Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Kill Fee

by Jonathan Lowe


The Flamingo is a Fifties era horseshoe-shaped former motel made of concrete block lit by neon snakes of wavering light. I listen to the sound that the engine of my Camaro makes, hissing onto the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. When it finally dies into silence, most of the luster has left the Tucson skyline, and I get out to stand beside the fence surrounding the empty pool. As I stare into the cracked and shadowed deep end, an ice machine somewhere behind me chugs to life, wheezing like an asthmatic drunk. Impulsively, I walk toward this new sound. Then I open the stainless flap of the storage bin, and reach in for an ice donut.

I rub the ice against my temple. I close my hand into a fist around it. With this fist, I rap three times on the door, but not loudly. More like a fugitive might, wary of the wrong attentions. A shifting sound comes next, followed by approaching footfalls. So I loop the melting ice lump in an underhand pitch, then watches it arc and drop into the darkness like a dead comet into a black hole.

The door opens. I feel a sudden false smile stretch my face, like a muscular twinge at an electrical shock.

"Mark," Eddie says in mild surprise, then, "What's wrong?"

"It's a long story," I say. "But if you let me in, I promise the Reader's Digest version."

Eddie seems to consider that, standing there in his underwear already, prepared for another night of channel flipping. Real friends or imaginary ones?  It's a tough decision, but he's delayed too long making it. He steps backward with a sallow look of defeat, as though reminded that he's turning into the kind of loser profiled on Cops. Another paunchy alcoholic without enough self respect left to shave or wear shoes in public.

I walk straight to the couch. I slump onto the discolored red suede there. Look down at the empties and scattered newspapers on the floor. I can feel Eddie's gaze on me now, like someone studying a stranger. An intruder. Not a former Catholic school chum at all, but a balding, middle-aged life insurance salesman. When I don't move or speak, he decides to sit too. Slowly, on the arm of the couch, at the far end. "What is it, anyway?" he demands in a nicotine octave, a look of irritation replacing former concern.

I look directly into his eyes, deciding that he now resembles Matt Dillon, gone to seed. Twenty years ago women may have noticed him, but no longer. Only the desperate ones, anymore. Back in the day, we might have been Dillon and Damon clones, planning an adventure to Mexico on motorcycles. Before he met a waitress named Darlene, of course. Before he experimented with a reckless marriage and a rancorous, soul-sucking divorce.

"I was just at Kitt Peak," I tell him.

"Where?"

"The mountain out to the southwest with all those telescopes?  I took the night viewing program. The one where they introduce you to constellations, let you look through the small Visitor Center scope at Saturn, and maybe some nebulas. Only it wasn't enough for me. So I wandered over to the cafeteria and starting talking to this astronomer. Eric something. We talked for half an hour, then he invited me up to the radio observatory, where he and a colleague were measuring velocities of globular clusters orbiting various galaxies."

He blinks at me now, the way he always did whenever I'd indulged my geek obsession in the past. Only this time he doesn't hold the look, and instead nods here we go to himself, free of the burden to disguise his boredom. Ever the sports fan.

"Thing is, when I got there, though, he tells me to sit, and starts asking me questions."

An uncomfortable pause, then he asks, "What questions?"

"About my background. You know, where I went to school. Do I have a girlfriend. That kind of thing."

A single nod in reply. "Why would he care about St. Ignatius?  Did you tell him what Father Carlisle did to us, too?"

"Actually, I did."

He peers at me as if looking down into a well. It reminds me of the way the astronomer peered, too. Who is less likely to be believed than an invisible middle-aged loser with a beer belly and a visible stain of lost potential?

I take in a breath first, then exhale it slowly. "Okay," I say, gearing up for the kicker. "I don't know how else to put it. This Dr. Lohman or Lehman or whoever, he had a decision to make."

"Decision," Eddie repeats the word.

"Yeah."  I run a slow hand through my thinning hair, then swallow hard before adding, "A decision about whether he and his colleague should reveal that they've heard a signal. A beacon, actually. I mean from deep space. From ... beyond our solar system."

The laugh I expected is delayed. Instead, Eddie's look is more like he's gazing into a mirror, now that he's finally decided to take a final vacation, culminating with a swan dive off the Golden Gate bridge.

"Get out," he whispers, at last.

I ignore the suggestion, as I must. "Eddie, look," I urge. "I'm sorry I haven't called you in so long, but I don't know who else I can go to with this. The signal, I mean, it's ... really unique. Not like some Morse code or radio noise at all. More like a digital echo, with a wavelength that's either so short or so long it looks flat. They think it's something new. A quantum beacon, using gravity waves as a carrier. You remember me saying we still don't know what gravity is precisely, right?"

