The Best We Can
First contact was supposed to change the course of human history. But it turns out, you still have to go to work the next morning.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
In the end, the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life, and not just life, but intelligence, got hopelessly mucked up because no one wanted to take responsibility for confirming the findings, and no one could decide who ultimately had the authority—the obligation—to do so. We submitted the paper, but peer review held it up for a year. News leaked—NASA announced one of their press conferences, but the press conference ended up being an announcement about a future announcement, which never actually happened and the reporters made a joke of it. Another case of Antarctic meteorites or cold fusion. We went around with our mouths shut waiting for an official announcement while ulcers devoured our guts.
So I wrote a press release. I had Marsh at JPL’s comet group and Salvayan at Columbia vet it for me and released it under the auspices of the JPL Near Earth Objects Program. We could at least start talking about it instead of arguing about whether we were ready to start talking about it. I didn’t know what would happen next. I did it in the spirit of scientific outreach, naturally. The release included that now-famous blurry photo that started the whole thing.
I had an original print of that photo, of UO-1—Unidentified Object One, because it technically wasn’t flying and I was being optimistic that this would be the first of more than one —framed and hanging on the wall over my desk, a stark focal point in my chronically cluttered office. Out of the thousands of asteroids we tracked and photographed, this one caught my eye, because it was symmetrical and had a higher than normal albedo. It flashed, even, like a mirror. Asteroids aren’t symmetrical and aren’t very reflective. But if it wasn’t an asteroid . . . .
We turned as many telescopes on it as we could. Tried to get time on Hubble and failed, because it sounded ridiculous—why waste time looking at something inside the orbit of Jupiter? We did get Arecibo on it. We got pictures from multiple sources, studied them for weeks until we couldn’t argue with them any longer. No one wanted to say it because it was crazy, just thinking it would get you sacked, and I got so frustrated with the whole group sitting there in the conference room after hours on a Friday afternoon, staring at each other with wide eyes and dropped jaws and no one saying anything, that I said it: It’s not natural, and it’s not ours.
UO-1 was approximately 250 meters long, with a fan shape at one end, blurred at the other, as if covered with projections too fine to show up at that resolution. The rest was perfectly straight, a thin stalk holding together blossom and roots, the lines rigid and artificial. The fan shape might be a ram scoop—Angie came up with that idea, and the conjecture stuck, no matter how much I reminded people that we couldn’t decide anything about what it was or what it meant. Not until we knew more.
We—the scientific community, astronomers, philosophers, writers, all of humanity—had spent a lot of time thinking about what would happen if we found definitive proof that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe. All the scenarios involved these other intelligences talking to us. Reaching out to us. Sending a message we would have to decipher—would be eager to decipher. Hell, we sure wouldn’t be able to talk to them, not stuck on our own collection of rocks like we were. Whether people thought we’d be overrun with sadistic tripods or be invited to join a greater benevolent galactic society, that was always the assumption—we’d know they were there because they’d talk to us.
When that didn’t happen, it was like no one knew what to do next. No one had thought about what would happen if we just found a . . . a thing . . . that happened to be drifting a few million miles out from the moon. It didn’t talk. Not so much as a blinking light. The radiation we detected from it was reflected—whatever propulsion had driven it through space had long since stopped, and inertia carried it now. No one knew how to respond to it. The news that was supposed to change the course of human history . . . didn’t.
We wouldn’t know any more about it until we looked at it up close, until we brought it here, brought it home. And that was where it all fell apart.
I presented the initial findings at the International Astronomical Union annual meeting. My department gathered the data, but we couldn’t do anything about implementation—no one group could implement anything. But of course, the first argument was about whom the thing belonged to. I nearly resigned.
Everyone wanted a piece of it, including various governments and the United Nations, and we had to humor that debate because nothing could get done without funding. The greatest discovery in all of human history and funding held it hostage. Several corporations, including the producers of a popular energy drink, threatened to mount their own expeditions in order to establish naming and publicity rights, until the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Defense issued joint restrictions on privately-funded extra-orbital spaceflight, which caused its own massive furor.
