By Paul McAuley
“Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” by Paul McAuley is a complex sf story about politics and xenophobia when human colonists on an Earth-like planet are faced with the possibility of reaching out to alien cultures, especially when a big organization that has previously done harm is in charge of the operation.
The origin story we like to tell ourselves is that our little town was founded by a grumpy loner name of Joe Gordon, who one day parked his RV at the spot where a ceramic road left by an unknown long-lost Elder Culture cut across the new two-lane blacktop between Port of Plenty and the open-cast iron mine at Red Rocks. He named his crossroads campsite Joe’s Corner, set up a couple of picnic tables, and commenced to sell coffee, hot dogs, candy bars, and e-cigarettes and rolling tobacco to the passing trade and the first explorers of the City of the Dead.
Joe Gordon had come up and out three years after people first set foot on First Foot. A lanky, morose man from Hoboken, New Jersey, he peers with narrow suspicion out of the only known photograph of him and his makeshift truck stop, as if wondering how much he should charge for the liberty of having his picture taken. By then, the shuttle cycling between Earth and First Foot was bringing up ten thousand people every three weeks. Too many people for Joe’s liking: He’d spent just two months in Port of Plenty before striking out into the backcountry, and when other people started to make themselves at home around his crossroads he moved on again, heading deeper into the dry heart of the planet’s largest continent. We know that he worked for a time at the copper mine at Mount Why Not, but after that his trail goes cold. One story has it that he burned his ID and joined a group of homesteading Sovereign Citizens; another claims that he set up a road tavern on the far side of the Badlands and was shot dead in a brawl or a robbery. He left behind his name, a story slowly fading to myth, and the photograph which—enlarged, retouched, and printed on canvas—hangs in the reception area of our community center, a steel-framed glass box erected just last year next door to the ragstone bunker of the Unitarian church whose spire, three steel I-beams welded into a skinny pyramid and topped by an aluminum weather vane burnished by sun and sandstorms, is visible for miles around in our flat desert territory.
Joe’s Corner is approaching its thirtieth anniversary now. We are some three thousand souls, with a school and a small clinic; a strip mall anchored by a Rexall’s; a sheriff’s office and a volunteer fire department; two charge stations (one of them a Toyota franchise); three churches; six motels; a dozen bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants; a solar farm and a nine-hole golf course; a small factory that fabricates mining equipment; and a workshop turning out handmade souvenirs of the City of the Dead, mostly for the export trade. The community center houses a small library and a cinema club that just closed a season of classic Westerns with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. At a lodge run by a couple from New Mexico, guests pay six hundred bucks a night to sleep in tar-paper shacks, wallow in black mud baths, and eat vegan Mexican-Chinese food. They come here for the silence, panoramic views of alien constellations in night skies untainted by light pollution, and, of course, to explore the tombs of the City of the Dead.
There are several million tombs scattered across fifty thousand square kilometers, built from small, round-edged clay bricks that some believe to have been excreted by the creatures that constructed them, the so-called Ghostkeepers. We call them tombs because they appear to memorialize the dead of the Ghostkeepers, although no bodies have ever been found. They may be houses, works of art, the by-product of some kind of mating ritual, or something beyond the grasp of human imagination. Once upon a time, tomb raiders made fortunes by finding Elder Culture artifacts that kick-started new industries.
Our last sheriff but one played an instrumental role in the discovery of navigation code that had migrated from a fragment of a crashed Ghajar spaceship into a nest of hive rats, and pointed toward the wormhole network of the New Frontier. Although it’s generally agreed that the glory days of mining the City of the Dead are long gone, tomb raiders still dig up various trinkets—sympathy stones, ceramic shards containing entangled electrons used in q-phone manufacture, tesserae doped with algorithms that generate scraps of Ghostkeeper memories as well as, sometimes, actual ghosts—and people still come out here hoping to hit the jackpot. Most leave broke and disappointed after a year or so, but a few stay on, and others drift out here and set up homesteads or little businesses. Living the good old American dream on an alien planet, at the edge of a vast alien ruin.
