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Seen It Before

by Matthew Harrison

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


“Hmm, not bad,” Dave said, when Siu-mei showed him the list. He looked at her with grudging admiration. “I like the one about pets. How did you come up with that?”

“Oh, just a fresh pair of eyes,” Siu-mei said airily.

Dave snorted. But as they worked together during the following days to flesh out the scenarios, Siu-mei found herself respecting him. Logical, he worried like a bulldog at the flaws her argument. They worked together well.

“If your pets thing is right,” he said, “the product is recreational. But why go to the trouble and expense of beaming a recreational video at us?”

“Maybe it wasn’t aimed at us,” Siu-mei mused. “Maybe it was aimed at... oh, one of their spaceships, and we were just in the line of sight?”

“Whoa! That’s another whole load of scenarios!” Dave threw up his hands in mock horror. “Do you mean their ship is going to visit? Or has already passed by?”

“And why beam them a video anyway?” he went on. “Wouldn’t they have enough videos on board? If it was a sleeper ship, would they even be awake?”

“Perhaps it’s not recreational.” Siu-mei was attacking his premise now. “How do you know they don’t worship the things, like the ancient Egyptians and their cats?”

“Monkey-worship and spaceships?” Dave grew even more scathing.

“We cannot guess the alien mind,” Siu-mei argued, immediately feeling prim. “Maybe that one is far-fetched,” she conceded.

Mollified, Dave agreed to put these guesses into the pot, with lower probability weightings.

In conjunction with Centre colleagues and partners in academia and elsewhere, they worked on the scenarios, refining them, challenging the assumptions, checking them against available data.

Siu-mei’s first month at the Centre passed quickly, and they were into the second when Dave called a halt. “I think we have enough to show Ruth. “We need her direction anyway.” Trevor agreed.

Dave was keenest on the speed-of-play hypothesis. “I have to admit,” he said, at the end of a long day of wrestling with it, “that you may have something. May, mind you.”

Undeterred, Siu-mei took up the narrative. “The initial assumption was that they would move at roughly human speed, and so we’ve been viewing the message like that. But that makes some movements look slow. There’s the moment when one of the Graciles appears to drop between branches, and it falls slowly. Of course, it could just be low gravity.”

“No — we’ve checked the masses and densities of the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” Dave reminded her. “So if we want a different gravity, we have to postulate a new planet—”

“Or that they’re not on the planet’s surface. In a rotating space station, say.”

“A space station with a large tree?”

“Why not? Plenty of room alongside the hundred-kilometer mirror.”

“Okay, Okay, let’s go with faster.” Dave beat a retreat. “That means, though, that the Graciles are smaller than we thought — not human or chimpanzee size, but maybe an order of magnitude smaller. I’m not sure what that does for brain capacity, though.”

Siu-mei didn’t know. There were so many dimensions, so much to learn!

Trevor, an evolutionary biologist by background, did know. Fingering a grey beard as they briefed him, he said, “If you want Earth analogues to work on, you’d be looking at something like a tarsier, or a mouse lemur. Actually, the Graciles look a bit like the slender loris — those big eyes and thin limbs — just that the posture is more vertical. In fact, I thought at first that someone had doctored a loris video, as a hoax.”

“You thought it was a hoax?” Siu-mei was appalled. “Why are you here, then?” She immediately coloured.

Trevor responded with the calmness of his forty years. “Because the simultaneous arrival of the message at thirty-odd receiving stations, not to mention amateur reports, seemed beyond the power of any hoaxer. So I’m on board and have been for years now. But all science is provisional until a better hypothesis comes along. Your challenge might just put the hoax hypothesis back on the agenda again.”

This wasn’t at all what Siu-mei wanted to hear. “We’re trying to strengthen the case for TRAPPIST-1, not undermine it!”

“Whoa!” Trevor laughed. “Aren’t you prejudging? Maybe you really will prove the message a hoax after all. Then we could all go home and save taxpayers money.”

Confused, Siu-mei lowered her gaze.

Dave was more robust. “If we can just go with faster-and-smaller for a minute, we were wondering about what it might mean for the Gracile brain. Obviously faster reaction times—”

“The first thing I would be thinking about,” Trevor interrupted, “is brain capacity. Human brains are similar in structure and basic function to animal brains. They’re just bigger in relation to body size.”

“The Graciles do have big heads,” Siu-mei chipped in.

“Their heads are relatively about as big as the loris’s,” Trevor said heavily. “If they’re loris-sized, they’ve got loris-like capabilities. You don’t see lorises building spaceships.”

It was sinking in for Siu-mei. “So, if the Graciles are small, we need better internal brain connectivity.”

Trevor eyes were whimsical below the grey eyebrows.

Siu-mei was reaching for it, but Dave got there first. “Oh, you mean, a hive mind?”

