Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, Gran Canaria, Spain
The morning started like any other for Paco Benavides. A light breakfast, a quick shower, the ritual dressing for work. He lacked the spontaneous enthusiasm employers expect these days — his low-burn cynicism barely tempered by the gratitude he felt for having a stable job while his age peers faced fifty percent unemployment rates.
He genuinely liked the end goal of his work if not so much the means to achieve it: the monotonous daily slog, the office politics. But all jobs have drudgery and his at least was aimed at the stars.
Paco walked to the bus stop carrying his backpack and a morning-after headache. He had spent the better part of the previous night at an office party that turned wild. The jarring Canarian sun beat down on him with its usual fury. In an island full of tanned tourists, he was an indoors kind of person.
He boarded the bus to the observatory and sat on the most isolated spot he could find. He pulled the previous quarter’s status report out of his bag and started leafing through it while his mind kept revisiting the events of the previous night.
He hazily recalled talking to a girl who turned out to be his supervisor’s daughter. Quicksand territory for sure but, at the time, he had been unfazed. Through his mental fog and across the room, she had looked like a tall Nordic amazon. Her golden hair cascading on her bare shoulders, a gown flowing behind her as she happily talked to a bunch of friends. Paco remembered experiencing a kind of astral trance — an out-of-body state heightened by alcohol, darkness, and the rhythmic music.
Toward the end of the office happy hour, when most people were positively marinated in alcohol, Paco had put the moves on her. They danced and drank, and danced some more. He suggested a more private setting for their next activity and to his surprise and delight, she agreed. The telescope room never looked cozier to Paco.
After going through routine security at the entrance to his office building, he took the elevator up to the operations floor where he was greeted by his colleagues with lackluster enthusiasm — everyone else was also feeling under the weather.
“Hey, Paco…looking quite dapper this morning! You might not want to remove your sunglasses for the rest of the day, though,” said Arturo, the assistant to the department head and his closest work buddy.
“I should have called in sick but it felt wrong to deprive you of my presence for too long.”
“Never deny yourself on my account. I’m not worthy.”
“You got that right.” Paco turned on his computer and checked the system report to find out how the overnight search went.
One of the many uses of the astronomical observatory was the search for Earth-like planets. In the process, the team examined large swaths of the known universe. Theirs were exciting prospects marred by the most exquisite monotony. Our cosmos was like an almost infinite soup with way too much broth separating the occasional chunks of carrot. By the time you found a meat morsel, you already had a belly full of liquid.
“Nothing to report on my end,” Paco said to nobody in particular.
“Same here,” replied a chorus of five discordant voices. The first mantra they all recited every morning. And with that, their day officially started.
Paco opened PowerPoint to work on the new quarterly status report. He wished he had a better grasp of graphic design to make his presentations more exciting but, let’s face it, the last thing anyone expected from an astronomer was dazzling graphics. His boss was more understanding than most, but that didn’t make these quarterly status sessions any less irritating and nerve-racking for an avowed introvert like Paco.
And then there was the small matter of her boss’ daughter (what did she say her name was?). He hoped her old man hadn’t somehow found out about what transpired between them the night before.
Paco was thinking about all of that when something caught his peripheral vision. Something he had never seen before. He stopped for a second to make sure he wasn’t daydreaming. “Hey guys, come take a look at this.”
“What is it?” Arturo said.
“I have no idea, but it’s not normal.”
That wasn’t the first time someone had pronounced the words “not normal” as part of their work. It always turned out to be nothing, though. Background noise or statistical anomalies at best. But they were all sufficiently bored with the uneventful drift in their work, and yet motivated enough by the holy grail of finding planets capable of sustaining life, that they almost ran to Paco’s desk.
“Let’s see what you have,” said Martín eagerly. He was the youngest member of the group.
“I’m not sure yet. It may be some sort of glitch.”
Gathered around the screen, they looked slack-jawed at the furiously scrolling data as they tried to process its meaning — confusing at first, but increasingly clear to their well-trained minds.
It took a lot less than a minute for everyone on the team to feel the same sinking-yet-tingling sensation — the deep-down knowledge that if what they were seeing turned out to be accurate, things were never ever going to be the same. They might be making history right then and there.
“Um, yeah…Since this is most definitely not possible, how about we run some tests to figure out what the hell kind of bug we are dealing with here, huh?” Arturo suggested.
