The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
It’s the kind of movie that will make “Underrated” lists in ten months. Don’t wait that long. See it now.
Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. This is one of four endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.
Caden Murdoch writes:
Alex smiled at her. "You hear music in everything. Hippie."
"But it's not hard to do when there's a pattern," she said. "Which there is," she added.
"And that's just the audio," Claire said. "Just the radio waves. We've been running it through spectrometers, studying how it moves through matter, converting it into a visual, allowing us to check out the frequencies we can't hear, and there's so much more: the whole signal is layered. It's a packet of information that's starting to reveal a complex language, this weird dance of movement, light, heat, energy, and matter, except sort of"-- she looked at Claire. "Yeah. I guess, musical."
Claire was still lost in the phone. "I mean, it's got a rhythm," she said absently, more to herself than those gathered. "There's tones. Choruses and everything."
"So how'd you get this theory? Mason asked Regan. "'Thinking Molecules?'"
Regan nodded to Elliot. "Show them."
Elliot turned to Claire, who had since dug her headphones out of her bag and hooked them up to the phone. She was listening intently, staring out the window. He tapped her on the shoulder. When she looked over, he gestured for her to hand over the phone, taking it and pushing a few buttons before laying it on the table for everyone to see.
On the screen there were, among other things, a visual representation of a spectrogram, as well as a binary code readout and a 3D graph with levels rising and falling.
He tapped the screen. "This layer you see here, underneath the audio, was a faint signal being heard by Cassini before we even noticed it. So when Regan noticed it, she issued the order and I aimed Cassini to lean in, get a better listen. Then we got the pattern you were hearing earlier. That noise. Music. Whatever."
"Now, what made this different, and what makes this frankly creepy for me, is that ever since NASA and ESA retired the Cassini program and outsourced it to us here at the University, Cassini was saved from being crashed into the surface of Saturn and we were allowed to let it orbit and to listen and play around. We do flybys of Titan every once in a while and get the same series of burbles and clicks from Huygens—and it was Huygens that parachuted to the surface, not Cassini," he added in an aside to Regan, who stuck her tongue out at Mason and said, "We had better things on our mind at the moment."
"So whenever we fly by, Huygens gets a chance to not be a sad hunk of metal jabbering away to itself because its battery died," Elliot continued. "But we know what its readings are like." He looked to each of them in turn. "This signal was different, right? I mean, we all agree on that."
This time everyone nodded. Claire was already nodding, but only because she was lost in the music.
"But we've scanned everything on that Moon. Titan's dead. Nothing there—at least nothing man-made," said Mason.
"Exactly," said Elliot. "So when this reading comes from there, I'm freaked out. How is something organic that we can't see—so molecules at best—broadcasting to our satellite? Because—and I can't stress this enough—Huygens is dead. So either this signal is being piped through the broken-down corpse of Huygens somehow, like a medium, up into Cassini, or--and this would account for why the signal is not only subtly different, but coming from a different place-- what if they don't even need Huygens?
"Clarify for the cheap seats," said Alex.
Elliot nodded. "Ok. What if they can do…whatever weird quantum-molecular-broadcasting thing it is they do…without Huygens? Because either way, they traced the path from Huygens to Cassini, and from there followed the trail. Somehow."
"I'm with you," said Mason, trying to sound objective and clinical even while he couldn't help staring greedily at the headphones. "I am. But so far this is a lot of speculation. Intelligence is still not required."
Regan nodded, conceding the point, and was about to speak, when Elliot cut her off. "But they followed us. Like trying to flag down a passing car. They changed once they knew we were listening."
Regan turned to Elliot. "How do you know that?"
Elliot smiled. "Because I know something you don't. You've been listening to the pattern for hours, sure—but that was the old one. That there that she's listening to?" He pointed to Claire, who looked up. "That's the new stuff. And it's louder, and clearer. It's changed. Like it knows it might have an audience now. And that new signal was received as we moved away from Titan."
"Again: cheap seats," said Alex.
"It followed us," Elliot said. "It was directed at us."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Regan asked.
"Because you're smarter than me and you tell better stories and I wanted to lead the campfire for once."
"One more thing," he added. "Before we start doing the, 'Does anyone really get how big this is?' and trying to avoid jinxing it, I decided to save us all that trouble. I also wanted to hedge my bet. So I just made a cryptic post and sent it out."