As Trevor nodded, a whirl of thought came to Siu-mei. The alienness of it was what struck her first: that the Graciles might not be complete as individuals but only as a group. How difficult it would be to communicate with them! Their values — of deference to the group, sacrifice for the group — would be so different. Or different from the West.

She thought with a shudder of China, and of her father seemingly at home under that authoritarian regime. And the irony if, having avoided China’s heavy hand on Hong Kong, she had been trying to deal with an alien autarchy.

The second thing to strike her was how right her mother had been about the bees.

* * *

As she met her colleagues outside Ruth’s office, Siu-mei hoped they were prepared. The team, including Trevor who despite his scepticism had been as committed as any, had worked almost around the clock. They had consulted experts — even, at Trevor’s insistence, a neurologist and an AI specialist. At one a.m. on the previous night, Trevor had sent everyone home. But, ignoring her mother’s admonitions, Siu-mei stayed up to rehearse and anticipate questions. Now, as Ruth ushered them in, Siu-mei felt the thrill in her stomach. This was it.

Trevor said gruffly that Siu-mei had been the driving force behind Aspect. Then, unexpectedly, he waved her on! Suppressing her delight, Siu-mei began the presentation. With Ruth attentive, she explained how they had flexed the speed parameter, exploring the implications of each case for the nature of the Graciles. To her surprise, Ruth said nothing, but looked on in satisfaction until she had finished.

Dave summed it up. “Basically, if the true speed is slow, the Graciles are large like us, but we run into problems with gravity. If the true speed is fast, gravity falls into the acceptable range for the TRAPPIST-1 planets, but it means that the Graciles are small and unlikely to be independent entities.”

“In other words, a collective or hive mind.” Trevor summed up. “Small creatures also have fast metabolic rates, which tends to means short-lived, which again suggests community effort for technological progress.”

“And what is your hunch?” Ruth turned again to Siu-mei.

“I think the Graciles are small and fast!” Siu-mei blurted out.

“That’s what the probability weightings say,” Dave murmured supportively. “Although, of course, they’re based on Earth biology.”

“A hive mind,” mused the Director. “Invasion by a swarm of bees! The media will like that.”

“Always assuming the bees actually composed the message.” Trevor was barely audible.

Ruth looked at him sharply, for the first time in that meeting seemingly disconcerted.

At Trevor’s signal, Siu-mei haltingly explained her mother’s idea that the Graciles might just be pets, with the intelligent aliens out of sight behind the camera.

That made the Director throw her head back and laugh. “Well done!” she said, recovering. “But we’ll save that for later. The media can’t digest everything at once.”

Afterwards, Siu-mei asked Dave why the Director was so focused on the media. Shouldn’t they take more time to check their work?

Dave shook his head. “It would leak anyway. That’s science nowadays: publish and perish. You get it wrong, but you grab the limelight and encourage people to challenge you — and the funding comes in. It’s messy, but it works.”

Siu-mei didn’t think that was how science should work, but she said nothing.

* * *

The press conference was duly held. To Siu-mei’s surprise, it was a sell-out, a crowd of journalists waiting in the sunshine outside the Centre. She herself was singled out by Ruth as a project leader, and received her share of the attention. It was overwhelming, after just three months, and Siu-mei forgot her misgivings.

The experience also convinced her that they had hit on the truth. Graphics had been prepared to explain the probability weightings, and were seized upon by the media. But the image that captured imaginations the most was the speeded up version of the message, spliced with clips of bees nudging one another. The similarity between the bees and the speeded-up Graciles was striking — even, to Siu-mei, unmistakable. When Ruth compared the interaction between bees or Graciles in a hive mind with the interaction of synapses in the human brain, she gasped in recognition. That was it!

As the last journalist filtered out, having secured the promise of a more in-depth interview later, a beaming Ruth congratulated the team. She even had a private word for Siu-mei in her own office.

“I’m pleased with your progress here,” she began. “How well you’ve got into the spirit of things — and of course your contribution.”

Her cup overflowing, Siu-mei thanked the director, and said that Dave and Trevor, as well as others, had contributed more than her.

Ruth smiled. Glancing at the door, which was shut, she said, “I know, I know, they are both good scientists. But to succeed here requires more than science. It requires staying power.”

At Siu-mei’s enquiring gaze, Ruth went on, “I have been leading this Centre for seventeen years. Do you know, it was nearly closed down twice — most recently last year?”

“But... but why?”

Siu-mei’s shock must have shown on her face, for Ruth smiled gently. “Every area of government expenditure is being cut; why keep spending on a monkey video? Even if it is real, nothing may happen for decades or even centuries, the distances between the stars are so great. And is it real?”

I think it is,” Siu-mei blurted out.

“Of course you do,” Ruth said soothingly. “And so do I. But we have to keep convincing the public, the government, so that the money keeps coming in. I have been doing it for so long, but I cannot do it forever. We need fresh blood, passion...”

The Director sighed, and at that moment she looked her age. “Never mind me,” she said, recovering. “You have done great work today, Siu-mei. You, at least, must be happy. Please consider what I have said.”

