building each Friday afternoon and drove them up to Stoner in New Hampshire. And stayed the weekend.
He was sitting at the little maple writing desk the Navy guards had found for him, bent over a sheet of paper.
“I’m writing a letter,” he replied, “to an old friend of mine. One of my former teachers. He’s an astrophysicist: Claude Appert. Lives in Paris.”
“He’s French?” Jo asked.
“As French as the Eiffel Tower.” Stoner finished addressing the envelope and turned in his chair to face Jo. “I want you to mail this for me when you get back to Cambridge.”
Her brows arched upward.
“They won’t let me mail anything out of here,” Stoner explained. “Especially overseas.”
“What’s in the letter?” she asked.
He folded two flimsy sheets of paper and tucked them into the envelope. “I’m asking him if anybody in the European astronomical community has picked up unusual radio signals from Jupiter.”
“That’s a security violation, isn’t it?” Jo pointed out.
With a shake of his head, Stoner said, “I didn’t say we had found anything. I just asked if he’s heard anything.”
Jo said, “The Navy wouldn’t…”
“Listen to me,” he snapped. “They’re using us, Jo. Do you understand? Using us. We’ve stumbled across an incredible discovery, and all they can think of is to keep it secret and try to turn it to their own military advantage.”
“But nothing! We spend our lives squeezing out every drop of knowledge about the universe that we can, and they treat us like civil servants. They take our knowledge and turn it into weapons. They throw us in the gutter whenever they feel like it, whenever they decide to cut down on the money they spend for research. Cattle are treated better! The government spends more money subsidizing the goddamned tobacco industry—causing cancer—than it spends on cancer research.”
“What’s that got to do with the radio signals?” Jo asked softly.
Stoner was on his feet now, lecturing, forgetting that he was naked. “When we come up with some hint of power, with some new idea that might help them control people or kill them, then they put us into harnesses and won’t let us work on anything else.”
“We don’t live in a peaceful world, Keith.”
“I know that. But what’s Tuttle’s first reaction to the possibility that we’ve found intelligent life? Not awe. Not even curiosity. Not even fear! They want to lay their hands on any new technology the aliens might have—so that they can improve their weaponry.”
Jo said nothing.
“That’s why they want to keep this news away from men like Sagan and Phil Morrison. Those men have international reputations. They can get the United Nations or some other international organization to make a united, worldwide program out of this. The military doesn’t want that! They won’t allow it!
why they’ve got me bottled up here like a prisoner. That’s why they want to move the whole damned operation off to some military base. They want to keep the whole damned thing a secret.”
“I know that.”
“Well, I’m going to blow the lid off this thing,” Stoner said, waving the envelope in one hand. “That’s what this letter is all about.”
“Keith, you’re only going to get yourself in real trouble.”
“We’re in real trouble now,” he countered, “and as long as they can keep this thing secret, the whole world is in trouble.”
“I don’t know if I should mail this for you, Keith,” Jo said.
He walked over to the bed, sat on its edge beside her. “Mail it. They can’t put me into any deeper trouble than I am now. And it’s important that the whole scientific community learns about what’s going on here.”
Reluctantly, Jo took the letter from his hand. She looked at the address, then turned and placed the envelope on the bed table beside her purse.
Stoner didn’t tell her that the second sheet in the envelope was addressed to one of the authors whose book he had read a few nights earlier. A Russian linguist who had written an interesting monograph about possible extraterrestrial languages: Professor Kirill Markov, of Moscow.
More weeks went by, and Stoner patiently worked by himself while the wrangling went on in the next room.
McDermott promised us a warm winter, Stoner grinned to himself. It’ll be April Fools’ Day before we get out of New England.
Thompson brought the Englishman to the house on a bitterly cold morning, one of those New England days when the sun shines brilliantly out of an absolutely blue sky, but the air is a frigid mass of biting dry polar stuff that slides in from Canada and sends thermometers down to zero for days on end.
From inside the house it looked beautiful: bright sunshine glittering on pristine snow, trees stretching bare limbs into the crystal sky. Stoner spent all of two minutes admiring it when he first arose.
He was quickly down in the dining room, chugging away at the computer keyboard, exasperated because there just weren’t enough early observations of the spacecraft to get a true fix on its origin. A blast of cold air told him that someone had just come in through the door in the rear of the kitchen.
Stoner didn’t bother looking up. The computer terminal was starting to rattle off the answers to his latest equations, typing automatically, chattering across the paper at an inhumanly mad speed, numbers and symbols springing across the sheets faster than his eyes could follow.
Jeff Thompson called, “Hi, Keith. Busy?”
Stoner turned in the dining room chair, an acid reply on his tongue, but saw that Thompson had an older man with him.
“Keith, this is Professor Roger Cavendish.”
