The Long Sunset
Ah! Then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;
I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.
—William Wordsworth, “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm,” 1807
On the day that everything changed, it rained. Derek Blanchard’s car eased into the faculty parking lot while precipitation poured down across the University of Pennsylvania. A few students were hurrying through the storm. Otherwise, the campus looked empty. Derek pulled on his raincoat, tugged the hood into place, grabbed his briefcase, and got out of the car.
Ten minutes later he was seated at a table in the Gateman Conference Room with a half dozen doctoral candidates. He was an African American, tall, with a close resemblance to Hollywood star Alan Parkman, and a baritone voice that people took seriously. Guessing ages during an era when almost no one looked more than thirty was tricky, but most of his students had done the research, so they knew he’d been around a long time.
They were discussing theses. Each was targeted on aspects of stellar evolution. Derek outlined the requirements for a reasonable analysis, laid out the time limits, and went over other technical details. The candidates, three men and three women, submitted their topics. Derek supported some, recommended a completely different approach for two, and added a few general suggestions. It was hard to keep focused because of what was coming next.
When they’d finished, he closed his notebook. “There’s something else,” he said. “For anyone who’s free, we’ll have access to the Van Entel this morning from eleven fifteen to twelve thirty.” The Van Entel was the supertelescope, which was in solar orbit. “We’ll not only be able to look through it, but we’ll be controlling it. If you’d like to sit in, stop by the Data Collection Center. But come early. And I’m sorry about the last-minute notification, but none of us saw this coming.”
Derek was an astronomer, a physicist, a mathematician, and a WSA consultant. The latter gave him a few benefits, like the Van Entel, which he enjoyed passing on to his students. He was also a frequent guest speaker at scientific conferences. When he got in front of a microphone and looked out across an audience, he almost changed character. No one would ever have called him reserved, but he was not inclined to take over a conversation. On stage, however, he held his listeners’ attention, provoked laughter, and enjoyed himself immensely.
Of the students, Karen Blum had probably the most potential. She showed serious analytical capabilities, she was ambitious, and she had an IQ that topped 160. She followed him out of the room. “Professor Blanchard,” she said,
“may I ask what project you’ll be working on? With the Van Entel?”
“I don’t have a specific project, Karen,” he said. “You might think of me more as an eavesdropper. They’ll be looking out at the Kellerman Cluster today. At some stars nobody’s ever paid much attention to. They’re trying to get them cataloged.”
Karen literally hugged herself. “How far are they?”
“Seven thousand light-years. Give or take.”
“Beautiful. Is there anything special about them?”
“Not really. Actually, they’re not so much interested in the stars as they are in the telescope. It’s still in its testing phase.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“We’ll be using the Hynds as well.”
“Right. It’s in orbit too, and it’s also aimed at the area. We’d like to see what else we can learn about what’s going on out there.”
Her eyes brightened. “You planning on taking a trip to the area anytime soon?”
That was a reference to Derek’s background, which consisted of several interstellar missions. That was one of the reasons he retained his situation with the World Space Authority while simultaneously teaching at Penn. “Maybe next week,” he said.
“That’s a joke, right? They’re closing down the interstellar flights, aren’t they?”
“If we let them.”
“Do you think the Centauri Initiative will really pass?”
“I hope not.”
Karen’s amicable expression turned hostile. “Why do
those idiots worry so much about alien invasions? There probably aren’t any aliens who would be interested in bothering us. There are hardly any aliens at all.”
He managed a pained smile. “It’s an election year.”
• • •
The Data Collection Center was almost filled when he arrived twenty minutes early. Linda DuBreuil, the director, was standing guard by the group of seats reserved for the faculty. They were in front of the main screen. An additional eighty chairs were there to accommodate students and a few instructors not connected with the astronomy department. They were filling up as he walked in. The event had gotten coverage in the media, and he expected it to be picked up by the Science Channel.
Linda saw him and got out of her chair. “Hello, Derek. You ready to go?”
“Oh, yes.” He loved each new development in telescopes. Loved being part of the process, even when he was merely serving as a PR guy.
They sat down and she handed him a microphone and an ear pod. “You want to do the intro?”
“Sure,” he said. “If you like.”
