Vanessa Hargroves hobby didnt
make sense to anyone outside the field of astronomy. She accepted
that, finally, while having dinner with a friend of a friend
of a friend. Her datea man with the unfortunate name
of Trevorhad some sort of god-awful consulting position,
traveling from city to city, telling retail corporations how
to reduce costs. Ironically, he seemed willing to charge exorbitant
rates for this information.
I study the heliopause,
Vanessa told him between sips of a very mediocre red wine.
Their pasta had not yet arrived. By extreme force of will,
she hadnt devoured the entire basket of breadsticks
while listening to Trevors consulting anecdotes.
Is that anything like the menopause?
Trevor smirked. Vanessa choked back a nasty comment. She needed
reminders of her advancing age like she needed another breadstick.
However, the disdain she now felt for Trevor did not diminish
her innate need to teach.
The heliopause is like a bubble
around the solar system. Its where the solar wind finally
slows down as it brushes up against the interstellar medium
of gas and dust.
Trevors blank stare was pointed
directly at her breasts. Only three-plus decades of experience
maintaining generally pleasant and conflict-free interaction
with other humans kept Vanessa from tossing her wine in Trevors
face and storming from the restaurant.
That and the fact she had a free plate
of chicken alfredo on the way.
On September 5, 1977, NASA launched
Voyager 1 to the heavens. The probes primary
mission was a tour of Jupiter and Saturn, sending back to
Earth unprecedented imagery of the two largest planets in
the solar system and their rings and moons. After that, assisted
by the gravity of Saturn, it shot off, out of the plane of
the ecliptic, toward interstellar space, soon to become the
most distant man-made object in history.
On September 12, 2006, two days before
Vanessas eighteenth birthday, she attended her first
class at the University of Washington. She was one of only
one hundred eighty-two entering freshmen that year who graduated
with a degree in their declared major. Her chosen field was
Now, in April of 2021, Voyager 1
was about to make history as the first human-built object
ever to cross the largely theoretical border of the heliopause.
Vanessas models and data analyses put her in the vanguard
of scientists interested in this distant, ephemeral phenomenon,
which averaged something over 150 AU in radius around the
This obscure topic garnered only slightly
more interest within the scientific community than it did
for laymen like Trevor. Vanessa believed herself to be the
only person on the planet currently interested in Voyagers
continuing progress out of the solar system. She had watched,
horrified, during her junior year at UW as JPL finished a
complete shutdown of the Voyager project. Vanessa had
written a passionate letter to the director of JPL, making
a plea for continuation of operations at least until
the spacecraft crossed the heliopause. The letter she received
in response was as polite as it was dishearteningthey
saw no future in monitoring the aging spacecraft.
Now, at the age of thirty-two, Vanessa
had made it into JPL herself as an analyst. Her duties involved
monitoring data from a necklace of interconnected orbital
telescopes that sought to answer the most vexing questions
of star and planet formation in the local region of the galaxy.
It was interesting work, even rewarding. But Vanessa still
longed for a more direct connection to the cosmos. Passively
receiving electromagnetic radiation didnt seem nearly
as thrilling as building a real spacecraft and flinging
it to the stars. In the six decades since man escaped the
gravity of the Earth far enough to orbit the planet, only
four interstellar craft had ever been built. Only four
times had something designed and built by human hands left
the gravity well of the sun. To Vanessa, that was more than
a shame; it was a crime.
Two years ago, Vanessa carried out
a plan that had been a childhood dream. First, she searched
through the archives at JPL, looking for the original frequencies
and control programs for Voyager 1. Even eleven years
after the official end of the project, the pack rat mentality
common to most scientists held sway; she found everything
she needed to resume contact with the forgotten probe in the
dusty back rooms of JPL.
Next, in the attic of her modest Pasadena
home, she built transmitter and receiver hardware from scratch.
The transmitter weighed only a pound and sat on the north
end of her roof, pointed to the sky over the branches of a
severely pruned mimosa. Designing the receiver took a bit
more ingenuity. The signals from Voyager were very
faint and not particularly directional at this distance. She
needed the equivalent of a hundred-foot-wide parabolic dish
to get any kind of clarity of reception at all. She solved
the problem by creating a web of tiny receiversconnected
through a standard wireless networking schemewhich she
spread all through her neighborhood. Each receiver measured
only inches and looked quite a bit like the roofing material
used by most of the homeowners in her neighborhood. Her neighbors
never questioned the little squares she had secreted on their
roofs over the course of a couple of weeks.
