He did what he knew he should have done first of all...He prayed for strength and guidance.
He Needed More Time to Think
Abe realized that his heart was pounding, and he was breathing fast. He folded his hands on the desktop, and did what he knew he should have done first of all. He prayed for strength and guidance.
Prayer calmed and soothed Abe, as always. He spoke to God at length and out loud, since there was no one present to object, thanking him for letting someone unworthy as him to be the finder of this long sought holy grail of science. Now his name would be in the history books. The first human being to see the unmistakable imprint of an intelligent signal from another star system... He had a sudden thought, finished the prayer, and returned to the mainstream terminal. How long ago had that signal come in?
The telephone rang. Almost convulsively he grabbed for it and said hello. He did not identify himself; crank calls were common at SETI observatories. It seemed almost impossible to keep the telephone numbers from getting out to the UFO fanatics.
"Honey, I just called to ask you to stop by for milk on the way home. I'm sorry I forgot, but I don't want to go out alone now. That swifty-quicky on Zeeman road will still be open."
"Mary..." he started to share with her the importance of his discovery. But instead he paused, then said, "Sure dear, I know you need your bran cereal in the morning. I'll get the milk."
"Thanks, I won't keep you from your work then. I may be asleep when you get in."
He said goodbye, and slowly replaced the phone in its cradle.
It took only a few minutes to search ahead through the data run from three o'clock to the present, and confirm that the signal had been repeated twice, at the intervals of just over an hour.
Abe's first sense of exhilaration cooled. He had been a SETI analyst for three years now, but had never thought seriously about the full implications of this discovery. There had seemed little need...The UFO crowd would feel that all their nonsense had been confirmed. If another civilization definetly existed, then they were regularly visiting the earth.
And what effect was the announcement going to have on his church? On all the other major religions on earth?
In the end Abe did not go home an hour early, leaving at eleven. He needed more time to think, to consider all the implications. There was no hurry; the signal would be authentic on Monday as it was today.
Don't Touch That Drink!
Mary was already asleep when he arrived at midnight. He had just returned to the living room when his telephone rang. He reached it quickly, before the noise could awaken Mary, and kept his voice low, "Hello."
"Abe? Abe, this is Harry. Abe...I slipped a little tonight. Abe...I have had two drinks at the bar. There is a third one sitting at my place, untouched. Abe, I need help. I hate to ask it, but could you-"
"Don't touch that drink!" Abe said quickly and sharply. "Listen Harry, I'll be there in ten minutes. Just pay your bill and wait for me outside. Outside, understand. I'll be driving my blue pick up. Ten minutes, Harry."
Abe still had his keys and billfold in his pockets. He hurried back to the truck and drove rapidly to where Harry was. He was Harry Comforter's Sponsor in the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, the one the newer member was to call when the temptation to take a drink grew too strong. A second member was supposed to accompany Abe when responding to a call for help after drinking had started, in case his own resolution grew too weak, but he knew that was not necessary. It had been over four years now since Abe had taken a drink, and a long time since he had felt compelled to make such a call.
"God, I'm glad to see you Abe," Harry said as he climbed inside the truck. "I did what you said, left that third drink. But I didn't want to. My God, how I didn't want to! You...well, you know."
Harry seemed completely sober and shaken at how close he had come to starting a drinking binge. He was a new comer in the chapter, with less than a year of sobriety behind him. A man of just over fifty, he was overweight and in poor condition, with puffy cheeks and thinning blonde hair. He had reached the point where his career was about to come crashing around his head till he joined AA where he found the help he needed.
When they reached his house Harry begged Abe to come in and talk with him for a time. Abe agreed. They sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee for an hour, until Harry finally said he thought he could fall asleep. He would be fine in the morning. They prayed together and Harry looked truly relaxed and at peace when they finished, and Abe had no difficulty believing that he was really going to bed.
It was almost two o'clock when Abe pulled into his driveway again. He needed another shower, but was so tired he decided to postpone it till the next morning.
He quietly changed into pajamas and slept. In the morning Abe read everything worthwhile in the newspaper, while dawdling after breakfast over a second cup of coffee. Mary left for a ten o'clock meeting of the church fund raising committee. Restless, he turned on the television and tried to find something worthwhile to watch. Saturday morning TV was a desert of a different sort that was not interesting to him.He turned it off and went to his workroom.e
Would Faith be Strong Enough?
