Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“And only a stubborn tube-loving fossil would consider that it could be a tube, a triode.” Frisch once more tapped the tablecloth-sized printout. Despite his obvious excitement, the old EE seemed weary. “But the way ET built his very high powered amplifier section … it is not like a transistor design. Not like a solid-state design.”

“We should take a break. Would you mind one more question first?”


“For a large radio transmitter, are there reasons to prefer tube technology over solid state?”

“None.” Frisch rubbed his temple pensively. “ET has many parallel antennas in his phased array, so this task could easily be done with transistors. I have given the matter serious thought.”

That fit. There was plenty of stress among the engineers assigned to boosting the power of some Earth transmitters, just in case a reply was authorized, but Matthews had heard not one word of worry about integrated circuit inadequacies.

Mir, thought Matthews. Antinov’s advice never to underestimate what could be accomplished using only basics and brute force. “Unless ET doesn’t have solid state technology.”

Transistors and integrated circuits had revolutionized Earth, had made such sweeping changes that no one had considered that the seemingly advanced ET might not have them.

How valuable to ET would transistors be?

* * * *

“The streets of Manhattan were brought to a standstill today, in a limited demonstration of Earth First’s resolve.

“Earth First has united the many communities committed to protecting our world’s interests. Our voices include people of faith, supporters of national sovereignty, defenders of our planetary resources, and guardians against extraterrestrial duplicity. We come from every class, country, and continent.

“Members of COPUOS, disband the Lalande task force, or face our wrath.”

—Earth First communique

* * * *

Within minutes of leaving the Frischs’ apartment, Matthews had phoned Bridget. Within the hour, she was booked on the next flight from Geneva. She brought with Sven Olssen, the ITU analyst who had first recognized ET’s radio-frequency replay.

They began the next day with a whirlwind tour of the old city’s medieval cathedral, since Frau Frisch had asked Matthews to delay his return until late morning. Her husband had been exhausted by the excitement.

“So,” said Herr Frisch, “you return with friends today. These ideas of mine may have some merit.”

Bridget laid a hand on the German’s forearm. “Very much so. Your insights are most helpful. We appreciate your help.”

“I wish I had insights to offer for the entire design.” Frisch pointed at the alien schematic, still draped across the dining room table. “This whole section continues to elude me.”

Matthews laughed ruefully. “And an entire UN task force.”

“Well, as I’m sure everyone has seen, this section provides input to the focusing and aiming circuits that drive the phased array. If so, some of this strange area generates direction information. Parts seem to do signal modulation and frequency shifting. Mostly we see what appear to be control loops. What and how they control I do not understand. It is so complex, loop within loop within loop.”

They sat staring at the schematic. After a while, Sven said, “If this were software, I’d call it spaghetti code. Everything is intertwined.”

“While we’re admitting to odd associations, I can top that.” Bridget traced a circuit loop. “I’m reminded of something far more venerable. Maybe it was seeing the old cathedral this morning, but loops within loops bring to mind wheels within wheels. Pre-Copernican astronomy: deferents, epicycles, and equants.”

Matthews’ mind turned neither to software nor Ptolemaic astronomy. Something in the schematic, or in the comments about the design, reminded him in some way of challenges he’d faced before the task force.

That was when the metaphorical light bulb of enlightenment switched on.


With only twenty days remaining until ET’s reply window opened, COPUOS scheduled a task-force review to decide whether and how to respond. Rampaging Earth First protesters delayed the session’s start by a day.

The USG summarized the task force’s progress since the last COPUOS review. Completion of reading ET’s message. An overview of the catalogue and shopping list. Specific reply windows proposed by ET, the first only nineteen days away—the opportunity after that, two years away. The immense benefits of obtaining ET’s offered technologies. Earth’s unfortunate lack of answers to ET’s questions. The race to enhance Earth’s largest transmitters so that ET could detect a signal and not just the carrier wave.

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Categories: Edward Lerner