I just watched Contact, which was one of my favourite movies of my late teens/early twenties. Now, not so much. This is how the conversation on the beach near the end would probably have gone for me.

"Why did you contact us?"

"You contacted us. We were just listening."

"And there are others?"

"Many others."

He crouches and scoops up a handful of sand, watching the glitter of the grains trickling through his fingers. The sky is black but crowded with stars; the beach we stand on is bathed in gentle light.

"They all travel here through that transit system you built?"

"We didn't build it. We don't know who did." He pauses. "He?" "She?" I don't know if these terms apply. But whatever is facing me right now looks like a man. "No, they were gone long before we ever got here. Maybe someday they'll come back."

I smirk, shake my head and—knowing I'm breaking several behavioural guidelines for first contact—snort at this... thing. "This has been in so many movies or books. They always irritate me because the characters never ask the questions I want to ask."

The being regards me impassively. I assume they know enough about us, and me, for its behaviour to be interpreted that way. "Well, this time it's me. I'm not going to be teased by a screenwriter. I've got loads of questions, so please: no paternal, infinitely-wise platitudes and deflections. Okay? I'd like to leave here with some actual information."

"For instance?"

"Where am I right now? Why is there a beach here? Why did you think doing this would make things easier? I wouldn't have been chosen to come here if I were fragile. Is my heart going to cave in if I look at your actual form? Are you god?"

Okay, I'm getting out the gender pronoun. Sue me, I'm a guy. He chuckles. "No. Not god. But still fairly benevolent."

Fairly presumptuous, I think, but I nod anyway: "go on..."

"We have altered your perception of this place; that much is true. But much is the same. The sky is full of stars at the centre of the galaxy. I of course mean your galaxy. We have not finished counting them all."

"Why are you here?"

"That is a somewhat larger question than I am equipped to answer."

"You're being facetious."

He smiles. "Yes. I assume you are referring to the arrival of my race at this place."

"Yes." I look around, trying to see a visual cue of what I am talking about. The sky fizzes and bubbles with masses of bright, young stars. "You didn't build the system that brought me here—great ride, by the way—but you now operate it. So you're like Railtrack to some precursor's British Rail?"

I assume he gets the reference, because he chuckles again. I can't believe they let a Brit come out here.

"The comparison is not entirely apt. My race is indeed overseeing an 'alien' transportation network. We do not know when it was built, and we do not know why; we see little significance in any of the locations it connects. We do not know where the designers are, who they were, or why they left. We do know that it has been at least two billion years since this occurred..."

He glances briefly upward, as if he is accessing a memory or listening to an instruction from somewhere. "...but you do not need to know this yet."

"Let's get back to what this is. You're not answering questions very directly. Why have I been brought here?"

"I would prefer not to evoke the negative connotations your race associates with the word but this is a test, of sorts. While the transmissions we intercepted demonstrated much of your nature, it was unclear whether you would take this first step. The fact that you have pleases us."

"Maybe we didn't properly understand what we were doing. First step towards what?"

"The objective is to encourage races to mature and work towards a place in the community. When we received your first broadcasts, we knew you were in trouble. You are still not ready but when you are, we will be here."

"What? No, please. You can't send me back with something like that. If you know as much as you seem to about humans, you must know the value we place on logic and reason. People are going to ask questions. It cost so much to get me here. People died so I could be here. It would be an understatement to say I'd be vilified if I returned without proof any of this happened. And you still haven't told me where I am, so I don't even know what it would be proof of."

"Those screenwriters, to whom you refer, only asked questions they had the imagination to answer. The race I represent may appear omnipotent and omniscient to you, but we are still mortal. Our knowledge encompasses your whole existence, but the things we know about the universe remain outnumbered by the things we do not. Our existence is a project without end."

"So why was I even brought here? What makes you think that this is going to make any difference? You're about to send me back with no proof that I was even here. I'm going to be turned into an international joke, probably investigated and possibly imprisoned. All you've done so far is tell me what you don't know. What good will any of this do?"

"If you are ready, you will respond to this in the way you should. If you do not, either your appearance here is a false positive or you require more development time."

"So that's it—that's your message? That's what you're sending me back to Earth with? What do we do now? If you've been watching us you must know that power and money rule over discovery and imagination on Earth. Nothing is going to happen! Are you trying to torture the people that know what's going on and are utterly powerless? I'm about to join their ranks, by the way."

"We cannot intervene to help you. I have said what was to be said."

The sky teems pointlessly with light. I look at my fake surroundings and roll my eyes.

"That's great. Why don't you send me back now? You're wasting my time."

"You do not understand."

"You're right. I do not understand."

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