Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Thanks to Bridget, Matthews had had a day to ponder the matter. “A purposefully delayed response is not the only explanation. Perhaps ET is just explaining how Earth came to his attention. His radio astronomers might routinely capture and save radio energy from neighboring stars, and not have immediately recognized our ‘signal’ “—he waggled his fingers as exaggerated quotation marks—”for what it was.

“ET sent us a systematically constructed message, much of which we almost instantly understood. He sent it at very high power levels. Whatever signal he’s gotten from Earth was much weaker, unintended leakage from TV and radio and military radars. None of that was designed for him to recognize or decode. I’m guessing, but what may have eventually convinced him that we’re here and aware is the rapid increase in power levels and in frequencies being used. I doubt ET extracted any meaning from the mish-mash.”

Dr. Shah imitated Matthews’ earlier gesture. “About those quotation marks … what did you mean?”

“The signals ET received from us were very faint. ‘I Love Lucy’ was not meant as an interstellar communication. If ET’s signal were as low-powered as what Earth emits, we’d never have detected it.”

Michel Margot, a Belgian sociologist, broke the thoughtful silence that had come over the committee. “You suggest that we can’t know how long ET delayed after suspecting our presence.”

Matthews nodded.

“But his radio technology is more advanced than ours.”


“But not greatly more advanced, or his response would likely have come sooner.” Margot took Matthews’ silence as assent. “That’s good. There could be an adverse reaction to a perceived technology gap.” To the group, the sociologist added, “This seems a responsible position to articulate.”

Heads bobbed in what Chairman Ricard mistook for unanimous agreement. He assigned a writer to draft a press release.

The phrase “not greatly more advanced” contained a significant degree of ambiguity. ET had radio receivers in 1958 exceeding any Earth owned today. His high-power transmitter was a marvel. In the interest of an announcement more devoid than usual of spin, Matthews kept to himself the thought of how much he’d like to obtain ET’s radio technology.

* * * *

“In the General Assembly today, the Secretary-General of the United Nations urgently requested an emergency supplemental authorization. He stated that the UN’s budget has been unusually strained by peacekeeping duties across the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Indonesia. He pointed to growing requests for humanitarian assistance by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. The Lalande 21185 task force was also identified as an unanticipated expense.

“Third World delegates responded skeptically, suggesting that the UN reallocate scarce resources to its core missions. The ambassador of Congo spoke for many of his peers. ‘What is the use of an arithmetic lesson from the stars? How many AIDS vaccinations, how much famine relief, could we provide with funds we are now squandering on ET?’

“Rising polarization on the subject of funding for the Lalande investigation seems certain to conflict with the proposed international treaty on interstellar communications. The treaty, recently passed by the General Assembly and awaiting ratification by member states, requires that any response to ET come under UN auspices.”

—BBC World New Service


“To ET.”

Matthews rarely toasted with iced tea, but Barbara White seldom drank anything stronger. Barb stood five foot zip in high heels; she said her tolerance for booze was best measured in thimblefuls.

“To NetSat.”

Barb was CEO and founder of that company. He had been employee number four before going on leave of absence. They went back a long time together.

It had been a chance encounter at the shopping mall. They’d retreated to the food court. “Is ET still being mum?”

“Yup.” He bit a taco. “Not that it could be kept secret if he began talking again. In any case, it’ll be a while before we understand what he already had to say.”

“So when can I expect you back?”

“I can’t tell yet.” Pause. “Not till we’re done.”

She knew him too well. “What’s the problem?”

“What we’re learning is astounding. For example, ET’s replay of what he received from Earth will teach us a lot about radio propagation across interstellar distances. And I work every day with brilliant people.”

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