“We’re receiving a Proximity alert, I take it.” Jora walked in and leaned over the console, scanning the incoming stream of data.
“They really should have called it something else,” I said, as I started up the retrieval protocol.
“I mean it’s confusing.”
I swiveled my chair toward her. “Does it mean it’s closer or farther away?”
Jora glanced over at me and grinned. “If you don’t know that, how did you get assigned to this station?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure the person who hired me knew what they were doing.”
She elbowed me lightly. “I hope I did.”
I swiveled back to the console and continued handling the incoming data. “You did. Trajectory just came in. It’s not headed to Earth…this time.”
Jora nodded. “Good, that’s good. Log it and start data retrieval, oh, which you’re already doing.” She raised her still-steaming cup. “If that’s it for now, I’m going back to my break.”
I glanced at the reading on the console, at the name of the ship.
Watching for signs of the ship had become a routine task, a protocol that even an entry-level technician could follow. We were constantly reminded how important our jobs were. But canned platitudes from a disembodied voice on a teleconference call wasn’t enough for me to grasp how profound a thing it would be if I was the one on shift when the trajectory data showed that Proximity was headed back to Earth again. It wasn’t enough for me to grasp how terrible it would be if I were to miss that because I’d become complacent. Hope followed by horror was the story of the Proximity. Hope followed by horror. Over and over again, including the last time the ship was close to Earth. The last tragic chapter in the ship’s story.
If I was going to be part of Proximity’s story, I had to do everything in my power to make sure that something other than horror followed hope this time. I couldn’t allow myself to miss anything. But I also couldn’t allow myself to see significance in every little seemingly anomalous blip in the data stream.
My boss didn’t always return right away from her dinner break. She had other rounds to make. She had her own work to do. By the time she returned, I would probably talk myself out of it. It was now or never.
She was turned all the way around, taking a step toward the door.
She turned back around as I rose from my chair. It was chilly in the room, as usual. But I felt warm. My face felt warm.
She didn’t say anything. She just took a sip of her coffee and relaxed her posture. She was letting me know that she wasn’t in any hurry to get back to her break. I wouldn’t normally bother her—or anyone—when they were on break.
“I…there was something that I wanted to have you take a look at. It’s from an earlier data stream? From yesterday actually. It may be nothing, but just in case…I mean we’re the only ones looking at this. Anyway, I know that having you look at it means I’m officially reporting it.”
She shook her head slightly. “Not necessarily. What is it? Did you find something? Something not typical?”
I’d recognized something in the previous stream that looked different from the other packets of data that we’d been receiving, at least since I’d been on the monitoring team. I wasn’t sure what it was, so I ran it through several filters, applications, translators, whatever I had on hand. When I reviewed the results, only one thing seemed to make sense.
“It seems to be an audio file,” I said. “But that’s weird, because we’ve been receiving Proximity’s ambient and event-triggered audio recordings. But this file…it’s almost as if it were hidden? Or am I introducing a bias here?”
I stopped talking. Jora had admonished me many times not to get ahead of myself if I ever found any information in the data stream that appeared to be significant. I showed her the file in the context of the original data stream.
“That’s subtle,” she said. “How did you see that? I didn’t know you were so good at pattern recognition.”
I smiled. “I killed at that card matching game when I was in kindergarten,” I said. “Can I play the processed file for you?”
She nodded and I played the file.
I said nothing about what I heard. I just watched Jora’s face. She bunched up her brows and leaned in, even though the volume was as loud as I could make it without broadcasting it through the building. She blinked. Her eyes shifted. After a moment, I realized she was holding her breath. She let it out when the recording stopped. It was short, a little under a minute. She asked me play it again two more times. The second time, she closed her eyes and stood still. By the third time, she had resumed sipping her coffee.
I thought it looked as if she were trying to make something out, but…Jora is the one who had hammered it into me to watch out for biases and to resist inserting biases into other people’s perceptions.
I waited, saying nothing.
