A Distant Voice, Part 4: A Challenge

(Click here for the first part of this story: A Distant Voice: Preface.)

Here at last I was facing my enemy, the man who had taken credit for my aunt’s discovery, a man I knew only from textbooks and TV. He was shorter than I thought, his hair now white and wispy. He didn’t seem malicious. He looked calm and concerned. He offered me a chair, and I refused.

All at once, I felt unsure of myself, a bit lost in front of this fatherly figure. I set my motorcycle helmet on the chair and unzipped my jacket, pulling the folded emails out of an inner pocket. I tossed them onto his desk, and they slid off, falling at his feet. He looked down at them, but made no move to pick them up.

His office was cramped and windowless–I’d expected a large, richly furnished office. Like my memory of his daughter’s bedroom, everything was organized, the papers on his desk, the books on his shelves, the pictures on his walls. I noticed a framed and yellowing copy of a New York Times article that said, “Berkeley Professor Finds Signs of Extraterrestrial Communication.” It reminded me of my purpose.

“Eat that, you bastard!” I said. “Proof that my aunt was adapting those SETI programs long before you were ever involved.”

He smiled sadly. “Of course she was, my boy, under my tutelage when she was a graduate student. You know, don’t you, that her talks with me sparked her interest in SETI? Yes, when we were done discussing weightier topics, we would sometimes turn to supposition about life on other planets. She was a ready pupil, I can tell you. Too ready, too enthusiastic. It worried me. My interest in SETI was a hobby at most, but one I have pursued since I was teenager. I certainly did not build my career around it, as your aunt expected to do. She was obsessed, but that level of passion is inimical to science. High emotions run in the family, I see.”

“You took credit for her discovery, you piece of shit. You are no better than a common thug.”

“A thug, huh?” That made him smile. He sat down and smoothed his hair. “I tried to steer her into more traditional channels. When she would not be redirected, I introduced her to the SETI team. They allowed her to examine the recorded radio and microwave signals from space. Because of my intervention, she was given access to the computer programs the scientists were using to detect extraterrestrial communication.”

He bent down and picked up the printouts of the emails, unfolding them and smoothing them out. He glanced over the first page, then turned it over and looked at the next. Again, he smiled. “Together we discussed the limitations of the SETI program: the focus on narrow band signals in particular frequency ranges of radio. Naturally, I suggested the necessary changes one would have to make to the programs to broaden the search to include other frequencies of radio, microwave, infrared, even visible light. I planted the idea in her head that alien signals might be scattered, perhaps progressive. I have several emails that show that it is so. She may have done some of the coding, it’s true, but she did so under my guidance, and I have given her credit for her small contribution. It is all well-documented, my boy.”

“Then why did you make her erase her files and reformat her computer when we came to visit you? You were destroying the evidence of her work and you know it. Admit it, you bastard! Admit it!”

“Your aunt was jeopardizing sensitive work that I had assigned her by using an unsecured computer without even the most basic firewalls.” He sighed. “But I grow weary of explaining this again and again. More importantly, no one cares any more, not even, I think, your aunt. Am I right? So shake your fist all you want. It won’t do one iota of good for you or your aunt. The world’s attention has shifted. Now scientists from Argentina have beaten us all and decoded the visual elements of the signal. For the first time, we have images of an alien world, and all you can think about is licking imaginary wounds, avenging an imaginary injustice.” He waved a weary hand in the air. “You and your aunt should turn your attention to studying these images, trying to understand the creatures we have seen, the world we have glimpsed.”

I moved in closer, feeling the heat in my face, my fists balled up at my sides. “I will never let this drop. I will never forget. One way or another I will make you pay for what you have done.”

He shrugged. “In any case, before you get any ideas about crawling across that desk and trying to strangle me, I should warn you that I invited campus security to this interview. You and your friend were quite belligerent, so I had to take precautions. They are waiting in the hall. I would hate to see you go to jail.”

“I would rather go to jail than let you . . .”

“By the way, how does your aunt like her job at the observatory? You wouldn’t want her to lose even that, would you? You know, I got her that job. Yes, I did, when she was fired as an adjunct faculty. I argued for clemency, you see. I have influence. It would be quite a shame, quite a shame, if she were to lose that job, especially now. I know she prizes the access to the equipment at the observatory, equipment that she cannot access anywhere else.”

“Are you threatening us?”

“No, my boy, you are threatening me. Why don’t you take a deep breath, step back, unclench your fists, and accept this gift from me.” He held out a USB drive. “These are all the records from the Argentine group, everything that they have shared with us. Now your aunt knows as much as we know.”

I spat at him, the saliva landing on some papers on his desk. He frowned but did not take back the drive.

“Think, my boy, before you turn down this gift. Such records will not be made public for several weeks. Your aunt will not have access to them until. Think about her. Think. What would she want? She would want this information.”

I spat at him again, then turned and left his office. As I was leaving the lab, I thought about my auntie. He was right. Painfully, I went back to his office. Again, that infuriating smile. He held out the drive, and I took it.

In a rush, I realized he had won again. This time I had given him the victory.


When I pushed my way out of the lab doors, Cass stood up from a bench in the courtyard and cut me off, blocking my way, her hands on her hips. “Stay away from my father. Leave my father alone. I don’t know what you want, but you stay away from him. You keep away from this lab. You have no business being here.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt embarrassed, unsure of myself.

“You can talk,” I whispered at last. “I wasn’t sure if you had learned how.”

She stepped back. “Of course I can– What? Why did you say that? Did you–?” She paused, looking me over carefully. “Who are you?”

“I have no fucking idea,” I said, pushing past her.

God, I wished Kenneth hadn’t left. I could have used his company. I put on my motorcycle helmet and closed the visor, walking across the empty parking lot like an astronaut.

Auntie Azra was furious that I had gone to see Dr. Siverling. She almost hit me at the back of the head as she used to do when I was smaller. When I told her about the images from Kepler 266f and offered her the USB drive, she took it as reluctantly as I had and stared at it as if were poisonous.

“Let me take those emails to the university,” I said. “Let me take them to the press. This time we can convince them. I know we can.”

She shook her head. “Let it go, Rasheed, let it go. The truth. All that matters is the truth.” Still staring at the USB drive, she pivoted on one foot and headed back to her thinking room, muttering, “The truth. The truth.”

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