Messier 55: Part 1

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"If you were the only human being alive on earth, and you'd never seen a sand dollar before, what would you think when you first found one?" I asked the pair of them.

Jen's eyebrows knit together. A little lopsided 'y' formed in the folds between her eyes. It was cute. But then, everything she did was cute.

"I'm not following the train of thought here," Peter said. He seemed to be emptying the entire sugar container into his coffee mug.

"I mean, you'd think it was a stone or something, right? Some little rock with a neat pattern in it. At least at first. Then when you walked down the beach and found another with the same pattern, you'd get to wondering. Then you find another. And another. Dozens of them, all with nearly identical, improbably intricate patterns. 'Okay,' you'd think, 'clearly somebody is making these things. This is proof that I'm not the only human out there.'"

Nobody snapped at the bait.

"You'd think it was a sign, but it's nothing. It's not even a stone, it's an animal. It's just nature. There are all sorts of patterns in nature," I said, and I pulled out my finishing move. I set an immaculate sand dollar in the center of the table, just beside the ketchup and the plate full of destroyed, runny eggs that Jen had barely touched.

Peter said nothing. He just kept pouring sugar.

"So you think we're wasting our time," Jen said. When she finally spoke, it was slow and measured. Emotionless. Adorable.

"No, of course not," I smiled, if only to prove how totally affable and lovable I am. "SETI is a valuable, hell – a vital program. Now that we're advanced enough to look for alien life, it's a moral imperative that we do so. We're obligated as a species to keep looking, if only for the sake of science. Even if we never find anything."

"Bullshit," Peter said. He looked at me as he spoke, never once glancing down at the ceaseless stream of sugar emptying into his mug. "There's gotta be alien life out there. I've seen a lot of my little corner of the universe. No way in hell are we the most intelligent life in the whole damn thing."

"No way in hell are you drinking that coffee," Jen said.

"Of course not. It's empty," Peter said.

"Then why...?"

"Because it's empty," Peter grinned, a vicious little break in his face, entirely without humor. "That bitch of a waitress never came back with a refill. Now she's got a solid mug full of wet sugar to deal with."

Jesus. The people in this town dislike us enough without little stunts like that. You'd think they'd be grateful for our presence. Before we'd built the Big Ear here, the most remarkable thing about Delaware, Ohio was a stained wall that kind of looked like JFK if you squinted hard and tilted your head sideways. It's always been a college town; you'd think they'd be used to visiting academics. But no, everywhere we went it was just glares and the cold shoulder. No smile from the waitresses. No chit chat from the bartender. No friendly advice from the pharmacist. No suggestive winks from the college girls...

These people had no reason to dislike us – we spent most of our time buried at the observatory. They barely even saw us.

Maybe that's why they didn't like us.

The waitress came by to drop off the check. I smiled at her extra hard. Look how god damn friendly we are, you stupid yokel. Love us.

She just frowned down at the mound of white spilling out of Peter's cup, and walked away without a word.

These people, I swear to god.

...

Jen walked out in front. She walked like she thought she was being stalked by somebody, just one loud noise away from sprinting. To her, a walk was just an inconvenience between places she had to be.

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