"We?"

"Scientists. Scientists don't know. Like Einstein. He said gravity was a curvature of spacetime, remember?  But it also gets transmitted by something they call a graviton, traveling at the speed of light. Or maybe not. They still don't have that worked out completely. It's partly a mystery. So who knows. Anyway, one theory is that gravity may also pass instantly between two objects. Like these gravitons escape four dimensional spacetime to traverse the distance by way of a fifth dimension. Which might be one reason why the universe is expanding faster. Because gravity is weakened by this."

He pinches the bridge of his nose, then shakes his head as though dislodging a wasp. "I just can't deal with this ... stuff much longer," he informs me.

I take a deeper breath. "I understand, so I'll get to the point. There's a couple astronomers up on Kitt Peak, Eddie. Couple a' rich geeks never had to work a stockroom or drive a cab for a living. As fate would have it, they've discovered a transmission that couldn't come from any natural source. They didn't even need a supercomputer to decode what it is, either. It's a warning aimed in the direction of where a gamma ray burst has shot out from the poles of a giant exploding star."

At last, he erupts in spontaneous laughter. It's a surprisingly bitter laugh, too. Full of disdain, and not a little pity. "Bravo," he says, while slowly clapping. "What's the punch line -- that it's a Saturn probe or HBO satellite broadcasting a rerun of Lost in Space?"

"No. You don't understand. They've identified the star we'll see explode, because the warning is like a video clip. They can see it happen, Eddie. Like an advance preview, repeating over and over. Not a pulsar with detectable radiation, but a kind of digital wink. And get this. If they're right, the only reason they can see this warning at all is because we're in the path where it's being broadcast, along the same narrow channel that the gamma rays will come. So it's like a real-time nod from God, and what it's apparently saying is that whoever is in the way will be fried when the radiation arrives."

Now his head wobbles around a bit, like the Miss Piggy dashboard ornament in my Camaro. The cynical grin he then levels is like a weapon. "And yer just sittin' there, buying all this?  Didn't think to ask 'em how the broadcasters survived the radiation themselves?  Are they gods themselves?"

"No. Didn't I just tell you?  The star has already exploded, but the broadcast is coming from outside the narrow polar alignment where all the energy is focused."

The explanation causes him to look down at his feet. A confused expression takes over his face as the weight of my revelation sinks in. To clarify, I tell him that although the signalers are closer to the exploded star than to Earth, Eric believes they're safe due to their position relative to the hypernova. Finally, that this horrific explosion has sent out -- within seconds -- a beam of energy equivalent to a billion years of natural radiation from the sun, and that such a beam can knife through the cosmos for hundreds of light years, cleansing whole parsecs of budding life.

"That may also explain why nobody's detected an intelligence until now," I conclude. "Life rarely gets a chance to develop before some star explodes like this in the vicinity. Maybe mankind has just been lucky, so far. Out here near the edge."

Eddie gifts the summation with a half chuckle. "And now our luck is gonna change -- that what you're saying?"  He huffs. "News flash, buddy. So far?  Been nothin' but bad luck for me. Just more of the same."

I shake my head. "Not the same for us, if we break the story first."

His eyes narrow into a squint, as if reading the headlines below his feet. The haphazard newsprint spread out like blotters in a bird cage. "How's that?"

"If we learn which star has exploded before they get the guts to go public ..." I leave the sentence unfinished.

Curiosity in his gaze. "If we learn?"

I point at the paper on the floor. "There's a global warming symposium this weekend, out at Starr Pass. This Eric guy will be there. I overheard him mention it. What if we go there with a micro-recorder, and you pose as an astronomer who's checked out the beacon already?  We'd find out quick if it's for real, and how much time we have, depending on our distance to the signalers."

"You're joking, right?  Now you want me to pose as an astronomer at a global warming conference?  There's a double irony."

"Hey, you've listened to me gab enough over the years, haven't you?  I'll prep you on what to say. Wouldn't have to be much. If you get him alone, without his colleague there, you could imply this other guy -- this Bill guy -- is an old friend, a former classmate."

"You mean, like us?"

"That's right, just like us. Haven't spoken in years, but then this thing happened, and you checked it out on the Green Bank radio telescope, and confirmed it. Hush hush. Green Bank's in Wisconsin, by the way. Pretend the star's exact distance is unclear, which is likely. Get him to name it somehow. We get his conversation on tape and we can go to ABC or CBS, Eddie. We'd been bigger than the winner of American Idol, if it proves to be true."

