Backpedaling

The cold wind seeped into the room from the open door upstairs, as I waited for something to happen. The sound of the Russian helicopters was the last thing I had heard. It had been a full day. No phones rang. No voices in the hall. I was alone in a cage as far as you could probably get from civilization. Lots of time to think. I thought about the people I had met, the choices I’d made, and everything that had led me to this. It started with my friend Michael Telders, the financier of Station 151.

Michael Steven Telders III, as he is known in the newspapers, is the only son of a former British viscountess, Marjorie Attridge, and American billionaire Michael James Telders II. Both of his parents, two pilots, and another couple were killed in 1999 when their private jet crashed en route to China, on the western slope of the Ural Mountains. As the only heir, Michael inherited everything. At first he was devastated. But like most young men with loads of money and no parental counsel, Michael did what he wanted to do. He immediately dropped out of the Yale School of Management and threw a party that lasted half the decade. Having been Michael’s roommate while I was working toward my two graduate degrees at Yale, I occasionally dropped in on him. He had run of the Connecticut mansion, where celebrities were common, clothing was optional, and there were never fewer than a twenty people in one or more of the swimming pools—most of them female.

I never stuck around these parties for long. While I’ll admit that I regret not taking a few more risks back then, I genuinely felt out of place in that kind of atmosphere. I guess the decadence didn’t suit me. So, my visits were typically reduced to a few sips of Cristal—from the bottle, of course. In return, I would get a high-five and an animated, often hilarious, telling of Telder’s latest tales of debauchery. There was also threesome, the foursome, the ninesome…. the model, the twins, the celebrity’s wife—the latter of which wrote a tell-all book that Michael was quite proud of. He highlighted the passages that included either himself or some part of his anatomy. Back then, the party never ended around Michael.

My friends are your friends. Hang out for a while, let loose, get a little crazy. It just didn’t appeal to me.

Eventually I graduated and took a position at Yale’s center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Life was good. The science was cutting edge. I worked with brilliant researchers who all seemed so much more talented and sharper than I was, but I hung in there, worked hard, and eventually garnered the respect of my peers.

Years later, I was surprised to get a call from Michael. His voice sounded darker and more determined than I remembered from his party days. But he was my friend and I politely listened to what he had to say. He’d just turned thirty, and divorced Catherine Devoue, a popular independent film actress. And because of his wild parties and vast wealth, Michael had become a bit of a celebrity himself. But after the news of his multiple affairs got out, the media stalked and destroyed him. Of course I had seen it all. It was impossible not to. His face littered the tabloids: he was labeled a cheater, a philanderer… devil. It was on the news, on talk radio, and provided endless fodder for late night comedians. Day in and day out, paparazzi photographs and video appeared of Telders in his car, with his lawyers, through his mansion windows—always juxtaposed with images of his wife with her face in her hands, or slumping in an SUV, perpetually alone. I tried not to pay attention, but it was everywhere.

Michael told me that he wanted to get serious. He’d taken some time to think, traveled in India for a few months, and had come back enlightened. He wanted to do something important, something people would remember him for—instead of the reckless womanizer who wasted billions on nothing and would eventually die in a pool of blood, vomit, and semen. His words.

I listened. Regardless of his lifestyle, Michael had the smarts, the guts, and the money to make things happen. We spoke about various charities, causes, world hunger. Perhaps he could donate to cancer or AIDS research. No, no, no, no. Something bigger. I don’t want to just keep a few thousand people alive for a little longer. I want people to remember me. I want to change the world.

I was in. Sign me up.

And so, Michael put his big plans into high gear and Station 151 would become one of 250 leading-edge radio astronomy observatories spanning the globe. Once online, they would work in concert as the biggest and most powerful interferometer the world had ever known. At that time there were only a handful of observatories in existence, each plagued with their own set of budgetary and bureaucratic problems. And most were used exclusively for astronomy and other hard sciences. Only SETI and a few smaller, independent groups spent any time at all trying to find signs of intelligent life in the universe. And Michael wanted to be remembered as the man who did.

Soon, Telders was back in the news. Shaved, suited, and sober, he could be seen routinely dismissing questions about his affairs, the trial, and his ex-wife, and spoke passionately about the need to focus on bigger, more meaningful things: broadening horizons, contacting new civilizations. And he had the money to do it. The media ate it up.

Michael did what smart guys with money did. He amassed a team of the most-brilliant astronomers and physicists from around the world. He had originally slated me to helm Station 130 in New Guinea, but negotiations with the Indonesian government had stalled construction and I, enthralled with the romantic images of a barren, snowy desert virtually untouched by human hands, begged for Antarctica.

A year later, I left for what would be six months of science and solitude as I waited for the other stations to come online. It was to be the beginning of something the world had never seen before. But in a very short time, I had destroyed everything. I haven’t spoken a word to Michael about the events of the last three months. If the real story ever gets out, my career—my life—will be over.

But I may not even live to see it.