By the Numbers – by Jim Meeks-Johnson
Bureaucracy moves in mysterious ways. Here I was, a nineteen-year-old quantum-mechanics intern, the junior scientist by far with only 10 days of on-site training, and I was nominally in charge of the most fantastic piece of technology humanity had ever built.
The local end of Starlink had orbited in the weightless void 35,000 kilometers above Earth for 52 years. During that time, the probe end of the link traveled to the star Beta Hydri–the nearest star with an Earth-like planet.
The best artificial intelligence of the year 2118 calculated the numerical odds of something happening on the Starlink today at 1 in 300,000,000. All the important people–senior physicists, engineers, project managers, military brass–went groundside for the pre-activation ceremonies.
The amphitheater was empty. Designed for use in space, half of the command theater was a display wall and the other half a hemisphere of seats, each with a built-in computer console and pneumatic dumbwaiter for snacks.
I buckled into my usual spot in one corner and ordered a large coffee. The feeling that I was in charge was amazing–for about an hour until the newness wore off. Then it was boring. Eventually, it was creepy to be alone in the big room. Finally, I nodded off staring at the blank monitors on the front wall.
Something brushed my shoulder. I twisted in my seat, throwing up my arm in defense. My hair stood on end. My heart pounded faster.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She was about my age, with long auburn hair floating in a halo around her head. Her sparkling green eyes and green jumpsuit gave her the appearance of a forest sprite.
“Wh- what are you doing here? Security doesn’t usually allow visitors.”
“I beg your pardon, I’m not a visitor. I’m a scientist.”
“Oh . . .” I faltered. I’d put my foot in my mouth before we even introduced ourselves.
“Actually, I’m an apprentice xenologist. Where would I find Chief Xenologist Lambert?” She glided back toward the door. No doubt, she’d already seen more than enough of me to tell I was a nerd. I kept my hair short so I didn’t have to comb it, and my scraggly beard meant I didn’t have to shave, either.
“Lambert’s not here right now. Nobody’s here. They all went Earth-side.”
Her hand caught a chair and she stopped. “So, it’s just you here?”
“Well, not just me. Lieutenant Hafton is officially in charge, and I guess there are a few guards around,” I said.
Her eyes captured the bulk of my attention. I heard somewhere that the eyes were the window to the soul, and now I felt what that meant. It was fascinating, and exciting, and frightening, all at once, making eye contact with a woman.
“No scientists?” she said.
I broke eye contact. “No, just me, sort of. I’m a quantum mechanics intern. I like working with numbers. They tell us how everything works.”
“Ohhh. Then that makes you the brains around here. I’m Aletha Heaton.” She came closer and held out her hand.
I took her hand. It must have been electrically charged–some kind of current ran up my arm. “Uh, nice to meet you. I’m Kethel Kirkpatrick. So, what exactly does a xenologist do?”
“I study extraterrestrial civilizations.”
“But . . . there aren’t any. How can you study them?”
“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Like in quantum mechanics. You can’t see quarks, but you know they exist.”
“But there’s lots of evidence for quarks. What about project SETI? In the past two hundred years, they have found exactly nothing.”
“Oh, Fermi’s Paradox.”
“Uh. Finding nothing has a name?”
“Everything has a name. It’s just a question of knowing it. Surely you’ve heard of Fermi’s Paradox? If Earth is an ordinary planet and Earth has intelligent life, then the galaxy must be full of intelligent life. So where are they?”
“Yeah, that one. So . . . where are they?”
“It wouldn’t be a paradox if we knew the answer.”
I couldn’t find a good reply to that, and I did enjoy talking to her. I took a deep breath, steeling myself for rejection. “I’m keeping watch on the Starlink. I don’t suppose you’d like to keep watch with me for a while?”
“Sure, at least until Doctor Lambert gets back.” She strapped into the seat next to mine. “Why are we looking at a blank wall?”
“We’re watching, just in case.”
“Just in case something interesting happens?”
