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"Watchers of the Sky" by Robert Rosen

In the fading evening light of summer, 1961, Frank rests his palms on the rough wooden kitchen table. Through the window, just beyond the dangerously tilted boards and beams of a half collapsed clapboard barn, Tatel-1’s steel girder toe extends into the meadow grass. Frank smiles, and in a half-whisper says, “Come out come out wherever you are.”

Mary sits bolt upright on a black starless night in the summer of 1816. She thinks she’s heard a voice, but it’s only the sound of heavy snoring from the man who lies beside her. Mary seems an assemblage of parts. Her mother, the feminist, philosopher, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, stitched to her father, the philosopher William Godwin, grafted onto her sleeping lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She seems their bone and flesh, if not the milk of her mother, who died eleven days after giving birth. When Mary awoke and began life, she found herself alone.

Frank adjusts his glasses and thinks about the austere kitchen in his childhood home on the South Shore of Chicago where his parents demanded strict observance of Baptist fundamentalism. His father, a chemical engineer and amateur astronomer, once told him there were, “Other worlds in space.” He meant other planets in the solar system, but eight-year-old Frank imagined Earth-like worlds strewn throughout the galaxy. Habitable planets with beings driving cars on streets just like his hometown. Sitting in the last row of Sunday Bible school, Frank wondered if he could contact them. After class, he rode his bike to the Museum of Science along a winding bikeway by the edge of a lake that stretched into the infinite distance. There he came upon a photo of Nikola Tesla. Dark hair and sharp mustache, shoulders back, head tilted forward like some popinjay daring Frank to join him. A plaque below the photo recounted that in 1899, Tesla built a laboratory in the mountains of Colorado to search for high-frequency electricity and wireless transmissions and reported receiving signals from Mars that, “world spoke to the world in language strange at first, but sure to be clearer.” The signal originated with Marconi, not Mars, but that did not quench Tesla’s desire to reach out to the stars, and Frank now remembers how in that moment, that same wave of desire first broke over him. Now the table wobbles, and Frank, a Harvard educated physicist, sits upright, looks about, reflexively reproduces the motion, hypothesizes a short leg, imagines placing a matchbook beneath as a confirming test.

Frank’s here at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, to create a new research program for the radio telescope Tatel-1 which has, till now, been mapping the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It squats on four massive concrete pilings, indifferent to the barn, the farmhouse, and the scientist. Its 85-foot wide white parabolic dish is tilted upward, watching the evening sky. Electromagnetic energy radiates from the stars onto the dish, surges through a low pass amplifier and a superheterodyne receiver and emerges as an ear splitting cry for attention.

Mapping places he can’t reach is of no interest to Frank. But what if he can bring the aliens here? So, he’s convinced the laboratory director to let Tatel-1 hunt for alien radio transmissions. He’s named the new research program Ozma, after the princess of Oz, a land both fantastical, faraway, and much like our own. Frank Drake has turned Tatel-1 towards the star systems Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, a dozen light years away. He keeps the project secret for fear of ridicule, but one of his colleagues, Carl Sagan, has convinced the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences of the importance of Ozma. The Board has asked Frank to organize a conference at Green Bank to encourage the search for life on other planets.

Mary lights a candle by her bedside. Her eyes roam over the brown tangled mass of hair, large round eyes, soft, delicate nose and lips of the man beside her. Mary was 16 when she met Percy, who was 21, and married with a pregnant wife. He’d just been thrown out of Oxford for his atheism, disowned by his father, and had sought out Mary’s father, his intellectual hero. Mary and Percy had an illicit courtship, as much Romanticism as romance, reading the works of Mary’s parents while reclining beside her mother’s grave in the St. Pancras churchyard. Sublime and rapturous, Mary fell in love with Percy’s looks and intellect, and the two ran off to Paris along with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was willing to be ruined as well. From there they traveled by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot through war torn France where Mary wrote, "The distress of the inhabitants, whose houses had been burned, their cattle killed and all their wealth destroyed, has given a sting to my detestation of war..."

Returning to England, pregnant, Mary learned Percy was bereft of money and friends, the two having been shunned by society. She also learned Percy’s conception of romance was staggeringly different than hers when he pressured 17-year-old Mary to sleep with his best friend in pursuit of free love, while his own long-running romantic involvement with Mary’s stepsister had continued since the time the three of them had left England.

