Short Stories

Writing prompt: You receive an alien message. What is it? What do you do?

[Author’s note: This segment of the [Query][Life][Other] series won its challenge on the Prose platform.]


I’m a citizen scientist. That means I help crunch some of the massive amounts of data to help an agency process large amounts of information at a less-than-glacial pace. In this case, it was for NASA. Last night I was sitting at my computer, looking at the data scrolling on my screen from an obscure star about 120 light-years away, when my eye picked up something unusual. I stopped the data run and looked closer. Then I printed the whole night’s run so I could look over everything at the same time.

There it was – a repeating sequence. A chunk of information streamed over the 21 cm line, the spin-flip frequency of atomic hydrogen. It’s one of the key frequencies astronomers believe intelligent life would use to communicate since it appears everywhere in the universe. But I’m just a citizen scientist and amateur astronomer – clearly I was out of my depth here. But I was hesitant about following protocol and reporting my find to NASA just yet. Every possibility of extraterrestrial communication in the past had turned out to be some random fluctuation due to natural causes. I didn’t want egg on my face for reporting a find that didn’t exist. But who could I trust?

My friend Alice has a Ph.D. in physics and a master’s in linguistics, and she works for NASA as a real data cruncher. I called her up. I figured, if it were aliens, it had been 120 years since they sent the signal – a day or two more wouldn’t matter.

“Hey, can I run something by you? Just between us?” I nibbled at my nails while nervously waiting for her answer.

“Sure,” she replied. “Come on over.”

I packed the printout in my bag and drove the three miles over to her apartment. Clean but cluttered with equipment, it felt like a second home. I took out the data run and showed her what I had.

“See,” I pointed again and again, “it appears here and then here and then here. What am I looking at?”

Alice’s eyes widened, but all she said was, “Let’s punch in the numbers.”

We spent a couple of hours just punching in numbers then looking at the repeating sequences. “I have an idea,” she finally said. “Let’s look at this as a binary sequence, dots and spaces.”

“Okay,” I agreed. I thought I knew where she was going with this.

Once the data were converted, we could see it all laid out in front of us. Each repeating sequence started out with a mathematical progression, a “Here’s our math – same as yours?” query. Then came the interesting part. The dots and spaces, when plotted out, turned into semagrams, pictures that would be universally recognized no matter what language or language structure the parties were using.

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

It translated into something we humans had been asking for a very long time: Is there other intelligent life in the universe besides our own?

I tried to sit down, but I missed the chair and landed hard on the floor. Alice’s mouth had dropped open, and her eyes were bugging at the implications of what was displayed before her.

She was the first to speak. “You’ve got to get this to NASA right away.”

“Right. No, wait.” I hesitated. “Do you know what this means?”

“Yeah, that we’re not alone, and we finally have proof.”

“True, but think about it. We’re living in a world where people can’t tolerate each other because of differences in religion, or skin color, or orientation. What’s going to happen if we suddenly announce there are aliens? We’ll destroy ourselves.”

“Or we’ll put aside our differences.”

“Only to contain the alien “threat.””

“So what are you going to do?” she asked me. “You have an obligation to report this.”

“I have an obligation not to destroy our world, too.” I started biting my nails again, lost in thought. I came to a decision. “Send me all the data we’ve produced, then wipe it from your computer. I was never here, and you don’t know anything about this.”

“You can’t hold on to this forever; it’s not ethical, ” she cautioned.

“No, but I have to think it through before I take action.” I gathered up the printout I had brought and the ones we had generated. “I have to think hard.”

I left more confused than ever. Positive proof of aliens, and I had no way to respond myself to their message and I was not sure I could trust anyone else. It was going to be a long few days before I finally decided what action I needed to take. I hoped, when all was said and done, the aliens would understand the decision I’d make.

(c) 2017 Miriam Ruff All Rights Reserved