I wrote something that resembled this story in the twelfth grade, inspired from the Stephen King book, Dreamcatcher. At that time it was ridiculously bad. And while I cannot claim any improvement as of now, it definitely has gone through numerous revisions and copious editing. I have a bad feeling that the revisions and editing will carry on far into the future, but I feel like I am ready to show a draft version of this to all the two people who read this blog (also, I was literally coerced into posting on the blog today, and I had absolutely no other material).
Everything in the story is not shits and giggles. The Fermi Paradox, SETI and the Drake Equation are totally real and have respectably sized Wikipedia pages. I must apologize to the few of my friends who have had the privilege of knowing how ISRO works in real life, because I have completely fictionalized it – not in a good way. The IFF is a completely fictional organization
Most of you may not know what the Fermi Paradox is and so I will start with that.
In 1950 –I’m not a historian and therefore, not actually sure – Enrico Fermi, the man who carried out the first ever controlled chain reaction, was on his way to lunch along with a group of his scientist friends, and asked a simple question, which all the Einstein equivalents in the world failed to answer. He asked, “Where is everybody?” Quite relevant considering the fact that there are 70 sextillion stars in the ‘observable universe’ and even if 1 billion billionths of them have orbiting planets that could support life, that should be enough to send spaceships hurtling across the Milky Way. Especially, considering the fact that 17 billion years of the Universe’s life span have already elapsed giving them all plenty of time. So why aren’t there any signs of contact already? Well, the only available conclusion was simple enough. There was no extraterrestrial life.
This only available conclusion, however, wasn’t acceptable. In the November of 1961, astronomers led by Carl Sagan and honorable men from other professions such as Neuroscience and Radio Astronomy, got together at Green Bank, West Virginia for the first conference of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). SETI was the largest collective of activities aimed at finding out if we were indeed alone in the universe. From the minutes of this first conference, Frank Drake formulated the Drake equation – the first probabilistic estimation of the number of possible civilizations within the Milky Way galaxy. The number reached by that very first conference was an extremely encouraging 1000.
Unfortunately, the results were a null-set. Frustrated with consistent failures, the United States Federal Government decided to stop funding the money-guzzling initiative around 1995. By then, the Fermi Paradox, had in fact become the chief criticism of the Drake Equation. Movies about the Roswell Incident and the mysterious military base in Nevada called Area 51 had started to gain more attention in the mainstream. The scientific initiative suffered as the public and the media turned towards conspiracy theories.
The members of SETI didn’t have to whine for too long, however. Because in the winter of 1999, four years later, I resolved the Fermi Paradox.
For the first ten years since I finished specializing in Radio Astronomy, I worked as a research associate for ISRO. However, by the end of 1998, I was beginning to realize that the Indian Space Research Organization, was more paperwork and less research. I quit ISRO after a sour discussion with my superior and prayed sincerely for a job, much less for a better one.
Miraculously, I was contacted in short time by an organization named Interstellar Frontier Foundation (IFF), one of the very few, probably the only privately funded research organization in India that was dedicated to resolving ‘the paradox’.
Recently, they had started a new initiative by integrating their objectives with SETI and forming a team of popular analysts called the Incident Review Squad (IRS). The IFF recruitment guy began with a long prologue when he first met me, detailing the achievements of the IFF, specifically highlighting their ‘radical change in objectives concerning extra-terrestrials’ and continuously repeating the phrase – “We beat ISRO to it.” He must have sensed that I was giving the employer branding a pass, so he quickly switched strategies. Their board of directors had read a mostly unnoticed research paper that I had written during my ISRO years and had unanimously decided that I had both talent and innovation. They were offering me the post of the acting head in IRS.
My job in IRS was, if anything, more monotonous than the one in ISRO. My skills as a Radio Astronomer were being wasted, but I kept reminding myself that I had selected it for the money and not for the job satisfaction. Resultantly, I managed to scrape through mid-November, not minding the lack of any genuinely interesting occurrence. Then the ‘job satisfaction’ came. In fact, the event that I am going to describe left me so ‘satisfied’ that later I quit space research for good and joined a bank.
I still remember the date. It was the sixteenth of November 1999. I generally don’t mind working late. Shitty work trumps a desolate home. It was, however, two hours since the actual office hours ended and I was already at the door, when the call came. At first I decided against picking it up at all. What the hell? I thought. Office hours ended at five and its ticking seven. I had already spent two hours too long of going through shitty and obvious hoaxes, explaining to people that what they actually saw was just a regular Mumbai – Bangalore Indian Airlines flight with an extra taillight or a nocturnal bird with a trifle more pockmarks than usual. As it turns out Bangaloreans loved watching UFOs back in the late 90s, and by then it was common among most such circles that ISRO would shun their reporting before they could finish saying ‘U’. But privately funded orgs like us would accept all their hoaxes with arms wide open for researching on. In practicality, we were more optimistic and knew that we did not have any satellites to launch. This, most mundane part of my job was, as Murphy would have it, the heaviest in terms of workload.
In nine scenarios out of ten, I would have let the caller hang. But destiny intervened. I turned, went back and picked up the receiver.
VOICE: Is this the IFF, incident review?
ME: Yes. How may I help you?
VOICE: Sir, I believe that I have seen something akin to a UFO near my house.
ME: Can you describe what you saw Mr.… er…
VOICE: My name is Ravi Dasgupta, sir. Today evening I saw what can be called as a fireball coming down in the bamboo jungle near my house.
ME: Probably what you saw was just a firecracker gone wrong Mr. Dasgupta. Were there any celebrations around your house? Or maybe, did a fire start nearby?
VOICE: No, sir. I am pretty sure there were no celebrations around. One more thing, sir. I observed that fireball’s fall myself. The area around it is now covered with some form of golden mist. I am pretty sure this is not exactly commonplace.
