‘Over the New Horizon’, T.D. Walker

Illustrations © 2016 Toeken

 [ Millie, © 2016 Toeken ] Early, too early to be this hot. Millie settled onto the couch across from her older sister, Dot, and pulled her embroidery hoop from its basket. She fanned herself with the stretched muslin; the long trail of an unfinished stitch arced beneath it.

“You’ll lose another needle that way, Millicent,” Dot said.

“I didn’t leave the needle on the thread, Dorothy.”

For what seemed like the seventeenth morning in a row, her mother and her sister fell into the same conversation about refreshments for Dot’s wedding reception, flowers, dresses, the trousseau. Days ago, Dot had asked whether Millie was too young to know about the more delicate items in the last, but their mother had insisted that she’d need to learn about them sooner or later. Millie jammed her hand into the basket and dug around for a needle. One found her fingertip. “Next, Mama, you’ll say that Dot needs to decide on lace for the veil, won’t you?”

Dot and their mother looked up from their stitching. “I was just getting to that,” her sister said. “Thank you.”

Millie pulled her hand out of the basket. She waved her finger and watched the needle wobble before falling onto the muslin. A drop of blood followed. She picked up the needle and threaded it. Automatically, her fingers stitched forget-me-not after forget-me-not, small and dark to cover the blood. Tomorrow, there would be more heat, more talk, more small dark flowers covering the fabric of yet another handkerchief that no one would ever use.

1. Millie Dietrich: Seeing the Future

Just above Pluto’s wispy atmosphere, the object lay waiting to call out. Many questions about this object remain unanswered: Why stop at Pluto when life would be found, if at all, on planets closer to the Sun? Why send its message intermittently? Was the object triggered to call out again by the 2015 New Horizons fly-by? And, most importantly, what does its message mean?

The answers to these questions lie in the future. The answer to another lies in the past: Who heard its message first?

On November 21, 2020, the now-famous student exhibit Over/Hea(r)d opened in Houston. This exhibit, inspired by the fortieth anniversary of SETI’s SERENDIP program the year before, featured a collaboration between photographer and MFA candidate Brandon Lopez and Caroline Agarwal, a PhD candidate in astrophysics. Lopez photographed small segments of sky in great detail selected from those Agarwal had already chosen to analyze as part of her dissertation. Agarwal provided Lopez with locations and brief recordings of the signals that coincided with the time and location of the images.

Lopez projected the images in a room partially concealed from the viewer. Agarwal’s recordings, overlaid with man-made electronic noise, played in time with the changing images. One of the images featured a segment of sky in which Pluto was located. The recording for this segment contained the signal we now know originated from the object. Agarwal and her advisers initially dismissed the signal as artificial noise, though they soon eliminated that possibility after the exhibit opened. After learning of this discovery, Lopez speculated on the signal on his blog before Agarwal published her findings, including quotes from Agarwal on the fact that she believed the signal must be coming from an extraterrestrial intelligence. In her published paper, Agarwal was far more circumspect. Lopez later admitted he should have been as well in releasing his view of the initial contact, given the aftermath of the speculation.

But this wasn’t the first time humans have heard from this object. In 1939, Mrs. Millie Dietrich, then Miss Millie Hanson, began her work as an assistant to her uncle, Dr. Oscar Schultz, a physics professor at Houston College. Millie soon became fascinated by her uncle’s work with radio telescopes. One afternoon in May 1940, according to family lore, Millie stumbled upon a signal she later calculated as originating near the newly-discovered Pluto. Through the radio static, she heard a pattern unlike any she’d heard before. At the time she noted the pattern and the frequency, though records of this have been lost.

In 1940, Dr. Schultz’s focus shifted from radio astronomy to RAdio Detecting And Ranging: RADAR. He had little time to devote to his niece’s possible discovery, as the world became embroiled in war. Despite Millie’s pleas for her uncle to look into the signal, Dr. Schultz dismissed her finding as a fluke.

Now we know that Millie’s discovery may have been just that: the discovery of the object near Pluto. Letters, images, and family lore in this exhibit point to what might have been known far sooner had America not been drawn into the Second World War.

2. The Object: Confirmation of the Signal

Shortly after Agarwal and her advisers, Dr. Jennifer Clarke and Dr. Alex Garcia, determined that the signal was not man-made noise, they contacted colleagues at other institutions to confirm the finding. Pictured above is the email thread between Dr. Garcia and Dr. Charlotte Adams at Durham State University, in which Dr. Garcia jokingly refers to the pattern as “the second coming of the WOW signal.” Dr. Adams confirms the signal, proving him right. The source was calculated to be near Pluto.

3. Photograph of Millie Hanson, aged 16. 1933. Hanson family home, Dallas, Texas.

Millie leans against the porch rails of her family home in Dallas, Texas. She wears a sundress she’d embroidered with stars. Her mother later uses her daughter’s gifts as a selling point in a letter, pictured right, asking Emma and Oscar to consider Millie as a house guest after her college graduation. In a later letter from Emma to Millie, Emma thanks Millie for embroidering a pillow for Emma’s newly redone sitting room.