Jora extended her left hand and turned her wrist to the console. She transferred a copy of the file—the original unaltered version and my processed version—onto her wrist drive.
“I have access to some tools that may be able to make some more sense out of this,” she said.
“Then you didn’t hear anything significant?”
She turned her face to me. In the glow of the console lights, her skin gleamed a ghostly blue. “Like what?”
“Like…uh, like words? Or noises that sound like words.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
She straightened and looked at me. With all the lights reflecting off her glasses, her eyes seemed to glitter. “You hear a voice? What do you hear it saying?”
“I don’t know. I…I can’t make it out.”
Jora nodded. “Okay, what does it sound like? Can you try to demonstrate?”
I chewed on my lip. If there was a voice that meant someone was aboard the ship. There could be any number of explanations. An alien. The ship itself, having gained sentience, and somehow a voice. But the simplest, most obvious explanation was that at least one of the five made it aboard Proximity when it skimmed the Earth’s atmosphere over a decade ago. And that meant the authorities either didn’t know or…
I peered at Jora. “What do you hear?”
She raised her left wrist. “Honestly, I don’t feel comfortable saying until I’ve checked it out further.”
“You said we could keep this unofficial.”
“And I already have a bias. I believe I hear a voice. Saying something. The pattern I hear, it sounds like language.” I took a deep breath and exhaled as I spoke. “But it’s no language I’ve ever heard of. And none that I could match it to when I searched. No language or dialect on Earth—at least none that’s been currently logged. I know how serious it would be to claim that someone survived the boarding attempt.”
“If you’re using the word ‘serious,’ I don’t think you do. It would be monumental in fact.”
“But if someone is aboard, has been aboard all this time…they haven’t managed to fix the engine. They’re still snapping out of control, unless all these wild trajectories are on purpose.”
“Proximity could have picked up and relayed a signal from somewhere else,” Jora said. “We could be looking at a world-altering piece of information here, but not in the way that you think.”
Jora smiled. “I think I know what you’re getting at. If someone is still alive aboard the Proximity, then we have to reach out and help them. But then, why haven’t they sent any messages before? It’s been over ten years. We’ve been monitoring that whole time, and Prox has been sending us data the whole time. I don’t think we would have missed—“
“Why did they hide it? And if they’re hiding it, why bother sending a message? Makes me think it’s not for us.”
“Then who’s it for? No other agency, state, or person has the equipment, the set-up, needed to receive even the strongest signal from Proximity. No one else has communications entanglement.”
I winced and sighed. I knew she was right. “Will you let me know if you find anything? Or…am I not allowed to know?”
She smiled. “At a certain level, we’re probably both not allowed to know things. But I will let you know if I find out anything more about this file than we know right now.”
She picked up her forgotten coffee mug from the side table, frowning down at it. I sat back down and directed my attention back to the console, hoping for quiet for the rest of my shift. Sometimes an entire shift could go by without a single Proximity alert.
At the corner of my eye, I caught Jora turning back around and I glanced over.
“Off the record,” she said, “it sounds like utterances to me.”
I pressed my lips together in a smile and waited until she left the room before I let my jaw drop.
Her last words were meant to be reassuring. But I’d known Jora long enough to have picked up on a few of her patterns—unintentionally picked up. She was an honest person. I once saw her trying to fake smile at some visiting diplomat she despised. I’ve never seen a human face look so plastic. She managed everyone on the Proximity monitoring team. General announcements during the monthly team meeting is when I learned the pattern for what my boss’s face looked like when she was telling us something she hoped and believed versus when she was telling us something she knew to be true.
She didn’t think or believe or guess she’d heard utterances. She knew she had. She was stating a fact. To me they sounded like whispers. I’d even played the file backwards because it sounded a little like some of the sounds were cut off, the way speech sounds when it’s recorded and played backwards. But that had made no difference. Not to me.
But did the utterances make sense to Jora?
If they did, why wouldn’t she say so?
Maybe I was letting my biases get the better of me again. It was so easy to do when I really started thinking about what I was doing, where the data was coming from that I just casually retrieved and logged.
