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Chapter 2

March 1, 2072

After their heady seven o’clock breakfast of eggs, locally-grown hydroponic grapefruit, and some blah bread, Rain and Stephen found their way to the office of Deborah Kirkland. Kirkland was also the product of the designer baby boom. Her finely chiseled facial features and perfectly groomed hair accentuated her toned physique. Her clothing appeared to have been perfectly tailored to fit her and accentuate her African heritage. She was smart, affable, and beautiful. She was also the boss.

Kirkland, though now firmly entrenched in the all-too-necessary bureaucracy of running a lunar base and research facility, greeted their news of alien discovery with a healthy bit of scientific skepticism and some surprisingly astute questions. Questions to which Rain and Stephan had reasonable and reasoned answers—up until the one that was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room.

“Are you saying the aliens are human? Like us?” Kirkland asked, using her best manager’s “you have my attention” stance, slightly leaning forward in her chair, right hand nestled on her chin, and her gaze focused on Rain’s face.

“No, I’m not saying that. At least physically; that’s just flat-out impossible. What I am saying is that they, whatever they are, use language in a frequency range similar to our own and they have music—again, similar to our own. And they can’t be more than one to two hundred years away from us technologically,” replied Rain.

“Okay, let’s not jump to conclusions. Before we say anything about this to anyone else, we need to get independent confirmation of everything—of the detection, the signals, the decoding, and just where in the hell it is coming from,” Kirkland replied, with extreme excitement evident in her voice. She leaned back in her chair and gazed at the photo on her wall. There, prominent on the wall to the left of her desk, was a photograph of the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico taken in the early days of radio astronomy. Rain guessed the image might date from 1970s, when everyone thought detecting a signal from ET could happen any day.

It was difficult for Rain to remain still while Deborah pondered, but the reassuring hand of Stephan on her shoulder helped. She glanced at him and he returned the glance with a subtle wink. It was both flirtatious and conspiratorial. Rain smiled.

“I’m going to pull the logs, check the database, and listen to the signal myself. I’m also going to contact Space Command to see if they have any new comm sats in the line-of-sight from here to where we think the signal originates that could be spoofing our systems. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away. We just need to make sure we’ve eliminated all the more credible alternatives to your interpretation of the signal as we can before we go public. None of us want to announce this and then have some kid at MIT or Shandong find out we overlooked a perfectly normal, mundane source.” Kirkland then rose and walked from behind her desk toward the door of her office, beckoning Rain and Stephan to follow. A clear indication the meeting was over for now.

“When?” asked Rain as she arose to follow Deborah.

“I should be able to get back with you later this afternoon with my results.”

* * *

“We aren’t going to go public with this until we get independent confirmation,” Kirkland warned, after summoning Rain and Stephan back to her office. It hadn’t taken long. Barely four hours had passed between the time she sent them on their way after the initial briefing until now. Deborah’s hair wasn’t as perfectly groomed as it had been that morning. She now sported the look of an anxious, harried scientist who was putting in too many hours at the lab. Rain couldn’t help but speculate that the discovery had put her boss out of the management lifestyle and back into that of a researcher—at least for a short while.

Rain noticed that the excitement in Kirkland’s voice was tempered by…anxiety? Rain couldn’t be sure. But she didn’t like it and wondered if the need for “independent confirmation” would have been there if it had been someone else who made the discovery, like Stephan. Intellectually she knew that sexism was mostly a thing of the past, but the thought did still cross her mind. It shouldn’t have. Both were women, and didn’t women stand together?

“Independent, as in…what?” asked Stephan. “I’ve looked into the protocols and they are pretty clear what to do in a case like this. According to treaty, we are supposed to send a message to the International Astronomical Union. That’s when others will try to find the signal and give us all the independent confirmation we need.”

“I know. I looked it up myself,” replied Kirkland. “But once we do that, the credibility of this entire laboratory will be questioned. Frankly, I’m not sure I believe the data and I want to be damn sure it’s real before putting our necks out there.”

Rain’s blood pressure began to rise. Is she questioning my integrity? Does she think I made this up somehow?

“What about the data don’t you believe?” asked Stephan before Rain could calm herself down enough to speak.

Kirkland leaned forward in her chair and stared at them as if they were in a courtroom about to be sentenced for a crime, with her as the judge.

“If you had come to me with a simple spurious signal, claiming it to be of extraterrestrial origin, that would have been one thing. Simple. Extraordinary? Yes. But simple. We would double-check everything here at the base and then send it out as proscribed by the treaty. But you didn’t come to me with something simple and straightforward. You came to me with hours of data that ends up being like a mid-twentieth-century radio broadcast, complete with orchestra and an announcer. It is, quite frankly, completely unbelievable.”

“You think we planted the data,” said Rain.

