A New Message

Gary woke up in the wee hours of the morning, dressed and laid out flat on the bed, drool on his cheek, and the still burning lights painful to his pupils. He couldn’t see the antenna without lifting his head, which at that moment he was incapable of doing — the muscles flexed without effect. In fact, his whole body had an early morning feeling of sedation, so he lay there for a while, looking at the ceiling, wondering what lay at his feet and outside his door.

“At least I’m not dead,” he said as if the antenna were listening.

He wiped the drool from his cheek and with two heaves rolled over to his side. He could look back toward his feet and see the antenna on the table. The green image was still there. He started to get control of his muscles again, and he was able to sit up on the side of the bed. Then he stood and went to the table and flopped his still weak body down into the chair.

This image was different than what he had seen emerge from the wall — that had seemed to be a variation on the original screen burn. He flipped the power back on and it grew. This was a collection of green bars surrounded by different numbers of dots, which, because of their size and the wavering borders, seemed to be sparkle on and off. Gary grabbed a pad of paper and a pen, both hotel issue, and made a rendition. Eight bars. First bar with 12 dots, second with 1, third with 15, and so on. So clearly a signal and yet so cryptic that he wanted to speak into the antenna like a radio: “Yes, I’m here. Tell me what you want.”

There was no definite next step in his plan. That’s always the problem with your thinking, he said to himself, you can get that first hold by hook or by crook, but then you find yourself hanging without the next. So here you sit, in a stinking hole of a motel, with alien technology blinking at you, death squads and men-in-black searching for you, hell, closing in. You deserve it, too.

He doodled on the pad for a bit, then realized an obvious possibility for the image. The bars and dots were atoms; the drawing was an illustration of a compound. But to what end? He suspected that it was in order to provide a material that could make the antenna more effective. Of course, it might be the raw ingredients for a catalytic poison that would turn the earth into a dead brown heap. But it was a little late for cold feet of that style. He needed a computer and the Internet, then he’d figure out what the stuff was. He looked at the device — too dangerous to move, too risky to leave here.

His finger hit the switch, and the image flashed down again. He put the device back in its bag and set it under the table. He weighed the danger of the motel owner sticking his nose in and deciding to report the device to the authorities. The odds were against that scenario, to be sure, and he decided to play the odds; the opposite scenario — the signal could be lost permanently — outweighed the risk.

Gary stayed in the room long enough to brew the in-room instant coffee and slurp it down: after a few minutes he could feel a wave of sparking neurons in his head, and he headed out into the gray dusk of early morning. Some of last night’s trucks were already gone, and a few rust buckets had been added. Gary got into his car and headed to the freeway.

He had a good long stare, as he drove, at a nondescript Winnebago RV driving slowly in the other direction, with a large, very odd antenna on its roof, slowly rotating. The windows were all tinted or covered. The driver was moving very slowly, unnaturally so. The license plate was US Government.

Gary didn’t stop or turn around, although that was his first inclination. It wouldn’t help to run into the room just before the MIBs. Instead, he made it to the freeway and headed home. By the time he pulled into his driveway, the gray morning murk was turning into a reddish brown sunrise in the east. Almost no traffic, just empty city buses and garbage trucks hunting for dumpsters.

After he took a few minutes to feel at home again, he noticed the answering machine light on. He clicked the button: a call from his mother, then Alice’s unmistakable voice.

“- checking in. I know you’re busy,” she concluded quickly, and added: “I’m looking forward to hearing from you.” The click followed almost immediately, as if she were afraid that he was screening calls and about to pick up.

Gary replayed the message a few times. Alice was suspicious or driven to find out more, with nothing constraining her interest except her obvious lack of comfort around Gary. He had been 5 feet outside her door, probably, while she was leaving the message. This would be absolutely laughable, he thought, if it didn’t make him hate himself for the pathetic coincidence…

He made some more coffee and decided to forget about Alice for a while. With this phone call and his own shattered nerves, she had assumed in his mind the pose, hard and indifferent at the same time, from that day when she announced he’d overstayed his welcome. He sat down at the computer and did a Google search on the periodic table. With the chemical names in hand, he did a search on the chemical combination; it did not take too long before he realized that “Na,” even with a case and whole word restriction, was simply too common to be useful. He decided to take another tack.

He tried Yahoo’s research service: “What are the compounds that use all these elements, first those with exactly these, in some proportion, and no others, then those that might contain these in a sequence of some kind.”

That promised twenty-four hour turn-around. Much too long for his purposes, but he didn’t see any way around it. He remembered at some point to go back to the computer and fire off a message to his supervisor at work, describing in some detail his feverish aches and pains and advising him that he, Gary, would return to work next Monday, it being Friday. Eat that, he murmured.