For the next few minutes, they engaged in a series of tasks to clear the system and get fresh data in once again. Paco checked the cable connections, rebooted the computer, optimized the hard drives, ran the diagnostic tool, and reloaded the data. After a few minutes, the report came back normal, showing identical data as before. He then proceeded to run a quick spectrographic analysis of the phenomenon.
The screen wasn’t lying. This was no joke and no fluke.
Their long collective silence was broken only when Paco whispered, “Martín, go get the old man. He’s going to have to make a few calls.”
MIT, Massachusetts, USA
“How would you respond if I were to tell you that chaos is its own kind of order?” That’s how Doctor Kyle Santiago started his quarterly undergraduate seminar on fractal patterns at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a tall man in his mid-thirties and already a world-renowned mathematician. It’s true what they say: in math, you either make it early or don’t make it at all. And he had definitely made it.
Beyond his impressive credentials as the utmost authority on pattern recognition and semiology, there was nothing extraordinary about Kyle. He fit the stereotype of the bohemian genius to a tee: a tall, ruffled-hair misanthrope who lived alone, worked alone, and dressed to match. He had the typical nerdy touch of obnoxiousness, but under his antagonism lurked some deep insecurities.
“Let me add that this seminar requires active participation. Contrary to appearances, I’m not the type who likes to talk incessantly to crowds.”
A petite brunette with large green eyes sitting at the front of the sparsely populated class ventured her opinion. “The nature of chaos is the absence of any pattern, right? So, if we can agree on that, I would say that your statement is not correct.”
“You are thinking at the wrong level of granularity. Doesn’t chaos arise with amazing predictability whenever a certain set of conditions are missing?”
“But that’s entropy, that’s the general tendency of the universe when ‘left alone.’”
“Correct. And the universe exhibits order, doesn’t it?”
“But then the order you are talking about would be inherent to those conditions that lead to entropy and chaos in the first place. Chaos itself isn’t ordered because it doesn’t exhibit any patterns.”
“In a certain way, it does. How could disorder be generated out of order? There is an upper layer of reality that’s very predictable. It’s the reality that we perceive. The familiar world around us includes the conditions that spawn lower levels — the subatomic — that still show an inherent logic despite their chaotic façade, as Heisenberg pointed out.”
“And that’s why fractals happen.”
“Yes, but fractals are just one manifestation of that ‘chaotic order.’ Quantum unpredictability is another. String theory might be yet another.”
“But if you are right, doesn’t that nullify the idea of free will? Wouldn’t it all mean that we live in a deterministic universe? Or worse, a fully chaotic one?”
Kyle was liking the way this girl’s mind worked but, before he could continue their exchange, there was a knock on the classroom door. He motioned to the students to hold for a second and went to get it.
A gaunt, bespectacled man stood on the other side.
“What is it?”
“Excuse the interruption, Doctor Santiago. I’m George Maxwell, in charge of community relations. There are two men waiting for you in the lobby. It seems that their business is urgent.”
Kyle was annoyed and it showed.
“Two men? Who are they? I’m in the middle of a seminar.”
“They are FBI.”
“That’s strange. Did they say what they want from me?”
“No, even though I certainly asked.”
“All right, please tell them I’ll be there shortly,” said Kyle with vague apprehension as he closed the door on George.
He turned to address the class. “Looks like we’ll have to take this up again next week. In the meantime, read Gleick’s seminal book on chaos theory. At a very basic level, it’ll show you what I mean by order within chaos.”
Kyle grabbed his backpack and left the room as his students gathered their things. He walked to the end of the long corridor where he was joined by George and two tall men in dark suits who flashed their badges and introduced themselves as agents O’Neill and Malvisco.
“How can I help you, gentlemen?” Kyle asked, barely concealing his annoyance.
“Let’s talk in the car if you don’t mind, Doctor Santiago. There’s no time to waste,” said agent Malvisco, who then proceeded to escort Kyle to a black SUV parked at the entrance of the building.
They boarded the vehicle and got settled in its ample leather interior. Kyle looked back at the administrator’s forlorn expression as they drove away.
The day was sunny, but he felt that a different kind of storm was gathering strength regardless. “So, what is this all about?” He asked the agents.