4. The Object: The First Press Conference

On February 5, 2021, Dr. Clarke, Dr. Garcia, Agarwal, and others announced their findings at a joint Houston University/NASA press conference. Above is the video of the press conference in its entirety. They hoped that by keeping the announcement short and questions prescreened to cull wild speculation, they could prevent negative reaction from the public. At no time did any of the speakers or reporters use the term “alien.”

By the time of the press conference, Lopez’ blog had already garnered thousands of inquiries from believers hoping to learn more about the aliens and skeptics seeking to disprove their existence. In an attempt to distance himself from the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic predictions, Lopez attended the conference with a press pass under a different name. He wanted to document the moment, and the images above are those he took of the event.

5. Diploma from the Texas State College for Women. 1939. Denton, Texas.

Millie’s reputation as a bright girl stuck with her throughout her life. In 1935, she enrolled at the Texas State College for Women. Initially, Millie intended to teach after college. Her interest in mathematics led to her focus on the subject, and she turned down teaching positions to work with her uncle, Dr. Oscar Schultz, professor of physics at Houston State College.

“And how, exactly, was I to find this husband you want me to have when you sent me to a women’s college?” Millie kept her voice low, aimed at her mother.

Dorothy sat down heavily. She was expecting her third; the first played on the rug at their feet while Dorothy’s mother bounced the second on her knee. “Who do you know in Austin?”

“I’ll know the other teachers at the school,” Millie said.

“You’ve had your adventures,” their mother said. “And now it’s time for you to focus on the rest of your life. Your responsibilities.”

Millie picked up one of her mother’s countless porcelain figurines. This one, a toddler in a pale green dress, had lost its partner long ago, the sibling shattering on the wood floor. “How am I not doing that by accepting this offer?”

“We’ll talk about it when your father gets home,” her mother said.

Millie inhaled deeply. She set the figurine back on the shelf, where it could stare out at the living.

6. The Object: Some First Thoughts on Origin

The first news stories dubbed the object the “Alien Probe.” Some scientists and historians proposed more likely scenarios, chief among them that a secret Soviet craft launched sometime in the 80s had gone wildly off course and was caught in Pluto’s orbit. The Soviets had sent missions to Venus and Mars; why not farther afield?

Reviews of Soviet space agency records, pictured above, at first yielded information about this mission, a top-secret follow-up to other Soviet firsts: probes and landers on the Moon, Venus, and Mars. The records indicated that this mission would fly out to Pluto, the solar system’s farthest reach, and radio back when and if the USA sent a mission there as a sort of quiet reminder of Soviet supremacy.

As convincing as these early records appeared, they were soon proved to be forgeries. No first-hand accounts of the mission exist, and the technological requirements for such a mission would have been beyond Soviet engineering capabilities at the time.

7. Picture of Millie Hanson and Dr. Oscar Schultz, pictured in Dr. Schultz’s office. November 18, 1940.

Here, Millie is pictured with Dr. Schultz in her second year of work for the university. She is wearing a fashionable wool suit with demure oxfords. Emma and Oscar Schultz had three sons, already grown, by the time Millie moved in with them. Emma is quoted as saying that Millie became more than a niece to her, nearer to something of a daughter. Dr. Schultz is said to have agreed with the sentiment.

This: aliveness, the stars just beginning to appear overhead. The young man, Sydney, in the driver’s seat shifts nervously. “I can take you home,” he offers.

He doesn’t understand that this clear sky feels more her home than her aunt and uncle’s house. Millie leads him out of the car. She spreads out a blanket on the damp grass. They take turns drinking from the bottle of thin red wine. Nervously, she points out constellations. He explains something of the history of navigators. She kisses him, pulls him down to the blanket.

They’d rushed through dinner, ordering sandwiches from the cafe near the house he shared with another bachelor in the history department. Uncle Oscar had warned off all the graduate students and young faculty in the physics and mathematics departments. She’d made an excuse to ask about maps after she learned the name of the young man who walked dreamily by her uncle’s office window each morning.

And now, he was here, a physical presence moving above her. Moving against the stars. For a moment, during, she thought about all the men and women who didn’t exist on Mars. After, lying on his shoulder, she felt a sort of sadness that they couldn’t exist, that they could never feel what she had just felt.

8. The Object: Further Study

Clearly, the object and its signal demanded more study. A multinational commission was created―including the Russians and the Americans―to explore possible routes toward this end. Pictured above are diplomats, scientists, and religious leaders from twenty-three different countries.

The early talks yielded no consensus. Although the talks were held in private, rumors soon escaped the doors of the conference rooms. Some parties wanted to focus on denying the existence of the object; others wanted to publicly decry the object as a sign that humanity had committed some grave transgression. Still others wanted to send a series of nuclear weapons out to destroy it, fearing both the implications of alien life and its power to destroy humanity.

In this climate, talks inevitably broke down. A joint task force sanctioned by the UN and comprised of members from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Indian Space Research Organization (IRSO), along with scientists and engineers from China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Russia, and Canada agreed to meet in the subsequent months to resolve the technological problems of sending a craft out to study the object or bringing the object into the inner solar system for better access.

9. Sketch of “The Plutonians” in a letter from George Hanson to Millie. February 7, 1941.

In an almost eerie coincidence, Millie’s younger brother George sent her a letter with a drawing of the people of Pluto. Though Millie made her discovery in May 1940, she did not initially discuss it with her family outside of her letters with Dr. Schultz. Hanson’s drawings reflect the interest in the newly-discovered world shared by the country at large.