Mary’s baby was born prematurely and died. She wrote, “It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions.” The couple’s fortunes improved after Percy inherited from his grandfather, and Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom she named Percy, although she was forever haunted by visions of her first born, a contorted baby girl lying lifeless and alone in the center of the bassinet.

Mary, Percy, and Claire have now just recently rented a small cottage, the Maison Chapuis, on Lake Geneva. It’s proved a wet ungenial summer, and incessant rain has confined them for days to a log fire and German ghost stories in Lord Byron’s villa. Byron is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. His many affairs have included his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron is married and has a daughter, Ada, who in 1843 will write a theoretical description of a general-purpose computer a century before one is built. But now his wife has left him, and Byron has been barred from seeing wife or daughter ever again. Fleeing scandal, Byron left England for Geneva, and meet up with Percy, Mary, Claire, and several others, known to gentile society as the League of Incest. Claire has become pregnant by Byron, Byron is bored of the dalliance and the weather, so earlier this evening he announced, “We will each write a ghost story.”

Frank stares at the yellow legal pad on the table before him as he considers how to organize his conference. He pulls a ballpoint pen from the pocket protector of his rayon shirt and writes the title, “Do Detectable Civilizations Exist?”

He continues with the agenda topics.

  • What is the rate of new star formation? 

  • How many stars have planets? 

  • How many planets have life? 

  • How often do life forms create civilizations? 

  • What proportion of civilizations acquire the appropriate communication technology? 

He stops, sets the pen down, having recognized each topic as the probability of an event. He hypothesizes the fractional values. Rate of star formation in the Milky Way, four per year. Number of stars with planets, one in five. He realizes these fractions multiplied together will tell him exactly how many are out there in the Milky Way with cars and streets just like his childhood hometown. The ball of his pen rolls smoothly across the page as he writes a mathematical equation that will calculate the number.

N = R* · fp· ne · fl · fi · fc

The number of galactic stars, times the fraction of stars with planets, times the fraction of planets supporting life, times the fraction of life forms that create civilization, times the fraction of civilizations with communication technology. Exotic worlds of imagination collapse into a sublime set of symbols. A group of unknowns begging to be known. The ecstasy of creation.

When Byron had announced his literary challenge, the men in the room busied themselves with serious talk about “the principles of life.” Mary sat tactfully silent. She already knew more about such principles than anyone present. She already had her story in her head and now busied herself working on the answer to the humiliating question she knew would eventually be asked, “How she, a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”

She decides the idea came to her in a dream and that writing it consists of “making only a transcript.” Now, as she rises from bed, steps onto the cool cottage floor, the vision she has carefully assembled from the pieces of her own life is clear. There is a ghost of course, a pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside a hideous phantasm of a man-creature stretched out. The ghost works some powerful engine, and the creature stretched out stirs with an uneasy, half vital motion, mocking the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. A thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. Lightning bolts rip inorganic molecules from the sky, forging them into the building blocks of life. The creature raises its re-animated head on limbs in proportion, with hair lustrous black and flowing, in horrid contrast with its shriveled complexion and watery eyes.

Mary sits at a table, lights a candle, opens her oversized writing journal, dips a quill in the inkwell, and in cramped script begins to write a novel where myth powers technology. She does not focus on the twists and turns of plot, the visceral and alienating subject matter, but rather on the mental and moral struggles of the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein. Who is he? Her husband snuffles and snorts in the bed behind her while she feels the ecstasy of creation. She skewers the individualism and egotism of the men still talking in the other room, and these Romantic times. Her Victor Frankenstein is like Prometheus, or Satan in Paradise Lost, rebelling against tradition, creating life, shaping his own destiny. His aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, and we see all too clearly what is reasonable endeavor and what is a self-delusion clothed as a quest for truth.

The fire is fading. The room’s grown cold. Mary rises and pulls her wrap more tightly around herself. There’s no more wood by the fire and so she shuffles to the back door. She leans against it, it gives too easily, and she stumbles across 144 years into the harsh light of Frank’s kitchen.

They should both be surprised but they are not, for in the ecstasy of creation, anything is possible. Frank pours Mary some coffee from a shiny electric percolator. She takes a sip, scowls at the bitter taste, presses the warm white mug against her chest, and follows him out the door and down the steps into the cool darkness of the night.