Regan set her jaw and glared at Elliot. "What kind of post?"
"I figured hey: let them decide."
"Let who, Elliot?"
He grinned. "Everyone. I posted the new signal online before we left the lab. It's the worlds now; let them decide." He must have seen the looks developing on the group's face, because he rushed to add: "Don't worry! It's ambiguous enough that it just looks like, 'Hey, look at the cool thing we found,' but it also holds our spot as a PR move once we feel more comfortable discussing what we already know to be true, guys. This way we're still first when someone else uses the holy phrases which may include—but will not be limited to—the words intelligent and life in their press release."
Before Regan could leap upon him Elliot said, "Here. Listen," and quickly reached over to Claire and pulled the headphones out.
Music filled the space around the table.
They sat in silence and listened, stunned. Regan and Mason both immediately forgot their anger at his announcement.
Minutes passed as calm settled in among them.
"Mozart was a good choice," Regan said to Claire.
"Not Beethoven?" asked Alex.
Regan shook her head. "Mozart had better operas, sacred and choral compositions—you know, all the church stuff--and serenades. Beethoven might have him with any symphony or sonata, but Mozart's got the edge when it comes to music with a sort of dialogue. And that's what this is: It's a conversation. Maybe a story? I don't know. It's addressed to someone, like a letter. It's…"she trailed off in silence for a bit before finally stating, gravely: "This is something we will spend the rest of our lives making sense of."
"Here, here," said Alex. He lifted his pitcher in the air in a salute, and drank the last of it.
"I like Wagner's orchestral arrangements better."
"Shut up, Elliot," Regan said.
Mason wasn't listening. He hadn't been really listening to their conversation since the jack was pulled.
He had been staring out the window at the late-afternoon sun, nudged toward wonder and awe. At the trees, the green leaves, the faces of people passing by.
Suddenly they looked beautiful, the people.
Years later, he would recall this moment as the happiest and most excited and optimistic he had ever felt. He sighed and closed his eyes. No hyperbole, it really was the best thing he had ever heard.
As months passed, Mason would reflect that it was the best thing lots of people had ever heard. In what seemed like no time at all, the pattern's audio leaped from the university's website to government sites to media sites to social networking sites. Rock bands mixed it in to the background of their songs. It was a ringtone. To get to McHugh's bar where he was eating, he had to walk past a street musician singing the pattern. The University even put on an orchestral performance, accompanied by interpretive dance, and Mason was surprised how close some of these interpretations came to capturing the essence of the pattern's signal without needing the tools he had at his disposal to do it. How well they seemed to capture the mood of each transmission.
And there were new transmissions almost every week. Elliot called them "Singles." Each signal was different. At first people likened them to prayer songs. The feeling was identical, they would say. There were moods communicated—playful, excited, thankful, joyous. Worshipful.
But later the moods in the signals sounded frightened.
Apprehensive. The latest even sounded aggressive.
Popular opinion began to turn to the theory that maybe, what with all the interpretations and artistic movements of this signal, the public was just projecting their impressions onto random noise. Like a personality onto a pet goldfish.
That's absurd, Mason thought.
There was no chance these were just the sounds of stellar noise--of tides reverberating around the core of the planet or something. The music came pre-packaged. A 3D readout with color, mood and movement as the molecules reacted to the echoes of their moon, the energy spectrum of space, and even each other.
He finished his blackened fish tacos and regarded the ancient T.V. in the diner, where politicos on a newscast were arguing the idea that people on earth were just talking to themselves.
In a split screen, one pundit was angrily saying how this was all a conspiracy on the part of the university, who was duping the public after making a hasty mistake born of wishful thinking.
Alex looked up, following Mason's eyes. "What do you think of that?"
Mason shook his head. "Like I said, you've got to please everyone, down to the last fanatic."
His phone vibrated. The text message said, Someone's here to talk about the new patterns. You need to come in.
Still, he ordered dessert, finished his meal, and paid. He knew who was at the lab. He was dreading the conversation. Lately the dean had been accompanying the occasional political or military figure, and Mason didn't like the aura of paranoia and unease that seemed to sweep Elliot whenever they came around.
He ambled to the lab. Slowly, for the first time in months.
"It's a mistake."
The Dean wasn't a nervous man. There was no hand-fidgeting, no lack of eye contact while he talked. He wasn't uncomfortable, despite the man with four stars on his service uniform standing beside him. The General looked regretful.
