The values that the Casitian humans represent are inspiring and the glimpses we get of their social structures fascinating. This novel gives an astute view of how humans can change, if we’re lucky. — Review on Goodreads
I am looking forward to the next installment of this series. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it… I want more! — Review on Amazon
Chapter 1: Emergence
Palo Alto, California, Earth, April 20, 2011
Joel rocked back and forth in his squeaky chair and looked at the three flat-screen monitors mounted above a desk strewn with papers. He felt sleepy, even though it was only late morning; he had stayed up far too late writing a paper for the next SETI conference, which got smaller every year. He squinted at colorful graphs of data from the aging radio telescope at Arecibo, which was slated to go offline in a few months. As he scrolled through graph after graph, he got more and more bored, so he almost missed it. There it was, a real signal: clear, focused, and no doubt, artificial. It was, actually, suspiciously strong.
As the excitement of this new signal built inside him, the old sadness that he was the last scientist left working full-time on SETI came back to him. Since the big scandal three years ago, all the others had either left the field, or were doing work in small snippets of time they could spare between other projects. All the graduate students had left to do other sorts of projects. He was utterly committed to SETI, so he kept on, and refused to think about a future without SETI science. He was convinced that somehow, someday, he would find the thing that would finally validate all of his efforts.
He brought his attention back to the signal, realizing its possible importance. The first task was to look at where it was coming from. Checking the direction of the antenna at the time of the signal, he brought up a star chart on his screen, and cross-checked it with the directional information from the antenna. He cursed. Mars. Mars? Who set the telescope to be looking at Mars at this time, when everyone knew the orbiter was operating? Damn, he thought.
He flagged it, just in case, and kept going, looking at the rest of the runs, feeling more bored and more dispirited than before. His stomach started to grumble, and he thought fondly of his favorite pizza place. Pepperoni and anchovy pizza sounded like a good antidote to his current mood.
San Francisco, California, Earth, April 20, 2011
Marianne walked down the busy street, and she could see the sky darken between buildings as she looked toward the ocean. This evening she needed time to relax, and think, and her favorite watering hole seemed the best place to go. As she approached the bar, the neon lights that advertised Budweiser and Coors hanging in the glass window blinked a little, the latter lights sporting strange rainbow colored mountains. What would they think of next? “Felicia’s,” the name of the bar, shone in neon above the window, with the ‘l’ and ‘c’ having small blank spots in them.
She found the door and swung it open, and familiar scents wafted to her nose. Preoccupied, she almost tripped walking in. As she made her way to a bar stool, and her eyes adapted to the dim light, she looked at the new bartender. Her spiky blond hair and tattoos, and a particularly painful looking piercing at the bridge of her nose, were all somewhat intriguing. But in the end, Marianne decided, not all that attractive.
“What would you like?” Her smile was pretty cute, though.
Marianne debated. MUNI was her ticket home, so there was little need for care. Besides, her day had been one that she wouldn’t mind forgetting.
“Whisky sour, please.” She rarely drank mixed drinks or hard liquor, but today had started out badly, and ended up even worse. She watched the bartender prepare her drink. It always interested Marianne how bartenders worked; some were very utilitarian, others showing a kind of flair that she enjoyed. This one looked like she noticed Marianne watching, and wanted to show off.
After all of the flourish, the bartender finally placed the drink in front of Marianne, smiled, and moved on to other customers. Marianne swirled the thin straw, fingered the stem of the cherry, and thought back to her day. She had awoken to her phone ringing at 5:00 a.m. with the slurred voice of her most recent ex, Suzanne. She wanted to see her, and Marianne had to firmly refuse, even though she felt a little guilty.
Once she got to the office, it had been one of those days full of glitches and bugs and unexpected problems. She was a stickler for good code, which sometimes ran afoul of the goals of the company she worked for, whose only current source of revenue was contracts from NASA/JPL. Her late afternoon meeting with Chuck, the project manager, who knew too much management, and not enough project, had been a complete disaster. She’d been called into his office at 4 PM, and she walked in to see a grim look on his small, pasty, pudgy face.
“Marianne, we need to have a talk about the amount of time you’ve been spending on this project. We’re running too close to the line on this budget.”
