Sudden pain jolted him awake when his elbow slipped off the desk and scraped its way to his knee. Ken jerked his head back up and blinked at the computer screen, unsure if he had actually heard the sound or merely dreamed it. He typed a code into the computer and reached for a half-eaten doughnut while he waited for the pattern of the sound waves to re-paint on the screen. The graph indicated nothing more than the usual white sounds of space noise.
He swallowed and nearly choked when the graph jumped erratically. He washed the food down with a gulp of bitter cold coffee and wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve. The graph calmed for a few moments and then leaped again. That wasn't mere space noise. He turned up the volume on his speakers and played back the last spike. Static - nothing else - or was it?
He watched intently as the pattern continued. The speakers whistled a complaint at the ridiculous volume, but he refused to turn it down. It couldn't be mere space noise. The pattern was too rhythmical. He set the coffee cup on the desk and leaned back in his chair, munching absently on the doughnut while he watched the screen. A pause, and then another set of peeks and lows. Not simply spikes either. The waves dropped, waved and then rose to a new set of waves - then stopped again.
The doughnut joined candy wrappers in his trash can. His breath quickened as he rolled his chair close to the keyboard. Was this what had awakened him? His fingers paused over the keys. Should he try to make contact before he alerted the authorities? They'd only laugh. They already considered him a fanatical fool. This would only prove their point - unless he received a response. Hesitantly he typed a message.
"Hello out there."
After a long pause, the graph moved sharply up and then plunged down. The static was sharp, much like a surprised response. Again he clicked out another message. "Please identify yourself." Something was out there. He was sure of it.
This time the response was instant. The sound waves remained the same, but the static was more uniform, as if it were a foreign language. Only it was nothing he had ever seen or heard. For several minutes he corresponded with the waves, and then they suddenly went silent.
He grabbed the telephone receiver and punched numbers with trembling fingers. He had a contact at the observatory - not exactly a friend, but someone who had expressed interest in his "hobby".
After ten rings, an annoyed voice finally answered. "Hammond Observatory, Ronald speaking."
"Hey Ron, this is Ken. Are you picking up anything unusual."
"Yeah, and I'd like to get back to it. It looks like a comet."
Ken snorted. "That's no comet. I'm getting signals."
"Yeah?" came the dry response. "What did you expect?"
"No," Ken said. "You don't understand. This isn't regular space noise. This stuff has rhythm. It even responded to my signals."
A long pause. "Are you serious? Are you sure it isn't SOHO?"
"Yes!" Ken responded, slamming a meaty fist on the table so hard his coffee cup leaped. "These aren't spurious signals either. I'm trying to tell you that whatever it is, it can talk."
The voice on the other end of the line turned dry again. "Oh yeah? What did it say?"
Ken leaned back in his chair and drew a deep breath, slowly letting it out on the count of ten. This wasn't a time to let his pride or excitement take over. Finally he responded. "I don't know what it was saying to me. Look, Ron, I've been doing this for ten years. I'm not some SETI looking for recognition. I'm telling you, this is different. I know everyone thinks I'm crazy, but I know my stuff."
"OK," Ron said. "I'll agree to that much. I guess you're observing something pretty spectacular, but couldn't it be some kind of space noise you've never run across before. I mean, if this is a comet...."
"It's not a comet," Ken interrupted. "I listened to Hale-Bopp as it passed. This is different. I'm telling you, they are trying to contact us."
Ron sighed audibly. "I think you have that backwards, but let me get back and look at this thing some more. In the mean time, why don't you just listen instead of sending out noise that could be echoing back to us?"
"All right," Ken said, "But you'd better do some listening too."
His words faded into a dial tone. He pitched the receiver to the telephone and turned back to the computer. His modified SRT could hardly match the clout of an observatory and he didn't have any fancy letters behind his name, but anyone familiar with the equipment could see this was something unique. All the same, how could he blame Ron for being skeptical? Ron was a professional - he got paid for the time he spent in front of his equipment.
When Ken wasn't listening for sounds of life from space, he was usually creating software or repairing computers. The two kept him out of debt and even provided an occasional opportunity to use a powerful radio telescope at an observatory. In the mean time, he'd created software that improved the efficiency of the SRT. For ten long years he had born the butt of a million jokes about the way he'd spent his inheritance. His office was a round cubicle at the top of a salvaged lighthouse crammed with an assortment of new and old sound monitoring equipment. The 40 acres surrounding it contained a variety of satellite dishes. They - the people outside his world, called him a fanatic. He couldn't deny his passion for the mission, but a fanatic? No, he was merely dedicated to a cause. It wasn't as though there had never been a sign of extraterrestrial. He could hardly blame them, though. Even he had been a skeptic until that night twelve years ago when he received that excited call from his father. Maybe it had merely been the imagination of an 80-year-old man, but he believed his father had actually seen something. Two years later, alert to the end, his father had passed away, leaving a small fortune to his only son. What began as a dedication to his father soon became a hobby.
