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Chapter 5

April 14, 2082

After the flurry of activity surrounding the release of the news that humans weren’t alone in the universe, including all the excitement of briefing the world’s politicians, astronomers, anthropologists (who were the most excited at the news), philosophers, ethicists, laypeople, and just about every community group she could imagine, Rain had returned to her office on the Moon and her beloved radio telescopes. Like before the discovery, she would stop daily to admire the telescope array and its contrast with deep space. This time, she imagined she could see others, out there, looking back.

Most people on Earth went about their daily routines without giving the humans on Proxima Centauri so much as an extra thought. There were bills to be paid, babies to be made, and places to see—just like there had always been. Before the discovery, some had thought there might be widespread panic at the news that humans had found life elsewhere. That there would be riots, people would finally give up religion, people would become more religious, or that the aliens would become an obsession to change people’s lives forever. None of that.

Even the world’s religions mostly took it in stride. The Christians were mostly curious as to whether the aliens had “fallen” into sin like we humans and if they had a redeemer. The Mullahs proclaimed that the aliens must “worship and be accountable to Allah,” though not to Mohammad—he was only for humans on Earth. The Hindus embraced the news and, like the Christians, were curious as to how the aliens worshipped their gods. The Mormons, on the other hand, simply replied saying, “We told you so.” There were pockets of deniers in just about all of the religious camps who, despite their theological differences, shared the general opinion that the Proximans couldn’t really be human and therefore must be demons or some other nefarious creature that should be avoided at all cost.

After the initial shock, most people simply filed it away like they would the daily stock market report and moved on. Except, of course, for those who had a vested interest in studying and learning from the newly discovered aliens on Proxima Centauri b. Rain was, of course, among them. Her world had changed dramatically.

Rain was now the technical assistant to the director of the Lunar Farside Radio Observatory. The previous director, Deborah Kirkland, had long since retired and been replaced by a dynamic, much younger, and much more politically savvy woman named Samineh Bensaïd. Samineh had studied at Oxford and later at Nanjing University. Rain liked her much more than her predecessor and their respect was mutual.

Rain’s discovery and fame, combined with Samineh’s acumen and connections, landed the Radio Observatory its first major upgrade since its initial construction two decades ago. The array was being expanded by a factor of four, with all-new electronics and the latest AI-assisted signal processing. They also had secured management of the newly funded Solar Gravity Lens Telescope being placed six hundred astronomical units out, in the direction opposite to Proxima Centauri. The SGLT would allow direct optical imaging of Proxima Centauri b and extremely sensitive radio reception of their signals thanks to the amplification of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the distant planet by the sun’s mass. The distortion of gravity around the massive sun would bend space-time and allow radiation passing through the bending to focus on the detectors they were building to send to six hundred astronomical units for just that purpose. Rain liked to describe the sun as acting like a magnifying glass, allowing select regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to be focused on their detectors like the magnifying lens would fry ants, if placed the appropriate distance from them on a sunny day.

Thanks to the Samara Drive, the SGLT would be on station in only a few months after launch. You can get places quickly if you can accelerate at one gee and use light as your reaction mass, thought Rain. Initially there were concerns that the intensity of the light emitted by the drive would adversely affect the Earth’s upper atmosphere, but those were mostly dispelled when limits were agreed upon to prevent the highest energy drives from being used anywhere near the Earth and Moon system. Most robotic missions and small crewed tugs fell into the category of having allowable emissions for use near the Earth. Larger ships, like the new mining ships and those bound for Mars, had to wait until they were much farther away to take advantage of the Samara Drive. Thus, like she had predicted nearly a decade ago, her trip times between the Moon and the Earth now maxed out at about four hours each way. Not bad. I can even go home for the occasional weekend.

Rain’s day started, like so many before it, with a quick shower and breakfast, followed by a brisk walk around the perimeter of the base where all of those who maintained the Lunar Farside Observatories (it was now more than one) lived. Her warm-ups and cooldowns were, of course, at the large observation window overlooking the radio telescope’s array. She never grew bored of the sight.