Distant Proximity. The sleek new ship with the prototype “tension engine” designed to transport its host vessel hundreds of thousands of light years in a snap.
The abandoned mission to visit the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri.
It only took ten years for the world to forget the most ambitious mission humanity has ever attempted since first venturing into outer space.
“I’m not supposed to say anything to you, or anyone, so don’t let on,” Jora said.
We were outside on the roof. Just overlooking the original hangar where they built the Proximity actually. It wasn’t that strange for either of us to be there. My shift started right after Jora’s first break. She’d discovered that the roof was a good place to go if she wanted quiet on her break. She’d told us all about it. When I first started, I’d come in early so I could study before my shift, but after a while, I’d join Jora on her break and we’d watch the sun set.
I tried not to glance around. There was no one else on the roof with us.
Still Jora lowered her voice and we leaned our heads together as she continued. “That audio file you gave me does have a voice on it. That voice is human and it is aboard the Proximity.”
I gaped. “What are they saying? Could you make it out?”
Jora hesitated. She seemed to be trying to figure out how much more to say or how to say it. She glanced at the horizon and narrowed her eyes against the last light of the sun.
She turned back to me and looked me in the eyes.
“They’re asking for help.”
Seven days later, the Proximity appeared in the clear blue summer skies above the Atlantic Ocean. The technician on shift had only minutes of warning. Not enough for anyone to do anything but send ships out to where the trajectory data pointed.
Early fears had been about the tension engine creating some kind of hybrid force like gravity-magnetism that would attract debris and energy around it as it flicked from system to system. So if and when it returned to Earth, it would bring all that accumulated matter and energy crashing into our planet. At best we could expect mass extinctions and an ice age. At worst, the force would tear the planet apart and throw our solar system out of balance.
Thankfully that didn’t happen. But the acceleration from gravity and the friction from the layers of atmosphere were forceful enough to rattle apart the prototype ship even before it touched the water. Once Proximity did hit the water, the ship broke apart completely.
Rescue crews found some pieces of wreckage. No component of the tension engine was found. And this was not reported to the public, but there was evidence of life onboard. Something later identified as a hand was found floating on the surface three days after the crash. Tests were run and it was confirmed that the hand had belonged to one of the five people who were previously presumed to have died in the failed attempt to board Proximity when the ship skimmed the Earth’s atmosphere ten years prior.
Jora wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but she’d told me. The next day, I found myself up on the roof late in the morning. I cried, washed my face, and went to work. We weren’t actively monitoring anymore, but there was still data to review.
“You didn’t have to come in today,” Jora said when she saw me. “Did you see my message about how they’re giving us a week off?”
I wiped a tear that had formed at the corner of my eye. “I know I’m just a technician, but I wanted to help save them.”
“You did…all that you could.”
“Their families don’t even know. And I can’t tell anyone.” I sniffed and pulled my chair up against the console. “Maybe I’ll find something I am allowed to tell.”
“The job is over. The Proximity returned. It’s terrible, but it’s not your burden to bear.”
“Hope turned into horror.”
“It’s the story of Proximity.” I turned my chair toward her. “A cycle of hope turned into horror. The hope of the tension engine sending us to our nearest star in minutes. Faster than light can get there. But the engine didn’t work. So they kept at it and got it to work. They proved it would work. So they get it on a ship and they get ready for the voyage, and during the pre-flight test, the engine kicks on and the ship snaps away with no crew.” I inhaled and sighed. “But there’s hope in the rigorous safety features. But every failsafe fails. Every single one? So they hope they can build a new engine and go get their ship. But then, they learn about the…the potential side effects of the tension engine being in continuous operation. The ship would basically turn into a meteor and if it ever returned to Earth, it might end all life on the planet? But data comes in that shows that won’t happen. Okay good, so the crew doesn’t give up. They devise a plan. When Proximity returns to our system, they’ll jump aboard and decouple the engine from the power source. So they try. Five people go up. They try, but they don’t even get close before their vessel blows up. Hope turned into horror. How did this all become a job where a guy like me clocks in and watches a console and just reports when I see where the ship is going?”