Meanwhile, we and the various other groups working on the project tracked UO-1 as it appeared to establish an elliptical solar orbit that would take it out to the orbit of Saturn and back on a twenty-year cycle. We waited. We developed plans, which were presented and rejected. We took better and better pictures, which revealed enough detail to see struts holding up what did indeed appear to be the surface of a ram scoop. It did not, everyone slowly began to agree, appear to be inhabited. The data on it never fluctuated. No signals emanated from it. It was metal, it was solid, it was inert. We published papers and appeared on cable documentaries. We gritted our teeth while websites went up claiming that the thing was a weapon, and a survivalist movement developed in response. Since it was indistinguishable from all the existing survivalist movements, no one really noticed.
And we waited.
The thing is, you discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and you still have to go home, wash up, get a good night’s sleep, and come up with something to eat for breakfast in the morning. Life goes on, life keeps going on, and it’s not that people forget or stop being interested. It’s that they realize they still have to change the oil in the car and take the dog for a walk. You feel like the whole world ought to be different, but it only shifts. Your worldview expands to take in this new information.
I go to work every day and look at that picture, my picture, this satellite or spacecraft, this message in a bottle. Some days I’m furious that I can’t get my hands on it. Some days I weep at the wonder of it. Most days I look at it, sigh, and write another round of emails and make phone calls to find out what’s going to happen to it. To make something happen.
“How goes the war?” Marsh leans into my office like he does every afternoon, mostly to try to cheer me up. He’s been here as long as I have; our work overlaps, and we’ve become friends. I go to his kids’ birthday parties. The brown skin around his eyes crinkles with his smile. I’m not able to work up a smile to match.
“The Chinese say they’re sending a probe with a robotic arm and a booster to grab it and pull it back to Earth. They say whoever gets there first has right of salvage. It’s a terrible idea. Even if they did manage to get it back without breaking it, they’d never let anyone else look at it.”
“Oh, I think they would—under their terms.” He doesn’t get too worked up about it because nobody’s managed to do anything yet, why would they now? He would say I take all of this too personally, and he’d be right.
“The IAU is sending a delegation to try to talk the Chinese government into joining the coalition. They might have a chance of it if they actually had a plan of their own. Look, if you want me to talk your ear off, come in and sit, have some coffee. Otherwise, leave now. That’s your warning.”
“I’ll take the coffee,” he says, claiming the chair I pulled away from the wall for him before turning to my little desktop coffee maker. His expression softens, his sympathy becoming genuine rather than habitual. “You backing any particular plan yet?”
I sigh. “Gravity tractor looks like our best option. Change the object’s trajectory, steer it into a more convenient orbit without actually touching it. Too bad the technology is almost completely untested. We can test it first, of course. Which will take years. And there’s an argument against it. Emissions from a gravity tractor’s propulsion may damage the object. It’s the root of the whole problem: we don’t know enough about the thing to know how much stress it can take. The cowboys want to send a crewed mission—they say the only way to be sure is to get eyeballs on the thing. But that triples the cost of any mission. Anything we do will take years of planning and implementation anyway, so no one can be bothered to get off their asses. Same old, same old.”
Two and half years. It’s been two and a half years since we took that picture. My life has swung into a very tight orbit around this one thing.
“Patience, Jane,” Marsh says in a tone that almost sets me off. He’s only trying to help.
Truth is, I’ve been waiting for his visit. I pull out a sheet of handwritten calculations from under a manila folder. “I do have another idea, but I wanted to talk to you about it before I propose anything.” His brow goes up, he leans in with interest.
He’ll see it faster than I can explain it, so I speak carefully. “We can use Angelus.” When he doesn’t answer, yes or no, I start to worry and talk to cover it up. “It launches in six months, plenty of time to reprogram the trajectory, send it on a flyby past UO-1, get more data on it than we’ll ever get sitting here on Earth—”
His smile has vanished. “Jane. I’ve been waiting for Angelus for five years. The timing is critical. My comet won’t be this close for another two hundred years.”
