Ours is an age where we are barraged at all times by expert opinions, where the obvious becomes elusive. In this original science-fiction short story by T.M Doran, the expert eye may not see what the amateur can. Enjoy.
“How many Roadrunners will be delivered this week?” said Leonardo.
“The contract specifies one hundred forty.”
“Those drives are titanium gluttons. We’re doing our best. The Russians…”
“I don’t want your best. I want one hundred forty Roadrunners every week, as the contract stipulates.”
“Have a heart, Dr. Mays.”
“NASA doesn’t send love letters. We have a legal contract, which I expect you to honor…or else.”
“The Russians are holding us hostage. We’ll have to pay a king’s ransom for the titanium. Do you want to put us out of business?”
“I want one hundred forty Roadrunners a week. Goodbye.”
Leonardo da Vinci Mays’ mother was a second-rate mathematician and his father was a second-rate sculptor. Fortunately for Leonardo, their union produced a first-rate scientist and artist. A measure of his self-confidence, Leonardo never had qualms about the weight of this name, taking it up as if he were a worthy successor to the master.
Leonardo had studied, prepared, and lobbied his entire adult life to lead NASA’s Alien Identification Program—AIP. He had been laboring in obscurity for years when Crewe’s invention irrevocably altered the landscape, catapulting Leonardo to rock star status, at least until the public realized that six-armed, three-eyed monsters wouldn’t be discovered overnight.
When Benedict Crewe discovered the Roadrunner Drive, as it’s popularly called, the universe was suddenly accessible, if not for humans—this was learned by trial and error as men returned physically intact but hopelessly, irreparably addled—then with small, inexpensive Roadrunner Rovers that were built and released by the thousands.
Technically, these Roadrunner Rovers weren’t faster than light. Rather, they were programmed to slip into folds and warps in space-time, popping in and out, so to speak, without having to traverse black holes, as so many science fiction stories had posited. Like a walk around town or a drive through the country, it’s quicker and less energy intensive to take a short cut. Once science learned how to control this popping in and out, the search for alien life commenced in earnest. Like busy bees, Roadrunner Rovers landed on designated planets, collected samples—solid, liquid, gas, plasma—and slipped back to Earth, all in a matter of days, or even hours.
So dramatic was Crewe’s discovery that it spawned a movement, nicknamed the Lensmen, who insisted that Crewe came from an advanced alien race, like the Eddorians in Doc Smith’s Lensmen novels, a crackpot notion Leonardo dismissed as summarily as belief in angels and devils.
Though Leonardo’s team had analyzed 11,478 soil samples, 16,309 liquid samples, 8,884 gas samples, and 2,160 plasma samples—all preserved at precise temperatures and pressures—without detecting any life forms, he wasn’t discouraged, knowing as he did that these numbers were infinitesimal in relation to the number of planets in his own galaxy, not to mention the billions of other galaxies that were accessible with the Roadrunner Drive. No sooner were samples retrieved from a Rover than it was launched to a new planet, or moon, based on AIP’s probability model. Like fishing lures, Rovers were cast over and over again into the deep waters of the universe. With trillions upon trillions of heavenly bodies to sample, it would take a while, even with the great majority of planets being screened out by the probability model. A few on his team were even pushing to adapt the Roadrunner Drive to search other universes in the mathematically predicted multiverse.
Leonardo had recently written an article for Cosmopolitania entitled, Recognizing Alien Life—well received by the public—in which he’d said, “There are still some who believe that intelligent life, considering the age of our own Milky Way Galaxy, would have found a way to send probes to every sun-like star by now, so why have we not encountered these probes? There are many reasons why this is an absurd argument, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Alien Life need not—and, no doubt, will not—be intelligent, as we define intelligence. Second, even if an intelligent race reached out—so to speak—recognizing such a probe requires a level of sophistication that we on Earth have only recently achieved…
“You may have heard that Earth is a member of the two percent club, meaning ninety-eight out of every one hundred planetary systems do not allow for Earth-like planets with stable orbits. I answer, so what? In a galaxy of billions of stars, two out of a hundred planetary systems means there are hundreds of millions of such systems that might support life…
“I am confident that with our growing army of Roadrunner Rovers, we will find abundant—yes, plentiful—Alien Life, though it will probably resemble protozoa, or worms. We—living creatures—may be rare, but we are hardly unique. This is not just Leonardo Mays’ opinion, as it is also supported by Bayes Theorem, which accounts for previously known probabilities and the new information our Roadrunner Rovers have accumulated in their journeys about the universe. We have no need to invent angels, devils, fairies, goblins, or other supernatural creatures, because we will discover even stranger creatures that are real, creatures we can measure with the marvelous tools science has bequeathed us. In a word, thinking men and women have learned that only things we can measure are real, and worth our time and attention.”
Leonardo knew that the most important element of the program was data integrity. Since the most likely alien life would be unicellular, or spore-like, it was essential that samples be protected from contamination. He was well aware of the number of now-discredited researchers who had announced the discovery of alien life in an extraterrestrial sample that was later proven to have been contaminated—Nitrosomonas on one of Jupiter’s moons?
Probability models had also been developed for the most likely forms of life. It was universally accepted that when life was discovered it would be classified Level One, unicellular or simple multicellular organisms. Level Two: simple life forms—whipworms, for example—were possible, but extremely unlikely. And Level Three life—organisms as complex as grasshoppers—was entertained by only a few on the fringe of serious science. As far as higher forms of life, only nuts like the Lensmen believed in such things.
Having assured himself that Dr. Foster and her team of technicians were scrupulously adhering to protocol, Leonardo walked through the vacuum-sealed revolving door into a parlor, where he was enveloped with a viscous antibiotic gas, like standing in a rain forest during a monsoon. He stood in place for the obligatory five minutes before the gas was exhausted and he passed through an airlock into the robing-disrobing chamber. There, he put on his street clothes and went through another vacuum-sealed door into the data center, all to prevent Earthly biological “intruders” from entering the lab.
No sooner had Leonardo entered the data center than a colleague from Program Management approached him. Joe Smith was a natty dresser, adept at combining stripes and checks without appearing garish. Tall, slim, and bald, he was a haberdasher’s dream. Smith was known for his languid demeanor, though when excited, he could erupt into frenetic activity.
“Morning, Leon”, Smith said, his long tongue flicking in and out of his mouth. “I’d like to talk to you about something before the rumor mill fires up.”
“Go on”, Leonardo said, briskly, as he had plenty to do that day.
“It’s like this. I’m leaving NASA”, Smith said, in that hissing voice to which he succumbed when he was excited.
“Leaving?” Leonardo said, incredulously. “Don’t tell me you’re joining Kung or Po.” Though Smith wasn’t essential to the Program, he had a cold-blooded talent for organizing, scheduling, and expediting that kept the science humming.
“Actually, I’m going to Tibet. I intend to become a monk.”
“A what?” Leonardo stammered.
“A Buddhist monk, Leon.”
“Why would you do such a thing? Do they have a science program?”
Smith said, “I’m following my heart.”
“What about your mind…you know, the organ that regulates thinking, reasoning.”
“That too, of course.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like it. Have you had some kind of breakdown?”
“Not at all. Just the opposite…clarity.”
“Listen, the employee assistance program is good for crises like these. Have you talked to them yet?”
“This isn’t a crisis. I know what I’m doing.”
“You could have fooled me. Leaving the most exciting science project in history, traveling halfway across the world, climbing a mountain, and living like a beggar isn’t rational.”
Smith said, “A week ago, I had a dream I was in a chariot…ascending into heaven…”
“Stop right there. The only chariot that should concern you is a Roadrunner Rover, and the only heaven you should be thinking about is this universe…or the multiverse, if we can ever find it.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Leon.” Smith extended a hand. “I hope you find your aliens.”
“I shall”, said Leonardo, haughtily, still shaking his head after Smith had left the room. The mere odor of religion was enough to stir his gastric juices. Leonardo didn’t believe in God, unless God could be described as the fundamental particles-waves that regulated space and time; certainly not a personal God who cared whether he lived or died, or whether worlds survived or perished. Leonardo believed in man—well, some men, chiefly himself, when it came right down to it. This self-conviction was the reason he’d ascended so rapidly in the scientific community, that and the artistic talent through which he conveyed the wonder of science to the masses.
For the remainder of the workday, Leonardo was preoccupied with Smith’s resignation and irrational behavior. He finally admitted to himself that there had always been something odd about Smith, though he’d never been able to put a finger on it.
In his car, on a day in which a preliminarily positive test was vetoed by the quality control technicians, Leonardo received a call.
“Hello Leonardo.” The NASA Director’s mellifluous voice permeated the Mercedes.
Leonardo despised this political flunky. “Good to hear from you, Conrad”, he said, jovially.
“You heard about Smith’s departure?”
“I heard”, Leonardo said, sourly.
“Do you think he’s angling for a raise?”
“I don’t think so. He didn’t say anything about money. He wants to be a monk on a mountain.”
“Then it’s better he leave before he goes completely nuts. He’s someone else’s problem now. Listen, my niece is looking for a job.”
Oh crap, Leonardo said to himself. How quickly could he change the subject, distract this idiot?
“Did you hear me?”
“What are her qualifications?”
“Um… ethnic… gender studies. Listen, Leon. Aliens, when we find them…ah…ethnicity will have to be assigned… brand new genders too. Right?”
“She’ll do nicely”, Leonardo forced himself to say.
“I knew you’d agree. By the way, I’m going to the White House next week…”—Smarmy bastard, Leonardo said to himself—“…and I’ll let the President know that you’re doing a bang-up job.”
“Bring back a nice Barolo… ha ha.”
“My niece… you’ll take care of everything, right? Ciao.”
Leonardo had just traded an experienced, efficient administrator for a clueless whelp, and had done so without a whimper. So far, so bad, considering the deficit of Roadrunners, Smith’s resignation, and the Director’s request. He could use a drink. Fortunately, he could always count on Matilda to have a cocktail ready at his arrival.
Leonardo’s next-door neighbor approached him as he got out of the car. Jones was a jazz musician, a saxophonist with a cool swinging sound like Stan Getz. Jonesy, as he was called, favored laid-back attire: jeans, sweaters, leather vests, berets. Notwithstanding Jonesy’s musical talent, how the man could afford to live in Leonardo’s exclusive gated community was a mystery.
Leonardo’s path to the front door was blocked by his neighbor. Jonesy’s protuberant eyes took Leonardo’s measure from head to toe. Something was moving under the beret, but Leonardo barely noticed. He was thinking about the cocktail that awaited him inside.
“I have a proposition for you”, Jonesy said.
Leonardo was cautious about propositions, about anything that distracted him from his work. He frowned and waited.
“You’re an artist”, Jonesy said. “The band needs an artist for our album cover.”
Did Jonesy really think that an artist of Leonardo’s caliber would stoop to crass commercialism, mere cartoonery? Leonardo’s expression must have revealed his feelings because Jonesy’s hand came from behind his back with a record album. “Here”, he said, one of his eyes swirling like a marble in a raceway. “Brubeck’s Time Further Out…real art…abstract…meaningful…what do you say?”
The art wasn’t bad, but it was an album cover. Leonardo said, “I’m too busy. My work, you know. I’m the quarterback of a team that’s scouring the universe for alien life.” He liked this analogy, had used it on more than one occasion when deflecting requests for assistance.
“But music is the universal language”, protested Jonesy.
“Universal? The universe is trillions of light years in diameter, and music is limited to one life form on one planet, so far as we know.”
“Ah, but how do we know that?” asked Jonesy.
Wagging his head, Leonardo said, “I should have said that we have no evidence that music extends beyond one life form on one planet.”
“It is the universal language. You’ll have to take my word for it.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t take your word. What does your word have to do with science, evidence, reason?”
Jonesy was a picture of forlornness. Leonardo’s strong personality often had this effect. “Think about the album cover, won’t you?” said the musician.
Leonardo said he would—though he wouldn’t—and began sidling toward the front door. Jonesy, record album extended, followed him up the steps.
“Art”, Jonesy said.
Leonardo closed the door and sighed.
“Hello, Dr. Mays”, Leonardo’s housekeeper said.
This welcome, reassuring voice, belonged to a person who never made propositions or demands. Instead, she ensured that Leonardo’s domicile whirred like a finely tuned Swiss clock.
