Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

At his suggestion, the next steering committee meeting included a synopsis of the whole message. The head of the Analysis committee, Koji Matsumoto, gave the summary. Koji was an intense astrophysicist on loan from NASDA, the Japanese space agency. He looked surprisingly awake for someone teleconferencing from Tokyo, where it was 3:00 a.m.

Matsumoto uploaded a graphic. “This chart overviews the entire message and our progress in reading it. Message blocks flow from left to right and top to bottom. The ‘look at me’ pulses and earliest images are at the top left. As you know, ET marks each image with the dimensionality and size of the next image. This lets us separate the message into its parts, although many of the later blocks don’t make sense yet.”

Dean studied the graphic. In rough terms, he visualized the image in three segments. The first quarter was red, fading to orange. The middle half was yellow. The last fourth spanned the rest of the rainbow, in thin slices.

“The blocks we think are fully decoded appear in red. We have covered that material at earlier meetings. Orange shows blocks that are partially interpreted. We believe the yellow area that follows is, like the orange, progressively more advanced mathematics, physics, and chemistry.”

Matsumoto sent a new image. “Here we see more detail about the end of the message. The thin green slice is only a few frames long: it is where ET introduces what we think is a question-mark symbol. The blue that follows is what Dean called the shopping list; we’ll return to that. The indigo area seems to be electronic schematics. Violet, the final section, appears to derive units of measure, such as time intervals, from fundamental physical constants.”

Another graphic appeared, its blue border suggesting that it came from the shopping-list portion of the message. Dean saw a chemical reaction in which the presumed question-mark character represented a catalyst. Beneath the reaction was a line of three other symbols.

Matsumoto went on. “Here is a typical frame from the shopping list. It certainly seems plausible that ET is asking if we can identify a catalyst for this chemical reaction. On the next line are the ‘us’ and ‘them’ symbols, Earth and ET, separated by something we didn’t recognize at first: a vector symbol from the early physics tutorial. We think it is used here to show direction.”

In short, the line read: “Earth to ET.”

Flick. Another blue-bordered graphic appeared. It, too, showed a chemical reaction, seemingly for a fuel cell. A question mark again stood where a catalyst would be indicated. Beneath that were the us, to, and them symbols—but with one key difference: the direction of the vector was reversed.

“In addition to what Dean called ET’s shopping list,” said Matsumoto, “we think ET has sent us a catalogue.”

* * * *

From the Earth First chat room.

All_Politics_Is_Local: The $%^#!! UN is still moving toward a reply to ET. How can they be stopped?

Stop_World_Government: See your verbs, dude? Passive voice! UR the problem. What can *you* do?

All_Politics_Is_Local: I’ll bite. What can I do?

Radical_Dude: Be in New York when COPUOS meets next. Earth First is organizing mass demonstrations, with support from around the world. If the UN doesn’t change course, we’ll show them that the Battle of Seattle was only a tea party. Earth’s precious resources are for Earth!

All_Politics_Is_Local: I have been properly rebuked and reeducated. Earth First!

Radical_Dude: Amen to that!

* * * *

Call it barter, which sounded primitive, or trading intellectual property, or very long-distance e-business. By any name, the task force had finally answered the question, “What does ET want?”

He wants, it would seem, to learn useful things from us.

Though something like this had been suspected for days, since Dean and Bridget’s ferry ride, it was more persuasive in Matsumoto’s concise briefing. Consensus quickly jelled on the interstellar trading scenario. Speculation swirled about how the system could work. More heat than light was being generated.

Matthews coughed for attention. “Koji, could you bring back your first chart?” The image Matthews had requested popped up. “I’m going to climb out on another limb.”

“As we keep re-learning, ET is very systematic. So why do electronics reappear after the shopping list and catalogue? Koji, might the indigo area be a new tutorial or trade goods?”

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Categories: Edward Lerner