Drummond pulled up to the radio observatory to make it look like he had to drive there everyday. Really, he slept in his car every night just a kilometer or so away.
He opened the cooler on the passenger seat and counted the water bottles and bags of walnuts remaining. He had enough left to stay in the desert for another two weeks without making any trips to town. The little observatory and the porta potty behind it looked as insignificant as the windswept rocks everywhere else. Drummond’s 2072 beater added little to the scenery, even with its new off-road tires courtesy of Mathias. Drummond slid the cooler onto the floor. Hefferman would have a harder time opening it down there should the stodgy old man snoop around.
Hefferman’s parked van gleamed from its daily car wash. He normally didn’t arrive until late morning. Drummond stumbled out of his dust-spotted car and squinted in the hot wind. He preened his suit futilely, having slept in it with the driver seat lowered all the way back. Mathias, who owned everything but the wind out here, probably had loftier things to do anyway than look at the security camera footage.
Drummond checked over the dish antenna 12.649 meters away from the white observatory. No one had driven out this far to vandalize the dish, snoop for its secret purpose, or take selfies under it. Such wanderers would feel a slight heat from the infrared beam occasionally veering off-target, but they would never guess that it came from the Mathias probe 16-light-years away. Drummond gave the security camera on the nearest pole an exaggerated thumbs up, in case Mathias himself did care to check.
Drummond shivered harder than on any previous morning, and not from having to sleep with the car heater on for most of the night. He still felt Hefferman’s voice crawling over him, warning him about the project’s likely termination. Hefferman may as well have thrown a bag of bugs into the car to sleep on the seats too. Drummond entered the two-room observatory without having to key in the security code this time. The cold from the steel doorknob nestled in his hand and stayed there.
“Good morning,” Hefferman said. The drone of the adjacent generator room sounded nicer.
Hefferman had already put on a pot of something cheap and horrible. He sat hunched over his favorite monitor, rubbing what little hair his troubled fingers could find.
“Hey, Heff.” Drummond took his seat under the da Vinci poster. It took him only seconds to get his shoulders, spine, and wireless mouse in their proper places. “Feeling the faith today?”
“That something different might arrive?” Hefferman asked. “No. But if it does, I want to make a good spin on it right away. Mathias already feels conscientious about tinkering with human history. I want all those wings to unfold and drop giftboxes on orphan ’Goyles. I want to see perfect little bows on those giftboxes.”
“Oh, we’ll find the giftboxes,” Drummond said. Grainy images of mountains reflected off his corneas. “We’ll find the steam coming off the turkey dinners inside them.”
It only took minutes for the two of them to scan through eight hours of overnight footage. It came in from the other two secret observatories a third of the way around the Earth. The jagged landscape of H 4096 scrolled by at speeds they upped or slowed with nudges of their mouse wheels. The control room filled with the smell of sweat, mostly Hefferman’s, and the stench from the coffee urn, also Hefferman’s doing. Drummond ran the video through software which could spot novel or noteworthy patterns. Nothing new appeared on the arid world, though—just a few more segments of road and its single-file traffic of clonelike ’Goyles.
Hefferman sighed and emailed the previous day’s footage to Mathias. The financier would soon release the new content to the eager population of Earth—if it impressed him enough. Hefferman’s sighs never stopped afterward, though, and they blended into the rumble of the air-conditioning which kicked in at 10 AM. Drummond marveled over the geological quirks the software highlighted, thrilled by all that could happen for humankind in one undecorated room. At 2:32 PM, a flatland slowly rolled onto four different screens. The creatures who filled it posed in the most important image ever to come from space.
“Look!” Drummond shouted.
He heard Hefferman drop a pen far behind him. Then, neither of them breathed. They froze as though nothing else in the cosmos could move except for the synchronized flapping of wings onscreen. Even the footage slowed down, for the Mathias probe had spotted novel movements with software of its own. A row of ’Goyles appeared at the top of the screen, each of them kneeling with one huge wing raised. They all faced rightward, the head of one bowed behind the extended feet of another, like statues sculpted by man. The row of wings beat a slow rhythm, in perfect unison, fanning something offscreen—someone monumentally lucky on such a hot world.
The video panned up as always, revealing a second row of ’Goyles just meters north of the previous worshipers. The second row knelt and fanned. The third and fourth did as well. The next four parallel lines of ’Goyles crouched just the same, but faced leftward. They fanned the region north with their right-side wings instead of their left. The pattern of four rows facing one way and the next four facing the opposite gradually filled the whole screen. It appeared that even immortals tired out and had to change positions.
“A nice little breeze for their master’s villa,” Hefferman said. “Or his open-air harem. Or his palace orchard. A whole appendage evolved solely for worship—total submission built right into their bodies via eugenics.”
Whatever awe Hefferman had ever felt in childhood finally came out in his voice. Even so, his grumbling sounded as lively as the sounds from the mini fridge. Drummond couldn’t speak. His voice fell ever upward, lost in the stars. Mesmerized by the ’Goyles, he heard two thud sounds as Hefferman’s elbows leaned on a hard panel of dials. He heard Hefferman’s hands burying and hiding the grimmest face on Earth. The project’s doom unfolded in Drummond’s periphery, but he never looked away from the screen.
“Immortality…and they can’t even drive,” Hefferman said. “They fan some tyrant who probably owns the whole planet. Perfect unity. Total harmony. No wonder people only live a century down here.”
Drummond stared at the screen like on every workday before. This time, he would miss many more meals. He cupped his hands over his face, over everything but his eyes. He stared through a mask of fingers, listening to Hefferman hurl documents and thumb drives into a huge cardboard box.