From the author: When Dustin was a boy, he collected pictures of astral objects like children who used to collect Pokemon cards. Now that he's an adult, he's drawn back to his childhood obsession, looking for civilizations among the other worlds. His work would go so much easier if he wasn't being pestered by an eager science fiction writer.
“That woman is asking about you again, Dustin,” said Lucienne, the grad assistant. She’d braided her hair into a blonde rope that hung down her back. Like all his grad assistants, she didn’t look old enough to drive.
Dustin ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. The morning sun slanted through the lab, and he realized he’d forgotten to sleep.
He sighed. “Her name is Bradley,” a relentless woman, oddly incapable of boredom. “Is that my coffee?”
“Funny name for a girl.” Lucienne handed him the warm cup. “When you buy tomorrow, I’ve switched to chai tea.” He savored a long sip, a dark, strong, bitter-sweet tang. She had forgotten he didn’t like sugar in it, again.
Lucienne stopped at the door. “She’s at it early. Quit letting her in. Maybe she’ll go away. When you act like you’re willing to communicate, people will try to communicate with you.”
“An astrophysicist does science. A writer writes. If she wants to watch me hunched over a computer for hours at a time in literature’s name, who am I to deny her?”
A moment later, Bradley pulled a stool next to Dustin’s desk. “Coffee?” she took the cup before Dustin could reply. “You shouldn’t add sugar. Dilutes the caffeine.”
She wore a grey sweatshirt with a faded University of Colorado logo across the front. Threads dangled from the well-worn sleeves as she pulled a spiral notepad and pen from her back pack. Her dark-framed glasses had slid down her narrow nose, giving her a librarian-like appearance. Short brunette hair. Slender wrists. Neatly trimmed finger nails.
Dustin frowned as she flipped the pad to a new page. “I thought Twenty-first Century science fiction authors embraced technology.”
She cricket chirped her pen open and closed several times. “You’d balk at quill and ink. I upgraded just for you. I’m not that modern anyways. Black and white movies, for me. Did you ever see The Maltese Falcon? Great plot. Too bad it didn’t have a space ship or mad scientist in it. Can I copy your image files?” She held up a portable hard drive. “It would help me with the story.”
Bradley nodded. She plugged the drive in, scrunched next to him, typed on his keyboard, then moved away as the drive hummed to life.
“What are you looking for today?” Dustin asked as he opened files on the computer, checking for anomalies. The program would tell him if it found a new object, but no program was perfect, and he had learned he needed to tweak the parameters constantly. He’d spent the night realigning the search grid, since the computer seemed to think he’d be interested in pictures taken from miles above the planet instead of at the surface, and something was buggy in the Peek-a-boo closet. Half the spheres weren’t activating when the computer thought they were, so entire sectors weren’t being surveyed. It took an hour to realize some Peek-a-boo batteries weren’t recharging, even though the sensors said they had.
“Verisimilitude,” Bradley said. “This story will win a Hugo, but it has to make my details believable to do it.”
“Yesterday you said the characters had to have ‘convincing inner lives’ for the story to win a . . . what did you call it? A Hilda?”
“Hugo.” She tapped her pen against the page in irritation. “I’ve analyzed winners from the last seventy years. If I factor out author popularity, and just focus on story elements, winners have identifiable characteristics. My story will have them.”
“Seems cynical to me, like painting by the numbers. Aren’t you supposed to write from passion?”
Bradley scribbled a note. “I do write from passion, but there’s also craft. Studying Hugo winners is a good way to improve craft.”
Dustin thought about how appealing sleep sounded. If he could dump Bradley in a hurry, maybe he could bag some sleep before his afternoon classes.
“Astrophysicists lead tedious lives. You’d have a better chance at a Horace Award if you shadowed a field biologist. There, at least, you might see a new species, and you’d be outdoors.”
“It’s a Hugo.” Bradley smiled, revealing laugh lines near her eyes. Dustin had thought her an undergraduate when she introduced herself a week ago, but now he decided she was closer to his thirty years. She said, “You’re searching for an extraterrestrial civilization. A previously unnamed animal can’t compare to that.”