Linda had a smile that could light up the entire room. “It’s your party, Derek.”
“Good enough.” He put the pod in his right ear so he could hear Ben, the AI, and turned the microphone on. “Ben, you there?”
“I’m here, Professor. We’re on schedule.”
Linda looked to their right, where a couple of people he didn’t know were getting seated with the science faculty. “We have some media,” she said.
• • •
The center filled and they had to bring in extra chairs, and finally just leave the doors open for any who wanted to stand in the rear. At five after eleven Derek got to his feet, turned to face the audience, and made some introductory comments about the Kellerman Cluster and the capabilities of the Van Entel. He was almost finished when Ben cut in. “Professor, we’ve received another alert from the Coordination Office.” The Coordination Office was located on the Union Space Station. “Control system will be transferred to us in one minute.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re apparently ready to go.” Derek lowered his voice. “Okay, Ben. Activate the display.” The screen lit up, as did a couple of smaller displays around the room. Derek looked out over his audience. “We’ll be handling the operation from here. You’ll notice, incidentally, when we tell the control system what to do, there’ll be a delay before it responds. You know why that is, of course?”
Hands went up all over the room. Everybody knew the Van Entel was approximately five million kilometers away, so the radio signal would need about eighteen seconds to reach it. And consequently thirty-six seconds before there could be a response.
One of his students, Bobby Dexter, raised his hand. “Really? Only half a minute?”
“It’s pretty close right now, Bobby. Sometimes the process would take close to a half hour.”
The screen filled with stars, two the size of small coins, the others no more than distant glimmers in the night. “Ben,” Derek said, “you know the target system. Take us to it, please.”
“Transmission on its way. Hynds also activated.”
Derek did a mental countdown. He reached nineteen before the stars began to move. From right to left, across the screen. The two coins slipped off the side of the screen. People were shifting in their seats behind him. He’d gotten so excited, he’d lost track of the fact he was still on his feet, blocking everyone’s view. He didn’t want to sit down, so he moved to the side of the room where he was out of the way.
Derek loved this part of his profession, inflaming the passions of students. There might be another Polcrest or Sagan in the room. Somebody who’d lead the charge against the politicians who were trying to wreck everything humans had accomplished in space over the past three centuries. We’ve been down this road before, damn it. Went to the moon and forgot how to do it. And here we go again with people, including scientists, claiming that interstellar travel is too dangerous. That it should be stopped. We don’t know what’s out there. And it has gone to the heart of the current presidential campaign. We’ve looked around the local area. But stop it there. Do not go west of Centauri. It had become a maxim for the Progressives.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been present for a demonstration of the capabilities of a supertelescope, but having his hand on the wheel added a dimension he hadn’t experienced in the past. He watched the stars drift by, saw a configuration that might have been a wrench, and knew where they were. More or less. The wrench reached the side and was gone, and he was lost again. But no surprises there.
“Professor Blanchard,” said the AI, “Union advises we slow down so they can get the two telescopes in sync.”
“Do it, Ben. And let’s also increase magnification.”
The sky was still moving sidewise when a vast cloud of stars began to edge in on the right side. Students gasped. Somebody asked whether anyone living out there would ever see night. Derek was ecstatic.
A young man seated a few rows back jumped out of his seat and started jabbing his finger at the display. A planet had appeared in the foreground.
It was, Derek thought, a rogue world. But it was hard to be certain, and before he could get a good look, it had gone off the edge of the screen. The infamous thirty-six-second delay. Still more stars were going off the side. Damn. Well, forget the planet. They had bigger things to think about.
He wanted the cluster in the center of the display, but it was already almost halfway across the screen before he stopped gaping and gave the order to stop the rotation.
It continued to drift while he waited. Finally it stopped and they had a near-perfect perspective. It was spectacular. As breathtaking as anything he’d ever seen. He would have liked to inform everyone what they were looking at. But he didn’t know anything more about the specifics of the cluster than his students. That was an issue with the giant telescopes: He could spend a substantial amount of time tracing star patterns, constellations, whatever, but when the telescope zeroed in, the patterns tended to disappear. He was simply, like everyone else, staring at a sky full of stars. And if he did recognize a group of stars, it became rapidly irrelevant because there was just too much to look at. Pity. It would have been nice to be able to show off a bit.
