Chad Lewis finished off the last of the oatmeal raisin cookies as he battled snarling, grizzly alien demons in yet another mind-numbing round of Quake 4. It was well after midnight, and midterms were approaching with alarming regularity - but Chad was nothing if not a determined gamer. Finally, six hours later, in a caffeine daze, he collapsed on his $29 futon, asleep within seconds. Five minutes after that, Chad's screensaver kicked in, and his relatively powerful personal computer began digesting and analyzing strings of data sent to it from another, even more powerful computer.

Chad's computer was hunting aliens, too.

In a small computer lab on the UC Berkeley campus, a casual blip arose on the data tracker. It had happened a thousand times before, but every time it held the possibility of extraterrestial contact. Since its formation in the early 1960s, SETI@Home had evolved from a highly technical program of questionable usefulness into a populist program for both casual "X-Files" viewers and doctoral candidate cosmologists and astrophysicists alike. The gamma ray signals generated into outer space had yet to produce a single alien, but it had provided invaluable information on white noise, star radiation, and even black holes. Now, in the age of broadbant Internet and high-speed computing, it had become an even more popular tool, a worldwide collusion in search of the unknown.

This particular blip had originated at an IP address on the University of Chicago campus, and was dutifully marked and quarantined by one of the lab techs on duty for further examination and analysis. He yawned as he typed in the incident number into a database and shipped the 8MB file over to one of the Crays in "The Sauna", as they called the supercomputer-heavy room, equipped with special cooling units and still raging over 80 most days of the year. By the time he had finished his duties, an automated e-mail had already been shipped off to one, complete with tracking number and a thanks for his (computer's) hard work.

Chad proudly passed the printed e-mail around to his friends at the pre-law frat house. "Yeah, maybe I just found myself E.T." The other guys were fairly impressed, and Chad was sure to give them the website for SETI so they could get hooked up themselves. "I mean, it's pretty awesome what they do, shooting radio signals out into space. Kinda random, but shit, dude, if I got a hit, I bet everybody gets one once in a while. It's not like there's only ONE other alien civilization out there, you know." Everybody agreed with that.

Later that night, before starting up another round of his favorite game, Chad popped onto the secure SETI site he had been sent and checked his tracking number. All it said was "Processing." Oh well, he thought. It'd only been 24 hours. Now it's time to lay the smack down on some of the LAN bitches ...

The following day, another blip came across the data tracker. Usually they came at a pace of about twice a month on average. Two in two days was almost unheard of. This one was also sent out to Processing, but it was red-flagged for immediate research. This could be the big break!

It only took six hours for the next one to come. And this one was decidedly different. It wasn't just fuzzy noise, indistinguishable radiation akin to the gammas being sent out. This one was at an attunable frequency: 121.5 megahertz.

The international distress signal.

An hour later, another came in, and by now most of the professors, scientists, and administrators in charge of the SETI program had gathered around the computer. The data had been speed processed, and it was very clear this was an intelligent life form communicating. And to make matters more interesting, the increased response indicated that the bounceback distance was growing smaller - the aliens were approaching Earth.

When the fourth signal came in just 20 minutes after the last, one of the more astute electrical engineers in the group had found a radio that picked up the expanded band, and they listened to the signal. In the middle of a high-pitched drone, a defiant mechanical voice could be heard repeating, "Obliterate, obliterate, obliterate." a call was made to the President of the United States.

Chad thrashed violently in his sleep. He had a dream where he was really inside Quake 4, and it was a lot less pleasant to be there than to see it. Creaking noises, dim lights, and lots of alien hiding places gave him the shakes. He held his rocket launcher as steady as he could, but at the first charge of a huge baddie with a halitosis problem, he dropped it and began to run for his life. He didn't get far before the alien was on him, clawing at him with razor-sharp nails, eviscerating him into a bloody pulp ...

The countdown grew exponentially faster. 8 minutes. 2 minutes. 45 seconds. 10 seconds ...

Several members of the group ran outside. As they did, they watched with grim horror as a spaceship emerged from the murky distant clouds and descended rapidly towards the ground. It was a large ship, rounded, with small jet engines around the sides and a number of undecipherable symbols written across its hull. Suddenly it stopped in midair. The campus of Berkeley seemed to freeze in a moment of bewilderment, unbelief, and awe. Then a bright violet laser fired from a cannon near the ship's port side. It focused squarely on the four SETI satellite dishes that sat adjacent to the building. Within fifteen seconds, the dishes had become molten metal, sizzling as liquid pieces flopped to the green grass below. Then it cast its laser on the SETI building. A horrific explosion occurred as the building was hammered by the pulsing ray, and then it, too, began to melt, a more deliberate and exclamatory sacrifice to these angry gods. The group began running for their lives, far away from the fiery furnace. As they did, more spaceships began appearing in the clouds, no doubt with similar intentions.

And thus began the great Earth invasion of 2006.

Chad finally came to with a start, his forehead doused in sweat. Just a dream! Chad was ecstatic, almost self-congratulatory, until he realized his Business Marketing midterm was in four hours, and he had yet to study. He quickly jumped on his computer to hit up his older brother's secret online test cache, when he stopped briefly to read the error message that had popped up on his monitor.

"Connection timed out. SETI@Home is unavailable to send data at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience. Ad Astera Aspera!

He quickly clicked the OK button and began surfing his computer for the files he wanted. Still, his mind lingered on his dream. Maybe he'd skip fighting aliens for the next week or so.

My aliens are a lot less diplomatic than Anne's.