“But Angelus is the only mission launching in the next year with the right kind of optics and maneuverability to get a good look at UO-1, and yes, I know the timing on the comet is once-in-a-lifetime and I know it’s important. But this—this is once in a civilization. The sooner we can look at it, answer some of our questions . . . well. The sooner the better.”
“The better you’ll be. I’m supposed to wait, but you can’t?”
“Please, Marsh. I’ll feel a lot better about it if you’ll agree with me.”
“Thank you for the coffee, Jane,” he says, setting aside the mug as he stands.
I close my eyes and beseech the ceiling. This isn’t how I want this to go. “Marsh, I’m not trying to sabotage your work, I’m just looking at available resources—”
“And I’m not ultimately the one who makes decisions about what happens to Angelus. I’m just the one depending on all the data. You can make your proposal, but don’t ask me to sign off on it.”
He starts to leave and I say, “Marsh. I can’t take it anymore. I spend every day holding my breath, waiting for someone to do something truly stupid. Some days I can’t stand it that I can’t get my hands on it.”
He sits back down, like a good friend should. A good friend would not, however, steal a colleague’s exploratory probe away from him. But this is important.
“You know what I think? The best bet is to let one of these corporate foundations mount an expedition. They won’t want to screw up because of the bad publicity, and they’ll bring you on board for credibility so you’ll have some say in how they proceed. You’ll be their modern-day Howard Carter.”
I can see it now: I’d be the face of the expedition, all I’d have to do is stand there and look pretty. Or at least studious. Explain gravity and trajectories for the popular audience. Speculate on the composition of alien alloys. Watch whatever we find out there get paraded around the globe to shill corn chips. Wouldn’t even feel like I was selling my soul, would it?
I must look green, or ill, or murderous, because Marsh goes soothing. “Just think about it, before you go and do something crazy.”
I’ve kept a dedicated SETI@home computer running since I was sixteen. Marsh doesn’t know that about me. I don’t believe in extraterrestrial UFO’s because I know in great, intimate detail the difficulties of sending objects across the vast distances of space. Hell, just a few hundred miles into orbit isn’t a picnic. We’ve managed it, of course—we are officially extra-solar system beings, now, with our little probes and plaques pushing ever outward. Will they find anything? Will anything find them?
Essentially, there are two positions on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and whether we might ever make contact, and they both come down to the odds. The first says that we’re here, humanity is intelligent, flinging out broadcasts and training dozens of telescopes outward hoping for the least little sign, and the universe is so immeasurably vast that given the odds, the billions of stars and galaxies and planets out there, we can’t possibly be the only intelligent species doing these things. The second position says that the odds of life coming into being on any given planet, of that life persisting long enough to evolve, then to evolve intelligence, and then being interested in the same things we are—the odds of all those things falling into place are so immeasurably slim, we may very well be the only ones here.
Is the universe half full or half empty? All we could ever do to solve the riddle was wait. So I waited and was rewarded for my optimism.
In unguarded moments I’m certain this was meant to happen, I was meant to discover UO-1. Me and no one else. Because I understand how important it is. Because I’m the one sitting here every day sending emails and making phone calls. I ID’d the image, I made the call, I had the guts to go public, I deserve a say in what happens next.
I submit the paperwork proposing that the Angelus probe be repurposed to perform a flyby and survey of UO-1. Marsh will forgive me. I wait. Again.
I’ve kept track, and I’ve done a hundred fifty TV interviews in the last two years. Most of them are snippets for pop-documentaries, little chunks of information delivered to the lowest common denominator audience. I explain over and over again, in different settings, sometimes in my office, sometimes in a vague but picturesque location, sometimes at Griffith Observatory, because for some reason nothing says “space” like Griffith Observatory. I hold up a little plastic model of UO-1 (they’re selling the kits at hobby stores—we don’t see any of the money from that) to demonstrate the way it’s traveling through space, how orbital mechanics work, and how we might use a gravity tractor to bring it home. Sometimes, the segments are specifically for schools, and I like those best because I can give free rein to my enthusiasm. I tell the kids, “This is going to take more than one lifetime to figure out. If we find a way to go to Alpha Centauri, it’s going to take lifetimes. You’ll have to finish the work I’ve started. Please grow up and finish it.”