In this drawing, three blue figures are seated around a table with a keyboard similar to that of a piano. One of the figures opens its mouth as if singing as the other two strike the keys with long, greenish fingers. An open window behind the figures shows a series of deep ridges or canals receding off into the distance. A ghostly fourth figure, which appears to have been erased, waits outside a second, smaller window; Hanson presumably didn’t color in this figure with the same blue as the others.

George devoured the copy of Mars and Its Canals she’d given him for Christmas soon after he’d devoured one of the oranges she’d brought him. Sticky orange fingerprints held the front page to the cover. Months of flipping through the pages marked his own canals through the book. He’d insisted she read the chapter about the discovery of the canals to him again, though she’d read it to him the two previous nights, and he’d read it himself earlier that day.

“Why do you have to go back?” he asked her after she’d read the part about the absence of canals on Venus and Mercury to him again.

Millie closed the book. “I’m helping Uncle Oscar with his work,” she said, but it was more than that, more than he could grasp. Uncle Oscar―Dr. Schultz as she called him at the university―had shown her Mars, Venus, Mercury through one of the optical telescopes. Absent were the cities Lowell had promised. Where some had seen a cold emptiness, Millie saw something she’d had trouble naming.

Their mother peeked into the kitchen. “Bedtime, George,” she said. The boy, nearly ten now, trudged off behind his mother.

Millie stayed a moment. The kitchen window framed the night sky, too clouded over to show her anything. Not that she would have been able to see that distant small planet. Had it been a month ago already since she heard that faint, unnatural pattern coming from its direction? Dr. Schultz had given her leave to use the new radio telescope, one he and a young colleague had built earlier that fall. Unnatural, Lowell’s word. Unnatural, like a sentence with a pause. She hadn’t been able to catch the signal again. Her uncle had considered it for a moment before dismissing it. Radio telescopes picked up noise and signals from terrestrial sources, he’d said. You’re right, Millie conceded. And yet, leaving it was something she found herself unable to do.

10. The Object: The First Plutonian Riots

On March 12, 2021, the first Plutonian Riots erupted in several major cities across the globe. Riot organizers pulled together unlikely allies, including environmental extremists, religious zealots, students, and certain business leaders. Some government figures in less stable countries were implicated as well, using the riots as an excuse for coups.

Damage to buildings and infrastructure worldwide totaled in the billions of US dollars. Organizers later claimed that they had planned actions so that loss of human life would be minimal, though best estimates placed that figure in the thousands, including two heads of state shot during the riots.

Pictured above are images from Brandon Lopez’ exhibition, After the Fall, in which he documented clean-up efforts in ten cities. Lopez has expressed some regret for releasing the initial speculation to the Internet, though he has stated that he and Agarwal could not have known the devastating effects of their actions. Included in the six iconic images above is perhaps the most famous and disturbing: a rioter self-immolating in an attempt to finish the job of burning down a telescope station in Chile.

11. Page from a letter from Millie Hanson to Dr. Oscar Schultz, concerning the signal she received. 1942.

“Which, of course, I understand, Uncle. You’ve pointed out before the importance of what you’re doing now. I’ve written to Mrs. Wallace, and she says the equipment is all idle, from what her husband has said. She’s asked me kindly not to let out what she’s said beyond telling you. They’re all hard at work on, well, perhaps what you’re hard at work on, dear Uncle. So it’s not a matter of my work interfering with theirs. If you could find a moment to put in a word for me?

I miss you and Aunt Emma terribly. Enclosed is the handkerchief I told you about in my last letter. It’s Orion and Canis Major. You probably don’t remember taking me and George for a walk and pointing them out to us years ago. Perhaps you do. We were up for a visit around Christmastime. Mother and Aunt Emma had cocoa waiting after. I asked George if he remembered―he would have been three or four then―and he did, only because he remembered I started crying because of the cold. Oh, but it wasn’t the cold. It was because Father made us all come inside, and I didn’t want to. You promised to show us the dog in the sky, but it wasn’t late enough for Canis Major. I wanted to go back out but”

Millie turned off the radio and lay on the pale blue couch. The rum punch her mother had served at the open house last night left her useless. Useless: Millie’s word for so much lately.

Her hand fell from the couch onto something hard and velvet. She picked it up: the red sandals she’d bought special for the event, kicked off so that she could lead some of the other ladies in a jitterbug. Her useless red sandals with their heels and bows. Since Uncle Oscar left the university for military research, since she’d been sent back home, Millie found herself more and more useless.

At first, she’d devoted herself to buying dresses and shoes, beautiful things she’d probably never wear once she went back to Houston. If she ever went back to Houston. The shoes and clothes bored her now. She read the letters she’d received from Evelyn Wallace, the youngest of the faculty wives, until the paper grew thin at its folds. She’d thrown herself back into embroidery, making prizes for the church raffles, tokens for the boys overseas. And the victory garden in the backyard―that had taken up the rest of the mornings.

All of it felt useless to her. The tomatoes planted too late in the season, the unworn dresses, the handkerchiefs no one would use because the stitching was too perfect. At least the work she’d done made her feel useful. Alive. Beautifully and usefully and terribly unnaturally alive.