His laughter assumes a weary, cynical edge. "If it's true, we're all toast, so we'd be more like Hitler and Mussolini. Besides, how do you know this guy ain't goin' there to reveal it himself?"

"I don't know, maybe he is. But he may still fishing for advice about the timing or the intensity, like he was with me about public reaction. It's a big story, after all. The biggest. If he's wrong about his timing, or about his interpretation of events, his career might not take the path he hopes it will."

"And if he's right?"

"Depends. Could be a hundred years before any radiation arrives. Or longer. There aren't too many stars big enough to go hypernova in this part of the galaxy, so if the star is far enough away, maybe the energy isn't catastrophic. Maybe it just lights up the night sky like the full moon, and we lose NFL satellite coverage. He could have great, great grandkids by then. But we need to know the star, Eddie. And where the signal is coming from. Then at least we'll be in the ball park, instead of out on the street."

A long pause, then, "You're nuts, and so is your plan."

I nod in agreement, and not even reluctantly. "Nuts, yeah, but it's all we got."

####

The Marriott Resort at Starr Pass is a billion dollar edifice fashioned of beige stucco, with marble floors and with chandeliers the size of my Camaro. I wear a shirt and tie, and Eddie's got on the suit jacket he wore to his dad's funeral two years before. He can't quite button it closed now, but with a clean shave and shined black church shoes he almost passes for an astronomer at the eccentric end of the spectrum.

We're late on this clear, bright Saturday, having walked up the long circular drive since my Camaro overheated half a mile away. Security is already set up outside the ballroom, so we stand at one of the long windows nearby. One that overlooks the lap pool and the 18th green.

"Just be cool," I advise. "If I spot Bill Reynolds ... I mean, if he's here, I'll get him aside somehow. Try my own play. You stick with Eric Lullman. Focus on that picture we downloaded from the net."

Eddie pulls out the photo paper I'd given him, and studies it. "Five eight, hundred fifty?"

"Thereabouts."  I smile nervously. "It'll be fine. Just remember to push the record button before he sees you."

"I'm not stupid, you know."

"I know you're not. You just think you are. Now, you were at Cal Tech with Bill when, exactly?"

Eddie rolls his eyes at the question.

####

At the penultimate moment, I watch from a restroom alcove as the sandy-haired geek named Eric Lullman approaches Eddie Marcel -- former alter boy turned aging bar hop. Lullman wears a beige polo shirt and dark blue slacks. His gait is determined, but his expression unreadable.

When Eddie's hand comes up, before the two meet at the broad window, I feel my body tense. My mouth fills with cotton. I strain to hear actual words, but intervening voices muddy the edge of perception. Then there is a pause as people pass by, eclipsing my view, and I'm reminded of seeing an impressive photo of local group galaxies, taken by Hubble, yet gazing past them at the galaxies in the background. At the barely visible little spirals and blips in the Ultra Deep Field, considering that any of them might be bigger, brighter, and more mysteriously close to the Big Bang than those taking up most of the foreground.

At the instant of revelation, I miss seeing Eric's face. When the two part, Eddie doesn't react at all. If anything, Eddie seems oddly frozen in place. I, too, am suddenly aware of colors and textures. Of movement. Like the rise of Eddie's hand to his cheek, as though at being struck. Then Lullman casually joins the others heading into the ballroom, past two men checking I.D. badges, and it's over.

Traffic falls off. The doors suddenly whisper shut. Now Eddie stands alone at the window, looking down at the pool below the long window...

I walk stiffly toward my old friend, realizing that only four minutes have elapsed, although Eddie's encounter has changed him profoundly, somehow.

"What?" I ask. "What?"

Eddie doesn't turn toward me, but continues to stare downward, past his feet. I follow his gaze. At the pool below, a middle-aged man beneath them is rubbing oil onto a girl's back, from her side. Her forearms are crossed above her head. Her feet are slanted inward, her toes pointing toward each other like she's been anesthetized. Her tanned legs seem flawless, cellulite free. An inverted V. The man's gray head bobs above hers as he works.

"Something you'd like to tell that guy?" I say, not sure if I want to know.

Eddie blinks and impotently works his jaw muscles. A straining pressure. The answer is having an unexpected effect. Like a poison. After a moment, he finally opens his mouth and enunciates one word, precisely and slowly. So I can't mistake it.

"Deneb," he says.

I am staring at him as the name reverberates inside me, like a low-caliber bullet entering my brain and rattling around inside my skull, making connection. Deneb. It is a slow bullet, as in the Sade song. It renders me mute while my spine and limbs spread both the reality of the name and its significance outward to my now tingling fingers and toes. Partly, it's that Eddie would not have known to say the name. Mostly, though, it's the star itself -- one of the most intrinsically brilliant in the galaxy, burning with the ferocity of 160,000 suns. A blue white supergiant, Deneb resides at the apex of the Northern Cross, as I recall it. A star I could see with my naked eye. I try to remember an estimate of its distance, but then Eddie looks over at me, and meets my gaze.

