Credit: ESO

The Redstatter place is pretty rustic for the home base of a pair of alien hunters. Most of the places in the area are vacation homes. Their owners kicking up their feet in the folding chairs on the porch and enjoying a couple Arnold Palmers, while gazing out over the splendid view of the Rockies and hoping that the kids show up on time for dinner. The Redstatter’s big show is concealed behind a low ridge, only visible through the windows at the rear of the house. Look past the stained glass butterflies and you’ll see the radio shed with its massive cannon-like communications apparatus, nestled neatly within a field of solar panels and exotic generators that require a couple PhD’s to adequately describe.

I’m not sure that my stupid awe even registered with Mr. Redstatter, who washed the breakfast dishes as I stared through the window. “The misses wanted to meet you, Atticus, but one of us has gotta mind the gadgets and it’s her turn. Oh, didn’t mean to be so familiar — you prefer Atticus or Mr. Gainsborough?”

“Either’s fine, I’ve been called worse.”

“It’s really right simple, Mr. Gainsborough. I mean, the math’s a bear, but the concept isn’t much.” Mr. Redstatter left the dishes in the drying rack and pointed out a few features of his amazing alien finder. “You see the big doohickey? That’s an optical communicator. Fires off a short message every 82 seconds when it’s on. It’s how we speak to the beings.”

“I hope there’s someone up there who can speak a few words of English.”

“Naw, we send out mathematical signals. That’s the universal language — math’s math wherever you go. Say, you want a butterscotch brownie?”

“No thanks. You should save some for the visitors. Speaking of which, have you ever heard from anyone?”

Mr. Redstatter let out a phlegmy sigh. “Oh, we hear stuff, but it’s noise. Nothing intelligent. Yeah, we get some big shot scientists that tell us we should be happy ’cause the universe is talking to us, but we don’t want to hear from the universe, damn it.”

A small radio unit on the counter crackled to life. “Hon, we got a message coming in! Bring your journalist friend, I think this is it!”

“Ain’t that timing for you?” Mr. Redstatter grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me with vigorous haste. “Come on, Atticus! You’re gonna hear from the aliens!”

Seconds later we were in the radio shed, a dim and dusty shack crowded with mainframes and glorious science fiction props. The matronly Mrs. Redstatter sat before an enormous console, swapping her attention between a half-dozen small screens and scratching out notes on a clipboard. She dropped her headphones to her neck as we entered. “Computer’s just translating the message now, hon.”

“Is it?” Mr. Redstatter flashed a goofy grin as he peered over his wife’s shoulder. “You think it’s gonna happen?”

“I think this is it,” said Mrs. Redstatter, mirroring her husband’s silly expression. “Ain’t radiation this time, this was sent right to us!”

“Hot diggity!” Mr. Redstatter slapped his knee, then dragged me again over to an monolithic printer in the corner of the shed. “Hard copies, for posterity. We’ll even let you take one as a memento.”

“My first transgalactic souvenir,” I said.

The whole shed hummed and vibrated as the machines did their business. For a few seconds, the whole damn mountain seemed alive with the sound of science and the electric surge of discovery. Then it lurched to a halt as every gizmo in the shed went back to sleep. I thought that the Redstatters had finally flash-fried their setup, but a moment later a single sheet of paper emerged from the printer.

Mrs. Redstatter ran to the printer, the happy countenance replaced with an aura of reverence. “What’s it say, hon?”

Mr. Redstatter studied the printout for a few protracted seconds, then handed it off to his wife who did likewise. The shift in mood was sudden, like the aliens had showed up only to vaporize the Redstatters’ favorite dog and take off without a word. Finally, Mrs. Redstatter passed the printout to me without looking up.

TIRED OF YOUR OPTICAL COMMS PROVIDER PICKING YOUR POCKETS? SWITCH TO EXOSPHERE COMMUNICATIONS — PLAIN BILLINGS, DISCOUNT RATES, NO TRICKS.

Mr. Redstatter stamped his foot and growled. “Goldurn ads. Five years at this and all we ever get is spam.”


Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Since last returning from Shanghai he’s been holed up in Lawrence, writing novels, photographing buskers, and scraping a living out of the state’s nascent wine industry. You can learn more about his various projects online.