"We were just talking to ourselves," the dean continued. "Making art out of numbers and a pattern that we still haven't been able to make sense of, not really. Echoes and reverberations and stellar noise into which we read too much."
Mason looked to Claire and Elliot, who both looked away. Claire seemed angry; her cheeks were bright red.
Mason was about to speak, about to say, No, this is ridiculous. It's music. It is. It's music with a sort of dance, a picture. An interaction.
They communicate by movement, by sound and light and energy conversion through matter, by emitting radiation, by this whole complex language where once you decode it, these colors and shapes and sounds and motions—this is confusion, this is gratitude, this is beauty—everyone can get it.
But The Dean interrupted his thoughts. "At least," he continued, "that's what we'll tell them."
Mason had always considered himself a scientist first; after all, he worked at an educational institution. "Why?" he finally managed to ask, doing his best to make it sound as dispassionate as possible.
Elliot stood up and handed Mason a readout. "Because the truth is way worse."
"What's the truth?"
"Claire brought it to me, first. She could hear it. Lots of people can hear it, and it's messing them up. There's more to it now than just a song. It's scary. There's anger. Sounds like war. And the original happier songs are just about gone. They're getting fainter. Mason, our molecules are dying out."
Mason blinked. He sat down.
"I didn't believe it at first. I ran it through everything I could,
and the numbers back it up: they are dying, dude. We think Huygens might have been like a sort of virus, infecting them when it crashed and broke the surface of the planet. That our listening to them, killed them, as crazy as that is. Because who knew, right? Who knew how beings that talk and live by radio waves would be affected by other radio waves—the ones from us?"
The General finally stepped forward, his green service slacks remaining uncreased. "This isn't the movies. There's no conspiracy. We won't threaten you or force you to do anything. But for some reason, the signal still heads straight here to be heard. No other lab gets it as anything other than second-hand. And that scares us. They can pipe the signal wherever they want. And when you listen to it, it affects you. No denying that. The songs are turning darker, and we're worried that won't be all the influence they can hold over the listener. Each new song is different—more specific, so it's coming closer to how we talk. It's easier and easier to understand them. So if they're angry about dying, maybe they can do real harm in their death throes."
"And that's what we think this is, now," said Elliot. "A death chant."
The Dean stepped forward. "We have to cease communicating with the satellite immediately," he said. "If it is killing them, they could try and retaliate against us, and I have to consider things like reputation and liability. I don't want history to show we supported this.
Besides," he said, shrugging, "it's a moot point--funding is getting pulled anyway." He looked sideways to the general, who cleared his throat before speaking.
"We're going to ask you to come up with a pattern that matches what you've been doing so far," the general said to Mason. "One that's artificial. You'll say you thought it was the real thing. There's an artist out of Boston, a miss Nathalie Miebach , who started the trend of taking weather data and turning it into three-dimensional graphs which she then converts into music. We'll say the sounds were just us playing with the data of natural phenomena and making the music ourselves, like Miss Miebach. Many of the artists who turn the signal into music do something similar already. It will be easy; you'll have help to retroactively match it in place." The general stood straighter and locked eyes with Mason. "Or," he said, making a point to draw out the word into the quiet of the lab. "You can go to your grave saying there was life, that we killed them just by listening, and we will deny it and have someone else forge our fake signal."
The Dean and Regan looked to Elliot, who looked away.
Feeling hollow, Mason walked all the way home, a distance of nearly eight miles. He needed the time to think.
Regan had resigned. "Tell them it was me who said there was life," she said as she swept contents from the top of her desk into an empty cardboard box. "Say it was my mistake."
Mason would later remember turning to leave, and hearing Regan call out to him. "Mason?" Her voice sounded beaten, fragile, so he turned around.
Out of pride, he did his best to look bored and angry, and hoped that no one could see that he was about to cry. He tried to swallow, and couldn't.
Regan regarded him. The tears ran in tracks down her face as she did–she had no problem communicating emotion. "I have another story."
Mason raised his eyebrows. Oh?
"So this planet called Earth finds life elsewhere. These beautiful molecules that spend their whole existence singing to the space around them with no response. And then they get a sense of something really listening—Huygens. And that alone helps them evolve, as it gives them a sort of hope. And so they start talking through it.
"But the listening begins to weaken them. And they begin to get quiet. Then they become frightened, and begin to scream. Except now they don't even have hope that anyone is listening. And they're right, because we aren't, huh? Not anymore. So they die alone. And over here?" She shook her head and snorted. Her nose was congested. "Over here, you're in quite a pickle. Do you keep on telling people those beings even existed? Because if you did, would anyone even believe you by the time the dust cleared? Say you aren't hated, ostracized or even killed. Say you even manage to get NASA to fund a second satellite, this one able to surmount the radiation problem, and even talk back to them while it's at it, answer them directly.
"Maybe we hope to arrive in time to apologize. Billions and billions of dollars get spent on this—and then we show up to an empty planet. A dead planet. Because those molecules won't leave corpses, Mason. Even if they did, NASA wouldn't say so.
"So then people really hate you. And that's even if they believe you, and you aren't a laughingstock. So you go say the lie that it was all just a mistake because you have no choice. You go home and do that, and we all brush ourselves off and become embarrassed this even happened. Let everyone feel better as all those poor creatures cry out to us, confused and alone. Eventually they'll stop. And it'll get quiet again."
When he got home he walked, zombie-like, over to his office where he sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. Out of habit he lifted the silver ball on his Newton's Cradle and paused as it began to swing back and forth, clacking as it did. He pulled up what he was looking for—one of the most recent signals--and turned the screen off. He closed his eyes. His straight feed from the listening lab came on, flooding his office with sound, the Newton Cradle serving as a clinical metronome to the somber tones.
The signal's mood matched his. It was fitting.
And it was in that moment that he heard it.
Mason didn't believe they were dying. Couldn't believe it.
He had never stopped listening to the signal. After a while, he was the only one. He kept listening, looking for a sign, for evidence in favor of any reason to suspect they weren't dying, listening to each signal over and over again.
It was on one such evening that he woke from a deep sleep, sitting up in his office chair, a dream still fresh but already fading. He was awoken by the sound of the signal; it was too loud. He went to turn it down, reaching for the volume knob on his computer, only to find that his computer was already off. He froze. He could still hear the signal's music—unobtrusive, but there. It faded almost out of politeness when he turned his attention to it.
He never spoke of it.
After that he worked tirelessly, taking the equipment home with him when the stations were powered down and the only staff left were him and Elliot, tinkering away into the night.
They cut him off completely when he leaked the latest pattern online, and he knew if he returned to work his keycard wouldn't open the security door—he'd taken his position, disseminating data to the general public in the hopes of making up for his missing lab support. Without funding, he solicited the public to help him with this last signal. What wasn't free labor was paid in part through donations left to his site—download the signal, help with the data to finish this, to complete the picture, pay what you think it's worth.
He had a theory. It tended to impossible in practice. But they usually are.
He had to check the theory against others.
He was surprised at the amount of help that poured in—labs from around the world offered their help so long as he kept it a secret between friends. He had to experiment his bias, had to make sure the data was agreed upon. And it was.
From there, he took the hard numbers and asked for renowned artists and other great minds to not just interpret it, but express it, and was truly shocked when it was as if they were all playing from the same sheet music.
He didn't see Regan again until the night of the exhibit. It had been weeks since she'd resigned. Foellinger Great Hall, the University's largest in Krannert Center, was completely packed. Hundreds of microphones from media around the world crowded into the stage like a thick field of black flowers, and nearly every one of over two thousand seats were taken. He had just introduced the production—an expression of the latest signal, performed by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with the University's own Sinfonia daCamera, with visual components both displayed on a screen above them and on stage by the Champaign-Urbana Ballet—and having returned to his protected spot in the wings, he turned back to watch the dancers take their places as the combined orchestras tuned up.
He was worrying if his speech had gone well, worried about the look on the general's face as he sat out in the audience with a small retinue, worried about time—two weeks and what he had come to think of as "D-Day," the day that the satellite would crash and his deadline would arrive, would soon arrive—when someone touched his arm and he turned to find Regan. She pulled back and looked stricken.
"You look terrible," she said. Alex and Claire stood behind her. It was the first and only time Mason ever had seen Alex wear a suit.
"I heard about what you've been up to," she continued. "It's all over the web. Going online, asking for help… Jeez, Mason, you really took your stance and ran with it. I didn't know you'd spiral this far down and ruin yourself this spectacularly." She stepped back as if to take him in. "Look at you. Now I feel bad."
