C7: Chapter One – Lost on Earth
Bob Price fought violently against the panic he felt welling up within his belly.
What am I going to do now?, he thought as he leaned back against the door and watched her walk to the kitchen, placing the wet umbrella on the floor and the tray of cookies on the table. He closed his eyes and listened to her humming a song he did not know as she went familiarly to the cabinet to pull out plates. Reopening his eyes he saw his car keys hanging on the hook by the door and considered grabbing them and retreating back to the peace and quiet and safety of his office, where he could submerge himself into the piles of data streaming through the SETI project’s satellite systems. But looking at his already cold, bare feet, still wet from having just slogged home through the rain, and hearing the continued pounding of the rain outside his door, he shook his head and slowly walked into the kitchen to be a polite host to his neighbor.
“Sorry for the clutter,” he said awkwardly as he picked up piles of papers and stacked them precariously on the piles that were already teetering on the other end of the table. “I… haven’t had a reason to clean up in a while. Oh, and, I’m a slob. I guess that could be a larger factor in the equation.”
“Don’t worry,” said Nico, laughing lightly. “It’s all fine. I’m not here to see how clean your kitchen table is or determine if you leave your socks on the floor all the time.” Bob’s eyes drifted slowly to the dark sock draped over the side of the couch. “I’m here to visit you, Bob. Besides, we all have to put our dirty laundry somewhere, right?”
“Right,” said Bob, moving first to stuff the dirty sock under the couch cushion and then back into the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee and got a glass of water for Nico.
“You remembered!” said Nico. “How nice. Most people forget that I always want water.”
“Of course I remembered,” said Bob. “It still surprises me, though, that you have never had anything to drink besides water.”
“That makes me sound so uptight,” said Nico with a dismissive wave. “I’ve just never found anything to satisfy my thirst the way water does. So, you know, why bother with anything else?”
“To each their own, I guess,” shrugged Bob, taking a big drink of his coffee.
They sat quietly for a few moments, Nico eating a cookie while Bob mostly broke his own cookie into tiny bits on the plate. Feeling awkward about the silence, Bob asked, “Work okay?”
“Yes,” came the reply. “It’s great. Yours? Find any aliens yet?”
“Well,” said Bob laughing uncomfortably. “I guess only time will tell.”
“You must have the most amazing job imaginable,” said Nico. “You are there, seeking out first contact with the universe, searching for intelligent life… out there among the stars. I’m sure that people must envy you when you talk about your work.”
“No kidding,” said Bob with a sarcastic laugh. He pushed his round, somewhat too large glasses back up onto his nose and said, “I’m sure everyone is slightly envious. I’m a slightly overweight, slightly balding, slightly-older-than-middle-aged guy who spends his days, nights and weekends locked in a room deep inside some non-descript building, talking only to a computer as it mindlessly spits out bits of data that it, in its artificially intelligent way, thinks might be interesting to someone like me. Who wouldn’t want to be me? But seriously, if I ever actually found something in the bits of data… now that might be something people would be interested in.”
“I think you’re underestimating the value people place on your work,” said Nico. Then, more hesitantly, “So, have you ever thought that you might have found anything in your bits of data?”
She knows that I suspect something, he thought and he felt the nerves building up within him again. “Well,” he said slowly, trying to contain the thoughts that were firing rapidly across his brain.
“Sometimes I’ve imagined order where the data seemed to be only chaos. You know, the problem with what I do is not a lack of data that could be significant or even marginally interesting. There are plenty of data feeds that might be real, legitimate signs of intelligence, but then they may be nothing but so much random noise.”
“So, how do you tell the difference between noise and intelligence?” she asked.
“You know,” said Bob with a sigh, “I don’t know. The problem is that we don’t have the funding or the public support to really further the science of SETI. We listen for patterns of signals that originated somewhere else and we then interpret them in our own way, trying to force them to mean something to us when we aren’t even sure that they meant anything wherever they originated. In the movies, if we encounter intelligence, all we ever see is some kind of numeric signal, usually binary and, sadly, usually a countdown to doomsday or something like that. At this point, we’re nothing more than bad cosmic hackers, trying to steal a password when we don’t even know what it is for.”
“What do you think the answer is?” asked Nico. “I mean, is there intelligence out there and are they communicating with us?”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s someone out there,” said Bob. “They might even be nearby. I don’t think they’re sending us random streams of numbers, though. I think they would be sending pictures and music and words, just as we would do.”
“Why do you think there isn’t more support for your efforts?” asked Nico. “Surely everyone wants to know what’s going on out there.” She looked away and said, “Well, at least I want to know what’s going on out there.”