It was a small wonder Vanessa didnt
have a boyfriend when she spent her nights sneaking onto her
neighbors roofs, installing electronic devices she had
designed and built herself. And, on top of that, the love
of her life was a dying spacecraft from the 1970s, flying
through space, several billion miles away.
The day was Thursday, April 22, 2021.
Vanessa devoted this evening to reviewing last weeks
transmission from Voyagers CRS. The cosmic rays
hitting the spacecraft had been growing of late, a possible
indicator it was nearing the heliopause. She hadnt fired
up any of the other instrument packages in months. Voyagers
power had dropped so low only one instrument at a time could
function. The CRS tended to give her the most reliable results,
so she left it on.
As Vanessa reviewed the recording from
last week, tonight Voyager sent her an update of the
probes systems, primarily a report of the power remaining
in the tiny reactor. She switched to her receiver program
and saw that the binary code was trickling in at the normal,
glacial rate. She almost turned away, almost minimized the
window, almost missed it.
The signal stopped mid-word. A pause
like that was common enough with hardware this antiquated.
Voyager often had to stop and resend entire messages.
Vanessa sighed. Then the transmission restarted
Except something was wrong. The signals
were too fast. Voyagers computer shouldnt
have sent its pulses like that. They accelerated. The pings
of binary code, represented by 1s, ran left to right
across the screen, filling line after line. Faster still,
whole screens of 1s flowing past every few seconds.
Vanessa knew what had happened. She
lived in constant fear of her Voyager frequencies being
sold off to a cellular phone company, or a communications
company for one of their satellites. They might have been
handed over to an airline or the military for communications
with their planes. How would she ever find the heliopause
Was there any point in trying to fight
to retain her radio frequency? Did she have the slightest
chance of changing the mind of Verizon or Southwest Airlines
or the US Navy? No. Pure and simple.
She imagined Voyager out on
the edge of interstellar space trying to sort through a howl
of nonsense signals coming from Earth. Pitch and yaw telemetry
from a commercial jet crossing the US. Weapons targeting instructions
from an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Grocery shopping
lists from hundreds of spouses waiting at home in New York
and New Jersey. Vanessa, not normally an overly sentimental
person, found the idea sad, in its way. The best thing to
do would be to put Voyager out of its misery.
She rolled her desk chair across the
floor to her shelf of research books on loan from
JPL. Her fingers ran over the titles until she found the one
that included a complete description of the command language
for Voyager. She flipped to the back of the tome and
found the page she neededShutdown Procedures.
She had already turned off most of the equipment on the craft.
To put Voyager to sleep once and for all required she
send five more strings of simple, binary pulses. That would
shut down the CRS, turn off the receiver, and allow the RTGs
with their lumps of radioactive material to slowly decay,
unused and unbothered, until the whole ship was nothing more
than a lifeless collection of metal and plastic, hurtling
through the dark.
She keyed in the sequences and sent
them into space. In about twenty hours, Voyager would
receive its last command.
Saddened that a chapter of her life
had come to such an anticlimactic end, Vanessa shut down her
tablet and went to bed.
Phone ringing. Loud. What?
Vanessa rolled over, fighting her blankets
for control of the bed, and grabbed her cell off the bedside
Huh? she said into the
What is Voyager doing?
Shao yelled into the phone.
Somehow JPL found out she had shut
down the probe and they were mad at her. Vanessas built-in
humility before authority kicked in.
Sorry. I didnt think there
was any point in continuing
Make it stop. Theyre all
Make what stop? Whos going nuts?
Vanessa swam up out of the remnants of her deep sleep, confused.
JPL had long since given up on Voyager. They had given
her the codes and the frequencies and the research materials
willingly. It was that much less theyd have to compost.
Shao, use small words.
Voyager is blinding us!
Vanessa pulled on a sweatshirt and
jeans. At 2:30 in the morning, she didnt much care what
she looked like. She tied her overlong red hair into a ponytail
with a rubber band in the car while sitting at a red light.
