LeVar got up from his computer and walked to the kitchen to grab a Canada Dry. The email and invitation from his boss Bob Garfield was crazy. “Pack tonight for two weeks, get a rapid COVID-19 test on the way to the airport in the morning, tickets to Maui pre-purchased, ground transport to Pan-STARRS2 observatory on Haleakala arranged. And for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone!"
LeVar remembered the conversation he had had with his fiancée, LeShonda, a year ago. He had just completed his doctoral degree and was considering a job as an instructor in the astronomy department at Paramount College.
“Levar, I don’t see why you want to take a job way up in that little college town in northern California and leave me down here in LA for a year while I finish my masters degree," LeShonda complained.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to jump start my career in astronomy. Bob Garfield, the department head, is known around the world. He told me he had seventy applicants, many highly qualified. But he chose me because he felt it was important that Paramount College finally have a black faculty member in STEM. After a few years as his protégé and writing a bunch of papers with him, I’ll be able to get a job at UCLA, USC, JPL or one of the other top places for astronomers."
“But didn’t you say that Garfield’s reputation had been damaged by his eccentric theory about the origin of some space rock he discovered a few years back?"
“Well, yes," LeVar conceded.
Until espousing a theory of an intelligent alien origin of the object he named Omua, Garfield had been highly respected in the field of near-earth objects such as asteroids with earth- crossing orbits. But ever since he discovered the object on images taken with the high-definition Pan-STARRS2 camera just over three months ago, he had become obsessed with his idea that the object was proof of extraterrestrial beings investigating our solar system. He had stirred up a big controversy with his rapid report in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. There was a firestorm of criticism. But the more the criticism, the stronger his belief in the alien origin of Omua.
“So Garfield is not so well respected any more. Why would you want to go to the other end of the state to work with a crackpot? And not only that, will you be comfortable to be the only black professor there?"
“I’ve read dozens of his articles and heard him lecture. He’s no crackpot. And frankly, my other offers aren’t all that great. Unless I go to a black school like Howard or Morehouse, I’m going to be the only black in the astronomy department. And the black schools are even farther from LA than Paramount."
“And what about your mother? Her Alzheimer’s is getting worse. Don’t you want to stay in the LA area so you can spend time with her while she still knows you?"
"Yes, you know I want to spend time with you and her. I can fly down every month while you finish your degree. But the only offer I had in the LA area was teaching astronomy at community college. Did I get a Ph.D. for that?"
"Well, I guess you will do what you have to do for your precious career," LeShonda said, turning away and walking to the window.
"Don’t put it like that. I want to be a success for you and mom, so I can have the money to give you a destination wedding, a nice house and help mom with her expenses. And I want to accomplish something that will make mom proud of me while she still can appreciate it," LeVar said, following LeShonda to the window and putting his arms around her.
"Yes, I guess I will just have to try to focus on the future and my studies for the next year."
Everyone agreed Omua was not the usual asteroid or mini-comet. The calculated velocity of the city-block-long, cigar-shaped object was four times that of a near-earth asteroid. Nor was it in solar orbit. It was tacking in a straight line past the earth. Before Bob left for Hawaii two weeks before, LeVar had argued with him about working on Omua with Bob versus an independent grant proposal on Oort Cloud observations they wanted to submit to the National Science Foundation. Afterwards he had called LeShonda to ventilate about his frustration.
“Maybe you were right, LeShonda, about working for a crackpot. My training in astronomy made me an agnostic about the existence of extraterrestrial life. I have tried to humor Bob by not confronting him. But he keeps trying to get me more and more involved with that line of work."
“I’m no scientist but the topic makes me think of movies we watched as kids and the viral conspiracy theories of government cover-up of alien contacts in Roswell, New Mexico," LeShonda replied.
“Bob’s theories are much more sophisticated than that. But now he thinks he has established contact with the object and with the civilization that sent it. He doesn’t want to show me the details unless I am willing to work exclusively on this for the rest of the year. To pressure me, Bob keeps reminding me of how the dean didn’t want to offer a job to a minority but that Bob had insisted. I must have mentioned to him that my mother has Alzheimer’s disease, so he has hinted that somehow this research could have spinoffs that could lead to a breakthrough in that field. I don’t see it. And I’m afraid he may cook up some risky venture that could ruin his career and mine if it became public. I wonder if he would go so far as to misuse departmental funds? I just can’t decide if Bob is nuts or a pioneering genius."
LeShonda said nothing for a moment.
“I hate to say it…"
“I know, you tried to warn me about taking the job. But until recently Bob has been a great mentor. He got me a good starting salary and has involved me in several of his grants and made me co-author on several papers he has submitted for publication. This would never have happened anywhere else. A blow-up with Bob could derail my hopes of a fast track to promotion and the salary increase I’ve been counting on to help mother afford the newest dementia drug which could run $50,000 a year. But why can’t he just do his alien thing without me."