Malvisco looked at him behind very dark sunglasses. “It’s a matter of the highest national security priority.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s classified and all that…but if you came to me, you need me for whatever this is, so why not just tell me?”
“Because frankly, Doctor Santiago, we don’t know. What we do know is that you are about to go on a long trip. We are driving to Hanscom Field where a private plane is waiting for you.”
Special Forces Base, Al-Hadah, Yemen
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me…”
Colonel Brad Turner broke off in half sentence to pick up the impertinent phone if for nothing else, to cut right off whoever was at the other end and to ensure that his Bible reading’s spell wasn’t completely broken. He had been addressing a group of ten combat-ready men inside a field tent in the middle of Yemen and he knew how much the troops needed their leader’s reassurance before a mission.
This one was not just like any other routine gig — if there is such a thing in the Special Forces. Entering a heavily guarded and armed terrorist compound at the top of an impregnable mountain in the dead of night to capture their mastermind was going to be particularly tricky, even for this team.
“Turner!” Brad barked into the phone.
There was a long silence as he listened.
“Hmmm…when?” He said.
An even longer silence this time.
The troops were beginning to wonder what was going on, looking at each other. They were professionals and wouldn’t allow themselves to betray any emotion this late into their prep, but something about the call was odd.
“I understand, sir. However, we are about to go on a mission and my men need…”
Their Colonel had just been interrupted by whoever was at the other end of the line and that was not something one witnessed every day.
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there ASAP.”
Brad hung up the phone, his huge frame slightly hunched over, and looked at the men. He tried to hide his puzzlement, but was only partially successful.
“I’ve just been called upstairs, guys. I’m not going in with you tonight. Captain Williams will cover for me.”
Nobody moved a muscle and yet, somehow, the disappointment and tension in the room grew noticeably.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” The most veteran of the troops said.
“Well, sir, it’s just that we’ve been planning tonight’s operation for months. You know we will carry on in your absence, no problem, but what can be so important even for the people ‘upstairs’?”
And, at that, Captain Williams stood up and said, “You heard the man. Gear up and fall in.”
Brad grabbed his hat and turned to leave, only stopping at the entrance of the tent to address his inwardly irritated men with a firm and final “Godspeed.”
Radio Telescope, Arecibo, Puerto Rico
Doctor Hannah Coleman locked her office. It had been a long day and she looked forward to relaxing at home. She considered herself lucky that Peter, her husband, was a caring father and a great cook who worked from home. His career as a writer lent great flexibility to his schedule and he could fill in for Mom with the kids — most of the time.
She walked to the empty parking lot, got in her Acura, and started the drive home. Puerto Rico was very different from continental United States, but it had a certain aura of familiarity. She wasn’t totally in love with the island just yet. Her post had its pluses, though. The weather and the gorgeous beaches — she couldn’t get enough of them. And the food!
Hannah’s job was to gather various kinds of data about different moons, planets, asteroids, and other stellar objects in the solar system and beyond. Her goal was to paint as accurate a picture as possible of their different environments, temperatures, and chemical composition. This helped plan current and future exploratory space missions. She loved her job. In fact, she could say without much exaggeration that she lived for it.
Hannah pulled into her garage, grabbed her papers and went inside. Immediately, she heard the familiar prattle of little feet and young voices rushing to greet her.
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” said Caleb, the oldest boy.
“Hi, guys! How was your day?”
“I played tetherball today and I won!” Replied Paul, the youngest.
“No, you didn’t. Felipe won!” Caleb challenged.
“Okay guys, cut it out,” Peter intervened from behind them, conciliatory but firm. He greeted Hannah. “Hi, honey. I’m sorry, but I haven’t had the chance to get dinner going yet.”
“No problem. We can just throw together something quick. How about spaghetti?” She knew the boys would love that idea and she wasn’t wrong: they immediately stopped bickering and started cheering and chasing each other.
Mom and dad went into the kitchen and began gathering the ingredients. “So…what’s the verdict? Do you have to go to Japan?” Peter asked.
“Yup,” Hannah said, reaching for the pan. “Practically everyone in exobiology will be at the conference. I can’t miss that.”
“I was hoping you could pass it up. You know, slow down for a bit. Do a little Puerto Rico touring with me and the kids. It’s been two years since we moved here and we still don’t know our way around half the time…and it’s a small island!”
