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By Joe Haldeman
Ace Books Copyright © 2001 Joe Haldeman
All right reserved.
Normally her desk was no neater than it had to be, a comfortable random pile of notes, journals, and books. So long as she knew where everything was, who cared? But she had just spent fifteen minutes nervously straightening things up, desk and worktable. It was not quite six in the morning.
There would be reporters.
She looked at the coffee machine in the anteroom. The smell was a magnet. No, not now. Her heart was already racing. Doctor said two cups a day.
She pushed a button on the desk. "Previous," she said, and the diagram on the wallscreen was replaced by a double page of equations and numbers. "Previous," she said again, and got a double page of numbers and words. "Left." The screen reconfigured and gave her a single magnified page of words. She stared at it and shook her head.
It was an old and old-fashioned office, dating from before the turn of the century. It had an antique blackboard that she enjoyed using, the only one left in the physics building, and one whole wall, floorto ceiling, had built-in shelves for books printed on paper. Some of that space had been converted into a large display screen, but she did have rows of paper volumes bound in leather, cloth, and cardboard. The head of the department can be eccentric.
"Music," she said; "random Vivaldi, then random Baroque." An oboe began a familiar figure. "Louder, ten percent."
She sat down for a minute, listening, and then got up and slid a large book from the shelf, one she'd bought on impulse Monday. She leafed through the yellowing pages carefully. It was a book of news photographs from the old Life magazine, documenting a war that her great-great-grandfather had fought in. Grainy patriotic pictures and ads with meaningless prices. Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War. What on Earth did that mean? Lucky Strike was evidently a tobacco cigarette; maybe green tobacco had some weapons application back then.
At the sound of the elevator, she closed the book and returned it. Her husband came into the outer office. "Coffee any good?"
"Just made it, half-real." He poured a cup. White stubble on his chin, rumpled workclothes. He got up almost as early as she did, but didn't bother to shave and dress till noon.
"I didn't quite understand your message." He sat down on the chair normally reserved for nervous graduate students. "Or quite believe what I heard." She always expected to get the house when she called home. Norman was a cellist and composer, and spent the first hour of his workday warming up, meditating over scales and intervals, and ignored the phone. But the house had told him it sounded important, and so he picked up the message. He'd called back immediately and said he was coming over.
He looked around the neat office. "You have someone in?"
She laughed. "I've been tidying. Waiting for a longer parallax verification."
"Parallax, yeah. Relax. Sit down, you make me nervous." He gestured at the wallscreen. "This is it?"
She nodded. It was a neat column of words: WE'RE COMING, repeated sixty times.
"Well ... by itself, it doesn't exactly make one"
"Norman. The signal came from a tenth of a light-year away. In English."
"Oh." He sipped his coffee. "We don't have anyone that far out?"
"Of course not."
"Creatures from outer space."
"Something from outer space." The phone rang and she picked up the wand. "Bell." She leaned forward, elbow on desk, staring blankly at the column of words. "Anytime is okay. Is he the science reporter?" She rolled her eyes. "Please. Can't we wait for a science reporter?" She exhaled slowly. "I understand. You have the address? Right. Bye."
Norman smiled. "Science reporters aren't up at six?"
"They're sending their 'night man.' He's probably used to murders and things."
"They couldn't wait?"
"No, it's out on the nets. I called the Marsden Bureau in Washington as soon as I was sure what it was."
"Oh, you're sure what it is?"
"No, no." She stood up and sat back down. "Just how far away, how fast. You know what the blue shift is?"
"An article of clothing?" She gave him an exasperated look. "I guess it's like the red shift, but blue."
"Right. It tells how fast something is coming toward us, rather than away." She pointed at the column of words, stabbing. "This thing came in a burst of gamma rays. Its source is coming at us with almost the speed of light."
"It's slowing down. If it weren't, I couldn't say anything about the blue shiftI mean, they could just be broadcasting in high-energy gamma rays.
He frowned. "I don't understand."
"It's complicated." She waved the complications away. "Anyhow, I can tell how fast it's slowing down. From that ... what it boils down to is that this thing popped into existence going the speed of light, exactly one-tenth of a light-year away, and it's decelerating at such a rate that it will reach Earth in exactly three months. New Year's Day."