VOICE: Sir? You heard me, right?
ME: Did you call ISRO?
VOICE: No, sir. I thought they…
ME: Give me your address. I will be coming over.
VOICE: Sure sir. I live in Yelahanka SatelliteTown. An arterial road branches off the Yeswantpur road there towards the Eucalyptus plantation. My house is at the edge, just by a dense bamboo jungle.
I copied down the details furiously and in my worst handwriting. There suddenly seemed no time to waste. The voice, that is to say, Mr. Ravi Dasgupta’s voice seemed cultured and he certainly sounded more educated than 90 percent of the people I had talked with today. When such cultured people start talking about weird golden mists encompassing a crash area, then it seems quiet understandable that either the nation’s going to the dogs or the golden mists exist. Either way, it would do me no harm to just get down there. Yelahanka Satellite town wasn’t exactly that far away. Even for a hoax.
I clutched my briefcase and rushed out of my office which was at the end of a long corridor. At the end of the very same corridor was the office which I prayed to God was open. Fortunately, it was.
“Hey, Sid.” I said poking my head through the partially open door. “C’mon grab your camera. We got a call.”
Sid looked up in an expression of extreme annoyance. “What! I think you forgot to add hoax between ‘a’ and ‘call’,” he said.
Siddharth ‘Sid’ Mehra was the part time photographer appointed to IRS. His job included sitting and doing nothing, since we hardly received any calls of real value.
“I think this one’s got something in it.” I said.
“Oh yeah? So there are two owls flying instead of one tonight?”
“Shut up and come Sid.” I said. “And do not forget the flash gun.” I was irritated and Sid’s laziness seemed to have stretched beyond limits.
“I will come on one condition.” Sid said nonchalantly. “You tell me what makes the hoax seem so real to you.”
“Well.” I said rather placidly, “The caller confirms to have seen the UFO fall down like a gigantic fireball and …” I added hastily seeing the expression on his face, “he also confirms to the fact that there is a golden mist surrounding the area where it fell.”
Even though he tried to act as if he didn’t believe an iota of it, he decided to follow me.
Ravi Dasgupta turned out to be a retired war veteran from 1971, whose love of greenery and nature had persuaded him to come live in his late friend’s farmhouse, just at the borderline of the eucalyptus plantation. He shook my hand vigorously when I introduced myself and Sid and then leant toward me, whispering in what he must have imagined to be a confidential tone, “Lets not waste any more time. I may not seem to look very perturbed but my wife certainly is. She has retired for the night, and I would like this issue resolved before morning.”
The crash was very much inside the jungle and since it seemed impossible to maneuver a vehicle through it, we decided to trek with a torch in each one’s hand. Ravi Dasgupta, of course, was to lead the way and he carried a .45 magnum revolver in his other hand. That’s a serious man, I remember thinking as Sid asked, “Is that thing legal?” Dasgupta did not answer.
Our trek through the Jungle was quite scary, punctuated by the various discomforting sounds and motions in the foliage; footfalls on damp grass, the chirp of the crickets and the eerie, shifty motion of the reptiles – something that turned out to be nightmarish for me.
My fear of reptiles had started in what I now believe to be my second or third biology practical session in the eleventh grade. We were supposed to show the working of a three chambered reptilian heart. Now, neither me nor my school were very well equipped in playing their respective roles for a successful practical, so I ended up getting a very hideous little lizard which was improperly sedated. Somehow midway through the dissection, and with its belly cut open in half, Liz decided to jump up declaring that it wasn’t unconscious at all. The poor thing was in obvious pain, more than it could bear possibly. It moved around, jumped and lurched leaving a trail of glistening blood everywhere as I sat motionless and too shocked to react. It finally settled down on a girl’s spine who was unfortunately wearing a white dress. And she had screamed. And then every single girl in the room had screamed. That combination of red blood on white fabric, and the shrill sounds of females with a lizard hissing in the background always came back to me. Whenever I see a reptile, the event replays in my mind.
“We have reached.” Announced Dasgupta and my reptilian reverie was broken. Dasgupta was in the process of shifting and positioning a final clump of branches which when cleared, gave way to a strange sight. We were staring at what appeared to be a square foot of region completely devoid of flora. Charred black bamboo shoots and grass were strewn at various random places. A large patch of hard, dark brown soil was the probably the most prominent topological feature. Across that severely burnt patch, lay a blackened – and at some places melted – cylindrical vessel which appeared to be made of pure steel. And the worst part was that all this, the vessel, burnt bamboo and the burnt patch were not visible because of the faint beams of our torches. They were illuminated by a glowing luminous envelope of a golden colored mist.
“Fuck,” Sid blurted and started clicking away. Dasgupta gave him an offended look and then said, “We haven’t touched or tampered with it yet, sir…” He continued in an explanatory nerve but I wasn’t listening. The fifth fundamental force, curiosity, was now making me edge closer and closer to the mist.
The mist wasn’t at rest. It was swirling around itself, parts of it diving and surfacing in small spirals. I reached for the mist; my fingers stretched out in an anticipatory gesture and touched it. Not the smartest move I have ever made, I must admit.
Thump! With a strange sound, all motion of the mist suddenly ceased. My heart almost followed course, but even before that could be accomplished, the mist started swirling again. Its motion became circular and the swirling quickened with each second. Small cohesive parts of the mist started breaking away and aggregating along its axis. The process continued in the same nerve for a while in front of our horrified eyes until the mist had completely reformed itself into a golden globule-like structure. The golden globule lay suspended in front of our dazzled eyes and fogged brains for a single second and then in a sudden astonishing move, the globule sped at me. The last sane thing I saw for a long time to come was a large golden ball approaching my eyelids.
And then, black.
To be contd…