“Well,” continued Bob, taking Nico’s interest as permission to continue talking about his work, “it comes down to the current state of the naïve assumptions we make about the universe. While we might all say that yes, we are wondering if there’s someone ‘Out There’ and yes, it is unlikely that we are the only life to have come to be, accidentally or not, the reality is that most of us don’t want to face the larger questions that this knowledge could bring along, about our origins, about our place in the universe, that sort of thing. You might even find that the majority of us are absolutely certain that there must be someone else ‘Out There.’ But when push comes to shove, you’ll find that the same majority of us is largely paying so little attention to what’s going on that we either wouldn’t believe it or more likely we wouldn’t notice if someone from ‘Out There’ were standing in front of us with eleven tentacles, purple skin and laser vision, wearing a sandwich board advertising their planet of origin while singing disco hits.”
“So, you think people from another planet would have eleven tentacles, purple skin and laser vision?” asked Nico, with a laugh that sounded forced. “I mean, they wouldn’t look human?”
“No,” said Bob. “Well, maybe. I’m sure people around the universe come in many different shapes, sizes and colors.” He hesitated for a moment, willing himself to stare straight at Nico as he continued. “They might even be larger than the average human, have blue-gray skin, wings and two antennae on their hairless heads.”
Bob watched Nico as she caught her breath and looked at him, unblinkingly. Was her unwavering stare the acknowledgment he was seeking or was she waiting for him to continue? Bob listened to the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the living room and it felt like each second was taking several minutes to go by. Finally, Bob broke the silence, saying, “I’m going to ask you something crazy, something you probably would have figured you would never be asked in your lifetime.”
“What is it, Bob?”
“Nico, are you an alien?” Bob felt his face flush red hot with fear and embarrassment and wished he could catch the words before they reached Nico’s wonderful, completely human ears. What if he was wrong? What if he was right? He hadn’t thought through to his next step. Nico’s expression hadn’t changed at all. But he couldn’t be wrong, he knew what he had seen.
“What would make you ask such a thing?” asked Nico quietly, looking down.
Taking a deep breath, Bob explained. “I walked over to your house a few days ago, maybe a couple weeks ago now. I was bringing you a bag of tomatoes from my garden because I knew you enjoyed them last year. I heard you humming in the backyard and so I let myself in through the gate.”
“I remember,” said Nico. “The tomatoes were fantastic.”
“Good,” said Bob. “I’m glad you liked them. So, as I came around, I saw something, I mean, someone, wandering around the patio. I assumed it was you, since I heard your voice humming, the same song you were humming when you got here today, actually. But the—person – seemed too large to be you. As I came toward the patio, I noticed pale-looking skin, kind of blue-gray. I saw wings on—her – back. I apologized for intruding and turned to leave, but then you called my name. I turned around and you were, well, you again.”
“I am always me, Bob,” said Nico. “We can never escape being ourselves.”
“I’ve tried to explain it away. I have been telling myself that it was just that I had not had enough sleep, that you were, perhaps, involved with a Community Theater or something, that maybe I was working too much in a field where my job is to find alien life in every burst of background radiation I see. But I haven’t been able to shake the feeling, the image. For a moment, there, in your yard, when you called my name, I- I was sure I saw my back as though I was standing where you had been on the patio, watching me leave. And I know that I didn’t hear your voice; it was more like I – felt it….” Bob sighed heavily and looked at the floor while he waited for a reply he knew would not come. Feeling foolish, he forced himself to laugh and continued. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m obviously mistaken. Sorry for embarrassing you – and me.”
Nico remained quiet for a few moments as Bob headed to the kitchen to warm his coffee. Returning to the table where Nico was waiting, he looked up and dropped the mug filled with scalding-hot coffee, ignoring it as it shattered across the floor and onto his feet. Standing before him was Nico, only she now had blue-gray skin, wings and antennae. She was nearly as tall as he was now, perhaps taller. Suddenly, as Nico’s words filled his mind, Bob’s vision split, as if he was seeing with two sets of eyes, one set looking at the tall, hovering creature before him while the other was looking back at him.
I am Nicomeda, Empress-designate of the Th’Urn.
The words did not come to him through his ears, they were an integral part of him. Bob stood there, unmoving, barely breathing, as he watched Nicomeda before him and also watched himself at the same time. The words coalesced around his consciousness in a way that conveyed their meaning, the emotions of the speaker and more. The words expressed relief, as if a burden was lifted.
Bob’s sight returned to normal as he watched her shrink back to her normal form, at least the form that was normal to Bob’s eyes, and continued in a spoken voice that was normal to Bob’s ears. “At least that’s who I was, before I came here to Earth,” she said.
Chapter One by Rob Diaz II