After lunch, the restlessness grew stronger. Abe tried not to think about the signal sitting in his machine at work, but it kept intruding in his mind. So much was going to change... the faith of the weaker members of the church was going to be severely tested. If another civilization existed 81 one light years from the earth, one fully equivalent to their own - were they still God's chosen people? He had no doubt of it, but others would wonder. Were there people on other planets apart from the earth? Could God really be present over that vast an expanse? Listening to all those potential trillions upon trillions of beings?
Abe abruptly got his keys and billfold. There was no possible chance of a mistake, but suddenly he wanted to see that signal again. He left a note telling Mary that he was going out to the observatory for an hour ortwo.
He drove slowly through the quiet countryside, in no hurry. There was one person passing through the small lobby when Abe arrived, and he said a casual "hello" as he headed up the stairs.
He called up the signal and studied it. There was no mistake, no doubt whatsoever. This was a deliberately sent message from another star system, an effort to communicate, transmitted by intelligent beings. They were letting the inhabitants of this planet know that other sentient life existed, that they were not alone in the immensity of galaxy.
Abe sat staring at the screen. He tried to concentrate on the implications of the coming announcement, but the tranquil face of Harry kept intruding. The peace Harry had reached after they had prayed together, the strength to pick himself up and start over again on keeping his sobriety... The members of his church, all good people trying hard to live decent Christian lives...And all other poor weak people of the world, those who had a difficult time making it through each day without God's help and guidance... Would their faith be strong enough to survive this shattering revelation of science?
The Walk to Glory
Slowly, Abe's fingers began to move across the keyboard. He located the first appearance of the signal and removed it, leaving a small blank in the otherwise seamless pattern. Such tiny glitches were uncommon; no one would notice it, even if another analyst happened to look at the data. He located and erased the next two as well, and on the last one, closed the hole by bringing the remaining material in to fill the gap. Now there were only two tiny vacancies in an immense recording of radio noise.
The back up copies were easily destroyed. He copied old data over both of them, to be certain they had been thoroughly erased.
It was done. The SETI records would show a complete analysis of the second shift run, with the usual result - nothing to report. No one would ever again run the original data through the SETI computers. There was always too much new material to process, too much other work to do.
The sun was still far above the western horizon when he headed home. A steady wind out of the Northwest was blowing hard enough to send swirls of sand across the dark macadam road. Going to be another hot, windy night. The air conditioner purred as it successfully fought the desert heat, keeping the cab comfortably cool.
Abe thought again of Harry, the other men and women in his AA chapter, and the 300 or so members of the Church of the Nazarene Reborn. They were safe now. There would be no shattering news in the paper that would make it difficult for them to maintain their faith in God...Had his own been shaken? He admitted to himself, finally, that it had been, at least for a moment. And he thought of himself as strong, secure in his beliefs. What might have happened to weaker souls?
Abe felt a gathering pressure low in the back of his head, sure sign of a serious headache coming on. His food had been pressing the gas pedal harder as he mulled over the possibilities. He did not normally drive this fast, but it felt good to be bucking the growing wind, fighting to keep the truck on the narrow road. Could those distant beings really worship the same God? And all those uncounted stars within 81 light years...the untold billions beyond in the immense reaches of the milky way, and nearby the Magellanic clouds, and yonder giant Andromeda, and all the other galaxies..
He closed his eyes as the first excruciating stab of pain seemed to penetrate his head from back to front, but opened them immediately. That signal still existed, hidden in the observatory's data file, but only Abe knew it existed. If the glamor of fame tempted him, broke his strength, made him reveal it...the devil lured the weak in many ways, and adulation and glory were among them.
The truck left the road on the right, momentum carrying it on over the sun baked sand at breathtaking speed, the sharp edge of the gulch appearing ahead, clearly visible despite the blowing sand...Engine roaring as the wheel lost traction, the truck went out and over the edge, briefly flying through the brown and tan of the rolling dust, the nose of the truck slowly tilting forwards as it started to fall...the world was safe for Christianity now...he was human and weak, but God was strong...
The truck hit the bottom, twenty feet deep on its nose, and cart wheeled forward, slamming again and still again into scattered rocks and pockets of sand. Abe's last conscious thought was that he had left that note for Mary, and the searchers would easily find the truck in the morning, when the wind died...