Seen It Before
by Matthew Harrison
“Well, how do you find us?” The Director looked at Siu-mei sharply through her heavy spectacles.
In truth, Siu-mei was disappointed. The scuffed carpet, the faded paint; altogether, the Starway Centre could do with a revamp. And the Director’s office, crowded with memorabilia and overlooking London’s Russell Square through an ivy-framed window, looked aged. Was that even dust on the photo of a much younger Director beaming at the Centre’s launch? But her youthful enthusiasm surged back. “I’m just so glad to be here,” she said simply.
The lines around the Director’s eyes and mouth creased, and she said softly, “We are glad to have you, too.” She blew her nose and, when she spoke again, there was a tremor in her voice. But she rattled off details about Siu-mei’s manager, Trevor, her mentor Dave — “another young person, I’m sure you’ll get on” — and recent Centre happenings, some of which Siu-mei had seen in the media.
And then, just when the introductory meeting seemed to be over, the Director leaned forward so that Siu-mei could see every detail of her severe face. “I want you involved in the Aspect project.”
“But what—?” Siu-mei began excitedly.
The Director put up her hand. “Trevor will explain. Essentially, we are trying to take a fresh look at the evidence.”
“Yes, ‘the video’, as you call it. We need a fresh pair of eyes. You will be our anchor on the project.”
Siu-mei gulped, managing at last: “Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Williamson!”
“Call me Ruth, dear,” the Director murmured.
Siu-mei promised to do that. And on her way out, if it had not been for the Director’s steadying hand, her feet might almost have floated off the floor. What she would have to tell her mother that evening!
* * *
Out in the main office, Trevor was unavailable; it was Dave who explained the Aspect project and much else, on the strength of his two years at Starway. Tall, angular and agreeable with his curly brown hair, Dave came out with things that surprised her.
“Why are you actually here?” he asked at one point.
This required a long answer, or none at all. Why would an abiogenist with a newly-acquired PhD not want to work on the only known evidence of alien life at the world’s leading facility? It was a lifetime opportunity! And the sacrifices she had made, the skepticism of peers... Yet Siu-mei just shrugged.
Nonchalance dropped away, though, when she found herself alone in her cubicle. This was the moment. Fingers trembling, Siu-mei swiped through the various security levels, until she had access to the “Full-res” file. She tapped “Play” and fumbled hurriedly with the VR helmet. There was a moment of darkness; she heard Dave shuffle his feet in the next cubicle, and braced herself for disappointment. Then it began.
She had experienced it a hundred times as a simple video, even as a theme park VR, but the wrap-around sensual world created by the Centre’s technology was so immersive that she cried out in delight. She found herself emerging from darkness, as if out from a cave, a singing note in her ears, and in front of her, bathed in a soft red light that made their fur glow, were they.
Slender, with long delicate limbs, they darted to and fro on what appeared to be branches in an intricate dance of quick and fluid movements. All the while the singing note, which ranged far beyond the audible spectrum and seemed to be felt as much as heard, filled the space, so that the creatures seemed almost to swim, supported by a music that had no discernible structure. It was poignant, beautiful; it made Siu-mei want to embrace one of the creatures, as she had embraced a toy version as a child, a toy that lay on her bedside table even today.
The soft light faded, the scene receded, and with a final cascading warble, the singing petered out. Siu-mei had a last glimpse of two of them waving — was it to her, or to each other? — and then darkness returned. With the scrape of a nearby chair, prosaic reality broke in. Reluctantly, as if waking from a dream, she took off the helmet. Yet even in her shabby cubicle, the singing still echoed in her mind, still shivered along her skin.
At that moment, Ruth Williamson herself strode up. Her face crinkled in a kindly smile as she hoped Siu-mei was settling in.
Siu-mei started to explain the Aspect procedures, but the Director just laughed; there was no rush.
Then her expression became serious. “Just remember, we are counting on you. A fresh pair of eyes.”
* * *
At noon, Dave took Siu-mei to lunch in a local café. “Don’t expect this every day,” he grinned as they sat down, “but I was told to give you a good start.”
Siu-mei thanked him. His hair flopped appealingly over his eyes. He asked her what she thought of the Graciles.
That was the official name for them. Siu-mei wanted to tell how excited she had been when on her eighth birthday the message from the TRAPPIST-1 system was detected, transforming her life and showing mankind that it was not alone. How eagerly she had followed developments, focusing on life sciences in order to understand the Graciles, even migrating from Hong Kong to London. And how she had kept faith, even as public interest waned. “It’s a lifetime passion for me,” she said quietly.
The waitress brought their meals: spaghetti bolognese for her, a pizza for Dave. He took a mouthful. “We’re scientists,” he said, his muffle-voiced. “But that’s not a bad answer.”
He asked her opinion of Aspect. Then, as Siu-mei glanced anxiously at the neighbouring diners, he laughed. “Don’t worry, no one’s interested. To be honest, I sometimes wonder how Ruth holds it all together. You know the funding cuts?”
Siu-mei nodded. As Britain’s economy struggled, slumping tax receipts accompanied the national decline. “Well, she’s managed to convince them year after year that this project keeps Britain punching above its weight, especially in Europe. Somehow the money keeps coming in. But Aspect has got to deliver. You’ve got to deliver.”
“I don’t think it all rests on me!” Siu-mei retorted. “There’s the team. What about you?”
“Who do you think designed Aspect?” Dave described the parameter-setting, the scenario data, the generation of the various algorithms.
