The Navy lieutenant poked his close-cropped head into the aircraft carrier’s wardroom. "It’s going to be another two hours, gentlemen. You should really get some sleep."
Francis Nobilio, a short man of fifty with wavy hair mixed evenly between brown and gray, was sitting in a vinyl-upholstered metal chair. He was wearing a two-piece dark-blue business suit and a pale blue shirt. His tie was undone and hung loosely around his neck. "What’s the latest?" he said.
"As expected, sir, a Russian sub will beat us to the location. And a Brazilian cruise ship has changed course to have a look-see."
"A cruise ship!" said Frank, throwing his arms up in exasperation. He turned to Clete, who was leaning back in a similar chair, giant tennis-shoed feet up on the table in front of him.
Clete lifted his narrow shoulders and grinned broadly. "Sounds like a big ol’ party, don’t it?" he said, his voice rich with that famous Tennessee accent — Dana Carvey did a devastating Cletus Calhoun.
"Can’t we cordon off the area?" said Frank to the Navy man.
The lieutenant shrugged. "It’s in the middle of the Atlantic, sir — international waters. The cruise ship has as much right to be there as anyone else."
"The Love Boat meets Lost in Space," muttered Frank. He looked up at the Navy man. "All right. Thanks."
The lieutenant left, doing a neat step over the raised lip at the bottom of the door.
"They must be aquatic," said Frank, looking at Clete.
"Mebbe," said Clete. "Mebbe not. We ain’t aquatic, and we used to land our ships at sea. This very aircraft carrier picked up an Apollo command module once, didn’t it?"
"My point exactly," said Frank. "We used to land our ships at sea, because that was easier than landing them on land, and—"
"I thought it was because we launched out over the ocean from Canaveral, so—"
"The Shuttle goes up from Canaveral; we bring it down on land. If you’ve got the technology, you come down on land — if that’s where you live; the Russians came down on land from day one."
Clete was shaking his head. "I think you’re missing the obvious, Frankie. What was it that boy said a moment ago? ‘International waters.’ I think they’ve been watching long enough to figger it’d be a peck o’ trouble landin’ in any particular country. Only place on Earth you can land that ain’t nobody’s turf is in the ocean."
"Oh, come on. I doubt they’ve been able to decipher our radio or TV, and—"
"Don’t need to do none o’ that," said Clete. He was forty years old, thin, gangly, jug-eared, and redheaded — not quite Ichabod Crane, but close. "You can deduce it from first principles. Earth’s got seven continents; that implies regional evolution, and that implies territorial conflict once the technology reaches a level that lets you travel freely between the continents."
Frank blew out air, conceding the point. He looked at his watch for the third time in the last few minutes. "Damn, I wish we could get there faster. This is—"
"Hang on a minute, Frankie," said Clete. He used one of his long arms to aim the remote at the seventeen-inch color TV mounted on the wall, turning off the mute. The aircraft carrier was picking up CNN’s satellite feed.
"…more now on that story," said white-haired Lou Waters. "Civilian and military observers worldwide were stunned late yesterday when what was at first taken to be a giant meteor skimmed through Earth’s atmosphere over Brazil." Waters’s face was replaced with grainy amateur video of something streaking through a cloudless blue sky. "But the object flew right around the Earth well inside our atmosphere, and soon almost every public and private telescope and radar dish on the planet was trained on it. Even the U.S. government has now conceded that the object is, in all likelihood, a spacecraft — and not one of ours. Karen Hunt has more. Karen?"
The picture changed to show a pretty African-American woman, standing outside the Griffith Park Observatory. "Lou, for decades human beings have wondered if we are alone in the universe. Well, now we know. Although the U.S. and Russian military aircraft that flew over the splashdown site earlier today failed to make public the videos they shot, a Moroccan Airlines 747 en route to Brasilia passed directly over the area about three hours ago.
That plane has now safely landed, and we’ve obtained this exclusive footage, taken by passenger Juan Rubenstein with his home-video equipment."
The image was coarse, but it clearly showed a large object shaped like a shield or a broad arrowhead floating atop gray water. The object seemed capable of changing colors — one moment it was red; the next, orange; then yellow. It cycled through the hues of the rainbow, over and over again, but with a considerable period of pure black between being violet and red.
Cut to a dour, middle-aged man with an unkempt beard. The title "ARNOLD HAMMERMILL, PH.D., SCRIPPS INSTITUTE," appeared beneath him. "It’s difficult to gauge the size of the spaceship," said Hammermill, "given we don’t know the precise altitude of the plane or the zoom setting used at the time the video was taken, but judging by the height of the waves, and taking into account today’s maritime forecast for that part of the Atlantic, I’d say the ship is between ten and fifteen meters long."