“Precisely. Right now, the Starlink to Beta Hydri is off, but if the link comes on, we need to be here.”
“It’s not going to be turned on until next Friday.”
“Then why are we watching it now?”
“In theory, something unexpected might happen to the probe, and the probe might wake up and call us to ask what to do.”
“Wow. And you’ll tell the probe what to do?” She sounded impressed. I felt a blush start to creep across my face.
“Yeah–well, most likely, I’ll ask the probe to send a detailed damage report–assuming the officer in charge authorizes it.”
“Then you’ll tell the probe what to do?”
“Then I’ll tell the probe to go back to sleep.”
“That’s all?” She sounded disappointed.
My cheeks grew warmer. “We do an in-depth analysis of a problem before taking action–unless of course, it’s a problem with the quantum-entangled link. The link experts already analyzed all possible link problems in detail. If the comqubits become information bearing, link entropy exponentiates.”
She tilted her head. “What?”
“Well . . .” I stalled. I tried explaining the physics behind Starlink to my grand aunt once. The attempt had not gone well. Nonetheless, it was a chance to share a bit of my world with her. “A comqubit is two quantum-entangled particles created together, as identical twins, and then moved apart. We know the twin particles are in the same quantum state except for location. They have the same quantum spin number, but, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we can’t know what that spin number is until we interact with one of the particles.”
I took a breath. She seemed to be listening to me, so I continued, “We can set the spin of one of the entangled particles, which means the other one resolves to the same spin, too. Then we read the remote particle’s spin, and we have communicated one quantum bit of information–a comqubit–to the location of the other particle, no matter how far away it is. In the case of Starlink, that’s 24 light years to the Beta Hydri system.”
“Wow. It seems like magic: transporting unknowable quantum states and making them known light years away.”
“Exactly. Quantum mechanics is magic. Even Einstein got that one wrong. As Niels Bohr kept pointing out, Einstein’s assumption of ‘no spooky action at a distance’ was just that, an assumption. The idea that cause and effect must be local is a macro-phenomenon from our everyday non-quantum world.”
She frowned. “What does a line graph shaped like a one-armed person mean?”
“Where?” I had been watching her lips move. They had their own spooky action at a distance on my ability to multitask.
“I thought we were watching the wall?”
I jerked my attention to the front of the command theater. “It’s a damage profile. The probe is in trouble.”
“Wow. So now we call Lieutenant Hafton to authorize a damage report?” she asked.
I had only met Assistant Financial Officer Lieutenant Archibald Hafton once. He was senior to me on the duty roster by virtue of starting on the Starlink two days before I had, but we had never met. I called his perscom, got no answer and left a message.
The one-armed man mocked me from the front wall. I tried distracting myself by describing it to Aletha. “The damage profile is a star plot–the distance from the center of the circle indicates the amount of damage to various sensors. The legs indicate a 60% failure in the alpha and beta ray detectors and the head and arm mean a 25% percent burnout of ultraviolet and microwave sensors.”
I did some quick calculations on my workstation and became even more worried. “That damage could have been caused by a gigajoule surge in the ambient field. That size of a surge could damage the comqubits–although the probe wouldn’t have contacted Earth if they were completely destroyed. We need to know what’s going on at Beta Hydri. Where is Lieutenant Hafton? We need detailed reports.”
“Calm down. There must be something you can do.”
I took a deep breath. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore a link problem, especially with her watching. No, I’d take charge. I jabbed a button. “I sent the command.”
While the diagnostics ran, I issued another unauthorized command to the Starlink, and two bright dots gleamed on the wall. “That’s the view from the probe’s navcam. The yellow dot is the star Beta Hydri. The blue one . . .”
“What’s the blue dot?” she prompted.
“I don’t know. It feels familiar, but nothing else in the vicinity should be that bright.” The diagnostics report came in and I studied the results. “That’s weird. A 12-gigajoule burst of protons hit the probe–the equivalent of a lightning bolt. But protons don’t come in sudden bursts like that.”
