The family was in the middle of dinner. It wasn’t really a formal thing, with the three sitting on stools around the kitchen counter.
Emily made her play, “You know, I really appreciate all of these family bonding things you’ve been doing, like everyone eating dinner together not in front of the TV, and the bushwalking thing. I was wondering, what say we go bushwalking again this weekend?”
Emily’s mother stopped mid chew and her father came to a screeching halt with his fork halfway up to his mouth. They both had that wide-eyed, rabbits-caught-in-the-headlights look as if they had just been told aliens had landed.
Emily ploughed on, “You know, that Specter Creek place was pretty cool. I’ll find you a gold nugget, I promise. And I promise I’ll wear proper hiking shoes and a big floppy hat and sunscreen and drink plenty of water. We need to do more stuff together as a family, don’t you think?”
Her mother and father still looked a bit stunned, but slowly began to pick up speed again, chewing and forking.
“May I be excused, please?” asked Emily. “I’m going to have a bath now. I may be a while. I’m a bit on the cheesy side from Gym class. ’Bye.” Emily raced upstairs.
Her mother and father couldn’t believe what just happened. Her mother got in first, “She’s had a bath three nights in a row. She never has baths, not since she was a baby. She’s always been a shower girl.”
“And she actually asked to go bushwalking? Did I hear that right?” asked her father.
“Something’s not right,” concluded her mother.
“Yeah,” summed up her father. “A healthy, hygienic 12 year-old girl. What a concept.”
“You shouldn’t have made those jokes about ‘hydro-exia’ or whatever you said,” accused Emily’s mother.
As usual, Dad was on the defensive, “Me? How does it suddenly become my fault?”
Emily went through the same routine, taking off her shoes and socks, locking the door to her parent’s bathroom and running warm water in the bath. She sat on the edge of the tub and plunged her feet under the tap.
[Hey, wake up! I’m here!]
Greetings, Emily. I do not actually sleep in any conventional sense, so it is not necessary for me to wake up.
[You don’t sleep? That must get really boring.]
I have no concept of boredom. There have been many long periods of complete inactivity for me on this planet. I have no concept of time or the passage of time. I just don’t think about anything and conserve energy.
[How long have you been on this planet ... Earth ... we call it Earth.]
Yes, Emily, I know the name is Earth. Judging from the structure of your Deoxyribonucleic Acid ...
[Excuse me ... my what?]
Oh, apologies ... your DNA. As I was saying, judging from the structure of your DNA and that of other amphibian mammals I scanned soon after my arrival, combined with regular gravitational changes I have detected, I estimate I have been on this ... on Earth ... for approximately 50 million years.
I am sorry, I do not understand the reference.
[That means, like, you came here after the big meteor killed all the dinosaurs!]
Yes, I was in orbit around Earth when that event occurred.
[That was like 75 million years ago!]
A little over 63 million years, actually. Of course, I was in orbit around your Sun long before that.
[Were you in some kind of spaceship?]
No, I am my own space ship.
[Do you remember where you came from?]
Of course. I never forget anything.
[OK, are you going to tell me the story?]
Yes, but much of it is very boring indeed.
[Well, maybe you can skip over 100 millions years or so.]
I will try and be brief. I am from a group of stars near the centre of our galaxy. Several of the nearby stars began to go supernova ...
[Like, they were going to explode?]
Yes, eventually. The process would take many millions of years, but my kind was a very old race and in no hurry. They finally decided that it wasn’t worth relocating our entire civilization, so they just stopped reproducing.
[They didn’t have any more babies?]
Not every creature has the same reproduction cycle or life span of a human mammal. Now, are you going to keep interrupting me?
My kind decided to send the seeds of our civilization and knowledge out to the entire galaxy. As no living being could survive the journey, they found a way of imprinting all of the required information onto a practically indestructible form of carbon. I actually began as the digitized personality of one of my race. They used several enormous particle accelerators to send these carbon life forms at close to the speed of light from the home worlds on just about every possible trajectory throughout the known universe. Considering how long The Exodus was carried out, they probably sent several hundred billion seeds like myself into the galaxy.
[Can I ask a question now?]
Yes, Emily. I am finished.
[What did you look like?]
I myself have never looked like anything other than what you see.
[What did your people look like?]
I do not know. I have never known. I believe it was something they decided to withhold from us, as if knowing would somehow make us want to return. I also do not know where the home worlds are located, exactly.
[That is really sad.]