Rain liked her morning runs. Aside from the obvious health benefits, like keeping her cardiovascular system healthy in the Moon’s paltry one-sixth-gravity environment, it gave her time to think and reflect. Today was one of those days she could sink into melancholy if she weren’t careful; she was pondering her life that almost was, her own mortality, and what her next career steps might be.

Rain’s thought train began as she finished her warm-up at the observation window and reminisced about her time with Stephan. He’d finally grown weary of Rain’s lack of interest, left the observatory staff, and found himself a job working at a nearside university teaching astronomy. She missed him and sent an occasional message informing him of the latest scientific discovery—just before the details were published and widely available. It made him feel like an “insider” and kept their friendship warm. There had been no one significant in her life since him and she was fine with that—most of the time. Today, her next thought was what it would have been like to marry Stephan and start a family. This one didn’t last long since Rain had extreme difficulty intellectually reconciling the demands of family, husband, and children with her work. She knew which one would take priority and, if she had taken this path, that the likely outcome would have been acrimony and divorce. A path, she admitted to herself, that was probably best not taken. Even if it did make her sometimes feel lonely.

By the time she was in her cooldown, Rain had moved on to thinking of what she would do after her time on the Moon. She was now near the maximum allowable lunar stay time. Despite her morning workouts and the many pharmacological treatments given to those on the Moon for more than just a few weeks, her heart was still losing strength, her bones were weakening, her muscle tone declining, and her total radiation dose from solar and galactic cosmic ray exposure was ticking inexorably upward. Every lunar facility adhered to these universal health guidelines and they would soon catch up with her, forcing her return to Earth and…what? It was her thinking about the “what” that made her melancholy.

She thought that looking at the moonscape through the observation window would bring her out of it, and it did, but only by changing what she was thinking about. It was as beautiful as ever, stark, desolate, and mostly unchanging.

Unlike the Moon’s nearside, which always faced the Earth, giving those back home the same constant and unchanging view of the Moon to which they were accustomed, there was little or no commercial activity on the farside. To maintain the pristine, radio-quiet environment that had led to the discovery of the Proximans, the UN’s ban on farside development remained intact and no orbiting radio communications relay satellites were ever approved. Keeping the farside pristine was now a widely recognized “good idea” that was almost universally supported by the world’s politicians and public.

Lunar nearside was a vastly different story. With the advent of the Samara Drive, the Moon was far more accessible both logistically and financially than ever before, with bases, hotels, universities, and research facilities being built there at a prodigious rate. With a land area roughly equivalent to Asia, there wouldn’t be a lunar land shortage for quite some time.

Today, Rain was back in the control room, but instead of being the one directing—or, more accurately, watching—the AI direct the day’s observations, she was simply there to discuss with one of the operators how the new parts of the extended array would be integrated with the existing system as the new segments were completed. They had discussed this many times in the design phase, but now was the tricky part: putting the plans into action. And, like a general’s battle plan becoming useless once the battle was engaged, sometimes the best-designed interface would have unexpected problems. Rain was trying her best to avoid having that happen.

She and the operator—a slim, inexperienced but eager female post-doc named Margie, from Ontario—were just getting into the details when the observatory’s AI interrupted. The AI had a male voice and, Rain long ago concluded, a very male personality. It was the latest generation general-purpose AI, meant to resemble a human when in direct interaction, and designed to fool just about anyone who tried to give it a Turing Test. Most AIs resembled men, Rain had noted many times, thinking that the reason might be its inherently linear thinking. Women’s thoughts tended to interconnect with everything, shaded with nuance and too holistic for most men to really understand. Men’s thoughts, however, tended to be much more focused, one topic at a time, with an almost conscious effort to not follow the obvious interconnected thoughts. AIs, being software and still mostly based on simple “if/then” coding, were also linear. Hence, the male thinking pattern that she perceived.

“Dr. Gilster. We are receiving a new transmission from Proxima Centauri. I am sending the translation to your station.”

