Fiction: “The Fermi Project” by Edoardo Albert

“We’re spending Christmas in LA next year,” Jeff said.

His younger brother, Brandon, continued to stare out at the snowscape. “You say that every year.”

“It gives me something to say.”

Brandon gave no sign that he had heard. Jeff blew on his hands and stamped his feet against the cold.

“Must be cold for you, too.”

Brandon slipped him a quick grin. “New Mexico nights are chilly,” he said. “But not like here in New York, it’s true,” and he turned back to contemplating a world gone white.

Jeff peered through the door. Inside all was movement and noise, a blur of preparation and excitement as Mom and Mark, Janine and the kids prepared in their various ways for Christmas.

“It’s going mad in there,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Brandon, not needing to look around. “It’s better out here.”

Jeff stepped out of the light streaming from within and joined his brother looking up at the sky. They each had their reasons for staring at the stars.

“Still chasing ET?” Jeff asked, turning from the night sky to his brother.

Brandon’s suddenly stiffened stance was the only answer he afforded.

Jeff grinned. “You’ll be interested in what we’re working on at the moment, then.”

Brandon turned his head to look at his brother, but his gloved hands remained gripping the veranda rail. “Why should I be interested in the lies you get paid to tell?”

Jeff shook his head in mock sadness. “Really, a guy with your brains should be able to get this through his head: bad PR tells lies, good PR communicates a message. And I’m very good.”

Brandon grimaced. “That’s what I hate most about spin: not that it tells lies, but that it destroys truth.” He turned away from his brother and looked into the clarity of the cold night. “Do you know the difference anymore?”

Jeff snorted with laughter. “You spend too much time with the moonbats, Bran. Sure, everyone hates PR. That’s because we’ve got something everyone needs: access.” Jeff jangled his key ring in front of his brother’s eyes. “This is the key to people’s minds and hearts. And I’ve got it, bro, I’ve got it.”

Brandon was about to bat the hand away when his eyes suddenly widened. There, dangling on the end of the key ring, was the arrow symbol of the Fermi Project.

Jeff burst into delighted laughter. “I’m handling the PR for the Fermi Project, and from what I’ve been told, in a couple of weeks we’ll be able to tell you not only whether ET exists but give you his address too.”

Brandon began to smile, an incredulous, wonder-struck expression that revealed the kid brother Jeff remembered. But then, like the sudden recognition of a lie, the smile switched off and he turned away.

“You expect me to believe them? The government’s known about extraterrestrials for at least the last fifty years. Maybe they’re getting worried about the information leaking out.” Brandon looked around at the streets and houses stretching into the distance. “It’s all spin. The only place clean any more is up there.” The stars glittered.

Jeff shook his head and made to turn away, but then he stopped. “Look,” he said, “I know it’s difficult for you to accept after what happened to you. All I’m asking you to believe is that I know my job. I can tell when clients are asking me to cover their asses or when they genuinely believe they’ve got something good. They’re genuine, Brandon.”

Jeff waited and eventually his younger brother left the stars and turned to look at him.

“Believe me: if they’re lying, they’re the best liars I’ve ever met.” Jeff held his brother’s gaze while hope and mistrust struggled on his face.

Brandon closed his eyes. “They can really map the universe for life?” He opened his eyes and the look he had was the same as the little boy asking his big brother if Santa Claus was real, despite what Johnny James said. Jeff had lied then. Today he told the truth.

“Yes, Bran,” he said. “You should know.”

“All I did was some of the theoretical groundwork. But it’s one thing to show in principle that a consequence of Bell’s inequality for the information theory of life is the possibility of simultaneous mapping of entropic concentrations and another to actually put that into practice.”

Jeff laughed. “Yeah, another thing entirely. Look, all I know is that in a couple of week’s time press from all over the world are going to be there when they develop the map of life. Then we’ll all know where ET is, and how many of them are out there.”

“They must have some idea already?” asked Brandon.

“Not yet. The data is still being gathered and processed but we’ll all find out the results at the same time. I mean, I don’t need to tell you how big this is. The project wants to make sure no one can accuse them of hiding or distorting the results. After all, there are a fair few wing nuts out there, eh?”