Stoner saw a man of about sixty, tall but very spare, thinning white hair, bony skull of a face, deepset eyes, bushy eyebrows. He stood there in his overcoat and scarf, gloves in one hand, and gave Stoner a quizzical half-smile.
“Professor Cavendish?” Stoner asked. “From Jodrell Bank?”
“Yes,” Cavendish said softly. “Quite. Don’t tell me my reputation has preceded me?”
“Your work on organic molecules in interstellar clouds isn’t exactly obscure,” Stoner said, getting up from his chair and extending his hand to the Englishman.
Cavendish’s hand was cold, his grip lukewarm.
“And you’re Stoner, the astronaut, eh?”
Thompson took the coats and yelled in from the kitchen that he would put on a kettle for tea.
“There’s instant coffee, if you prefer,” Stoner suggested.
Cavendish actually shuddered.
Stoner walked into the living room. Cavendish’s impressive brows went up when he saw the pool.
“My god, what splendor. Is it heated?”
“Of course, how stupid of me. Otherwise it’d be a skating rink in this weather, wouldn’t it?”
Stoner grinned. “Well, there’s a lot of hot air pumped into this room. The military and logistics types have their meetings in here.”
“Ah. I see. Naturally, they’d take the best facilities for themselves.”
Gesturing him to an armchair, Stoner asked, “What brings you to this place?”
Cavendish sat down and stretched pipestem legs. He was the perfect picture of an English academic: baggy tweed suit, sweater beneath his jacket, drooping little bow tie.
“NATO, actually,” he replied. “Your intelligence people have been asking some interesting questions about radio signals, so our intelligence people put two and two together and finally NATO got into the act. One thing led to another, and here I am.”
“You’re representing NATO?”
“And you’ll go with us when we move to Arecibo, or Kwajalein, or wherever they put us?”
“Lord, I hope not. Spent enough of my life in tropical paradises.”
Stoner sank back into his armchair, thinking, So they’ve brought NATO into it. Maybe my letter to Claude helped. I wonder if he forwarded the note to that Russian linguist?
Thompson came in with a tray bearing three mugs. Stoner took his and saw that it was black coffee. One sip, though, convinced him never to allow Thompson to make coffee for him again.
“Professor Cavendish was a prisoner of war for nearly five years,” Thompson said. “In the Pacific.”
“Burma, actually,” said Cavendish. “Bridge over the River Kwai and that sort of thing. Very nasty. Best forgotten, if you can.”
Within minutes their national origins and earlier lives were forgotten as they started talking shop.
“There’s just not enough data,” Stoner admitted, “to backtrack the thing’s point of origin. I don’t think we’ll ever figure out where it came from.”
“But you have enough to show that it couldn’t have been launched from Jupiter,” Cavendish said.
“I think so,” Stoner said. “We’ve tried every possible launch window. If the spacecraft appeared near Jupiter at the same time the radio pulses started, there isn’t any possible way it could have been launched from Jupiter itself. No way.”
“It’s a negative proof,” Thompson said.
“All the stronger for that,” said Cavendish. “If we can definitely rule out Jupiter as the origin of our visitor, then that’s quite an accomplishment.”
“I suppose the next step would be to rule out the other planets.”
“Easily done. I should think your computer could crunch through those numbers quickly enough.”
Stoner stretched his legs out and slouched back on his chair. He put the steaming coffee cup on his belt buckle and said, “So it’s definite—the thing came from outside the solar system. We have the numbers to prove that.”
“We will have,” Thompson said, “in a few days.”
“But that makes things even more puzzling, doesn’t it?” said Cavendish.
“Well, if it came from outside the solar system, from another star, it must have taken thousands of years for the blasted thing to reach this far. Millions of years, more likely.”
“If it’s an unmanned probe…”
“Even unmanned”—Cavendish waved his emptied teacup—“a piece of machinery that can stay intact and operate reliably for millennia? For eons? Difficult to believe.”
“What if there’s a crew aboard?” Thompson mused. “Our own spacecraft have worked better when astronauts were aboard to repair malfunctions.”
“But it’s the blasted
factor that makes all these arguments so difficult,” Cavendish insisted. “If you have a spacecraft traveling from one star to another it would take so many centuries that the crew would have to be prepared to spend its entire life on the ship…plus the lives of its children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—dozens of whole generations, don’t you see?”
“Not if the ship could fly at the speed of light, or close to it,” Stoner said.
“Relativistic effects,” Thompson muttered. “Time dilation.”
“Not bloody likely,” Cavendish countered. “And your own observations show it poking along at a rather sedate speed, actually, more like your Voyager and Mariner probes.”
Thompson finished his cup and got to his feet. “Well, one thing’s for sure. Whichever way you look at it, the damned thing is impossible.”
“But it’s there,” said Stoner.
“Ahh,” Cavendish said with a growing smile. “That’s what makes science interesting, isn’t it?”