“You, or somebody else. I shudder to think that our data security has been breached, but that is a far more likely scenario than the one you presented to me. Before we make ourselves the laughingstock of the science community, a future case study to the hacker community, or a target of the politicians who are always eager for a soundbite of some outrageous waste of intergovernmental money, I’ve got to be sure it’s real.”

“Okay, I get it. I know we didn’t plant the data, but, like you, I can’t be sure someone else didn’t. It would be good to get confirmation from some other system that isn’t linked to ours. That way we can be reasonably sure the data, if it is still there, isn’t planted,” Rain said, calming herself down and listening, as difficult as it was, to the more rational side of her brain.

Kirkland leaned back again and said, “I’m glad you agree. I’ve got a call in to Riku Tanaka at the Japanese space agency. They’ve got a spacecraft nearing one thousand astronomical units that should have the sensitivity to detect the signal. Since their ship is almost a thousand times farther away from us than the sun, the terrestrial background noise should be minimal.”

“I know of Riku, but I’ve never worked with him,” said Rain. Stephan shook his head in seeming agreement. “I’ve read some of his papers; they’re solid.”

“I’ll only tell him what to look for after I’ve gotten his word that the information will be kept under wraps pending some sort of official announcement from us. If it is real, then I won’t let him go public until we are ready,” Deborah said.

“Are we finished here?” asked Rain. She was eager to get this disappointing meeting behind her and back to trying to learn more about the signal.

“No, we’re not. I want you to walk me through the whole thing again, from the moment you found the signal to the minute you walked in here to tell me about it,” Deborah replied.

They didn’t finish for three hours.

* * *

Traveling at 186,282 miles per second, light takes just over one second to travel from the Moon to Earth. If the Sun were to suddenly vanish, people on Earth might not realize it until eight minutes later when the sky would go dark and Earth would fly off into deep space, no longer bound by the Sun’s immense gravity—or at least that’s what some textbooks stated. Other theories suggested that gravity might be instantaneous and we’d feel the effects of losing the Sun before we’d see them. Space experiments had long shown that gravitational waves traveled at finite speeds and the evidence pointed to the speed being that of light, but no one as yet had proven the actual speed of gravity itself.

Though it took less than a day for the base commander, Deborah Kirkland, to find and brief Riku Tanaka at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s spacecraft control center in Tsukuba, it took the signal from Japan another five and a half days to reach their Interstellar Voyager spacecraft that had just crossed a symbolic milestone—passing one thousand astronomical units. With one astronomical unit, or AU, being equal to the Earth-to-Sun distance, Interstellar Voyager was farther from home than any other object made by humanity. Interstellar Voyager was also moving faster than any other spacecraft ever launched, taking advantage of the new photon drive invented at the Samara State Aerospace University in Russia just nine years previously. This was the shakedown cruise for the drive and, so far, it had performed admirably. Taking only ninety-two days from launch to reach one thousand AU, the drive was poised to change space exploration as profoundly as the invention of the rocket many centuries before. But today, the Samara Drive was irrelevant. The communications system onboard the spacecraft was highly relevant.

Once it received the command signal from home, Interstellar Voyager turned its eight-meter gossamer radio antenna toward Proxima Centauri to search for the signal detected by the radio telescope back on the Moon. If there, the signal it would detect, and record, would have been traveling at the speed of light for many years, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years.

Interstellar Voyager listened for approximately one Earth day, twenty-four hours, and then sent the data it collected back toward Earth. It took another five and a half days for the signal to reach Japan, where it was automatically forwarded to the observatory on the lunar farside. Nearly two weeks had elapsed since Rain made her discovery and she was more than ready to find out if she had been fooled or made the greatest discovery in the history of the species.

* * *

Rain and Stephan were called to Deborah’s office just after the evening meal. Rain knew the message would arrive any day, any hour, and she dropped everything when her apartment’s intercom flashed, alerting her that she had an incoming call. She didn’t have to find Stephan. She ran into him in the hallway on the way to the director’s office. He had apparently just returned from the gym, sporting running shorts and shoes and a sheen of sweat. Both agreed that there wasn’t time for him to clean up before meeting with the director, so he walked in lockstep with her as they made their way forward.

Deborah Kirkland was waiting on them and wearing an expression that caused Rain’s heart to sink. It wasn’t the look of a woman bearing good news. Rather, it was the look she imagined Deborah would wear when dismissing an employee for malfeasance. Rain hoped that wasn’t the case here, but she certainly wasn’t sure.

After motioning for them to sit, Deborah walked to the front of her desk and leaned against it, still wearing the dour expression Rain noticed when they first arrived.

“The data from Tanaka arrived this morning. I’ve spent most of the day discussing it with him, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and, a few minutes ago, with the director general herself,” Deborah revealed, pausing to gauge the duo’s reactions.

