This story was written by me for a Saskatoon Writers’ Club Challenge I issued. The challenge was “space detective”. Here is my figurative, and hopefully original entry.

Paxton was sitting at his console and minding his own business. Atropos and Clotho were minding Sirius on commission while Paxton’s favorite, Lachesis, was pointed straight at Kepler. He wasn’t fully awake yet and Lachesis was recording. He was used to Kepler’s sound, like the insistent din of an alarm his brain had long since learned to sleep through. Gulliver rolled up with his espresso and handed it off to him with its one metallic arm. To indicate task completion, Gulliver beeped out an approximation of the first few seconds of “Major Tom”. Paxton grinned and sipped.

He switched Lachesis to stream and listened for a while. There wasn’t much going on, but the signal quality was sweet. Later on he unbuckled and floated down to his maggies. He put them on and tried a few steps. The maggies pulled him down and made him feel disoriented, he would rather be floating. From its track, Gulliver seemed to watch him. Maybe the little robot felt a kinship as Paxton dragged his feet around his own track. He stumbled a bit and had to adjust his stride so he’d stop stepping off the magnetic path that ran through the orbital platform. He hadn’t exercised in some time and it wasn’t long before he had to stop and catch his breath.

Just then, a window popped up. Glover’s face glowered at him. Paxton didn’t react but his mind was going pretty fast. He hadn’t expected to ever see Glover again, for one. For two, no one was supposed to have his addy. It seemed that even orbit wasn’t far enough to go.

“Paxton,” Glover said.
“Glover,” Paxton said.
“You’ve lost weight,” Glover looked him up and down. Paxton was unimpressed.
“I’ve been in space for two years,” he replied. “it happens.”
“Yeah, it does,” Glover seemed to be thinking of what else to say, as if small talk was required between them. Paxton decided to unburden the old bastard.
“What do you want, Frank?” he asked.
“Oh just to see how you’re doing,” Glover said casually.
“I’m sure,” Paxton said.
“Aren’t we old friends, Paxton?” Glover smiled. Too much.
“Not really,” Paxton replied, “so why don’t you cut the shit and tell me why you’re bothering me up here.”
“Have it your way,” Glover said. His face abruptly disappeared from the window and was replaced by a stellar chart. Glover’s voice superimposed over the display, which began to animate normal stellar activity. It took less than a second for Paxton to recognize the cluster but Glover said the words anyway. “This is the Cetus Constellation which–”
“–I know very well,” Paxton cut in.
“Well yes, that’s part of the reason I’m talking to you,” Glover tried to bite back his
annoyance, he didn’t like to be interrupted. Which is why Paxton did it. “Can I continue?”
“Please,” Paxton replied.
“Obviously you’ll know that Tau Ceti was checked out a hundred years ago by SETI,” Glover said.
“And they didn’t find anything,” Paxton intoned.
“This isn’t the same old speech, pal.”
“Trust me, Frank, I’ve heard them all.” Paxton then turned away from the window and didn’t see the frustration cross Glover’s face.
“You need to listen and listen good,” he said, but Paxton was not. He had begun taking the maggies off, which was never easy to do. Then Glover said something that made him stop.

“Please say that again,” he said quietly.
“I said that Ozma is MISSING.”

*****

Paxton was back at his primary console, all three Sisters pointed at Tau Ceti. A window hovered behind him. Glover, still talking. Paxton didn’t look at the window, concentrating on the monitors and controls for the sisters. He momentarily wondered if he should fire the thrusters and optimize his orbit. Then an obvious question occurred to him, he thought he could piece together the answer but this would save time. And he wanted to know exactly.

“How’d you know it was gone?” Paxton asked.
“NASA called me, remember them?” Glover answered, “they had a visual on Tau Ceti for an art project believe it or not. Their old ‘scopes are cheap now, artists rent them out at premium and the proud history of space exploration is shamed.”
“Didn’t figure you for sentimental, Frank,” Paxton grinned and was ignored.
“They got confirmation from a few other major observatories and telescopes around the world and with no visual…”
“Get a noise collector?”
“No one listens to space music anymore,” Glover went on. “We don’t really bother unless we can get a probe out for video, meanwhile the small potatoes point their binoculars.”
“So that’s why you called me,” Paxton said.
“No one listens to people like you anymore, either.”
“Right.”
“We need someone who still uses radio and knows what to look for,” Glover said.
“Last time we talked about Ozma, I was laughed off the planet.”
“Yeah what can I say, things have changed.”
“I’m curious so I’m taking a look,” Paxton said. “I never said I was going to help you.”
“I’m just trying to be convincing, Paxton. If you find Ozma, you’ll at least have that much credit,” Glover replied with his salesman’s smile. “If you turn out to be right about it, I suppose a lot more is apt to change.”
“I may not care anymore, Frank,” Paxton said. His hands keyed coordinates for scheduled rotations over the next 20 hours. The sisters would be busy. “I’m beginning to like it up here.”
“Oh sure,” Glover said. “I can see from here that you’re perfectly cozy with your little robot and all.”
“Very cozy,” Paxton replied.
“But if you want to go home, Paxton, this is how you get there.”
“I’ll think about it, give me 20 hours.” Paxton said and closed the window.

Now it was just the sisters, Gulliver, lots of espresso, and the melodies of a distant star
which had lost its child. Paxton had decided pretty much immediately that he would work to reunite Tau Ceti with Ozma but wasn’t yet sure how. Or if his best would be an explanation for an entire vanished world, or perhaps a whisper of a clue and nothing else. The most likely case would be some fluke or mistake, or perhaps an unusual interference or event in the system. No way to guess, but he would start by trying to track Ozma. The novelty alone was worth that.

