Quiet Time Has Begun
by Rick Pearson
Four Hours after SETI Success
John Snowson looked at the sheet of paper resting on the passenger seat beside him. His heart skipped a beat. It was hard to believe that a simple one-page message could profoundly change the course of human history, but he knew it would.
The message was exactly what his team, performing a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, had been paid to find. When he’d joined the SETI team, John thought it was just a way to get some fringe group to pay his salary between semesters at the university. Now it looked like the kooks had been right. Space aliens did exist. They were here now and interacting with humans.
The radio announcer repeated the story that validated the message, “SpaceX’s first manned mission to Mars has been cut short. Midway through the journey the company’s spacecraft turned around and returned to Earth. All the brave volunteer astronauts are home safe. Because of the problems discovered on this mission, no further attempts are planned.”
Anyone who understands how interplanetary trajectories work knows that spacecraft on a multi-month path to Mars just don’t suddenly turn around and come home. Something had to bring the astronauts home; something powerful and with capabilities beyond those of human technology.
It was all in the message on the passenger’s seat. Humans were quarantined; not allowed to colonize other planets, even in their own solar system. The message also said that humanity needed to quiet down. Radio and microwave broadcast energy had to be limited. Too much was leaking into space.
This morning, life had been so normal. Now John was carrying a message that meant the end of human expansion into the Universe and the end of the human race as an independent and self-directed species. When he’d talked to his wife Olivia earlier about his SETI work, they both laughed about finding little green men. Now he’d have to tell her they were here and in control. He was in shock. He tried to remember how things looked this morning to calm himself.
* * *
Twenty-Four Hours Before SETI Success
John pulled up to the house just as his wife Olivia and their two boys returned from walking the dog. The heat of the day was already beginning to take hold in the high New Mexico desert. When he opened the door to the house, the boys rushed into the air conditioning with the dog yapping at their heels. His wife had caught him at the door before he got inside.
“Where are the old people in this place?” Olivia Snowson asked.
“What do you mean, Livvy?” John replied.
Livvy frowned. “Back home in Cheshire old people were always doddering about in the morning. They were out walking their dogs and such. Here I almost never see anybody.”
“Well, we are rather remote here on the west side of Socorro,” John said. “Besides, it’s too beastly hot to be outside most of the day.”
Livvy rolled her eyes. “Don’t I know it! I can’t get the kids out of the house. They don’t want to play in the yard, it’s too hot. I can’t finish my doctoral thesis with them constantly underfoot. They’ve got the telly going or they’re playing video games. It’s so noisy during the day that it’s hard for me to concentrate.”
“Well, that’s where the old farts are, too,” John said. “They’re probably hiding from the heat indoors watching the tube.”
“Yes,” Livvy responded, “but mornings and evenings are nice here. Still, I don’t see any old people outside even in the cool parts of the day. I guess most of the old folks are in those restricted senior adult living communities.”
“In what?!” John exclaimed.
“Retirement villages like Festival at Los Lunas where your team lead lives,” Livvy replied.
John frowned. “Oh, that horrid place. I remember the guard’s reaction when he saw the child seats in the back. I thought he was going to search the car to make sure we weren’t smuggling children into their precious gated community.”
Livvy smiled. “Oh, come on! It was nice of Tom to invite us to his home for a get-acquainted dinner.”
“I don’t understand why Tom lives in a retirement village,” John said. “He’s not retired. Remember how we had to move indoors after dinner because we couldn’t be outside on Tom’s patio during quiet hours. He complains all the time about the busybodies on the neighborhood architectural committee. Death by a thousand ‘hen pecks’ as he calls it. I’m sure our parents wouldn’t like to live in a place like that. A place that wouldn’t welcome their grandchildren.”
Livvy gave John a sad half-smile. “You know nothing, John Snowson! Old people adore their own grandchildren, but there’s a little secret that most grandparents won’t talk about. The lovable highjinx their own little grandbabies get into really annoy them when other people’s ill-raised little hellions do it.”
John grabbed Livvy around the waist. “Are we going to play Wildling Girl and Nights Watch Spy from Game of Thrones again?”
Livvy pushed him away with a giggle. “Not with the boys around the house. We’ll play later.”
John lifted his chin. “Still it seems wrong; this hostile attitude toward children and parents.”
“We’ll talk again,” Livvy said, “when you’re old and grumpy and when our children’s children won’t visit us. I bet we’ll end up living in a place like Tom’s.”
John stood straight up. “Never!”
Livvy raised one eyebrow. “We’ll see. Do you want to have dinner with us tonight?”
“If we can eat early,” John said. “We’re surveying a group of objects with our array of radio telescopes, and the objects won’t be above the horizon until about 2:00 a.m. this morning. We probably will be listening for radio signals until about this time tomorrow.”
