By Brian Biswas
“GOOD GOD.” GEORGE TREVOR pulled himself away from the computer screen, his light-brown eyes opened wide in disbelief. He was in Professor Crews’ Exoplanetary Research Lab on Stanford University’s main campus.
He swept a hand through thick, dark hair. “It’s the signature we’ve been looking for, Nance. I can’t believe it.”
Nancy Simmons was on the other side of the lab, filing this week’s data sets from the high-resolution interferometer. The professor had an inherent distrust of computers and made his assistants file hard copies of all lab results.
She spun around. “What did you find?”
George took a deep breath. “Exactly as we hypothesized, Nance. Pulses of energy at the M32 and C5 bands.”
The two lab assistants had spent the last year scanning the constellation Cygnus looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. It was a project made possible by the launch of BioProbe, a satellite whose mission was to identify exoplanets and analyze their atmospheres, searching for unusual spectra or energy bursts which might indicate the presence of life.
“Let’s have a look!” It was Professor Crews, striding into the lab wearing his wrinkled white lab coat. The professor was a giant of a man with bushy jet-black hair, luminous dark eyes, and a prominent goatee. In his right hand he held a stack of scientific journals. He set them on the table, then crossed the room to examine George’s computer screen.
“Quite a match,” he said, as he stroked his beard. “Isn’t that planet X35 in the Sigma system?”
Identified early-on as an Earth-like world, X35 had been closely monitored by the lab for some time.
“No, it’s X37,” George replied. X37 was at the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone. It was twice the size of Earth, possessed only a tenuous atmosphere, and had garnered far less attention.
Nancy broke in. “The data we’ve been examining is six months old. It was obtained when we were performing a scan of the Sigma system. Our initial analysis turned up nothing, that is, no anomalies were observed at the frequencies we were monitoring. It turns out we were looking for the wrong thing. We’d assumed that an abnormal increase in oxygen, methane, or carbon dioxide levels in a planet’s atmosphere would indicate the presence of life. Now, that’s a plausible assumption, so we can’t be blamed for thinking it was the case.”
“But it wasn’t,” George interjected, rising from a stool so the professor could take a closer look. “Turns out the evidence was on another band, one that showed signs of chemical activity on the planet’s surface. The activity was metabolic in nature. If anabolism is detected it almost certainly means—”
“Life.” Professor Crews pulled himself away from the computer screen. “In all probability, highly evolved life. On X37.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” George said. “Life, yes. But highly evolved?”
Dr. Crews was adamant. “The chemical signature mirrors exactly what extraterrestrials would observe of Earth! We must, therefore, assume the existence of a technological civilization. Most likely on the order of our own. I am confident that further results will substantiate my hypothesis.”
All other possibilities were eventually ruled out, and on the twenty-fourth of March, 2073, the results were published in the “Journal of Intragalactic Exploration.”
Nuclear fission is the splitting apart of atomic nuclei. The process was perfected in the mid-twentieth century. It was the basis of the world’s nuclear industry by 2050, accounting for eighty percent of the world’s energy needs. Unfortunately, nuclear fission was a political nightmare. No one wanted radioactive byproducts in their backyard.
Everyone realized that nuclear fusion—the energy source which powered the stars—was the ultimate answer. But the technology was complex and expensive, with half-a-dozen theoretical problems still to be worked out, most important of which was how to bottle up the high-temperature gases needed to make fusion feasible.
That is, until now.
“Gentleman, I believe we have a breakthrough.” Professor Fred Gable’s dark-brown eyes sparkled as he slammed his fist down on the lab bench in triumph. “Yes!”
The Caltech Thermonuclear Research Laboratory was a twelve-person lab composed of physicists, materials engineers, and graduate students. Under the direction of Professor Gable, the lab had been working for years on what was termed the thermonuclear plasma containment problem.
The lab’s first attempts were met with failure. In traditional reactor technology, magnetic fields were used to confine and control plasma flow through the reactor. A large current was induced by changing the direction of the magnetic field. The current flowed perpendicular to the field and heated the plasma to the enormous temperatures required. At that point, plasma flowed freely along magnetic field lines.
The lab found that heating plasma to one hundred million Kelvin wasn’t the issue; it was the inability to control plasma flow once stellar temperatures were reached. Magnetic field generation was the key, but the mathematical problems were complex. A new set of algorithms needed to be developed, and work towards that end had been painfully slow.