"It's real," he says, still struggling against the awe of the revelation. He glances past me at the thick wooden ballroom doors. "And they're planning to announce it in there, at the conference."

"They are?  But where's his partner Bill?"

"Parking the car."

I'm struck again, a double blow. I look back down at the man below us in disbelief. Finished with administering the girl's sunscreen, the gray-haired Lothario leans back, settles onto his lounge chair, laces hands behind neck, then seems to smile up at us, aware of the attention. It is an ironic smile, offered in the bliss of ignorance.

"What about the beacon? Did he tell you where the signal originates?"

Eddie doesn't answer. Only shakes his head. Once, then again.

"You mean there's nothing else, just ... Deneb?"

He nods slightly, as if that's enough. And it is, for him. For a man who has just about given up on life, the next disaster is half expected, although the magnitude is surprising. "What happens now?" he whispers.

I squint up at the sun, trying to imagine Deneb in its place. If it was centered there, I know it would also be here, with a diameter of two hundred times that of Sol. Of course we would not be standing on its surface, exactly. Or breathing its atmosphere, except as superheated gas breathes. For such a megastar to nova in the most horrific way possible, the radiation emitted would surely be enough for it to be glimpsed by creatures living in galaxies other than our own, albeit in some impossibly distant future. But would it also be enough to boil away the Earth's water, and much sooner?  "I don't know," I admit, and then turn to face the ballroom doors. "I wonder if anyone in there knows, either."

Eddie rubs at his forehead, as though trying to erase the past ten minutes. "How long have we got, then?"

The question seems sincere. I glance at my watch, out of compulsion. Then the irony of the habit hits me, and I think about all the thirty second ads I've watched over the years for burgers and SUVs and styling gel and rap albums. Finally, I imagine an alternate universe where I'm a real astronomer instead of an insurance salesman, and Eddie's a pitchman for Jack Daniels instead of just a drinker of the stuff. "Look on the bright side," I hear myself say. "The National Debt may never come due, after all. Or the Deficit. Wars over the Middle East will end, too, once the ozone and the oceans are gone."

"That's not funny," Eddie contends.

"Sure it is," I insist, agreeing with the realization. And then I indicate the sun, which now illuminates a whole new and ludicrous world, thanks to a relativistic wink from the heavens. "Everything's funny, don't you see?  It always was, buddy. We just didn't know it."

Not amused, Eddie looks over my shoulder at someone's approach. I turn to recognize Bill Reynolds, clown colleague of Eric Lullman. The second man of the tag team who'd tested my response to one part of the whole horrible truth they were now here to reveal. Reynolds, checking his wrist watch, ducks into the restroom, carrying a briefcase.

I stare in fascination at the space where man and briefcase have disappeared. Then I accept the opportunity as my cue to guide Eddie toward our ironic and inevitable destiny.

"Where you going now?" Eddie wants to know.

"To find the source of the beacon."

####

The briefcase is locked, we discover, and Bill blubbers that Eric has the key. But after the moment of impact -- my fist to Bill's nose -- we learn that Gamma Cephei is a third magnitude type K star at a distance of 45 light years, and is known to possess a Jupiter-sized planet. What is unknown is whether the system also includes a smaller rocky planet with oceans and intelligent life that has transmitted a quantum signal along an axis in Earth's direction. Or whether the beacon is coming from a far more distant world, circling star C4548-8+21. If the former, Earth has less than 45 years before the radiation from a detonating Deneb reaches it. If the latter, the time could be even less, or very much more. "It depends," Bill Reynolds squeals, blood gushing from his face as Eddie holds him from behind.

"On what? On how far the second star is to Deneb?"

"Yes, yes," the man confesses. "On this side of Deneb, or on the other, farther away."

I grin, despite myself. The answer makes obvious sense. It's all neat and tidy, now. Whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper -- and whether that would be sooner or later -- was anyone's guess, but why risk petitioning Congress to launch the Space Interferometer Mission early, so that parallax could measure the exact distance before disclosing?  If the press could track down some blond starlet's lost love child across four continents, it would surely crack the biggest story in the history of mankind, and in a way no one could control.

"But why disclose here? Is there a Nobel Prize committee member in the audience or something?"

Reynolds nods mechanically, afraid I'm going to hit him again. "Dr. Carlton Abrams."