Leah Bright was one such incomer, moving to our little town after a divorce and a business failure in Port of Plenty. She rented a single wide in the trailer park, used eBay to sell inert tesserae that she claimed to have activated by a secret psychic process, gave lessons in dowsing for artifacts and consultations with her familiar, which she said was the ghost of a Byzantine priest whose spirit had transmigrated to First Foot a thousand years ago. She was a handsome woman in her late thirties who wore boho scarves, denim jackets and jeans, and tooled leather boots, and mostly kept herself to herself.
She gave the impression that residence in Joe’s Corner was a temporary setback, but we grew used to seeing her sitting at an outside table in the Old Bean Café and poking with furious concentration at her iPhone, or leading a gaggle of tourists on a dowsing expedition amongst the tells and dust heaps at the northern edge of the City of the Dead. It was general knowledge that she and the town clerk were an item. We told ourselves that because neither party was married it was no business of ours that they liked to pretend that they were no more than casual acquaintances, but we sometimes wondered what they had in common. Leah Bright with her glamour and flair; Troy Wagner a mild, pedantic guy ten years younger than her, so straightlaced he was the only person in town who went to work every day in a suit.
Someone suggested that Leah kept him around to remind herself of a road not taken, and everyone pretty much agreed that Troy must have told her about the planning application for a radio telescope array. At the town meeting where it was due to be heard, Leah sat in the center of the front row with half a dozen allies flanking her, a solid block of defiance in a hall otherwise sparsely occupied by the usual professional busybodies, people who had a planning or licensing matter they wanted to see through, and a few cantankerous cranks who at every meeting aired old grievances that everyone else had long ago laid to rest.
The planning application came at the end of business, a seemingly innocuous statement that a company named Universal Communications had been granted a license to erect radio communications equipment on a four-hundred-acre patch of land they had acquired several months ago, plans available upon request at the library or to view on the town’s website, and so forth. After Troy Wagner dryly read this out, the mayor, Joel Jumonville, said that if there were no comments he would declare the meeting closed. But before Joel could bang his gavel, Leah Bright reared up and said that as a matter of fact she did have something to say.
“It’s my understanding that the ‘radio communications equipment’ is in fact an array of radio telescopes,” she said. “And I also understand that Universal Communications is planning to establish communication with extraterrestrial intelligences.”
“I believe those might be more in the nature of unfounded assertions rather than comments,” Joel Jumonville said in his Texas good-old-boy drawl. “As Mr. Wagner explained, there’ll be a copy of the plans lodged in the library. Anyone who wants is free to check them out.”
Joel was a former astronaut, one of the Fortunate Fifty who had come up and out on the very first shuttle trip from Earth, back when it seemed very likely that the Jackaroo’s gift of fifteen worlds and the means to reach them was some kind of trick or trap. He had been mayor of Joe’s Corner for a quarter of a century. Although his majority had been considerably reduced at the last election, he had lost none of his God-given authority, looking at Leah over the top of his old-fashioned gold-rimmed bifocals like a teacher humoring a difficult pupil.
But Leah wasn’t the least bit intimidated, saying firmly, “If you want facts, Mr. Mayor, then it’s a fact that Universal Communications is owned by the Omega Point Foundation, which once upon a time funded a company called Outland Archaeological Services. A company that caused some considerable trouble here twelve years ago, as I’m sure many of you will recall.”
She was referring to the breakout of a harmful eidolon that had gotten into the heads of people who had dug up a second fragment of the crashed Ghajar spaceship, causing them to attack and kill each other with their teeth and bare hands. The last person standing had run repeatedly at a boulder until she’d split her skull open. At the mention of Outland’s name, a couple of old-timers sat up and started to pay attention.
“I can assure you that the application is in order,” Joel Jumonville said, with a trace of exasperation. “Universal Communications doesn’t have anything to do with archaeology. And it has no plans to do any digging, apart from a few trenches when it lays foundations for its equipment.”
