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fiction by michael werneburg

Jane said, "That's Rover, through and through. Something new comes into his environment, he runs. Then he calms down and he plays around with it and tastes it if it can." With a sigh, she added, "and that's about it."

"Always while saying nothing," Cuong added, somewhat peevishly. "How can a being that's advanced enough to have designed that ship go around without any communications as sophisticated as 'You my friend?' or 'I'm hungry'!"

We'd had this conversation manytimes. I shrugged, and said, "Maybe they just don't have much to say." Now irritated with the man at his disregard for his marriage, I couldn't help but to needle him.

"I mean," continued Cuong oblivious, "you'd expect at least some rudimentary ability to learn to communicate with other sentient life!"

I'd hired Cuong for the creative thinking evident in his published work. But as far as I could tell, he'd spent his time on the project whining—and fooling around. "In the course of my 82 years," I scolded him, "I've learned that there's not much point in expectation."

Cuong frowned at me. The man had his share of grey hairs himself and seemed to take umbrage at my occasional "back in the day" and "at my age" statements, as if I thought of him as a child.

"And Jane," I added, "Please, please stopped calling it 'Rover'."

She nodded, but said, "The way he'd go around and around in his quarters." She smiled at me, "He really does get around like a dog!"

"A dog that can work out a childproof bottle with its hind feet while inspecting a piece of fruit. All the while hanging onto the back of an office chair," Cuong muttered.

Some footage, now, of the Ambassador on an outing from the facility. It was surveying the landing site. The alien made his way to the craft across the ground with that awkward gait but scrambled into the cockpit with fluid grace once he'd climbed aboard with all six limbs.

That the ship itself was still at the site was another embarrassment for the humans. We hadn't figure out how to move it, and we didn't know why. Its mass was trivial, it just seemed to be somehow .. held in place.

The waitress had arrived with Jane's next drink. "Look at him go," she said, "like a little monkey, I've always said."

"He's not a monkey," Jane said archly, "he's wholly alien. Aside from the extra limbs and the aforementioned carnivory, there's the matter of the superb night vision, to say nothing of the larger cranium."

Marveling at Jane's abrupt taking to the other side of the argument she'd just been having with me, I ordered another club soda and turned back to the show.

There was just under half an hour to go before the actual ceremony. Bollen, mercifully, had now gone and I restored the volume. We were being treated to a series of prepared historical clips. A voice-over was guiding us through the clips, which pieced together the history of mankind's own timid space exploration. An exploration that had decidedly slowed over the past few decades as the economy worsened and the wars raged on.

A sequence of the usual ancient black-and-white stills of early human rocketry played out—men in bulky suits, rockets lifting off of launch-pads and probes flying past Saturn. The waitress returned, and I thanked her for my drink.

"A monkey!" Jane said to the waitress, scornfully. "Just because it can climb!"

I glanced at Jane. Was she trying to goad the waitress into spitting into her next drink?

Some more stills played out on TV. One of them showed a chimpanzee in a space suit.

The waitress barked a short laugh and smirked at Jane without a word. She crossed her arms and watched the show with us.

"Oh God," Jane said, "that's too much."

I nodded, enjoying the irony.

"What was that?" Cuong asked, perplexed.

I asked him, "What's that, Cuong? The chimp?"

He pointed at the screen and said, "Yeah, was that for some sort of promotional thing? A stunt?"

I watched as the screen recounted a litany of explosions on launch pads in Europe, the US, and South America. "That was from the early days of the US space efforts, back in the Cold War. They used chimps in some of the early flights to test the safety of the supersonic environment on a humanoid shape."

Cuong reacted as if I had slapped him in the face. He bounced back on the booth's bench, and then forward again. His mouth hung in a big "O" of shock. "But, what did they call that?"

"Call it? I don't know. 'Space monkey program'? I don't think it had a name." I stared back at Cuong. Now he was finally paying attention? "You didn't know about the space monkeys?" I asked him.

"Space monkey?" the waitress asked thoughtfully.

The two scientists turned to her, and I saw shock appear on their faces.

I looked from one to the other, and back at the screen when the live footage resumed. There was the young Dalai Lama, shaking hands with the secretary-general of the UN. Then the presidents of France and Brazil were greeting our Prime Minister. Everyone was ignoring the wind and drizzle and looked downright pleased with themselves. In all of history, not many firsts would beat First Contact, and their names would be immortalized. Time was now short—the whole thing would be starting soon.

"Look," I said, not taking my eyes from the screen, "you two aren't thinking–"

"Oh yes, we are," Cuong said, cutting me off. "It explains so much: its lack of response to speech or signing or music; its failure to complete the pattern matching or the mathematical puzzles. The underdeveloped communication center in its brain. It probably communicates, but in a limited way we haven't discovered not only because it's alien but because it's not sentient. We can't get an explanation of its mission or technology because they're not its mission or technology. A different species sent that poor creature up in space and it just happened to land here!"

As the image panned across the dignitaries, I caught a glimpse of the young woman from the PM's office who'd contacted me about this job in the first place. "Jane?" I asked, distracted again by the TV screen.

But Jane just nodded at the television slowly, not saying a word. She had gone flush. "This was supposed to make my career. I've been talking to three top Universities...."

Cuong began to laugh. I watched him bouncing his fists lightly on the table with delight. "Rover's a space monkey!" Cuong exclaimed. "ET space monkey!" Jane gave him a sour look.

Watching the two scientists, I realized that they'd lived their entire lives in this inward-turning era, beyond the commercialization of the Space Age. It simply hadn't occurred to any of them to consult with our own abandoned exploration of space while conducting their research. And it hadn't occurred to me to ask if they'd brushed up on something I'd seen as a kid way back in the 1970's. I did some math: they would have been in school in the 2010's.

"Have either of you heard of Laika?" I asked. I got two blank looks in response. I looked back at the screen. The world's leaders were about to introduce themselves to some distant planet's chimpanzee. Or maybe dog. This would be an embarrassment on Earth when people figured it out. And some day the space craft's true designers were going to arrive, and wouldn't we look silly then?

Laughing, the waitress walked toward the characters at the bar. "Hey, you should hear this!"

Thinking of the young woman from the PMO again, I reached for my phone.

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rand()m quote

Some people talk about living every day like it might be their last. Maybe that's good advice. Carpe diem and all that. But perhaps it's better to try to live every day like it might be everyone's last. If there are people in your life who are important to you, let them know...

—Mark Bedford (quote taken from posting to fray.com)