“Maybe, but among astrophysicists, I’m particularly uninteresting, and discredited to boot. No one takes my research seriously. No one believes in me. He nodded at the newspaper clippings on the wall. “There’s my glimpse of glory”: KID GENIUS DISCOVERS E.T. and CHILDREN’S TOY MAKES FIRST CONTACT. “I got lucky once, and nobody followed up. A couple headlines, a nice cash prize from the Peek-a-boo company, and then almost nothing. A small university grant gives me this space, and I think they do that because I’ll teach multiple Intro to Astronomy sections nobody else wants. No push to improve the technology. When kids decided trading celestial object pictures didn’t fascinate anymore, The Peek-a-boo company busted, and all was forgotten.”
Dustin clicked through the computers stats screens, skimming the figures: the total Peek-a-boo transferences in the last twenty-four hours, how many planet pictures (very few—he couldn’t control the Peek-a-boo’s camera orientation when it appeared), how many pictures with evidence of intelligent life (zero for the last three months—the last intelligence-positive picture he’d taken was a building’s corner, or it could have been a close up of a box’s edge: he couldn’t tell), and how many units had quit operating and would never be replaced. He thought about the problem in Earth terms. If your camera appear anywhere from the Earth’s surface to a mile above it, and it faced any direction when it winked into existence, how often would it take a recognizable picture that proved intelligent life? How often would it capture a person? Even on an over-populated Earth, water covered three quarters, and much of the rest was empty. The chances were that one unhelpful picture after another would pile up in your folders.
“You just think it’s all forgotten,” said Bradley. “Have you tried talking to old Peek-a-boo engineers?”
Dustin shook his head.
“Well, you can’t. I tried to find them. They dropped from sight. I think the government is pursuing the same research you’re doing, but they’ve classified it. They’re exploring your planet just like you are, but from a secret facility.”
Dustin raised his eyebrows. “In Area 51, I assume.”
“Someone’s following me, and my phone makes funny clicks during calls.”
He couldn’t tell if she was joking. “Here’s the deal. Even if I presented perfect pictures with no other evidence, no one in the scientific community will believe me. You aren’t going to win a Hector award based on crackpot science. I hear Dr. Wergenfeld made real headway in quantum physics last year, and his building’s a couple hundred yards from here. You could be waist deep in Planck’s constant, bra-ket notation, and quantum harmonic oscillators before lunch.”
“Not for me.” She wrote in her notebook.
“What was that?”
Bradley covered her writing. “Just a bit about characterization. You scientist types can be pretty touchy. Did you know you have a tone issues whenever you talk about quantum physics?”
“I do not.” Last year, though, Wergenfeld submitted a memo to the budget committee suggesting the Peek-a-boo lab could be better used as a storage area for the physics department. Wergenfeld argued, “Filling the space with old graded exams and broken desks would be better than the kiddy play land it is now.”
“Just an observation. What if in my story the scientist had a knock-out girlfriend? Do scientists have knock-out girlfriends?”
“Well, sure. Some.” Not that I would know, Dustin thought. He’d last had a girlfriend during college, and he decided she’d been interested because she’d learned about his trust fund. She didn’t believe in his research either. The Peek-a-boo story from his high school days generated money by the bucket for a few months, and an engorged college account, but public interest moved on, and at the year’s end, the Peek-a-boo fad faded with teenage boys. The company folded. Dustin bought four thousand Peek-a-boos from their warehouse before it closed and put cases of the softball-sized units in a storage garage. Having money had advantages. “Would a girlfriend make the story better?”
“All stories are better with girls in them,” she said primly. “How about woman scientists. Do they have killer boyfriends?”
“Scientists are people too. Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Polygamy. Polyandry. Rishathra. Celebates. We have them all, sometimes at the same time.”
“You’re being sarcastic. I’m surprised you know ‘rishathra.’ Larry Niven invented it. He’s a Hugo winner.”
“Someone who has sex outside the species but with intelligent, people-like entities? That’s a science fiction word?”
“’Intelligent, people-like entities’ are aliens. Aliens are science fiction.”
Dustin brought up a prized picture to the screen: a canted, fuzzy image of what looked like a city street with an odd vehicle that might have been a tram if H.R. Giger designed trams: all bones and metal, melded together, but with windows and steps up to what looked like a door. “I take aliens’ pictures. It’s not science fiction if it’s real.”