Troy Wagner had the look of man trying to become invisible by the power of thought alone. Everyone else was following the conversation as if it were a tennis match.
Leah said, “This equipment being radio telescopes.”
“Something like that may be mentioned in the plans,” Joel said. “Which, as I’ve said, anyone can go check out.”
“Radio telescopes which Universal Communications wants to use to talk with extraterrestrials,” Leah said, with her supporters nodding and saying exactly and there it is like a gospel chorus.
“I believe that they may be planning to search the sky for signals or suchlike,” Joel said, clearly on the back foot now.
“And if they find a signal, they’ll want to talk,” Leah said.
Joel tried to turn it into a joke. “Is this about the planning application, or are you making a criticism of their scientific methods?”
“It’s about the harmful effect this project will have on the City of the Dead,” Leah said. “And the very real possibility that the Jackaroo may not approve of it.”
“The approval of the Jackaroo has nothing to do with our planning process. And in any case, the application is merely a formality. The site is on federal land outside town limits. I can no more stop it going ahead than I could stop a sandstorm,” Joel said, and when several of Leah’s supporters stood up to shout objections he banged his gavel so hard the head flew off the handle.
That was the end of the meeting and the beginning of Leah Bright’s campaign. Her most prominent supporters were dealers and assayers in the artifact trade, merchants whose business depended on tourism, and a number of tomb raiders, including Jayla and Shelley Griffith-Fontcuberta, who had been in the biz more or less from the discovery of the City of the Dead. All had good reason to worry about possible disruptions to their livelihoods. Despite decades of research, no one could claim any authoritative knowledge about the revenants left by the Ghostkeepers. They were rooted in algorithms that ran deep inside the quantum properties of the tesserae, projecting fleeting emotions, glimpses of exotic landscapes, and actual eidolons or ghosts. Harmless scraps like tattered bats or the animated shadows of warped dwarves; rare potent spirits that got inside people’s heads, as in the breakout that had killed the crew employed by Outland Archaeological Services. Which is why the association between Outland and the outfit that wanted to build the radio telescope array was enough to give even the hardened rationalists amongst us pause for thought.
In an interview with Sally Backlund, the owner, editor, and sole reporter of our town’s newspaper, Leah announced that she intended to hold an open meeting about what she called the reckless and outrageous intrusion. It was a riotous affair at which everyone with a crank to turn or an ax to grind held forth, everyone talking over everyone else and fierce little arguments breaking out everywhere; people had to drag Ben Lamb and Aidan Fletcher apart when raised voices and finger poking threatened to escalate into a fistfight. Leah struggled to keep any kind of order, and her keynote speech was shouted down by people who felt that their own opinions were equally important. As Sally wrote in her story about it, although the meeting ended with a unanimous condemnation of the project, everyone appeared to have a different objection.
Universal Communications set up a public event to explain its plans, with a free buffet and a lecture by a tame scientist about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but after Leah and her supporters declared that they would picket the event, it was canceled by our sheriff, Van Diaz, on the grounds of public safety. Van had good reason. The ranks of Leah’s supporters had been swollen by out-of-towners, and there was a discordant mood in the air. Rival street preachers set up at opposite corners of the crossroads, one ranting about an upcoming Rapture that would transmigrate our souls to permanent servitude in an alien hell world, the other warning about the dangers of what she called cargo-cult culture and colonization by alien memes.
An outfit that called itself the Brotherhood of Human Saints marched down Main Street, dressed in monk’s habits and spraying onlookers with what they claimed was magnetized water, to ward off unsympathetic eidolons; Hoke Williford objected to being sprayed and punched out one of the monks and was promptly arrested.
And a group of earnest young people held a be-in outside the community center, with banners, drumming, and chants, and consciousness-raising exercises that some of us worried would brainwash our children. The jamboree went on for three days, long after Universal Communications’ PR people had folded their tents, and none of it did a thing to stop the construction work that started up two weeks later.