I call everyone I can think of who might have some kind of influence over Angelus. I explain that a picture of a metal object taken from a few million miles away doesn’t tell us anything about the people who made it. Not even if they have thumbs or tentacles. Most of them tell me that the best plan they can think of is to build bigger telescopes.
“It’s not the size,” I mutter. “It’s how you use it.”
NASA thinks they will be making the decision because they’ve got the resources, the scientists, the experience, the hardware. Congress says this is too important to let NASA make decisions unilaterally. A half dozen private U.S. firms would try something if the various cabinet departments weren’t busy making anything they could try illegal by fiat. There are already three court cases. At least one of them is arguing that a rocket launch is protected as freedom of speech. The IAU brought a complaint to the United Nations that the U.S. government shouldn’t be allowed to dictate a course of action. The General Assembly nominated a “representative in absentia” for the species that launched UO-1—some Finnish philosopher I’d never heard of. It should have been me.
After a decade of international conferences I have colleagues all over the world. I call them all. Most are sympathetic. A South African cosmologist I know tells me I’m grandstanding, then laughs like it’s a joke, but not really. They all tell me to be patient. Just wait.
Life goes on. My other research, the asteroid research I was doing, has piled up, and I get polite but firm hints that I really ought to work on that if I want to keep my job. I go to conferences, I publish, I do another dozen interviews, holding up the plastic model of the object that I’ll likely never get close to. The ache in my heart feels just like it did when Peter left me. That was three years ago, and I can still feel it. The ache that says: I can’t possibly start over, can I?
The ache faded when I found UO-1.
“JPL rejected your proposal to repurpose Angelus. Thank God.” Marsh leans on my doorway like usual. He’s grinning like he won a prize.
I got the news via email. The bastards can’t even be bothered to call. I’d called them back, thinking there must have been a mistake. The pitying tone in their voices didn’t sound like kindness anymore. It was definitely condescension. I cried. I’ve been crying all afternoon, as the pile of wadded-up tissues on my desk attests. My eyes are still puffy. Marsh can see I’ve been crying; he knows what it looks like when I cry. He was there three years ago. I take a breath to keep from starting up again and stare at him like he’s punched me.
“How can you say that? Do you know what they’re talking about now? They’re talking about just leaving it! They’re saying the orbit is stable, we’ll always know where it is and we can go after it when we have a better handle on the technology. But what if something happens to it? What if an asteroid hits it, or it crashes into Jupiter, or—”
“Jane, it’s been traveling for how many hundreds of billions of miles—why would something happen to it now?”
“I don’t know! It shouldn’t even be there at all! And they won’t even listen to me!”
He sounds tired. “Why should they?”
“Because it’s mine!”
His normally comforting smile is sad, pitying, smug, and amused, all at once. “It’s not yours, not any more than gravity belonged to Newton.”
I want to scream. Because maybe this isn’t the most important thing to happen to humanity. That’s probably, oh, the invention of the wheel, or language. Maybe this is just the most important thing to happen to me.
I grab another tissue. Look at the picture of UO-1. It’s beautiful. It tells me that the universe, as vast as we already know it is, is bigger than we think.
Marsh sits in the second chair without waiting for an invitation. “What do you think it is, Jane? Be honest. No job, no credibility, no speaking gig for Discovery on the line. What do you think when you look at it?” He nods at the picture.
There are some cable shows that will win you credibility for appearing on them. There are some that will destroy any credibility you ever had. I have been standing right on that line, answering the question of “What is it?” as vaguely as possible. We need to know more, no way to speculate, et cetera. But I know. I know what it is.
“I think it’s Voyager. Not the Voyager. Their Voyager. The probe they sent out to explore, and it just kept going.”
He doesn’t laugh. “You think we’ll find a plaque on it? A message? A recording?”
“It’s what I want to find.” I smile wistfully. “But what are the odds?”
