Close Encounters of the Secondhand Kind by Ryan Austie
“Eyes, Józef. Look at your brother,” my mother would say in an accent so heavy you could still feel the chains of Communist regime. I never wanted to look at him, and didn’t for years.
The certainty of what I wanted to do with my life came when, one day, while playing by a hedge that lined a cracked fountain, I happened to look up. I saw rings – concentric rings of light that seemed to spread from the Sun. They kept coming, expanding until they shimmered into nothingness, for minutes. And when it was over, the reverse happened. It was also the first time my brother, mute from birth, vocalized. So the story goes: I went inside and, among the excitement, declared “I want to go to the Sun.” Though my father later dismissed my sighting as either a lie or the Aurora Borealis (during the day – really?, and for that long a time?, and concentric?), that’s why I became a solar astronomer.
My father passed away soon after our arrival to America, several years later, a fortunate thing as my mother wouldn’t have to cross an ocean to visit his grave. The day I earned my Ph.D. we walked to the cemetery. She shared the news while my brother and I stared vacant across a field, standard behavior for him, but a mix of shame and awkwardness for me, until she said: “. . . and maybe he will find a way to make Kasper talk again.” I had to force myself to not recoil.
“Mama, what are you saying?”
“I told your father that you might find a way to help your brother talk.”
“I’m a doctor of astronomy, Mama, not a medical doctor.”
“I know what you do.”
“Then why would you say that, about Kasper talking?”
“Józef, don’t you remember?” I winced as the sudden change in tone and volume turned the heads of a family grieving nearby.
I leaned close. “No, I don’t remember.”
“The day he talked, just before, he looked up at the sky where the Sun was.”
I hesitated. Was her memory already starting to go? “But you all were inside the apartment.”
“Of course! He looked up, where the Sun would be.” She nodded, decreeing the conversation closed. She died not long after, and my brother and I shared the same vacant stare by the same headstone.
I earned and excelled in a position with NASA. It was an independent contractor role that put me in charge of an array of satellites pointed sunward – heaven on earth, and a haven from home. I’d stopped resenting him long before, but it was still difficult to be with Kasper. There’s a unique strain to living with someone who can neither give nor take, but only receives whatever you might offer. I couldn’t stand to see him put away somewhere, so it was arranged for him to live with me. In-home care was available, which meant an aide, usually Mary, would visit the house several times each day, working around my schedule. The nice thing about the Sun is the availability. Most astronomers work at night, but due to the particular star I study, daytime work is best. So a 4am call surprised me, saying I needed to be ready in 10 minutes.
I opened the door to see Mary, surprised but still blinking away sleep. She shuffled in, and behind her was a team of soldiers.
“Dr. Słońce, please come with us,” the more intimidating of the pair said.
“Why is Mary here? What’s happened?”
“She will care for your brother while you’re away. Major Collins sent for you.”
At last. Major Collins was my supervisor, though we had only met a few times. I followed the men to an armored vehicle and took a seat next to a man half my age, with exponentially more energy. He held out a hand, which I shook out of politeness.
“Hi Dr. Słońce,” he fumbled.
“Say it like ‘swan–zeh’ ” I offered, emphasis on the ‘z.’
“Yes, sir. Dr. Słońce.”
He gave an eager smile. “My name’s Carl. I’m an assistant with the New Frontiers program. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you. Isn’t Frontier focused on planets? What is going on?”
“Yes. Major Collins cleared me to share that the Juno satellite – studying Jupiter right now, sir – picked up a signal. They want your input right away.”
“Jupiter? What kind of signal? When?”
“Two days ago. I can explain, but you’ll have to see it to believe it.”
“No. I’ve seen the feed since then. There’s been no unusual activity on the Sun.”
He smiled. This sinfully energetic, most likely brilliant, young, young man stared and smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen. “Not directed at us, there hasn’t been.”
“And wait, two days? A solar flare would reach Jupiter in . . . less than an hour, wouldn’t it?”
The smile widened, somehow. “Less than 43 and a half minutes.”
“Alright. Tell me.”
“It wasn’t a flare. It was a signal.” He began a slow nod, eyes widening. “Your satellites didn’t pick it up because it was directed at, or near Jupiter.”
“How could it not be omnidirectional? What do you mean ‘Near?’ ”
“We’re still calculating, but based on where the signal bounced off of Jupiter’s ionosphere, we believe the signal was directed at Amalthea – Jupiter’s third closest moon.”
Through a glass wall we could see multiple displays, and every seat of the control center’s three rows was filled. Our meeting room was a mix of military and civilians, leadership and scientists. Major Collins entered, followed by several assistants, and sat at the head of the table. He turned to one and said: “Bring the room up to speed.”
“Yes, sir! Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll watch the main display, we’re redirecting Hubble right now.”