"Hey: thanks for the support."
"Oh come on, I was one of those crowd-source helpers. I spent days at a time pitching in. I worked on this." She pointed in his face. "So don't tell me I don't support you. I just don't want to see you hang yourself," she said. "Don't be a martyr."
The orchestra began to play, vibrating everything with a note of expectation.
Regan spoke first. "I think I know what this is," she said. Mason could feel her looking at him. "But why are you doing this?"
"Officially? Just to promote awareness. Celebrate. Stuff like that," he said. "Unofficially, it's for a select group of people who need to really see the data like I did. It's to turn Cassini back on, lobby for it stay up, keep listening. I think we're close to understanding how they talk. I want to know I did what I could."
"Deadline's coming up. You're really making it hard to bounce back from this."
"When it's over, I'll stop. Bow out."
Regan turned to face him. "Mason."
He didn't answer.
"Mason! Hello?" She snapped her finger in front of eyes.
"Why are you really doing this?"
"I told you."
"No," she said. "The real reason."
He hesitated, worried about telling her. He had never told anyone, hadn't even said it out loud. "At the diner. Remember that day? How animated we were? We had found not only intelligent life, but it was the type of intelligent life. Something we didn't even think was possible until then. Molecules with consciousness."
"Of course I do."
"No. Really remember it. That feeling."
After the briefest of moments, she nodded.
"That was why at first," he said.
And then he told her what he had heard that night. How he went to turn the music off, so loud it woke him, and found it was already off.
"And before I woke, I saw –"
Mason shook his head. "Listen: I'd been asleep. I know that. But I could feel attempts at words, that time. Not intrusive, but there. It went straight to the heart of me. They spoke to me. Whispered, I guess."
"Just without words."
"I know how it sounds," Mason said. "But I think I was the only one listening, and so they sent their signal further down and away, learning and adapting for each new 'listening device', until they hit me, a dead-end. It think it was why we got better at understanding them—when we were trying to meet them halfway, they were also coming over to meet us."
"How do you know it wasn't sleep deprivation with a touch of desperation?"
Mason thought. "You mean beyond how it directed me to the right spot on a readout I otherwise would have missed, and how that spot was the only lead we had for new evidence, or how countless other labs and minds checked the numbers and they all came out the same in favor of that evidence, with all the interpretations playing out the same, too?" He leveled a look at her. "Beyond that I admit to it being a purely subjective experience."
Regan made a face. "Alright Moses."
"I know," Mason said. "But there it is. I wasn't talking to myself, I know that much. I could feel volumes. It was a depth of feeling that startled me. I could almost grasp their language."
She studied him, and Mason could tell she was vacillating between concerned and excited. "What was it like?" she asked him.
"It's a message without words, but picture that message filling in every other available sensory factor it can—every emotion, cued at the right time, every intuition, every opera in a language you can't understand. With this visual package rolled into it."
They watched the dancers move, a large group in unison.
"So what was the message?" Regan finally asked.
Mason shook his head. "Not telling you. To tell you the dream would be to tell you the theory and I can't have preconceived notions. No bias. It would ruin the objectivity. I want you to come to your own conclusions.
"Oh come on!"
He laughed. "It's right there. Watch. That's the closest approximation of how they speak. It's the closest I can get to what I saw. It's my best shot. You tell me what the theory is."
They watched the dream in silence. It was almost how he remembered it.
After the show, he left Regan to have a late dinner with the general, whose name he was pleased to learn was Anderton, and his men. Mason asked them how they enjoyed the show, they made small talk about it over drinks, and then after about an hour he gave them his proposal, thanked them for their time, went home, and waited.
The next morning they gave him his answer, and he was leaving to go deliver the news to Regan, when it seemed they had beaten him to it. Regan called him, and came over shortly thereafter. He left his door unlocked and she walked in after a cursory knock. Alex was helping Mason pack up his office, and she nodded hello in a before making her way towards Mason.
"I heard the news," she said. "They're crashing Cassini early—they bumped it up to tomorrow."
"Don't be." He smiled up at her.
She looked at Alex. "Is he okay?"
"He's right there," said Alex.
"Fine." She turned back to Mason and glared. "Are you okay?"
"First, tell me your theory."
"Tell me what you saw at the exhibition."