Bradley leaned in front of Dustin, to look at the screen. Her hair fell across her face, and Dustin smelled a pleasant, fresh-cut hay odor. He wondered if it were her laundry detergent or a perfume.
“How can anyone ignore you? This is a freaking, alien world. You’ve been sending Peek-a-boos to a planet other than our own and proving alien existence for fifteen years.” She waved her hand at an old news story displayed in the picture frame on the wall. It showed a much younger Dustin standing next to his computer, holding the blue Peek-a-boo unit, looking embarrassed. LOCAL BOY WINS TOY COMPANY CONTEST said the headline.
Dustin shut his eyes. Maybe he should have gone to bed before she showed up. She always asked the questions that bugged him most. If he could answer them for himself, maybe he wouldn’t feel so distracted and useless all the time. “I don’t know, Bradley. The world’s not fair? Science doesn’t like being bumped around? Too many people think the Peek-a-boos don’t actually go anywhere?”
She wrote down his quote. “Story’s need conflict. What’s better than opposing the entire scientific community? I can see how the story will go now. The brave scientist working on his own—supported by his significant girlfriend, boyfriend, communal soul mate, or intelligent non-human hominid--fights to prove an alien race exists. This story will win a Hugo for sure.”
As Dustin waited for a coffee and bagel at the student union, he noticed a student with a buzz cut and beige backpack. The young man leaned against a metal light pole covered with concert announcements. He appeared to be reading a paperback. What struck Dustin, though, was when he’d left the science building he’d seen the same guy leaning against a tree, also reading a paperback.
The barista handed Dustin his coffee, and after he’d paid the bill, he sat at a metal table on the sidewalk, but the young man had gone.
Dustin opened his notebook to outline the changes he’d decided to make to the Peek-a-boo search parameters. Instead of scattering the little cameras indiscriminately at the target area, he’d group them in twenties to the same coordinates. The cameras would still snap pictures in random directions during their 1,000th of a second that they existed 380 million light years from Earth, but he could muscle the software to take the separate images and combine them into a complete panorama. He had nightmares that a Peek-a-boo unit appeared in the perfect position to take the first picture ever of whatever creature built the buildings and tram he’d captured in previous pictures, but the camera pointed the wrong way, at the ground or into the sky. How many significant images did he miss because the cameras weren’t facing the right direction?
He turned to previous entries in the notebook. This would be the twenty-third new approach he’d tried this year. None produced a better result than the picture he’d taken at fifteen and sending out his single Peek-a-boo from his bedroom, or the creepy tram pictured he’d taken a year ago, when he’d sent several thousand Peek-a-boos a day.
Non-returning units concerned him. The interestingly bent space the Peek-a-boos traveled, and his fine tuning of where they appeared, meant that instead of sending the units to a circle several million miles wide, with the planet in the middle, he was able to get most near the surface, but the math necessary for that precision ran to hundreds of digits. A miss in one direction meant the Peek-a-boo appeared too far up to capture an interesting image, while a mistake in the other direction materialized the plastic ball inside the planet, destroying the Peek-a-boo. He’d hear the failure in the lab because although the Peek-a-boos started from the insulated room, the sudden appearance of a soft-ball sized vacuum when the unit didn’t reappear produced a resounding clap, like a large firecracker. He flinched whenever the sound reached him. One more unit would never come back, and he had no way to replace it. The Peek-a-boo company had died, but they held onto their patents and wouldn’t release the construction secrets so he could replace the lost ones.
That evening on his computer in his apartment, Dustin searched for Larry Niven stories, but just found a pirated piece called “Inconstant Moon,” a Hugo winner without rishathra.
Lucienne met him at the door to the lab. “Those new janitors made a mess. We should just tell them to stay out. They moved my papers all around, and it’s going to take me hours to straighten up the chaos. I’m supposed to present my thesis proposal this afternoon.”
“What new janitors?”
“A man and a woman. Never seen them before. I got here early so I could double check my presentation, and they passed me on their way out.” She glowered at him. “Where’s my chai tea?”
Even from the door, Dustin could tell his station had been rearranged. A file cabinet drawer was open that he kept closed, and his monitors were on, even though he always turned them off before the left.
