C7: Chapter Two – Lost on Earth
Bob reached out for a chair to steady himself as Nico’s confession splintered his world and shook him to his core – just as the strange shift in perspective that had accompanied her step out of the closet had done.
“There really are aliens among us. Christ one of them lives next door to me,” Bob thought, feeling it safer to explore it all in his head before he dared to open his mouth. Now was not the time for one of his infamous foot-in-mouth forays – he’d prefer to begin this interplanetary relationship without a gaff on his part.
While he explored the possibility of the impossible every day, sitting there logically attempting to interpret the volumes of data in his small cave-like office, part of him really debated whether life beyond the known universe was feasible. While part of him fantasised about it – the other part, the analyst and mathematician – knew there had never been a probability of an oversized, blue-grey, insectoid creature dropping by with cookies in the middle of an unseasonable downpour because it was the neighbourly thing to do. He’d come to SETI on the strength of his resume and the challenge that the project presented him, rather than a passion for planets or all consuming beliefs about life existing in the big beyond. It seemed the mountain had come to Mohammed in that regard.
Nico stood looking at Bob, his facial expression oscillating with his thoughts, but giving her no fixed indication of what he was feeling or thinking. Neither Nico nor Bob felt comfortable or uncomfortable in those precious minutes as each of them processed what had just gone on. It was as though they were paused in time and space, existing in the microcosm of the kitchen, grappling with the wider implications. All was silent – even the cacophony of the rain on the iron roof seemed to be muted.
Nico waited patiently for Bob to say something, but when it became obvious he wouldn’t or couldn’t, she looked at the shattered coffee cup and the slick tide of coffee making its way across the worn linoleum of the kitchen floor and asked, “Do you have a dust pan and broom? A rag? I don’t want you to step on the broken mug and cut yourself.”
It took a moment for Nico’s simple statement to register with Bob. He looked down at the floor, his anemic white feet were pock marked with splattered coffee. For the first time he felt the small fiery pin points of pain, where the coffee had burnt the top of his feet.
“Ahh, in the little cupboard beside the fridge.”
With quiet efficiency Nico cleaned up the mess and poured another brew for Bob, who had sat down at the table. He sat sipping his coffee slowly and deliberately, while Nico played with a cookie. In a sudden flurry of activity, Bob pushed his chair back, so violently it fell backwards as he moved with uncharacteristic speed away from the table, returning with his briefcase. A moment later the lock was opened, and the case sat lid up in front of him, obscuring the petite form of Nico from his line of sight. He took out a pile of data printouts… the type that rolled off in one continual stream, each page punctuated with a line of perforation, and pushed the briefcase to the side. He searched through the pages, his doughy fingers moving expertly through the paper jungle, as he searched for the pages embellished in pink highlighter, biro marks scribbled in the border.
He looked up, pushing his heavy glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “Are there others here Nico?”
“Others like me – or just others?”
“You mean there are more aliens?” It was difficult to keep the astonishment out of his voice.
“I prefer the term extra terrestrial.”
“Semantics,” Bob muttered, running his finger along a line of data that terminated in a string of hand written numbers, ignoring Nico who had successfully reduced two cookies to neat piles of crumbs.
“I thought I was mad,” Bob said and passed the printout to Nico. “It’s in the silence not in the chatter – when you did what you did to me, that temporal spatial shift in perception. Now I understand.”
What do you understand Bob?
Bob’s jaw dropped. Nico sat there rearranging the pile of cookie crumbs nonchalantly, but he was certain that she’d spoken to him.
“Did you just say something to me?”
Yes I did Bob.
He looked at her in disbelief.
Surely you’d have suspended all your atrophying beliefs by now Bob.
“I can hear you in my head.”
This is the way we communicate on my planet. There is little need for spoken words most of the time. We move through time and space in silence.
Nico reached out and took the printouts from Bob, reading the data with growing uneasiness. “The breaks… the periods of silence. When did they appear?” she asked.
“About three months ago. I thought that they were a by-product of static, space storms, electrical disturbances, a programming error, but they’ve become more regular… there is a pattern.”
“They’re searching for me.”
“They are following the psychic trail I left behind. And it ends here – Earth.”
“Then they will come – here?”
“My people only travel with their minds. We do not leave our planet. The Empress will send others to get me and take me home. Or negotiate with your government to have me sent back.”
“But you travelled here?”
“I followed another. He came with one of your kind who was a scientific envoy from Earth.”
“So the urban legend is true.”
“So your people – they could come if they chose.”
“Technically – yes. But – no. It is not our way.”
Bob took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes that were sore and itchy. His head was aching, and the excitement of the evening was giving way to a deep sense of exhaustion, that was invading each and every bone and muscle in his body. His sedentary, non-eventful existence was unused to this sort of drama. The closest he’d had to any excitement in the last year was a bag of microwave popcorn exploding and the inevitable argument with his mother about another of those hand-knitted jumpers she’d given him for his birthday.