“LeVar, you will just have to stand up to him. If he really has your interest at heart, he will be OK with that. If not, it’s good to find that out now."
Since his call to LeShonda, LeVar had not spoken to Bob. LeVar had pondered how to negotiate with Bob so as to maintain their close relationship yet distance himself from a possible press fiasco over Omua and supposed contact with aliens. Now this email. He drained the glass of ginger ale, hit the reply button and started typing.
“Hi Bob. I greatly respect your excellent work on Omua and I am sure you contribution to astronomy will be recognized one day. I am flattered by your invitation to a meeting in Hawaii. However, I don’t feel I should stop my work for the upcoming grant proposal deadline. Further, I am uncomfortable not telling my fiancee and mother where I am going and why. Best wishes for a successful meeting! LeVar."
LeVar glanced at his watch--2am--and hit send. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was Bob.
“LeVar, I know you don’t buy into my theory about Omua being sent to our solar system by an intelligent alien civilization. So I guess I need to share with you what I had been withholding if I can count on you keeping it confidential."
“Sure, Bob, I can do that."
“As I hinted before I left for Hawaii, I have made contact with the object. In fact I have been communicating with them for over three weeks. Omua is not their first probe sent to our solar system. It is just the first probe since our instruments and knowledge base have become advanced enough to recognize it as possibly from intelligent beings and to establish contact. They have been studying our species for centuries. They obtained specimens of non-humans life forms and recently deceased humans. Some of the latter were revived and studied, especially the brain. Their understanding of human brain function is far beyond anything here on earth.
“You surely know that my wife died some years ago. But now I have to tell you that her body was not buried or cremated. She had advanced dementia. While she was still lucid, we agreed that when her dementia became terminal, I would take her to Alcor, a cryogenics lab in Scottsdale, Arizona. At the moment of death her body was rushed into their lab and placed in an ice bath and infused with sixteen chemicals serving as a sort of antifreeze to protect cell structure. When it was near the freezing point it was placed in liquid nitrogen. I paid them $200,000 of which $115,000 went into a trust fund for perpetual care. We hoped that a century from now, long after I am dead, scientists at Alcor will collaborate with researchers at Harvard or Stanford to revive her and reverse her dementia. But my communications with the beings on Omua give me hope that their advanced understanding of the human brain and their technology is sufficient to revive her and restore her to health right now. I understand that your mother also suffers from dementia."
“Yes, that’s true."
“Well, if my wife can be restored to health, your mother could be restored as well."
“But Bob, why would advanced beings want to do that for us. What is in it for them? Can you trust them?"
“Over the past three weeks, I have spent hours talking with the commander of the galactic survey ship we call Omua. They come from an advanced civilization on the other side of the galaxy. They assured me they mean our planet no harm. They want to arrange a meeting with me, since I have shown keen interest in contacting them. However, knowing our bellicose history, they want to avoid arousing alarm and hostility among our leaders and people, so they want to meet only me and one of my assistants. They think reviving a long dead person and curing a terminal disease like Alzheimer’s dementia would be an impressive good will gesture to pave the way towards cordial relations with humans."
“Naturally, I was quick to suggest that they revive my wife and perhaps help your mother as well. The commander asked me to transmit my wife's medical records to them and agreed to consult his chief science officer. They think they can do it. Now they want to meet the two of us in person."
“That is unbelievable Bob. Thanks for this awesome opportunity to help my mother. You can count on me. See you in Maui."
As LeVar’s flight approached Kahului Airport on Maui’s northern coast, he tried to focus on the contrast of azure sea and coastline. Once at the gate he grabbed his carry on, deplaned and hurried down the overseas concourse towards the exit. He spotted the limo driver holding a whiteboard with his name. Soon they were on the highway headed south and east on the hour’s drive to Haleakala Observatory. At over ten thousand feet in altitude the observatory was above a third of the troposphere and hosted seven different facilities including Pan-STARRS, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. Equipped with cameras, telescopes and computers, Pan-STARRS continuously surveyed the sky for moving or variable objects. An academic consortium operated the facility with funding from the NASA Near Earth Object Observations Program. Since operations began in 2008, Pan-STARRS had discovered a number of potentially hazardous objects including comets and the Apollo asteroid.
As the limo climbed the winding mountain road, LeVar spotted the observatory domes. He called Bob, who said he would be waiting in his car at the security gate. Having tipped his driver, LeVar put his bag in the trunk of Bob’s car and climbed in.
“Glad you could make it on time. We have three days to get ready for our rendezvous."
“Will it be here on the observatory grounds?"
“No. Our visitors do not feel that would be wise. The day of the meeting we will leave the observatory before sunset and drive to the Skyline Trailhead and hike a half mile or so on the trail and wait."
“None of our colleagues here know about it?’
“No, that was a condition for the meeting."
