Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Dean wriggled through the crowd to join Bridget, who looked as exhausted as he felt. Fair enough: refining and encoding Earth’s reply, then checking and double-checking it, had taken ‘round-the-clock efforts for two weeks. The Reply committee had borne the brunt of it—the final tweaks to the message had been made just that morning, but almost everyone on the task force had felt the crunch.

“I find myself envying ET. Discovering unexpected courses in quantum mechanics and computing. Following our recipes to build their first transistors and solar cells.” She gestured with a meatball on a toothpick. “And then he’ll read our catalogue.”

“So you think he may be interested in processes for making integrated circuits? Or schematics for the old PC in my den closet?”

“Could be,” she grinned. “Really, it’s a brilliant solution. Trade our common knowledge, that no one can object to parting with, for their expertise.”

“And since we’ll post our message to the Web, everyone who cares gets a sneak preview of our order. That’s at least sixteen years to figure out ET’s technology or to decide to exit a business that could be made obsolete.”

“Your attention, everyone,” called the amplified voice of Kim Chun Ku. A wave of shushes broke out. “Please be seated.”

On stage, large-screen TVs showed the great parabolic antenna at the Jodrell Bank radio observatory (now also an interstellar transmission station), the nearby control room, and a slaved copy of the main console display bearing only a decrementing counter.

The antenna was prepositioned, its motion as it tracked Lalande 21185 too slow to be visible. The control room had been vacated by all but a few technicians, the USG, and Sherman Xu. As the counter reached sixty seconds, Kim whispered something to the man who had started it all. The crowd cheered as Xu took his seat at the console.

At zero, Xu tapped the enter key. To thunderous applause, the text of Earth’s response began scrolling down a monitor in the auditorium. Dean and Bridget embraced, and were far from the only people exchanging hugs, kisses, and backslaps.

The more important version of the message took the first step of its journey: an uplink to a geosat over the Atlantic for relay to Jodrell Bank in the UK. Jodrell Bank would start Earth’s beamcast: responsibility would be handed off from transmitter to transmitter as the world turned. The eighteen-hour message would repeat continuously for the thirty days ET had said he’d be listening.

The USG entered the auditorium to thank everyone for their contributions. He kept his remarks brief, knowing them to be anticlimactic. The room emptied slowly, everyone too wound up to leave but for the first time in months lacking a clear purpose. Party noises from down the hall were subdued.

* * * *

Dean and Bridget found themselves alone in an otherwise empty auditorium. “Yes, I envy ET,” repeated Bridget. “He has only eight years to wait. We’ve got to endure twice that.”

“We actually have plenty to keep us busy.”

Perhaps eyes actually could twinkle—he was emitting some good vibe.

“Okay, Dean. What haven’t you told me?”

“Remember ET going off-line a while back?”

“Sure. Didn’t we decide his planet was going behind his sun? Too much interference?”

“That ‘explanation’ was purely speculative, since we can’t see his planet.”

She tipped her head in puzzlement. “What are you saying?”

“There’s a small matter I’ve kept to myself since we cracked ET’s transmitter design. Remember the beam-steering and Doppler-correction logic? That circuitry is implicitly a model of his planet’s movement and ours. I took the liberty of programming the model onto my laptop.”

“So is our speculation plausible? Might ET have stopped sending because his orbit meant his sun would be in the way?”

“Not even close. ET had another reason for stopping his transmission. My guess is that he had another use for his big transmitter.” The smile Dean had been hiding burst forth, an ear-to-ear grin.

“Now that we’ve built ourselves a phone, it appears we might have other neighbors to introduce ourselves to.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner