From a Distance
by Ian Cordingley
Mark called up the photograph. He studied it, noting the body language. So what did it mean?
It was taken on Earth. A picture with Lauren in it, barely: her back to the camera, her head cocked slightly over her shoulder. Before she had met Grant. It was a night photograph and the balcony was crowded. Faint glowing from their cigarettes. Lauren had a mild smile on her face. Was she enjoying herself?
Social activities, for Mark, were now few and far between. Too compact here in the habitat, too crowded. Not that there weren’t parties, but they were tiny, boring affairs. There was too much to do anyways. There was not enough enthusiasm. Apparently, enthusiasm is dead weight and is supposed to be left behind on the launch pad with the other items on the list Mark was told not to bring.
Then Lauren had gone to one of Grant’s parties. Actually a disappointing one. The way Grant carried on about how epic and wild his parties were, you would think that he hosted an orgy in that cramped box of his. Lauren was there. She looked back with a vague look on her face. No smile, nothing to suggest pleasure or displeasure. Not enough evidence. It was hard to tell, given the recent tension between her and Grant.
“Well?” A head popped into his cubicle.
“You got the data?”
“Yes,” Mark said.
“What do you think?”
“I haven’t had the chance to work on it yet.”
Mark was trapped. “I’ve been busy...”
“Dammit, Mark. Its been two months.”
Mark’s excuses, to himself and others, were getting quite wearying. Their eyes narrowed. For God’s sake please change the subject.
“Come on, can it.”
Lauren’s photo was banished to the upper left corner of his screen. Luckily it was a fellow understanding young person, not someone whose career rode on Mark’s work. Campbell would have tanned his hide. Wasting time, wasting money better spent on something university bureaucrats like by bringing him out this far.
“You get the latest?”
“Yes,” Mark said, “thanks for arranging them.”
“Don’t mention it.”
There were changes, noted over the course of several days of observation.
“What do you think?”
Mark called up the latest data. “They’re getting more regular.”
His screen displayed how he had categorized the data according to his thesis. Mostly math, proof that mathematics and physics are the same the universe over. The equations that he had received lately had been troubling.
“What does that mean?”
Chemical and physics equations, and Mark was not entirely familiar with them. Despite the handicap, he was slowly beginning to understand the implications.
Mark’s finger traced along the lines of data. He compared it to the latest orbital observations. He came to accept the conclusion.
“I think they’re dying.”
* * *
Mark’s closet on Earth was probably larger than his cube in the orbital habitat. Space here was reserved by the combined efforts of several dozen universities. Space was at a premium. The Moon was incredibly profitable and raw knowledge just didn’t pay.
Mark was fortunate to have some corner reserved for his work: his ongoing thesis on the half-dozen detected extraterrestrial species and efforts to contact them. Hopefully a work of groundbreaking genius, ushering in new methods of thinking about extraterrestrial cultures and of understanding of them. If it would justify the time and all the taxpayers’ money.
Entire craters had been sealed with smooth layers of liquid metal. Mostly they got the same background hiss, so they’d been delegated new functions. Everything broadcasted decayed within a few light-years. No wonder Contacts were few and far between.
Mark logged on for the day, bulb of coffee by his side. He called up the latest data. He was bored. He never thought that was possible before. Not up here, around the Moon. This was a coveted, privileged assignment. God knew how hard he had worked to get up here.
Several arrays of lasers hovered around the Moon, blasting rays of coloured light into the universe. Varying the frequency of light — definitely the results of an intelligent species. Indisputable. All that was needed was to build a large array to continue the conversation.
It had taken one of the Contacts to show how it was done. A century ago. Now there was correspondence, as lengthy and imprecise as it could be. But light, at least, was eternal. A kind of vague Morse code could be flashed from one star to another.
Mark was working on his thesis. Trying to sort out the information received. Trying to determine what they were being told. Wondering if his conclusions were valid, and what to make of it if they were.
The latest from Epsilon Eridani. When it was first broadcast, he was in his early teens. Downy pseudo-fuzz and a riot of pimples on his face. Now his face was beginning to acquire creases around his mouth. The implication always crept up, to some moment when, lost in thought, it announced itself. He was getting older.
Since childhood, Mark had seen the Eridani planet only as a white pixel. A tiny dot. When higher-resolution images were available, it had become a slightly larger turquoise speck. Computer-generated simulations as charming as the old drawings of the Moon from the pre-spaceflight era. With new information, the guesses became more educated.
Mark knew nothing about them, the inhabitants of Eridani Prime. He knew the aspirations and anxieties held about them and the other Contacts, growing up with them as either dedicated friends or mortal enemies. Mostly in movies and television, in books and video games. Mark had ideas about them. Who didn’t? Especially as a child. Crayon drawings of Mark and a green, stick-thin creature with three eyes. It was still on his parents’ fridge.
By the time he was born, the excitement had died down. The profound questions were either answered or had mutated. Priorities had been rearranged. It wasn’t like they were ever going to meet. Not in Mark’s lifetime, and he doubted his children would be so lucky.
On his screen were the latest streams of data. The same numbers repeated over and over again. An old trick: arrange it in a grid. The pulses are a clue: code for the mathematical length of the grid and what to fill into it. Then we have a picture. Within the grid is the message itself. Lately they had become complex, almost abstract.
Most of the information was chunky and repetitive. After it was assured that they were carbon-based and on the same page mathematically as humans, more detailed information was exchanged.
