Vanessa Hargrove's hobby didn't 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.
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 hadn't devoured the entire basket of breadsticks while
listening to Trevor's consultation anecdotes.
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. The disdain she now felt
for Trevor did not diminish her innate need to teach.
heliopause is like a bubble around the solar system. It's where
the solar wind finally slows down as it brushes up against the interstellar
medium of gas and dust."
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 Trevor's face and storming from the restaurant.
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
probe's 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.
September 12, 2006, two days before Vanessa's eighteenth birthday,
she attended her first class at the University of Washington. She
was one of only two-hundred-eighty-two enrollees in that year to
finish with a degree in the same discipline in which she started.
In her case, the field was astronomy.
in April of 2021, Voyager 1 was about to make history as the first
object ever to entirely leave the Solar System, by crossing
the largely theoretical border of the heliopause. Vanessa's models
and data analyses put her in the vanguard of scientists interested
in this distant phenomenon, which measured something over 150 AU
in radius around the Sun.
topic garnered only slightly more interest within the scientific
community than it did for civilians like Trevor. Vanessa believed
herself to be the only person on the planet currently interested
in Voyager anymore. She had watched, horrified, during her sophomore
year at UW as JPL finished a complete shut-down 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.
at the age of thirty-two, Vanessa had made it to 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, even rewarding work. But Vanessa
still longed for a more direct connection to the cosmos. Passively
receiving electromagnetic radiation didn't 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.
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 fifteen years on, 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.
in the attic of her modest Pasadena home, she built a miniature
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 anymore. She needed
the equivalent of a hundred-foot-wide parabolic dish to get any
kind of clarity at all. She solved the problem by creating a web
of tiny receiversconnected through a standard wireless networking
schemewhich were 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.
was a small wonder Vanessa didn't 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 flying through space, several billion miles
The day was Thursday, April 22, 2021. Vanessa devoted this evening
to reviewing last week's transmission from Voyager's CRS. The cosmic
rays around the spacecraft had been growing of late, a possible
indicator it was nearing the heliopause. She hadn't fired up any
of the other instrument packages in months. Voyager's power had
dropped so low only one instrument at a time could function. The
CRS tended to give her the most reliable results.
Vanessa reviewed this recording, Voyager sent her an update of the
probe's systems, primarily 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.
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
something was wrong. The signals were too fast. Voyager's computer
shouldn't have sent its pulses like that. They accelerated. The
pings of binary code, represented by 1's, ran left to right across
the screen, filling line after line. Faster still, whole screens
of 1's flowing past every few seconds.
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 now?
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.
imagined Voyager out on the edge of interstellar space, waiting
patiently for confirmation of message receipt, or worse, trying
to sort through a howl of nonsense signals coming from Earth. Pitch
and yaw telemetry. Weapons targeting instructions. Grocery shopping
lists. 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.
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. After three minutes, she found the page she needed"Shutdown
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 binary pulses. That would shut down
CRS, turn off the receiver, and allow the RTGs with their lumps
of radioactive material to finish decaying until the whole ship
was nothing more than a lifeless collection of metal and plastic.
keyed in the sequences and sent them into space. In about twenty
hours, Voyager would receive its last command.
shut down her computer and went to bed.
Phone ringing. Loud. What?
rolled over, fighting her blankets for control of the bed, and grabbed
her cell off the bedside table.
she said into the phone.
is Voyager doing?" Shao yelled into the phone. Somehow JPL
found out she had shut down the probe and they were mad at her.
Vanessa's built-in humility before authority kicked in.
I didn't think there was any point in continuing
it stop. They're all going nuts."
what stop? Who's going nuts? Vanessa swam up out of her sleepiness
to confront her confusion. JPL had long since given up on Voyager.
They had given her the codes and the frequencies and the research
materials willingly. Less they'd have to compost.
use small words."
is blinding us!"