Rain, now excited by the news so blandly reported by the AI, moved away from the wide-eyed Margie and to her station just to the left of the picture window that overlooked the massive array. Rain moved so quickly she nearly stumbled, easily recovering thanks to the low gravity. After she unlocked the device with her thumbprint, the contents of the message began to scroll across the display.

A parroting of their own message, just like they had parroted the aliens’ message in the first part of theirs.

More parroting. And yet more. The replay extended for several pages and then…something new.

A grayscale picture of what looked like a human family, sort of—two men, a woman, and five children, all male, standing next to what looked like an ocean or lake. Two men? She wondered what people would make of that. It was clearly a disarming greeting intended to show their humanity. The people were all dressed in robes and they held their palms upraised. Was this the equivalent of an Earth family waving?

Next were photos of trees, fields filled with flowers, lakes, mountains, and some fairly large cities with tall, concrete-and-glass buildings. And then came the animals, from what looked like insects to small mammals to large mammals and reptiles.

And then, the text, in somewhat broken and stiff, but understandable, English:


* * *

The Proxima Contact Team was large, led by the UN-appointed Dr. Julia Coetzee. Coetzee, a native of South Africa, was clearly the UN’s compromise candidate to lead the team. Well credentialed (she earned her PhD in linguistics from Cambridge) and well respected, she rose to the top of the list because she was from nonaligned South Africa. Coetzee opted to conduct the meetings of the Contact Team virtually, with most of its twenty-eight members participating from their home institutions around the world and, in Rain’s case, from the Moon. Until now, which meant for the past eight or so years since the team was formally established, they’d been studying the Proximans’ solely by their electronic eavesdropping—listening to the radio broadcasts and attempting to read their transmitted faxes.

So far, they knew that the Proximans were most definitely human. The anthropologists and sociologists were at first disappointed with this fact but over time grew excited over the prospect of studying the societal and cultural development of an isolated human civilization. They knew human biology and roughly how people think; now they got to apply this knowledge to the study of a culture that had developed in complete isolation from Earth’s humans and that was not yet contaminated by the knowledge that other humans even existed. What were their social constructs? How did they differ from Earth’s human cultural and social development? How were they the same? They’d let the biologists argue over how it was even possible for humans to exist in evolutionary isolation.

And argue they did. For most, it was an established fact that humans had evolved on Earth by natural processes taking billions of years. Natural selection had tried various survival traits over these years and had, after a fashion, spawned a species of mammalian bipeds with large brains and opposable thumbs, leading to the development of an intelligent, tool-using species—Earth’s humans. For this group, it was simply inconceivable that the parallel processes, operating completely independently on a world four and a quarter light-years away, could lead to the identical evolutionary product at about the same time. These processes took millions and billions of years. The likelihood of parallel evolution happening, at the same time, was essentially zero. Yet there they were—Proximan humans.

Their existence emboldened a minority group of biologists who adhered to the idea of panspermia—that life on Earth, and perhaps Proxima Centauri b, were related because of the past instances of Earth, and presumably other worlds, being smacked by asteroids, sending pieces of their planet into deep space. Some may have carried life, perhaps with the same DNA, to another world where evolution would continue. But even their theory didn’t account for the facts. The bacteria or other simple organisms that traveled through deep space would still have to evolve into an identical species. Even this minority view had serious shortcomings.

And then there were those who said the whole thing was absurd. In their view, panspermia was science fiction and parallel human evolution a fantasy. They looked at what was known about Proxima Centauri, the star, and Proxima Centauri b, the planet, and concluded that advanced life there was simply impossible. Earth’s Sun was over eight times heavier than Proxima Centauri and one thousand times brighter. That meant that the planet’s habitable zone, where liquid water could exist, was twenty-five times closer to Proxima Centauri than the Earth was to the sun. Being that close to its parent star, there was a good chance the planet was tidally locked, meaning that one side of the planet was always facing the star and the other deep space—much like the Moon was to the Earth—making it a very complicated system for harboring life. In this group’s view, too complicated. Red dwarfs also tended to fire off powerful flares—which can destroy a planet's atmosphere and bathe it in harmful radiation—more often than sun-like stars do. Considered together, the “absurd” group simply refused to believe any of the data. However, they were unable to provide an alternative viable theory to account for the signal. Yet.

