"Arneson," Dr. Umbre leaned into view through the doorway, "I need help." "Reeeeallly," said Dr. Arneson. She leaned back in her chair. "You haven't asked me for help since I was failing you in Modern Galactic." Her eyes crinkled as she smiled.
"Yeah, and if you fix this with me, I'll let you tell that story wherever you want." He tossed a manila folder on her desk. "This is freaking me out."
She raised an eyebrow, but started to flip through the data and photos. A few minutes in, she flipped pages faster and faster, then stopped partway through. "What was your final count?"
"Twenty-four in the habitable zone, all earthlike."
"That can't be natural," said Arneson. "So, what? Someone put them there?"
"I was thinking aliens, but God has to pay the same cost. He just has a bigger wallet. What would it take to kick a planet into a new solar system?"
Arneson scribbled on an envelope, but Umbre got there first. "Roughly four-point-five time ten to the thirty-two joules, he said. "Assuming roughly our solar system, and a precise enough push that it doesn't need course correction."
"What about slowing into new orbit?" asked Arneson.
"Oh, shit. Okay, double it, so ten to the thirty-three joules?"
"Okay. What if alien-God used direct energy to mass conversion?" Both went back to their calculations. This time Arneson was first. "Five times ten to the forty-one."
"Um," said Umbre. Both looked at the sketch Umbre had made of the data, exoplanets arranged in a maximally efficient pattern around a star.
"Well, I quit," said Arneson.
"Astronomy. If someone out there can do that, they've done all the science we're gonna do for the next century. My research? All been done. By an alien fifteen light-years away."
"What if it wasn't aliens?" asked Umbre. "What if it was God?"
Arneson looked Umbre in the eyes. "If God made that system and our system, which one is his favored land? I hope to Heaven that that was aliens and not God, because if it was God, we are his forgotten bastards and we might as well all give up now."
In a small, confused voice Umbre asked, "Maybe we don't have to tell anybody…"
"No," said Arneson. "We tell everyone. We drop this bomb on the scientific world, and maybe everyone else will notice. Maybe we'll pick up the pace and learn what we need to match this in the next fifty years instead of a hundred, or five hundred years instead of a thousand." She put a hand on Umbre's shoulder and shook him. "We can shake the pillars of the world.
"And then I'm going fishing and never looking through a telescope again so long as I live."
This great post inspired this story. Enjoy!