"Of course not. They're giving us a creepy message. Those two words, combined with the blue shift and position, say, 'We know a lot about you, and we are vastly superior technologically. Ready or not, here we come.'"
He rubbed the stubble on his throat. "Jesus." They both looked up when the elevator door chimed. "The night man cometh."
Dan didn't like the way the old elevator squeaked and shuddered. They were supposed to be fail-safe, but he'd covered a story over in Jax a few years before, where one newer than this had dropped twenty floors. Broken necks and fractured skulls and only one survivor, her muffled screaming terrible as the Rescue Squad rappelled down to cut open the roof. He pushed on the squealing door to speed it up, then held the door for the cameras to roll out behind him.
He checked his watch: 6:17. The Kampus Kops wouldn't start ticketing until seven. Maybe the press card on his windshield would protect him. The station only paid for two tickets a week, and he'd already had them.
Dr. Bell, 436. He turned to the right and the cameras followed. The small one stopped every couple of meters to take atmosphere: bulletin boards, an empty classroom, the sign that said DEPARTMENT OF ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS. Dr. Bell was waiting for him in a doorway, a small stocky woman with short black hair streaked with white; a kindly face with an expression difficult to read. Dan introduced himself and they went into the office.
The guy sitting by the desk looked like the janitor, but Dan had a good memory for faces and made the name connection. He held out his hand. "Norman Bell, of course. I went to your concert in the park last spring."
The man shook his hand and looked amused. "You cover music as well as astronomical anomalies?"
"No, sir." Something about the man compelled honesty. "Actually, I'm tone-deaf. It was a date."
He laughed. "She must have been worth pursuing." He stood up. "Well. I'll get out of your way."
"Please stay, Norman." She looked at Dan. "Is that all right?"
He shrugged. "As long as you don't stand or sit together. Confuses the cameras' tiny brains." They would scurry around getting two-shots, long shots, intercuts, reaction shots. Half the footage would be of a scruffy-looking man in gray workclothes, temporarily irrelevant. "I think it would shoot best with you at your desk, Professor. I'll sit over here." He indicated the chair that Norman had just vacated.
"I'll go lurk by the coffee machine. Want some?"
"No thanks. Just came from Burgerman."
"That's how you got here so fast," Dr. Bell said. "I hope it didn't interrupt your breakfast."
"Oh, no," he lied, "just hanging out with the city cops. Trade gossip." He looked at the big camera and whistled, then spoke slowly: "Establishing shot. Bee Gee two-seventy from behind subject to my left." The camera drifted behind Bell and then wheeled out in an arc. "That's for editing back in the studio. I just repeat the questions there and they can paste my face in from any angle. So the cameras don't have to worry about me now."
The camera completed its circuit and said "okay" in a monotone. "Begin at the beginning," Dan said.
"How much do you know?"
"Almost nothing. You got some weird signal from outer space and the night desk thought it was important."
"It is." She leaned back. "I got to the office a little after four. The screen was blinking for attention."
"Can you recreate that?"
"Sure." She pushed a button on her desk. "Find today, 0405." The screen began to blink red, saying ANOMALY RECORDED GRB-1 0355 EST.
Dan whistled and pointed at the screen. The large camera rolled up to it and seemed to concentrate. "Daniel," it said in a soft woman's voice, "please come adjust my raster synchronization."
Dan shook his head. "That's automatic in the new models." He got up and peered through the camera and fiddled with a pair of knobs until the picture of the wallscreen settled down.
He returned to his seat and the small camera climbed up onto Bell's desk and stared at her. She looked at it warily. "Am I supposed to talk to it?"
"No, just talk to me. What does the message mean?"
"GRB-1 is a gamma-ray burst detector. The "one" is optimism; we never got money to launch the second, which would've been a backup.
"Anyhow, some sources send out bursts of gamma rays, sometimes for hours, sometimes minutes, usually just seconds. This satellite detects and analyzes the radiation. It has a small telescope, essentially a fast wide-angle lens, that covers the whole sky every two seconds. If it detects a gamma-ray burst, the bigger telescope can be on it in about a second."
"Does it have any practical applications?"