The scientific community, across the board, had learned much about the Proximans since the first signals were detected, but much remained to be learned. They were all hoping that the two-way information exchange would be…enlightening.

There was much debate, and Coetzee, for the most part, reveled in it. She loved a good old-fashioned academic debate based on observable facts, not biased conjecture, and the topic of the Proximans’ humanity was just such a debate.

The sociologists and political scientists had their own theories based on the intercepted message and texts. They surmised that the Proximans lived under a single government, spoke a single language, and developed a legal and governmental bureaucratic system much like our own. While they didn’t understand the specific contents of the many faxes they studied, they were able to conclude that the vast majority were transactional, functional, the very same kinds of data that companies might digitally exchange in modern times.

Without a Proximan Rosetta Stone, they were extremely limited in what they could say with high confidence about the inhabitants of Proxima Centauri b.

That all changed with the arrival of the message two weeks ago. Not only did it contain an extensive dictionary of their language, but also what appeared to be a gigantic historical encyclopedia of their history and culture. The contact team decided to call it the Proximan Encyclopedia. There hadn’t been enough time to parse all the data, but some high-level information was coming to light that merited discussion among the contact team, all of whom agreed to share the data among themselves. The data was embargoed until a majority of the committee voted to release it. The steering committee could, at least temporarily, bar the release of any information deemed “incendiary” or “politically destabilizing” to the world at large. So far, nothing the committee found had ever been permanently embargoed.

Coetzee saw that everyone was online and called the virtual meeting to order. The minutes of the last meeting were read and approved, and a vote was taken to dispense with regular business to begin a discussion of the recently received data dump from deep space. Coetzee knew that trying to have a firm, fixed agenda with a large group of scientists was impossible, but she tried. She first recognized the lead from the biology subteam, Dr. Felicia Hernandez, for a preliminary report.

“The biology subteam has no initial findings, but rather a few observations. From what we can tell from the data they provided in the Proximan Encyclopedia, they don’t have a well-developed field of evolutionary biology. And the data provided on biology is extremely limited. We believe that information about their biology and biological history were redacted from what was sent. The gaps are obvious and can only be explained by deliberate omission,” Hernandez stated. Her body language spoke volumes—she was clearly disappointed in the lack of usable data in the transmission.

“Madam Chair, may I interrupt?” asked Dr. Wang from the archeology and anthropology subteam. Wang was online from his university in Hong Kong.

“Certainly, Dr. Wang. Go ahead,” said Coetzee.

“My team obviously hasn’t had time to dig deeply, but we do find many entries in the Encyclopedia related to their cultural evolution. They have records going back at least as far as the oldest manuscripts here on Earth, perhaps further. Their cultural evolution seems somewhat parallel to ours in that they record their beginnings as hunter/gatherers near the planet’s tropical regions, with the development of civilization following rather quickly after they discovered agriculture. There seem to be many instances of the all-too-human wars and conquests similar to those we endured, which, I might add, my team found to be disappointing and oddly comforting at the same time. It reinforces their basic humanity—the good and bad. Their path paralleled ours with early agricultural beginnings, following by warring city-states, leading to more complex social and cultural organization, and resulting in their current worldwide government. As best we can tell, the latter, the coalescing into one single government, is a rather recent event. The reasons for it are not completely clear—at least not yet. The bottom line is that until about ten thousand years ago, they were nomads on their world, much as we were. A parallel societal evolution, if not a biological one.”

“Thank you, Dr. Wang. Can you tell us your level of surprise at this? In other words, given their development in assumed isolation from us, would you expect such similarities?”

“The committee is mixed on this, I am sure. But I can give my opinion. No, I am not surprised. Human beings are human beings—with the same basic needs of food, water, procreation, and control over one’s own destiny. The possible solutions that lead to stable civilization are few and we humans have experienced many variations of them, at least as a species, here on Earth. I would have been surprised if they had come up with solutions significantly different from those proposed and tried here on Earth.”

