Dr. Howard Dire paced along the sterile corridor, his strides wide and determined. His white knuckles clasped a silver-coloured clipboard, now his only possession, having deposited his keys, wallet, and identification badge at the security desk. As he walked, his gaze remained locked on the solid steel door at the end of the path.
On the other side of that door was the greatest scientific discovery ever to occur. Greater than splitting the atom, greater than any space mission, greater even than the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) verifying the existence of the Higgs boson. What remained between Dr. Dire and the greatest scientific encounter known to man was one last security door.
Dr. Howard Dire was about to meet an extraterrestrial.
It was impossible to comprehend his good fortune. An alien had made contact with Earth. First making contact via a message received at the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the alien had requested a meeting with a scientific dignitary. The alien had sent a transmission in four different Earth languages, proving that it had already done its research. A secret discussion amongst leading governments ensued, and the scientific community was notified on a need-to-know basis. Dr. Dire, a physicist who was also an adviser to his government’s military research and development, had been one of the few notified. With great pride and courage, he had volunteered to be the first to communicate with the alien and the government had accepted.
He had been given his orders: reveal nothing confidential about our military capabilities (the boys in office were always worried about that one), gain as much as you can from the conversation, and assess whether the alien could be trusted to meet government officials, discuss relations, and, if possible, trade.
“Bugger their trade,” thought Dr. Dire. “This is about science.”
Dr. Dire arrived at the steel doors and waited patiently. A buzzing noise indicated the CCTV cameras focusing on him. He stiffened as they scanned him for facial recognition. He heard the air-pressure valve release on the locking system, and slowly the doors opened.
Dr. Dire paused for the doors to completely part before he began walking into the room. He could feel the tips of his hands and feet tingle. He’d been nervous about important meetings before, but never anything like this.
The doors opened to reveal a small chamber with white padded walls. White lights shone down onto a long steel table bolted to the floor, with two plastic chairs at either end. One was empty, in the other sat the alien.
The alien had revealed in his communication that he was on a scouting mission to Earth from one of the nearest stars, Alpha Centauri. One of the technicians at the radio telescope base had called him an Extra Terrestrial Roaming Agent, or XTRA, and the name had stuck. Dr. Dire knew he would have to bite his tongue from calling it XTRA during the meeting.
Dr. Dire observed an alien surprisingly human. It appeared to be male, about 30–40 years of age, and Caucasian. Dr. Dire suppressed his disappointment as he entered the room.
Taking slow, careful steps to stand beside the table, Dr. Dire spoke first. “Welcome to Earth. I am Doctor Howard S. Dire, physicist and cosmologist. I’ve been selected as the scientific dignitary you requested.”
XTRA slowly rose to his feet, smiling as he stood. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Doctor Howard S. Dire. My name is XTRA.”
Blast, thought Dr. Dire, he’s been reading our correspondences.
“You can call me Howard. Please tell me about yourself.” Dr. Dire slowly lowered himself into the remaining chair and opened his clipboard on the desk. “Do you mind if I take notes while we talk?”
“Not at all, Howard,” replied XTRA, as he crouched into his chair. “Firstly, you should know that this form you see is not my actual form. I am piloting this from my ship, which remains in orbit. This body was genetically engineered for your planet’s atmosphere to allow us to communicate, though at its core it is all holographically projected energy fields, and, unfortunately, the whole unit has a short life expectancy.”
“Fascinating. Your culture must be very advanced indeed, to be able to create life.”
XTRA paused and tilted his head slightly. Speaking slowly, he replied, “Create life?”
“Why yes, you have genetically engineered a living organism, an alien organism of your own species at that, which enables you to visit other planets in a body suitable to that atmosphere.”
“I have done nothing more than incubate living cells genetically encoded to multiply into a specific predetermined form. A mother of any species on your planet does the exact same thing. Surely you agree that there is a difference between generating a body and creating life?”
Howard considered the statement briefly before chuckling, “XTRA, certainly you are not suggesting that life is separate from matter?”
XTRA gave a short nod. “Howard, certainly you are not suggesting that matter is the source of life?” The two stared at each other with blank expressions momentarily until XTRA continued, “Are you genuinely speaking as the scientific dignitary of Earth, Howard?”
Dr. Dire couldn’t help but note the tone in XTRA’s voice. “I am a professor emeritus with three PhDs. I am certainly qualified to speak on behalf of the scientific body of Earth.”