Brandon grimaced. “Tell me about it.”

“Course, you’re not a wing nut yourself, hey?” joshed Jeff and, for a change, Brandon did not rise to the ribbing.

Jeff paused and Brandon caught the significance with which his brother was looking at him.

“What?” he asked.

“I can get you in,” said Jeff. “You can be there if you want, Bran.”

Jeff had the momentary satisfaction of seeing his brother’s jaw literally drop open in amazement, but before Brandon could pull himself together enough to reply, the door opened.

“It’s time for midnight Mass,” Mom said.

The men looked at each other. Would one of them, this year, say something?

“Coming, Mom.”

“Yes, Mom.”

But as they followed their mother inside to prepare for their annual trip to church, Brandon grabbed Jeff’s arm. “Yes,” he said.

***

Three weeks later Brandon slid along the row towards his assigned seat in New York’s Hayden Planetarium, compulsively clutching his security pass. The pass was an arrow – the symbol of the Fermi Project – with a hologram of the cleared person on one side and biometric data on the other. Of course, live feeds of the proceedings had been set up on media but even in a connected world the atavistic urge to be there, in person, was strong. When rumours had spread among his colleagues in the UFO community that he had a pass for the event Brandon had been offered money, position, sex and drugs, sometimes all by the same person, to give up his pass.

Jeff was already ensconced in the seat next to his. Brandon excused his way past the New York Times reporter who had the seat to the left and took his place while simultaneously shaking Jeff’s outstretched hand.

Settled into his seat with the information pack on his lap, Brandon looked around in unfeigned amazement at the luminaries arrayed around them, interspersed with the slightly more anonymous representatives of the world’s various news and information organisations, plus delegates from all the world’s major religions and many of the minor ones.

Brandon tapped his brother’s arm and leaned closer to him. “You know, you really are good. I almost believe this is all genuine.”

Jeff laughed, attracting a few censorious glances from people who apparently considered the end of mankind’s long isolation an inappropriate moment for levity. But Jeff wasn’t bothered and laughed again, the pure, relieved laughter of a man from whom many worries have suddenly lifted.

“What are you doing down here?” Brandon asked. “I thought you’d be either running around or up there.” He pointed at the raised dais in the centre of the auditorium.

Jeff shook his head. “My work is done, Bran. PR is all in the preparation. If I tried to get involved today I’d be treading on the toes of the event manager, and I can tell you you wouldn’t want to step on her Manolos. Hell, she’d probably sue you for defacing art. Besides, this way I can be the first to hear you say ‘I told you so’.”

“I told you, bro.”

Jeff laughed again. “And I tell you it feels good to see the back of this. All right, in half an hour’s time everything – everything – is going to be different. But let the scientists and the rest worry about that. Me? I did this–” he waved to indicate the world gathering within and beyond the auditorium, “–and I’m going to enjoy it.”

The directors of the project began to troop onto the stage. Conversations died away into expectant waiting, but Jeff whispered to his brother. “That’s the other reason I invited you, Bran. You should have been up there, too.”

Brandon said nothing. It was true that he had been invited to join the project at its inception. But then he’d given that interview and the offer was rescinded. The project’s directors didn’t want it associated with someone who claimed to have recovered the memory of being contacted by aliens anxious to tell the world that the political elite’s leading families were agents for, or disguised representatives of, various extraterrestrial factions. It probably didn’t help his chances when he said that Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha were not human at all, but virtual creations designed as part of an ongoing process of societal engineering engaged in by one of those extraterrestrial factions.

The lights went down and a film on the history of the project played, detailing its inception, methods and aims. Half an hour later the film ended, the lights went up, and the crowd buzzed with anticipation.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began the project director, “there’s not much more to add, except a few words about the name of our quest to map intelligent life in the universe.

“Enrico Fermi, the great physicist, once posed a simple but profound question: Where are they? After all, the universe is billions of years old. If only a tiny fraction of inhabitable planets have produced intelligent life, that would still leave a substantial number of civilisations to make their mark upon the universe. So, where are they? To answer that question, I present the man who might be called the presiding genius of the Fermi Project, Dr Stan Jaki.”

