Drummond watched the observatory from his car with his air conditioning cranked. The eighteen-wheeler moved in front of the building like a giant eraser, rubbing out the only interesting thing to ever sit on the desert. The dish antenna dragged away on a thick chain latched to the end of the truck’s flatbed. The two huge objects stopped in the dustcloud a safe distance from where the probe’s laser communication landed each day. Now, the infrared beam gently cooked a naked patch of bedrock.
In theory, someone could drive right over the secret spot with a much smaller dish in tow and snatch some data. It would only capture a glimpse of the ’Goyles, though, a few frames peppered with static. Mathias’s dish could catch the entire four-meter width of the beam, but this mostly just reduced interference.
A bulldozer pulled up to the disconnected dish, interrupting Drummond’s number crunching. It stopped and waited for beefy construction workers, men of might and arrogance, to untie the massive chain. After the men—Mathias’s men—dragged the chain away, the bulldozer heaved and rolled the dish onto the flatbed. Mathias owned a whole spectrum of men some days.
Drummond lowered his binoculars. From a kilometer away, the observatory looked like a chucked-out microwave oven, brilliantly petty and inconspicuous. He increased the volume of his laptop which lay upon a heap of dish manuals on the passenger seat. Having it turned down helped him spy and concentrate better. Now, however, he let the video interview fill up his stenchy, lived-in car. He let the noise swirl his mind away from all the desert heat. He basked in the voice of Blair Mathias, rich dude extraordinaire and apparent owner of space itself.
“Surely, though, you must have a favorite theory on the wing debate,” the lucky interviewer said.
“The whole world wants to know what the man in charge thinks.”
“They use their wings for display,” Mathias said, “a mating ritual they probably keep underground.”
Mathias’s words, even their cadence, sounded almost the same as Hefferman’s. His gravelly voice labored too much for a man in his early sixties. If his ego hadn’t killed the probe project, his health probably would.
“The other theories on the small wing size sound just as intriguing,” Mathias went on. “I just hope my committee can unscramble the dying signal so we can learn more. The probe didn’t hold up the way my family had hoped all those years ago. We might have a long wait before we see anything else from our interstellar neighbors.”
“Committee,” Drummond said through his teeth.
He brushed away a pile of takeout receipts on the dashboard. He found his binoculars on his lap instead, briefly forgotten there. Looking through them again, he spotted a security logo on a car parked by the observatory. It didn’t take a masters degree in spying to know that the place had a guard posted ’round the clock. This would last until the signal really did putter out years from now, for not even Mathias could shut off the probe’s automated laser transmission. The guards would replace each other on 12-hour shifts, much like the ’Goyles taking turns fanning their master’s sanctum. Given the high-end security cameras, no one could ever drive over the beam’s landing site without getting shot. No one would ever know if the ’Goyle king gripped a scepter or a whip.
The interview, and a whole playlist of them, carried on in a closed tab. Drummond couldn’t watch the nonchalant, sunken face of Mathias, that lying gatekeeper’s mouth. He put down the binoculars and spent the rest of the day working on his laptop. He dunked his head through the numbers, the calculations needed to see the live ’Goyles again: GPS data, forecasted wind velocities, and dish antenna modifications. Most of his work revolved around one screenshot, the last bit of footage he had saved to his hard drive before leaving the observatory for good. Every row of the ’Goyles curved, though slightly. The northmost row, in the last frame captured, curved the most. Sixteen years ago, the probe would have changed course to study those concentric rings of worshipers.
And rings had centers.
Nighttime arrived and blackened all the survival junk scattered throughout the car. The laptop screen mostly lit up Drummond’s bony face and some 24 empty water bottles piled on the floor mats. The same Mathias interview replayed when its turn came again in the loop.
“Would you consider letting some outside experts try to clean up the recent footage?”
“Gosh,” Mathias said, “I wish as much as anyone that governments would run our space programs instead of leaving it to the world’s wealthy and bored. Maybe we’ll return to those olden days. Until then, I prefer to handle the project discretely as my father intended. Otherwise, those ‘outside experts’ would never get a second of privacy again. Not on this world.”