12. The Object: Listening To Its Signal

The image above shows phases of construction of the privately-funded radio telescope built in cooperation with Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Consortium (EIRC) for purposes of listening to the object’s signal. Also pictured here are the initial designs, along with researchers, engineers, and community leaders vital to carrying out the construction in such short time.

After a few months of listening to the signal, it stopped. Researchers suggested that it may have been triggered to run only a brief time, to allow the object to save energy. The 2015 New Horizons Pluto approach may have been such a trigger, they further suggest.

Time on the equipment has since been split between scanning the object’s location and other projects EIRC supports. No further patterns of note have been detected.

The donors who made the construction possible remain anonymous.

13. Photograph of four women radio operators at Fort Sam Houston, L-R, June Witherspoon, Mildred Hanson, Anita Smith, Marisol Diaz. 1942, San Antonio, Texas.

After Millie’s uncle Oscar left the university to work on radio communication technology for the U.S. Army, Millie joined the Signal Corps in 1942. Millie and her friends are pictured here wearing their uniforms with their hair fashioned in victory rolls.

Dorothy had been livid when she found out that Millie had enlisted. Frank had up and gone off to war―just doing his patriotic duty, he’d said. Their patriotic duty―hers and Millie’s―should be to maintain home and hearth while the men were gone, Dot had said after he’d gone. Instead, Millie had gone off to “have adventures” again, as Dot called them, this time in San Antonio. Except she’d found a home again here, working with the other women.

And to be fair, Millie couldn’t deny that the work came with benefits. The work was challenging, her coworkers bright young women much like herself. Most of all, though, something, finally, was at stake again in what she did.

Sometimes, Millie put on her headphones and listened to the static of an open station. She never expected to hear anything. She never heard anything.

Anita understood. Her brother was among the first to be lost. In the early hours before their shift began, she’d put on headphones and listen too. Millie sat beside Anita. Sometimes, she’d put her hand on Anita’s, always balled up around a handkerchief. Most times, she’d just wait. If Anita ever wanted to talk, Millie’d said, she would be there to listen. What Anita wanted, it seemed, was to hear something. So together, they listened.

14. The Object: A series of proposed designs for the study craft

Pictured above are a series of proposed designs for the study craft Persephone. Funding for the craft, a multinational effort, was fast-tracked through a number of countries’ legislatures, some at great pressure from other nations.

Much of the engineering and manufacturing work was split between the U.S., South Korea, and India. The launch would take place at Cape Canaveral at a well publicized event.

15. Engagement Announcement, Miss Mildred Hanson of Dallas, Texas to Second Lieutenant Robert Finch of Providence, Rhode Island. Dallas Times Herald, October 17, 1943.

“Doctor Edward Hanson, local physician and deacon at Oak Branch Baptist church of Dallas, Texas and Mrs. Hanson of Dallas, Texas announce the engagement of their daughter, Mildred Grace to Second Lieutenant Robert Finch of Providence, Rhode Island. Lieutenant Finch, a graduate of Brown University, and Miss Hanson are currently stationed at Fort Sam Houston. The wedding will be held on Saturday, June 3, 1944 at Oak Branch Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas.”

June had introduced Robert to Millie: he was one of June’s cousins that her parents would pack her off to see in the summers. Robbie, as June called him, took an instant interest in Millie. An officer in the army, Robert, as Millie called him, had left his law practice to join up. He’d asked about her work, both in the army and at the university. He’d said if they married, he’d be willing to let her go back to work, at least until the children were born.

Good old Robert, solid and dependable. Before she’d left for San Antonio, her father had told her to find someone solid and dependable to marry her. Her mother had sent her a birthday card last week on which she’d written a line about how by the time Dot was Millie’s age, she’d already had two of her little ones.

The war would drag on forever. Her youth and usefulness would not. So when Robert told her that he’d written to her father for permission, she’d said “Isn’t that a good idea.” A good idea, solid and dependable.

16. The Object: The first wave of books published on the object

Much speculation on the object provided content for a number of books published by mainstream publishers, independent presses, and by vanity presses. Content ranged from serious to laughable, but the best-selling titles were often the ones that had no basis in scientific evidence.

At the top of the non-fiction e-book best seller list for 2022, Jacqueline Legrand’s Deep Messages from Beyond the Horizon contained a series of messages the author claimed she’d telepathically received from the aliens who had sent the object.

More significant books, such as the three pictured right, posed important questions such as why such a probe, if that’s what the object was, stopped so far out into the solar system when life should have been expected closer to the sun.

17. Obituary, First Lieutenant Robert Finch, Providence, Rhode Island. Providence Chronicle. January 27, 1944.

“First Lieutenant Robert Finch was killed in action in Rome, Italy on January 21, 1944. Lieutenant Finch is survived by his parents, Mr. Joseph Finch and Mrs. Finch, his brother Second Lieutenant Harold Finch, and two sisters.”

They’d wait until after the war to have the wedding. In a week, he’d have to go back to Europe. “We’re getting married, after all,” she’d said after she’d persuaded him to meet her at the park nearby one moonless night.

“Let’s wait,” he said. She wanted to argue her case: so many fiances who didn’t come back. Besides, she’d told him about Sydney, and he’d told her about Betty and Doris and Irene and Virginia (who wasn’t) until she stopped him. It had been hard to find his sense of humor, but she’d done it. She hadn’t loved him, not really, until then.

