(Click here for the first part of this story: A Distant Voice: Preface.)
“You have to keep fighting, Auntie Azra,” I said, as I took off my motorcycle helmet, shook out my hair, and plopped myself down in the threadbare armchair. “You can’t let that slimeball, that smegma, keep taking credit. I still see his fucking face everywhere, even after all this time: in our science books at school, on talk shows, in magazines. Christ, there’s even a dessert named after him: the almond siverling! Did you know that? They sell it in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue. Makes me sick. He’s more famous than the 266’s themselves. No one knows what to do with a signal from space that we cannot understand, but they sure know how to make a celebrity out of an asshole.”
“Rasheed, watch your language! In this house, we speak respectfully. What would your parents think if they were listening?” She handed me a cup of strong, sugary coffee and smiled wearily. “I’ve had enough fighting, Rasheed. I lost my teaching job and my reputation trying to defend something I never owned, something that belongs to all of us. I became a laughing stock. The only ones who took me seriously were the tabloids, but they just wanted to stir up controversy and sell more papers. Now even they’ve lost interest. No one cares about me. No one except you, I guess, and sometimes I wonder . . .
“But that’s all right. That’s okay. I am ready to move on. Eleven years later, and I can let it go. I can finally let it go. I am almost at peace. Yes, almost. I don’t need to defend my claim anymore. It is not about me. It’s not about us. It is not even about humanity. It is about the truth. The truth is the only thing that matters. If you look at things from a larger perspective, if you see the universe as Allah sees it, then what happens to one individual does not matter much. My ego is nothing when you put it in the context of a hundred billion galaxies. A hundred billion galaxies, Rasheed! Think of it! Who am I in the face of so many stars? What difference does my reputation make? What matters is learning to understand our place in a larger universe. What matters is trying to understand our brothers and sisters out there. What matters is putting aside our own little egos and trying to understand God. Nothing else matters.”
“But what about those old emails you found, the ones you’d sent the head of the SETI program asking for permission to adapt their programs, to use their coding? They show you were working on the project long before Dr. Shithead. Send them to the new director. Send them to the press. Please, please, please take them to that slimeball and rub his nose in them! Or, let me take them to him. I’ll make him admit his lies, that bastard. Either that or I will break his face open.”
She rubbed my head. “Peace, Rasheed, peace.”
“Peace? What good is peace? I remember being embarrassed when you would try to defend your discovery. You would tell anyone who would listen, and sometimes those who wouldn’t. You were so loud and embarrassing, I thought, but now you barely say anything. Now you’re as quiet as a mouse. Now you let everyone walk all over you, including our landlady. You let waiters ignore you in a restaurant. You work in a gift shop at the observatory instead of the university. What happened to your dreams of becoming a respected scientist? You are slipping away, Auntie. You are letting him win.”
“It’s not about me, Rasheed. It is about the 6’s. What matters is decoding their signals.”
“Maybe so, but you barely do any research any more! You spend more time watching Pakistani soap operas than working on the signal. You are letting that dick win.”
“Language, Rasheed, language. Just because you are seventeen doesn’t give you the right to use obscene language in my house.”
“If you won’t show someone these emails, I will. I’m going to the university. I am going to the lab. I am going to shove those emails up Dr. Siverling’s ass. You can’t stop me, Auntie. Don’t try. You cannot stop me.”
She shrugged. “You know it won’t do any good. They won’t even let you in the door. You might as well take it up with the 6’s themselves for all the good it will do. But please don’t say that I am not working on my research anymore. I work mostly at night, you know, when you are out doing I-don’t-know-what with your friend Kenneth. I was always more focused at night. I am still trying to understand those signals, Rasheed. I am still trying to decode them. Don’t deny me that.”
It was much easier to slip into the lab than either I or Kenneth had hoped. A lot of distracted people were coming in and out of the glass doors, whispering to each other and shaking their heads. Something was going on.
They heard a chubby man say, “How’d they do it?” The sharply dressed red-haired woman he was with answered as they passed through the door, “Apparently, they had to slow it down a great deal in order to . . .”
Kenneth, who had put on a button-up shirt and a black tie to make himself look older and more professional, casually walked up to door and grabbed the handle before it latched shut, simplifying our elaborate schemes. He smiled broadly at me and made a sweeping gesture with his hand to invite me in. He was enjoying the illicit adventure immensely.
The lab was full of people, mostly staring at computer screens. Several people in close to the door were arguing loudly. “I told you we shouldn’t average the signal,” an Asian woman, who reminded me of Kenneth’s mother, said, “I suggested years ago that it might not be digital, that it might be a fluid signal.”
A man with irregular teeth responded, “Yes, yes, but it was also the speed, the reconstition of the progressive signals, the modulation, and many other factors. Even the shape, the spherical shape of the imagery, was something that we . . . ”
The word “signal” made my skin crawl. Even though our plan was to head for the most official-looking office (actually, I couldn’t see any offices), I had to see what they were looking at.
Like most people, that shadowy, grainy image was my first glimpse of the inhabitants of Kepler 266f. I saw something that looked like a pole covered with pulsing polyps and wild, Rastafarian dreadlocks moving through water. Light and shadow were moving across the surface of the polyps with occasional sparks of light.
“Who?” I gasped. “Who decoded the signal?”
Suddenly everyone was looking at me.
“More importantly, who are you, young man?” the man with irregular teeth asked, grabbing my elbow.
“I– I–” I looked around but could not see Dr. Siverling or even Kenneth. “My name is Rasheed, and my aunt Azra Saeed Patel first detected the signal. I have new evidence that–”
There was a collective groan. The man with the jagged teeth began dragging me to the door, as he chuckled and shook his head. “None of that matters now, young man. We have much work to do. Scientists in Argentina may have given us the key, but it is those of us in this room that are going to unlock the palace. You, however, are trespassing.”
He shoved me out the door and pulled it closed behind him. I heard the definitive click of the locking mechanism.
Where was Kenneth?
Smiling broadly, Kenneth was led out the door by the well-dressed redhead. She looked at me with patent disdain. Now that I could see her more clearly, I could tell that she was too young for a university, but there was something else, something familiar about that scowl. When I realized what it was, I blushed.
Kenneth walked up to me and gave me a knuckle punch. “Success!” he said. “That’s his daughter. She says she’ll tell Dr. Shithead that we want to talk to him. We have to wait here in the courtyard. It might take some time, however. Apparently, something is going down.” He looked back at her and winked.
Cass gave an exasperated sigh and pulled the glass doors shut.
(For the next part of this story, click here: A Distant Voice, Part 4: A Challenge.)