Jora sat down across from me. “It may not seem like it in moments like this, but by doing what we’re doing, we are trying to salvage as much hope as we can. And we are succeeding, every time we properly log and retrieve data.”
“I’m staying on,” I said. “I heard they’ll keep the station open for another four years? To keep reviewing everything we got from Proximity.”
Jora nodded. “That’s what I’ve been told. I’d be more than happy to have you stay, but there might be other projects that could use you talents.”
“I couldn’t help save the crew, but maybe I can help save their story.”
Jora was quiet for a moment, but I could tell she was trying to think of something else to say. Finally, she huffed out a breath. “Do you have any plans after your shift?”
“Well, not to sound parental, but I’d like to take you out to dinner and talk about your future.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. That did sound exactly like something my dad would say—had actually said to me before.
We would all be on the day shift now that there was no need for continuous monitoring. So, strange as it was, I’d be finishing my shift at the same time I normally would have been starting it. It was the shift I’d wanted when I first started, but then I’d gotten used to working at night. It didn’t make sense, but it seemed to fit what I was doing, maybe because I could see space at night.
I agreed to dinner, not because I wanted to talk about the future, but because I didn’t want to go straight home.
We were seated in a booth by the window. The sun was mostly below the horizon. We’d be seeing the stars as we ate. I felt a little better.
Jora looked over the menu at me. “If you’re into custard, try the strawberry custard pie for dessert—or at least take it to go—trust me.”
Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe I was already getting nostalgic, but when she leaned toward me, Jora’s skin glowed blue just like it looked in the lights of the console.
“I’ve made a decision,” she said. “And the interesting thing, the thing that makes me nervous, is that whether or not I’ve made the right decision is not up to me.” She paused. “It’s up to you.”
I sighed. I’d expected this. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
“Not yet, actually. My job is not quite done. But it will be very soon and then, yes, I will be leaving.”
“But the way you were talking earlier, it sounded like you were staying with the project.”
Our server came then and we placed our orders. We were both silent for the few minutes that it took for our server to bring our drinks. Jora had coffee, of course.
She glanced out of the window. “Did you ever wonder why we gave up on building shields or some way to destroy Proximity before it ever got close to Earth?”
“Well, we learned from the initial data that the tension engine was not in fact gathering a destructive ball of matter and energy that could annihilate our planet.”
“So crisis averted?”
“It seemed that way.”
“‘Seemed.’ Interesting word.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“What if you knew the tension engine wasn’t itself a danger to Earth? You wouldn’t need shields or anything. You could let the ship bounce from system to system with no brakes, no homing beacon, no ‘go home’ command. Let it harmlessly gather data for you. Let it quietly die one day when the engine goes taut and snaps the ship right into a star.”
I tried to follow the logic of her premise. “How would you know that? That the engine wasn’t a danger?”
Jora peered at me.
“Wait,” I said, “What do you mean the engine itself wasn’t a danger? So there is a danger? But it’s not the engine? Then…the ship?”
Jora raised her brows. “You read up on Project Distant Proximity, didn’t you? Beyond the provided materials? Do you remember what the project team said about the potential reasons for the accident that happened during the pre-flight checks?”
I leaned back in my seat and my eyes went wide. “Sorry, professor, I didn’t know I was getting a physics and engineering exam. I didn’t study.”
“You’re overcomplicating it.”
The only potential reason that wasn’t about micro-flaws in the engine design or misunderstandings in the theories of extra dimensions beyond space-time, the only one I understood and could condense down into one word was…
Jora propped her elbows on the table, wove her fingers together, and rested her chin her them.
“But that would mean…”
“It worked,” Jora said. “The engine really worked.”
“Someone didn’t want it to?”
Jora shook her head.
“Think about it. What was its purpose, the purpose of the whole mission?”
“What about it?”
