Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“I predict,” and here Klein paused dramatically, “that by the time we’ve finished the processing of ET’s message, we’ll have discovered a request for information from us.” Matthews silently mouthed his prediction along with the ambassador.

“I think we all should keep an open mind about how, what, and when to answer ET. For surely, if we do not reply, it will be his committees deciding not to throw good money after bad.”

He smiled once more at Bridget. “And then who can say what amazing knowledge we will have forfeited?”


The steerers were disinvited from day three of the hearing, where COPUOS would decide the task force’s fate. Bridget and Dean sought distraction at the Statue of Liberty. She had never seen it; he’d visited it at the age of eight.

“That is one handy connection you have with Alex Klein,” she offered on the return ferry. It was the first violation of a tacit no-business policy.


“I’ve been holding back, too. It appears you were right about ET requesting information.” She paused as the ferry’s horn blasted. “Although it’s generally impractical to decode out of sequence, the analysts have scanned ahead in the message. They figured that a sneak preview might suggest in advance technical specialties we should add to staff.”

“So what lies ahead?”

“The message gets more and more complex. Most of what’s left looks like physics and electronics. Amid that technical detail, oddly, is a return to arithmetic. That’s followed by a brief return to chemistry. The arithmetic and the chemical reactions both use a symbol we don’t understand. Everyone assumes we’ll know what it means once we read things in order. The puzzling thing is, that symbol doesn’t appear earlier.”

“Give me an example?”

“Sure. Call the undecoded symbol ‘X.’ The math is stuff like 2+3=X and 7-1=X. The chemistry starts as similarly basic chemical reactions, with a reactant missing, replaced by X. Then X shows up in a lot of hairy chemistry material.”

A cloud blew over the sun, turning the harbor air instantly chilly. He was too deep in thought to notice. “You didn’t pick ‘X’ at random. You’re thinking of everyone’s favorite algebra variable: X the unknown.”

“My mind’s been heading that way since the speech you put your ambassador up to.”

“Okay, let’s assume ‘X’ is something to be solved for. ET used trivial arithmetic problems to introduce the symbol. He used simple chemistry problems to generalize the concept beyond math. And then…” He stopped, staring into space.

“And the remaining occurrences of X might just turn out to be ET’s shopping list.”

* * * *

Matthews’ cell phone chimed as the ferry docked. Chattering, jostling tourists almost drowned out Alex’s news. COPUOS had narrowly approved task-force continuation: a 43-40 vote. Dean gave a thumb’s up to Bridget, now on her own phone.

The gesture was arguably too soon. Alex’s next words were less upbeat. “Winning this round meant cashing in several favors owed the US. I expect Mbeke and his allies will try packing the committee with new Third World members before the next review. If that happens, I don’t see where the votes would come from to authorize a reply.”

* * * *

Bridget’s call was a summons for them both from Kim; they took a cab from the dock to the UN. One short hour after the vote, hundreds of Earth Firsters were already demonstrating in front of the UN building.

To Dean’s surprise, Bridget excused herself when they got to the Undersecretary-General’s office. “Today’s vote was unpleasantly close,” said Kim, as the door closed behind Bridget. “We must do better next time.”

Dean shrugged inwardly. Where was this going?

“Perhaps we need fresh thinking. The kind of insight that your Ambassador showed yesterday … with your input. Bridget also speaks highly of you.” Kim smiled, “Joining the steering committee would be much more efficient than maneuvering us.”

Matthews didn’t protest the insinuation: there was adequate truth to it. Coming from a career politician and diplomat, the remark was probably meant as a compliment.

“Now assuming that you will join us, I suggest that you join a post-vote strategy session.”


It turned out that Matthews’ prediction on the ferry had been only half right.

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Categories: Edward Lerner