The box with the gold engagement ring arrived the morning after the two officers, Robert’s best pals, had taken her aside and told her. The army had sent him back to his family, of course, and she’d been granted leave for the funeral. Marisol and June helped her pack; Anita held her hand.

Millie kept thinking again and again how cruel it was of them to make his closest friends bear the news to her and how small and perfect the diamond was on her left hand. Small and perfect and unnatural.

18. The Object: The UN declares March 12, 2024 as an international Day of Understanding

Some copycat activity took place on the first and second anniversaries of the Plutonian riots, and rumors soon spread of more serious action to be taken on the third. Pictured above are multiple ambassadors to the UN meeting to declare March 12, 2024 to be an international Day of Understanding.

Students across the globe held sit-ins to reclaim the day as one in which governments took the sort of swift and certain action against climate change, poverty, women’s and LGBTQIA rights, for example, as they took in funding the study craft. Other groups, however, chose to reenact the events of the Plutonian riots, though on a much smaller scale than before.

19. Letter offering Millie her old position with Dr. Schultz as his assistant, November 1945, starting the spring semester.

11/15/45 Houston, Texas

Dear Miss Hanson,

Dr. Schultz has informed me that he will be resuming work in January. He has asked that I ensure a place for you as his assistant, which I am glad to do. I cannot, however, recommend that you apply for a graduate fellowship, as we expect to fill all positions shortly.


Dr. Herbert P. Stanley
Physics Department Chair
Houston College


[Handwritten] P.S.: Do not take my suggestion about the graduate fellowship as a sign that I doubt your aptitude and talents. You served and know the situation. My best to you and your family. —Dr. Stanley

Millie supposed she ought to be grateful that Frank had come home in one piece, tanned and muscled, a different man from the one who’d been a clerk in his uncle’s office before he’d left. Dot hummed and smiled quite a lot, even if she did grouse about his plan to open a store to sell and service televisions.

Oddly, it was George, sweet awkward George, who’d been the most comfort to her. Millie couldn’t tell him why it was she’d excused herself when she’d received the letter from Evelyn and stayed in her room all that day, even refusing dinner. She hadn’t thought about Sydney in ages; Evelyn was right to send her the newspaper clipping. So she’d doubled her grief, laid it all on Robert. Besides, dear Robert probably wouldn’t mind her mourning Sydney along with him. Betty and Doris and Irene and Virginia (who wasn’t) were probably somewhere mourning Robert along with all the brothers and cousins and fiances they lost. In the end, like some elegant and horrible equation, everything balanced out.

George opened the book and read to her. Lowell and his canals. Was she, too, seeing possibilities that weren’t there? She took a sip of her tea to stop herself from crying, yet again. Dr. Stanley was kind enough in his letter. And, after all, as George kept saying, the telescopes were waiting for her. The tea, hot and sweet, soothed her. “I have a secret for you, George,” she said. She told him.

“Maybe,” he said, “Lowell had his telescopes aimed at the wrong planet after all.”

20. The Object: Launch of the study craft

On January 7, 2025, the Persephone study craft was launched at Cape Canaveral, to as much protest as celebration. The above images are from the Brandon Lopez exhibition Sit(e), in which he also captured the student sit-ins held the previous year.

21. Church bulletin, Oak Branch Lutheran Church. December 1945. The church bids a fond farewell to Millie, who has volunteered with them after her discharge from the army.

Special Note: Everyone be sure to thank Miss Millie Hanson who has volunteered with us as a Sunday school teacher and with our elder ministry for these past six months. Miss Hanson will be leaving us to resume her position as a helper to her uncle in Houston. Let’s not forget all the selfless work she has done, especially her efforts in the ladies’ fellowship embroidering roses on the new altar cloth.

Her mother insisted she go with them to church soon after she’d come home. Something about the mundane kept her from collapsing into her grief about futures she would not have.

A few of her friends from school still went to the church. Lucille just back from her honeymoon, May pregnant again. Only Ruby was, like Millie, unmarried. They’d sit outside on Ruby’s parents’ porch and drink lemonade spiked with whatever spirits Ruby’s father wouldn’t miss.

“Oh, come on,” Ruby said. The conversation was one they’d had before. “We’d end up fighting like old hens.”

“We wouldn’t,” Millie insisted. “We could get a little place just off campus. I’m sure Uncle Oscar could find you a job as a secretary.” That evening, they’d only found a quarter bottle of spiced rum. The alcohol burned her throat. She spoke in a half whisper. “You’d like Houston.”

“I’d borrow all your shoes and break the heels,” Ruby said. She leaned against Millie.

Millie laughed. “You’d look better in them anyway,” she said.

“You’re the pretty one, always have been.”

“Have I?” Perhaps something in the mix of sugar and alcohol made Millie’s stomach lurch. She sat up straight, pushing Ruby up with her. “That can’t be right. What are we doing here, Ruby?”

Ruby raised her near-empty glass. “My dear, we are waiting. You’re waiting for fall to get here, and I’m waiting for not even God-knows-what.”

“Don’t swear,” Millie said.

“See, fighting already.”

“No,” Millie said. “I’ve just been thinking about, I don’t know. God, what have we been through?”