She caught sight of her face in her rear-view mirror and was
suitably horrified, but she certainly didnt have time
for makeup. With no traffic to speak of, she made it to her
lab in record time.
Shao paced the floor of the white,
fluorescent room, phone hanging over his ear, shouting. He
looked at her and pointed to one of the monitors.
No, the expert just got here
No, I said she just got here!
Vanessa rolled a chair across the tile
floor to the computer station and sat. An amateurs vision
of astronomy involved pretty pictures of the Crab Nebula or
the galaxy of Andromeda. Very little of their work involved
visible light, so visual representations from the telescopes
were often confusing, or worse, misleading to the untrained
eye. This screen showed a map of a tiny sector of the northern
sky, a sector with which Vanessa was very familiar. These
were the stars toward which Voyager had sailed for
On a background of white, little pinpricks
of color indicated sources of infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays,
any and every flavor of EM radiation. Most were stars. Some
were more exotic beasts, like pulsars or black holes or distant
quasars. Any sector of the sky would look similar.
A dirty smear, like a bruise, filled
the middle third of the screen. Streaks of yellow and brown
and purple, in a vague starburst pattern. If Vanessa read
the screen correctly, the sheer power of these sources dwarfed
anything else in the sky, with the exception of the Sun or
I dont get it, she
admitted. Its like someone is shining a flashlight
right into the telescope.
Ill call you back,
Shao said, then tapped the phone to hang up. Shao Miller was
a study in contrasts. A blond Asian. A pragmatic scientist.
A humble genius. Vanessa considered herself luckyand
cursedto work in the same lab with him.
Well, either Voyager somehow
exploded in a nova-sized, nuclear fireball, or were
looking at the end of the universe. He leaned over Vanessa,
poking at the screen with a long forefinger. I found
this three hours ago, when the feed from OT14 started to wobble.
Interference, from this. Problem
Shao pulled up a series of smaller
images in little windows around the live feed. Midnight.
Midnight-thirty. One. One-thirty
Each image showed
the same sector of night sky, but the bizarre radio source
grew slightly larger, frame by frame.
Its got to be an object,
a meteor or something, heading for Earth, Vanessa said.
Nope. Off-axis confirms these
signals are light-years away.
Shao frowned. Just figured this
part out a couple of minutes ago. Maybe you can confirm for
me? His phone rang. He reached up to his ear and shut
it off. Not all of
is from the same
I dont follow, Vanessa
Shao cleared the screen and brought
up two images, side by side.
This is the
call it a cloud. This is the cloud from OT5.
Vanessa looked up at a clock to check
the time. Somewhere over the Pacific.
Right. And this is from OT23,
on station above Europe. If I do an off-axis plot
He brought up a third image.
Dear God, Vanessa murmured.
The whole point of off-axis was to
use the parallax of widely spaced telescopes to determine
the distance of an object. It was the same concept behind
depth perception in human vision. The left eye and right eye
could see the world from just slightly different angles. The
differences between the images tell a persons brain
how far away things are. The differences between the images
of orbiting telescopes on either side of the Earth can tell
how far away stars and galaxies are.
On the edges of the screen, outside
the cloud, individual stars were labeled with
little numbers, showing their distance from Earth. 14 light
years. 135 light years. One galaxy in the sample pushed the
limits of the method they were using, and was simply labeled
with an infinity symbol.
The cloud itself was carpeted with
numbers, thousands of them. She saw numbers as low as 5 and
as high as 3,300. This cloud wasnt an explosion or a
single object flying through space. This was a collection
of radio waves from sources scattered through the Orion spiral
arm of the Milky Way galaxy.
Is it a problem with
the array? The data looks like garbage, she said.
Shao pulled up a mail program and opened
a message. We got this from Green Bank ten minutes ago.
Green Bank was a medium-sized, land-based radio telescope
in West Virginia. Green Banks image looked identical
to the ones from JPLs orbital telescopes. It wasnt
a hardware or software problem. It was real.
I dont even know where
to begin, Shao admitted. But that
He pointed to the center of the cloud.
Voyager is right now, isnt it?