“The UN? Does that mean that the Japanese satellite confirmed the detection? Is the signal real?” asked Rain as her heart nearly skipped a beat. She unconsciously reached over to Stephan and gripped his hand as she asked the question, realized what she’d done, and then quickly withdrew it—all before Kirkland could reply.

“The signal is real. Whatever it is, it isn’t ours.” As Kirkland spoke, her stern appearance was replaced with a big smile.

“Oh my God!” Rain exclaimed. Her mind was racing. She’d found intelligent life beyond Earth. Real, honest-to-God aliens. Her mind skipped rapidly from the scene before her, to the moment in the control room when she had the epiphany that the signal might come from outside the solar system, to a brief imagining of herself receiving a certain medal in Stockholm, Sweden. But then she returned to the present and glanced expectantly at Stephan.

Stephan was quiet. He was an observer here; the story, the discovery, and the moment were clearly Rain’s.

“What’s next? What did the director general say?”

“What’s next is you are going to Earth on the next shuttle to New York. It departs tomorrow morning at oh seven hundred sharp. Once you land at LaGuardia, there will be a car waiting to take you to the UN where you’ll be met by a team they’re pulling together. I’ve sent them all the data, but I want you to carry it on a memory cube as well. In this case, redundancy is good.”

“And what, exactly, will this team do?” asked Stephan. It was the first words he’d spoken since the meeting began.

“They’re going to review it, parse it, turn it back into bits and reassemble, analyze, and decompress every bit so many times that no one will question its authenticity. And if it is fake, they will skewer this facility, likely fire me, cut our budget, and make sure both of you are never again employed in a scientific field anywhere in the solar system,” Kirkland said without a trace of sarcasm.

Rain was sure she was serious and that didn’t bother her one bit. She knew she hadn’t faked any data and she was confident that they’d ruled out any reasonable probability of fraud or fakery. The signal was real, since they’d now logged many hours of it—humanlike voices, music, and noises all the while.

“I’ll be ready. And I don’t expect to be fired any time soon,” Rain said as she rose from her seat, barely keeping herself from leaping for joy. In one-sixth gravity such a leap would cause my head to hit the ceiling, she told herself as the temptation passed.

“Stephan, you can go with her if you want. There is an extra seat,” Kirkland said as she eyed first Stephan and then Rain, waiting on their answer.

“Well, I, um…” stumbled Stephan.

“I’d be honored to have my codiscoverer go with me,” interjected Rain. As she looked at him, all she could think was how much he looked like a kid being picked up and swept away by a tornado. Not that she’d ever seen a tornado in person, but she could imagine. She suppressed a smile.

“Okay then, you’ll both be on the seven o’clock shuttle. You’d better go pack and try to get some rest.”

Stephan rose and accompanied Rain out the door, remaining one step behind her as he did so.

* * *

Rain looked around the Luna Shuttle as she strapped herself into her acceleration chair next to Stephan and eight other passengers bound for Earth. She wasn’t sure, but she suspected their having two seats with such short notice resulted in someone else being bumped to a later flight. She couldn’t imagine that the craft would fly unless all the seats were occupied and fully paid for.

The shuttle wasn’t exactly spacious, but it was comfortable enough. In addition to their seats, where they would also eat all their meals and spend most of their awake time, she and Stephan had adjacent microsuites to use during their trip to Earth. Though hardly spacious, the microsuites had everything possible to make the three-day journey back as pleasant as possible. Measuring five feet on a side, the enclosed suite had a personal virtual reality entertainment system, a private video link with which they could call anyone on Earth or in the solar system (“The first ten minutes are free!”), and a wall-hanging sleeping bag into which they would zip themselves into each night if they wanted to sleep. Since after the initial boost from the lunar surface the ship would coast with no acceleration until the Earth entry burn was required, they would be in zero gravity, making “up” and “down” distinctions completely arbitrary. Sleeping zipped into a pouch was required to keep them from drifting around the cabin and bumping into the walls with the air currents from the life-support system as it stirred the air. Everyone aboard—the two pilots, one steward, and ten passengers—shared a common two-seater toilet in the back of the shuttle.

As they departed the surface and flew within sight of the Apollo 12 Historical Site, Rain couldn’t help but think about the “room” used by Alan Bean, Pete Conrad, and Dick Gordon on their journey to and from the moon. Cramped into a tiny capsule, the trio didn’t even have room to stretch.

Late in the first day of their trip, just before dinner, Rain found a popular press article about the Japanese spacecraft that had confirmed her findings. The Interstellar Voyager was built in Japan (where else?) by an industrial consortium that included the big aerospace tech giants from the USA, Europe, Japan, and China. They all wanted in on the flight because of the new space drive that propelled it—the Samara Drive. She found it ironic that the country home to Samara State Aerospace University, Russia, didn’t have a company in the consortium. According to the article, once the Samara Drive was proven in deep space on missions like Interstellar Voyager, it would be put into use on just about every other spacecraft in the system. From what she could tell, if they had the new drive on their shuttle, they would not need microsuites with sleeping quarters. The trip to or from the Moon would take only a few hours, not days. Now that she was looking forward to.

