Short Stories

It was now the stuff of legend, astronomical history at its finest:

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

These semagrams contained the first-ever recorded conversation between Earth and an alien civilization 120 light-years away. The aliens were basically asking, “Is anyone else out there?” and we were responding with, “We’re here, call back.” That conversation, exchanged 50 years ago this week, made history not only because of first contact. That was amazing in and of itself. But what was also amazing was that we didn’t blow ourselves up in the process of deciding whether or not to send a response and who, if anybody, should send it. Of course, it would take 240 years to find out if the original senders had anything more to say, but that seemed like a small line item in a vastly expanding age of cosmic exploration. We were still here; we could wait.

Dr. Emmett Breschel had won the Nobel Prize in Physics three years later for the detection and subsequent description of the potential for universal communication, though some attributed the original detection to a small group of NASA contractors. It made for some bad blood in the agency, when it was still around. The exact details have been lost to history.

I had studied under Dr. Breschel before he died some 10 years ago, and my mind is still exploding with the information I learned from him, adjusting to the continually advancing technology that makes it possible to detect and process new information, and storing up the new and varied things we’re discovering about the part of the universe in which we live. After all, 120 light-years is practically in our backyard. I basically picked up Breschel’s research where he left it at the time of his death and expanded it to include other potential modes of signal transmission and to target the most likely sources for those signals to arise. We had also instituted an active program of sending out our own messages – like SETI way back in the 1970s and 1980s, but more advanced, more targeted, and using the semagram mode as our base form of language.

Tonight started out as a routine night. I was in the lab crunching a data dump from the sky survey taken from one of our orbiting satellites pointing to the swath of space where TM 61859, the original location from where the message was relayed, was located. I had drunk maybe four mugs of tea in an effort to stay awake and alert and was just about to head off to the restroom when I noticed something in my peripheral vision on my screen. It looked like a repeating sequence.

“Holographic mode,” I instructed the computer, moving closer to the display.

A three-dimensional image appeared over the desk top. “Replay time index 22:14 to 22:17,” I instructed, sitting back down in front of the data. The image shifted and shimmered briefly and began the replay. I did this three times before I saw it. There was definitely a repeating sequence, and it looked like it was coming from TM 61859, now known simply as “the Alien’s Star.” That shouldn’t be possible. It was 190 years too early to receive another message from them.

“Computer, convert data to semagrams and display.”

The image shifted again, and there was a string of semagrams lined up before me:

[Query][mathematical progression][Query][Statment][living][mathematics][planet][star][not star][Statement][Danger][Zero][Message][Query][Help]

I sat there, stunned. What could this possibly mean? Was their sun going nova? Was a wandering black hole moving so close they were in danger of being gobbled up? Even if we had the capability of traveling that far through space, which we didn’t, if we went, would we be in danger of heading into a trap? I got the project director on the line. “Hey, Ken,” I started. “Sorry to call this late, but we’ve got a live one.”

“Where from?” His voice couldn’t contain his excitement.

“Same place, different time,” I answered.

“I don’t understand.”

“If I’m interpreting these signals properly, it looks like a request for help from our old friends.”

“That can’t be. They’ve got to know we’re too far away.”

“I know, but it’s right in front of me.”

“Okay, I’m coming in. Be there in … 20 minutes.”

I ran to the restroom, then settled back before my console, playing and replaying the images but getting no farther in my interpretation.

Ken Norton was short and grizzled, highly intelligent, and a veteran of the laboratory environment in which we worked. He burst into the room and, without preamble, demanded, “Put up the message, complete with semagrams. I want to see the whole thing.”

We played it over and over, but we made no more progress together than I had on my own. We brought it to the attention of the agency heads, the world governments, every scientist we thought might have a new perspective on what we had found. Nothing. We went at this day after day, all telescopes on and above Earth trained on that part of the sky. Eventually, with no results, it became less and less of a priority, and the scopes were put back to work on other tasks. It seemed we would have no answer to all of our questions on this one.

An infrared and a radio telescope, both pointed toward the Alien’s Star, saw versions of the same thing three years later. There was an enormous explosion in space – not enough to be a sun going supernova, but enough energy to imply numerous nuclear detonations all at the same time. There was no message accompanying it.

I felt it in my gut before my brain worked out the pieces of the puzzle. The aliens had sent out a blanket message 53 years ago, hoping someone nearby would hear it. It was not the benign, friendly “Is there anybody out there?” message that we had originally thought. Instead, it was a civilization on the brink of annihilation, crying out for help, help that, because of cosmic distances, would never come. While the original message and response had somehow brought the different parts of our planet together, it had instead torn the aliens’ world apart. We were in shock.

How would the world respond to this new development? As before, we could only wait and see. I went home that night with the heaviest of hearts and cried myself to sleep.

(c) 2017 Miriam Ruff All Rights Reserved