So this cant be a coincidence!
It must have something to do with your probe!
How? I dont
Can we focus the image right here? In the exact center.
What are we getting from there?
Shao moved to his own console and grabbed
his mouse, clicking and dragging furiously. The image blanked
to white except for a very small, mostly yellow dot.
Fifteen megahertz, give or take,
mean distance of ninety-six light years, Shao said.
What is it? she asked.
What do you mean?
Vanessa reached across and took control
of the mouse. She dragged the incoming radio waves over to
a graphing tool. They were frequency modulated
of like FM radio.
She looked at it, wondering. It didnt
seem possible that
No. Be rational. The graph looked
impossibly chaotic. It could be anything
Screw it. She transferred the feed
to an audio program.
High-pitched, screeching white noise
poured out of the speakers.
She turned down the volume. Narrow
it. Give me a band width of a hundred kilohertz. The
graph shrunk in width, the highest peaks and lowest valleys
gone. The sound loosened up a bit, but still seemed entirely
random. Vanessa twiddled with the equalization controls on
the player. She shifted the pitch down a couple of octaves.
Now, instead of nails on a blackboard, it sounded like coarse
sandpaper running over wood.
Im still getting too much
stuff. You said the mean distance of the signals is ninety-six
Whats the range?
Shao sifted through
some screens. Between about five and about 2,400.
Can you limit the
feed to just signals coming from a small range? Maybe
between ninety and one-ten?
Never tried that before
Gimme a second.
While Shao worked, Vanessa flipped
over to the live feed of the entire cloud. It had grown a
bit just while theyd been talking. She took a series
of the pictures and measured the width of the phenomenon.
It was growing at about a half of a percent of a degree every
hour. In four days, the cloud would be larger than the Sun
in the sky, though it would never be visible to the human
eye, of course. These signals were mostly in the radio frequencies,
not visible light. She frowned, then redid her calculations.
Its growing too fast.
What? Shao said.
She took a stylus and did the calculation
by hand on an old tablet. If the phenomenon was growing at
that rate, it literally couldnt be very far away. The
speed of light said so. At a distance of a hundred light years,
this thing would be expanding
about seventy-five times
the speed of light. Impossible. So, whatever was causing the
cloud to grow was closer than that. How close? That was the
Got it, Shao said. He clicked.
The sandpaper sound reduced to a low whisper. Vanessa had
to increase the volume on the player just to hear it. A chill
ran up her spine like shed never felt before in her
life. She shared a look with Shao, making sure he heard the
same thing she had heard.
A conversation. They were listening
in on a conversation between two people, on an unused radio
band, from somewhere a hundred light years away from Earth.
They couldnt understand the language, of course, but
it was clearly voices. Alien voices.
Vanessa looked again at the live feed
of the cloud with all its overlapping splotches of color.
Thousands of frequencies. Millions of conversations. And the
cloud continued to expand at a ridiculous rate.
Well then, she said.
After a beat, they both broke into
Forty hours after Vanessa sent her
signal to shut Voyager down, a super-cooled ball of
liquid hydrogen streaked across the skies of southern California.
The object was too small to be tracked by civilian or military
radarit measured only a centimeter in width. Because
of its temperature, only a fraction of a degree above absolute
zero, it lost very little mass slicing through Earths
atmosphere. The ball slowed over the town of Pasadena and
headed straight and sure for the home of Vanessa Hargrove.
Vanessas next door neighbor,
Margie Dupont, watched from her porch, dumbfounded, as a ghostly,
transparent figure of a man, faintly glowing blue, appeared
at Vanessas front door. The man knocked. He wasnt
much of a ghost if he could knock on a door like that.
There was no answer from within Vanessas
home. The mans faint, ill-defined head turned to Margie.
When he spoke, his lips did not quite match the sound of his
Where is the owner of this house?
Any other time, Margie would have given
someone asking a question like that a sizeable piece of her
mind. She would have said, I dont know you, and
I dont know your business, so you better just move along
or Ill call 911 on your ass! But Margie had little
experience dealing with ghostly blue figures who could knock
The figure started walking toward her. Margie snapped, the
words pouring out of her. Shes gone! Shes
gone to the White House.
In Washington, District of Columbia?
the ghost asked. Margie nodded, hating herself for cracking
under pressure like that.
The ghost collapsed in on himself,
until he was just a small speck of blue, hanging in the air
over Margies lawn. Then, with a whizzing sound, it was
Vanessa thought she had fallen into
some science fiction movie. Two days ago she was an unknown
researcher in the backwaters of astronomy, and today, she
was leading a briefing at the White House! She barely had
time enough to pack her one decent business outfit. Her hair
was a disaster, lying on her head like a tied off mop. Thankfully,
Shao was at her side, providing much needed support.
Ranged around the decadent, glossy
conference table were the Secretary of Homeland Security,
the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, the
Presidents Science Advisor, the Secretary of State.
And the President of the United States
himself, of course.
Vanessa finished her nickel tour of
the Voyager program and moved into the new material.
Clearly, the Voyager 1
probe has caused some significant event out at the farthest
edge of our solar system. Since Voyagers nuclear
power source is nearly depleted, the only energy she has to
impart is kinetic energy.
Energy of motion, the President
Yes, sir. The probe isor
wastraveling a little under a quarter of a million miles
per hour. To put that into perspective, the Moon is about
a quarter of a million miles from Earth. Imagine traveling
from the Earth to the Moon in an hour.
The Science Advisor piped up: So,
what did Voyager hit?
Vanessa took a deep breath. She
hit the heliopause. Dumbfounded stares answered that
statement. Our sun sends out more than light and heat
as it burns. It also sheds radiation we call solar wind. Most
of the solar wind is blocked from the Earths surface
by our atmosphere, but it can exert a not insignificant force.
In fact, with Mylar sails, we could build craft that would
Shao nudged her. She reigned in her flight of technological
fancy for the moment.
Anyway. The solar wind blows
off the Sun in a very similar way to normal, atmospheric winds.
Out in the interstellar wastes, there are also tides of radiation
that we sometimes describe with the catchall phrase cosmic
rays. These are the remains of supernovae, x-rays from
black holes, as well as the solar winds of other stars.
The heliopause is the place where
the solar wind has expended so much of its force fighting
against the cosmic rays that equilibrium is reached.
She held her hands out in a spherical shape.
Like a soap bubble, the
Exactly, Mr. President, except
that the heliopause has never been considered a physical object.
Its merely a term for a theoretical location in space,
much like the equator on Earth.
She brought up a graphic on the screen
behind her. It showed a tiny Solar System, surrounded by a
vaguely teardrop shaped bubble. Based on the evidence
of the anomalous radio signals and the timing with Voyagers
position in space, we believe that, at the theoretical position
of the heliopause, an actual barrier has been sitting
for at least recent human history. On the screen, a
hole ripped into the topside of the virtual heliopause. Voyager
tore a hole through this boundary, here, causing the barrier
to unravel at an extraordinary speed.
The Secretary of Defense perked up
at that. How fast?
A million miles an hour.
She received a few smirks at the use of that phrase. Its
actually 1.17 million miles per hour. We have to assume the
barrier is rather lightweight. It was, perhaps, held in place
entirely by the competing forces of the solar wind from inside,
and the pressure of the interstellar medium from the outside.
A break this size might be enough to destroy the barrier completely.
the President said, has been shielding us from these
alien radio signals.
Yes, sir, Vanessa said.
Incredible as it may seem, the barrier can let natural
light of any frequency through, but it completely filters
out artificial sources of radiation. Thats why the sky
seems normalat least, as we define normaleverywhere
else. But through this hole, where the barrier has peeled
away, we are receiving an astounding number of signals that
are clearly the work of extraterrestrials.
This barrier could not be a natural
occurrence. It was designed; it was built. That implies intelligence,
the Homeland Secretary said.
Significant intelligence. Transcendent
intelligence, Vanessa said. Shao tugged on her sleeve,
indicating again that she tone down the rhetoric.
How long will it take for the
entire barrier to fall? the President asked.
Assuming the rate of breakdown
remains constant, about eight years.
The heliopause is very large,
If this had been a movie, this would
have been the scene in which the valiant scientist makes a
case for benevolent aliens, for sending messages of greeting,
for throwing off the yoke of militaristic thinking. Then the
closed-minded government functionaries would have responded
with fear, assuming the worst, precipitating a significant
tragedy, which only the valiant scientist could avert.
It seemed that everyone here had already
seen that movie. Like any group of competent world leaders,
the men and women in the room took steps to ensure that they
prepared for every contingency. Homeland Security would raise
the alert level for the nation. The State Department would
send out feelers to other world governments to take their
temperatures, and to notify those few who had not yet learned
of the phenomenon. The Defense Department would, in consultation
with NATO, make ready for defense against an off world invasiona
scenario that had, amazingly, been written up decades ago,
just in case. And the Science Advisor would work with State
to fashion a message to send out to the stars: a hello of
sorts. If the barrier had worked both ways, and all of Earths
television and radio broadcasts of the last hundred years
never left the vicinity of the planet, maybe humanity could
make a good first impression after all.
A nondescript man in a black suit entered
and spoke a few words into the Presidents ear.
Ladies and gentlemen, the
President said, standing. Everyone stood with him. We
are going to adjourn to the Situation Room in the basement.
Eyes flitted back and forth, between the powerful and the
secondary, like Vanessa. Only the President and the Secret
Service agent seemed to know what was happening. The entire
roomful of people marched through the immaculate halls of
the West Wing and down a stairwell to the dark and somewhat
dingy confines of the Situation Room, escorted all the way
by stone-faced agents of the Secret Service.
A heavy door closed behind them with
a thud that Vanessa in particular found troubling.
Half the people in the room continued
to lay their plans for dealing with this crisis. The other
half muttered about the strange way they had been shuffled
into perhaps the most secure room on the planet. The President
stood in a corner whispering with quiet men in uniforms and
Vanessa turned to Shao. Is this
Ive only been to the White
House once before, he said. They sure didnt
bring me down here.
The tension in the room continued to
mount. Any pretense at working fell away. The President came
out of the corner to address the twenty-some people standing
around a more lackluster conference table than the one upstairs.
Theres been a breach of
security. An intruder has infiltrated the West Wing. It appears
to be headed to our location.
It? the Secretary of State
What sort of weapons is it using?
the Secretary of Homeland Security asked.
None. The entity seems
The President was at a loss for words.
A loud boom sounded at the entrance
to the Situation Room. Everyone near that end of the tableincluding
Vanessascurried away. Boom. Vanessa heard the Secret
Service agents chattering to each other over their radio feeds.
Their colleagues must have been out in the hall, watching
the attack. Why didnt they stop it? She heard the muffled
stutter of automatic gunfire on the other side of the door.
Boom. Whatever the agents outside
were doing, it made no difference to the invader. Previously
hidden weapons came out of dark jackets. The Presidents
bodyguards pushed him to the back of the room.
Boom-crack. This time, the heavy
metal door gave way just a bit.
Had the agents out in the hall finally
finished the intruder off? Had it given up?
A pale blue mist slipped through the
newly created fissure in the heavy door. Voices shouted for
everyone to hold their breath. It was a gas attack. They all
crowded farther back into the room. Vanessa, holding her hand
over her mouth like everyone else, watched as the pale blue
mist, the color of a natural gas flame, slowly took shape
at the far end of the room. The mist coalesced into the form
of a human. The figure looked like a low-quality CG image
of a man. No coloring, no shading. Indistinct features. When
the man spoke, his voice was strong and steady. It carried
no accent, in that it sounded like someone from mid-America.
It also carried no hint of malice.
Who sent the signal? it
The Secretary of State, clearly believing
her role as spokesperson for the United States extended to
aliens, stepped forward.
We have many people, sending
many signals all the time. We did not know until recently
there were any other intelligent beings in the universe.
The blue man considered this. Who
sent the final signal?
Final was a word that carried too many
negative connotations for those in the room. Fearful mutterings
rose. The Secretary soldiered on. Can you describe the
signal youre referring to?
The man began to beep. The beeps were
simple tones in a seemingly random rhythm. It took him about
fifteen seconds to finish relaying the message.
It will take some time for our
experts to determine where
I sent that, Vanessa said.