*****

A few years ago, Paxton had known Glover as a managerial type in charge of keeping book for a research lab he worked for. With extrasolar exploration privatized to stimulate the search for habitable worlds, there were guys like Glover all over the place. Paxton was a brain, recruited straight out of MIT to conceptualize novel theories for finding Earth 2.0. In the meantime, he became very interested in “space noise” and collected hours of recordings. People assumed he was looking for aliens out there, like SETI in the mid-20th century. Paxton didn’t care much about finding artificial signals or intelligent life, he just liked music and loved the idea of harmonies vibrating across space. It gave the universe a texture for him, made it less abstract.

Eventually he listened to Tau Ceti and its planets. Most were gas giants, but there were thirteen major celestial bodies and one of them was Ozma. From the beginning, Ozma was strange. It had an unusually strong signal strength for what seemed to be a rocky planet. Data suggested it was highly metallic, or was very dense due to some pseudo-metallic mineral humans hadn’t discovered anywhere else. It was especially perplexing because Tau Ceti herself was metal deficient. Paxton had spent hours listening to Ozma.

One day, the signal had dramatically increased in strength and complexity. Paxton started to believe that Ozma might be the source of an old school holy grail: an alien
civilization. The signal was recorded but blamed on the launch of some satellite from China by the company analysts. Then his recordings were confiscated and he was given the boot.

Paxton spent three weeks checking and rechecking his math but was ultimately ignored. Aliens were generally considered an adolescent fantasy that people had gotten over when things became strange enough on Earth. What did aliens matter when superbugs were building giant sandcastles to house Micronesian refugees? On a planet that now had an expiry date, no less.

So he went into space to keep listening to the music. He wasn’t a romantic and never saw his journey as Quixotic but rather as a natural evolution of his interests. Glover had been the one to give him his pink slip and Paxton had immediately sold everything he owned and made preparations to spend a few years in orbit. The sisters were dinosaur antennae, reliable and cheap but also enormous. He’d had to construct them in orbit himself, with the help of Gulliver. It had taken almost a year but now he was doing what he loved.

He hadn’t even pointed his array at Tau Ceti since coming out here. Almost 20 hours into his search for Ozma, the irony was finally starting to cease tickling. He was absorbed.

Lachesis was fixed on a gas giant called Nimea while Paxton kept Clotho and Atropos moving around the vast space where Ozma had once been. Nimea was the nearest planet and he hoped that if Ozma was still out there, Nimea would pick up any noise bouncing around. While his girls worked, Paxton kept his attention 75% focused on the most recent data about Ozma’s stellar orbit, gravitational relationship to the other bodies in the system, and so on. He looked for patterns, anomalies and anything the least bit unusual. The other 25% listened. But he found nothing.

At first.

*****

When Paxton finally tracked Ozma down, it was one of Nimea’s moons that spilled it. The same signal he remembered from his last encounter with this mysterious planet rang in his ears with a sound kind of like validation. Glover listened from a window. The signal was weaker, degraded by the other noise floating around in Nimea’s orbit, but this was why Glover asked Paxton to do this in the first place. Only Paxton could have found that signal in all the symphonies of the star system, identified it for what it was, and told Glover what it meant. And all with a straight face.

“It moved,” Paxton repeated.
“You’re telling me that a planet MOVED?” Glover was struggling.
“Yes,” Paxton said. He had something in his voice that Glover hadn’t heard since the old days.
“I’m going to get visual confirmation, okay?”
“Be my guest.”

About an hour later, long enough for various beams of information to shoot around the Milky Way, Glover was back with a look that could only be described as wonder. Paxton had never seen this look before and knew that the man was woefully unprepared for what he was about to hear.

“We have confirmation,” was all Glover could say and even he knew it sounded stupid.
“But Frank, have your people figured out what this implies yet?” Paxton asked, milking it.
“They say that, for one thing, this could only be the work of an advanced civilization,” Glover replied.
“Yeah, obviously. What else?”
“Well what else do they need to say, Paxton?”
“Have they decoded the signal yet?”
“They’re a bit stuck on this whole planet-moving technology thing,” Glover said. “Not to mention that, you know, we’re not alone in the universe anymore?”

Paxton laughed and made room for Glover to see some software. Low-tech stuff, probably cobbled together while the company guys did their checking and rechecking. Paxton was something else.

“What am I looking at?” Glover asked.
“This is a software I wrote to decode part of the signal.” Paxton said, “Now that I can hear it again it wasn’t
all that hard.”
“Almost like–” Glover said, hushed.
“–Like they didn’t want it to be too hard.” Paxton interrupted. This time, Glover was unphased.
“They, huh?”
“Or It. Him. Her. No way to be sure yet.”
“Wait, what?”

Paxton keyed his software to display what he’d found. A thousand images from Earth’s history played across the screen and Glover recognized his own handiwork.

“The Clarke probe,” he said finally.
“The Clarke probe.”

Paxton called up a subroutine, a little media player. A childlike voice echoed through the platform and the room Glover occupied on Earth. The pair of them heard it, along with several hundred analysts and monitors.

“You found me!” it said. And there was pleasure in the voice.

“They… it… whatever… speaks English!?” Glover exclaimed.
“Yes Frank,” Paxton replied. “the moving, seemingly intelligent planet speaks English.”

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