My father had to spend a couple of years in court once, trying to get a job back. They didn't want him because he'd been a union organizer. (That was twenty years ago--he won, and he still has the same job now because he's very good at it.) My grandmother, senile from dementia, could still remember that she'd been a "union girl"--and try to organize the workers at her nursing home. I am not amused by Hendrix's confusion.
Less rudely, but more memorably, Hendrix also called us "pixel-stained technopeasant wretches." In his honor, Jo Walton has declared tomorrow International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. I'm posting early because my Mondays are very Monday-ish this semester.
Behind the cut, "Exposure Therapy." This story first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Analog. If you like it, you might consider getting a back issue. There are some other stories in that issue, many almost as good as mine.
This work appears here under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license.
By R. Emrys Gordon
I looked around for witnesses: an old habit, and an unhealthy one. Zulu was in front of me, Tess to my side. Except for them, I was alone. Tess smiled encouragement and mouthed something I didn’t catch. Looking around had been a mistake; I’d caught a glimpse of Zulu. He was slithering over his own coils, blank black eyes staring out the front of his glass tank. My heart forced itself into my awareness, beating too fast. I held my hands very still, and tried to breathe slowly.
I had two overwhelming fears that I had never been able to conquer. The second was the fear of anybody realizing that I was afraid.
"Do you want to try moving? Or looking at him for a whole second?" Tess had all the smug concern of the fellow who never gets seasick for the guy on the railing.
"Just a moment." I attempted to lift my arm, experimentally. My hands started to shake. When I tried to clamp down, they wouldn’t stop. Then the nausea began, and that made me shake more. I couldn’t get sick here; Zulu was contraband--I couldn’t get sick anywhere, because the mission heads would want to know why. And if they couldn’t figure it out, I’d be quarantined, banned from going dirtside--and I wanted to go down to the planet more than I’d wanted anything else in my entire life. I was just terrified to do so.
“I’ll try this later.” I backed out the door and sagged against the wall of the corridor. I rubbed my temples, and felt the trembling begin to subside. The air in the hallway seemed cooler than in Tess’ quarters. In a moment she appeared beside me.
“That worked well.” The sarcasm that Tess carried with her like a shield was grating on me after a month, but I could deal with that. The little tensions that sprang up in close quarters, the outgrowths of claustrophobia and discomfort that people came up with on a spaceship--those were my specialty (or part of it, anyway). I could deal with those.
“This sort of thing never works on the first try,” I told her.
“We’ve got three weeks.”
“That’s plenty of time. You can extinguish a simple phobia in three sessions, if you need to. One, sometimes, with the right VR programming.”
“If you can do this with VR, why did I drag my snake along on a starship? Him and a cooler full of frozen rats, which I took in place of the books listed on my allotment form, thank you.”
“Because the recordings of the VR sessions aren’t erasable.”
“I thought you were the only one who got to see those,” said Tess. “You know, make sure no one’s having fantasies about running around with an axe or something.”
I shook my head. “They’ve got people looking over my shoulder, trust me. After all, it would be pretty embarrassing if the mission shrink cracked up and nobody noticed.”
“Or froze up and couldn’t talk to the people we came fifty-four light years to see?”
“Yeah. Or that.”
Dolphins have names. Not the ones we give them, but patterns of radar-click that they use to identify each other. No one’s been able to figure out a language, but they can at least get as far as “Hey you.” So the buttons by the pool at Ming Chu Oceanic Research said Lucy and Desi and Gibson, but when you pressed one the underwater speakers put out a string of whistle-pop-squeaks that we’d recorded off of the kids. I pressed Lucy’s button, and two more buttons that lit up the symbols for “bring” and “ball.” One of the silver-grey shapes circling in the water broke away from the others and made a beeline for the beach ball that was floating at the far side. I loved the graceful way she lifted it between beak and forehead and sleeked toward me, perfectly adapted to her environment. Ten feet from the poolside she lifted her front half out of the water, making circles with her tail to keep herself vertical. It was a trick you saw a lot in tourist shows, but as far as we could tell she’d taught herself--for the simple reason that when she crashed down the spray would drench whoever was in striking distance.
