Last night, after I finished writing, I wasn’t ready to sleep yet, and so I slipped out of the little room Eleen and I share and went into the big space where the people who were here before us used to grow their vegetables. The glass block skylights up above were pure black, no trace of starlight in them at all, though I was pretty sure it was a clear desert night and plenty of stars were looking down on this side of Mam Gaia’s round belly. I sat on the edge of one of the concrete tubs full of dirt where the vegetables used to be, and looked back up at them.
I was pretty sure that something was going to happen the next day, something big. Tashel Ban and Eleen were busy at the computer until late, and she came to bed with a look on her face that wasn’t the one I expected. Ruinmen talk about trying to get through a concrete wall by pounding your head against it, and I’m sure the scholars in Melumi have a more elegant way of saying the same thing; I know the look Eleen gets when that’s what she’s been doing, but that wasn’t the way she looked.
She looked frightened. Not frightened as though something’s come lunging out of the darkness at you, the way Thu came at me on that night in Memfis; frightened as though everything you thought you could rely on just dropped from beneath your feet, the way—I was about to write “the way the floor dropped from beneath my feet in the Shanuga ruins,” but I knew better, any ruinman’s prentice past his first season knows better, than to think you can ever rely on an old concrete floor. No, what I ought to write there is the thing I’m still trying to work up the courage to write, and that’s what happened when we first reached Star’s Reach and Jennel Cobey died.
One way or another, I’m going to have to write about that sometime soon, and sometime not too long after that I’m going to have to deal with the consequences. When a jennel gets killed, there are going to be consequences, and I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to matter much to the people who matter that he was the one who put the two of us in a situation where one of us was going to get reborn in a hurry, and all I did was decide that it was going to be him.
But I sat there and stared up at the night, and thought about the frightened look on Eleen’s face, and all the things we’d learned about the Cetans, and the night stared down at me and didn’t say a thing. Finally I got tired enough to sleep, and went to bed.
The next morning I was up before it was light. It was my turn and Anna’s to make breakfast, and so I washed and dressed and headed for the kitchen. She was already there, which was unusual. We didn’t see her much before breakfast unless it was her turn to help with the cooking, and even then she’d get to the kitchen when things were well along and do most of the serving to make up for it. This time she was waiting. She didn’t say much most mornings, and this morning she smiled her knife-curved smile, and watched me out of the corners of her eyes, and didn’t say a word.
I don’t think any of us said a dozen words during breakfast. Everyone knew that something was about to happen; people don’t live together as long as we have, here at Star’s Reach, without getting to sense when a discovery’s been made or a problem’s come up. The longer breakfast went on, the thicker the silence got, until finally Tashel Ban drained his cup of chicory brew and said, “When the rest of you are finished, there’s something Eleen and I have found that we all need to talk about.”
The rest of us were finished. Berry and Thu took a couple of minutes to clear the table, but nobody even thought about washing the dishes. Tashel Ban waited until they were back at their places, then leaned forward onto his elbows and said, “We’ve found the last thing that was put on the computers before the people here died.”
He stopped there, and after a moment I said, “And?”
“I have no idea what to make of it. It’s not a document. It’s a program, a huge one, and we can’t figure out what it is or what it’s supposed to do. It’s—” He gave us all his owlish look. “I’m not at all sure how much of an explanation you would prefer.”
“Details,” said Thu, “are more useful than generalities. Please go on.”
Tashel Ban sat back in his chair. “I don’t claim to know everything about the way computer programs were put together back in the old world, but I know a fair amount. The Nuwingan government has a few computers that are still in working order—I’m pretty sure the Merigan government has some, too—and I’ve worked on ours, to the extent of writing code for simple programs. Look at a program written for the kind of computer they put here at Star’s Reach, and you know what to expect—what the files look like when you view them, and so on.
“The program we’ve found is gibberish. Or it looks like gibberish. It’s got things woven into it that are ordinary pieces of programming code, but they seem to be lifted out of other programs in the computer, and do things with those other programs or the operating system that runs the computer. The rest of it is nonsense, letters and numbers and other things all jumbled together without any structure I recognize at all. But—” Here he leaned forward again. “I don’t think it’s actually nonsense. There are patterns in it. I just can’t figure out the first thing about them.
“So we tried to figure out where it came from and when it was used—you can find that out from inside the computer if you know how—and that’s when things got truly puzzling. The program ran just once, a few hours before the people here tried to delete all their files and then shut everything down. It was downloaded onto the computer a day before, by another program, a huge one. This other program was downloaded onto the system four days before that, spent all four of those days doing something I can’t figure out, and then deleted itself.
“Then we tried to find out where the big program came from, and that’s what kept us busy most of yesterday. It looked as though it just popped up out of nowhere—until we thought of checking the logs for the main radio receivers. That’s where it came from. There was a radio message, a long one, that repeated itself over and over again—” He moved his hands in a circle. “And somehow that set up a repeating pattern all through the communications and computer system here, and the big program somehow unpacked itself from that. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t think anyone anywhere knows how to do that.”
“Clearly someone did,” Thu pointed out. “I wonder if it came from Sisnaddi.”
“Not those receivers,” Tashel Ban told him.
It took just a moment for that to sink in. When it did, Thu’s eyes narrowed. “You are saying that the program came from—” A motion of his chin pointed upwards. “Out there.”
“As best we can tell, yes.”
I thought I understood then. “So it’s something from the Cetans?”
“That’s the question we asked,” Tashel Ban said. “But the program doesn’t look anything like what the Cetans send, and it doesn’t correspond at all to what the people here before us were able to learn about Cetan computing.”
I was still trying to get my head around that when Berry spoke. “That message,” he said. “The one that brought the program. When did it arrive?”