“Dr. Wang, do you have anything to add?”

“Yes, as I matter of fact I do, but it is more of a question for the biology subteam.”

“Proceed,” she said.

“Dr. Hernandez, what do the Proximans eat?” he asked.

“Now that is a surprise. Their diet appears to be quite similar to our own. In fact, from what we can tell, their biosphere is remarkably like ours—they grow wheat, corn, soybeans, and many other crops that would be recognizable to anyone here on their dinner menu tonight. They raise pigs and cattle, which, amazingly enough, look remarkably similar to those here on Earth. The few differences can probably be accounted for in the selective breeding they’ve done since implementing agriculture and farming. Simply stated, it isn’t just the Proximans that appear Earthlike, but much of their biosphere could have easily been lifted from here to there with only subtle changes. It is a puzzle,” she said.

This latter comment caused quite a stir among committee members, many of whom had to mute their microphones to silence the spontaneous discussions breaking out in the various conference rooms between team members and their local support teams at this most recent biological bombshell being delivered.

“Madam Chair, when our response is crafted, the biology team will have many questions to include. And we have a lot of data yet to sift through,” said Hernandez.

“I’m sure you won’t be the only ones with questions, Dr. Hernandez. And we will be collecting the questions from every team member as time passes and before any such new message is crafted,” Coetzee said. “Next, we will hear again from Dr. Wang for the archeology and anthropology subteam.”

“Thank you, Madam Chair. The archeology and anthropology subteam spent much of the last week looking at a topic to which the public seems to be showing extreme interest: religion. Specifically, do the Proximans have religion and, if so, then what is it? The answer was found in the Encyclopedia and it is yes. The Proximans do, most emphatically, have religion. They seem to have many religions of the usual types: shamanic, monotheistic, Olympian, and atheistic. Of the four, monotheistic seems to be dominant. From what we can tell, none of their religions are historically similar to those found here on Earth. There are no figures comparable to Mohammad, Christ, or Buddha in their teachings, though the tenants of some of the religions seem to be roughly similar to their Earthly counterparts. If people are hoping or expecting our neighbors to answer one of the most vexing questions in our own history—what is the mind and plan of God?—then they will be sorely disappointed. The Proximans seem to be divided and seeking answers to same questions as we.”

“Except for their origins,” commented someone from a hot microphone. Hernandez couldn’t figure out from whom the comment came, but she wasn’t really that concerned. She had the same thought herself. It was THE question.

* * *

Five months later, the first batch of questions from Earth were sent on its way to Proxima Centauri b. Along with them was Earth’s version of an Encyclopedia.

Instead of redacted entries on biology and evolution, however, the Earth-human encyclopedia excluded just about everything on technologies beyond what could be ascertained as compared to the Proximans’ own state of development. Generally speaking, this meant the removal of much of the scientific development of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: quantum mechanics and technologies that grew from it were redacted, including nuclear power and nuclear weapons, transistors and semiconductors, lasers, etc. Even vacuum-tube television technology was omitted since the radio leakage observed thus far seemed to be audio only and they were not sure they yet had the technology. If not, they were certainly close. It was impossible to omit mentioning some of these technologies, but no technical details were provided.

Also omitted were entries on the mapping of the human genome, genetic engineering, and the cures of many of the diseases that had ravaged humanity since the species first arose. There was a fear that providing such detailed knowledge to the few that were involved in the interstellar communication loop could be misused.

After considerable debate, most of the violent history of Earth’s civilizations remained in the encyclopedia, including World War One and World War Two—minus the bit about dropping atom bombs on Japan, remembering the intentional omission of nuclear weapons and power. The decision to include these less-than-admirable events in human history was not unanimous. They were included to show reciprocity with the Proximans, who had been quite open about their own less-than-stellar history of conflict in what they sent.

The world waited on the response, or what the Proximans might have sent in the time after their first intentional message to Earth. Conducting a meaningful, consistent two-way conversation, if done serially, would take quite some time with about nine years between each successive message. Perhaps the messages would not be serial, and more data might be already on its way…

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