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SHOUTING IN THE JUNGLE
May 24, 1999
…all the talk about alien invasion and
the danger of messaging extraterrestrial intelligence
I regard as idle and pseudoscientific.
—Aleksandr Leonidovich Zaitsev
Once upon a time, in a place not so very far, far away, there lived a man who was convinced he knew better than the whole of the human race what was good for it.
That wasn’t the problem. There have always been such men, at all times and in all places.
No, the problem was, at this particular once-upon-a-time-and-place, this particular man was in a position to act on that conviction.
His name was Aleksandr Leonidovich Zaitsev, and his position was that of head of the Yevpatoria RT-70 Planetary Radar in Crimea—a facility which boasted a parabolic dish antenna some seventy meters in diameter and ranked at the time of our telling as the third largest radio telescope in the world. More to the point, Yevpatoria was also the only installation of its size equipped to both receive signals from outer space and to send them as well.
And it was this that Zaitsev intended to do. On the evening of May 24th in the penultimate year of the second millennium, he pointed the Yevpatoria dish toward the heavens and transmitted the first of several so-called “Cosmic Call” messages.
Whatever their extraliterary historical significance, these messages were hardly paragons of style or substance: Basically a binary “Rosetta Stone” composed by Stephane Dumas and Yvan Dutil which proceeded from rudimentary arithmetic to higher order math and physics, supplemented with a smorgasbord of text, audio, and video from ordinary citizens around the world. If there was one worrisome feature of Dumas and Dutil’s contribution to Cosmic Call, it was that their “primer” included a representation of the nucleotides making up deoxyribonucleic acid, better known by its initialism: DNA.
Still, in the end it wasn’t the message’s form or content that mattered. Rather, it was the simple fact that, for the three hour and fifty-five minute duration of the transmission, the Yevpatoria signal increased the radio visibility of the Earth by four orders of magnitude. Briefly, in its limited frequency band and along its narrow line of sight, the Earth shone ten thousand times brighter than the sun.
It was, then, not without a certain cosmic irony that Zaitsev’s surname derived from “zayats”—the Russian word for “rabbit.” Because he was indeed like some foolish little rabbit hopping down a dark and dangerous bunny trail, shouting at the top of his lungs and blithely advertising his presence to whatever predators might be lurking in the surrounding jungle.
And not just his own presence—all of Earth’s as well.
Zaitsev’s target on that lovely, late-spring evening was the yellow dwarf star 16 Cygni B, one hub of a triple-star system seventy light-years away in the northwest corner of that patch of sky named for the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Or more precisely, not the star itself, but rather its companion world. For three years prior, in 1996, 16 Cygni B had become one of the first stars to be confirmed as hosting an extrasolar planet. True, 16 Cygni Bb, as the exoplanet was designated, was a super-Jupiter. It weighed in at 2.4 Jovian masses and as such was an unpromising abode for the proverbial life as we know it. Still, where there was one planet, might there not be other, smaller, more hospitable worlds, as yet undetected, circling that same distant sun?
In any case, we wouldn’t have long—on cosmic timescales, at least—to wait before finding out: Zaitsev’s signal was scheduled to traverse the seventy light-years from Earth to 16 Cygni Bb and arrive there in November of 2069. Allow, say, a year for the putative inhabitants to mull a response, then another seven decades for the lightspeed return trip to Earth, and we might hope to receive a reply around the year 2140.
It was the possible form such a reply might take that rendered Zaitsev’s project deeply problematic, at least in some quarters. Even the doyens of the old Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) enterprise expressed reservations when contemplating the downside risk of this new Active-SETI endeavor—this initiative to dispense with decades of passive listening in favor of actually doing something.
Those downside risks were not inconsiderable. The Cosmic Call critics protested that we shouldn't call attention to ourselves when for all we knew our transmissions might be received by some real-world equivalents of H.G. Wells’s “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.” These beings might—out of paranoia or sheer malevolence—reply with relativistic impactors or cosmic computer viruses or interstellar laser beams that would set our sky aflame?
Zaitsev would have none of it. Dismissing the handwringing of the naysayers as “idle and pseudoscientific,” he vowed to carry on. And, given he had access to the requisite technology, how could anyone realistically hope to stop him?
In point of fact, Zaitsev was right: None of his detractors’ nightmare scenarios would come to pass.
What would come to pass instead was much, much swifter and much, much worse.
For in another, unimaginably further-removed time and place, a wise and ancient race had—after eons of godlike accomplishment—collectively resolved to depart the plane of material existence for their own unfathomable reasons.
But not before leaving behind, in their terrible benevolence, a parting gift.
That gift takes the form of a spherical wavefront, a globe of coherent light expanding ever outward from its point of origin. It is now irretrievably lost in time and space, but currently moving through one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy.
It is a wavefront with a difference, overlaid with cunningly crafted interference patterns that split a portion of its beams off from the prime vector and bend them back in a “delay line.” Of such elemental circuitry is fashioned the functional equivalents of XORs, NAND gates, and the rest of the low-level instructional menagerie that make up the firmware of a standard computer.
Save that this computer’s “ware” is decidedly not “firm.” Rather, it is a gossamer, its components forged of trimeric light. That is, light endowed with an infinitesimal smidgen of mass. Hence it is capable of interacting with itself by binding triplets of its constituent photons into the bosonic equivalent of molecules.
Save also that, inspirited by architectures of superhuman subtlety, all those simple intangible piece-parts are capable of self-assembling into something no mere earthbound computer can hope to match—a photonic intelligence.
An intelligence tasked with a single purpose: to bestow the blessings of its creators’ beneficence on any and all inhabited planets within its ever-expanding ken.
Admittedly, it is not much of an intelligence. Smeared out across the surface area of a sphere already some tens of thousands of light-years in radius and growing all the time, that which propagates outward in all directions from its long-lost source is by now a mere shadow of its original self. Merely a photonic entity that, after a seeming eternity of attenuating dilation, boasts all the smarts of your average amoeba.
It is, in fact, just smart enough to detect, at any given point on its enormous capture surface, one of a small number of trigger events.
The least significant of such triggers is the sort of transmission represented by the Cosmic Call, still only twelve years along on its seven-decade journey to 16 Cygni Bb at the moment when it intersects the wavefront entity. In and of itself, Zaitsev’s four-hour message burst might seem too transitory, too weak, and too primitive content-wise to warrant attention. But interstellar space is vast, and life-bearing bodies are few and far between. Even the least promising candidate for Transfiguration deserves, at a minimum, some consideration.
The entity marginally alters its incorporeal internal dynamics to bestow that minimum: Rippling outward from the point of intersection, the wavefront ceases to expand and begins to fold back in on itself. Refractive structures coalesce to focus light and logic on the bare-bones intellect which had first encountered the message from Earth. It's a shift that augments the entity's processing power, and with that power, its perspicacity, until at last the nascent photonic entity achieves a modicum of mindfulness.
And waits to see what would happen next.
What would happen next was once upon this time.
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