A green targeting reticule focused on a small speck, then shifted it to the center of the screen. Zooming in, before Jupiter could fill the entire screen, focus skewed to one side. The reticule jumped to a misshapen hunk of rock.
“That is Amalthea, Jupiter’s third moon. We’ll have a clear shot for the next few hours.”
Zooming continued, then skewed to the side again. I glanced back at Carl, smiling as ever. Turning back to the screen as the room filled with quiet gasps, I could see why. A stack of five smooth flattened capsules, broad edges connected, arced toward the small moon.
“It has been approaching for at least the last 8 days. We anticipated a collision, but . . . I’ll cue the replay.” A secondary screen changed from data reports to footage of the object approaching the moon, only configured as a neat stack, compact and evenly spaced.
“The object halted its approach and unfolded to its current shape 39 hours ago. It is not touching the moon, though it seems to be locked with it in orbit around Jupiter. We’ve received nothing other than visual information, though Juno picked up a signal that all evidence indicates originated from the Sun. We have yet to decipher a meaning.”
The awed hush in the room shifted, and I hoped that I was not the only one trying to steady myself. Major Collins stood and said: “You have been assembled to determine everything possible about this object. Priority is to discern intent, especially anything that could be considered malicious, and then origin, and destination. There will be no attempts to communicate with the object – is that clear?”
“You all are to remain on this base for the duration of this mission. Accommodations are provided. Families and places of employment will be assured of your safety.” And that was it. He left, along with half the room. The rest of us, scientists, were given secure laptops with the latest data. We got to work, welcoming coffee and breakfast, and rewarding ourselves with long gazes at the monitor.
There was an air of jealousy. That moon had no spectacular features – no atmosphere, no discernible life, nothing. It was ice and minerals, too small even to bother forming a sphere. And here we were, just a few hundred million miles away, trillions of life forms, and ready to interact. Why Amalthea?
The next day, soon after the object came into view again, it collapsed and headed for earth.
The arrival was unlike anything we might have anticipated: cold – no aggression, no communication, nothing. The thing simply showed up, assembled itself, and hovered. Its distance was proportionate to its stance with Amalthea, fortunate as it did not match our spin. Had it been within the atmosphere, the amount of friction and air displacement would have destroyed us, no weapons necessary. As it could be seen, unaided, from the ground, the government made announcements that it was friendly and panic would be unreasonable. That didn’t stop some from rioting.
I contacted Mary to check on things, and she told me that Kasper was well. “I thought he was mute,” she commented.
“Well, yesterday we were in the kitchen, about to eat. Out of the blue he looked up and vocalized. Nothing in particular, but it surprised me.”
“What time did this happen?”
“It was . . . oh, just after one. Why?”
“Nothing. I’m happy to hear you’re both alright – thank you. Please tell him I’ll be home as soon as I can.” We ended the call, and I returned the phone. I sighed and went for a short walk in the hallway, tapping the cinder block wall as I went. The day before, at 1:03pm, my array picked up a signal from the Sun, directed at earth. I was told that concentric circles were seen coming from it, at that same time. What’s more, the signal matched the one sent to Amalthea.
The object remained for days, inert, sending signals down. In another meeting, the Major announced: “We have a side project for you all. A covert group is interfering. We need you to locate the source of their signal.”
The room was buzzing with excitement and fear. “What if they trigger a war?” Someone said.
The major replied with cold steel: “Find the source.”
The trouble was that the signal seemed to be coming from everywhere, all at once. We had the equipment to generate and direct a signal of our own, something few others in the world might have, but were positive that no one location or group had done so.
Terabytes of information flowed between the object and the earthbound source. It was on the fifth day that a miniscule pattern was uncovered, and soon we were able to discern small chunks of information. Another day passed, and we had a limited but clear vocabulary and syntax. I was in the room when the order came to send a message.
“We greet you. What have you come for?”
A long pause, then: “Communication.”
“Yes, we wish to communicate.”
“No. Communication is almost complete.”
“Who are you communicating with?”
“Where are the others?”
I thought I knew the meaning of that one word. I hadn’t.
“Did you communicate with others at another place?”
“Yes, with all beside.”
“Why not us?”
“You are not beside.”
That was it, the last line. The last bit of an interstellar conversation, and we were little more than static. The object collapsed, and moved Sunward.
I thought of Kasper just then, and understood something I hadn’t seen before. As the room emptied, I slid over to the communication console. Punching in the command to direct a signal toward the Sun, I entered a simple message and set a time delay.
I had just begun to hear Kasper vocalize over the phone when soldiers came to arrest me. The object hovered over the Sun for another eight days as well, then continued on, never seen again. I was removed from the project, and lost my credentials – but heard my brother.