“That was the next question we asked,” Tashel Ban told him. “I gather you’ve guessed the answer.” Then, because Thu and I were both looking puzzled: “The main antennas point whichever way this part of Mam Gaia is facing. Right now, they’re facing Tau Ceti in the morning hours. More than a few hours to either side, and—” He shrugged. “They’re pointing to another part of the sky.”
That’s when I realized what he was saying. “So it’s—someone else.”
“Apparently so,” said Tashel Ban. “And I have no idea what to make of that.”
We all stared at him, and then someone laughed. It was a dry, harsh laugh like paper tearing, and it took me a good long moment before I realized that it was coming from Anna.
“Forgive me,” she said, still laughing. “Of course you don’t know what to make of that. You haven’t been looking in the right place.” She looked straight at me, then. “You understand. Or you should. You’re the only one who read the books they left for us—the only one but me.”
I knew right away what she meant, but before I could think of any way to answer her, Tashel Ban said to her, “Perhaps you can explain it to the rest of us, then.”
“If you wish.” She looked at him, and then at the rest of us. “The Cetans aren’t the reason all of this is here. They were the one species who answered the radio messages we sent, because they’re right about the same level of technology we are, and they haven’t been contacted yet by the Others.” The way she said that last word, you could tell she would have written it with the capital letter. “The Others are the reason Star’s Reach was built.”
“Another species.” This from Thu.
She gave him something I’d have called a pitying look from anybody else. “Thousands of other species,” she said. “Millions of years more technologically advanced than we are. They have ships that can travel from star to star in less time than it took us to walk here from Cansiddi. They have answers to all the questions human beings tried and failed to find back in the old world. They were already visiting this planet before the old world went away. One of their ships crashed here, at a place called Roswell, off in the desert, and that’s when the government back then started building Star’s Reach, to make contact with them, to talk to them and get the technologies that would keep the old world from ending the way it did.
“But they wouldn’t answer. We weren’t ready for first contact, not then, not for a long time afterwards. They knew that if they landed, if they even communicated with us openly, people wouldn’t be able to bear knowing that we’re nothing more than a backward species on a backward planet that need all the help the Others can give us.” She gestured outwards, the movement sharp as broken metal. “Think of all the people in Meriga who spend their days praying to Mam Gaia. What would they do if they suddenly found out that their Mam Gaia is nothing more than a grain of dust spinning around an ordinary star in an out of the way corner of the galaxy?
“So the Others didn’t contact us. They didn’t think we were ready. They didn’t contact the Cetans, either, and so we and the Cetans made contact with each other, and spent a couple of hundred years talking back and forth by radio. And maybe it was that—” She stopped, and shook her head. “Maybe it was that, that we were able to communicate with an alien species and bear it, that convinced the Others that we were ready to be contacted. And when they contacted us, we still weren’t ready.”
“You think that’s why the people here killed themselves,” said Eleen.
“I don’t know,” Anna admitted. “I’ve told you already everything I remember; it was a long time ago, and I was very small. Still, once I got here and started reading the books they left for us, it all made sense. And—” She gestured again, palms up. “There were plenty of books here when I was a child. I remember shelves and shelves of them everywhere. They must have burned most of them, but they left the shelf of books about the Others for us to find. Why?”
“Tell us,” said Eleen.
“To give us the chance to figure out ahead of time that the Others are out there. I don’t think they expected anyone to be able to read the computer files, the way you have, but they probably guessed that when Star’s Reach was found, we’d start talking to the Cetans again, and sooner or later the Others would try to contact us a second time. That’s what the program’s for, I’m sure of it—a way to contact them, or a message from them. They’re still waiting out there with their advanced technology—waiting for us to be ready to welcome them, waiting until they can make this world even better than it was before the old world ended. Waiting to come down and take humanity to the stars.”
There was a light in her eyes like nothing I ever saw there before. All at once I remembered the books we’d both read, the alien-books and the stories about futures out there in space that never happened, and I knew what was in her mind. I’d read the books and scratched my head and wondered, but she’d read them and believed all of it, and I thought I could guess why. “Anna,” I asked her, “did your parents tell you any of this?”
She turned to face me then. “A little,” she said. “My mother told me about the Others just before she died. I didn’t know what to make of it. Now I do.”
No one else said anything. I glanced around the table. Tashel Ban had his owl-look on; Berry was pale and distant; Thu still as an old stone. It was Eleen’s face that caught my eye, though; she was watching Anna with an odd, sad look. It took me a moment to realize what it meant: Eleen knew something about all this, something she wasn’t saying. What?
I didn’t know, and there was something that had to be settled right away. “Tashel Ban,” I said. “Can you make the program run?”
He nodded. “All I have to do is type in the command.”
He was the one who mattered most, just at that moment. If he decided it was time, we’d clear a space for a circle, he and Tashel Ban would go at each other with knives, and if it was Tashel Ban’s time to bleed out his life there on the floor, I’d have Berry or Eleen delete the program and that would be the end of it, until whoever sent it decided to try again. That was the agreement we had, and if that was the way things had to go, I knew it would be better to get it over with at once.
Thu thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “The program has been run once before, and it did not bring spaceships down from the skies. I will not invoke our agreement on the mere possibility that this thing would violate it. If it proves to be a message or gives access to a technology, then it may be necessary to settle the matter in the circle. Not until then.”
“I think,” I said then, “we need to run the program, and find out what it is.”
“Even though the last people who ran it killed themselves?” Berry asked.
“We have to know,” I said, and after a moment, he nodded.So we all got up and went over to the computer. Tashel Ban typed at the keyboard for a bit, and then glanced back at me. I nodded, and he hit the enter button.