But Siu-mei was already leaping ahead. “I’m sure we’ve got the speed wrong,” she said, bolting down her Bolognese. “The way the Graciles move: it doesn’t look right, as if they are swimming through treacle. I’m sure it should be twice as fast.”
Dave shrugged. “You could be right. But then the Graciles would have to be smaller. If they’re our size, those skinny limbs couldn’t move so fast without breaking.”
“What about gravity? Supposing we make that lower? TRAPPIST-1e has only sixty percent of Earth’s mass.”
Dave toyed with his last slice. “Gravity is not just mass, there’s density. We’d have to check....” He took a small bite and put the remainder back on his plate. Then he smiled again — almost, it seemed, as if to a child. “At least you’re enthusiastic.”
“You aren’t?” Siu-mei wondered. He was surely not thirty, working on a project vital for mankind.
Dave paused. “Don’t get me wrong” — he pushed his plate aside — “I want it to succeed. But we’ve done everything we can with what we’ve got. Even Aspect is just a rehash. Something new has to come in.”
He looked so glum that Siu-mei reached across the table and patted his hand. A melancholy elder brother; she wanted to share her warmth. But experience had taught her that others did not welcome her enthusiasm even, strangely, in Starway. She held her tongue.
* * *
They trudged back across the square, ducking their heads as the gusting wind thrashed branches above them. A newspaper flapped over the sodden grass, past a tramp huddled on the bench. Siu-mei slipped him a pound coin.
“Save it for yourself,” Dave advised.
Siu-mei grimaced, and that at least prompted Dave to smile before they entered the Centre’s revolving door.
Once sat down, with the myriad Aspect files displayed on the screen in front of her, Siu-mei tried to take stock. What did they know for certain? Just that on a particular February day seventeen years previously a microwave laser burst apparently from the TRAPPIST-1 system had been picked up by detectors all over the northern hemisphere. The burst lasted less than a second but, on analysis, was found to incorporate multiple compressed signal layers that, on recombination, formed the video that Siu-mei had experienced that morning.
The complex interactions of the Graciles seemed to indicate intelligence; the laser burst also required advanced technology. So it had been assumed that they were telling humanity about themselves. But what was the message?
No progress had been made on deciphering either the soundtrack — if the music had semantic content — or the Graciles’ dance. There were conjunctions of a given move with a certain sound sequence, but these were not statistically significant. And without a starting point, translation was impossible. “We don’t have a Rosetta Stone,” as Trevor ruefully put it.
And after the initial furore, people gradually got used to the idea of furry aliens somewhere out there far away. Discussion threads petered out on the blogs. As the years passed, the aliens gradually receded from the public’s mind.
A reply, of sorts, had been sent. A space-based laser had been built by hasty modification of the James Webb, and within a three years a return message had been beamed in the direction of TRAPPIST-1. It was, Siu-mei thought, rather dry — a welcome from assembled U.N. Security Council members, a panorama of Earth, and a lightening tour of architectural landmarks and iconic wildlife.
And the signal would be almost undetectable by the time it reached the TRAPPIST-1 system. But it was something, although with thirty-nine light-years to go it would be seventy-eight years for the earliest response. By then, Siu-mei would be eighty-nine.
The TRAPPIST-1 system had been monitored, and more had been learnt about its various planets, but no further messages had been picked up, and spectrographs revealed no sign of life-relevant compounds — at least, not those relevant to Earth-like life. Siu-mei’s PhD thesis had been speculative and, she now realised, probably of little use. Nonetheless, Ruth was relying on her. And she had ideas.
“You have to ask, why would they send the message?” she said to her mother Irene over supper that evening.
“For fun?” Irene suggested. “Do eat your char-siu fahn.” She had got it in Chinatown as a treat.
“Mummy!” Siu-mei protested, through another mouthful of the fragrant roast pork. “Can you imagine the cost of sending a laser beam this far. Imagine putting a hundred-kilometer mirror into space!”
Her mother frowned. “Those little creatures don’t look like engineers.”
The char-siu fahn was suddenly dry. Siu-mei swallowed. “Why do you say, little?”
“They’re moving so quickly, it makes me think... oh, you know, those slow-mo nature films of bees or microbes or something, the way they flit around.”
Siu-mei thought. “Well, we’re looking at the speed again. But they can’t be insects; they look like they’ve got fur, complex organs....” Her voice tailed off. She had been thinking, small. But how small? How could you exclude insect size?
“And they’ve got no clothes,” Irene continued. “No tools.”
“They may be very advanced, with tools operated remotely....” This seemed lame to Siu-mei even as she said it. “What do you think they are?”
“I think they’re pets,” was her mother’s firm reply. “The real aliens are behind the camera. Just like when you were a child; you made videos of your pet cat, Pinky, and sent them to me and your... your father.”
Her face changed, and she looked away. Father was the dark cloud in their lives, not divorced but mostly uncontactable in China, and distracted when contacted, although he did, apparently, still send her mother money.
Siu-mei reached across and grasped her mother’s hand, recalling her earlier impulse with Dave. She felt so full of life and youth and optimism: she wanted to give some to her mother.
“No, dear,” said her mother firmly, wiping her eyes with her palm. “It is I who should support you. You are the future, I am no use.”
That necessitated, not a hand-squeeze but a hug. Gently chiding Siu-mei for neglecting the char-siu, Irene disengaged herself and launched into an account of the bargains at the Westfield, and how she had helped out at the Food Centre that morning. There were so many unemployed now. Siu-mei was fortunate to have a job.
Then her mother’s friend rang, and Siu-mei got back to her list of scenarios. She had some additions to make.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Harrison