Ben’s voice again: “Derek, we are getting a signal from the Hynds.”
“They’ve picked up something?”
“Yes. It appears to be a telecast. From the edge of the cluster.”
“That is correct. Do you wish it placed on the display?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Derek had no idea what he expected. It would have to be a directional signal to make it this far. No standard telecast could come close to covering thousands of light-years. So it was probably what? A distress call? A mission report?
Ben reduced the telescopic image to about a quarter of its size and moved it into a corner. Then he replaced it with a waterfall. “This,” he said, “is the telecast.”
The audience froze and then broke into applause. Several wanted to know whether the system had gone off track somewhere. Linda reached over and grasped Derek’s arm. “At least it’s not Niagara.”
It wasn’t an expansive waterfall, but it appeared to be extremely high, with water plummeting from a ridge deep into a canyon. He was just beginning to breathe normally again when he became aware of background music. It was a soft and gentle rhythm, in perfect harmony with the falling water.
The applause faded and the room went silent, save for the music. Then suddenly everybody was talking. “What is that?”
“Professor Blanchard, what’s going on?”
Linda was looking at him and just shaking her head.
“Ben,” he said, “is that the signal that’s coming in?” He adjusted the microphone so everyone could hear the answer. “Or have we picked up something local?”
“It was forwarded by the Hynds unit. I have no way to determine its validity beyond that.”
“It must be a transmission problem,” said Karl Michaels, the science department chairman.
He had to be right. The system had gotten screwed up. “Ben,” said Derek, as the noise level began to rise again, “connect me with the Coordination unit.”
People in the audience were getting out of their chairs. “That can’t be real.”
“Where’s it coming from?”
A woman behind him seized his shoulder. “Professor Blanchard, are we really seeing that?”
Michaels was on his feet, staring at the waterfall. “Derek, any chance this is really happening?”
“Anything’s possible, Karl.”
A male voice came in over the circuit. “This is Coordination. You guys have a problem?”
“Have you seen what’s coming in through the Hynds?”
“I haven’t—” He broke off. “My God, that can’t be right. Hold on.” He broke away and Derek heard him talking in the background.
The music played on. Derek’s feet pressed against the floor in a subconscious effort to stop it.
A woman’s voice broke in. “Give us a minute. We’re checking on it now.” Then she was talking to someone else: “You have any idea where they are?”
Derek couldn’t make out the response.
“Professor Blanchard. I can’t explain this. We’re not showing any technical issues.”
“Okay. Could you check it out? If you find anything, get back to me?”
“Of course. The techs are looking at it now.”
He signed off. “Ben, can you lock in on the star that’s closest to the source of this?” Water was still spilling serenely over the edge while the music continued. “Get me a catalog number.”
“For the star?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Working on it.”
Derek covered the microphone and tried to laugh everything off with his audience. “One of the reasons astronomy is such a pleasure,” he said. “You just never know.”
Then Ben was back. “It’s KL37741.”
“What can you tell me about it?”
“It’s a class G yellow dwarf. Range is approximately 7,300 light-years.”
“I can give you spectroscopic details if you want. But nothing about them stands out.”
“Can we get some additional magnification, Ben?”
“Negative. We are at maximum now.”
“Does it have a planet within the Goldilocks Zone?” In the area that would allow liquid water to exist.
He needed several minutes to respond to that. Finally, he was back. “It’s too far to determine.”
Linda was staring at the display. She looked gloriously happy. “Aliens?” she asked. “Derek, did we just discover aliens? Who play music?”
“I don’t know.”
The reporters were waving, trying to get their attention.
“We don’t need a planet,” said Linda. “Somebody’s out
there. That’s all that matters. But we need a name for the star. This is going to be fairly big news, and we can’t just run around, referring to it by a bunch of digits.”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
“I don’t know, Derek. How about Clemmy?”
“That’s your cat’s name, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She giggled. “You don’t like it?”
He was groping for a quick answer. Something that sounded respectable. Derek’s cousin had just given birth to her first child. And the kid’s name, he decided, would be perfect. “Calliope, maybe?”
“Okay. That’s not bad.”