They were bipedal, like some video game sprite from an old-timey arcade.
So what did that mean?
The latest data from the spectrography satellites, at least, could be understood. For the longest time, the results were clean and promised mutual similarity in atmospheres. The latest spectrographs were worrying. A soup of carbon, a number of other gases. What was going on there?
He wondered what Campbell would think. The first observed extinction of an intelligent race. Within his lifetime, the stream of light would go out. Just their sun would remain, an inflexible white dot against the endless black.
* * *
Grant and Mark had been at the same party. Back on Earth. Of course, Lauren was there.
Mark was no good at these things. Just accept a beer, guard a wall. He found himself there because he and Lauren were in the same city and he wanted to be with her. This happened very rarely. He was trying very hard to enjoy himself.
He knew a few of these people very poorly. The rest were ambulatory furniture, chatting, laughing and slowly getting drunk. Lauren was sitting coyly on a sofa. Talking with some girls.
Grant was making an ass of himself.
Mark slowly moved away from the wall and circled the room. The sun was finally going down. Praise be to long, warm summer nights.
“Don’t take it personally.” Like hell. Grant howled. A long, deep laugh. What was so funny? He spilled a bowl of popcorn.
Lauren probably read Mark’s displeasure in his face. “He’s charming.”
“He’s fun,” Lauren said. “Its not a judgment on you.”
Several weeks earlier Lauren had explained in a polite, terse email that she was dating someone.
It hadn’t taken Mark long to figure out whom Lauren was dating. Tonight they had met.
Grant held his head regally. He accepted Mark’s hand, shook it. Not tight, not loose. A disposable kind of greeting.
“Yes,” Grant said. “She talks about you. Fondly.”
“At times.” Lauren smiled. “He’s just teasing.”
Grant had a broad smile around his face. His hand was searching for Lauren’s. It was taking a disturbing length of time to make it around her waist.
Mark smiled. It was something he had learned. His dealings with other human beings were imperfect. He did pretty well, he thought.
The bathtub was full of ice. Crappy American and domestic beers. Mark pulled one bottle out.
He walked out into the living room. People were talking, schmaltzy music was playing.
“Having a good time?” Grant appeared behind him.
“It’s all right.”
Grant gestured with his bottle towards Lauren. She was talking with two other girls. “Lauren’s having a good time?”
“Yes,” Mark agreed. Mark and Lauren had known each other for the better part of ten years. Classmates. He had been inspired by her. She was the reason he was enduring tonight.
Grant snickered. “She is one fine girl.”
Mark winced. “Yes, she is.”
“Totally worth it.”
Mark gave Grant a slight nod. Grant had a sly grin. The twinkling in his eyes was all Mark needed to know.
“Excuse me,” Grant said. He walked off to meet other people. Laughter. Mark sipped his beer. He thought for a moment. Lauren’s affection was her business. Just as long as she wasn’t with him.
Grant came back with Lauren and gave a wide smile. His tongue moved over his lips.“You’re going to the Moon soon?”
“When will you be back?” Lauren asked.
“Hopefully six months,” Mark said.
“That’s cool,” she said.
Lauren periodically popped into orbit for research in a zero-gravity lab. Mark and Lauren had made small talk about that. Her research kept taking weird twists. She would be close to thirty before she could settle down, let alone find a job.
Grant was flat on his back. Flailing his limbs in mock distress, howling with laughter. Crowded around him were people Mark didn’t know, laughing. Spilling beer on their feet.
“We weren’t meant to be,” she said.
“I understand,” he said. In his mind he really did try.
* * *
“What do you think?”
“Its pretty compelling.” Campbell had been studying Contact signals for as long as Mark had been alive. Campbell ran his fingers through thinning silver hair. He studied Mark’s papers, nodding. “Very astute,” Campbell said.
Campbell read through his papers, nodding. “We were wondering about that build-up,” he said, stabbing one of his graphs with his finger. “I don’t think you’ve solved any mystery. You’re just brave enough to state the obvious.”
“Thank you,” Mark said. The existence of other intelligent beings in the galaxy was easy enough to wrap your head around.
“Well, it won’t do wonders for our funding,” Campbell said, “if we start losing Contacts.”
“They strangled themselves,” Mark said. “They screwed up. They want us to know it.”
“Prevent it ourselves?”
The social reaction would be understood well. Protests, rallies. Politicians indignantly flapping their flabby jowls, irrelevantly invoking patriotic symbolism. The point would be missed and the crucial data would be ignored or misconstrued. The voters would have to wait for a catchy bumper sticker before they understood.
“Maybe trying to pass on their own culture and wisdom to us.”
“I suppose,” Mark said. “It’ll be interesting reading all the data when it comes in.”
“If we can understand the big question: why?” Campbell said.
Mark shrugged. As a student he was there to give his report on his findings. His opinions were another matter.
Campbell nodded. “Understandable.”
The running gag amongst students was that this was the acceptable answer to any question asked.
“Ready to defend it?”
Mark nodded. Campbell patted him on the shoulder. “Knock it out of the park.”
* * *
For weeks Grant and Lauren hadn’t exchanged any messages. Busy, perhaps.
Mark knew what people in love said to each other. A couple of his friends: their exchanges were long, eloquent and explicit. Grant was once more flattering and flirtatious. Not anymore.
So what did that mean?
And Mark still had no idea what Lauren saw in Grant.
He began to scrub her from his mind.
Copyright © 2011 by Ian Cordingley