“You’re the one who went off to college. You tell me.” Ruby filled her glass with the mixture.

“Why didn’t you go off to college?” Millie asked. “You’re every bit as smart as I am.”

“Wrong question, sweetheart,” Ruby said. She took a long drink. “You’re supposed to ask me why I never got married.”

Millie refused another glass and walked back to her parents’ house a block away. Someone, usually George, would leave the back door open for her. She’d sleep until late in the morning—no one bothered her about it if it wasn’t Sunday. Grieving, her mother said when Dot scolded her for missing her visits.

Only from this distance could she see what grief had done: the craters made and obliterated and made again by object after object she’d pulled into her orbit. It could have worked with Ruby. She’d known a few couples from the university. Nothing spoken of, of course. Millie looked at herself in the mirror on her dresser. Someone, eventually, would propose to Ruby, and that would be that. That’s how these things worked. Better to simply let Ruby pass closely, then impart some of her energy to Ruby on her way out.

22. The Object: Heather Dietrich’s original article revealing her grandmother’s link to the object

Above is the original Dallas Times Today online article in which Heather Dietrich, journalist and daughter of Michael Dietrich, tells of finding her grandmother’s journals and reading about her discovery of the radio signal coming from newly-discovered Pluto.

Though her father and her uncle Tommy Dietrich claim that their mother made up the story to amuse them as children, Heather’s great uncle George Hanson has clear memories of his sister’s revelation. The article, which draws no conclusion itself, was shared millions of times over the following weeks.

23. Photograph of Emma Schultz and Millie Hanson, May 1946. Also pictured: Mrs. Stanley and Mrs. Wallace.

In this photograph, Emma and Millie are joined by Mrs. Stanley and Mrs. Wallace at a tea Emma hosted for faculty wives.

Aunt Emma laid the last of the sandwiches onto her silver tray. The wives met monthly for tea at each others’ houses, mostly to talk about church and children. Millie would find some excuse to lure Evelyn into the kitchen this time, tell her about the applications. But not yet.

Though she wasn’t a faculty wife, the other wives had made an effort to draw her into their circle. She appreciated that. Everyone knew about Robert; Evelyn knew about Sydney. The others pinned the changes they’d seen in her on Robert’s death and her service. The quiet excuses to leave the room. The last-minute cancellations for lunch. Aunt Emma told her as much. Millie only confided in her about the applications because sooner or later, Uncle Oscar would have told her regardless.

She’d spend late evenings in the library or the faculty lounge, reading. The beginning points and endings of proofs and equations she’d held on to since her time at college and her first round in the lab. Getting from the initial idea to the resolution: that had slipped from her. She needed to remember how to get back to where she’d last been too many years ago.

24. The Object: Persephone’s failure

Not long after Persephone’s launch, the craft stopped sending messages back to Earth. Pictured above is mission chief A.R. Patel, speaking on the possible causes of the failure. He is flanked by administrators from the various space agencies that participated in the project.

Close investigation of the craft would never be possible, though Patel points to the short time frame that his team had to engineer and launch the study craft as the most likely cause. Later investigation would reveal that at least one member of the team in California working on the craft had participated in the Plutonian riots as a student.

25. Letter rejecting Millie’s application to graduate study in mathematics at University of Texas at Austin. February 5, 1947. Note: the letter was ripped. Only the top third remains.

2/5/47Austin, Texas

Dear Miss Hanson:

We regret to inform you that we cannot accept you into the graduate mathematics program. Your professors at Texas State College for Women and the faculty of Houston College wrote highly of your intelligence and abilities, but

Their first real argument came shortly after she’d received the final rejection. “You wouldn’t even consider changing your last name?” she’d asked merely as a hypothetical over their dinner. “It’s so German.” Walter took her to the same shabby French cafe again and again, every Friday night for months now. Millie had ordered everything on the menu. They weren’t dating; Millie had no interest in Walter other than his willingness to pick apart her ideas and show her their weak spots. And Walter hadn’t even tried to kiss her after driving her back to her aunt and uncle’s house straight from the cafe.

“Why would I?” she asked.

Millie wondered if Evelyn had told Walter about the last of the letters: Walter ordered a bottle of red wine.”What about your children? Won’t it be harder for them?”

“Maybe if I were starting out,” Walter said. He poured the last of the thin, acrid wine into their glasses. “I’ve published too much at this point for that to be a possibility. And I don’t have children.”

“Yet,” she said. “But if you were just starting out, you would?”

“I don’t know,” Walter said. “Changing your last name, that’s not trivial.”

“Given the anti-German sentiment—” she started.

“That will pass,” he said.

“Change the pronunciation, then.”

The waiter interrupted them. “Dessert? Coffee?” Millie declined.

Walter finished the wine in his glass. “Why is this so important to you?”

“I don’t want to go straight home,” Millie said. “Let’s go for a walk around campus.”

“It’s the middle of February, and it’s freezing.”

“Okay, we’ll drive to campus and sit in the car,” she said. “Look up at the stars.”

“I’m sorry, Millie. I understand about your fiance. I do. You’re right to be sensitive to this.”

Millie stood up. “Why does it always return to that?” In the car, she told him about her applications, the rejections. He kissed her, then drove her home.