Ken fine-tuned his speakers and drew his chair close to the screen. He watched for a long time before the signals began again. This time they sounded different. He frowned. Maybe it was a comet. He ran out graphs of both signals and compared them. Yes, they were different. Much like looking at the tapes of two different people - speaking different languages.
He dug through the filing cabinet and pulled out graphs of the comet. They were completely different from either of the new graphs. And they weren't echoes of his signals, either. They were distinctively different.
The telephone broke sharply into his thought. In two quick steps he made it to the phone and answered it. "ET Research Tower, this is Ken.
"Ken," the voice said breathlessly. "Have you had any more signals?"
"Yeah, Ron. A couple."
"I think you're right. It's not a comet. I saw two explosions. Are we doing something up there?"
"You mean, like with Russia or something?" Ken asked.
"I mean like conducting experiments - nuclear."
"No, that wouldn't explain the unusual signals." The idea was disturbing. What if another country was up there taking pot shots at our satellites? "Can you see all our satellites?"
"Yeah, this is farther out than the satellites, though. It's on past the moon, but not much further. I'm calling the air force base to report this."
Ken's attention was riveted on the screen. "Signals again. Stronger this time."
"I'm gone," Ron said, and the telephone buzzed in Ken's ear.
Ken returned the receiver to the hook absently while he watched the screen. Short signals, then a pause, then more signals and another pause. Were they trying to contact him?
He dropped into his chair and stared at the screen. Should he respond? His breath quickened. Why not? He slid the keyboard forward.
"Who are you?"
An instant response goaded him into another message.
"Do you speak English?"
Again a responding signal sent the screen and speakers into activity. The static was beginning to take form - more like a voice than static. Yet it was like nothing he had ever heard before.
His heart was pounding a rhythm of it's own. This was too cool. Space men and everything! His dream was coming true.
The telephone interrupted his focus and he snatched the receiver. "Ron? What did you find out?"
"Ken, I think you're right. I've been watching and I don't think it's a comet. I think it's a space ship!"
"I know, but what did you find out from the air force."
"Nothing. They haven't seen a thing." Ron answered in a disgusted voice.
Ken's short laugh held no humor. "Tell me about it. They wouldn't admit it if they did. Not until they had the chance to conference over it for two or three days, anyway. We're on our own. Can you get a fix on it?"
"Sure, but...." Ron's voice trailed off.
"What?" Ken asked.
"What if they're unfriendly? What if they destroyed two other space ships?"
Ken stared at the screen. Unfriendly? If they were unfriendly, his signals had given them a direct fix on his home. He stared down at the graphs. Like two different languages. Had he been the means by which an unfriendly force had found its victims?
"I don't know," Ken responded slowly. "Maybe."
"Don't be sending any more signals, OK?" Ron said.
"I won't." A dream come true, or a nightmare? What had he brought down on their world?
"It still might be one of ours," Ron consoled.
"Maybe, but I don't think so."
The speaker came alive again. This time there was no mistaking the rhythm. It was some kind of language. He'd studied every language when he first bought the equipment. Each was distinctive, yet similar in general. This was nothing like any of them.
"What's that noise?" Ron asked.
"The speakers," Ken said slowly. "It's not a comet, Ron, and it isn't anything from our planet, either."
"Do you think the noise comes from space creatures?" Ron sounded like he was ready to laugh.
Again the speakers throbbed. They wanted a response. He stared at the screen, mute. One part of him wanted desperately to respond to that signal. Another was terrified at the possible results. But what difference did it make? They already knew where he was. The damage had already been done. He had attracted their attention. Perhaps they didn't even know there was life on Earth until he sent those signals.
"I'm going to answer them," he said.
"What?," Ron exclaimed. "Are you crazy?"
"They already know where we are."
"Yeah, but what if they zap you?"
"Like I said, they already have a fix on me."
"Listen, you idiot," Ron's voice rose with fear. "If they already have a fix on you, why do they keep trying to contact you?"
Good point. Either they didn't have a fix on his exact location, or they were friendly. "I'm going to respond," he repeated. "It's my life. They already know there is life on earth. If they want a fix for a strike, at least that will give the rest of the world a chance to know their intentions."
"You're nuts!" Ron raved. "You're certifiably nuts!"
"Yeah, so everyone keeps telling me." Ken said. "This is my chance, and I'm not going to blow it. I'll talk to you later."
He hung up on Ron's sputtering response.
He sat in front of the keyboard for a long time listening to the growing quests. What was done couldn't be undone. If his obsession had attracted the focus of an unfriendly life form, he would have to accept the responsibility. What would they look like? How would they converse? His fingers found the keys and began typing a response to the persistent messages. It didn't matter what he typed. They wouldn't understand the words, but a response might keep them wondering.