“I’m backtracking vector twelve-zero-one . . . Aha. Look at where this blue line crosses the probe’s path. That’s where the damage occurred.”
I panned the navcam to follow the blue streak. “The line originates at the bright blue dot. Hold on, I have an idea.” I put a spectrogram of the blue light on-screen. “Look at the distribution of wavelengths–that cluster of three lines.” I zoomed in and overlaid a grid. “The distance from the first to the second is 2.57 times the distance of the second to the third.” My heart rate kicked up a notch. “It’s the exact ratio you’d expect from proton ejection by a plasma wakefield ion drive.”
“Which is important, why?” she said.
“Tuned Plasma Wakefield Oscillators are an extremely efficient means of accelerating particles to high velocities in a short distance. It’s what powers interplanetary ships from Earth to Mars or Saturn. This blue dot is from the drive of a spaceship. Somebody beat us to Beta Hydri.”
She let out a whoop and raised her arms in triumph. “Another ship! Aliens!”
“Slow down,” I said. “We don’t know it’s aliens. Maybe Saturn Federation sent out a secret interstellar explorer.”
“There’s no evidence it’s the Saturn Federation,” she countered. “How could they get there without our knowing?”
I thought about it for a minute. “I have to admit it’s unlikely–”
“Right. So it must be aliens,” she said. “Can we get a better close-up of their ship?”
“This is the best the navcam can do. But I can deploy the main telescope.” A few seconds later the main screen on the front wall brightened. “An asteroid?” I said. This was not what I had expected at all. “Where’s the spaceship?”
“They could have hollowed out an asteroid to use as a spaceship,” she replied.
“Why would they do that? Pushing all that rock around would be a big waste of energy.”
Her face brightened. “Well, the one thing we do know about aliens is that they are alien. I’m sure they have their reasons.”
Aliens–the enormity our situation hit me like a transcontinental subway. This was humanity’s first contact with a superior civilization. “I–that wasn’t there before.”
“What wasn’t there before?”
“See the little display on the upper left? The computer has been monitoring the navcam for changes.”
“Another blue dot!”
“Two spacecraft? A whole civilization must live around Beta Hydri.”
I put the spectrum of the second blue dot on-screen: a cluster of three lines showing the 2.57 ratio. “It’s another spacecraft, all right. I’ll get a close-up.”
I expected another asteroid but instead found a sleek, black rocket.
A chime interrupted us before we got a good look at the new ship. She looked at me. “Now what?”
I pulled up the asteroid ship again. “The probe has been tracking the asteroid: distance 6100 kilometers; velocity 34.1 kilometers per second, trajectory variance zero.”
“That was the collision alarm. The asteroid’s course intersects the probe in 30 minutes.”
By the time Assistant Financial Officer Lieutenant Archibald Hafton arrived at the control room, I had calculated that the black ship would intercept the probe 5.2 minutes before the asteroid.
“This is incredible!” Lieutenant Hafton bellowed. “This is unbelievable! This is a most egregious violation of Department of Space Exploration Regulation 12.2.4. How dare you use the link without my approval! Consider this your official warning, per DSE Reg 8.27. If you step out of line like that again, you’ll be subject to discharge, fine and imprisonment.”
“But, sir, I was just following standard maintenance protocol.”
“Try following standard approval protocol. You have no authority to respond. Responding is my job. Now let me get to it–” He took the seat in the center where Commander Marsh usually sat. “Show me what woke up the probe.”
I showed him what I knew about the two ships.
He never looked at me, just kept staring at the screen showing the asteroid ship. “I’m going to make first contact. Send them Arecibo,” he ordered.
“Who sir? I mean which ship?” I said.
I broadcast the Arecibo message–the same 73-by-23-pixel picture the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, had broadcast to the stars in 1974. It had been rebroadcast periodically ever since. The message depicted the chemical elements and double helix of DNA, a stick-figure person, our solar system and a radio telescope dish.