26. The Object: Articles discrediting Millie Dietrich’s involvement in discovering the object

Above are just a few of the articles discrediting Heather Dietrich’s story about her grandmother’s involvement in discovering the object. Many of the articles are again by less than reputable sources, including the popular follow-up by Jacqueline Legrande, who claimed that the object was really a hologram equipped with telepathic capabilities.

Of the more serious responses was the question no one had a good answer to: if the object woke only when it encountered something from Earth―in this case, New Horizons―what was the triggering event that caused it to send the signals that Millie heard?

27. Engagement announcement, Miss Mildred Hanson of Dallas, Texas to Dr. Walter Dietrich of Houston, Texas. Dallas Times Herald, April 4, 1947.

“Dr. Edward Hanson, local physician and deacon at Oak Branch Episcopal church of Dallas, Texas and Mrs. Hanson of Dallas, Texas announce the engagement of their daughter, Mildred Grace to Dr. Walter Dietrich, professor of physics at Houston College. Dr. Dietrich and Miss Hanson met in the physics department, where she is an assistant to her uncle, Dr. Oscar Schultz. The wedding will be held on Saturday, June 12, 1948 at Oak Branch Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.”

28. Wedding announcement, June 1948.

“Miss Mildred Grace Hanson of Dallas, Texas married Dr. Walter Dietrich of Houston, Texas at a ceremony in the bride’s childhood church on Saturday, June 12.”

“And please, Mother, I’d like to keep everything as simple as possible. I’ve looked through the pictures of the dresses you sent—tell Dot and Patsy thank you for clipping them out of the papers, and send Patsy kisses from her Aunt Millie. I think I’ll buy a nice suit off the rack, if it’s all the same. Aunt Emma has promised to take me shopping. Must close for now. My love to you and Father.”

Millie signed the letter and folded it. She and Walter had settled on a long engagement, too long for the simple wedding she’d wanted. She’d thought the year would give her time to send out another round of applications. To what end? She’d be thirty in a month. So she hadn’t bothered. She couldn’t make it work: the desired outcome, the right-hand side of what should have been a painfully simple equation. So she focused on the left hand instead.

29. The Object: Secret launch of Orpheus from Baikonur

A.R. Patel and his team had put plans into place for a second study craft, this one built in secret in classified locations. The launch too was held in secrecy, and few members of the public were permitted to view the launch. The images above are from the Brandon Lopez exhibit Sit(e). His pictures were among the few given to the media after it was confirmed that Orpheus had launched successfully.

30. Birth announcements: Michael Paul Dietrich, born April 1949.

“Michael Paul Dietrich was born to Dr. and Mrs. Walter Dietrich on April 29, 1949. Proud grandparents are Dr. and Mrs. Edward Hanson of Houston, Texas and Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Dietrich of New Haven, Connecticut.”

31. Birth announcement: Thomas Walter Dietrich, born March 1952.

“Thomas Walter Dietrich was born to Dr. Walter Dietrich and Mrs. Dietrich on March 8, 1952. Proud grandparents are Dr. and Mrs. Edward Hanson of Houston, Texas and Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Dietrich of New Haven, Connecticut. Thomas joins brother Michael in the happy Dietrich home.”

32. The Object: Heather Dietrich and astrophysicists Mingxia Liu and Anthony Sterling, Houston College

In a highly-publicized meeting streamed over the web, Heather Dietrich spoke with astrophysicists Mingxia Liu and Anthony Sterling of Houston College. Although her questions were ones that the public sought answers to―whether or not Millie Dietrich could have, in fact, heard the object’s signal―the meeting was written off as a publicity stunt for Heather’s upcoming book on her grandmother. The scientists did not offer a definitive response, but left the possibilities open.

33. Drawing of “The Plutonians” by Michael Dietrich, aged 5 (1954).

From this drawing, we can conclude that Michael learned of the mystery signal from his mother. The figures are labeled by Michael, though we can assume by the correct spelling, Millie must have guided his hand on that. In this drawing, four figures stand hand-in-hand, quite human in appearance, as if Michael were drawing his own family on Pluto. Their mouths are open in song, much as they were in his Uncle George’s image of the Plutonians.

Michael had wanted a bedtime story. It was late. Tommy’s crying―poor baby had a fever again―had woken the boy. Millie lifted herself from the settee followed her older son into his bedroom. She wanted to follow him into the bed, cradle him in her arms, and fall asleep. The early fatigue. She would think about that later. She couldn’t think about much except sleep and her sweet boys.

“Once, there was a girl who listened to outer space through a huge telescope that was like a radio receiver,” she started.

“Telescopes are for looking through,” he said.

She smoothed his hair and told him. “Some telescopes let you hear into space. And one day, the girl aimed the telescope at Pluto, the farthest planet away, and she heard music.”

“The little mans on Pluto like the little mans on Mars?”

She kissed him. “Men and women and children, all singing happy music.” Millie waited until Michael fell asleep. She stopped in front of the bathroom, waiting for the nausea to pass. Tommy called out to her, and she went to him, rocking him to sleep and humming the sound in a rhythm she knew she’d never hear again.

