Introduction by Maria Daly: With the recent discovery of Kepler-22b, I thought this science fiction post posed an interesting dilemma regarding the search for intelligent life. Kepler-22b is a planet that NASA discovered to be in a “habitable zone” at the beginning of December. This means the planet is the correct distance from its associated star to have the potential for liquid water to exist.
Guest post by David Delaney
The program had been running for forty-five years, now Sheils and the others looked on as the numbers ran down to zero. Nothing. They had searched every known planetary system for signs of intelligent life. 2 billion planetary systems, 300 million possible life supporting planets, Sheils estimates had predicted 30,000 civilisations. But there was nothing out there. Some colleagues patted him on the back as he made his way to the canteen. The Planck poster over the coffee machine stared him down.
“Fail much?” – Leslie smiled. She had sat in the same office with Sheils for twenty of those forty-five years.
“I was sure we’d find something, they’re definitely out there” said Sheils, exhausted.
“Maybe we’re looking for the wrong things” – It was a conversation her and Sheils had had dozens of times in the observatory, sometimes in anger other times out of frustration. She hoped it would go some way to re-assuring them both that if they had failed it didn’t mean they weren’t alone in the universe. It didn’t help as Sheils stared back at the Planck poster. They had discovered so much but it wouldn’t be him to first find intelligent life in the universe, maybe Leslie but not him. Sitting with her drinking coffee he imagined himself being brought up by her at an awards ceremony, an after thought as communications from a distant civilisation beamed down to a rapturous audience. He just couldn’t be an after thought in Leslie’s speech. Exhausted he said good night to Leslie and headed to his bunk by the observatory. Light filled the hallway from the research labs still full of young scientists going over the data. Maybe someone else will make the breakthrough thought Sheils. Someone that’s never heard of me. He turned the key to his bunk.
“Dr Sheils, Dr Sheils!” – a young voice down was shouting for him. “Dr Sheils, we have something, there’s been a communication” The door to his room waved as he joined the student and hurried back to the lab.
“What did you find?” demanded Sheils of the whole room of students, “What is it?”.
“One of the planets, from two months ago, It’s after responding”
The room went quiet again and Sheils sat down at the desk where the information had first been recorded.
“It’s an answer!” said Sheils, half talking to himself and half talking to everybody else. He could see Leslie enter the room through the corner of his eye. Not an afterthought anymore. Not at all. He pressed his hand over his headphones and whispered to the students whose desk he had taken.
“What question did we ask?”
The student sat upright with pride and answered.
“Please prove that from any point outside a circle only two tangents can be drawn and they are equal in length”
“Excellent” – replied Sheils, “Excellent, this could be what we’re looking for, but shh I can hear a voice coming through”
Sheils placed the headphones over his ears as the crackling tuned to a smooth hum, a hum from a million miles away and then the voice of possibly the first intelligent civilisation in the universe to be discovered spoke.
“Why should I tell you?”
Sheils threw down the headphones.
“For Gods sake, what a joke, it obviously doesn’t know the answer” – Sheils voice rose and filled the quiet of the room
“An absolute joke, I’ll be in my room”
The students looked downcast as Sheils left the room, he bumped Leslie in the doorway as he walked the narrow hallway to his room. The door still open. Thousands of answers and not one he could present in a paper.
David Delaney writes stories on and maintains ShorterThanFiction.com which is a new place for writers to upload short works of fiction.
Top Image: NASA / Wikimedia Commons