A narrow-beam response came back to the probe from the black craft. I put the reply on-screen in 23-pixel rows–an exact mirror image of the Arecibo message.
Aletha clapped her hands. “They decoded our message.”
Hafton turned in his seat and glared at her. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m Aletha Heaton, Assistant Xenologist. How may I help?”
“I’ll let you know,” he said as he turned to face the front wall again. “They got the message backward. Send Arecibo again.”
“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I believe they reversed the message on purpose, to show they understood how to decode it.” I felt a bit of admiration for her as she held her ground. Angry people always intimidated me, and Hafton was always angry.
He opened his mouth to reply, but another message interrupted him. The top half of the new message showed a list of some kind. The bottom half featured a round object with small tree-like appendages all around its perimeter.
“What’s that supposed to be?” He tilted his head to the side to see if he liked the picture better that way.
I recognized part of it. “The top half looks like a list of chemical elements. You can tell by the number of pixels: iron, cobalt, germanium, potassium, thallium, and tungsten, and some kind of lattice . . .”
Aletha picked up where I left off, “The lattice is located where we sent them a description of DNA, and the round thing is located where we sent a human figure. I’d say they’re showing us they’re made of metallic crystals and that they have a round central core with multiple appendages.”
Hafton had ideas of his own. “Arecibo only contains a stick-figure person. Send them a picture of a real human face. Send them my photo.”
Aletha rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. I converted his file photo to a pixel array and put the result on-screen. “How does this look, sir?”
“It makes me look fat. Make it taller.”
He was fat, but I made his image taller anyway. “How is this?”
“Can’t you colorize it?”
“No, sir, we can only send monochrome.”
“It’ll do. You may send it.”
I sent the aliens Hafton’s photo. A few seconds later, pictures flooded in from the black ship. I displayed the frames in real time as fast as they came in. The resulting jumble on the screen made no sense. “What are they saying?” Hafton asked.
“Try slowing the pictures down so we can look at them one at a time,” Aletha suggested.
At the slower rate, each pixel array formed a distinct picture with Morse-code-like dots and dashes at the bottom. The pages looked like they had come from an alien child’s picture book–maybe they had.
A second transmission stream came in, broad-beamed and powerful. A five-frame series from the asteroid showed the asteroid absorbing a dumbbell shape. The meaning seemed obvious to me. “Our probe is shaped like a dumbbell. I’d say the asteroid wants the probe to dock with it.”
Hafton nodded, “No doubt their captain wants to welcome me in person. They think I’m on the probe. They don’t know about the Starlink from Earth.”
“What about the little ship?” Aletha asked. “It’ll get to the probe first.”
I switched the telescope back to the black ship.
“Can you get any better focus on the front part?” she asked.
I tried several contrast-enhancing filters. “This is the best I can do. It looks like a blister. The spectrogram says it contains nitrogen and oxygen.”
She pointed to the display. “See the round shape in the middle? It keeps moving around.”
I was catching her enthusiasm. “It looks like a cockpit, and that’s got to be the pilot–”
“Kirkpatrick. Pay attention to the big ship,” Hafton interrupted.
The monitor on the right was blinking an alert. I zoomed in on the asteroid ship. “They’re changing course, sir.”
“To what?” He demanded.
“I don’t know, but the blast from its drives is moving dangerously close to the probe. We’ve already seen how that beam can cause major damage.”
“Take evasive action,” he ordered.
“Sir? The probe’s engines are off.”
“Turn them on. Get away from that beam. Do something. I don’t want the loss of that probe to be my fault.”
Before the engines could warm up, the proton beam changed course again. “Sir! The beam is swerving to the side. It’s going to miss the probe.”
“Well, of course,” Hafton said, suddenly nonchalant. “They would never harm the probe. Remember the pictures? They want to welcome me in person.”
The beam swung around the probe and zoomed away. “They’re going to destroy the small ship,” Aletha muttered.
“Nonsense,” Hafton thundered. “Why would they destroy one of their own spacecraft?”