It even gave him a chance to show off a little. “It’s Greek origin. It means ‘beautiful voice.’?”
Then, as he was about to speak to the reporters, the waterfall faded and the music went silent.
It didn’t come back. “Don’t know what happened, Derek,” the woman at the control unit told him. “If it was actually coming in from the target area, we should have been able to stay locked on to it. Best guess is that the source shut it down.”
“Do we have any vehicles out in that general direction? Anybody who might have sent the signal?”
“We’re checking on it. But there aren’t any I know of.”
“We recorded that thing, right?”
“Oh yes. We have the entire transmission.”
As a precaution, Derek directed the AI to run the waterfall against every known cataract on Earth. There was no match.
He reran the transmission several times. There was vegetation around the edges. Ben could find nothing of a terrestrial origin to match it. A substantial number of the attendees stayed while they searched, and all were excited
by the results. They were, in fact, delighted.
And finally, it was time for lunch. Ordinarily, Derek would have picked up a snack at one of the vending machines on the first floor and returned to his office. He didn’t socialize much. But this time, he didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts. “Have you eaten yet, Linda?” he asked.
They went across the campus to the college cafeteria. Rain was still falling, but it wasn’t much more than a drizzle now. They got in line, collected some food and Diet Cokes, and sat down at a table where everyone nearby seemed to be caught up in animated conversations. About Calliope. The aliens like the same kind of music we do. It was a good sign. Derek loved seeing students get excited about science. Even if this was a bit wild. And, of course, the fact that they’d been present at what everyone recognized as a historic occasion didn’t hurt. He signaled that he needed catsup for his meatloaf, and Linda passed the bottle over. Then she leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I guess it wasn’t such a good idea to bring everybody in.”
Linda didn’t talk much. She was sedate, with animated eyes and a manner that left no doubt who was in charge. People always knew when she was in the room. She treated her subordinates well, enjoyed giving them credit when they’d performed appropriately, and showed no reluctance about taking responsibility herself when they hadn’t. She gave Derek credit with the bosses whenever she could, she always kept her word, she never hesitated to invite his opinion, and she was willing to change her mind when the evidence went in another direction. On this occasion, she looked amused.
“What makes you say that?” he said.
The amusement gave way to laughter. “Missed opportunities. If it had just been you and me in there, maybe we could have claimed the discovery for ourselves. We’d have been famous. Now we get to share it with a couple hundred people. Next time, when you’re planning to make a discovery that will go global, let me know in advance. Okay?” She raised a glass of water to him.
Monday, February 11, 2256
MALAYSIAN FERRY RUNS AGROUND
Coast Guard Gets Everyone Off Safely
METEOR KILLS SIX IN VOLGOGRAD
They Knew It Was Coming; Evacuation Failed
POPE VISITS SYRIA
Vatican Hopes to Calm Emotions Following Assassination of Al Kassam
Hunt Continues for Killers
MARKETS UP AROUND THE WORLD
Rousing Start Continues Through Fifth Month
EXTINCTION LEVELS DOWN
Only Three Species Lost in Past Year
The Bad News: Mongoose Among Them
JAMIE COLBAN DEAD AT 162
Passed Three Days After Joining Westboro Hall of Fame
Four of His Albums Among All-Time Top Sellers
MARIE BANNER RECEIVES PRESIDENTIAL CITATION
Medal for Service to Humanity Presented During White House Ceremony
Led Food and Water Operations into Baghdad at Height of Crisis
CORAGIO, WITH 14 ALL-FEMALE CREW, WINS ROUND-THE-WORLD SAILING RACE
Peggy Freeman, Skipper, Makes UK in 42 days, 11 Hours, 7 Minutes
Receives Jules Verne Award
EARLY BLIZZARDS BURY MAINE, QUEBEC, ONTARIO
Schools, Roads Closed
Authorities Urge Everyone to Stay Home
Call 777 for Delivery of Emergency Rations
SOUTH GEORGIA LEAGUE TO END FOOTBALL
Last High Schools Abandon the Sport
VAN ENTEL SUPERTELESCOPE MAY HAVE SIGHTED HIGH-TECH ALIENS
Travel TV Show from World in Distant Star Cluster