A thin, white-haired figure rose and surveyed the watching world.

“I am told I do not have much time. So, here is the answer to Fermi’s paradox. We do not see the presence of other technological civilisations because none exist. What we forget, in our cultural solipsism, is how precise the conditions are for such a civilisation to evolve, physically, biologically, culturally and philosophically. Among many other limiting factors are: a planet with continental land masses, an atmosphere clear enough to allow astronomical observation, sufficient but not excessive tectonic stability and a physiology that allows tool making and language. Even allowing for these, perhaps the most important factors are cultural. The philosophical presuppositions for a scientific culture are neither necessary nor obvious, and we have no reason to believe that they have occurred elsewhere. Thus, to answer Dr Fermi, I believe that alien civilisations do exist, but that they are not technological, and thus we are unable to detect them. Now, however, we will be able to find them, and know for certain that we are not alone.” Dr Jaki glanced at his monitor. He licked his lips.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are almost ready.” He gestured and the lighting in the planetarium faded again, and the great dome of the roof came alive with the glitter of the nighttime stars.

“Above your heads is the universe as we see it: stars, nebulae, galaxies near and far.”

The lights in the hall went out completely. Only the stars remained visible, the cold and lonely fires the brothers remembered from a Christmas sky. The only sound was a thousand inbreaths.

Dr Jaki whispered in the dark. “In a moment the stars will go out…” and, without any fuss, darkness fell. “Now, the project is complete and on the sky overhead we will see, like stars, life. Let there be light!”

The audience, the world, stared into the darkness. And the darkness stared back. No star flicked into light, nothing relieved the blackness. All was night, silent. Until a sound was heard – distant it seemed but in the silence all heard it as if it came from someone near – the sound of someone lost and alone, crying. Then voices began to murmur, whispers that threatened panic as the darkness grew heavier and more crushing.

“Lights!” Dr Jaki’s voice cut through the mounting sound and the normal illumination flooded through the auditorium. On the dais shocked faces stared at blank monitors while others whispered questions answered by shaken heads and pointing fingers.

Dr Jaki stood on stage, his mouth open and an expression of shocked loss on his face. He passed a shaking hand over his face and began to speak.

“I – I know you have many questions but at the moment I have no answers. So far as I can see there are no malfunctions.” He looked down the table at the Technical Director who nodded that was true. “Maybe, I don’t know, maybe something more fundamental, an error in the underlying theory, we’ll have to go back and check, try to understand what’s going on. Er, yes?”

Dr Jaki nodded into the audience and the New York Times journalist next to Brandon stood up.

“Could it be true?” he asked. He waved up at the blank, lifeless sky. “Could we be alone?”

Jeff saw Brandon shaking his head, like an animal confronted with unavoidable pain. “I’m sorry,” he whispered but his brother did not hear.

Dr Jaki stood, a scarecrow of hope, before, finally, he nodded. “Yes,” he said.

“No!” Brandon screamed, jumping to his feet. “You don’t think they would let themselves get caught by our stupid experiments, do you? You’ve got to believe, you’ve got to have faith!”

Jeff saw security guards making their way down the aisles towards them. Ah well, it had been a good career while it lasted, and he figured he probably had enough saved for a nice condo in Florida.

A swift shove, a quick elbow in the ribs, and the brothers were escorted from the auditorium. They then made their way past the security cordon outside, and through the arrayed cameras and reporters desperately adlibbing as assembled studio experts flailed their ignorance. Finally, they stood on a silent New York sidewalk. A lone yellow cab approached, the only vehicle on the street, and Jeff hailed it.

Slowly, Brandon focussed on his brother.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jeff. “It was time for a change in any case.”

The cab pulled up beside them.

“Where are we going?” asked Brandon.

“Home,” said Jeff. “Mom’s waiting.”

Edoardo Albert lives and works in London. One of his pieces once reduced a reader to helpless, hysterical laughter. Unfortunately, the piece in question was a lonely hearts ad. He’s got married since – the prospective wife was spared the ad – and has gone on to father two sons. His work has appeared in On The Premises, Daily Science Fiction and Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, among other publications.

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