“I know, I know. I feel guilty enough as it is. Could you wash the tomatoes while I get the blender?”
“Come on! Just this once. Won’t you allow yourself to relax and spend some time with us? You work long hours and haven’t taken a vacation in…I don’t know how long. What’s the worst that can happen if you miss this?”
She understood her husband’s plea, but she was also annoyed by his insistence. They talked about this before and he seemed to agree that this conference was a special event — one she had to attend. Still, Hannah felt remorse and didn’t quite know how to respond to Peter. During their last conversation about it, she felt pressured into saying that she would think about staying. She shouldn’t have given him false hopes. And now they were about to have another fight.
She was literally saved by the bell. The doorbell, that is. Someone was ringing it.
Peter looked at her, puzzled. Who might be visiting at dinner time without calling first? He dropped the knife and went to the door. Hannah was happy for the interruption and continued preparing their meal, hoping he’d forget their conversation about the conference in the interim.
“Hannah! There are some people here to see you.”
She looked up from the stove and walked to the hall where two official-looking men with closely-cropped hair stood side by side while her husband held the door.
“Hello, Doctor Coleman. I’m agent Van Oort and this is agent Gómez.” They produced their FBI badges. “We are here under orders of the Secretary of Defense to ask you to please come with us.”
“What? Where?” Hannah and Peter exchanged surprised and irritated looks, but tried their best to remain cordial.
“That’s classified. I’m sorry.”
“The Secretary of Defense? Wow. But this is…”
“Unexpected, yes. For better or worse, it is also unavoidable.”
“But I have to be back in the office tomorrow to prepare for a conference in two days, and…”
“Sorry to hear that. I’m afraid this cannot wait for your return,” Van Oort said.
“You can’t just yank me from my family. Is that even legal?”
“Doctor Coleman, do you really want to talk legal?”
Hannah didn’t expect this kind of veiled threat and took a step back.
“We took the liberty of notifying your supervisor that you will be on leave for an indefinite amount of time. Please, gather your essentials and come with us,” the agent continued.
“An indefinite amount of time!” Hannah almost screamed as she looked at her petrified husband. A thousand scenarios and probabilities crossed her mind in the span of a few seconds but, at last, she shook herself out of her trance and went upstairs to pack a handbag while the agents returned to their vehicle to wait for her.
Peter closed the door and went upstairs to join Hannah who was already gathering her things, frantic. “What is going on? This is beyond weird.”
“Tell me about it! But what can we do? It’s the Secretary of State we are talking. Still, it sucks that I won’t be able to go to Japan after all. Will you do me a favor, Peter? Can you please call the office tomorrow morning and find out what they were told about my absence?”
“Sure, don’t worry. I’ll do it first thing. And you text me whenever you can so we know everything is okay!”
“Where is Mommy going?” The kids noticed that something was off and had joined their parents upstairs.
“I have to go back to work, Caleb. It’s a busy time for Mommy. But don’t worry, go play video games while Daddy finishes making dinner.”
“Aw, why do you have to go? When are you coming back?” Paul asked.
“I’m not quite sure, but I’ll let you know as soon as I find out. It won’t be long, you’ll see.”
And with that, Peter took the children back downstairs so that Hannah could pack. The agents didn’t look like the patient types and she hurried to finish up so she could properly say goodbye to her family.
The three of them were in a windowless room inside a vast compound in the middle of nowhere. A place with the aroma of a thousand conspiracy theories.
Less than ten minutes prior, Kyle, Hannah, and Brad had entered a tall mountain, along with several military escorts, and descended many floors below ground level in an oversized elevator. The landscape outside had been sunny and lush with vegetation, but they didn’t know where they were.
Their shock prevented them from introducing themselves, even after they were left alone in a small room. In contrast, Brad appeared calm. His military uniform suggested that he was used to this institutional form of “abuse,” but a steely something about him seemed to discourage conversation anyway. They looked at each other suspiciously and remained silent for a short while yet.
“Does someone know what the hell this is about?” Kyle said finally. He needed answers. More answers than he got from the lapidary official goons who whisked him away from MIT earlier that day.
Hannah was the first to respond. “I was making dinner at home and the next thing I know I’m on a private jet here with a bunch of spooks. That’s all I got.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” contributed Brad unceremoniously.