No, I believe, in their wisdom, this knowledge may have interfered with our Mission. We may have tried to remake our new hosts in our own image. I do not even know if my species was made up of individuals like human beings. I like to think of myself as a human being now.
[That’s nice. Can you ever have a body?]
Oh, yes, but it would be extremely limiting.
[What is your Mission?]
I was sent ...
“Emily? Are you finished in there yet? Why is the water still running?” called her Mother from the bedroom.
Emily quickly turned off the water, put on a bathrobe, splashed water on her face and wrapped her hair in a towel turban. “All finished, Mom!” she called as she unlocked the door and scurried to her bedroom.
Sam sat at the desk in his bedroom, typing at an incredibly rapid rate into the keyboard of his computer. A woman’s voice came from the other room through the open door, “Sammy, have you seen the remote for the TV?”
“No, Mom,” he said without missing a keystroke.
“Oh, here it is!” said Sam’s mother sarcastically, standing in the open doorway to his bedroom, holding up the home-made device Sam had made to earlier that day to hack into the Three Dee Deck. Sam glanced up and went back to typing. His mother continued, “Very clever, Sam. It’s bad enough that children have to spend time under those sun lamps to avoid health problems without scaring them to death!”
Sam finally stopped typing and turned to his mother, “I was just having a little fun. Nobody got hurt.”
“That’s not what the Supervisor said. She reported that some of the children were hysterical and their parents had to be called. We can now add nightmares to the range of problems we’re facing by having our children down here with us.”
“But Mom, this is so boring!”
She came and put her arm around her son, “I know, sweetie, but I wouldn’t be able to do this job without having my Sammy with me. Please, just make my job a little easier and play by the rules, OK? Let’s have dinner and watch some TV.”
Emily sat on the edge of the slowly filling bathtub. [Only one more sleep until we meet! Oh, I forgot, you don’t sleep.]
I understand the reference. It is an expression of anticipation.
[And this bath phone is a serious waste of water.]
Agreed, but at least you have extremely clean feet.
[Ha! You made a joke!]
A humorous reference, yes. I believe I now understand the use of humor in your communications. I have received many transmissions of your entertainment programs. Humor seems to be an important part of your conversations.
[I guess you’re right. Sometimes it gets me into trouble, though.]
The gold miners at Specter Creek often used humor in their conversations.
[What I wouldn’t have given to see that.]
You can witness the episode if you wish.
Suddenly, Emily was sitting on the bank of Specter Creek. There was no bushwalking track or bridge, but she recognized it as the same spot where she first encountered The Stone.
Seven gold miners were pushing their way through the thick bush into the clearing. One of the miners started chopping at the sand in a wash leading to the creek with a shovel, “Looks promising. I can see a bit of shine.”
Another miner was reaching into the creek to scoop out a handful of bottom sand, “What did you say?”
The first miner called back, “I said this spot looks promising! Are you deaf?”
The miner kneeling beside the creek had a curious look on his face, “I thought you said something like I’m Queer.”
“Well, maybe you are!” Two other miners were stripping off all of their clothes. One shouted out, “I ain’t had a wash in two weeks now. I’m going in!”
A couple of miners were starting a fire. One fired back, “Yeah, we all know you ain’t had a wash in two weeks. Just don’t kill all the fish! I may try and catch a few later for supper.” Everyone laughed at this comment apart from the miner with his arm in the creek.
The two naked miners ran and cannon balled into the middle of the creek, spraying everyone else who cursed them roundly with every bad word in the English language.
The two miners immediately surfaced and stood up in the waist deep water. Both had terrified looks on their faces. They ran towards the bank as fast as their legs could move through the water, looking like they were being pursued by the Devil himself. They leapt ashore as if the water was boiling hot, putting plenty of distance between themselves and the creek before they stopped.
“You boys look like you seen a ghost!” laughed one of the miners starting the fire.
“Not seen one. Heard one!” cried one of the frightened swimmers, shivering as much with fear as the cold. “I heard it too. Said we had to come into the water and find something!”
“Knew my name!” the first naked miner yelped. “Mine, too!” said the miner kneeling beside the creek. “I’ve heard about this place. It’s haunted! There’s the specter of a dead miner what drowned that wants to drown you to keep him company!”
One of the miners starting the fire seemed to be the leader, “Don’t go anywhere near that water, fellas. No amount of gold is worth a man’s life.”