“The mission was to visit—so someone didn’t want us going there? Then why not stop the project before it even starts? Why not save all that money and effort? People made their careers on that project, until it failed. Why…unless that was the point. A public failure?”
“And a public tragedy.”
She meant the failed attempt for five of the project leads to board Proximity. Or what was reported as a failed attempt. The ship they were on had blown up in the wake of Proximity’s passing.
I frowned. “They wanted to make sure no one would try again, at least not for a long, long time to come. But who is ‘they’? Why would they…” I felt a lurching in the pit of my stomach. “Does this have something to do Proximity’s crash? Wait, did the audio file…is it related?” I wiped my temple.
Jora was peering at me.
“I understand that you want to take responsibility for your actions,” she said. “And that you won’t believe me when I tell you that your finding that audio file did not lead to the destruction of the Proximity, and the death of whoever was aboard. If you truly want to take responsibility for the work that you’ve done, the part that you’ve played in the story of the Proximity, meet me back here in three nights after your shift.”
Of course I met up with Jora in three nights. She had decided to take the time off that we’d all been offered. We had dinner and talked about everything but work. I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up. I thought she might have forgotten all about it. I thought maybe she just wanted to meet up to say a final farewell. After a few days off, she already looked far more casual than I’d ever seen her look at work. Her posture, her face, they were all relaxed. And she didn’t drink coffee. She had a raspberry lemonade.
Maybe I was seeing meaning in things that didn’t have meaning.
When we were in the parking lot, I finally realized that was it.
“Well, Jora, I want to thank you for everyth—“
“Your car will be okay here,” she said, glancing over at my car. “I know the owner. They don’t normally let people park overnight. But I told her we might be late.”
She pointed to her car and I climbed in.
“It’ll take us the better part of an hour to get to where we’re going,” she said. “In the meantime, I should probably tell you something, before I start the car, just to be fair, and give you a chance to hop out and make a run for it if you want…”
I had the door halfway closed and held it in place while I glanced over at her. Jora turned to me and grinned, her face glowing with a blue light.
“You did a stellar job with that audio file,” she said. “I didn’t need to do anything more with it, anything at all. I understood every word he was saying, though I was surprised at the language he was speaking. That a human could learn and speak universal Centaurian.”
I made a leap then, but it wasn’t out of her car. I slammed the door shut and turned to her. “I knew it! You’re an alien.”
Jora’s grin grew wider. She seemed so human. Even that was human. Smiling like that, she’d always reminded me of my sister.
She chuckled as she started the car. “What do you mean you knew it?”
“You’re too nice and competent. I’ve never had a human supervisor like that.”
She pulled onto the road. “That sounds like a bias to me.”
“Maybe it is. But I also have ample anecdotal evidence. If your honor would allow me to approach the bench.”
“No time, counselor. We need to move this case along.” She pointed to the map so I could see where we were going. “How about I fill in some of the gaps on the way?”
I made myself focus on what Jora was saying. I would have to process the reality of her being an alien later. It wasn’t a prank. Her face was glowing blue no matter what light shown on it. Her eyes had extra sparkles in them, but they were hard to see because she wore glasses. Her voice had a resonance to it that always sounded calm, even when she sounded angry or happy. I would let her offer to show me her true form. I wouldn’t ask. Just in case that was rude.
I told myself to stop thinking about aliens and focus on what my alien boss was saying.
There wasn’t much I didn’t know at this point. Jora was right. There was just gaps that helped connect the whole story, a story that should have been triumphant and adventurous, and scary too, because all frontiers are scary.
Long before the minds that conceived of the tension engine were ever born, before the dream of visiting our neighboring star within our lifetimes became a possibility, then a probability, Earth itself was visited.
A people far outside of solar system but within our native galaxy contacted the authorities of Earth and asked permission to visit and study Earth and its cultures. Their request was politely denied. The reason given was that the people of Earth weren’t ready to learn about sentient life on other worlds. Not as a whole. And those who were ready would just have to wait.