Bradley said from behind them, “I’ll bet they weren’t janitors.”
Dustin jumped. Bradley held a cardboard carrying tray from the student union with three drinks on it. “You like chai, right?” she said to Lucienne.
“Do you think they were from Cal Tech?” said Lucienne. “Schmidt and his gang are doing work like mine. I’ll bet they wanted to see if I’d beat them to the equations.” She hurried back to her table. “It won’t do them any good. I keep the crucial stuff on me.” She patted her portfolio case.
“Wise woman,” said Bradley.
Dustin closed the file cabinet. The workspace seemed undisturbed. “They were just employees. Last year, a new janitor cleaned Dr. Haslam’s white boards, erasing a semester’s progress she’d made on a problem.”
Bradley laughed, a pleasant contralto ripple. “What’d they do to the janitor?”
“Nothing, but Haslam mutters whenever she sees anyone on campus with a mop or broom.”
“I’m thinking about titles,” said Bradley when she took her seat next to Dustin’s desk. “A good title might be the tipping point to winning a Hugo. If the title is memorable, voters are more likely to mark it on their ballot. ‘Think Like a Dinosaur’ rocked as a title. So did ‘Bears Discover Fire.’”
“You haven’t even written the story. You’re just researching. How can you come up with a title if you don’t know the story yet?”
Bradley tapped her chin, thoughtfully. Her light chain bracelet slid toward her elbow. “Harlan Ellison did kick-butt titles too. You almost have to give ‘The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World’ a Hugo because it sounds so good.” She looked at the notes he’d opened beside his keyboard. “If you send Peek-a-boos to the same spot, and they’re inside the planet, don’t you risk losing the bunch at once?”
“Lose them in bunches or lose them one at a time, I’m going to lose them. If I get a convincing picture, it will be worth it. So, where is your story going?”
“I’m working on a subplot. While my main character figures out a way to use his little Peek-a-boo cameras to communicate with the aliens, and thereby prove they exist, he also falls in love with his spunky assistant. He’s probably working out issues with his parents too. Hugo winners often are multi-layered. There’s this great story called ‘Light of Other Days’ that looks like it’s about the science, but it’s really about a man’s relationship with his wife. Hugo voters eat that stuff up.”
“Did ‘Light of Other Days’ win?”
Bradley frowned. “No. Too bad. It was a finalist. It could have won—in another year it might have won--but Harlan Ellison had a piece on the ballot, and he owned the award.”
She kept talking while Dustin thought about what she’d said about using the Peek-a-boos to communicate. They appeared in the connected space, 380 million light years away for a thousandth of a second, so they couldn’t send a radio signal, or bring back a message other than the photographs they took, but there was the problem of displaced matter. On this end, the space the units occupied didn’t immediately collapse. The physics that transported them lingered for an instant in the hole they used to occupy until the unit returned. But the units appearing in solid matter on the other end and not returning to the transmission end caused small explosions that shook the lab. What happened on the other end when the Peek-a-boo appeared in air? It didn’t have the energy to push aside rock or dirt, but it did seem to push aside air. Every time the Peek-a-boo flashed into atmosphere, it would announce its arrival with a bang. Could he use the sounds the units produced to send a message? Were the aliens already wondering about the unexplained, small explosions on their planet? He’d been sending Peek-a-boos into their atmosphere for years. The vast majority would be unheard, though. Too high. Too far away. Lightning struck someplace on Earth almost nine million times a day, about one hundred times a second. No one heard most.
He started the process to change the search pattern. He could send units to the same place in a rhythm, like Morse code, or he could send them in a mathematical sequence, like the Fibonacci pattern. Something not random.
Triumphant, he turned from his computer to Bradley. “You’re brilliant!”
“What?” She looked confused. “About pizza?
“I said we could get a pizza for lunch, if you wanted. I have more questions.” She held up her notebook hopefully.
“No,” he said. “No time for lunch.” He could reprogram the system by mid-afternoon and be sending his message before his first class. After working for a while, he realized Bradley had left.
Hours later, Dustin stopped, his fingers poised about the keyboard. Was she asking me on a date?