They circle behind the barn. Mary places her hand on one of Tatel-1’s concrete pillars as she looks up through the dark steel girders that slice the starry sky into rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids, and asks, “Why?”

“Sublime destiny,” Drake replies. “To uncover the meaning of existence. No one person can in one lifetime, of course. We all chip away at it bit by bit. The more we see, the more there is to see. Enough meaning for an entire civilization.”

Frank waves his hands about his head as he speaks to the stars. “At this very minute, with almost absolute certainty, the chatter of other intelligent civilizations is falling on the earth as radio waves. A radio telescope, pointed in the right place, tuned to the right frequency, can discover them. We can send our own radio waves in response. Begin a dialogue so that someday, from somewhere afar out amongst the stars, will come the answer to our questions.”

Mary’s deadpan look is directed at the man. “And how far is too far?”

“How can there be such a thing?” He exclaims.

Mary recounts our collective history. Describes first encounters, clashes of cultures. Columbus, Cortez, the Little Corporal and the smoldering French countryside, the men back in the Lake Geneva cottage, pillars of literature, free thinkers who blather on about the principles of life. She describes the horrors that will come with the progress of another century. She’ll never see them but she doesn’t have to. She already understands. She tries to explain, quietly, how progress is not inevitable. That advancement lies close by chaos. Frank doesn’t hear her, for Mary’s voice is drowned out by the turning of Tatel-1’s gears as it slowly moves against the Earth’s axis of rotation, following its master’s command. When silence returns, Mary is gone.

Frank’s conference launches the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Drake’s equation becomes the embodiment of the cosmic optimism of the early sixties, a time when terrestrial intelligence races to the moon, then turns away, consumed by terrestrial events. It’s a time when anything is possible, and when humankind is almost destroyed, several times, by its own creations. In a quest to look further and further, Drake moves to a hilly cave-filled jungle on the north shore of Puerto Rico. There, abandoned in a giant sinkhole sits Arecibo, a 1,000-foot-wide parabolic dish. Frank uses Arecibo to transmit a three-minute message to star clusters more than 22,000 light years away. The message is filled with the double-helix structure of DNA, the dimensions of the human form, and the location of Earth and the solar system. Arecibo eventually collapses from neglect, but its message travels ceaselessly to the stars. To civilizations with towns and streets just like Drake’s hometown, or whatever else lurks out there.

Mary publishes Frankenstein in 1818, anonymously, out of a concern that its hideous truth might cause the authorities to take custody of a mad woman’s child. The book contains an unsigned preface by Percy Shelley. It becomes an immediate sensation. Sir Walter Scott writes, in an early review, “The author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination.” Scott, like many readers, assumes that the author is Percy Shelley. Conservatives are not enamored and damn the book’s radicalism and its Byronic impieties. They miss the point. The novel is a revolutionary story wrapped in a counter-revolutionary point of view.

Mary continues writing. 23 short stories, two travel narratives, and eight novels. One, The Last Man, is an apocalyptic story of tragic love set in 2072, when humanity is gradually exterminated by a pandemic. The Last Man is the lone survivor, having failed, for all his imagination and knowledge, to save the life of anyone. Mary Shelley remains generally regarded as a result. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter who became Shelley's Pygmalion. Her intelligence is questioned, as is her authorship of Frankenstein.

But as the crickets’ chirp in the summer evening of 1961, Frank sits at the kitchen table, places the pen back in his pocket, looks upon his formula, and notices a new term in his equation. An “L”, not in ballpoint pen, but in large looping quill and ink script has been added.

                                             N = R* · fp· ne· fl · fi · fc  * L

In the bottom right-hand corner of the page there’s a note.

Consider adding “L,” the

fraction of civilizations, once

born, that now exist, for every

civilization must have a

beginning, and an end.

Mary Shelley

Rob Rosen has spent the better part of a life as a technologist and applied mathematician with a front row seat to the technology revolutions of our time -- and the resulting social convulsions. He’s a member of the Historical Novel Society, The Burlington (VT) Writers Workshop, Grub Street, Writers Digest, has written essays and fiction for our local newspaper here in central Vermont, and had several short stories published in other speculative fiction magazines and music literary journals.


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