– Monday 28 October
The Goddess on the Mountaintop
Peggy dragged herself into work Monday morning. She wore an oversized brown sweater and a loose wool skirt that came to her knees. She wore brown flats and her hair in a ponytail tied with a rubber band. As soon as she came in she went straight to the coffee station.
Over the years the SETI budget had been shrinking like the polar icecap. The Seattle branch office had been reduced to moving in upstairs from a Starbucks. They ended up with so little money for computers that they had to buy seconds (usually missing the “P” key for some reason). More and more they had to deal with less and less.
In the old days they would have had a full cafeteria with seventeen different coffee drinks, pastries, bagels, hot and cold sandwiches and some other, mostly ignored beverages. The break room now consisted of several poorly balanced tables, mismatched chairs, a soda machine with no Pepsi or Coke products, a candy machine, an empty sandwich machine and a coffee machine that rationed the divine nectar out in four ounce paper cups. It was a sacrilege and nothing more or less than a slap in their faces.
The employees therefore set up their own coffee station. They took an unused cubical and put in a small refrigerator, a microwave, a two pot coffee maker, a cappuccino machine and a water cooler. They did manage to disguise the original purchases in the budget as OSHA required first aid and survival equipment. Still they were only afforded so little money that they had to buy the items at flea markets and garage sales. As time went on the equipment fell into disrepair. There was no money for replacements so the employees made due with whatever spare parts they could find or steal and make the repairs themselves, mostly with duct tape, aluminum foil and cardboard.
The “fridge” was a Styrofoam ice chest that actually had ice only in the winter when it was free. The microwave consisted of a cardboard box wrapped in aluminum foil with a windup egg timer. The water cooler was a wooden apple crate painted white and an empty Hinckley and Schmidt bottle was stuck on top. Everyone had saved his or her last paper cups from the day the water cooler gasped its last burble burp.
At least the coffee maker still worked; although it looked like a steampunk assembled rube-Goldberg that Peggy insisted was actually powered by two extremely exhausted mice. The only coffee that the office would purchase was the used grounds that the downstairs Starbucks gave away.
Still the coffee station was the place where everyone went to “get a cup of water or coffee.” They would stand around sipping at the moist air or coffee colored water in their flotsam paper cups and gossip.
“Is Jackie here?” Peggy asked the gossip crew.
“She’s in the break room. I think I still hear her beating on the sandwich machine,” John said. He was standing by the “microwave” with his hands on his hips. The egg timer alarm dinged and he opened the box. “Still cold, I’ll just put it in for another minute.”
Peggy found Jackie cursing at the sandwich machine. This was a daily ritual for her, but it usually occurred around lunchtime.
Jackie looked like a cross between a moa bird, a lily white King Kong and Angelica Huston’s Morticia Aadams who put on two hundred pounds of muscle and cut off all but enough hair to cover her neck muscles. Jackie always wore black ankle length skirts and oversized black sweaters, a feat since at more than six feet tall and heavy enough to compete as a heavyweight in men’s boxing very little could be called “over-sized.” The only attribute of her exceptional size that she didn’t camouflage was her height; in fact she accentuated it by wearing heavy, Cuban soled boots.
It was rumored that Jackie herself had eaten all the sandwiches in the machine and was enamored by the vending employee, because she liked small men in uniform with manual labor jobs and because she loved his sandwiches. The vendor had been so traumatized by this that he never even returned to collect the machine. Jackie’s daily assault on the machine therefore had a deeper and much more melancholy undertones than mere caloric intake.
"Jackie, is there anyway I can get some time on the Hubble?" Peggy asked.
"Peggy, you look like shit. Time on the Hubble? It would be easier to get you on the shuttle and put you physically on the Hubble than to get you on the schedule. Why? What do you have?"
"Just a hunch really."
"Where did this hunch come from?"
Peggy didn't answer. She just looked Jackie in the eye. She could have sworn that, out of the corner of her eye, while she and Jackie were having a staredown, the sandwich machine was trying to use the distraction to sidle away.
"Why do you need the visible spectrum? You may not have noticed, but we generally use radio around here. What are you looking for?"
Peggy sighed, "What are we all looking for?"
Jackie slammed her palm into the corner of the machine, just past Peggy's head adding another dent. Peggy was slightly amazed that although the metal body of the machine was littered with dents like the moon was littered with craters, the glass in the front was not only untouched, it was clean and free of any hand prints. She followed Jackie's massive arm up to her face.