A graphic appeared, showing the vessel to be about half the size of a Space Shuttle orbiter. The reporter’s voice, over this: "The United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is on its way now to the splashdown site. Earlier today, the president’s science advisor, Francis Nobilio" (black-and-white still of Frank, a few years out of date, showing his hair as mostly brown) "and astronomer Cletus Calhoun, best known as the host of PBS’s popular Great Balls of Fire! astronomy series" (silent clip of Clete at the rim of Arizona’s Barringer crater) "were flown by military jet to the Kitty Hawk, and are now on their way to rendezvous with the alien ship. The Kitty Hawk should reach its destination in just over one hundred minutes from now. Bobbie and Lou?"
Back to CNN Center in Atlanta and a two-shot of Lou Waters and Bobbie Battista. "Thanks, Karen," said Battista. "Before Dr. Calhoun left the U.S., our science correspondent Miles O’Brien managed to interview him and University of Toronto exobiology professor Packwood Smathers about what this all means. Let’s have another look at that tape."
The image changed to show O’Brien in front of two giant wall monitors.
The one on the left was labeled TORONTO and showed Smathers; the one on the right was labeled LOS ANGELES and showed Clete.
"Dr. Smathers, Dr. Calhoun, thanks for joining us on such short notice," said O’Brien. "Well, it looks like the incredible has happened, doesn’t it? An alien spaceship has apparently landed in the middle of the Atlantic. Dr. Smathers, what can we expect to see when this ship opens up?"
Smathers had a square head, thick white hair, and a neatly trimmed white beard. He was wearing a brown sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows — the quintessential professorial look. "Well, of course, we first have to suspect that this ship is unmanned — that it’s a probe, like the Viking landers, rather than carrying a crew, and—"
"Look at the size of the thing," said Clete, interrupting. "Pete’s sake, Woody, ain’t no need for the thing to be that big, ’less it’s got somebody aboard. ’Sides, it looks like it’s got windows, and—"
"Dr. Calhoun is famous for jumping to conclusions," said Smathers sharply.
O’Brien was grinning from ear to ear — he evidently hadn’t expected to get an impromptu Siskel and Ebert of science. "But, as I was about to say, if there are alien beings aboard, then I expect them to be at least vaguely familiar in body plan, and—"
"You’re hedging now, Woody," said Clete. "Couple years ago, I heard you give a talk arguing that the humanoid body plan would be adopted by purty near any form of intelligent life, and—"
Smathers was growing red in the face. "Well, yes, I did say that then, but—"
"But now that we’re actually goin’ to meet aliens," said Clete, clearly enjoying himself, "you ain’t so sure no more."
"Well," said Smathers, "the human body plan might indeed represent an ideal for an intelligent lifeform. Start with the sense organs: two eyes are much better than one, since two give stereoscopic vision — but a third eye adds hardly any value over two. Two ears likewise give stereophonic hearing, and they’ll obviously be on opposite sides of the body, to give the best possible separation. You can go right down the human body from head to toe, and make a case why each part of it is ideal. When that spaceship opens up, yes, I’ll stand by my contention that we’ll probably see humanoids inside."
The Clete on the TV set looked positively pained. The one sitting next to Frank aboard the Kitty Hawk shook his head. "Peckerwood Smathers," he said under his breath.
"That’s hooey, Woody," said the TV Calhoun. "Ain’t nothin’ optimized about our form — y’all only get optimization when you’ve got an ultimate design goal in mind, and there wasn’t one. Evolution takes advantage of what’s handy, that’s all. You know, five hundred million years ago, durin’ the Cambrian explosion, dozens o’ different body plans appeared simultaneously in the fossil record. The one that gave rise to us — the ancestor of modern vertebrates — weren’t no better than any of the others; it was just plum lucky, is all. If a different one had survived, nothin’ on this planet would look the way it does today. No, I bet there’s some critter inside unlike anything we’ve ever seen before."
"Clearly we have some differing points of view here," said O’Brien. "But—"
"Well, that’s the whole point, ain’t it?" said Clete. "For decades, guys like Woody been getting grants to think about alien life. It was all a good game till today. It wasn’t real science — you could never test a one of their propositions. But now, today, it all goes from being a theoretical science to an empirical one. Gonna be pretty embarrassing if everything they’ve been saying turns out to be wrong."
"Now, hang on, Clete," said Smathers. "I’m at least willing to put my cards on the table, and—"
"Well, if you want to hear my — what? Crying out loud, hon, can’t you see I’m on TV?"
A muffled female voice, off camera; Frank recognized it as Clete’s secretary, Bonnie: "Clete, it’s the White House."
"White House?" He looked directly into the camera and lifted his red eyebrows. The shot widened, showing more of Clete’s cluttered study.
Bonnie crossed into the frame, holding a cordless phone. Clete took it from her. "Calhoun here. What — Frankie! How good to — no, no. Sure, yeah, I can do that. Sure, sure. I’ll be ready. Bye." Clete put down the phone and looked into the camera again. "I gotta go, Miles — sorry ’bout this. They’re sending a car for me. I’m off to rendezvous with the alien ship." He undipped his microphone and moved out of the shot.
Cut back to O’Brien. "Well, obviously we’ve lost Dr. Calhoun. We’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Smathers. Doctor, can you—"
Clete hit the remote, and the TV went dead.