“Not again, Lucy, no!” I moaned as she tossed the ball onto no-longer-so-dry land. She popped her head up wearing that eternal delphine grin, waiting for her reward. “Oh, all right. But we’ve really got to teach you a symbol for ‘don’t.’” I gave her a handful of herring from the fish bucket and tossed the ball away, earning for my generosity a second splash with her tail as she headed back to play catch with the other two. I turned to enter the trial data into the computer. I couldn’t imagine how they used to do dolphin work when they had to keep records on paper--maybe they just remembered everything until they got away from the water. I used the mouse to highlight the next line of the spreadsheet, but when I started to type I realized nothing from the keyboard was getting through.
“Bloody hell. Okay, kids, take a break.”
I stalked all the way to the tech shop, but took a deep breath before I went in. “Jeff, you know how you swore to me that the new casing was waterproof? Can you explain that to the computer, please?”
“Oh, hey, Dr. Klein. These folks were looking for you.” Jeff sounded like his usual laid-back self, but kept glancing at the three men standing stiffly by his desk. I could see why. “These folks” were, I kid you not, Men in Black. The dark glasses, I’ll admit, were pretty sensible in southern Florida--the suits not so much. I had an immediate urge to introduce them to Lucy.
“Dr. Serafina Klein?” The tallest one held out his hand and I shook it. He had a firm grip, very practiced, like a grant-writer or a used car salesman. “I’m Mr. Smith, and these are my associates Mr. Jones and Mr. Siegfried.”
I blinked. “Siegfried?”
He was shorter than Smith and Jones, and very blond. In a perfect deadpan, he told me, “All the good names were taken.”
“I can understand that,” I said. “At Ellis Island they were handing out Klein like it was going out of style.” No smile--these guys had faces as frozen as the dolphins--but I thought I detected a hint of humor in the tilt of the blond’s head.
Smith cleared his throat. “We’d like you to come with us, please, Dr. Klein.”
Peace protests when I was a kid. Petitions in college, too busy for anything else. No work more classified than some personality tests I’d helped write up for NASA. An ex-boyfriend had put me on the mailing list for an anarchist bookstore once, but they’d gone out of business years ago.
Jones must have caught a hint of what I was thinking. “You’re not in any trouble, ma’am. Actually, we need you for some consulting work.”
“Consulting work?” I repeated. Mentally, I kicked myself. Usually I at least tried to sound like a woman with a Ph.D.
“Nothing we can discuss further here.”
They had a big black Ford that looked like it was probably also named Smith. I eased into the back seat and tried to settle myself in some way that didn’t involve leaning against my wet clothing. After we drove for a few minutes I asked, “So, can you tell me where we’re going, or is it classified?”
Siegfried jerked his chin at Jones, who was driving. “It’s so secret, he doesn’t even know.”
Smith sighed. “Virginia.”
“Virginia! But I’m not packed! And my work doesn’t know... and Zawadi!”
“You’ll get a toothbrush, the lab will be informed, and someone will feed your parrot. This is extremely urgent.”
We drove on, and I worried.
We didn’t actually, thank god, take the car all the way north. After a couple of hours we transferred to a helicopter, and then I got to feel even more like I was in a movie, and even more worried. None of the suits would tell me anything about this mysterious consulting job, although after a while Siegfried starting chatting with me about classic science fiction, which distracted me nicely. I was laughing at his explanation of FBI triffid control techniques (by the tenor of which I gathered that he was not FBI) when we finally landed.
The cluster of buildings around us was non-descript, but looked like it had been occupied for a while. There were a few more suits around, and a lot of scientific types hurrying from place to place. Some of them were wearing actual lab coats, but most of them were wearing jeans and t-shirts. A lot of them you could tell their specialty because the shirts had obscure academic jokes on them. “And god said (long equation that I don’t understand because I’m a psychologist), and then there was light.” That sort of thing. Everyone had these grins on their faces. They were all running around looking like they’d just come from a perfect first date.
“Have these people invented soma or something?” I asked Siegfried.
He still didn’t smile, but I could tell it was an effort. “You’ll see.”