"You know I'd do anything for you. You also know that it would exhaust every favor I have out and then some to get you what you're asking for, but you won't tell me anything about it. Why are you stone-walling me?"
Suddenly she laughed and shook the machine. The steel still in her grip groaned. "You're haggling. Ask for the moon when you really want something much smaller. What do you need, some time on the VLA or the VLBA?" Jackie asked, referring to the Very Large Array of radio telescopes and the Very Long Baseline Array system of radio telescopes. They would be able to provide the highest resolution possible for faint radio signals.
"I just need some time to crunch some of the numbers they probably already have on the VLBA."
"Crunch numbers? I'll bet you want time on a Cray too?"
Peggy nodded, "Not too long, probably only an hour or so."
"VLBA is no problem and I guess I'll have to let Gladys Freshbureaux feel me up. Oh well," she said striking a double biceps pose and letting her sleeves begin to tear before letting off, "she'll pass out from excitement before it gets too naughty." Jackie smiled.
"I'm going as She-Hulk for Halloween. What do you think?"
What Peggy thought was, "not again," but what she said was, "How could you top your performance last year. You've won first place for the past three years as She-Hulk."
"Well, the first year I won by sheer power. The second year I got a better outfit and gained ten pounds of muscle. The third year I got better body paint, a better wig and gained ten more pounds of muscle."
"Right, so what are you going to do this year?"
"I have a secret that I'm only going to tell you, there are two things. The first is that I gained twenty pounds of muscle. The second is that I grew a full inch taller."
Peggy's jaw dropped, "I didn't think a person about the age of twenty could grow any more."
Jackie shrugged her enormous shoulders, "I guess it was the supplements and the additional workout regiment I picked up this year. Most of it is done hanging by my feet."
"Wow," Peggy was truly impressed.
Jackie did a couple of poses ending with a pose that had her bent forward and crossing her forearms with her head down. She popped her head up and looked at Peggy, "Now will you tell me where this hunch came from?"
Peggy reached up and squeezed Jackie's arm. "Oo you are so strong." Actually, Peggy, who was no slouch in the athletics department couldn't compress the powerful muscles in the slightest. It was one thing to hear her talk about how big and strong she was and it was another thing to see her pose, but actually feeling the strength and power sent an involuntary shudder through Peggy's body. The original human warning and emergency response system was tripped like there was some small frightened girl in her mind, running and screaming past the breakers and tripping every one of them before her mother could overtake her and apologize endlessly to the management. Before the audible alarm was tripped Peggy slipped off to her cube muttering, "Gotta go."
Marsha was waiting by the entrance to her cube like an octopus on a coral reef. As soon as Peggy stepped into her cube, Marsha was on her with questions.
"Did he say anything else? What did he say? What'd you find out? Why do you look like hell? Did you get a hold of your friend at VLA? What did she say? What did the VLA data say? What are you doing for lunch?"
"Yes; more of the same; not sure; I worked all weekend; Yes; Yes; inconclusive; probably dieing so keep the electric paddles handy, okay," Peggy offered a wan smile.
Marsha tried to keep track of which question went with which answer on her fingers, but gave up. Instead she sat down on the spare chair, really a stack of paper boxes (really a stack of paperboxes that no longer contained blank paper, but were stuffed with the flotsam of all the previous occupants of that cube). "Start from the beginning."
"I took Birdy home and he wouldn't shut up. He got worse and worse. At first he was saying coordinates every so often, but it eventually got so bad Sunday morning that I had to give him sleeping pills. He was still navigating in his sleep. Some of the coordinates are to real things and others aren't. The only way that the numbers made sense is if they were coming from something moving and it was using the coordinates to plot a course. I hobbled together a program to see if I could figure out where that thing could be and where it could be heading.
"If something is adjusting course, wouldn't it have to have some sort of propulsion system?"
"As far as I know."
"Oo, do you think this could really be extra-terrestrial?" Marsha asked, so excited that she nearly spilled her brown coffee-water.
"I can't find any sort of source. If it's ET then we should see some sign of that, right, some indication of the point of origin? If we don't find where the signal is coming from we should at least be able to see some signature of the propulsion system. I don't see anything on the data I could get from the VLA. I also can't figure out how my pet bird is getting signals that can't be detected by any of our equipment."
Marsha seemed deflated. "So you don't think it's ET?"