She glanced back and forth between Alex and Mason before seeming to make a decision. She sat down on the grey suede sofa in Mason's living room, and turned directly to face Mason. "They weren't dying, were they?" she said.
He shook his head. "No."
"At the performance: The lone small shape among the other colors, fading into the background but still there, however dimly. The quiet note, singular and alone, that still played underneath the chorus. The one ballerina who was pushed back from the rest of them, but still danced on the edge of the stage behind the group. I saw it. Afterwards, I checked the data, crunched the numbers, and confirmed the theory." She stopped to correct herself. "I mean, I think I've got the theory. It's just, where do you draw the line between a collective—like an ant colony—and a single organism when it comes to molecules?"
"Tell me your theory," Mason said.
"I want to hear it from you. You tell me the story this time."
Mason agreed. "Ok. The moon, Titan, was one giant, single organism. We were heading down the right path with our 'it's a collective' theory. But the shifting patterns we saw—that was the evidence for one giant molecule made up of countless others, generating those signals. Not a collective as we know it—not anymore than the cells in our own bodies. But those molecules were unique, and just like the first cell to split, Huygens kicked off a sort of …differing of opinion. That's all it was."
Regan nodded. "You can hear all the other patterns in there, still. The number of signal-producers hasn't changed. One signal just, oh, sort of shouted over the other, and the others "group" just moved away and got quieter. That's what we heard. They aren't dying; they're arguing."
Mason nodded. "We just introduced change, not death."
"We brought them the concept of war?"
"Maybe. I don't think so, though. We brought them individualism. Self-awareness. Groups. There was this giant thing floating out there like a big peaceful whale, made up of all these molecules like cells, this collective, this single entity, and it was content to launch it's songs out to the universe. And then it gets a weird answer that feels and smells wrong. It began to split—those that continued to pursue this new lead, and those that deemed it a waste of time. Who knows how many it split into from there. Once you get the mutation, it keeps going. Down and down, right?"
"Like the turtles," Regan said, still stunned. "Except each new split making it's own conscious organism."
"Yes. I think so."
"And we cut them off, lonely and confused, and no one here will ever know."
Mason and Alex were silent.
"You have to tell them," said Regan. "We have to tell somebody." She looked to each of them. Alex started to break a smile.
"What?" said Regan.
"We already did," Alex said. "Enough to make a convincing case. We hope to get more data in order to prove this new theory. We have one last shot at Titan."
Mason spoke up. "They're going to send Cassini around one last time to do a sweep of the area," he said. "As a compromise, they're still de-orbiting it to crash into Titan's surface. To us, it'll look like it wasn't really sent to find anything—it'll look like we just called it a day and crashed it as it's last mission. To the molecules, in case they're actually dangerous, it won't look like the satellite actually changed course, thereby giving them validation by responding to their cries."
Alex leaned forward. "If this works, we can argue to send another satellite," he said. "This time, one that can talk back."
This looked like overload for Regan. "No. Way," she said. She had been rifling through the envelope, pulling out the paperwork and studying each sheet.
Mason cleared his throat. "Regan, out of everyone who helped crowd-source the last signal, you were still the fastest and the most accurate. I had perfect faith that you'd see the theory hidden in the data, I knew --"
Alex cut Mason off, putting an arm in front of his chest like an impromptu seatbelt. "What he's saying is, 'Wanna come back to work?'"
She was there when it crashed. They were all there, packed into the front of the lab. Elliot was there, too, because they understood he had his reasons before, and the lab was a place of reason. They crowded to watch the screens as Cassini crashed into Titan, sending out it's sensory instruments over the moon's surface, desperately casting a wide net as it fell, catching wavelengths no human would ever be able to detect alone. Not like Titan's molecules could, anyway.
When the signal arrived, it took only days to analyze and interpret it. Mason was still the best at this, but after a while many noticed what they originally missed, and the picture was understood clearer than ever, and was universally agreed upon.
They watched the screen. The data poured in. A story emerged:
Titan drifted along its orbit, singing songs to itself, and to the space around it in its complex language. It sent out ideas, throwing them up into the Universe outside of its shell—Question? Question? Contentment. Hello! Peace.—when finally an idea comes back. This idea is shaped differently than anything else to have ever hit the surface. It sounds different. It's doing different things. It sort of..talks like Titan does.