They parked at the observatory and went to one of the workrooms reserved for visiting scientists. Bob had snacks and drinks in the small refrigerator. They spent the evening reviewing the data about Omua. Bob told LeVar of his negotiations with the commander.
“LeVar, the commander said they can revive my wife and restore her to health on his ship. But he feels that given the our militarism and failure to abolish nuclear weapons, that more general contact with earth now would be unwise. I will leave with the commander after our meeting on this mountain and he will take me to Arizona and pick up my wife. Once she is healed, she and I will decide whether to start a new life somewhere on earth or leave the solar system with the alien ship.
“I have tendered my resignation to Paramount College, asked them to make you director of my research grants and deeded my home to you. I want you to be the sole, confidential contact between the commander and earth. If the nuclear powers on earth agree to disarm during your lifetime, these aliens will come back and arrange through you to contact our leaders."
The next two nights, the summit of Haleakala was shrouded in clouds. But the forecast for the third night was favorable so they each stuffed a backpack with flashlights, water, snacks, ipads, cameras and assorted equipment for monitoring the entire electromagnetic spectrum and for sound recording. After dinner they took the road down the mountain to the first turnoff and circled right past the observatory grounds to the Skyline Trailhead. They parked in the gravel lot, shouldered their backpacks and hiked along the trail over the summit. The sun slipped below the horizon as they followed the trail to the point where it started to descend the opposite side of the mountain. Venus made its appearance in the west and stars of summer followed as they sat down, readied their recording equipment and prepared to wait.
LeVar wondered how this encounter would differ from what he had seen in the movies that had fascinated him from childhood. Would it be disorienting, dream-like and frightening? What could he expect here on an exposed summit a mile from the nearest human outpost? To the native Hawaiians, this mountain was the home of the grandmother of the demigod Maui, who had helped him ensnare the sun to force it to slow its daily journey across the sky and lengthen the hours of daylight. Could he become the go-between to bring similar benefits to humankind?
LeVar put on the parka he brought as the temperature drifted down toward its typical summer low of about forty. Bob had little to say now that his big moment was upon them. As the night wore on, LeVar wondered what Bob would say if his visitors were no-shows. In any event, the panorama of the night sky in this place free of light pollution was amazing from the swath of the Milky Way to the rising of Scorpius to the sporadic flash of meteors.
LeVar decided to lie down for a few minutes. A wave of sleepiness flooded over him and he could not resist it. Suddenly it seemed to be daylight with the sun risen and shining in his face. But no, there was light coming from all directions and he was no longer in contact with the ground or anything else.
“Bob, Bob, are you there? Where are we?"
A penetrating thought swept his consciousness, “LeVar Wilson, LeVar Wilson, be still. You are now in the communication dimension of our galaxy explorer. We are the commander. You and your leader are safe here. Be still, clear your mind and we will communicate. We thank you for joining your leader on this mountain. We have been communicating with your leader for over three of your weeks. He has done great service for us in understanding your species and planet. Now he has asked to be relieved of his mission and to be reunited with his wife, whom we are now prepared to revive and heal. We would like you to serve as his replacement at the Paramount College post and to continue his work at exposing the scientists of earth to concepts of extraterrestrial contacts as non-threatening and beneficial. We will provide you with a confidential history of our involvement with your planet and our proposed plans for ongoing contacts including your role. You will not be able to share it since it will self-destruct upon any sharing attempt or within 24 hours of your access. We invite you for another communication in three months to give us your decision. If we are successful in healing your leader’s wife, we will communicate that and a proposal for assisting your mother. Your leader will come with us now but you are free to return home."
Then LeVar was lying alone on the mountaintop with the sun rising. He lay still for a time trying to remember where he was and how he came to be there. Then he recalled coming with Bob who was now on the alien ship. Slowly getting to his feet he looked at the West Maui Mountains in the distance and the far away ocean. He saw he was on a hillside, and wondered if he had dreamed of communication with the commander. He saw nothing on the trail, not even his own backpack. He walked back towards the rising sun and the trailhead and soon saw the single car in the lot. He opened the door and found the keys under the mat where Bob had left them. In the glove compartment was the rental contract. He opened the trunk and found his carry-on bag. Inside were his tickets for the flight from Maui to Oakland.
He got in the car, turned the key and started down the mountain. Once down, he followed the signs to Kahului Airport, turned in the car and walked to the overseas terminal. He found the flight number on his ticket on the overhead monitor and went to the gate. Once airborne he looked down on the shining sea and the receding coast. He wondered if he would really receive the information the commander had promised. If so, would the collaboration the commander proposed with their civilization and any proposed help for his mother be appealing enough for him to come back to Haleakala to accept the assignment? Would he be allowed to share information with LeShonda to dispel the Hollywood stereotypes of aliens she carried? He opened his laptop and found that a new app had been installed. He clicked on it and saw an image of Omua.