"This is Kenneth Wright of planet Earth. Who are you?"
When the next response came, it caught him totally by surprise. The accent was so thick that he couldn't understand the question, but it was definitely a question...apparently attempted in English.
His fingers left the keyboard and tentatively sought the microphone. Were they searching some memory bank for languages? Someone was pounding on the door downstairs. Probably Ron. He'd have to wait. He wiped perspiration from his forehead with his shirtsleeve and moistened his lips.
"This is Ken. Who are you?"
The speaker was quiet for a few minutes. Then finally the response he had been waiting for. An emotionless voice spoke through the static.
"Urzik. Lost ... planet ... from...."
Ken strained to hear the words and pondered the meaning. Was the name of their planet Urzik? Were they lost, or had they lost their planet?
Someone was climbing the stairs, yelling for him to shut down the signals. It wasn't Ron. Ken had a white-knuckle grip on the microphone.
"Who are you?"
Again the response, "Urzik."
"What is your mission?"
A long pause. "Food"
"Yeah," a voice spoke behind Ken. "And you may be the food."
Ken glanced up to find the tall skinny frame of Sheriff Monroe scowling over him. "Shut that thing down before you get us all into trouble," Monroe ordered in a deep voice that seemed too low for his boyish face.
Ken stared at him, still gripping the microphone. "How in the...?"
"Ron called," Monroe said. "I wasn't far away so I thought I'd check his story out. I figured you'd talked him into one of your crazy...." His voice broke off as the speaker came alive again.
"Need food. Attacked."
Ken reached for the board, but Monroe slapped his hands away. "I said shut that thing down!" he bellowed. You're going to bring them and their problems right to us."
Ken rose from the chair, his hulky frame towering over Monroe. "Their trouble? How would you feel if you were hungry and under attack, but a whole world of scared people wouldn't lift a finger to help?
Monroe wasn't intimidated. He looked Ken in the eye and spoke calmly. "It isn't your decision, Ken."
Ken frowned. He was right. If the aliens were under attack, it certainly involved the entire world. He dropped into the chair and slid the microphone across the desk.
"So what do we do, sit here and let them die?"
The sheriff sighed heavily. "I don't know." He stared at the silent speakers for a moment. "Let me use your phone," he finally said.
The sheriff made several telephone calls to people Ken didn't know. He wasn't into the law enforcement profession. What was the protocol for this type of situation?
The speakers came alive again. "Need help. Request persimmon land."
Ken glanced up at Sheriff Monroe and they both grinned. Was the alien ship getting closer or were the aliens perfecting their English that quickly? Ken leaned forward and reached for the microphone. Monroe started to protest, but Ken knew what he had to do.
"Trying to get permission," he said slowly. "Please wait."
"Understand," came the instant reply.
A throbbing sound sent them both to the window. Were the aliens going to land without permission? Would they be shot down? They searched the sky for an alien craft, but what they saw was a fleet of helicopters. The aircraft circled the lighthouse and landed in the yard, expelling camouflaged armed troops. The invasion wasted no time reaching the office and Ken surrendered the equipment without protest.
The officer in charge conversed urgently with what sounded like it might be the capital. Apparently they had to wait for a response from other national leaders. How long would they have to wait, and what would they do if the Alien ship tried to land? Would they consider it an invasion of airspace? Would we fire on the alien craft?
His thoughts took free flight as he recalled the way the "civilized" world had treated the "savage" Native Americans. Would the aliens consider themselves more civilized? Would they demand that Earth people change? How many more aliens were out there, ready to conquer a new planet?
He was struck suddenly by another thought. Had the aliens considered Earth uninhabited before he sent his signals? Had he been irresponsible in his quest for alien life? Earth already had its share of famines and wars. It appeared his quest had not been based on reality. Why had he assumed that aliens were a more intelligent and technically advanced life form? Why had he never thought of them as vulnerable beings? And why had he thought of them as one people, as the Colonials had the American Indian? Had history taught him nothing?
If there were other planets at war with each other, could Earth stay neutral or would it be forced to choose sides? If Earth offered help to the aliens who had contacted them, did they become enemies to the foes of those aliens? Could the nations on Earth be united to fight a common battle, or would they continue to fight each other as the Indians had done? Would we shrink back in horror if we discovered the aliens were overwhelmingly technically advanced? Arrows and spears against guns. Was history repeating itself?
Ken watched in humble silence as the aliens tried repeatedly to make contact. Were they so desperate for help, or were they seeking a target? For a few minutes he wished he had never started this quest for contact. But it wasn't in him to be negative for long. If there were aliens out there, it was inevitable that they would discover Earth. He hadn't been the only one sending signals. And it was narrow-minded of him to think that the Earth would be a refuge for the aliens anyway. Perhaps it was uninhabitable to them.