The looks on everyone elses faces were priceless; Vanessa
wished she had a camera. That was the shut down sequence
for Voyager. The final signal. I sent it two nights
The blue man turned to Vanessa, everyone
else in the room now forgotten. You must answer the
Do you wish the barrier restored?
Slowly, a smile sneaked across Vanessas
features. She understood now. The heliopause barrier was not
designed to keep humanity in the dark. It was designed for
protection. There had to be a thousand, ten thousand, maybe
a million different civilizations out there in the galaxy,
and nearly every one of them was far more advanced than humanity.
The barrier had been placed around the Solar System in an
effort to let humanity evolve and grow. When they had the
abilityand the desireto venture far enough from
their home to break the barrier, they were given the opportunity
to join the galactic civilization
It was the answer to the age-old question,
sometimes attributed to Enrico Fermi: Where are they?
If intelligence was common, or even just rare, then the galaxy
had to be littered with aliens, sending messages, altering
the luminosity of their stars, leaving behind footprints of
their passage, footprints made of lightradio transmissions.
Some assumed the darkness of the heavens
meant that humanity was unique. Life is precious, these people
would say, intelligence more precious still. The only interstellar
civilization will be ours.
Others, unwilling to accept the uniqueness
of man, posited elaborate theories for why other intelligences
remained so silent: point-to-point communication schemes,
societies driven underground, alien cultures approaching technological
singularity and winking out of normal existence into an alternate
state of being.
The truth was far simpler. They werent
missing and they werent silent. They were out there
all the time, loud and obvious, just as they should have been.
We simply couldnt hear them. They were hidden from us,
patiently waiting for us to make contact with them.
And now, humans had broken the barrier
themselves, though by accident. Accidents of this type had
to be common in the galaxy. If humanity wasnt yet ready
to expand their understanding of the universe to this extent,
they could decide to remain hidden. Theoretically, they could
lock themselves away and never talk to another extraterrestrial
How many civilizations might have taken
that path? How many barriers remained in place around shy
solar systems, their inhabitants living quiet, bucolic, insular
And how many more had taken the plunge,
had allowed themselves to be part of something greater?
suddenly daunted by the scale of the decision. You dont
want to talk to me.
You sent the message, the
blue man said again. You controlled the spacecraft.
I suppose thats
The others standing behind Vanessa
came to life again, realizing the importance of the conversation.
The President came forward to talk to the blue figure.
Im sure you understand,
he intoned, that we have a hierarchical structure to
our society. Miss Hargrove is a member of my team.
I am? Vanessa asked.
JPL is a government entity,
he said, still smiling for the blue man.
Not really, Vanessa persisted,
momentarily forgetting she was contradicting the President
of the United States. Its funded by
Vanessa, Shao warned.
The blue man raised one ghostly hand
and pointed at Vanessa. She will answer.
Silence dropped, except for the continuing,
muffled sounds of desperate military personnel still trying
to break into the Situation Room through the non-functional
door. Vanessa turned to the others in the room. She almost
asked for a show of hands. She almost asked for each persons
best pitch. Should the barrier be replaced or allowed to fall?
In twenty-five words or less, please. Most of the faces looking
at her seemed to be pleading with their eyes.
Its too much. Its too
fast. We cant handle it.
Vanessa wasnt naïve enough
to imagine that the galaxy was a utopian wonderland filled
with benevolent creatures with uniformly pure motives. There
had to be danger out there. But there was also some sense
of order. If what she understood about the barrier was true,
someone had put it there, specifically to shield the Earth
from the rest of the galaxy until such a time that they were
readyor at least possibly readyto interact with
other civilizations. And more, the rest of the galaxy had
conformed to this order. Maybe Earth was too backward to offer
anything of value to these advanced societies. Maybe most
of them didnt even know Earth existed until today. Vanessa
imagined that if the forces at work in the galaxy could be
capable of such a compassionate act as protecting the Earth
from intrusion for a few thousand years, then the dangers
they would face would be manageable.
Its too much. Its too
fast. We cant handle it.
Vanessa had more faith in humanity
than that. She turned back to the visitor.
Let the barrier fall, she
said to the blue figure.
The man nodded once, then dissipated
in a flash of super-cooled air that blew across Vanessa like
an ocean breeze.