"I don't know what it is, but I'm not willing to give up on the ET angle yet. Heck, none of us would be here if we didn't have a blind, walk-off-a-cliff-in-embarrassing-underwear faith that there is something out there and we're willing to push our own grandmothers' down a flight of stairs in a box of broken glass and knives in the path of an oncoming train, to be the first ones to prove it."
"Graphic. So your still maintaining your theory that your pet bird is getting some, otherwise undetectable signals from some undetectable, moving intelligent source not of this earth?"
"No wonder you look like hell. So what can you do to prove your theory now?"
"I got Jackie to get me data from the VLBA and some time on a Cray to analyze it for patterns."
"Still looking for the ship?"
"If I design the program right I'm planning on looking for the ship and confirming the course that Birdy has been plotting. I wanted to actually look with the Hubble, but Jackie shot that down. I think that if I can show that Birdy is actually giving coordinates for a path through space we could show that he must be getting signals from something out there. And then she'd have to let me look in the place I think the signal is from."
They both looked out the window at the sky.
"So, is this work related? I mean can we work on your program here, now?"
"It's not strictly work. I'm supposed to analyze some data from some spectrographs and design a database for some data Gary developed. Work is mundane, pedestrian, routine…"
"Work is work."
"Okay, so we'll meet at your place tonight. My car's in the shop so I'll need a ride, but if you stop at a store I'll buy the margaritas."
Marsha left and Peggy suddenly realized that she had never had anyone from work over to her apartment. This was the most social event of her career, and she owed it all to Birdy.
Marsha and Peggy rode directly to Peggy's apartment. By 'directly' it of course meant stopping by a liquor store for margarita mix, tequila and ice.
When they got to the apartment Peggy grabbed the mail and started going through it.
"Where's Birdy?" Marsha asked.
"He's in his room. He may still be sedated. If he's awake and hears us he'll let us know."
Marsha went to the kitchen to start making some margaritas. The apartment was sparse and Scandinavian like a page out of an Ikea catalog. In fact it was exactly the items off a page in the Ikea catalog. When Peggy rented the apartment she had simply gone to Ikea and pointed to the pages of the rooms she wanted, the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom and one of the bedrooms. Delightfully it had all come in flat boxes and she was able to put all the furniture for a two bedroom apartment in the bed of her pickup truck.
"Jesus, it looks just like a page out of an Ikea catalog in here," Marsha said.
Peggy opened her cable bill and noticed something odd. She was paying extra for a channel.
"Hey, you have a lot of vodka in here," Marsha said as she looked for a blender.
"That's Birdy's." Peggy walked toward Birdy's room.
The room was actually half Birdy's. Peggy had built a cage wall running through the center of the room. On one side were a bowflex machine, an exercise bike and a television. The television was actually Birdy's and he had the remote.
On the other half of the room the floor was covered in an easily replaceable tarp, there were several perches, a couple of food and water dishes, a hammock and the closet. The closet was Birdy's bedroom and he was free to open and close the door when he wanted. It had a very nice dog bed on a shelf in there. It very closely resembled his wild habitat.
Peggy was sure Birdy knew how to open the cage, but it made them both feel better to have it there. It defined his space and made guests, if there had been any, feel more comfortable.
Birdy was in his bedroom still asleep from the sleeping pills she had given him, but she could hear him mumbling coordinates and guidance. She walked into the cage and picked up the remote. She turned it on.
Peggy didn't watch television, not at all. She didn't even watch when she was riding the exercise bike. Birdy had asked her about it a few times. It seemed to annoy him, since he clearly got so much of his social skills from television. It was his window to the world.
When she turned it on Telemundo came on with a soccer game. She pressed the "Recall" button and the NASA channel popped up.
"How long has he been watching this?" She asked herself.
She looked at the bill and was stunned. She wasn't sure which was more shocking, that Birdy had started watching the NASA channel since the day before he started spouting space coordinates like a jailhouse rat sings or that the bill through the end of October came three days before the end of the month.
"What's going on?" Marsha asked as she walked into the room with two pitchers of margaritas. "Wow, would you look at this room."
"I thought I should give him enough room for his own space," Peggy said.
"No, I mean, finally a room with character. Did Birdy decorate this himself?"
"Yes, especially the Jackson Pollack flooring. Look at this."
She showed Marsha the bill and the channel.
"So he started watching NASA channel and then he started saying coordinates. What does that mean?"
"It means I have to reevaluate all my work so far. He could be just delusional and repeating things he heard on this channel."
"Well, my mother always said, 'the best thing for going over old numbers is a good, big margarita,'" she handed Peggy her drink.