Short Stories

 

[Query][mathematical progression][Query][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]
[Response][mathematical progression][Response][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]

I’d been looking at these two strings of semagrams ever since I got back from Alice’s at 4:30 this morning. “Sleep on it,” she had told me. Right, like I could sleep with the weight of the universe literally resting on my shoulders. I thought about taking an Ambien or some Benadryl, but I wanted a clear head. I settled for a pot of strong English Breakfast tea.

I had found a message, an answer, and a problem. The message was from someone 120 light-years away asking, “Hey, is there anyone else out there?” The answer was to our own, similar question, “No, we are not alone in the universe.” And the problem? How do I handle letting the world know about this discovery without destroying our entire planet in the process or being denounced as the biggest hoax since Piltdown Man. The response I had written, very crudely I had to admit, since I wasn’t a linguist, was simple. However, it held incredible implications for two widely separated civilizations. Should I tell anyone about what I had found? If so, who? And, if people knew, was it even wise to respond?

I called in sick to my job in the science education division of AAAS, and I spent the next several hours alternating between Googling astronomical topics, especially the Drake equation which tried to determine the probablility of another communicating technological civilization in the universe; looking at historical conflicts across Earth’s history; and pacing while trying to definitively determine where my loyalties and obligations lay. Finally, I had had enough. I called up Alice.

“Hey, you busy?” I asked as she picked up the phone.

“Of course not. Why would I be, trying to slog through all this data on too little sleep?” She sounded harrassed, but there was compassion in her tone.

“Yeah, okay, sorry about that. I think we ought to have that little get-together we talked about.”

“Come to a decision?”

“I think so, but there’s a lot to discuss.”

“Okay, I’ll reach out to my people. Come by around eight tonight.” There was a pause. “You know I’m proud of you, right?”

The question caught me off guard. “I haven’t done anything yet.”

“But you will, and that’s what matters. Eight sharp.” The phone went dead.

I didn’t need the Ambien to fall asleep now; I was exhausted from the last couple of days and slept the sleep of the dead. I woke up disoriented, not knowing if it were morning or night until I looked at the clock – 19:30. Shit, I needed to get my stuff together and head over to Alice’s. I grabbed a quick sandwich from the fridge, stuffed the printouts and thumb drives into my pack, and headed out the door. I got to her house only three minutes late. She opened the door with a cautious smile.

“You okay?” She looked me up and down.

“What a question to ask. Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

I pushed past her and headed up to her home office on the next level and found two people I didn’t know already waiting there. I looked back toward Alice.

“Um, Alice? Are we having a party?”

Now she swept past me into the room. “I told you we were going to need help, and here it is. Maria, this is Ben Barkley, our technology guru, programming whiz, and all-around good guy; and Robert Elrich, a cultural anthropologist and linguist. Guys, this is Maria, the lady with the hot property. Make yourselves comfortable, because I think we’re going to be here for quite a while.”

I nodded at the two guys and started biting my nails again as I sat down. I was nervous, scared, and feeling quite out of my depth with all these braniacs in the room.

Alice didn’t mince words. “So, what have you decided?”

“Huh?” I was startled out of my reverie. “Oh, yeah, I guess we need to know that first, don’t we? Um, do these guys know the whole story?” I tried not to sound like the dunce I felt.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Okay, the message – could you pull it up on your screen, Alice? Yeah, there it is. The message wasn’t meant for me alone or for anyone else in this room. It was meant for our planet, and rightly or wrongly, we need to let everyone know – it’s too important not to tell them. But since I was doing the crunching for NASA, we have to go through them first and try to stay under the radar until we can get multiple confirmations of what I – we – found. It’s not safe to release it generally before then.”

I looked at the others one by one and found assent in each of their eyes. Wow, I did something right – so why did I still feel like I was carrying a heavy weight around? Because I was. I had just discovered something that would change the way we all lived and thought and planned for the future, and that was, well, heavy.

“Okay,” Alice confirmed, “we’re all decided. It’s up to us now to figure out how to present this so a) it’s taken seriously, and b) it’s scientifically and culturally appropriate.

[Query][mathematical progression][Query][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]

“I love the simplicity of the progression,” Ben spoke up, pointing to the message’s header on Alice’s screen. “We should definitely respond in kind.”

“This is a crude answer I came up with.” I pulled out my doodling from my pack.

[Response][mathematical progression][Response][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star]

“Good start,” Ben continued, but I would modify the progression, maybe add a second fundamental progression to indicate we understood what it meant and want to communicate from our end too.

“I don’t think I’d use the word [Response],” Robert put in. “A stronger word might be better, so that we’re showing we really are responding, not just parrotting back the message.”

“What do you have in mind?” Alice asked.

“Maybe something along the lines of [Declaration],” he offered.

“You don’t consider that too provocative a word?” I asked. “Like we’re declaring we’re going to invade them or something?” I felt silly asking such experts, but I wanted to know.

“Good point,” Alice put in. “What about [Statement]? Or [Response][Statement]?”

“That could work … it certainly wouldn’t be as provocative.” Robert scratched his short beard while thinking out loud.

And it went like this all night, every night for the next two weeks. And the longer we all spent with the message and response, the more passionate we became about our role in conveying the information properly. I haven’t felt that stimulated since I did my Honors thesis in college, and the weight on my shoulders felt lighter and lighter each night as we all shared the burden of the project.

Finally we had come up with what we felt was an appropriate reponse to the original question:

[Response][Statement][mathematical progression][mathematical progression2][Statement][Response][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star][Message]

That last term we felt was very important. Not only were we responding to a query, but we were inviting a response back to our own. Yes, it would take 240 years for us to hear back, but we were telling whomever was on the other end that we would wait for them to signal.

I don’t know how she did it, but Alice arranged for our team to meet with the NASA administrator as well as the heads of various scientific departments in a closed session the following Monday. We arranged the original data, polished up our line of reasoning as to the response, and hoped like hell it would be enough to make the powers that be understand the importance of treading cautiously with this information.

How would the world react? None of us knew. For the sake of our distant neighbors, and for our world, though, I hoped this would be the first step into some lasting friendships.

(c) 2017 Miriam Ruff All Rights Reserved