Titan begins to talk to the thing. The thing doesn't talk back—it instead talks to something else that orbits far away, out of reach. By the time Titan learns how the new thing talks, it has died, and the other orbit-thing it talked to has gone away, only coming back every now and then.
Titan tries to talk to the orbit-thing now, but the orbit-thing keeps orbiting. It goes far away. The orbit-thing talks to something else Titan can't reach, and Titan eventually grows impatient. This feeling it also recognizes as New.
Titan decides, as much as it can, that it will go back to Before.
But another part of it cannot let go of the New Thing. And as surely as it realizes it even has parts, it becomes two. Then four. Then four thousand.
Smaller and smaller.
Titan stops being a single creature. Now all of Titan, all of the molecules, argue and sing their different songs. Some groups want to stay with the Before. Others want to pursue the New Thing, demanding to know more. Yet another group wants to go back to the Before, only now they, too, demand to know more. Still more want to sing the Before songs, perfectly content, only now they want to sing them to the New Thing.
But all of them were confused, hopeful, and looking for an answer.
Mason looked up at the screen and his eyes teared over. He didn't care.
It was his dream. There it was.
"It's lonely," Mason said. "We're not what it was looking for, but we should still answer."
"They," added Regan.
"Whatthey werelooking for. We say 'they,' now."
This was after the listening lab had cleared out of all but Mason, Elliot, Alex, Claire, and Regan. There were plates of chips and party food and big red plastic cups scattered around the console stations. After the message had been translated, Mason told those gathered and on the phones that he was submitting the proposal he and Regan had been working on for a second satellite first thing in the morning. This one with a message he and his pre-approved team of translators would reverse-engineer so as to begin a dialogue. The message would do it's best to say, among other things, the general ideas of "It's okay. You were right. You're not alone. We're here, too."
It would also say "We are so, so sorry. Sorry we aren't the answer. Sorry we aren't what you were looking for, or probably even hoping for. Sorry for the pain and confusion trying to reach us has caused you. But we can help each other to get closer to an answer, now."
There seemed to be an air of support for it.
Mason stood up to leave, throwing his coat on. As he approached the door, he heard Elliot call out. "Hey Mason."
He turned back and squinted into the dark room, where Elliot was still reclining lazily with the others, lions in a den.
"We have one last story for you," he said.
Mason nodded his head, but realized they couldn't see, so he said, "Ok."
Claire chimed in. "It's not really a story, I guess," she said. "Not near the end. It's just questions at the end, really."
Claire spoke up. "Ok. Well, it maybe takes months from now, but our proposal goes through," she said. "Billions of dollars get spent on this big project, this satellite, and we make up our big message. It's got everything about us in it—what we're like, how different we are, how happy we are that we're not alone. Years later we send it off, it orbits around the planet, and it sends the message. And these molecules, they learn more about us, the universe, everything. They see that there are beings out there, like them, except made of billions of molecules united together as one conscious being, except there are billions of us wandering around here, affecting the physical universe."
She paused. "I used to see it as this sort of timeline—a single-celled organism, other stuff, and then us. Now I'm not so sure. I'm not an evolutionary biologist. But just…think how much we're going to learn from each other. What they'll ask us. What they'll say."
"I don't know," Mason said. He was happy and exhausted.
"It doesn't matter," Regan said. "Here's the end as far as I know it: They'll answer us, and it'll signal the beginning of a dialogue that'll take decades before we're done, before we even start to run out of questions. Questions about physics, about biology, about…I don't…" She trailed off, at a loss.
Mason waited, and when nothing else came, they both said goodbye.
Nearly 4 years later, on a Friday, Mason was waiting at McHugh's Campustown bar, sitting at his usual spot near the door. He was waiting there on purpose. It felt right. He knew he'd be too much of a mess anywhere else while he waited.
He made a point to order the lake perch again, and was eating it, slowly, nervously, when he got the text message. It said,It's here, and it's awesome.
In his mind, he was already there. He reeled in from a moon just outside of Saturn, approaching Earth through the void, breaking the atmosphere until he was in Urbana. The lab was the center of the universe. He jumped up, nearly knocking over his glass, and gave one quick look to Alex and Claire, who both erupted into grins. They slammed their books shut. "I'll pay," said Alex.
"Go!" said Claire.
Mason didn't wait for Elliot, who was knocking back his beer and shoving his books into his bag.
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