Being barely able to reach our moon, much less to traverse our own solar system, and far less to visit other systems, it seemed we were at the mercy of these aliens. But they respected the wishes of Earth’s authorities. And in the decades that followed, the never visited, though they did keep a casual watch on the system, knowing that powers shifted and turned over, and one day, Earth might change its mind.
They learned about Project Distant Proximity. They were intrigued by the plan to build an engine that wove together a “cable made from the very fibers of reality,” in the words of one of its inventors, and to use that cable to hurl its host vessel to the nearest star. The concepts were advanced. Devising a practical application was far beyond ambitious for a people who were still mostly anchored to their own planet.
Proxima Centauri didn’t have any habitable planets. But it did have a sentient-made bridge, one that was too small to be visible from Earth. But Earth’s authorities were told of its existence, told that they could use that bridge when they were ready to receive visitors to their system and their planet. The crew aboard the Proximity would see that bridge. They would encounter some sentient life, maybe even the same aliens who once hoped to visit Earth.
“That was the reason for the sabotage,” I said, as Jora pulled off the road and drove some ways out into an open stretch of field.
“And for the attempt to blow up the jump-vessel that five very brave and very foolish people took up into space to try and catch a ride on Proximity.”
“But they did blow it up.”
“Not before all five people made it aboard.”
“I’m curious about that myself.”
We got out of the car. Jora kept the keys in the engine and the headlights on. We moved to the front of the car and waited.
“This tension engine you’ve devised is quite capricious,” she said.
I smiled. “Capricious? What does that mean?”
“Are you speaking a human language right now?”
“But that doesn’t mean it’s unpredictable.” She pulled something out of her pocket. It looked like her phone but she had some kind of peripheral attached to the top. She held it out.
She glanced over at me. “Brace yourself.”
I felt a sudden pressure in my ears and I grunted.
“You okay?” Jora asked.
I pressed my fingers against my jaw just below my ears. I still felt pressure, but no pain.
I blinked and as I raised my eyelids, a massive shape appeared in the field before us. I recognized the shape. The gleaming panels, the arcing fins, the landing gear that looked like birds’ feet. There was a hum in the air that was spinning down. Tiny cyclones swirled beneath the vessel.
“Proximity,” I whispered.
Jora raised her device toward the ship. “Proximity, go ahead and raise the cloak. I’m monitoring.”
And just like that, the ship flickered away.
“The cloak is redundant,” Jora explained. “The materials that Prox is made from should be good enough to hide it, but better safe than sorry.”
“Jora, how are we looking?” The voice came from her device. It sounded familiar.
“You’re looking invisible,” Jora said. “Take your time. We’ve just had dinner.”
I pointed to where the ship had just been and was still standing, presumably, but cloaked. “Proximity?”
“Not the original. The original is in the Atlantic Ocean.”
“They found a hand.”
Jora turned to me and winced. “I know. And I’m very sorry that I let you think that the crew had died. That hand was manufactured. I had access to the crew’s genetic profiles. And I made some modifications to a bio-printer. Not good enough to make artificial organs, unfortunately, but a fake dead hand, that I could do.”
“The crash was staged?”
“I’ve only filled in the gaps in what you already kind of knew. But there’s a lot you don’t. Like, you haven’t had time to ask me what I’m doing here, and how dare I come to your planet when your authorities forbade alien visitors.”
I gulped and rubbed below my ears. “I know I should be amazed at meeting you, but I’ve known you this whole time, and…”
“And we’re friends,” Jora said.
“And we’re friends.” I nodded.
“Well, now that I won’t be your boss anymore.”
I pointed at the empty field. “But they’re in there? All five of them?”
Jora grinned. “Strange, isn’t it? An alien welcoming humans back to Earth.”
I glanced between Jora and the invisible ship. “They asked for help and…you helped them.”
Jora elbowed me. “We. We helped them.”
She held her device before me and started showing me some of the readings.
“Hey, before your stop being my boss,” I said. “I have one last thing to report.”
Jora shook her head, and I laughed, and a light appeared in front of us as the door of the Proximity opened.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel