[Written for my son Matthew who was having trouble writing stories in the fourth grade]
It showed up by pulse beam first, we had no visual. It came in and out. Lateral adjustment made no difference, but elevation from nominal horizon brought stronger signals. We slowed, and armed the lasers just in case; all we had found was space junk, no one had EVER found anything other than natural objects, but protocol is protocol. I had told them if ever we did find a biologic, our form of weaponry likely would not be functional, but no one listens to astronauts; our human presence on spacecraft is an after-thought anyway, computers and robotics do all the work and send the data back to Earth without our doing anything.
Visuals are difficult in the void, of course; we rely on the electronics for location, size, distance, composition. This thing was acting differently, however; computer said it was wafer-thin and regular in shape, consistent with manufacture – but that was so unlikely here, year 90 out of Earth, year 3 after our defrost.
We retro-fired to dead slow, coming up at a thousand klicks an hour, then powered down to drift. The forward TV finally gave us a visual from about 400 meters, a dark and and barely reflective edge, metallic it looked, and only a couple of hundred centimeters thick. A regular slab like this was unknown in the natural world, at least per our data banks (although those banks were last updated a few years ago).
We sent transmission to Earth immediately; as with all our data; it would take years to arrive but we had to report per protocol about anything “non-natural.” Data sets here were scanty, we had no read on size, composition or propulsion — or weaponry or indigenous organisms.
We spent about 18 hours slowly circling the edge: we observed constant thickness, no readable data on composition beyond notable reflectivity, no observable surface articulation across the surface plane. A rectangular slab of unknown metal, floating in space far from any star system.
Louis wanted to land on it; navigational aspects were stable, we could touch down at near-hover so if there was no ability to bear weight, an unlikely event if we were careful about it in zero Gs, we could disengage. Louis thought it was safe, no radioactivity, no chemical or electronic emissions. As flight commander I was not so sure; perhaps it had negative attributes we could not measure – or even understand. Absence of readable data might make the slab MORE, not less dangerous. I ordered two robotic probes to be sent, one on each side of the surface.
Probe Alpha went first, headed to the plane towards nominal horizon which we had begun to designate, arbitrarily, “the top.” It moved a kilometer in from the edge, hovered at various altitudes, and got no readings. We had computer put it down at zero force to keep the slab from picking up spin from the power of the rockets or the mass of the probe. On the surface, chemical, electronic and atomic emissions continued to read zero. A mechanical arm tried to drill the surface, which did not yield even to the diamond tip of the device. The slab could not be tested.
Probe Beta put down on “the bottom,” obverse side, another kilometer inwards from the edge. Same results. Louis was go for EVA, and I was out of ideas so I agreed. Matthew had no choice; he and Louis suited up.
Placing people on the surface could not be achieved without imparting some force or weight to the slab, however nominal we attempted to make it. Would the platform spin away, or was it somehow stabilized in space, by unseen forces or mechanisms? If one of my guys walked on it, however gently, would the entire platform begin to twist and spin in space, perhaps throwing my crew off and into the void? We tethered the men to the spacecraft, just to be safe, and the guys jetted over to the slab and delicately descended in an effort to minimize the Gs on impact. Contact force was nominal, and the slab held steady. Computer could not tell if stability was based on the ratio of landing force to the mass of the platform, or whether some mechanism—or organism – had counter-acted the impact torque.
There was nothing to report about our first walk on the platform. No tests showed any data. Seemingly no amount of force could destabilize it and make it spin; finally the crew jumped up and down (as best as one can jump in space) and there was no effect on stability. The guys could not drill or flake off any of the surface; no molecular data could be gathered, the laser had no effect. No gravity was evident. Stroboscopic lighting revealed no visible markings, codes, writings, seams, apertures. The team hit the two hour limit and had to return. “Like walking on the sidewalk,” said Louis. Matthew nodded in agreement; Matthew was not much for talking.
We fed the little data we had into the computer: length, width, thickness, reflectivity and stability. The aggregate data did not compute; it seemed that the aggregate of the data described something that could not exist. We took our sleep cycles and regrouped at 3649/0145 nominal.
“No clue.” Louis was shaking his head again. “Maybe we should explore every centimeter on both sides,” Matthew suggested. “This is clearly not a natural structure and this may be the first contact of our species, of humans, with another civilization. This may be IT, guys. This may be the most exciting thing that ever has happened to human beings. Some day people will remember today, November 18, 2147, as the most important moment in all human history!”
I was prepping my suit; the exhaust fans kicked in to recycle my sweat. I had to take my own look at the surface, although protocol said that the commander never went EVA.
“Got an idea,” said Matthew. We turned to him. In the years since the defrost, he had spoken maybe only five times total, and we had come to accept, if not understand, his weird silence. When he did speak, he got our total attention.
“The only number that the computer recognizes from the little data we have is the shape of the slab. I ran a search of the length and width of the slab through computer, and the only match is with the Greek letter Pi. The ratio of the slab’s length to its width is equal to Pi. Pi is the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference, area, everything. It would be the same in every civilization, every world. Now maybe it is just a coincidence, but computer finds that the ratio is equal to Pi to –get this—ten thousand decimal places; that would be one hell of a coincidence. It really cannot be an accident. Has to be a message, a sign.”
Louis and I stared at Matthew as he continued. “If one civilization wanted to communicate with another, and doesn’t know the spoken or written language of course, how does it do it? Mathematics is universal; they would use math, and any visitor like us, who got this far, would understand the meaning, would recognize it was a signal. Sure, they could use atomic data or wave data but the one thing EVERY civilization is going to know is the ratios of measuring a circle. The first and simplest thing a discoverer of this thing would do is to measure it. That is the first thing WE did, right? They got the message to us in the simplest way: an organism manufactured this thing and left it here for us to find.”
“Ten thousand places? It’s correct to 10,000 places?” I whispered the words.
Matthew nodded and starting putting on his suit. “I gotta get back to the surface, Skipper, I gotta try something. I gotta EVA now.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Not gonna say,” said Matthew. “It is too crazy to even tell you. But you’ll see. Stay here, Skipper; let Louis and me give this a try.”
* * * * * * * * *
On the TV, I saw Louis and Matthew floating gently, slowly across the surface of the slab. They were about a klick off the edge, their lights trained on the surface, searching for a landing place with who-knows-what characteristics, one spot was the same as any other. Rhythmic breathing filled my headphones, but neither of them were speaking. Finally they gently touched down on the surface.
Then, Matthew’s voice cracked over, musing and low but somehow mechanical. “Circle,” he said, “circle. What to do about a circle. There are no circles printed on the slab so how do we input data to the slab? How?” Then he began to scream at the top of his voice: “Circle. Circle. Circle.” Nothing. “Of course not, course not,” he mumbled, angry at his own stupidity. “How the heck would they know the word for a circle in our language….”
He then began to wave his arms in great circular arcs. Nothing happened. He turned around in place. Nothing. He walked slowly around in a circle about five meters across, going around Louis who just stood there, amused at the process.
“Dammit, nothing happened,” said Matthew.
That was the last we ever saw or heard of him.
A light flashed from somewhere and his space suit and helmet and gear collapsed onto the metal surface, empty of Matthew, empty of everything, and he was gone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Matthew walked into his fourth grade classroom on November 18, 2012. He had to go to the bathroom. His head hurt and he was a little dizzy. He had to urinate. He was shaking a bit. Maybe he should go see Nurse Cornelia, but his parents had warned him to stop his almost daily visits to the school’s infirmary room.
Ms. Comando eyed Matthew with concern; he was prone to lapses of attention, and to lengthy visits to the boy’s room, but this time he looked a little pale and, well, spaced out.
“Are you sure you are okay, Matthew?,” she asked.
“I – I think so. I just need to go to the bathroom. Maybe a glass of water. I’m pretty dry.” Matthew looked downward, then up towards his teacher. “I mainly want a pencil and some paper. I want to write down this weird dream I think I had just now, as I was walking up the stairs….”