The story my father told was simple, and I have come to recognize it as a common exchange between parents and ailing children. Versions of the particular fable have been found in all cultures and peer groups whose numbers exceed the limits of clan structure. Nomads, single family units, and the like have no apparent use for the symbols imbedded within the tale. The exact reasons for this are currently under investigation and proprietary nondisclosure agreements, so the details will have to sit, unrevealed, until an awards dinner in the indeterminate future. Widely varied financial strata, differing cultural backgrounds, even violently opposed religious factions agree and often discuss amicably the key points of this charming and beloved children’s classic.
My father, belvedere in hand (he had yet to discover, at a Rotarian buddy-swim, the wonders of his now favorite beverage—the gin-based “Infanta Diablo”), sat near the cottage bed in a recliner of his own construction. It not only reclined but was free to yaw, pitch and roll, thanks to a series of hydraulic pumps and an unwieldy knot of hosing that surrounded the chair like a translucent, lubricious fist. He could not see out, despite his claims to the contrary, and we could only hear him if he shouted above the gurgling and hissing of the great throne, trembling as it updated its position in real-time, sampling data 1000 times a second via GPS uplink. From within this mechanized cocoon, my father comforted me with at least those words which reached me.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom, named Happitonia 1 , whose monetary riches were rivaled only by the spiritual wealth of the kingdom’s inhabitants. The quiet, loving, and spunky folk who peopled the verdant glades and breeze whispered dales of the kingdom were the envy of neighboring kingdoms, for they were truly content. Happy, that’s the word for it. Really happy. The cattle were always fat, the grain always hung plump on the sheaf and the blushing daughters of these inhabitants similarly plump and ready for harvest.
One might suspect that this idyllic lifestyle would make the cheerful folk just a bit too plump, too content, and, there is only one word for it, complacent. One might further suspect that the nearby kingdoms that so envied these gentle farm folk would seize the first opportunity to impose a little ‘free trade’ or ‘marauding.’ Certainly those whose softer corners had been shaved away by the callous grindstone of poverty and lifelong adversity would find a kingdom populated by little more than beatific smiles an easy target for conquest. Strangely, however, these invasions never took place.
Some say that Here was protected by a higher power. Others think that the other kingdoms were just working too hard to do anything but eat and go to bed at the end of the day. The real reason is much simpler. All the kingdoms recognized that the true wealth and power lay not in the royal coffers, the o’erflowing orchards or even within the snugged bodices of the farmer’s daughters. Behind a certain hill, seated comfortably in certain valley, bathed daily by mother sun and father rain, was the reason for all that happiness—a 60 acre ground based hi resolution microwave to radio frequency telescope. The center of the valley had been paved with reflective solar cell focusing arrays. From the top of that previously mentioned certain hill, the valley captured even the faintest starlight as clearly as the dew that forms in the smalls of maidens’ backs when they fall exhausted into the grass after hours of titillating maypole dancing and the sort of…well, anyway, it looked nice and was able to both reflect and focus the light in an effective manner.
There were, in the land, two men. They spent their nights looking to the heavens for whatever inspiration might fall into the minds of men. The first was a finder of tales. He lived in one of the outlying provinces and laughed when people asked about his stories.
“How do you make these up?” they’d ask.
“I don’t!” he would laugh (as was previously indicated), ” I speak to the night, and she whispers her thanks in visions and song.”
The man wrote these songs in his journals and described the visions in whatever manner he could recall in the light of the coming day. Children listened to his tales on those nights when he heard a bit less and spoke a bit more, and the night didn’t mind. A person wishing to locate this fellow, and knowing where to look, would be as likely to find him staring blankly into the sky, nodding periodically and mumbling to himself phrases which may or may not be, “he didn’t! Why?” and “ Oh, that rascal.” as regaling the nearest children with a tale whose moral could be alternately divined as “eat your vegetables” or “Putting the wind in your pocket is the surest path to the heart of the working man’s Tom Berenger and the grand hatter of the moneyed elite.” He was a teller, and more importantly, he was beloved.
