Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Oh, yes … and please leave your budget at the door.

There was a whispered consultation among the steering committee, sitting behind the long table set across the open end of the horseshoe. Bridget grabbed a mike. “We need still to talk about the Reply committee.”

By prearrangement among the developing countries, today Ambassador Smythe of Belize led the attack. “ET learned we are here. He told us he is there. What’s the added benefit of exchanging postcards?”

“I feel that acknowledgement is the least we can do, Madam Ambassador. ET has shown us the extraordinary fact that we are not the only intelligent beings in the universe. I also believe it is in our self interest to maintain and enhance the dialogue. We have so much to learn.”

“Surely the least we can do is nothing.” Several ambassadors smiled. “We can discuss proper interstellar manners on another occasion. I’d rather you expand on your second point. I’m struck not by how much we can learn but by how little. The task force has diverted some of the world’s best scientists to a rediscovery of arithmetic.”

Bridget squirmed in her chair. Perhaps she felt sandbagged by the lack of Commonwealth solidarity from an official of a former British colony. “Madam Ambassador, I think that summation gives insufficient credit for our work. We have made great progress in building a common vocabulary.”

“What indication has ET given of having anything to say?”

“We haven’t finished reading his message.”

“Which is to say, none.” Smythe smiled humorlessly. “And what conclusions has the Reply committee reached on an answer from Earth? I believe the answer there to be the same.”

Bridget squared her shoulders. “Again, I could refer to interim progress. Surely it is not unreasonable to take some time in deciding how to respond to a whole new civilization.”

“What can you tell me about this civilization? What do they look like? Do they breathe oxygen? Are they ruled by parliaments or potentates?”

“The part of the message we’ve decoded does not address cultural and biological matters.”

The ambassador checked her notes. “Can you say what planet of their sun they live on?”


The steerers looked down at the table or around the room, everywhere but at two debaters. Matthews, seated behind Bridget in the visitors gallery, seethed.

“In fact, ET’s signal intentionally hides all evidence of the planet he’s from.”

“I believe that to be a mischaracterization of why the signal is at a constant frequency,” replied Bridget. She was also starting to get angry.

“But ET has not shown what planet he’s from, even though he’s shown he knows what planet we are from.”

“Not in what has been decoded so far.”

Smythe looked to her colleagues. “We staffed the Reply committee with veteran diplomats. It is no surprise to me that they have no draft response. How could they reply to an alien race that has offered absolutely no information about itself?”

* * * *

If Bridget had seemed angry by the end of the exchange with the ambassador from Belize, Matthews was furious. The questions had all been variations of, “Do you still beat your spouse?” Any direct answer was either an admission or an apparent evasion.

Bridget had, quite properly, pointed out that ET’s message was only partially analyzed. That worked fine once or twice; after that, it came across as an excuse.

He gave her credit for maintaining her composure. Perhaps there was no politic way to tell an ambassador that she was full of crap. Antinov’s performance yesterday had been one of a kind, and only his unique career allowed him to pull it off.

Roderigo called a recess. The ambassadors converged to one end of the room; the steerers huddled at their table. Matthews felt alone in a crowded room, watching COPUOS move towards declaring victory and disbanding the task force.

No COPUOS action could stop analysis of the message; ET’s full text was on the Web for all who cared to see. There were also plenty of antennas beyond task force jurisdiction listening for the resumption of ET’s signal. A UN withdrawal of funding, if it happened, would only slow the analysis.

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Categories: Edward Lerner