“I’ll see what I can do. What are you working on these nights?” Livvy asked.
“We’re using the radio telescopes in here in New Mexico as part of Very Long Baseline Array by coordinating with nine other sites. We’re studying three recently discovered Earth-sized planets orbiting in the goldilocks zone around their stars,” John said.
“Goldilocks zone?” Livvy said.
“Sorry, tech jargon. The area around a star where planets would have to orbit to support life,” John explained.
Livvy looked up at John. “Is there life on those planets? Can your radio telescope detect an extraterrestrial’s civilization on one?”
“The planets have the minimum conditions for life, but we don’t know if it’s developed or not. We’re working on ways to detect life’s signature using spectroscopy, but we aren’t there yet. As to whether we could detect an advanced civilization, it depends on how noisy they are. If they’re as noisy as us, we could,” John said.
Livvy leaned forward. “How noisy are we?”
“We radiate a lot of radio and microwave energy out into space through the windows in our atmosphere.”
Livvy looked surprised. “Is that wise? What if an advance extraterrestrial civilization hears us?”
John exhaled softly. “Nobody has ever worried much about it.”
“Why not? If people have done SETI research for decades, why aren’t they worried that an advanced civilization will find us first?” Livvy said.
John grimaced. “Most serious people feel that SETI research is a ‘boondoggle’, as the Yanks would say. We’re here because SETI work is the only gig I could get between semesters at the university. It’s always hard to get funding for basic research. On other hand, there’s always money for popular junk science.”
“I knew you weren’t too happy about taking this SETI grant. At least we got to see another part of the world. This place gives me a better feel for how the Aztecs I’m studying lived. I’m happy to be here,” Livvy said.
John looked down at Livvy and smiled. “I’m glad you’re making the best of it. It’s hard to make ends meet now we have the boys. I promise I’ll sell out to industry later, but for now I’d like to do what I’m trained to do.”
“So you’re OK with the SETI stuff?” Livvy asked.
John shook his head. “I still think it’s a waste of time, but the team sneaks in a little real science while we look for signals from little green men. We’re learning about how the solar winds from stars interact with the magnetic fields of the gas giants that orbit them. I should be able to get a couple of good research papers out of it when I get back to U. Manchester.”
“But no papers on ET? You’re sure they aren’t out there?” Livvy asked.
“If they’re out there they don’t seem to want us to find them,” John said.
Livvy tilted her head, “How do you know?”
“The SETI folks have been looking for decades now. At the start, advocates expected that old extraterrestrial civilizations might use powerful radio beacons to welcome newcomers like us to the galactic neighborhood. They didn’t find any beacons. As the technology got better, they looked further out at more stars, but still no beacons,” John explained.
“Doesn’t the Drake Equation tell us that there are millions of technologically advanced civilizations in our galaxy? With all of them out there, why aren’t we finding any?” Livvy said.
John smiled. “The Drake Equation; where did you find that old chestnut?”
Livvy shrugged. “When you were offered this gig, I did a little digging to find out why you were so reluctant to take it. If you Google SETI research, the Drake Equation pops up pretty quickly. I found the concepts kind of interesting if a little frightening.”
“I can see why you’d be interested. The concepts involved are closer to your field of archeology rather than to astrophysics,” John said disapprovingly.
“What do you mean?” Livvy asked.
John gave an exasperated sigh. “Basically Drake contains four crude estimates from astrophysics, then three baseless guesses from exobiology and a speculation based on human archeology. Optimists make wild guesses on the high side and come up with a galaxy filled with millions of high-tech civilizations. The pessimist guess on the low side and come up a galaxy with only one civilization: ours. The whole thing is a pile of pseudo-science rubbish.”
Livvy crossed her arms. “So you’re saying we don’t know anything for sure. Still there may be millions of civilizations more technologically advanced than ours in the galaxy. Couldn’t some of our leaking radio signals have reached one of them by now? We’ve been sending them for almost a century.”
John leaned back a little. “It’s not clear that there is anyone listening.”
Livvy shrugged again. “But if there were millions?”
“If there were that many, they’d be only about fifty light-years apart. Our first radio signals would have traveled twice that far by now,” John said.
Livvy rolled her eyes. “This doesn’t worry you even a little?” Livvy said.
John smirked. “I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
“You know nothing, John Snowson.”
“OH-OH!” thought John. That’s wasn’t the ‘You know nothing, John Snowson’ that he liked so much. The one that proceeded sweaty, uninhibited sex. That was the other ‘You know nothing John Snowson’, that warned him that he was about to deal with the other aspect of his ‘wildling girl’. The cynical, ‘bloody-minded’ aspect.
“What don’t I know this time?” John said.
Copyright © 2017 by Rick Pearson