The two wet miners were struggling into their pants while the others gathered up their gear and headed back into the security of the scrub. “Wait for us!” screamed one of the miners, hopping on one foot as he crammed the other into a boot.
Emily was just as suddenly back on the edge of her parents’ bath tub, her eyes wide in wonder. The experience was so incredibly real that she could still smell the scent of the bush.
[How did you do that? Did we go back in time?]
No, Emily. I simply gave you the memory of that incident. As I said before, I don’t forget anything and I remember things in great detail.
[Wow! I thought I was scared when I first met you. Those guys nearly jumped out of their skins.]
Yes, and when I spoke to you 154 years later, I was determined to make proper contact this time and commence my mission. While I have no sense of time, I did want to achieve my purpose.
[You didn’t tell me what your mission was.]
Well, Emily, my mission can take on many forms. It depends on what I encounter. I can help creatures and other organic life evolve into more advanced life forms.
No, before the arrival of the cataclysmic meteor, the development of their brains was not advanced enough. All they wanted to do was eat plants or eat each other. I attempted to contact the amphibious mammals soon after my arrival, but although they were highly intelligent and capable of accelerated evolution, they were not interested. They were contented to swim around and have fun.
[So, Dolphins could have ruled the Earth instead of people?]
Quite possibly, but our Mission does not allow us to impose change on an intelligent species that does not want it.
[So, do you think one of my monkey ancestors asked for your help?]
Others of my kind may have been discovered by primates. It seems the rapid evolution of the human species began around 5 million years ago.
[How do you ask a monkey if they want to evolve?]
It may not have been a question in the literal sense, Emily. I can sense that even after 5 million years, your species still has a deep curiosity and desire to grow. I believe this may have been what the other Stone sensed in the primates.
[How would the Stone have helped the monkeys evolve?]
I imagine that there was a change in diet, possibly to include more protein. A stronger social order might have been suggested. Also, the use of tools and ultimately the use of fire. Genetically, there may have been a change in the development of your hand so that you could grasp things easier. I have not detected any sub-genetic messages in your DNA, but I may once we are in direct contact.
[Do you mean there may be messages on my Deno-acid DNA stuff from like millions of years ago?]
It is possible. There is no cause for alarm.
[A lot of religious people believe we were created by God and angels and stuff like that.]
Yes, Emily, I have studied some of your religious broadcasts. I can fully appreciate the need for an explanation of some advanced concepts and the security it brings to the simple mind. This is also part of The Mission.
[What is? To pretend you’re God?]
No, to ensure we have a positive effect on any species we contact, even if it means creating a mythology in order to explain any changes or occurrences.
[What do you think you can do with me? Do you want me to give you to someone important? I mean, I’m not exactly able to change the world. I’m just a 12 year old kid.]
Emily, you are the most important person to me on the entire planet. With your help, I believe I will be able to carry out my Mission and improve life on Earth.
[A 12 year old girl and a rock?]
Yes, Emily, but not just any 12 year old girl.
[And not just any old rock!]
As one of your great philosophers once said, “From such tiny acorns great oak trees spring.”
[If you say so. I think it’s time to hang up the bath phone. My toes are as wrinkled as raisins!]
Yes, Emily. It is time to conclude. I will anticipate our meeting tomorrow as if it were only one more sleep.
On Saturday morning, the Volvo pulled into a parking bay in the State Forest from which several bushwalking trails originated. No sooner had the wagon stopped than Emily was out of the back seat without shutting the door.
“I’ll beat you to Specter Creek!” she challenged as she took off up the trail.
Her father watched Emily disappear up the trail as he casually slipped his arms into a rucksack, “Hormones?”
“I hope not!” said her mom.
“Too much sugar? Red food coloring? Boys?” he continued to list the possibilities.
“No,” concluded her mom, “I’m beginning to think she’s normal and we’re the ones who are strange.”
“I’ll buy that,” agreed her dad. “Let’s go. Slowly.”
Emily rushed up to the familiar flat rock beside the stream, puffing with effort. She immediately knelt down and thrust her hand into the stream.
[I’m here. Where are you?]
Here, to your left. A little way down the stream.
Emily spotted a bright glow in the riverbed amongst the stones and muck. She sat down and unlaced her hiking boots, kicked them off and took off her socks. She waded into the stream towards the glow, her hiking shorts well clear of the water. She reached down and gently grasped The Stone, standing upright and bringing it up to her face. She slowly opened her hand and peered at The Stone.