But all of that was behind them.
“Three cheers for Professor Gable!” The chant echoed throughout the lab. A bottle of champagne was uncorked. No doubt about it, everyone knew who was tops in the running for this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
The breakthrough was announced on June 18, 2073. Professor Gable said that a prototype reactor was at most two years away, with the first commercial reactor available within a decade. A limitless supply of pollution-free energy would be at hand.
Dr. Herbert Sloan, Director of Planetary Missions at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was gazing out the window of his office on the eighth floor of the agency’s administration building. He’d been going over plans for a proposed mission to Titan, recently sent over from the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. It sounded interesting. Damn interesting. The Cassandra mission to Saturn had sent a probe beneath Titan’s surface, confirming that the moon’s methane lakes extended for kilometers. More astonishingly, the probe found evidence of lakes composed of liquid water. And that meant there was a good chance life existed there as well. The Huygens II Mission, scheduled to launch in early 2075, would send a probe loaded with advanced scientific instruments to determine if life did in fact exist.
Dr. Sloan’s cell phone rang.
It was Jordan Roberts, one of Langley’s top geological engineers. “Just got off the phone with Professor Crews over at Stanford,” he said excitedly. “The old man wanted to know what I knew about exoplanet geology. I told him there wasn’t any such discipline. Crews said there will be soon.”
“They find something?” Dr. Sloan knew about Dr. Crews’ project to detect the conditions for life on exoplanets. He’d even agreed to Crews’ request to point BioProbe at the Sigma system for an extended period, when it meant bumping other—more vocal—research groups. And initial results had not been promising. Sloan took heat for that.
“Forget about biomarkers,” Roberts said. “Dr. Crews claims they’ve found evidence of an advanced civilization on X37.” He let the words sink in. “And from what I see of the preliminary data, he might be right.”
“I’ll be right over.” Dr. Sloan hung up, told his secretary he’d be in engineering the rest of the afternoon. As for the mission to Titan, it would have to wait.
The news was met with stunned disbelief. That extraterrestrial civilizations existed—or had existed in the past—was considered likely. But this was cold, hard evidence. Chemical and biological markers that could not be denied. And the exoplanet was close at hand: the Sigma star system was only four light-years from Earth.
Earth faced a dilemma. Should it attempt to contact the planet? A meeting of the United Nations was held July 21 at which numerous proposals were put forward. Arguments were presented for both sides.
With no consensus—and apparently none possible—NASA made the unilateral decision to send a message to X37. Traveling at the speed of light, it would be a four-year journey. Even if a civilization recognized it as an alien greeting, it would be another four years for any reply.
“You know what this means?” Professor Crews said to George and Nancy when news of NASA’s space message was announced. “Nothing less than an evolution in human consciousness. Why, in the near future we may find ourselves living in a society as far advanced over our modern-age as it is above the Paleolithic!”
Nancy frowned. “Provided we’re not eaten by marauding aliens.”
“I don’t know about that,” George laughed.
In the months that followed, Dr. Crews’ lab continued crunching data. And numbers kept pouring in from BioProbe. A follow-up mission was scheduled for March 2075: BioProbe 2.
“This can’t be.” Professor Harvey Wasserman, head investigator of the Planetary Research Laboratory, Imperial College, London, wiped a hand across his sweaty brow. He was a tall, thin man with lively blue eyes. An expert in his field and well-respected. “There’s nothing there. Nothing at all.”
The lab had made a startling discovery. Utilizing the same methods as the Stanford lab, but analyzing data from a different sector of the galaxy, they found no indication of life, advanced or primitive.
“Statistically speaking there should be some signal to find,” said astrobiologist Marge Lewinsky. She’d been at the Stanford lab when the initial discovery was announced. “It doesn’t invalidate what Crews detected. But it calls into question his theory of how life propagates through a galactic system.”
According to Dr. Crews, because physical laws were the same everywhere, it stood to reason that when planetary conditions were suitable, evolutionary forces would ensure life developed. Surveys found that planetary systems were evenly distributed throughout the galaxy. That meant life should be evenly distributed throughout the galaxy, as well.
“That could still be true,” Lewinsky continued. “But maybe its distribution is on a larger scale than we envisioned.”