“That spacecraft isn’t theirs,” she replied. “Remember how different the two ships are? I think the ships are from two different groups of aliens–maybe even two groups competing for first contact with us. And the ones on the big asteroid ship are about to eliminate the competition.”
I kept my eyes glued to the monitors now. “The black ship is turning. It’s accelerating away at 3.8 gravities . . . Wow, 15.3 grav–”
“See, the asteroid is just chasing away the little ship,” Hafton said.
The beam changed course again. The black ship moved fast, but a particle beam, even a huge beam like this one, could move faster.
The small ship’s outline glowed red, turned blinding white and vanished.
I was stunned. “They just committed a cold-blooded murder.”
“Nonsense,” Hafton said. “I’m sure there’s a good explanation. Maybe the black ship was full of pirates. Maybe they got what they deserved. How soon until we reach the big ship?”
“Eight minutes,” I said, turning the telescope to the asteroid. Shiny metal structures dotted its natural rock surface. Antennae? Weapons? The asteroid had rotated to reveal a large crack running the length of its side. “The warm-up of the probe’s engine is complete. What are your orders, sir?”
“Send them my picture again. My picture got the other ship talking.”
I resent his picture, but I couldn’t get the image of the small spacecraft’s fiery death out of my head. Not knowing what to expect, I quietly prepared several alternate flight plans.
Two minutes passed. Aletha studied her console, examining the book we had received from the black ship. Lieutenant Hafton stared at an image of the asteroid. “Send my picture again. Maybe they didn’t get our message.”
I sent his picture again, and this time got a response. I put the response on-screen–a picture of the asteroid with crosshairs overlaid. A line extended from the crosshairs to a small dumbbell shape. “That must be where they want the probe to dock, near the bottom of that long crack,” I said.
Hafton pointed to the screen. “Set course for the–”
“Wait!” Aletha interrupted. “You need to see this.
She put a picture from the book on the main display screen. The asteroid ship had several smaller figures arranged in increasing size coming out of it–lumpy figures with random appendages sticking out all over.
“That’s what the creatures on the asteroid look like–” she said. “Big amebas. Now here’s the next page.”
Four panels showed a progression, starting with a human stick figure standing beside one of the lumpy spheroids. The spheroid extended an appendage to cover the stick figure’s arm, then it’s head, finally, only the ameba shape remained.
Aletha waved her arms excitedly. “It’s a warning. The creature from the asteroid eats humans.”
Hafton crossed his arms. “That’s just propaganda from the black ship. Civilized beings don’t eat one another. Besides, thanks to the Starlink, we’re not aboard the probe. We’re safe here at Earth.”
“We may be near Earth, but we’re not safe,” I blurted out. “They could learn a lot about us from analyzing our probe. Probably enough to locate Earth. I don’t think we want them coming here.”
“I’ll do the thinking around here,” Hafton proclaimed. “Set course to dock with the asteroid.”
The image of the black ship’s unprovoked destruction still haunted me. I made one more try. “Sir, as Xenologist Heaton pointed out, someone aboard the black ship gave his life to send us this warning. Out of respect for the dead, we should listen.”
“My order stands,” Hafton said. “Even if the girl is right, there are too many stars. They’ll never trace the probe back to Earth. I’m not going to miss my welcoming party. I’m going down in history as the first person to make contact with an alien civilization. Disobeying a direct order is subject to court-martial under DSE Regulation G 3.1.3. Change course now.”
No, if Aletha was right, we were all in danger. Even an intern quantum engineer like me knew how to use trace metal ratios to determine which star an object came from. But Lieutenant Hafton had made up his mind. Reluctantly, I turned to my console, selected a flight plan and locked the engine controls. The probe accelerated toward the asteroid ship.
Hafton seemed satisfied. Aletha fumed. “This is wrong. Stop it, Kethel. Please.”
I crossed my arms and we watched in silence as the asteroid grew larger. Soon if filled the entire screen.
“Hey!” Hafton roared. “The probe is supposed to be slowing down to dock, not speeding up. Kethel, what did you do? You’re going to the brig for this.”
Busted. The flight plan I had selected was not the one he had ordered.
Aletha grinned. “Good for you, Kethel. Like I said, you are the brains around here.”
My moment of self-congratulation was short-lived. Two security guards with weapons drawn rushed into the control room. “Who called Security?”
“I did,” Hafton roared. He pointed at me. “Arrest him. The charge is insubordination.”
“Wait!” I said, stalling to see what would happen to the probe. “He’s the guilty one. He ordered me to give secret information to enemies of the Interplanetary Federation.” It was a stretch, but true in a way if you accepted Aletha’s theories.
The main screen showed a field of stars from the navcam opposite the alien ship. Earth orbited peacefully around one of those stars.
One of the security guards pulled me out of my chair. The other guard walked up to Hafton. “Sir, perhaps I should remain here with you while my partner takes the suspect to the brig. We can sort this out when the senior officers return.”
The probe rotated and the navcam showed the pockmarked asteroid rushing toward us. Hafton waved at the monitors, “Nonsense, look at the screens. He set the Starlink probe on a collision course with that asteroid. Add destruction of government property to his charges.”
“It’s not a collision course,” I said. “Look!”
As if on cue, the probe angled away, past the asteroid, alongside the ominous glow of the asteroid’s enormous drive beam. The beam blotted out one corner of the view screen and grew brighter, culminating in an intense blue flash . . . Once again I stared at a blank wall, blinking away a pink afterimage.
I imagined the probe glowing red, then white, then vanishing altogether.
Hafton pressed for charges of insubordination and destruction of government property. He had a good case–but I wasn’t about to admit being wrong. His orders were stupid. Too bad stupidity wasn’t a crime.
The prosecution seemed in no hurry to go to trial. They probably hoped I would change my mind and plea bargain. But I couldn’t take their offer of two years in prison. Two years or twenty, it would end my career as a scientist. It was all or nothing.
The judge began instructed the jury not to waste the court’s time and money–to judge my guilt by my actions alone, don’t spend a lot of time debating hypothetical ethical justifications that a higher court would just overturn.
The prosecution’s opening argument described how I disobeyed Hafton’s orders and destroyed the crown jewel of Earth’s technology by flying it into a plasma particle beam. They pointed out that creating entangled matter is expensive, accelerating a probe to 60% lightspeed is very expensive, and maintaining and staffing a space station for 52 years is very, very expensive. It turns out that 7.3 trillion dollars would feed every person in the solar system for a week.
When the prosecution finished, a hush fell over the courtroom before my defense attorney had a chance to stand up. I followed the judge’s eyes to a well-dressed stranger, who came in and whispered to my defense attorney. I couldn’t understand what he said, but my attorney nodded and stood. “Your honor, in lieu of an opening argument, I beg the court to permit a statement from Assistant Secretary Rodriguez.”
The judge scowled, then said, “It’s your nickel, counselor. As long as his statement replaces your opening and doesn’t make this trial take longer and cost more tax dollars.”
The Assistant Secretary stepped into the center of the courtroom. “Thank you, Your Honor. I would like to read a letter into the court’s record.
He paused, emphasizing the total silence in the courtroom.
Honorable Judge and Jury,
The Neils Bohr Interplanetary Laboratory has decoded the first part of the book from the alien spacecraft. It describes this part of our galaxy as a perilous place. SETI found no signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life because the surviving extraterrestrials are hiding from other more aggressive extraterrestrials. Their civilizations have built undetectable interstellar networks of quantum-entangled communication links, much like the Starlink from Earth to Beta Hydri.
I felt a pang of envy for the Neils Bohr scientists who, even now, must be pouring over the alien’s book, uncovering the secrets of the galaxy.
In addition, for the benefit of small spacecraft and poor colonies who can’t afford a quantum-entangled Starlink, the alien’s book describes how to decrypt a stealth radio station at Delta Pavlonis. The white-noise-like signal replaces a small band of actual white noise radiation from the star. This broadcast corroborates the alien’s book.
