But he had been invited here by Maura Della, a now-retired congresswoman he'd encountered in the course of the unraveling of that initial discovery.
Maura Della was about Malenfant's age, small, neat, and spry. She had served as part of the president's science advisory support at the time of the Gaijin announcement, when Malenfant and Nemoto had been dragged before the president himself, the secretary of defense, the Industrial Relations Council, and various presidential task forces as the administration sought an official posture concerning the Gaijin. Unlike some of the Beltway apparatchiks Malenfant had encountered in those days, Della had proved to be tough but straightforward in her dealings with Malenfant, and he had grown to respect her sense of responsibility about SETI and other issues. It would be good to see her again.
And, he hoped, maybe she was still close enough to the center of power to give him a genuine insight into anything
In that, as it turned out, he would not be disappointed.
At first, though, the conference -- summing up what was known about the Gaijin, nine long years after discovery -- proved to be meager stuff. In the absence of new facts the proceedings were dominated by presentations on the impact of the Gaijin's existence on philosophical principles.
Thus, the first talk Maura Della escorted him to was on the brief and unrewarding history of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Since the 1950s, appropriately tuned radio telescopes had been turned on promising nearby stars, like Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eradini. Over the years the search was taken up by NASA and upgraded and automated until it was possible to search thousands of likely radio frequencies at very high speed.
But decades of patient, longing search had turned up nothing but a few evanescent, tantalizing whispers of pattern.
As Malenfant listened to the stream of detail and acronyms, of project after project -- Ozma, Cyclops, Phoenix -- he became consumed with pity for these patient, hungry listeners, hoping to hear the faintest of whispers from beyond the stars. For, of course, it had always been futile, wrong-headed.
he thought: Either the sky is silent because it is empty, or else the aliens should be everywhere. There should have been no need to seek out whispers; if we weren't alone, the sky should, metaphorically, have been blazing with light.
The next speaker impressed Malenfant rather more. She was a geologist from Caltech called Carole Lerner -- no older than thirty, spiky, argumentative. She had tried to come up with a new answer to the conundrum of the arrival of the Gaijin. Maybe there had been no sign of the Gaijin before, Lerner said, because they had only recently evolved -- and not among the stars, but where they had been found, in the asteroid belt itself.
There had been suggestions for some decades that life could get a foothold in comets -- perhaps in pockets of liquid water, drenched with the organic compounds that laced cometary interiors -- and, of course, some asteroids were believed to be burned-out comets, or at least to have a comparable composition to comets. The coincidence of the emergence of a space-faring alien race in the asteroids
just as we reached a similar state, might be explained by a convergence of timescales. Perhaps it simply took this long, a few billion years, for life to crawl its way from the ponds to the stars, no matter where it originated.
It was a nice hypothesis, Malenfant reflected, but he judged that the coincidence of timescales was surely too neat to be convincing. Still, this was the first speaker Malenfant had heard at the conference who had attempted to address the deeper issues that obsessed the likes of Nemoto. He glanced at his softscreen, seeking presenters' bio details.
Lerner's general specialism was the volcanic history of the planet Venus. Malenfant wasn't surprised to learn she was having trouble finding funding to continue her work. One side effect of the arrival of the Gaijin had been a decline of interest in the sciences. It seemed to be generally assumed that the Gaijin would eventually hand over the answers to any questions humans could possibly pose; so why spend time -- and, more significantly, money -- seeking out answers now? No genuine scientist Malenfant had ever met would have been satisfied with such passivity, of course; it seemed to him this Carole Lerner might be consumed with exactly that impatience.
The next paper, given by a heavy-set academic from the SETI Institute, turned out to have his own name in the title: "The Nemoto-Malenfant Contact -- An Example of How Not to Do It."
Maura Della sat back to listen with an expression of intense enjoyment.
The presentation was based on a bureaucratic protocol devised to cover the event of alien contact. The protocol was first worked out by NASA in the 1990s, and then, after the cancellation of government funding for SETI and the NASA project's takeover by private institutions, developed further by the UN and national governments.
Malenfant -- as one of only two people in all history to have been placed in the situation covered by the protocol -- had never bothered to read it. He wasn't surprised to learn now that it was top-down, officious, and almost comically foolish in its optimism that central control could be maintained:
After concluding that the discovery appears to be credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and after informing other parties to this declaration, the discoverer should inform observers throughout the world through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, and should inform the secretary general of the United Nations in accordance with Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies. Because of their demonstrated interest in and expertise concerning the question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer should simultaneously inform the following international institutions of the discovery and should provide them with all pertinent data and recorded information concerning the evidence: the International Telecommunication Union, the Committee on Space Research, the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union...
Malenfant and Nemoto, by comparison, had gone straighton the talk shows.
Playfully, Maura slapped Malenfant's wrist. "Naughty, naughty. All those commissions you skipped. You made a lot of enemies there."
"But," he said, "I did get to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. You know, this guy makes it sound as if he'd rather we hadn't made the discovery at all, rather than make it the wrong way."
"Human nature, Malenfant. You took away his toy."
Now the speaker opened the floor for comments.
The discussion soon turned to how the situation should be managed from here. There were plenty of calls for behavioral scientists to study ways in which the public response to the news could be somehow anticipated and controlled -- for research into popular public images of ETs, discussion of analogies with the response to missions like Apollo to the Moon and Viking to Mars, and suggestions that SETI proponents should make use of media like webcasts, games, and music to present SETI and ET themes "responsibly."