Rain noted that poor Stephan was still looking as confused as the day before when Kirkland offered him the chance to accompany Rain on the trip to Earth. Deborah clearly thought they were a “couple,” even though Rain had tried extremely hard to not give anyone that impression. Stephan, Rain knew, wanted very badly to be part of a couple with her, but that just wasn’t in her playbook right now. And she’d tried to make that clear to him. Having him accompany her on the trip didn’t help.

As they belted into their seats in the common area, located centrally between the two rows of passenger microsuites, dinner was served by their steward. Jon, as he introduced himself, was about thirty, spoke with an Israeli accent, and appeared to be normal born, not genetically engineered. She surmised this when she saw his already thinning hair and slightly off-center, but very real, grin. She liked him immediately.

Stephan and Rain had spent most of the trip so far not talking about the signal, instead focusing on the excitement of the launch and the spectacular view as they departed the Moon. Rain never tired of the views from space, even after spending so much time on the Moon. She felt a compulsion to be there and experience every second as if it were going to be her last. Most people she had met in the “space business,” she had come to learn, didn’t share her bonding with the infinite. For them, the science, technology, and engineering challenges posed by space exploration provided the motivation. She was, for all practical purposes, married to her job, which was how she rationalized and explained her not having any emotional attachments. Truth was, she was desperately lonely and dreamed of finding her soul mate. But THE criterion that soul mate would have to meet was a shared love of space and a desire to spend as much time there as possible. Any commitment without that would, she feared, keep her from spending so much time away from Earth.

After the meal, Rain retrieved her datapad and pulled up on the screen her latest analysis of the alien signal.

“Stephan, I’ve been thinking about the origin of the signal and I’d like your opinion,” Rain said, looking up from the pad, glancing out the window briefly before fixing her gaze on the man beside her.

“Me, too,” he said, pulling out his own datapad and unlocking it with his thumbprint.

“First of all, the source can’t be all that far away. The signal-to-noise ratio is surprisingly good and it isn’t broken up with too much interference. That means there aren’t many energetic sources between us and the origin along the line of sight,” Rain said, scrolling through a seemingly endless stream of numbers with her right index finger.

“The Centauri system,” Stephan said with a growing smile.

“What? Why do you say that?”

“Well, first because of what you just said. I didn’t sleep much last night and, well, since I couldn’t rest, I thought I’d do some additional data analysis before we get peppered with questions at the UN. I made a list of the nearest stars, ones with planetary systems and planets we think might be habitable. I omitted those that weren’t in the general direction of where we think the signal originates. Then I looked at the signal strength and did a quick regression analysis to see what the output signal power would have to be for us to get the signal we recorded and that eliminated all the stellar systems that are more than twenty-five light-years away. If the broadcast came from one of them, their output power would have to be enormous and likely directed toward us—something I just don’t think is happening. I feel like we are eavesdropping on a planetary broadcast meant for local consumption, not for us.”

“That sounds reasonable, but why jump to the conclusion that it originates in the Centauri system? Because it is the closest?” She asked.

“Triangulation. We have the position of the Interstellar Voyager and we know where its antenna was facing when it recorded the signal. Combine this with our data and the stellar systems close enough for us to get the signal-to-noise we’re measuring, and we have triangulation on the origin. Simple geometry. So simple, I did it by hand,” Stephan said as he pulled a sheet of laboratory notebook paper from his trouser pocket and unfolded it.

Rain eagerly leaned over to look at his handwritten note filled with triangles and a few simple trigonometric formulas. The math was simple and the conclusion he reached so basic and straightforward that she used her right hand to slap her own head after reading it.

“Proxima Centauri,” she said, looking up from the paper and excitedly at Stephan.

“Proxima Centauri,” he replied.

“Do you know which planet?” she asked.

“There’s not enough fidelity to triangulate on a particular planet in the system, but I can hazard a guess. We’ve known since the early 2000s that there are stable planets around Proxima Centauri and the mostly likely candidate is Proxima Centauri b. Proxima is a red dwarf star and not as luminous as Sol. The planet is in the habitable zone, which at Proxima Centauri places it really close to its parent star. We’re about twenty times farther away from Sol than Proxima Centauri b is from its star. And guess what? B has an orbital period of eleven days. That would explain your eleven-day variation in the strength of the signal. Halfway through, the planet is behind the star and the signal is completely blocked.”

Rain started to say something and instead she did something she never thought she would ever do. In her excitement at the news, she kissed him, and immediately regretted doing so. There I go again, leading him on. Dammit!

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