The presidential envoy turned to face the main camera, as if addressing an audience. Why he choose my trial for the release of this amazing news made no sense–I was nobody.
Our solar system is at the frontier between two powerful interstellar empires. One of these empires is a federation of stars, much like our own Interplanetary Federation. The other empire is a tyranny of ameba-like monsters.
He paused and looked at me.
Kethel Kirkpatrick and Aletha Heaton showed remarkable insight and courage under extremely difficult conditions. Mr. Kirkpatrick’s clever maneuver to vaporize our probe before the ameba-creatures could get hold of it almost certainly forestalled an immediate subjugation of Earth.
In contrast, the orders of Lieutenant Archibald Hafton to give our Starlink probe to these monsters were self-serving and dangerous.
“Objection, Your Honor,” the prosecutor interrupted. “I move to disallow this letter and strike it from the record. Kirkpatrick broke the law when he disobeyed the DSE Regulation 12.2.4 and when he destroyed the taxpayer’s 7.3-trillion-dollar probe. The subsequent discovery of interstellar empires is completely irrelevant.”
The judge smiled at the prosecutor and then addressed the Assistant Secretary, “I’m inclined to agree with the prosecution. I see no relevance of the nature of alien politics to the truth or falsity of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s insubordination and destruction of government property.”
The Assistant Secretary nodded. “I am nearly finished, Your Honor. If you will bear with me for two more minutes, I believe the relevance will become clear.”
“I don’t see where you are heading,” the judge said. “But you may have two more minutes. At that time I will rule on the motion to strike your letter from the record.”
The envoy didn’t look at the rest of the letter. He had it memorized. He looked at the camera.
Therefore, in the interest of rewarding and encouraging intelligent and courageous behavior, the Interplanetary Office of Science and Technology promotes Kethel Kirkpatrick to Associate Quantum Engineer and Aletha Heaton to Associate Xenologist, and demotes Archibald Hafton to Ensign.
A murmur started through the crowd of onlookers.
Finally, in recognition that Kethel Kirkpatrick’s heroic actions saved the Interplanetary Federation from grave danger, in the event the courts find Kethel Kirkpatrick guilty of any crime in connection with the actions described above, I hereby grant him a full and complete pardon.
President of the Solar Interplanetary Federation
The Assistant Secretary folded his hands and waited. All eyes were on the judge. He fiddled with something on the surface in front of him, presumably examining legal precedents. Finally, he spoke, “The executive branch has the right to pardon anyone it wants. A preemptive pardon is almost unheard of, but Mister Kirkpatrick’s guilt or innocence is now irrelevant. In order to avoid wasting taxpayer money on an unnecessary trial, this case is dismissed.”
I jumped at the bang of the gavel. The courtroom broke out into general mayhem. A crowd of strangers rushed up to shake my hand. They had to wait while a guard unlocked my handcuffs, but I shook every one of them. The Assistant Secretary offered me a job at Neils Bohr Lab, building the devices described in the alien’s book. He even invited me to a press conference to meet President Hargrove in person.
Aletha was there too. She squeezed my hand and said, “I’m glad you’ll be joining us.”
“At Neils Bohr Lab. I’m part of the team translating the alien’s book.”
A thrill passed through me. She seemed to like the idea that we’d be working in the same lab. I grinned. “At least xenology has something to study now.”
She laughed, “Fermi’s Paradox resolved–”
Hafton blocked my path. “Don’t look so smug. Your disregard for DSE Number 12.2.4 will catch up with you someday.”
“Not as long as I do what is right,” I said. “You heard the president.”
He glared at me like I was an idiot. “You think that’s what this was about? You believed the president’s hogwash? You were saved by the numbers.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “What numbers?”
“Your case went viral–all over the media. The public came out 71% in your favor. You were pardoned because the president needs to boost her poll numbers.”