Late that night, Dustin awoke, convinced he’d heard a noise. Water gurgled somewhere in the apartment building. A muffled sound of a door closing. The hum from his refrigerator.
He slipped from the bed, walked to the window, flinching at the cold, hardwood floor against his bare feet. The 3:00 a.m. city appeared dark and calm.
He’d been having a dream about Peek-a-boos banging into existence all around him. What if the aliens figured out where he lived? What if they could send their own units back to him? In the dream, the explosions drifted away, as if they had lost his track or were leading him. He followed their sound to a field where the grass had been cut and stacked into sheaves. Sunlight cast shadows across the clean-shorn grass and bundles standing in rows. A gnat cloud caught the light as they swirled before him, like tiny fairies, a sentient exploring cloud. He inhaled the country smells, safe, comfortable and homey odors that made him want to sit to suck them in, and now the explosions faded into the distance, each pop, pop, pop like a drum-beat lullaby, like a tapping telegraphed message, if only he could decipher their intent.
Dustin leaned against the cool glass. It had rained earlier, and water droplets clung to the window. Streetlights reflected off the shiny black street below. Parked across the street, a single car crouched like a long black panther, low to the ground and menacing. He watched it for a while, not thinking about it, but remembering the dream instead. Dreams with smells were unusual for him, and he wished he could redream the field again.
A light flickered in the parked car’s drivers side, revealing a hand, a cigarette, and a bit of a face. Someone else sat on the passenger side.
Dustin moved back from the window, deeper into the room’s shadows. For fifteen minutes, he studied the car and the now opaque windshield, but neither the driver or passenger got out. He couldn’t escape the impression that while he looked down at them, they were looking up at him.
Dustin said, “I can’t control precisely where the Peek-a-boos appear when I change the destination coordinates. The uncertainty principles create minor inaccuracies, and over the 380 million light years jump, an inaccuracy can put the unit miles from where it appeared last, but if I don’t change the numbers at all, and just send the unit out again, it will appear in the exact same spot, and that’s what we need to use the Peek-a-boos for communication. If we can find a location where the aliens can hear the Peek-a-boos percussing into existence, I can keep hitting the spot.”
Bradley had appropriated a more comfortable chair from a classroom to use in Dustin’s lab, and she’d also set up a small table for her notes, a coffee thermos and a vase with a daisy in it that looked suspiciously like the daisies growing by the building. She’d spent most the morning, scribbling into her notebook while Dustin worked at the computer. He found it funny that she sometimes would write in response to something he did. When he asked Lucienne if she could pick up some papers he’d sent to the printer (which she told him he could do himself), Bradley wrote it down. When he spent a half hour responding to students’ e-mails, she wrote that down. But twice she burst into furious writing activity from nowhere. He found her studied concentration distracting, how she focused on the page, how her pen raced from line to line—she had lovely handwriting—how she put the end of the pen in her mouth in thought, and then sprinted to the next words. He found himself glancing up every time she moved.
“How about you send the Peek-a-boos to the coordinates of where you took the tram picture. Even if you miss by a mile, they ought to attract attention, or is that too easy? Science fiction characters often solve problems with solutions that leave real scientists rolling their eyes.” She’d brought a bag with bagels in it. She offered one to Dustin. This morning she’d switched from her ragged sweat shirt to a nice button up with an “Aperture Laboratories” logo on the pocket.
Dustin leaned back in his chair, laughed, and found himself reappraising her. “We’re thinking in parallel. I decided to do just that this morning. I’ve been working on it.” He pressed a key which started the routine he’d programmed. Inside the Peek-a-boo closet, twenty units whisked away, then instantly reappeared, having traversed the bent space the little devices created. Five seconds later, they did it again. Within an hour, they would make their repeated trips through the 380 million light years, beating out the first eight numbers in the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and 34.
He said, “Instead of sending the units out, hoping to catch decent pictures by accident, I can use them to attract attention. I haven’t been able to go to them, so I’ll get them to come to me.”
“Glad to help,” she said. “It was just a plotting problem. But, dang! I didn’t think it would work. I’ll have to come up with a different scene in the story. The truth should never be an excuse for fiction. I’m not writing documentary here. By the way, I’ll need to name the planet. Alderaan is out, of course, and so are Tatooine, Arrakis, Trumania, Barsoom, and tons of others. Going by its Messier number doesn’t have sex appeal. Not a single Hugo winner has a Messier number as the setting. Don’t you have a name for where the pictures come from?”