Vanessa threw on a sweatshirt and jeans. At 2:30 in the morning,
she didn't much care what she looked like. She tied her hair into
a ponytail in the car at a red light. She caught sight of her face
in her rear-view mirror and was suitably horrified. With no traffic
to speak of, she made it to her lab in record time.
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.
the expert just got here
No, I said she just got here!"
rolled a chair across the tile floor to the station and sat. An
amateur's view 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 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 decades.
a background of white, little pinpricks of color indicated sources
of infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, 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.
dirty smear, like a bruise, filled the middle third of the screen.
Streaks of yellow and brown and purple, in a vaguely 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 the Moon.
don't get it," she admitted. "It's like someone is shining
a flashlight right into the telescope."
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.
either Voyager somehow exploded in a nova-sized, nuclear fireball,
or we're 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."
from this. Problem is
pulled up series of smaller images. "Midnight. Midnight-thirty.
" Each image showed the same sector of
night sky, but the bizarre radio source grew larger and larger,
frame by frame.
got to be an object, a meteor or something, heading for Earth,"
Off-axis confirms these signals are light-years away."
frowned. "Just figured this part out a couple of minutes ago.
Maybe you can confirm for me?" His phone rang. He reached up
and shut it off. "Not all of
is from the same
don't follow," Vanessa admitted.
cleared the screen and brought up two images, side by side.
I'm gonna call it a cloud. This is the cloud from OT5."
looked up at a clock to check the time. "Somewhere over the
And this is from OT23, on station above Europe. If I do an off-axis
plot." He brought up a third image.
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 person's 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.
the edges of the screen, outside the "cloud", individual
stars were labeled with little numbers, showing their distance from
Earth. 14 light years. 35 light years. One galaxy in the sample
pushed the limits of the method they were using, and was simply
labeled with an infinity symbol.
cloud itself was carpeted with numbers, thousands of them. She saw
numbers as low as 5 and as high as 3,300. This cloud wasn't 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.
got this from Green Bank ten minutes ago." Green Bank was a
medium-sized radio telescope in West Virginia. Green Bank's image
looked identical to the ones from JPL's orbital telescopes. It wasn't
a hardware or software problem. It was real.
don't even know where to begin," Shao admitted. "But that
He pointed to the center of the cloud. "
is where Voyager
is right now, isn't it?"
this can't be a coincidence! It must have something to do with your
Here. Can we focus the image right here? In
the exact center. What are we getting from there?"
moved to his own console and grabbed his mouse, clicking and dragging
furiously. The image blanked to white except for a very small, mostly
megahertz, give or take, mean distance of ninety-six light years,"
is it?" she asked.
do you mean?"
took control of the analysis software. She pulled the incoming radio
waves over to a graphing tool. They were frequency modulated
kind of like FM radio.
looked at it, wondering. It didn't seem possible that
Be rational. The graph looked impossibly chaotic. It could be anything
it. She transferred the feed to an audio program.
screeching white noise poured out of their speakers.
turned down the volume. "Narrow it. Give me a band width of
a hundred kilohertz." The graph shrunk in width, the higher
peaks and 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.
still getting too much stuff. You said the mean distance of the
signals is ninety-six light years."
Shao sifted through some screens. "Between about five and about
Can you limit the feed to just signals coming from a small
between ninety and one-ten?"
tried that before
Gimme a second."
Shao worked, Vanessa flipped over to the live feed of the entire
cloud. It had grown just while they'd 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. Impossible.
growing too fast."
took a stylus and did the calculation herself on an old tablet.
If the phenomenon was growing at that rate, it literally couldn't
be very far away. The speed of light said so. At a distance of a
hundred light years, this thing would be moving
times the speed of light. Impossible. So, whatever was causing the
cloud to grow was closer than that. How close? That was the question.
More calculations, erasures, recalculations. When she got the answer,
she laughed out loud.
Shao asked, sounding worried.
think I agree with you. This has to do with Voyager, somehow."
