Short Stories

 

What do you do when you know you’re holding in the world’s biggest secret? I mean a huge one, one that might unite or destroy the planet, depending on which way the wind shifts that day. Me, I’m sitting on that secret right now, and I’m scared shitless.

[Query][mathematical progression][Query][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]

That was it, a string of binary numbers carried on a radio wave from a planet 120 light-years away. When converted, those dots and spaces formed semagrams, pictures that unambiguously represent objects and concepts. Those semagrams are probably the most important artwork ever drawn, because they confirm that we are not alone in the universe, that there’s someone else out there just as intelligent and curious as we are about our place in the universe.

So, back to the problem. I’m sitting in front of my computer, biting my nails to the quick from nerves. As a citizen scientist crunching data for NASA, I’m compelled to report my findings to the agency. As a citien of Earth, I’m ethically bound to share this great discovery with the entire planet. As a person who sees a world full of hate and war and destruction, I’m hesitant to add another destabilizing factor to the mix. Am I being selfish or prudent? Where do my loyalties lie? Where should they lie?

I toyed with the pencil in front of me.

[Response][mathematical progression][Response][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]

My mind was screaming to send that message back, but that wasn’t an option.

I know I told Alice to forget everything we discovered, but I needed someone to talk to, and she was the only one who would understand. I found myself knocking at her door at three in the morning.

“Alice, come on, wake up!” I called, pounding again. “Come on!”

I heard a shuffling noise, a crash, and then a curse come from inside. I pounded again.

The lock clicked and Alice opened the door a crack. “Are you out of your frigging mind?” she spat at me. “Do you have any idea what time of the night it is?”

“Yeah, late,” I answered, pushing past her before she could protest any more. “I’ve got to talk to someone. This thing is ripping me apart.”

“Not like I didn’t tell you,” she grumbled, closing the door and heading into the kitchen. “Might as well put the tea on now, It’s not like I needed those two hours of sleep before work anyway.”

I heard her rattling around with the kettle and mugs in the kitchen as I crossed the living room to the sofa.

“I’m making Darjeeling, and that’s final. I don’t want to hear any complaints; after all, I’m doing you a favor here.”

“Sure, fine,” I responded absently, already drawn as I was every time I came over to her house to the wall-to-wall bookshelves spilling over with books. Oh, what I would give to live here and just read – I could learn so much.

After a couple of minutes Alice brought the pot and mugs into the living room, poured the tea, and sat down beside me. “So, what caused the crisis? When you left, you were dead set on keeping this from everybody.”

I sipped the hot liquid for a moment before answering. “It’s too big.”

“Yeah, it’s the biggest damn thing to hit this planet since the meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs.”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s too big for me; I feel like I’m going to explode just knowing what we found. But who isn’t it too big for?”

“I’m not sure I get you.”

“So I tell NASA – then what? They can’t contain the information, but who do they tell? The government? What will the government do with it? Pull funding for research because of a “preposterous hoax?” Never answer the message and leave two civilizations hanging? Decide to answer the message but use the data as proprietary information and not allow any government other than our own to respond? And what will other governments try to do when they find out? They won’t allow us to keep it all for ourselves. It could be planetary war.”

Alice ran a hand through her bed-hair and took a long drink of tea. “You could give the information to everyone on the planet all at the same time.”

“Like a global press conference? Uh, uh. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not a researcher, I don’t have a Ph.D. Nobody would believe me – they’d laugh me right off the stage. I think you were right when you said the data really does belong to NASA, but I just can’t see that going well. Alice, help me, I’m so confused.”

I started nibbling on my fingernails again, my tea growing cold. Alice looked at me calculatingly, hugging her mug against her.

“I could help you put together the information; after all, you found the message, but I did help you decode it. And people would be more likely to believe me for the same reasons you came to me in the first place. We’d make a joint presentation to NASA, maybe even request an ethecist to be a part of the panel to decide where the information should go from there. Keep it as low-profile as possible until we can sort out the details.”

“Maybe …”

“Look, I can do an end-run around you, but I’m not going to. This has to be your decision, but you need to decide quickly because this is literally earth-shakingly important. So get off of my sofa, go home and get some sleep, and I’ll bet that will help sort your thoughts. Call me when you’ve got your answer, and we’ll take it from there.”

“Thanks, Alice. You’re the best.” I embraced her in a big bear hug, slopping tea down both our shirts in the process.

“Scram. I’ve got work to do.” She pushed me toward the door.

“So do I,” I thought to myself. “So do I.”

(c) 2017 Miriam Ruff All Rights Reserved