Dustin felt his forehead wrinkling. “What planet are you from? Where do you get questions like this?” He checked the Peek-a-boo units’ status display. It appeared they were performing the way he’d programmed them, but he’d have to check to be sure. Since the battery fiasco, he didn’t trust all his data. “Besides, planets don’t have Messier numbers. Those are for non-comets, like globular clusters and nebulas.”
“Really?” She wrote into her notebook. “Here’s why I go to the source, to avoid embarrassing mistakes.”
“The planet doesn’t have a name. It’s a computer coordinate. What more do you need?”
“You’re thinking in the real world, and I’m thinking about a story. They don’t match up well. A computer coordinate isn’t sexy.” She glanced out the window, then jumped up to rap on the glass.
Dustin joined her. A middle-aged man in a gray jacket had his hand on her car, looked up at them, then sprinted away. Dustin remembered the student with the book he’d seen yesterday.
“I thought he was testing to see if my door was open when I first saw him,” she said. “I don’t think I’m being paranoid either. Weird things are going on.”
Dustin nodded, then said, “We’ll have to wait for the computer to assemble all twenty images into a coherent image to see if we’re even close to anything.” Outside, the campus looked normal. No mysterious onlookers leaning against trees, pretending to read books. “It’s about lunch time. Do you want to get that pizza you mentioned earlier?”
It was her turn to be baffled. “Sure,” she said slowly, “I thought you weren’t interested.”
“How could I not be interested in lunch?” As soon as he said it, he bit the inside of his cheek. Did she mean she didn’t think he was interested in pizza, or did she mean she didn’t think he was interested in her? And now that he had that thought, he wondered if he was interested in her. She annoyed him, was odd, and irritating, but in a good way. “I have a plan.”
When they left the building, Dustin turned left and headed down the sidewalk to the intersection. The sunlight and breeze were a welcome break from the lab, but he ignored that and concentrated on a casual pace, resisting the urge to look behind.
Bradley had turned right when she reached the sidewalk, so they were walking away from each other. At the corner, Dustin made a right-hand turn. Around him, students with back packs over their shoulders walked to and from their classes. At the next corner, he turned right again. From the other end of the block, Bradley walked toward him. He thought she had a jaunty step. Very self-confident for a librarianesque science fiction writer. She smirked a little and winked as they passed each other. Dustin scanned the people walking behind her. The middle-aged man who’d been at her car, carrying his jacket over one arm, blanched when he saw Dustin, made an abrupt turn and crossed the street.
“So, who are they?” asked Dustin, before starting his second pizza slice. He noticed Bradley folded her slices lengthwise before eating, like a triangular taco.
“Government guys, I figure, but it could be the Peek-a-boo company went underground instead of going broke.” She leaned into him and whispered, “I’ll bet you’ve been under surveillance since you made the first discovery.”
“Not likely. If they put a team on me, at first they watched nerdy, teenage activity. I played video games. After the teen years, it was nerdy twenties-guy activity. A hot weekend when I wasn’t working on my thesis I queued up old movies while eating caramel corn. Very boring.”
“Doubt that,” she said absently. “This could be an interesting subplot, you know, and it gives the story subtext. Connie Willis excels subplots and subtext in her Hugo winners. Like in “Even the Queen,” the surface story is about a mom and daughter’s relationship, but there’s a romantic subplot, and there’s this cool subtext about women’s issues.” She opened her notebook and wrote a few lines. “I need more subtext.”
“If the government or a rouge toy-company operative kidnaps you, winning a Harpo Award won’t matter.”
“It’s a Hugo Award, Dustin. This story will win a Hugo Award.”
“All I want is to prove humanity isn’t alone in the universe.”
Bradley laughed. Dustin realized he loved that she laughed at his jokes, even when they weren’t jokes. Proof was all he wanted.
She said, “Thanks for reminding me! In a story, the character has to want something—that’s a part of the conflict—but the character also has to need something. Wants are one thing and needs are another. A need is subconscious.” She added more to her notebook. “This is great. You’ve been so helpful.”