A low rumble grew to the throbbing of at least a dozen helicopters. The lighthouse shook with the wind from their beating blades. Jets raced overhead and the troops looked anxiously out the window. Slowly another sound entered the chaos. A high pitched hum.
The troops raced down the circular stairs, leaving the window free for Ken to observe the yard. The choppers had been moved so that a large bare spot in front of the lighthouse provided a protected landing field. So they had been in contact with the aliens. Why would they need his amateur equipment?
He watched with gaping jaws as a small saucer shaped craft approached the landing area. No flashing lights or beams of light - only a metallic blue form. The craft landed gently and the humming sound stopped.
Ken closed his eyes a moment. This had to be a dream. Yet when he opened his eyes again, the craft was still there. He held his breath as a hatch lowered from the craft. Why the term "beam me down, Scottie" came to his mind, he couldn't say, because there was no beam of light. All eyes were on that hatch, waiting to see what strange creature would emerge. After what seemed an eternity, a tall thin form hesitantly emerged from the craft, arms held up in submission. Behind the man came another, and then a woman.
"Humans!" Ken gasped.
Even their thick black uniforms couldn't hide their state of emaciation. The first man stepped forward, leaving his comrades behind to watch. Did they feel as composed as they looked? Did they have feelings?
The long thin face of the leader had a yellowish cast and his eyes were the color of jade. His fingers were long and thin - all five of them on each hand, counting the long thumb.
Ken leaned out the window as the troops surrounded the aliens. Apparently he had been forgotten. In any case, he had an ideal vantage point.
"We come in peace," the first alien said.
"Are you alone?" the officer asked.
"Many follow. You have food?"
"How many?" came the response.
Ken groaned. In such a small craft, how many could they have? He glanced over at the box of doughnuts. Only five left. He grabbed the box and started down the stairs two at a time. Let the army ask its military questions. Those people were hungry.
When he emerged from the lighthouse, the first soldier started to stop him. He glanced down at the box of doughnuts and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. He turned his attention back to the inquest.
"Who fired first?" the officer was asking.
The leader spoke in a quiet voice that held little emotion. "The Cathopians always fire first. They destroy Urzik. It is not enough. Never."
"Do these... Cathopians... outnumber you?"
The alien glanced at Ken as he approached and the officer followed his gaze. "What are you doing?" the officer asked Ken
Ken opened the box. I'm going to give them something to eat. Can't this inquisition wait a few minutes? Can't you see they are starving? What must they think of us?
The officer looked uncertain for a moment. "Maybe they don't eat that kind of stuff."
The alien spoke to Ken. "You have food?"
Ken held the box out to him. "Just some doughnuts."
"Doug-nuts?" the man repeated as he reached into the box and lifted a doughnut out of the box. He eyed it suspiciously for a moment and then tested it with a tiny bite. He made a face. Apparently doughnuts didn't even taste good to a starving alien.
Ken offered the doughnuts to the other two and they accepted without hesitation. Their faces were expressionless as they devoured his favorite snack.
The leader spoke again. "First food in..." he frowned. "Asis...day," he concluded.
The officer reclaimed the conversation. "What's an Asis?"
The leader gave it some thought before responding. "Asis times Earth turn."
"Eighty-six days?" the officer asked in surprise.
"Days?" The alien frowned. "See, days."
"How is it that you speak our language," Ken blurted.
The alien nodded. "We seek... old...signals."
"Of Earth?" Ken asked.
The alien glanced at the officer. "Many planet."
The officer signaled to a soldier who then took Ken by the arm and led him away. More choppers were arriving and a convoy of army trucks was coming up the road. The soldier led Ken to one of the choppers. "Take him out of here," he instructed. "We'll talk to him later."
As the helicopter rose from the ground, Ken watched the three figures grow smaller. After so many years, he had finally proved his theory. Yet he felt no sense of achievement - no joy. His hunger for contact had been replaced with anxiety - not only for the future of Earth, but for the plight of the three aliens. For the first time he questioned the wisdom of so many years spent trying to find life in space. Were they wasted years? Should he have spent that time helping other starving people? As the helicopter turned and flew away, he wondered - was this how Columbus felt when he proved the world wasn't flat? Had he brought havoc on his own planet, or had he opened up a new frontier?
He surrendered to a wry smile. Already he was thinking of it as his planet, not simply his country. Was it possible that all races and religions on Earth would now realize that they had much in common? Would they stop squabbling among themselves and face this new threat together? Only time would tell. As for his own feelings, life would never be the same. He felt fortunate to have been born in a country where food was plentiful and war was far away. A place where he had the freedom to explore in his own way, and the opportunity to help others. Yes, his life had been changed. No longer would he isolate himself from the world. He would be a part, no matter how small, of pulling the world together.