34. Birth announcement: Sharon Emma Dietrich, born May 1955.

“Sharon Emma Dietrich was born to Dr. Walter Dietrich and Mrs. Dietrich on May 22, 1955. Proud grandparents are Dr. Edward and Mrs. Hanson of Houston, Texas and Mr. Bernard and Mrs. Dietrich of New Haven, Connecticut. Sharon joins brothers Michael and Thomas in the happy Dietrich home.”

35. The Object: Plutonian Riots of 2035

Patel and his team kept the public aware of the upcoming contact Orpheus should make with the object. With contact weeks away, riots began again in March of 2035. This time, images of Millie Dietrich, well known now because of her granddaughter’s book and articles, and the Orpheus craft, were burned in effigy. A number of unfulfilled prophecies were made that were said to be the result of the attempt to contact the object. These included, most famously, massive earthquakes in each of the countries that participated in building the craft. Though some tried to tie the tornadoes that hit Dallas in late March in with the same predictions, none of the countries were affected by temblors of greater than 2.5 on the Richter scale.

 [ Night drive, © 2016 Toeken ] 36. Article from The Houston Post, August 10, 1956: “Wife of local physics professor dies in car accident”

“The wife of Houston College physics professor, Dr. Walter Dietrich, has died from her injuries sustained in a car accident. Mrs. Dietrich was in good spirits the night she went for the fateful drive, according to her husband. Friend and fellow faculty wife Gertrude Shaw noted that Mrs. Dietrich drove well but rarely drove at night. Witnesses state that Mrs. Dietrich lost control of the car and hit a tree. No one else was in the car with her at the time. She is survived by her husband of seven years, Dr. Walter Dietrich, her parents, and three children, Michael, Thomas, and baby Sharon.”

37. The Object: Orpheus begins to send back images and radio signals from the object

Pictured above are the first images of the object that Orpheus sent back in May of 2035. Although the content of the signals themselves have yet to be deciphered, the images offer a better view to the object’s composition.

Shortly after the object woke after Orpheus encountered it, the EIRC telescope began to pick up signals from the direction of Pluto. Five years on, Orpheus continues to send back data, and much work remains to be done.

38. Excerpt from Millie’s last letter to her Aunt Emma, August 7, 1956.

“I cannot convince him, so once again, I’ll wait. I’ve been so sure all these years that the sounds I heard would come to something. Walter thinks it’s all a bit mad to think it was anything but radio signals from the war. Of course, that’s the simplest explanation. As if life were that simple. He’s forbidden me to talk to anyone about it. I slipped and told Michael a long time ago. He asks about it sometimes, but I tell him it’s a special story, just for the two of us. Michael shares everything with Tommy, and so it will come out to Walter, I’m sure of it.

I do hope you and Uncle Oscar are having a splendid time of it in Paris. If you can convince him to try to find the signal again, I’d be grateful. Something will come of this. I keep saying it again and again, like a magic spell. Something will come of this, something will come of this, something will come… .”

This time, Millie had told Walter that Evelyn had called and was in need of a shoulder to cry on. Which was a plausible story, since Evelyn had had the health scare, which none of the men could bring themselves to talk about publicly. And the children were asleep by now, all of them such good sleepers like their father. And besides, Patsy could handle a nighttime glass of water or kiss on the forehead. Millie should take advantage of her niece’s summer-long visit, shouldn’t she? She’d tell Evelyn in the morning. Evelyn would cover for her.

And she wouldn’t ask why―Evelyn had known Millie long enough to know even Millie couldn’t explain. Evelyn, who’d understand. Evelyn, who’d been spared a bad outcome. Millie counted herself lucky for that. She counted herself lucky for Walter, who’d never noticed when she’d pull on her robe and sit on the back porch and look at the sky those long nights she couldn’t sleep. Which was more and more often now. She counted herself lucky for the back porch, when it was hers alone, when it was noisy with her children. Hers. She counted herself lucky to have Trudy Shaw, the newest of the “faculty wives,” one with her own bright career ahead of her as an engineer. She counted herself lucky for the letter from Ruby, who’d be swinging through next month on the last leg of a long road trip she’d taken with her soon-to-be housemate. Though it was more than that, wasn’t it?

There was always more, and Millie counted herself lucky for that. She’d found a turn-off away from too many lights one morning after she’d dropped Tommy and Michael off at school. Sharon had napped in the backseat―it was a cool morning―so Millie drove and drove. Tonight, she’d go back there. Millie dressed quietly in the dark bedroom. Walter had fallen back to sleep. Would he remember that the phone hadn’t rung? Would he remember that she’d woken him up to tell him she’d gone? No matter. She didn’t want to wake Patsy or risk waking the children. She’d keep her heels off until she’d left the house. The car key pressed sharply into her palm. She wouldn’t stay long. She could never stay long. Not after what she’d chosen, after what she’d built. There would be nothing to see, really, just a patch of sky, some stars near where it should be. If it were still there.

But this would always keep her driving, wouldn’t it? Millie closed the front door behind her and breathed out. This would be the last time. No more of this. No more letting it tear at her, the what-might-have-been. This would be the last time, she promised herself, and then she’d let it go. Walter hadn’t changed the burned-out porch light. She’d remind him in the morning. Not now. Now was for her. Now, this moment, this need, this pulled her out, further and further into the darkness until she could no longer see the unlit house, until she became only a slight shape hesitantly moving in the starlight.

© 2016 T.D. Walker

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