“You’re welcome, I guess. We should get back to the lab. The first images will be in.”
The computer displayed the photos in batches, each batch taken five seconds apart. Most showed empty sky, the ground fifteen feet below, or another Peek-a-boo. The light shone brightly, though, near mid-day. A few images looked like a road, and in the distance in two pictures, buildings in a row. Dustin’s heart raced as he directed the program to combine, focus and enhance. He checked his watch. The Peek-a-boos had been appearing in this coordinate for almost two hours, beating out the Fibonacci sequence. It anyone was in earshot (assuming the aliens could hear!), they would have noticed by now.
“Maybe I’d have a better chance for a Hugo with a time travel story,” mused Bradley. “’Legions in Time,’ ‘Scherzo With Tyrannasaur,’ ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog,’ ‘The Hemingway Hoax,’ all time travel stories. What if the Peek-a-boos are traveling not just in space, but also in time?”
“At light speed, the units are 380 million years from here. Peek-a-boos are time travel devices.”
Bradley continued, thoughtfully. “Lots of alien Hugos too. ‘Slow Life,’ ‘A Deepness in the Sky,’ ‘Ender’s Game.’”
Dustin leaned toward the monitor. The next thumb-nail sized photographs appeared. He drew his finger underneath, examining each in turn. The computer’s task was more difficult now. Instead of rendering individual pictures, it combined images where they overlapped to create larger, more detailed shots. “Oh, look at that.” He tapped an image, expanding it to fill the screen.
The angle matched one from a shot he’d seen earlier: a road stretched toward buildings in the distance, as if the Peek-a-boo had appeared at a village’s edge. The structures were mostly square, but windows and doors seemed outsized and not symmetrical. In the bright sun, they showed a range of colors: an off brown tending toward green, a pale orange, a pinkish purple. In between the buildings and the camera, though, a crowd gathered. Bipedal, slumpy and squat, as wide as they were tall. Dustin’s breath caught in his throat. Were they wearing clothes, or did the aliens come in different shades? They were too small in the picture to tell for sure. Triangular heads, pointy end on top. An eye in each bottom corner. All gazed up, peering at the Peek-a-boos.
“Wow,” said Bradley. “How am I going to write about this?” Her hand rested on Dustin’s arm as she leaned over his shoulder to see the monitor.
The blood rushed from his face. For a second he thought he might pass out. “First contact. Real, first contact.”
The next picture in the sequence showed almost the same angle. A few figures figures moved closer, but they all still stared at the cameras.
“You’ve been sending Peek-a-boos to this spot for a while, right?” said Bradley.
“Then they’ve known about you all that time. This is first contact for you, but they’ve known about you for as long as you’ve been hitting this spot. Is there any way they could trace the Peek-a-boos? Do they know where you are?”
Dustin laughed, weakly, waiting for the next image. He’d found them. People. Actual people who made funny colored buildings and odd trams and who were curious enough to come from their buildings to investigate the fuss. His fuss. His Fibonacci firecracker sequence.
Of course they wouldn’t know where he was. Or could they? How advanced were they? Was the technology that made the Peek-a-boos flip across the universe known to them? Just because it was new to humanity didn’t mean another intelligence hadn’t discovered it first. Maybe they didn’t know about radio or microwave ovens but knew everything about Peek-a-boo physics. Were the units traceable? He ran formulas through his head. Besides sound, what other signals might a unit that jumped 380 million years send? What instruments would be needed to detect the signal? What could be learned from it?
“How do we tell the world?” said Bradley.
In the back of the lab, a door slammed. Dustin turned. Lucianne tried to block a half dozen intruders. “This is a private facility,” she said. “You’re trespassing.”
But they pushed her aside. Dustin recognized the young man who had been leaning against a tree, reading a book. Now he wore an official badge on a lanyard. Several men wore military uniforms. An elderly woman who seemed familiar stepped to the front when they reached Dustin and Bradley.
“You found something, didn’t you?” she said. “I’m afraid it doesn’t belong to you.” She looked at him, not unkindly, gray hair framing her face. Dustin tried to place her. The entire scene felt déjà vu-ish. The last time a crowd had rushed into his room, he’d been fifteen, and they were there because his Peek-a-boo had taken an unusual picture of a park bench 380 million miles away. It had been first step in a long journey that brought him to this spot. He wondered if he knew the woman from that night. Had she been the Peek-a-boo company rep who’d confiscated his computer?