The second man was also interested in the night, but he lived in the happy kingdom, Here, so he had access to that 60 acre ground based telescope, so let’s go ahead and focus on him. His conversations with the night tended to be a bit more detailed.
He had worked at the observatory for several years, and spent most of his time either recording data or interpreting data. Various projects under his direction had led to, among other things, the discovery of a second moon, a comprehensive numerical study of moonbeam dynamics, and the seminal work in Wish Theory. 2 Something happened on a particularly clear and cold night, however, that would prove more important than any of his previous work. We join the sky watcher and his colleagues, their observations already in progress: 3
Several scientists are hovering in a small room. They hover in the manner of coworkers about a water cooler, rather than the more conventional hovering of machines designed to hover, silently, outside research facilities and glean information from tiny leaks in the security system’s near impenetrable web of secrecy.
“So, how goes the data gathering, fellow scientist?”
“As well as can be expected under given conditions.”
“Agreed. Has anything of interest occurred this evening.”
“What do you mean by ‘of interest’?”
“I mean anything of import to the world outside this many-walled facility. “
“Sometimes I forget that such a world exists. The frustratingly thick walls of this installation, while superbly effective against intrusion, can serve also to isolate the scientists within.”
“I understand exactly what you mean. Our self-imposed near-solitude is a valuable tool for focus and diligence, but often I wish to hear the laughter of others.”
“I feel it is my duty as a friend and fellow scientist to both look about knowingly and tell you that such desires are common here.”
“My esteemed colleague of advancing years and declining scientific aptitude is correct. We all, at one point or another, wish to be part of something funny and creative. This environment breeds that sort of thinking.”
“Perhaps, but is it normal to see their laughing so clearly? I imagine them enjoying a particularly humorous quip which I, or one of my companions, have delivered. In my most fevered dreams, I see us. You, Scientist 1, and you, over there, Assistant Scientists 2-5, are part of an improvisational comedy troupe devoted to bringing laughter to the faces of any who hear us or see our whimsical (and politically relevant) antics. “
An older, more refined gentleman in a particularly luxurious labcoat removes his spectacles thoughtfully and asks,” What about me? Am I in the troupe? “
“ My imaginings haven’t forgotten you, Principal Investigator on a one-year fellowship from the Institute of Mystic Alphabets. You have the gravity necessary for the more serious pieces to be performed by the troupe. Your straight-faced delivery and solemn demeanor will lend credibility to the whole performance, as well as providing a marvelous counterpart to the madcap zaniness of your colleagues.”
This whip smart and completely natural, fluid, and believable chatting might have continued well into the next work shift had our earlier sky-watcher not strolled by, peeked into the breakroom on his way to dinner and asked, “Did anyone else discover incontrovertible evidence of intelligent life beyond our world tonight? No? Oh well, I guess it was just me then. 4 ”
When looking into the infinite expanses of the sky for signs of otherworldy intelligence, a scientist is hoping for one thing in particular—a pattern. Fifty jillion types of signals bathe our watered planet constantly. Every portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is represented in the poor, huddled mass of unwashed particles. Every microsecond of every day, sensors record and attempt to interpret this filthy intergalactic tide. Like a child in a department store, forgotten, hungry, alone, and inundated by all manner of retail clamor, we are surrounded by unfamiliar voices and possess only limited faculties with which to engineer rescue. Like that child, we listen and hope for a voice we recognize.
From miles of data recorded during his tenure at the observatory, this particular scientist heard a familiar voice. He traced a particular sequence of signals and found that it was repeating. Nothing as simple as a string of digits or a three chord pop vignette from the heavenly choir, but a pattern which was recognizable, and to his trained eye, unmistakable. For two weeks he had watched for the reemergence of the pattern, and had been daily rewarded. An orbit was being described—not a perfect circular path, but a more realistic and believable ellipse, whose focus appeared to be our sun. The theme was clear. Someone was in our solar system, and that someone, or group of equally advanced someones, was watching us.