"One never knows, but I doubt it. Except that if the Sun ever did that, it would fry everyone on the daytime side of the planet. It would be nice to have a few hours' warning."
"Do you have a picture of the satellite?"
"Sure." She pushed the button. "Find GRB hyphen one comma artist's conception." A dramatic holo of the satellite appeared, silhouetted against the sun peeking crimson from behind the curve of the Earth. Dan pointed at it and the big camera, which had been tight on Bell, turned around and got a shot of the wallscreen.
"That's pretty but falsado," she said. "GRB-1's up in geosynchronous orbit; the Earth's just a big ball that gets in the way."
"So what's this anomaly? I mean, what does the word mean?"
"It means something unexpected, a mystery. In this case, we recorded the gamma ray burst, but when the computer tried to find out what source it was, there was no object there, in previous records. I mean down to twenty-fifth magnitude, which is about as faint as they get.
"That was the first anomaly, which was interesting. The second was startling. Whenever we get a burst that's more than a few seconds long, we send out a request to the Japanese gamma-ray observatory on the Moon, for backup data. Their detector's more powerful. It found the burst but said that our position was a tiny hair off. We checked and no, our position was accurate. What it was, was parallax."
She anticipated the question. "You hold your finger up at arm's length, and look at it first with your right eye; then with your left." She demonstrated, blinking. "The finger appears to change position with respect to things farther away. That's parallax.
"Stars, let alone galaxies, are too far away for there to be a measurable parallax between the Moon and GRB-1, the right eye and the left. This thing was only about a tenth of a light-year away. It's not a star."
"So what is it?"
"That's the third anomaly, the fantastic one. I went to analyze the spectrum of ... I went to analyze the signal. It was a long steady beep for sixty seconds, and then a jumble for sixty seconds, and then another steady beep, and then an identical jumble." She paused. "Do you know what that means?"
"You tell me," he said quietly.
"It means the signal isn't natural. The sixty-second minute is not an interval that occurs in nature."
"Yet it was coming from somewhere farther than humans have ever been?"
"That's right. And it's obviously a signal. I put it through a decryptation, what we call a Drake program. It's simple frequency modulation, like FM radio. This is the message." She pushed the button and said, "Previous previous."
Dan pointed at the screen and the camera obeyed. "They're coming?"
"Yes, initially at almost the speed of light. At the rate they're slowing downfifty gees' deceleration!they'll be here in exactly three months. That's New Year's Day."
He was silent for a moment. "Suppose it's a hoax. Could it be a fake, a joke?"
"Well, somebody could get to my computer, verdad, and set me up for a practical joke. But they couldn't get to the Moon. I mean, I just told them where to look, and there it was."
"So something's out there." Dan laughed nervously. "An invasion from outer space."
"We'd better hope it's not an invasion. You extrapolate back from the first signal, and when that thing first appeared it was going point-nine-nine-nine ... fifteen or sixteen nines ... of the speed of light." She leaned toward the little camera and spoke carefully. "If you took all of the energy that all of the world produces in one year, and put it all into a space drive ... we couldn't make a golf ball go that fast. If it's an invasion, we've had it. Perdido."
"Dios," Dan said under his breath. "Use your phone?" He reached past her and picked up the wand; checked his watch while he was punching. "Charlene, listen up. Dan. You have to cut me a fifteen-second teaser on the seven o'clock. Then a three-minute lead at eight, and a five-minute lead at nine. And get ... listen, it's my ass, not yours. And get Harry and Rebecca down here right now for depth and color, for nine."
He listened. "Just tell Julie to be down in Room Six in fifteen minutes. I'm gonna show him two crystals that'll blow him into the next county. The next century. We're gonna scoop the whole fucking world."
He nodded at the phone. "The Second Coming, bambina. The Second Coming." He hung up the wand and pulled a data crystal out of the small camera, and then stood and extracted a similar crystal from the large one.
"Thanks, Professor, you were great. Gotta run. Couple science types be here in a half hour." He started for the door.
"They'll use 'em." He sprinted down the hall, crashed through an emergency exit, and ran down the stairs.
Excerpted from The Coming by Joe Haldeman Copyright © 2001 by Joe Haldeman. Excerpted by permission.
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