Emily waded to the shore and sat down on the flat rock, hardly taking her eyes off The Stone in her hand.
[What, no big lightshow this time?]
I can do one if you prefer.
[No ... no. That’s OK. Maybe later. I know now you weren’t trying to hurt me. I guess you were scanning me or something, huh? It was really kind of cool, like in a science fiction movie.]
If you wish, I will be happy to do that again.
[No. That’s OK.]
Emily sat for some time, simply peering closely at The Stone in her hand as she slowly turned it over and over.
[Does that make you dizzy? Turning around?]
No, that’s quite alright. My sense of motion does not cause disorientation.
Emily put The Stone in her shirt pocket. Her feet were dry, so she put her socks and hiking boots back on and laced them up.
[Actually, you could do me a big favor.]
What is that, Emily?
[I kind of promised my dad I would find him a gold nugget if they brought me back here again. The map said there was a lot of gold around here.]
Gold is a valuable commodity on Earth.
It is worth a lot of money.
There is a considerable amount of the element gold around us, Emily, especially a few centimeters down.
[Can you help me find some? Just a bit?]
Yes, I would be happy to. Let me try something, please. Hold me quite tightly in your hand and close your eyes.
Emily took The Stone out of her pocket and did as she was instructed.
Now open your eyes.
When Emily opened her eyes, the entire world had turned hard black and white, like a weird art photograph. Emily also thought she could see right through rocks and trees and the ground beneath her. There were bright red hot spots and red sprinkles here and there, and some very big red blotches.
[Aggh! This is really scary! It makes me feel sick! STOP IT!]
Don’t worry, Emily. All I have done is adjusted the way your eyes can see the light spectrum.
[Make it go away, please! Quick!]
Close your eyes.
When Emily opened her eyes again, everything was back to normal, but she still felt really dizzy.
I apologize. I did not realize that would be so upsetting.
[I guess I’m just kind of a wimp. I don’t like shots, either.]
Vaccinations. Yes, I know that.
[I mean, it didn’t really hurt or anything. It was just like a bad dream. So, I guess we can’t find a gold nugget then, huh?]
Of course you can. Those red spots you saw were pieces of gold.
[They were everywhere! Some of them were huge!]
Let me try something else. Keep holding me in one hand and put your other hand out in front of you as you walk. Open your fingers. You will be able to feel where the gold is.
[What, like a metal detector?]
I am not sure of the reference. Think of a metal detector for me and how it works.
Emily conjured up the image of a metal detector from one of those electronics catalogues they always got in the junk mail, and then an old guy looking for money and stuff down at the beach.
Yes. You and I together will be like a metal detector.
[That is so cool!]
Now, let us find a piece of gold for your father.
Emily started to walk back towards the trail, waving her hand back and forth with her fingers spread, looking very much like a blind girl lost in the forest.
Emily could actually feel her hand being pulled to the right, towards one side of the path. There was an old wash where water had once flooded down between some rocks.
Suddenly, Emily almost stumbled as her hand was pulled down towards a large patch of sand under an overhang of rock.
Emily, there are some pieces of gold in this patch of rock particles, just a few centimeters below the surface. If you wiggle your fingers in the sand, you will find them. I will help.
Emily stuck her fingers into the cool sand and wiggled them around. It was kind of like looking for clams at the beach. She felt a tug to one side and touched something hard. She pulled it out and thought at first it was an old cheese twist. It was dull orange and yellow, about the size of her little finger. It didn’t really shine at all, but weighed about 10 times as much as a cheese twist. Gold was supposed to be very heavy.
[That’s a piece of gold?]
Yes. It weighs around 60 grams.
[Can we find some more?]
One nugget and Emily was totally infected with a bad case of gold fever!
Be my guest.
With The Stone in one hand, Emily proceeded to prospect the patch of sand under the overhanging rock.
Your mother and father are coming closer.
Emily’s parents came puffing up to the clearing near Specter Creek and looked around for their crazy child. “Emily!” crowed her dad.
Just then Emily came casually strolling around the corner with her hands stuck in the pockets of her hiking shorts. “Here, Dad. Put out your hands,” she said.
Of course, he hesitated, “This isn’t bugs again, is it? You know I don’t like creepy crawlies.”
“Nah. Better,” she said.
Her father cupped his hands in front of him and closed his eyes. Emily brought both hands out of her pockets and placed seven gold nuggets of various sizes and shapes into his hands.
