The Dream Twister - September 2003
Ball - Dave Clements
Girl - Alia Sheikh
(page 14/14)


Ball

Dave Clements

The scientist pushed his chair back from the desk and gazed on the bane of his existence. The neutrino experiment had failed and he was back to square one. Again. His career was at a dead end. He was getting nowhere. And that big smug white sphere was just sitting in its hermetically sealed chamber, doing nothing as always.

Of course he hadn't always hated it. When he had first laid eyes upon the sphere it had seemed like the answer to his prayers. There it was, the first evidence of intelligent life away from earth, the thing he'd spent his life preparing for, and now it was given to him on a plate.

Well not a plate exactly. It had been discovered at the centre of a new crater in the ice sheet of southern Greenland. The meteor that had made it had been tracked across the world, and the crater itself was somewhat famous. But the isolation of the site had made it easy for the US government to find and remove the mysterious sphere that lay at its heart. The scientist presumed they'd tried various tests of their own before being driven by their own frustration to contact him.

He sometimes felt that he'd spent his life preparing for that moment. He'd been part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and had spent his time working out what you did once you'd actually made contact. Working for NASA first, then the SETI Institute, and then NASA again, he'd invented mathematical alphabets, devised contact scenarios, and even tried talking to dolphins, all in an effort to make something comprehensible to any intelligent species they might meet. But this was all predicated on the principle that communication was the goal, and maybe it wasn't.

One day he'd got an intriguing offer. No details of research topic, just a blank cheque as a research budget, and a security agreement to sign. That was how he had got to work for the military, and how he came to meet the sphere.

It was white in visible light. This came mostly from its reflectivity it had an albedo of 0.7. If you turned off the lights and looked at it in the infrared, its appearance didn't change much. This was one of their first results, and it was still pretty much all they knew about the sphere. It kept itself, somehow, at a temperature of 31.7 Celsius, with a near perfect black body spectrum peaking near 10 microns. They had put the sphere in liquid nitrogen, and turned blowtorches on parts of it, and it maintained this temperature with complete equanimity. And that negative fact that its temperature never changed was still about all they knew.

It had been x-rayed, gamma rayed, ultrasounded, infrasounded, radared and sonared, and no internal structure had been found. Its surface couldn't be scratched, etched, burned, drilled or chipped. Messages had been pulsed at it across the electromagnetic spectrum and there was no response. The same had been done with other forms of radiation. Even, now, and at enormous expense, using neutrinos. And it just sat there, dumb, silent, and unresponsive.

The scientist was frustrated. Everyone else had gone home for the night, exhausted with the way he had driven them for this most recent failed experiment. He was angry. At them, at himself for taking out his frustrations on his staff, and at the stupid dumb sphere for being so enigmatically silent. He wished he could slap it around the room, but a 10m alien sphere would make for an unlikely opponent.

He looked at it in its room, sealed off from the world, and realised something. Throughout its entire time on earth, it hadn't been touched by anyone. It had been lifted, and pushed and shoved aplenty, but from the polar ice to the top secret clean room, it had always been handled through gloves. What would the thing actually feel like to touch, he asked himself.

Against all the protocols, why not try it now? It would take months to get such a mundane idea through the review panels and commissions that had to vet anything he did with it. He was here, now, alone in the centre. He could switch of the cameras and monitoring equipment like this, so nobody would know, and then go through the airlock into the sphere's chamber.

The door closed behind him, sealing him in with the sphere. He'd been here many times before, of course, and it always gave him a thrill to look up at the sphere, knowing it was the product of some unimaginably distant technology. He looked up as he moved towards the sphere, close enough to touch it. Then he extended his hand, and laid it on the perfect surface.

It was warm. He'd expected that, since the thing kept itself at close to body temperature. It was smooth as well, which he'd also expected on the basis of all the surface metrology they'd attempted. And yet, it was strangely yielding. It was soft! That was something that none of the experiments had found!

He pushed his hand forwards, into the sphere. And it went in! This was more progress than they'd had in the past decade!

He tried to remove his hand, but he couldn't. He was stuck. In fact, now he realised there was a slight but increasing force on his hand. He was being pulled in, towards the centre of the sphere. He pulled back, but his hand and, soon, his arm were being inexorably drawn into the sphere. He began to panic. He was too far away to reach any of the fire alarms. His mobile phone was on the desk, from long habit of keeping it out of the lab. He had a few pens in his pocket, which he feebly tried to throw at the alarms, but missed. Only when he was embedded in the sphere up to his shoulder did he start to cry out in fear and terror at the unknown force that had seized him. But by then it was far too late. In just a few moments more, he was drawn, ever more rapidly, headfirst into the sphere.

Silence returned to the room. But the sensitive microphones, if they hadn't been turned off, would have recorded one last sound once the screaming had been cut short. A sound which was unpleasantly like a burp.



by Alia Sheikh