“We’ve proved there is life beside us,” said Dustin. “That belongs to everyone.”
“Proprietary technology,” said the young man. Dustin couldn’t make out what government branch his badge represented. “This is a national security issue now, and all the equipment and data here are classified for government use.”
Within ten minutes, after Bradley tried to punch a soldier, earning a wrenched shoulder for the effort as the men marched her from the building with her arm behind her back, Dustin and Bradley found themselves on the sidewalk. They tossed her bag beside her. Four identical black sedans were parked illegally in the handicap zone.
“They go it all,” said Dustin. “My data backups were in the lab. The files, the Peek-a-boo units, they have them.” He knew he should feel outrage and disappointment, but the image from the last picture remained clear in his mind. For a moment, loss and victory teetered, balanced. A squat aliens had stepped forward, its arm raised as if it waved at him through the light years. It felt like a seminal handshake, a meeting of long-separated minds.
Finally, the grief overwhelmed him. “It’s lost,” he said. “No one will ever know what we found. They’ll bury it for whatever reason they have, and I won’t be able to duplicate the work. No one will ever know.” Dustin’s legs lost their strength, and he sat on the sidewalk, the heat from the sun-drenched cement baking his legs. Bradley sat beside him. Cars drove past. Students walked around them on their way to class. Across the street, in the open quad, something popped loudly. Dustin looked into his hands, his empty hands, and tried to picture his life without the Peek-a-boos and their enigmatic pictures from a distant world.
“You should have backed it all up,” said Bradley. She scooted beside him, her knee against his.
Dustin hung his head. It’s gone, he thought. Two more pops sounded from the quad. Sharp, like motorcycle backfires. He looked up, but he couldn’t see the source.
“It’s always shadowy government agents,” said Bradley. “There’s always a hidden agenda.”
She was smiling. She put her hands over his. “You’ve made first contact. That’s you. They can’t steal that.” She raised her voice at the end to be heard over three sharp claps from across the street. Some students had stopped, looking in that direction. “Will this help?” She reached into her bag filled with notes and pulled out her portable hard drive. “I’ve been wirelessly auto updating since you let me copy the first time. It’s all here.”
Dustin took the hard drive unbelievingly, then sighed. “The images won’t be enough. No one has believed the pictures before. They didn’t believe them when I was fifteen. Today’s pictures could be faked, they’d say. They don’t believe the physics.” But his heart thudded hard. He had the pictures, at least! He had them, even if the world didn’t believe.
His pulse sounded like explosions, and he realized he heard real explosions. Small ones, not his heart, once again from across the street. “How many pops did you hear?”
He stood. The elderly woman and two of the military type who had accompanied her stepped from the laboratory’s front door, drawn out by the sound.
“Five,” said Bradley. She picked up her bag. “What are you thinking?”
“I think we’re going to hear eight next.” He laughed. “You have all the pictures on this drive?”
Bradley nodded. “Fibonacci?”
“You saved the pictures, and they’re pinging us. We’re communicating.”
They counted the next explosions together. He could see where the alien Peek-a-boo appeared, twenty feet off the ground. The air shimmered on each beat and flashed, like a camera.
“Eight,” they said together.
Dustin weighed the hard drive in his hand, the hard drive filled with pictures from a world 380 million miles away, and the people there who wanted to talk. The government or the remnants of the Peek-a-boo company, or whoever the elderly woman represented, wouldn’t be able to hide this, not when it happened in public, not when he and Bradley could show them the data.
“You have to write this story,” said Dustin. He turned to her, filled with emotion. “You believed me from the beginning, when no one else thought it had worth. You saved the information.”
They sat on the sidewalk, happily listening to the next series of firecracker pops from across the street. Thirteen this time.
“It’s going to be a great story,” said Dustin.
“You will win the Hero award for sure.”
Bradley closed her beautiful eyes and smiled. “It’s a Hugo award, Dustin. It’s called the Hugo.”
“No,” he said. “I got it right."
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.