“You mean life is rarer than we thought.”
Professor Wasserman nervously drummed a lab desk. “Perhaps. Or it could mean ...”
There had always been skeptics, those who wondered if Dr. Crews had erred in the analysis of the original data. After all, his methods were novel and complex. Because extraterrestrial biology might well depend on different chemical processes, might there be another explanation? BioProbe 2 would put an end to all speculation. But it would be months before results from the probe would become available. The scientific community would simply have to wait.
Visiting Professor Jennifer Piorka was in Stanford’s astrophysics lab the day data from BioProbe 2 began to arrive. Though not a member of the team examining X37’s data, Dr. Piorka had followed the investigation with interest. She was from the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, and had been at Stanford the past year. Ambitious and beautiful, she was often found poking about in the labs, to the delight of the male staff.
One day she broached the possibility to Professor Crews that an extraterrestrial civilization’s fusion reactors might be detectable.
“A molecular effusion cloud, produced by such a reactor, would make detection relatively straightforward,” she said.
He seemed intrigued. “And the defining means ...?”
“Hydrogen and tritium transition radio lines. No natural process could account for their presence.”
“The problem is that the cloud rapidly disassociates to a ground atomic state.”
“In other words, detection must be quick.”
Professor Crews nodded. “If current research comes to a dead end, that may be our next area of investigation!”
It was November 14, 2075, a day that would be remembered throughout human history. It was the day mankind fired up the world’s first nuclear-powered fusion reactor. The Gabletron, as it was known at Caltech, heated plasma to a temperature of one-hundred million Kelvin, though only for a tenth of a second and in micro quantities. It was merely proof of concept, but that was all it was intended to be.
“We’ve reached the throne of the gods!” Professor Gable intoned when the critical plasma temperature was reached.
Now came the hard part: securing funding for a full-scale reactor. After an intense year-long campaign, a billion dollars was pledged and an engineering and construction team was put together. The total number of scientists involved was nearly three hundred and was expected to double by the time the project was in full swing.
Ground was broken near Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2076. Gabletron II. It would be a massive five-year effort: a two hundred meter wide ring of gleaming metal, with thousands of magnetic coils surrounding the ring and generating the magnetic fields which induced current in the plasma.
The ring was completed on schedule and within budget after eighteen months. Next up: the magnetic coils. Because of Dr. Gable’s design breakthrough, this most difficult part of construction was greatly simplified. Two years later the coils were in place. Testing could commence.
During Test Phase 1, the ring was filled with helium, a non-reactive gas. The purpose of this phase was to make certain the gas could be heated and plasma flow controlled. Two months later, Test Phase 2. The helium was replaced with tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. When heated to a temperature five times that of the sun, the isotope became a plasma, an ionized gas consisting of free electrons and unbound nuclei. Fusion occurred when these nuclei were forced together. And that was the job of the current induced by the magnetic field.
It was a gradual process, slowly increasing the reactor’s capacity until the necessary temperature was attained.
“All systems go,” Professor Gable declared.
Dr. Crews’ next directive was to expand the lab’s research to include unexamined regions of the sky. That required a proposal to convince NASA to give the lab more time with BioProbe 2. After the usual lobbying effort, a proposal was accepted and extra time apportioned. The lab could not have been more pleased when data came streaming in. Over a period of eight months, they detected signs of three civilizations over a broad portion of the heavens. The technique, developed at Imperial College the year before, used Piorka-Wasserman algorithms to detect planetary fusion reactions.
“It’s unbelievable,” George said to Nancy as the two pored over data showing signs of life on a planet in the Tau Ceti system. “Tau b: strong tritium transition lines at fourteen hundred megahertz.”
At the inner edge of its sun’s habitable zone, the exoplanet was one of five that orbited Tau Ceti, a G-class star about twelve light-years from Earth.
Unfortunately there was a problem. And it was a significant one. In the fall of 2080, not only did X37’s signals vanish, but of the three dozen known planetary signals, only eight were still detectable. The others had simply disappeared. Moreover, it was eight years since NASA’s message to X37 and no reply had been received.
The mood in the lab was somber. Crazy theories reverberated throughout the popular press: There had never been signals. It was all a ruse, the real mission being to further weapons development. It was even alleged that Stanford’s lab was in the government’s pocket!