“Gershwin,” he says. I blink, but he doesn’t seem offended by my confusion. He leans back in the chair, comfortable in his thick middle-aged body, genial, someone who clearly believes all is well with the world, at least at the moment. “We’ve had fourteen billion years of particles colliding, stars exploding, nebulae compressing, planets forming, all of it cycling over and over again, and then just the right amino acids converged, life forms, and a couple of billion years of evolution later—we get Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing by a fountain to Gershwin and it’s beautiful. For no particular evolution-driven reason, it’s beautiful. I think: what are the odds? That they’re dancing, that it’s on film, and that I’m here watching and thinking it’s gorgeous. If the whole universe exists just to make this one moment happen, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“So if I think sometimes that maybe I was meant to find UO-1, because maybe there’s a message there and that I’m the only one who can read it—then maybe that’s not crazy?” Like thinking that the universe sent me UO-1 at a time in my life when I desperately needed something to focus on, to be meaningful . . . .
“Oh no, it’s definitely crazy. But it’s understandable.” This time his smile is kind.
“Marsh—this really is the most important thing to happen to humanity ever, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But we still need to study and map near-Earth asteroids, right?”
I don’t tell Marsh that I’ve never seen An American in Paris. I’ve never watched Gene Kelly in anything. But Marsh obviously thinks it’s important, so I watch the movie. I decide he’s right. That dance at the fountain, it’s a moment suspended in time. Like an alien spacecraft that shouldn’t be there but is.
Two things happen next.
At the next IAU meeting an archaeologist presents a lecture on UO-1, which I think is very presumptuous, but I go, because I go to everything having to do with UO-1. She talks about preservation and uses terms like “in situ,” and how modern archaeological practice often involves excavating artifacts, examining them—and then putting them back in the ground. She argues that we don’t know what years of space travel have done to the metal and structures of UO-1. We don’t know how our methods of studying it will impact it. She showed pictures of Mayan friezes that were excavated and left exposed to the elements versus ones that remained buried for their own protection, so that later scientists with better equipment and techniques will be able to return to them someday. The exposed ones have dissolved, decayed past recognition. She gives me an image: I reach out and finally put my hand on UO-1, and its metallic skin, weakened by a billion micrometeoroid impacts gathered over millennia, disintegrates under my touch.
I think of that and start to sweat. So yes, caution. I know this.
The second thing that happens: I turn my back on UO-1.
Not really, but it’s a striking image. I write another proposal, a different proposal, and submit it to one of the corporate foundations because Marsh may be right. If nothing else, it’ll get attention. I don’t mind a little grandstanding.
We already have teams tracking a best-guess trajectory to determine where UO-1 came from. It might have been cruising through space at nonrelativistic speed for dozens of years, or centuries, or millions of centuries, but based on the orbit it established here, we can estimate how it entered the solar system and the trajectory it traveled before then. We can trace backward.
My plan: to send a craft in that direction. It will do a minimal amount of science along the way, sending back radiation readings, but most of the energy and hardware is going into propulsion. It will be fast and it will have purpose, carrying an updated variation of Sagan’s Voyager plaques and recordings, digital and analog.
It’s a very simple message, in the end: Hey, we found your device. Want one of ours?
In all likelihood, the civilization that built UO-1 is extinct. The odds simply aren’t good for a species surviving—and caring—for long enough to send a message and receive a reply. But our sample size for drawing that conclusion about the average lifespan of an entire species on a particular world is exactly one, which isn’t a sample size at all. We weren’t supposed to ever find an alien ship in our backyard, either.
I tear up when the rocket launches, and that makes for good TV. As Marsh predicted, the documentary producers decide to make me the human face of the project, and I figure I’ll do what I have to, as best as I can. I develop a collection of quotes for the dozens of interviews that follow—I’m up to two-hundred thirty-five. I talk about taking the long view and transcending the everyday concerns that bog us down. About how we are children reaching across the sandbox with whatever we have to offer, to whoever shows up. About teaching our children to think as big as they possibly can, and that miracles sometimes really do happen. They happen often, because all of this, Gershwin’s music, the great curry I had for dinner last night, the way we hang pictures on our walls of things we love, are miracles that never should have happened.
It’s a hope, a need, a shout, a shot in the dark. It’s the best we can do. For now.
“The Best We Can” copyright © 2013 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2013 by Greg Ruth