Maura pulled an elaborate face. "Don't these people realize the cat is already out of the bag? You can't control the public's access to information anymore -- and you certainly can't control their response. Nor should you try, in my opinion."
At last the speaker cleared off the stage, and Malenfant's spirits lifted a little. As an engineer, he knew that a bucket-load of philosophical principles wasn't worth a grain of good hard fact. And that was why the next item, by Frank Paulis, was a breath of fresh air. After all, it was Paulis, with his money and his initiative, who was actually going out there to look.
Paulis's images of his en-route spacecraft, the
showed a gangly, glittering dragonfly of solar-cell panels and gauzy antennae and sensors mounted on long booms, surrounded by a swarm of microsats devoted to fly-around inspections and repairs.
The launch had been uneventful, the first years of the long flight enlivened only by the usual hardware glitches and nail-biting techie dramas. It struck Malenfant as remarkable how little space technology seemed to have progressed in seventy years since the first Sputnik; the design of the
would probably have been recognizable, give or take a few sapphire-based quantum chips, to Wernher von Braun. But flying in space had always been a conservative business; if you had only one shot, you wanted your ship to work, not to serve as the test bed for new gadgets and ideas.
had survived its man-made crises. The ship was still a year away from its rendezvous with what appeared to be the primary construction site -- or colony, or nest -- of the Gaijin. The asteroid belt was a broad lane of rubble; already the probe had encountered a number of those dusty wanderers, never visited before or seen in close-up. But, Paulis promised, standing before slide after slide of coal-dark, anonymous rocks, the best was yet to come. For in the darkness, the Gaijin awaited.
After a morning of such thin gruel, Malenfant retreated to his hotel room.
He traveled light these days: just bathroom stuff, a couple of self-cleaning suits and sets of underwear, a softscreen that was all he needed to connect him to the rest of the species, and a single ornament -- a piece of unbelievably ancient rock from the far side of the Moon, carved into an exquisite Fox God. He had become minimal. The time he had spent on the Japanese Moon, he supposed, had changed him, no doubt for the better.
He spent a half hour watching heavily filtered and interpreted news on his softscreen. He needed to know what was going on, but he was too old to have any patience with the evanescent buzz of instant commentaries.
A corner of his softscreen rippled with light: an incoming message.
It was Nemoto. It was the first time she'd contacted Malenfant in years.
"Nemoto! Where are you?"
There was a delay of a few seconds before her reply came back, her face creasing into a thin smile. That could place her on the Moon. But the delay could be a fake...
"You should know better than to ask me that, Malenfant."
She was still under forty, but she wasn't aging well, he thought. Her hair remained thick and jet black, but her oval face had shed its prettiness: grown angular, the bones showing, her eyes dark and sunken with suspicion. Her voice, from the softscreen's tiny speakers, was an insect whisper. "You are enjoying the conference?"
"Not much." He shared with her his gripe over too many philosophers.
"But there are worse fools. Here is some more philosophy for you: 'This is the way I think the world will end -- with general giggling by all the witty heads, who think it is a joke.' Kierkegaard."
"He got it right." Whoever he was.
"And philosophy can sometimes guide us, Malenfant."
"For instance, the notion of equilibrium..."
It was like resuming a conversation they had pursued, on and off, for nine years; a slow teasing-out of the
After their notoriety following the announcement of the aliens in the belt, Nemoto had recoiled completely. She'd refused all offers of public appearances, had quit her job, had turned down offers of research positions from a dozen of the world's most prestigious universities and corporations, and had effectively disappeared. All this while Malenfant had slogged around the public circuit with diminishing enthusiasm, enduring the brickbats and bouquets that came from his sliver of fame. She had been an Armstrong, he sometimes thought wryly, to his own Aldrin.
But she was continuing her researches -- though what her purpose was, and where her money was coming from, he couldn't have said.
She didn't like the Gaijin, though. That much was obvious.
"We imagined only two possible equilibrium states: no aliens, or aliens everywhere," she said softly. "We have diagnosed this moment, the moment of first contact, as a transition between equilibriums, brief and therefore unlikely for us to be living through. But what if that's wrong? What if
is the true state of equilibrium?"
Malenfant frowned. "I don't get it. Contact changes everything. How can a
be described as an equilibrium?"
"If it happens more than once. Over and over and over. In that case it's no coincidence that I happen to be alive, here and now, to witness this. It's no coincidence that we happen to have a technical culture capable of detecting the signals, even initiating contact, of a sort, just at this moment.
Because this isn't unique.
"You're saying this happened before? That others have been here? Then where did they go?"
"I can't think of any answers that don't scare me, Malenfant."
He studied her. Her eyes were almost invisible, her face an expressionless mask. The background was dark, anonymous, no doubt scrambled beyond the reach of image-enhancement routines.
He considered what to say.
You're spending too much time alone. You need to get out more.
But he was scarcely a friend to this strange, obsessive woman. "You've spent a lot of time thinking about this, haven't you?"
She seemed offended. "This is the destiny of the species."
He sighed. "What is it you called me about, Nemoto?"
"To warn you," she said. "It isn't quite true that we are waiting on Frank Paulis and his space probe for new data. There are two items of interest. First, a fresh interpretation. I've been able to deduce patterns from the infrared signature of the Gaijin's activity in the belt. I believe I have determined their pattern of propagation."