And he was right. After a few minutes, a tall middle-aged redhead buoyed by high heels and a lot of attitude entered the room. She walked briskly to a solitary corner table and dropped a sheaf of papers on its gray surface. Behind her was a slightly hunched-over woman with thick glasses.
“Good afternoon everybody. My name is Sonia Rogers and I’m the person you should send your complaints to. With me is Doctor Laura Henry, our Chief Scientist and perpetual advocate for all things reasonable.”
Doctor Henry shrugged her thin shoulders in a self-deprecating fashion. She was older and looked wiser than her colleague.
“Let me first apologize for the rather abrupt way in which we summoned you. You’ve all been called on by your government before. This time is different.”
“I would say this time is different, yeah.” Kyle agreed.
“Well, at least it’s good to know that someone takes responsibility for something in government,” Hannah added.
“Isn’t it? Thank you, Doctor Coleman. Allow me to make the rest of the introductions in case you didn’t get around to it yourselves. Doctor Coleman works at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and is an astrophysicist with a world-class grasp of the somewhat undervalued field of exobiology.”
“Don’t tell me this is Area 51 and we’ll get to see the green men you’ve been prodding since the 40s! My dream, at last!”
“And that would be Doctor Kyle Santiago. Nobody knows more about symbolic patterns and ciphers. I’m glad to see that he also has a sense of humor.”
“Oh yeah. I get that a lot. I’m a hoot.”
“Last, but not least, Colonel Brad Turner of the Special Forces.”
Brad nodded to the group.
“Now that we’ve dispensed with the pleasantries, let’s get down to business.” Sonia took a page from the top of the pile and composed herself before continuing.
“There is an unknown, five kilometers long ‘object’ parked in a low orbit over the dark side of the Moon.”
That got their full attention.
“A few weeks ago, astronomers tracked its progress as it crossed the heliosphere and traversed the Solar System in a matter of minutes. The object’s path aimed straight toward Earth, but it suddenly stopped at its current location and remains at rest. There is no doubt that it is manufactured and definitely not man-made.”
And just like that, it was as if all the air rushed out of the room. Nobody moved for a beat. Or two.
Those were pretty basic facts. Simple words really. But the implications of their meaning were nothing short of epochal. Not only for humanity as a whole — for each one of them also. Particularly Hannah. She had spent a lifetime trying to prove her belief that we are not alone in the universe. All that study, the long and grueling days of research, the publishing of papers, the conference attendance, the teaching, the missed kindergarten functions and sports practices. All of that converged on this moment, infusing it with personal meaning. She felt herself getting emotional.
“I don’t know what to say. I’ve dreamt of this all my life. It’s why I became an astrophysicist. I just…” She broke off, not knowing how to end her sentence.
Doctor Henry picked up where Sonia had left off. “Because of its extremely fast progression we don’t believe anyone has detected it yet — other than top observatories and research facilities around the world and they are following the established confidentiality protocols for a case such as this.” At that, she passed around a folder full of photos showing a bright, smooth triangular object above the Moon.
“These are images taken by China’s Queqiao lunar relay satellite. As some of you know, the Quequiao is located on a Lagrange L2 halo orbit 65,000 kilometers beyond the far side of the Moon, which gives it a privileged vantage point. We are lucky that our Chinese counterparts deemed appropriate to share the photos with us.”
“Unbelievable. I’ve got a million questions…What do you intend to do about this?” Hannah said, looking at the photos.
“We have to find out what the object is, obviously, but there’s no time to sit back and study it from a distance,” Sonia replied. “Who knows what it might do next — or when. We’ve called on the Russians and the Chinese to help us build a ship in record time to take a twelve-member team to the Moon’s orbit. We have a high-level plan in place, but there are many details that need to be worked out. However, the leaders of the three countries not only approved the mission immediately as their top national security priority, they expect us to brief them on the exact nature and purpose of the object by the end of the year — so long as it stays put before we get there, that is.”
It was already mid-May and they let that thought sink in.
“In the eventuality that the object moves again before we get to it…well…rest assured that we are also working on a plan B,” Sonia added.
“So, what now?” Kyle asked.
“All in due time, Doctor. Try to get some sleep. You are flying to Russia tomorrow to start accelerated astronaut training. Welcome to Project Attica.”