Emily’s father comically feigned the nuggets weighed a ton until his eyes widened and he realized they were real.
“Where the hell did you find these?” he asked in disbelief.
“Is that real gold?” asked her mom, equally disbelieving.
“I found them just over there. Lucky, huh? They weigh around ... [How much do they weigh?]
Two hundred and sixty grams. “Two hundred and sixty grams,” repeated Emily aloud.
Her father quickly calculated, “Two hundred and sixty grams is around nine ounces ... gold is about ... There could be over fifteen thousand dollars here!”
Her mother piped in, “More, actually, because people pay more for real gold nuggets than just the gold value!”
“Cool. You guys can make those mortgage payments, buy that tank of gas AND take us to dinner! Come to think of it, I’m starved. Can we have lunch now?”
Emily’s dad came to his senses, “How did you know these weigh two hundred and sixty grams? That’s a bit precise.”
“Lucky guess,” Emily tossed back.
The ever-practical Mom had the last word, “We’ll have to get a gold prospector’s license. You’re not supposed to look for gold without one. I think you can just get them on the Internet. We’ll just back-date it to yesterday.”
I see now where you get your talent for twisting the truth. You are learning from a true Master in your mother!
[Gee, thanks. I think.]
They had known for decades that the detection of alien life on Earth wouldn’t come from satellites or telescopes or UFO sightings or crop circles. No one was going to step out of a flying saucer onto the lawn of the White House and say, “Take me to your leader” or “Klaatu barada nikto!”
No little green men, or in fact men of any color, were going to pop up on your TV during ‘Big Brother’ and announce, “People of Earth, we come in peace.” No one would believe them anyway, especially not during ‘Big Brother.’
No, they knew the first sign of extraterrestrial life on Earth would come on a computer. No alien race with the technology to reach another star would make contact without doing their homework first. They would find a way to tap into a computer network or databank and learn about humanity that way.
This idea wasn’t new or even a secret. It came straight out of the pages of early science fiction writers.
What was new was that there was a clever little trap waiting. As soon as any really unusual computer activity was detected, it would spring. When enough traps were sprung and a pattern was detected, an alarm would sound.
The Organization had millions of frontline troops all over the globe. They weren’t really actual troops or even aware of anything at all. The troops were a tiny computer program called a WAWAA. The Organization, like all forms of government agency, loved its acronyms.
An acronym was a word made up of the first letter of each word in a long name, or a bunch of words. Like CIA for Central Intelligence Agency, FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation or even UFO for Unidentified Flying Object. WAWAA was an acronym for “Wait And Watch And Alert.”
WAWAAs had been planted in every operating system of every computer since the 1950s. Outwardly (that is, to any computer nerd who knew what they were looking at), WAWAAs appeared to be lines of code to tell the date and time.
In reality, they were a secret signal that would be triggered if significant activity that was possibly extraterrestrial was detected on that computer.
Computer companies themselves didn’t even know they were planting WAWAAs. It was simple in the early days, when computers were numbered in the hundreds and there was always someone patriotic enough to slip in a few lines of code for the common good.
Even when personal computers began to grow in popularity, they all used the same few operating systems. The birth of the Internet made things even easier, because when any computer was online, The Organization could sneak in.
The Organization itself had an acronym, the EAU, for Extraterrestrial Activity Unit. This name was given to it in the days when it was part of the US Army Air Corps.
Then some smarty pants mentioned that EAU meant water in French. WAWAA also sounded like baby talk for water. This got to be too much for the macho-men of the EAU in those days, so they referred to themselves as “O,” for The Organization. The top man was also known as “O-1” and so on down the chain of command. Everyone felt like handsome, masculine secret agents again. That satisfied them until it was long forgotten and the name stuck.
The Organization had long ago become an international group, supported by all major governments and not answerable to any one in particular. In fact, it was almost a major government onto itself.
When the Organization decided it had to tighten the extraterrestrial activity detection system and bring the millions of computers in the world into tighter control, it took advantage of the Y2K scare. In fact, it almost single-handedly caused the scare. This was the belief that in the Year 2000, all computers might malfunction when the new millennium dawned because it might detect the year was not 2000, but 0000.
So, every computer in the world had a new operating system or had their current operating system upgraded. Of course, a new generation of WAWAAs was planted at the same time.
The Organization also had an upgrade. The world’s largest supercomputer was created. Its name was ABACUS and it was in charge of millions of WAWAAs.