Dr. Crews rolled his eyes in dismay. “The signals were real,” he said to George one afternoon. “And they were spread all over the sky.”
George stroked his chin. “Perhaps we were in error ...”
“And if our interpretation was correct?”
“Then something happened to the civilizations on those planets.”
“Or they learned to mask their energy output. Or they moved on to another form of energy we’re not able to detect. There could be any number of reasons!”
“I suppose so,” George sighed. “Still, it seems to be happening with frightening regularity.”
Exactly what scared George remained unspoken, but Dr. Crews thought he knew what it was.
Gabletron II reached full capacity on February 16, 2081. Three hundred million watts of fusion-powered energy. Enough to supply a small city. But Professor Gable would not stop there. After delivering a series of lectures in America and abroad, he announced plans to form an international consortium to oversee construction of a half-dozen mega-reactors spread over the globe and, eventually, thousands of smaller units extending from those central hubs like spokes on a wheel, each powering a city or rural area. It would usher in a new era of an endless supply of clean, affordable energy.
In October, 2081, Dr. Gable received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on fusion reactor technology. In his acceptance speech, he said:
“... as a civilization progresses, its energy requirements increase; at the same time the amount of energy the civilization is able to produce is bound by the limits of its technology. A point is reached at which the amount of energy which can be produced no longer equals or exceeds that which is required. The civilization must acquire the technology needed to produce its energy requirements—or it will stagnate and, eventually, die. Though we have managed to survive the leap to primitive fusion technology, it has limits. Eventually, we will need to evolve to the next level: harnessing the entire power output of a star. We must ask ourselves: will our race be able to meet that challenge when the moment is upon us ...?”
Dr. Crews was grim. The lab’s research was going nowhere. Now all of the signals had vanished. Moreover, in the past three months nothing new had been discovered. He had hoped it would come down to instrumentation failure, but tests indicated all systems were functioning normally. There must be another explanation. Unfortunately, the government was in no mood to commit funds to a third BioProbe mission. All anyone wanted to talk about was nuclear fusion. The fire of the gods.
“The fire of the gods ...” Dr. Crews said forlornly to George and Nancy when they brought the latest—negative—search results to his office. “What is man? A modern-day Prometheus thieving fire from Mount Olympus?”
Their attention was diverted by the latest announcement from Herb Slotsky, noted science writer for the “Los Angeles Times,” as it flashed across Professor Crews’ computer screen:
... it will be a twenty-year project funded by the world’s major powers. Twelve thousand fusion reactors. A massive ten gigawatt grid. The greatest construction project the world has ever known. The mighty Gabletron III. A new era dawning for the human race!
“The fire of the gods,” Dr. Crews repeated. “And when we ascend that mighty throne, will we have acquired the wisdom to wisely use the inferno we would then possess?” He glanced at the lab results before him. “Or will it be like that?”
“Nothing like it has been undertaken in the history of the Antarean race,” Tec Sdinq, distinguished council head, emoted.
The Antareans, an ancient civilization in a far-flung section of the Milky Way, were embarking upon the first—their first—survey of galactic civilizations. They had spent the last ten thousand Antarean years colonizing their celestial neighborhood and had established colonies on hundreds of planets. But now they wished to expand their galactic presence into the rest of the galaxy—and that required knowing what other civilizations might be out there.
The Great Galactic Survey was begun in the year 12,605 and was estimated to take twenty-four Antarean years. Sdinq announced the council’s intentions at the “Sixty-Sixth International Congress on Scientific Matters." After explaining the survey’s rationale and methodology, he concluded:
"We hope the survey will confirm that we are the most advanced civilization inhabiting our galaxy (we have no wish to face a competing species), and expose promising civilizations which we can then plunder.”
One day, while making an inventory of the galaxy’s Orion Spur, Earth’s celestial neighborhood, the Antareans observed the civilization on the third planet from its sun vaporize itself in a puff of radioactive debris caused by a massive thermonuclear explosion.
“And then it was heard from no more,” one of the Antareans emoted. “Such a pity.”
Its companion nodded.
The event was catalogued, without comment. And the Antareans moved on.
Brian Biswas is listed in the Speculative Fiction Database. His story, “A Betrayal,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has appeared in “Aoife’s Kiss” and “Bewildering Stories.” His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-JUN-2016 issue.