He went back to his task of further filtering the data.
she'd come up with was
well, it was just too perfect. Assuming
the phenomenon was occurring right at the very edge of the speed
of light, happening literally as fast as possible, it had to be
no further than twenty-three billion kilometers away.
in other words, exactly the distance from the Earth to Voyager.
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 she'd never felt
before in her life. She shared a look with Shao, making sure he
heard the same thing she had heard.
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 couldn't understand the language, of
course, but it was clearly voices. Alien voices.
looked again at the full cloud. Thousands of frequencies. Millions
of conversations. And the cloud continued to expand at a ridiculous
then," she said.
a beat, they both broke into hysterical laughter.
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 Earth's
atmosphere. The ball slowed over the town of Pasadena, headed straight
and sure for the home of Vanessa Hargrove.
next door neighbor, Margie Dupont, watched from her porch, dumbfounded,
as a ghostly, transparent figure of a man, faintly glowing blue,
appeared at Vanessa's front door. The man knocked. He wasn't much
of a ghost if he could knock on a door like that.
there was no answer, the man's faint, ill-defined head turned to
Margie. When he spoke, his lips did not quite match the sound of
is the owner of this house?"
other time, Margie would have given someone asking a question like
that a sizeable piece of her mind. She would have said, "I
don't know you, and I don't know your business, so you better just
move along or I'll call 911 on your ass!" But Margie had little
experience dealing with ghostly blue figures who could knock on
" Margie stammered. The figure started walking toward
her. "She's gone! She's gone to the White House."
Washington, District of Columbia?" the ghost asked. Margie
nodded, hating herself for cracking under pressure like that.
ghost sort of collapsed in on himself, until he was just a small
speck of blue, hanging in the air over Margie's lawn. Then, with
a whizzing sort of sound, it was gone.
Vanessa thought she had fallen into some science-fiction movie.
Two days ago she was an unknown researcher in the back waters of
astronomy, and today, she was leading a briefing at the White House!
Shao was with her. Ranged around the decadent, old conference table
were the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense,
the National Security Advisor, the President's Science Advisor,
the Secretary of State.
the President himself, of course.
finished her nickel tour of the Voyager program and moved into the
the Voyager 1 probe has caused some significant event out at the
farthest edge of our solar system. Since Voyager's nuclear power
source is nearly depleted, the only energy it has to impart is kinetic
of motion," the President offered.
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."
Science Advisor piped up: "So, what did Voyager hit?"
took a deep breath. "It 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 Earth's 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 flights of science fiction fancy
for the moment.
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.
heliopause is the place where the solar wind has expended so much
of its force fighting against the cosmic rays that an equilibrium
is reached." She held her hands out in a spherical shape.
a soap bubble," the President suggested.
Mr. President, except that the heliopause has never been considered
a physical object. It's merely a term for a 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 tear-drop shaped bubble. "Based on the evidence of
the anomalous radio signals and the timing with Voyager's position
in space, we believe that, at the theoretical position of the heliopause,
an actual barrier has been sitting for all of recent human
history." On the screen, a hole ripped into the top side of
the heliopause. "Voyager tore a hole through this boundary,
here, causing the barrier to unravel at relativistic speeds."
Secretary of Defense perked up at that. "This barrier is tearing
at the speed of light?"
close to it. We have to assume the barrier is extraordinarily light-weight.
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."
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. That's 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."
barrier could not be a natural occurrence. It seems designed. That
implies intelligence," the Homeland Secretary said.
intelligence. Transcendant intelligence," Vanessa said. Shao
tugged on her sleeve, indicating she tone down the rhetoric.
long will it take for the entire barrier to fall?" the President
the rate of breakdown remains constant, about eight years."
heliopause is very large, Mr. President."
this had been a science-fiction 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 yolk
of militaristic thinking. Then the close-minded government functionaries
would have responded with fear, assuming the worst, precipitating
a significant tragedy, which only the valiant scientist could avert.
seemed that everyone in the room had already seen that movie. Like
any good group of world leaders, the men and women in the room took
steps to ensure that every contingency was prepared for. 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. The Defense Department would, in consultation with
NATO, make ready for 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 there:
a hello of sorts. If the barrier had worked both ways, and all of
Earth's 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.
nondescript man in a black suit entered and spoke a few words into
the President's ear.