And with that the Director ushered Siu-mei to the Centre’s door, urging her to get home for a good rest. Above, the June sunshine had given way to scudding clouds; wind whipped along the Regency house fronts. Head down, Siu-mei dashed for the station, reaching it just as the first pattering drops of rain began to fall.

At home that evening there was a great deal to tell, and Siu-mei’s mother had to remind her several times to eat up her ginger beef before it got cold. After the triumph of the press conference — Siu-mei acknowledging her mother’s contribution to the ideas — the meeting with the Director had struck a strange note. She did not know what to make of it.

Irene was more sanguine. “She wants you to take over when she retires.”

Siu-mei protested that that was ludicrous; there was Trevor, even Dave....

“Do you think they have, what did she call it, staying power?” Irene looked at her daughter quizzically.

Siu-mei thought of Dave’s cynicism, Trevor’s ambivalence, and she began to understand. Her first thought was: how nice to be recognised! Then she thought of the flickering bodies of the Graciles, coordinated by some unknown mental processes, and the responsibility of representing mankind to such beings pressed upon her. Finally came the thought of herself years, perhaps decades hence, struggling to keep the flame alight as distractions mounted, funds dried up, and still no further message came.

“Do you want this?” came her mother’s voice, softly.

Siu-mei saw, almost for the first time, how many grey hairs ringed her mother’s face. She did not answer but worked her chopsticks to lever a mouthful of congealed ginger pork and rice into her mouth. The food was cold.

* * *

Warmth returned the following night with a celebratory team dinner. Ruth proposed a toast to “our youngest member,” and Siu-mei was touched by the enthusiasm with which both Dave and Trevor drained their glasses.

The following day, slightly hung-over, Siu-mei was busy archiving the records of the press conference. Dave was pressing her to feed the media, but she wanted to get their triumph properly recorded first.

She found that the archive master file listed the Centre’s activities right back to the beginning, and she spent a happy while browsing through the early records. There were of course pictures of Ruth, and even of Trevor without his beard. Then Siu-mei came upon a file headed “Fast-moving aliens.”

She opened it idly, registered a picture of a young and assertive-looking Ruth, and glanced down the text. Then her heart stopped. Gasping, as she scrolled back to the picture, she saw now that the grinning Director was holding up a visual of a cluster of bees! And the text read, “Aliens likely to be small and fast-moving, communicating rapidly so as to form a ‘hive mind’.”

What?! Had she just repeated the work of years ago? Did no one remember? Dave was at that moment slouching down the aisle towards her; she opened her mouth to speak. But he got in first, asking her about the media enquiries. “Don’t give them all they want,” he advised cheerfully. “Save something for another day.”

Feeling queasy, Siu-mei said nothing. She glanced at Trevor’s office. But at the thought of that grey beard, she turned back again. She did not need to look over her shoulder at the office of the Director.

Siu-mei got up and walked blindly out of the Centre without even taking her bag. She stumbled through the streets, pulled up by a car horn here, a shout there, until she reached a gateway. It was Regents Park, the dark masses of trees lit here and there by lamps; she walked in.

Dusk was falling, the sky was at last clear. Siu-mei looked up, thinking vaguely of the Graciles’ star, but that was too dim to be seen and, she recalled, at this time of year below the horizon. The futility of the whole enterprise struck her then and, if it had not been for a passing man glancing at her curiously, she would have sunk to her knees in despair.

Siu-mei rounded a hedge, out of the man’s sight. It was now safe to indulge her feelings. A wave of revulsion swept over her at the Centre’s deceit, at Ruth’s duplicity. What were they doing? How could they waste taxpayers’ money like that? How could they call themselves scientists?

Yet this wave of self-righteous indignation ebbed as soon as it had formed. Siu-mei thought of Dave and the others at Starway who, flawed though they were, were still her teammates, her comrades in struggle these past months. And what of her mother, who had made sacrifices herself to get her daughter this far? And was she herself not committed, and tainted, too?

Siu-mei looked up again. Vega was now visible high above, and as she stood, the chill evening air lapping round her, the tiny white diamond grew brighter. Two other stars emerged, forming a great triangle across the eastern sky, impossibly grand and remote yet maybe, just maybe, within reach of human contact. She saw that, petty and compromised though the Centre was, it was noble in its ambition. It might yet deliver transformation to mankind.

Siu-mei shivered; an English summer evening without a jacket. She turned back towards the Centre, at first slowly, then with gathering pace. There was work to do, necessary work.

Entering, she met a surprised Dave on his way out. “Don’t flog yourself,” he said in a kindly way. “The media will still be there tomorrow.”

“No, I’ll get it out tonight,” Siu-mei said. “Some of it,” she added carefully.

Dave’s finger and thumb met in an “OK” sign before he pushed through the revolving door into the lamplit square.

Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Harrison

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