“Is it also the opinion of the scientific body of Earth that matter is the source of life?”
Dr. Dire rolled his eyes and exclaimed, “XTRA, this is our planet’s first known encounter with a species that has come from another planet. Surely you have not travelled all this way to discuss the nature of consciousness?”
XTRA leaned back into his chair. “I have contacted your planet because we have come to understand that your scientists plan to send a probe to our solar system called Starshot. We understand the final design and construct of this probe is still pending, and, once launched, it will take twenty years before it will even reach our star system, and five more years before you receive the data the probe will collect.”
Dr. Dire dropped his pen onto the pad and leaned back into his chair, his hand slowly rising to cup his jaw. Extending a finger, he lightly stroked his grey mustache. “Go on.”
“Rather than sitting idly while you designed and implemented your research, my planet thought it best to make contact with yours to discern if it was worth establishing open communication. Given your previous statement, if you are speaking on behalf of the scientific body of Earth, I do not consider open communication with your planet encouraging.”
“And what, pray tell, makes you say that?”
XTRA folded his hands at his lap and fixed his gaze on Dr. Dire. “First, please explain to me Howard, your belief that matter is the source of life.”
Dr. Dire chuckled as he replied, “XTRA you have got to be joking.”
XTRA’s face remained grave. “I assure you I am not.”
Dr. Dire leaned forward over the steel table, cupping his hands together as he spoke. “My planet’s scientific community conducts controlled experiments to establish facts. Not one of these controlled experiments has revealed an iota of consciousness separate from matter. It is simply a dream. And I must say that it surprises me your planet values such a fantasy.”
XTRA’s face remained stern. “I’m sorry Howard, but you have not actually answered my question. I am cognisant of your planet’s method of experiment. Perhaps I should rephrase my question to extract a more detailed answer.”
XTRA leaned forward and smiled slightly as he continued. “With reference to your comment that matter is the source of life, please explain the difference between a body which was living, but is now dead.”
Dr. Dire paused as he considered the question. XTRA’s smile receded as he filled the silence. “Molecularly, there is no difference. All the materials that constituted the body are still complete, and yet the subjective observer, the Life within the body, is not present. This phenomenon can be observed by any intelligent organism on your planet including the members of your scientific community.”
Dr. Dire tilted his head slightly as he considered XTRA’s statement. Leaning back, he slowly raised his arms to cross at his chest. “Please get to your point, XTRA.”
“The exploration of science is the pursuit to understand the relationship between the observer, the living consciousness residing within the body, and the observed universe around it. Your simplistic reduction of life to nothing but matter fails to address the subjective experience of the individual.”
XTRA tilted his head in line with Dr. Dire’s. “If you presume that science can only be applied to observe the interaction of matter with matter, then your experiments will never reveal the cause for a child’s favourite colour, or a scientist’s love for opera.”
Dr. Dire cleared his voice and steadied his nerves. “I do not see what this has to do with opening a channel of communication between our two planets.”
“We have observed over recent decades that your scientific research has not been fueled by a motivation to understand life but, on the contrary, to explain life away in the pursuit of exploiting matter.” XTRA gave a small smile and continued, “If your life is nothing but matter, and matter is under my control to experiment, then it’s a short leap in logic to say that your life is under my control.”
“Now see here, XTRA!” Dr. Dire exclaimed, his arms dropping to the table. “The nature of our research…”
“Is not wanted on my planet,” XTRA interjected, his smile disappearing. “Your science is damaging your planet because of your wilful neglect of the true nature of life. Life is greater than matter, and cannot be analysed by one of your controlled experiments because it is simply not under your control.”
XTRA leaned forward: “Dr. Howard S. Dire, the citizens of my planet, every single species, are not interested in becoming a controlled experiment, nor do we want you to exploit our planet as you do your own. Please turn your gaze elsewhere.” XTRA’s small smile returned to his face. “I would suggest you begin by turning your scientific eye inwards.”
Dr. Dire’s jaw dropped as he endeavoured to process XTRA’s statements. Gathering his thoughts as quickly as he could, he stammered, “XTRA, what are you saying?”
XTRA stood up quickly. Standing erect, his arms flushed tight at his side, he exclaimed: “I apologise, Howard, this genetically engineered body has a short life expectancy. I trust that we will never see each other again.”
Suddenly the body dropped to the floor, causing Dr. Dire to rise quickly to his feet. Even from his standing position he could conclude there were no signs of life.