The office that they brought me into was more academia than government. The walls were lined with bookshelves--mostly journals. I saw a set of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, which was where my NASA work had come out, and a pile of recent Animal Behavior on the floor. There was an old poster from a Godzilla movie framed next to the desk. A tiny Spanish woman with black hair bound in a severe bun looked up as I came in.
“Dr. Klein, Dr. Estevan.” My escorts faded to the back of the room as soon as Smith introduced us, but they didn’t leave. I actually had met Zoe Estevan at a little space psychology conference in Kentucky, but it had been while I was a grad student and I didn’t expect she remembered me.
“I’ve been looking over your curriculum vitae,” she said. “It’s quite eclectic.”
“My interests are broad.” I tried not to fidget. I wasn’t on the job market any more, and didn’t have to defend my ‘lack of focus’ to anyone.
“Masters in clinical, another Masters and a Doctorate in experimental, publications mostly in animal behavior but a steady record of collaborations in space psychology. You’re probably very tired of being told that it all looks pretty unrelated.”
“I suppose it does,” I said stiffly. I had indeed heard that more times than I cared to count, and I wished she would get to the point.
“I want you to take a look at this.” She turned her flat-screen monitor around and showed me what looked like a bar graph with a whole lot of bars, shifting constantly.
“It looks like the SETI screensaver that I’ve got at home, but less ...embellished.” The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence had been doing its initial analyses on private computers for years now. Estevan was smirking. “It’s not the SETI graphic, of course. That’s just what it looks like.”
She pressed a key, and the bars became more of a pattern, steady and regular. Another press, and the picture switched to a flow of 0s and 1s that transformed to black and white squares that scrolled up the screen in a radiated circle, then a Fibonacci sequence, then a set of primes...
“It’s not,” I repeated. “It’s something else. Something that we’re sending out?”
Estevan shook her head. “You had it right the first time. This is a SETI signal that came in four months ago.”
“Oh my god.” I heard the rush of blood in my ears, felt my heart pounding and my palms sweating. I realized I was crying and wiped at my eyes with shaking hands. “Oh my god. All my life...”
“I was right, then. Your studies haven’t been random at all.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think anyone realized. There hasn’t exactly been a lot of demand. I just decided, if anyone ever came looking for a... for a xenopsychologist, I ought to figure out what they’d want, and meanwhile, I’d work with dolphins or something.” I took the tissue that Estevan handed me. “Thank you. Excuse me. I’ll be all right in a moment. I’ll be absolutely fine.”
“It’s okay. We’ve all been through this part.” That smile I’d seen everywhere outside crept onto her face. “It’s pretty incredible.”
“Why hasn’t this...” I glanced back at the suits behind me, and shivered. “Are they going to tell people?”
She nodded vigorously. “Absolutely. The problem is how, and what.”
From behind me Siegfried added, “The problem is when.”
“He means ‘when’ the signal is from, not 'when' do we tell people,” explained Estevan.
My brain was beginning to come back online. “It’s a SETI signal, so it has to be at least a few years old. Probably quite a few. I know the nearest stars were looked at years ago. I remember checking that out the fifth time I read a first-contact novel where they’d only just gotten around to Alpha Centauri in 2010 or so.”
“This one’s about 54 light-years away. And as soon as we received it we sent off the whole Arecibo sequence in their direction--they’ll get that in a half century or so. But after this message gets through establishing common principles, it starts sending through new information. Directions. Circuit diagrams.”
My breath caught in my throat. “For what? Starships?” I stopped myself from babbling--I was not going to make an idiot of myself wondering about cancer cures and disintegrator rays.
That grin again. “We’re still trying to put that one together. But the first set of instructions was for a communication device. It works through some sort of... well, I’m told it’s related to quantum teleportation, but pretty far afield from what we’ve been looking at on Earth. Christoffels can give you half an hour on the physics of the thing without pausing for breath, and then you’ll understand it about as well as I do.” She took a pause for breath of her own. “We knew what we had after a couple of days, which is why we didn’t go public then. It took two and a half months to build, and then we spent six weeks establishing a basic vocabulary, getting terms across... The short version is that we’ve been talking with the Skaan in real-time for the past three days.”
This way to part II...