“Chuck, you should recall that we talked about how we would have to front-load most of the development in these new missions to Mars and Saturn, but that work would allow us to mostly sail through the work we need to do for the second mission to Mars, and the Venus lander.”
“We can’t afford to do that any longer. We have no choice. I heard from the resource manager that we’re running out of cash, and our investors aren’t going to give us any more money. You need to trim the development budget. I can see a few shortcuts here you can use.”
He pulled out some sheets of paper, diagrams that she had worked up for the project several months ago. She could see some particular parts were circled in red. In the end, she had to cave into his demands for shortcuts for two new missions to Mars and Saturn. She had been livid, and had said some things to him that would have cost her job, had she not been one of the most important assets to the project.
As she was finishing the last of her drink, looking deeply into the melting ice, she could feel someone watching her. She turned to look down the bar, and saw a woman with the most striking green eyes she had ever seen. Her face was almost a perfect oval, with light brown complexion, and gorgeous eyes that were almond-shaped. She had close-cropped dark brown hair, and she was wearing a tank-top, so it was easy to see that she was well-muscled. She was smiling directly at Marianne, who was instantly intrigued, and attracted. She hesitated, and then got up and went to sit next to her.
“Hi. You look pretty new around here—I don’t think we’ve met before.” Marianne felt completely lame with that beginning.
“Hello. No, we haven’t met before.” The woman’s voice was melodious, her accent unfamiliar, and Marianne was enchanted. “I am new. I just moved to the city a little time ago. My name is Ja’el.”
“That’s a beautiful name. My name is Marianne.” She extended her hand. Ja’el took it, almost too gently, and shook.
“What brought you here, a job?”
She nodded. “Yes, you could say that.” That was all she said.
“I’ve lived here for five years now. I’m a programmer. I work on algorithms for space vehicles.” Ja’el nodded. People usually looked at Marianne with surprise when she told them of her work, but Ja’el almost seemed as if she’d known.
Ja’el looked toward the pool tables. “Want to play?”
Marianne agreed immediately. She liked to play pool, it was a nice icebreaker, and she was quite good at it, beating almost everyone she played. She offered to rack, and to have Ja’el break. As Ja’el lined up her shots, Marianne watched her move her body. There was something unfamiliar, something strange about the way she held the pool cue, and made the shot. But several balls made it into pockets anyway. It was quickly clear that Ja’el was much better at pool than Marianne. She won handily, several times.
“OK, I give up! You are a great pool player.”
Ja’el looked almost embarrassed—like she’d made a mistake. “I’ve just had a lot of practice lately, that’s all.”
Marianne smiled. “That’s OK, really. I don’t mind.” They made their way back to the stools, and Marianne offered to buy Ja’el a drink.
“Thanks. I’ll have… what you’re having.”
“A whisky sour?”
“Sure. I’ll have that.”
As the bartender was preparing their drinks, Ja’el asked in her unfamiliar accent, “I’m new to the city—is there a place you can recommend that I see?”
“Well, there is the new museum in Golden Gate Park. It has a lot of great artwork from all over the world. Also, they have a new photography exhibit by my favorite photographer.”
Marianne could tell Ja’el looked a little confused for a minute. “Will you take me there?”
Marianne was taken aback. “Um, sure, I was thinking of going on Saturday, anyway.” It would give her the perfect excuse not to work that day. “Where do you live? I’ll come pick you up.”
Ja’el said quickly, almost too quickly, “No, I’ll come by your place.”
“OK, if you want.” Marianne was surprised by Ja’el, but she was far to intrigued by her to protest. She took her wallet out of her pocket, grabbed one of her cards, and wrote on the back her home address and cell number, handing it to Ja’el. “Why don’t you come by around 10:00? There is a great brunch place we can go to on the way.”
Ja’el nodded. “See you then.” She slipped off the bar stool and walked toward the door. She paused, turned to look at Marianne and smile, then completed her trip to the door, and out of the bar. Marianne’s eyes followed her, and when Ja’el had left, she finished the last of her second whisky sour, resisted ordering a third, and walked out herself, making her way more slowly than usual to MUNI. On the trip home, she couldn’t help obsessing a bit about Ja’el, and the mystery that she was.