Drummond stayed at the observatory overnight. He knew how to angle the monitor so he could get beverages while still watching the aliens. He started talking to the coffee urn six hours after Hefferman left. It had become part of the team in a way, and setting up some music would have taken him away from the footage for over half a minute.
The flatlands rolled on with more rows of ’Goyles, each fanning wind to the north. The first horizontal rows to span the screen had an average of 24 kneelers each. By 8:00 AM, a 25th became common even though the foot of space between ’Goyles remained constant. In the agonizing time it took for the next row to fully emerge onscreen, Drummond applied some geographical software. He found a slight curvature in the later rows which accounted for the extra worshiper. The curving increased as the video panned further north. It implied that a series of concentric circles surrounded something quite special in the center.
Drummond found no irregularities in the fanning pattern of individual ’Goyles.
Hefferman arrived in the morning two hours late. He brought in more empty boxes.
“Good morning,” he said. “We got terminated. So did the other two observatories. Check your online banking. You’ll find the rest of the year’s pay deposited, including vacation pay and the maximum overtime hours. Pretty decent hush money, I’d say.”
Drummond turned in his chair, the bags under his eyes falling a bit further. Hefferman already had the control room looking bare after hauling out files the previous day. He began stuffing entire office computers into a box. The monitors and keyboards lay disconnected on their counters, like the scraps of a butchered animal.
“What, Mathias just said, ‘screw it’ after waiting sixty years?” Drummond asked. “We don’t even know what they worship yet!”
“He doesn’t want us to know,” Hefferman said. He crammed a tangle of monitor cables into the box. “He thinks the aliens will influence us. If humanity finds out that tyranny leads to immortality, if we just see an example of it working, we’ll pursue the same course.”
Drummond looked around the room. The panels of knobs, dials, and gauges looked back at him like startled eyes, none of them as spooked as his own.
“How can he stop the probes about to launch?” Drummond asked. “Or the Dixon probe that launched two months ago?”
“He won’t,” Hefferman said, still hunched over the box. “He hopes the aliens change their ideology or die out in the decades it takes for the new probes to get there. Or maybe they’ll start a new culture in the additional 16 years it takes for the laser streams to reach us.”
“What?!” Drummond shouted. He stood, but his head swam and his vision went black from orthostatic hypotension. He wobbled like a vine in the wind. “What if the next probes find the ’Goyles still kneeling, or worse? What if they find something nastier, like global war? What does it matter if we tell everyone now?”
“You think I didn’t tell Mathias all that?!” Hefferman bellowed back. He finally spun to face Drummond and the stripped room. “Have you seen his list of humanitarian projects? He doesn’t want to kick off our own little race for global autocracy. Someone else can soil their own family name, but don’t expect him to.”
“He can’t just put a bookmark in human discovery,” Drummond said. “One billionaire can’t pause history. Why would he even think that he can?”
Hefferman grabbed the armory of pens from his pocket and threw them in the nearest empty box. “It doesn’t concern us. Maybe his dying father said, ‘Take all this money, and don’t screw anything up, son, or God will punish me for it.’ Maybe they hugged and cried in their rich, pansy little world where they thought they owned cancer.”
“I guess they own space instead,” Drummond said to his chair. He stood with his back to the monitor for the first time, guarding it.
“We got a big happy glimpse on some other guy’s dime,” Hefferman said. “If you want to see more, have your own probe built. Have some kids so they can watch whatever Dixon beams back. You might even live long enough to see the horrors out there. For now, Mathias wants us and everyone on Earth to suppress our curiosity. Maybe he’ll fund the fight against tyranny. He has a head start.”
“Both of you just assume we’ll copy whatever the ’Goyles do?” Drummond asked.
“Oh, come on!” Hefferman yelled. “You think the super rich will throw away a shot at immortality when they see that it’s become biologically possible? Not only that, but they can have immortal servants too. You’ve seen the perfectionism of the worship. You’ve analyzed their wrinkles yourself. Those ’Goyles all live for thousands of years. We have to find our own way forward instead of emulating the heavens’ game. You have until midnight to clear out your stuff and lock up. Read your contract with extreme care regarding information breeches.”
Hefferman stacked three boxes and picked up all of them. For someone with a bowling pin figure, it looked like a feat of strength the ’Goyles would applaud. He carried the stack outside to the back of his van.
Drummond called after him. “If you and Mathias like power so much, you have to tell him to keep this going! The greatest discoveries take risk! We have the key to the cosmos here!” He ran outside and shouted to the cameras atop the poles in case they monitored sound. With Mathias in charge, they probably did. “Tell him that! The rich make the rules, but the little people like us decide if we follow them or not!”
“Not on this world,” Hefferman said while he climbed into the driver seat. He drove away at 16 kilometers per hour. Those off-road tires had a good two years left in them.
Drummond turned back to the observatory. The door flapped open in the desert wind, its doorknob now hot from the blistering sun. He could still see both his monitor with the genuflecting ’Goyles and the da Vinci poster above it. He ran inside and stared at the new row of kneelers that had appeared without his direct observation. They all flexed and fanned except for one who lay collapsed but still panting. The alien crawled off camera while a new ’Goyle walked between the rows and filled his brethren’s place. He knelt, and the new fanner performed as all others. Their leathery wings scooped up the momentum of the southern gusts to fan it ever northward.
Drummond’s vision blurred without a single tear needed. Exhausted, he looked up at da Vinci’s stern face and the little-known quote below it. With his eyestrain worse than ever, only one word came into focus…