Matilda was short and squat. She preferred loose fitting one-piece dresses that swept the floor. Most of the time, the fabric covered her tentacular legs, but, occasionally one protruded—when Matilda’s hands were full—to collect an out-of-place object. She was friendly, but not intrusive, knowing by long association when Leonardo desired companionship and when he wanted privacy.
“What’s for dinner, Matilda?”
“Your favorite: Rosemary Lamb with zesty creamed corn, and I’ve opened a bottle of the 2009 Barolo. I’ll serve as soon as you’ve changed for dinner. Your martini is on the counter.”
As he walked through the cavernous house, drink in hand, his eyes were invariably drawn to his own pictures. Leonardo’s walls were crowded with his original art, the only activity he let interfere with his relentless pursuit of alien life. His pictures were abstract depictions of the microcosmic and macrocosmic universe: nebulae, black holes, neutron stars, exotic planets, quasars, gluons, strings, quarks.
As expected, the meal was delicious. He didn’t rush the experience, savoring the food and wine. He felt a warm glow that crowded out the memories of Smith, the Director, and that maddening Roadrunner contractor.
“Matilda”, Leonardo said, “I’ve traveled from one end of this planet to the other and have never tasted the spices you use in your cooking. What are they? Where do they come from?”
“They come from a long way away. I doubt if you have ever heard of them.”
“Delicious, Matilda. You have a gift.” Not exactly a gift in the sense of his own gift for science, but the compliment hadn’t cost him anything.
Leonardo asked himself why Matilda was sitting across from him at the dinner table, a liberty she had never before taken?
“May I speak to you about something, sir?” So short was Matilda, that only half a neck and her scarfed head were visible above the tabletop.
Leonardo anxiously opened and closed his hands beneath the table.
“My daughter is…ah…expecting. I have to go to her.”
Leonardo hadn’t been aware that Matilda had a family. Should ephemeral people like her, who saw to the needs of essential people like him, be allowed to have personal entanglements that interfered with doing their duty? The answer was obvious. He forced himself to say, “I suppose I could do without you for a few days.”
She was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry, sir. This will be a long trip.”
Taking a healthy gulp of wine, he said, “How long?”
How much time could a baby take anyway? “Is your daughter sick? Is the baby sick?”
She stared at him through squinting eyes, saying, “Um…quintuplets…five.”
“Good God!” erupted Leonardo, putting wine glass to lips. The glass being empty, he reached across the table and filled it.
“I might be able to return in nine months…maybe a bit sooner…”
“Months? Months? Months.”
“Nine, or so.”
“Did your daughter take fertility drugs?”
“No, it’s common in our…family.”
For an instant, Leonardo entertained the notion of inviting Matilda’s daughter to live here for a while, but an image of a houseful of infants obliterated that crazy idea. His blood ran cold. He couldn’t help himself when he said, “This is damned inconvenient, Matilda.”
A big gulp of wine. “You won’t reconsider?”
“I’m sorry, sir.” She rose from her chair, with a barely perceptible increase in height, fetched his now-empty wine glass, and crept out of the room.
By the time he went to bed, Leonardo had convinced himself that another—and perhaps better—housekeeper could be had. He would have to sack Matilda by email, as he had always found this means of communication the best option for delicate matters. The sticking point would be the haute cuisine to which he’d become accustomed. Perhaps a housekeeper and a chef could be managed.
He checked his APD and was delighted to learn that several dozen samples would be arriving at the lab tomorrow, some from Earth-like planets. Kung and Po wouldn’t steal the watch on him—or his Nobel Prize, not if energy and determination had anything to do with it. As he had come to expect, Dr. Foster’s standard end of day note greeted him: “15 soil, 11 liquid, 8 gas, and 2 plasma samples were analyzed today. No evidence of alien life was discovered.”
Tomorrow would be a new day, Leonardo told himself. New samples to be analyzed. Hundreds, thousands of new Roadrunner Rovers being built to supplement the current armada. It was only a matter of time. Someday, they’d make a film of Leonardo’s work, along the lines of A Beautiful Mind or Infinity. He set his alarm an hour early, queued-up Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and fell into blissful sleep.
After Leonardo had drifted off, his purple-eyed pet cat—a stray from far away—changed the music. Like Jonesy, the cat was a jazz fan.
“That’s better”, he purred.