I tap the briefcase on the floor beside me with the toe of one shoe. "And you need this evidence to show people?"

Reynolds nods, mutely.

"Trust me, Bill," I say, "you don't want to link this with a global warming conference." But then I realize that maybe they did, given a possible cushioning effect. After all, it had taken years for people to believe what was being said about global warming.

I release Bill, but then Eddie sucker punches the man, and so we tie his hands to the handicapped railing, using Bill's thin leather belt.

On our way out of the ballroom area an odd rush of elation invades me. As I stride past the lobby with the surprisingly heavy briefcase, I imagine it contains the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible, premium Microsoft stock certificates, and bearer bonds indicating sole ownership of the Louisiana Purchase.

Once outside, Eddie is the one who must flag our first cab, because I'm hugging the briefcase tightly with both arms by then.

####

The Arizona Daily Star has a central news desk, and it is to this desk that I have summoned a reporter from the local ABC News affiliate TV station via cell phone from our second cab, en route. To my pleasant surprise, it is the FBI who are waiting for us. Two tall, unsmiling men dressed like finance reporters or CEOs. Escorted into a side conference room, we are handcuffed and told to wait for some ominous third party.

"I thought the press was a free zone," I complain, "like a church is for illegal aliens."

"You thought wrong," the first man says, then glances at Eddie, who just hangs his head. "Both of you losers."

"So much for freedom of speech. Who are we waiting for, then?"

No answer. Instead, the sullen Val Kilmer look-alike glances at his partner and breaks out the tiniest of smiles. Like an art museum guard, or an agent from The Matrix.

"I demand to see a reporter," I say, after a moment. "We have evidence of an impending catastrophe."

Still no response. Not even a blink. Obviously, the man has dealt with nut cases before, probably in this very room. Or the one we're all waiting for has.

"Aren't you even curious?"

The man looks directly at me finally, but I can't detect any interest there, yet. It's more like the steady glare of someone observing a bug about to be dissected.

"You know, all the other news they have here doesn't matter anymore. The story they've got in the works about some wacko flashing school kids?  Or the governor cutting the ribbon on a rehab facility?  Or a rubbernecking pileup on Interstate 10?  It's all meaningless now."

Maybe the G man expected me to be hysterical or fearful, as the others had. But my calm, self-assured tone is new. The smallest detectable glint of curiosity flickers across his deep-set blue eyes.

I add to it by commenting, "And if you're thinking this is a Homeland Security matter, think again. Because it's bigger than that."

At this Val Kilmer finally blinks. "Really."

The man's partner touches his forearm, but he shakes it away as though dislodging a mosquito.

"Oh yeah. So if it's the NSA coming, there's nothing they can do about this. Got nothing to do with terrorism, okay?  Although you could say, like what we told that reporter by phone, that it does involve an explosion. Evidence of which we have in a briefcase."

"A nuclear device?"

"No, I said it wasn't manmade. I told him that. "  I turn to Eddie for feigned support, but Eddie's head is now in his hands, oblivious to everyone. "Didn't I say that?  Didn't I make that perfectly clear?"

"Where's the briefcase now?"

"A safe place."

"And you came here because. . ?"

"I'm stupid, obviously. To think that maybe we could sell the story."

"That is stupid. Newspapers don't buy news. They report it."

"Do they?  I'm not so sure. Maybe they only print what you let them. Or what their corporate sponsors want them to print."  I pause, getting no response to a futile strain against my handcuffs. "But that's another story," I conclude. "Not nearly as important as the one I'm offering you, now."

Another faint smile. "For a fee, you mean?"

"That's right. A kill fee. It's what they pay to authors when they contract to buy a story, and then don't run it."

"And what makes you think we ... I mean they ... wouldn't want to run it?"

This is my cue to smile. And to remain silent. Especially about the return message from the constellation of Vela, directly opposite Deneb on the other side of Earth. The one that might be interpreted, Thanks for the warning.

In the next room, someone turns on a radio. Barry Manilow. I look up, when it hits me that it's the wrong channel. That every frequency we've listened to so far has been the wrong one. And that none of the other civilizations out there have heard us, either, because there hasn't been time for them to hear.

And if they could? I give a half chuckle. My smile turns ironic. Who were we, after all. Nobody important, obviously. Even if we did make American Idol, would anyone care to hear our swan song?

THE END


© 2007 Jonathan Lowe

Bio: Jonathan Lowe has published articles on Kitt Peak and the Large Binocular Telescope, and is author of the medical thriller GEEZER. Several of his stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently A Cleaned Clock, November, 2007.

E-mail: Jonathan Lowe

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