Waiting… by Stuart Atkinson

Chances are that I’ll be at work when the newsflash comes. I’ll be standing there at my tank, up to my elbows in water and paint, shaking my head in contempt and disbelief as the DJ mispronounces Shanie Twain’s christian name yet **again**, when he will interrupt his inane drivel and say those words that always get my pulse racing: “Er… we’re going over to the newsroom for a newsflash…” And then his place will be taken by shocked-sounding newsreader, who’ll open with the words “We’re getting reports…”

It’s happened in exactly that way already, many times, but the reports have always been of plane crashes, political resignations, oil spills, familiar, terrestrial happenings. Ah, but one day my friends, one fine, wonderful, glorious nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again day, it’ll be The Report, and the newsreader will say: “We’re getting reports that US scientists are preparing to announce the discovery of a radio signal from outer space…”

One day the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence will succeed, and I’ll put down my brush, run outside, look up at the sky and smile, thinking “I knew it… I knew it…” before punching the air and whooping “Yes!!!!”

Of course I know opinion is divided on this one. Of course I know a lot of you reading this will be shaking your heads and thinking “Hello, Star Trek nut..!” but you know what? I don’t care. I am not – and never have been – afraid to stand up and be counted as a SETI believer, and you know why? Because I know we’re not Alone, I just *know* it.

But how? What makes me so sure? After all, there’s no direct evidence, no silvery craft settling down on to the White House lawn, nothing like that. What makes me so cocky?

For a start, simple statistics are on my side. Our Galaxy is a catherine wheel of several hundred million stars. If only a tiny percentage of those stars have planets, and if only a tiny percentage of those planets have life, and if only a tiny percentage of those planets develop intelligent life, and if only a tiny percentage of those intelligent lifeforms develop into creatures capable of listening for and transmitting radio signals, that still means there are a LOT of extraterrestrial DJs out there mispronouncing the names of their own goddess-like singers…

But apart from those statistics, there’s the science. When you think about it, we’re just big walking bags of chemicals, and those same chemicals are found everywhere in the universe around us. Look up at a starry sky and you’re looking at vast amounts of water, carbon, whatever. Those biological jigsaw puzzle pieces must have assembled themselves into the right picture out there somewhere, don’t you think?

Also, it’s just downright arrogant to think that All This is ours. I mean, come *on*, how big can one species’ ego be? Zoom out from the Earth now, mentally… see the Sun shrink to a bright yellow spark… see stars crowd around it… see them form clouds… see those clouds form a spiral pattern, a might, pinwheeling galaxy… see how that galaxy is surrounded by others..? See how they form clusters..? You really think all that is ours? Just ours? Yeah, right.

Did someone just mention UFOs? Oh please, don’t get me started. I am a firm believer in the existence of alien life, but I most certainly do not believe in UFOs. I do not believe *anyone* has ever seen one. Apart from the fact that all potential UFO hangars are simply too far away to make them possible – we have a pretty good idea of what our stellar neighbourhood is like, and our observations of spectral types etc suggests there’s no chance of us being visited by a “welcome” pie-wielding ET – I just can’t believe that a highly advanced, stardrive using intelligent race would come all this way just to buzz about and annoy us, like kids mischeviously flicking the ears of the person sitting in front of them, can you?

As much as I’d like to believe it, there are no UFOs hiding in hangars or underground chambers either. In a world where newspapers, magaziones and TV shows pay – excuse the pun – astronomical amounts of money for scandalous tales of politicians and showbusiness personalities, could all of the alleged thousands of people who work at the bases where crashed UFOs are back-engineered resist the temptation to pay off all their bills – and pay for their kids’ college education, or their sick partner’s medical treatment – just by sneaking out a photo..?

And as for abductions… can someone tell me why, when every clear night there are thousands of amateur astronomers standing outside on their own, exposed in the middle of fields, the Abductors prefer to scour the roads and dirt tracks until they find a battered old pick-up truck, and then grab poor old Jeb or Dwayne from Idaho who can tell them nothing which might interest them? Why not beam up someone standing by a telescope, who is obviously familiar with stars and the universe?

And another thing, if there are as many UFOs zipping about as the Roswell Gang would have us believe, then how come none of those amateur astronomers have taken any photos of them? Every clear night there are who knows how many thousands of people aiming cameras at the sky, and to my knowledge not one of them has snapped a passing eatee ship. Think back to how many photos you’ve seen of comet Hale-Bopp… for each one you have seen another thousand were probably taken, which adds up to a LOT of sky-watching time… and in all that time no UFOs paid a visit? Ha!

So no, I don’t believe in UFOs. But I do believe we are citizens of a living universe. I believe, with all my heart and soul, blood and bone, that we are Not Alone.

But in the absence of actual spaceships or carved martian “Faces” my proof comes from elsewhere, from my own experience, my own relationship with the universe, if you like. You see, I’m an active amateur astronomer, and in the twenty or so years I’ve been gazing up at the night sky I’ve spent countless long hours in the darkness in isolated, far-from-anywhere places; fields, riverbanks, hilltops, I’ve observed from them all. I have stood on dew-soaked grass at dawn, seeing Hale-Bopp’s twin tails reflected in the glassy waters of a slowly-flowing river. I’ve stood in the shadow of a ruined castle and seen shooting stars and fireballs spear down from the sky and fall behind its crumbling turrets and towers… all on my own.

But in all that time I’ve never felt Alone. Because I’ve looked up, washed my face in starlight, and sensed Them looking back. Or at least listening as I talked to them.

Call me a romantic – please, do, there aren’t many of us left! I wear my heart on my sleeve like a military campaign medal – but when I stand there in my field, hands thrust deep into my pockets, I look out into a universe teeming with life. I look at Mars, shining like a garnet, and I can almost sense the microbes hiding beneath the UVsterilised dust. Turning my binoculars on Jupiter I see four tiny star-like points shining nearby, and know that if I was standing on one of them, Europa, peering into one of the cracks in its icy crust, I’d be able to sense the life drifting beneath my feet. And that’s just in my own celestial back yard.

Then I look further, beyond Jupiter, further still, past Pluto and the icy boundary of the Oort Cloud and roaming the stars encounter worlds by the thousand, or the million. I find worlds populated by species as alien to us as we are to ants or plankton. I find civilisations which were already ancient when our ancestors were discovering fire. I find the sleek starships, bustling habitats, gargantuan Dyson Spheres and fantastic constructions of science fiction’s most imaginative artists and writers and much, much more, because the universe is vast, beyond our capacity to understand and appreciate, and surely such a realm will contain such a bewildering variety of life that our long-awaited First Contact will be just the First of Many…

… or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just fooling myself, and all I heard when I looked up at the stars of Orion this morning as I watched the shuttle Endeavour and the first pieces of the International Space Station cutting across the sky were the desperate echoes of my own hopes and dreams… but I don’t think so. I think I heard Them.

Sometimes, even though I know I won’t hear, I listen for them. Sometimes I turn off the tap on my trusty Walkman and listen to the radio instead… I stand there, in the darkness, and slowly, very slowly ease the tuning dial… and my ears fill with static, a symphony of un-sound. It’s numbing, lulling – but sometimes a noise breaks through, a crackling, hissing, or spitting, occasionally even a bleep or pulsing, stocatto stream, and although I know it’s just interference I imagine I’m listening to The Signal –

But not yet. Not yet.

So I’ll go back to work tomorrow morning, pull on my gloves and look up at the ceiling in exasperation as the DJ mis-pronounces the blessed Twain’s first name yet again.

And continue my Waiting.

Stuart Atkinson

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Stuart Atkinson, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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