“Has the signal stabilized? Has it become regular, like a beacon?” Nico asked, peering over the top of the papers in her tiny hands.
“No but it can’t be far off. Based on the rate of normalization over the past three months, it can’t be more than a few days, a week at most before your people get a lock on Earth.”
Nico paled, laid the printouts on the table and clasped her hands together on top of the table, hiding Mount St. Cookie. The alabaster white of her knuckles was the only other indication that her graceful poise had been shaken.
“I suppose that I should turn you in Nico.” Bob said the words with a halting, palpable discomfort, more from a sense of duty than a true desire to do so. “Your presence here could…”
“It will be a moment of, what do you call it here – first contact. Well public contact because it’s obvious that your government knows more than it’s letting on.”
“Nico it’s greater than first contact.” He paused, fighting to try and find the right words, not wanting to offend Nico. “Are we harboring you?”
“I’m not exactly a criminal, a fugitive. I’m more a refugee – a political or religious exile.”
“Can I have another glass of water?” Her mouth felt dry and the enormity of what she had done finally seeped all the way through her being. In the past three years she’d never been called to account for the decision that she’d made, much less casually discussed it over cookies and drinks. There had been no one to talk to and she’d been able to delude herself that she had every right to choose – to leave if she wanted. She lived in a society now that put selfishness on a pedestal. No one disagreed with the concept of free will here. Bob would not judge her for what she had done. He would understand, unlike those on her home planet.
Bob stood up and filled a jug with water, placing it on the table in front of her. Nico poured herself a glass of water, swept Mount St. Cookie into the palm of her hand and brushed it onto a plate – the shifting sands of the Great Cookie Desert.
She was lying to herself about Bob. It did matter what Bob thought. If he was unable to empathize with her position, he’d turn her over to the authorities. He’d earn the respect of important people. And she knew how important respect was for Bob. If Bob did not care about her decision, then he’d get a crack at being someone important – for the first time in his life.
“My people are unlike anything you can even begin to imagine. We are bound from birth to follow the path into which we are born. Free will is a totally foreign concept and we have never had cause to question it. Our first and only priority is to…” she struggled to find the right word. “…to the Hive. We are born as one – we do and think as one. We are interconnected through genetics, through work and united psychically through a thought bond. We are a collective and no one person is more important, even the Empress, than the Hive.
“Three years ago, a human came among us, sent from Earth as a Science and Cultural envoy. She changed the way in which one of our men thought and that variation, like a virus, infected him. He was to be my mate and the change in him altered me, too, through our psychic connection. It made me see for the first time what lay ahead of me as Empress. And I chose to leave – to follow him here to Earth.”
“Because I knew nowhere else to go. I followed his psychic trail as my people are now following mine. I found a home here on Earth – one that allows me to indulge my need for individual freedom without guilt or reprise.”
“What happens to your Hive without you?”
“Our Empress is old, but not so old that she could not train another. There was a girl born in the last generation who came with the mark of Empress…” her words petered out and she poured another glass of water. “She will take my place.”
“What if the Empress dies before that?”
Nico chewed her bottom lip and looked up at the light bulb, trying to focus her attention away from the question, playing with the electrical current and making the bulb flicker in response to the change in the voltage pattern. The Empress would not allow herself to die.
“You know what, it’s late. Maybe we should both sleep on this,” Bob suggested, scooping the printouts back to his side of the table and re-arranging them back in his briefcase. He realized it was none of his business if Nico’s people lived or died. It was probably rude to ask anyhow. And he was sure he’d gone and put his foot in his mouth by asking. Who was he really to ask – he was just an analyst. He was sure that there were others, somewhere, who were far more qualified to decide Nico’s fate. He clicked the case shut and spun the little dials on the locking mechanism.
Nico stood, folding the tea towel to keep her hands busy. “Keep the cookies. I know they are your favorite. And thank you for listening. I’ve carried this burden since I arrived here.”
Bob collected her umbrella. “It’s still raining. Really unseasonable.” Bob thought it best to return to small talk. He unlocked the back door for her and held it as she stood staring out at the rain, not wanting to leave but at the same time wanting to run far away from Bob and his cozy, chaotic house.
Thank you Bob. You are a good man.
And she was gone, huddled under the umbrella.
With Nico gone, Bob booted his laptop and punched in his password to access the SETI server. He went straight to the program that ‘listened’ into the Universe and keyed in a string of code to bring up just the spaces of silence that he’d been casually tracking over the past three months. Now that he knew exactly what he was looking for, he was able to isolate the pattern of silence. With new clarity and with a rising sense of urgency he saw that the signal had already stabilized. The origin was unknown, but a regular and unique pattern of silence was transmitted every ten minutes and had been for the past 24 hours. Nico’s people had found her.
He emailed his superior with the data, classifying it with a Code Green status and then dialed his brother’s phone number.
Chapter Two by Jodi Cleghorn