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 room-full
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.
door closed behind them with a thud that Vanessa in particular
the people in the room continued to lay their plans for dealing
with this extraordinary new circumstance. 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 dark suits.
turned to Shao. "Is this normal?"
only been to the White House once before," he said. "They
didn't bring me down here."
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.
has been a breach of security upstairs. An intruder has infiltrated
the West Wing. It appears to be headed to our location."
the Secretary of State asked.
sort of weapons are they using?" the Secretary of Homeland
The entity seems
" The President was at a loss for words.
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. Some of them must have been
out in the hall, watching the attack. Why didn't they stop it? She
heard the stutter of automatic gunfire on the other side of the
Whatever the agents outside were doing, it made no difference to
the invader. Previously hidden weapons came out of dark jackets.
The President was pushed to the back of the room by his bodyguards.
This time, the heavy metal door gave way just a bit.
the agents out in the hall finally finished the intruder off? Had
it given up?
pale blue mist slipped through the doorway. Voices shouted for everyone
to hold their breath. It was a gas attack. Vanessa continued to
watch as the blue 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, steady.
It carried no accent, in that it sounded like someone from mid-America.
It also carried no hint of malice.
sent the signal?" it asked.
Secretary of State, clearly believing her role as spokesperson for
the United States extended to aliens, stepped forward.
have many people, sending many signals all the time. We did not
know until recently there were any other intelligent beings in the
blue man considered this. "Who sent the final signal?"
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 you're referring to?"
man began to beep. The beeps were simple tones in a seemingly random
rhythm. It took him about thirty seconds to finish relaying the
will take some time for our experts to determine where"
sent that," Vanessa said. The looks on everyone else's faces
were priceless; Vanessa wished she had a camera. "That was
the shut down sequence for Voyager. I sent it two nights ago."
blue man turned to Vanessa, everyone else in the room now forgotten.
"You must answer the question."
you wish the barrier restored?"
smiled. She understood now. The barrier was not designed to keep
humanity in the dark. It was designed to protect them. There
had to be a thousand, ten-thousand, maybe a million different civilizations
out there in the galaxy, and nearly every single 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
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
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.
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 societies approaching
technological singularity and winking out of normal existence into
an alternate state of being.
truth was far simpler. They weren't missing and they weren't silent.
They were out there all the time, loud and obvious, just as they
should have been. We simply couldn't hear them. They were hidden
from us, patiently waiting for us to make contact with them.
course, it was always possible for some accidenta stray comet
or asteroidto break the barrier. And now, humans had broken
the barrier themselves, but still, by accident. If humanity wasn't
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
again. How many civilizations might have taken that path?
Vanessa said, "you don't want to talk to me."
sent the message," the blue man said again. "You controlled
I suppose that's true."
others standing behind Vanessa came to life again, realizing the
import of the conversation she was engaged in. The President came
forward to talk to the blue figure.
sure you understand," he intoned, "that we have a hierarchical
structure to our society. Miss Hargrove is a member of my team."
am?" Vanessa asked.
is a government entity," he said, still smiling for the blue
really," Vanessa persisted, momentarily forgetting she was
contradicting the President of the United States. "It's funded
Shao warned. The blue man raised one ghostly hand and pointed at
dropped, except for the continuing, muffled sounds of desperate
military personnel trying to break back 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 person's 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.
too much. It's too fast. We can't handle it.
wasn't naïve enough to think 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 didn't 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.
too much. It's too fast. We can't handle it.
had more faith in humanity than that. She turned back to the visitor.
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.