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Chapter 3

May 2, 2072

“‘We don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.’ Stephen Hawking said this in 2015 and he was right. We should not reveal our existence when we don’t know what’s out there,” said Joaquin Luce, his voice quavering only a bit as he concluded his remarks to the committee.

Joaquin Luce was among the last of several experts called to testify at the UN Special Committee on Proxima Centauri—specifically, on the problem of the radio signals received from Proxima Centauri and what to do about it. Would the UN send a message in response? That was the big question. As the director of the European Southern Observatory, Luce spoke with authority. He was clearly used to speaking his mind and having people listen. At fifty-two, he wasn’t the youngest-ever director of the ESO, but he was, by far, the most successful—technically and programmatically. The Observatory was flush with cash, using the money raised by Luce to upgrade all the instruments and data processing systems at all the Observatory’s optical, infrared, and radio telescopes throughout Chile as well as their lunar optical telescope. Within two years, ESO’s new flagship space-based ultraviolet telescope would be ready for launch into space. All were the results of Luce’s tireless efforts on behalf of the Observatory and its researchers. Luce was passionate about space science and astronomy and had given his life over to the pursuit.

“Professor Luce, don’t we know what’s out there? We’ve heard a great deal these last two days about the signal from Proxima Centauri and all the scientists agree that whoever is responsible for it are over one hundred years behind us technologically, roughly at the stage we were in around the year 1950. It would seem to me that we are the more advanced species and they the primitives. Shouldn’t we be worried more about contaminating them?” The speaker was the Honorable Kiania Oliveira, chair of the UN special committee. Oliveira was Brazilian, but her English was nearly perfect, betraying only a slight Portuguese accent. Leaning forward in her seat, it was clear that she, too, was used to speaking in public and getting her way. She exhibited just the right amount of ignorance and humility in her question to show deference to the scientists in the room, but not enough to appear weak in her resolve to understand the real situation at hand.

Luce mentally conceded that Oliveira was correct. They’d been listening and trying to understand the signals coming from near Proxima Centauri for almost two months now and were not much closer to translating their all-too-human-sounding language into one that people from Earth could understand. Other than correlating some words and phrases that always seemed to precede music or what the experts said was most likely news, they were still woefully ignorant. No interstellar Rosetta Stone had yet been found.

“Ms. Oliveira, you are most likely correct. What we’re detecting is almost certainly radio leakage of a civilization much like our own in the last century. We are more advanced than they but we’re assuming that the ‘they’ we are listening to is the real ‘they.’ How do we know this isn’t some sort of ruse? Furthermore, if we beam a message to Proxima Centauri with sufficient power to be noticed, we cannot guarantee that only ‘they’ will be listening. The signal isn’t so focused that it will only be detectible on their planet. No, it will continue to propagate through space for quite some distance and be detectible by anyone else out there for many years to come. Like Dr. Hawking, I don’t believe we should make our presence known.”

The proposal to send a message from Earth to the denizens of that planet near Proxima Centauri had considerable backing from many countries, including two of the most powerful—China and the United States. Still, all nations agreed that something of this magnitude would affect all countries and that the decision should rest with the United Nations. This committee was merely the first step toward a vote in the General Assembly. A recommendation to send the signal, or not, would carry a great deal of weight when it finally came to a vote. Luce would do his very best to get the committee, and then the General Assembly, to vote “no.” His personal experience observing the indigenous peoples of South America still trying to catch up with their colonist-descended cohorts convinced him of that. The native peoples of the Americas had been first contacted nearly six hundred years ago and they still had not recovered. He didn’t want the same fate for all of humanity.

Luce looked around the large assembly room and it was packed. It had been packed since before the gavel struck early that morning to begin the meeting and it looked like no one had left. Luce was sure the press gallery was equally filled and God-only-knew how many people were watching on the ’net.

“The chair recognizes the speaker from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,” said Kiania Oliveira as she diverted her attention to the representative from a sister committee to her own.

Speaking of indigenous peoples…thought Luce as he sat back and rested in his chair, eager to hear what the experts in dealing with the aftereffects of historical first contacts had to say.

The new speaker, a man who looked to be in his early forties with a wide face, high cheekbones, coal-black hair, and a demeanor that one would immediately mistake for that of a much older man, rose to his feet.

“Madam Chair, my name is Chayton Jonathan Williams, Chayton is my tribal name and means ‘falcon,’ but I go by Jon or Mr. Williams. I am descended from the Lakota Nation in North America and a representative of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I am honored to address this committee and bring to it the perspectives from my committee’s deliberations on this matter. I should mention that the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues has members from indigenous peoples’ groups from around the world and, because of this, our members’ views are no more monolithic than those of the other peoples in this room. With one exception. On this issue, we stand firmly against sending a message to the people of Proxima Centauri.” Chayton Jonathan Williams paused, looked around the room as if waiting on a question, and then continued.

“The peoples we represent in my committee are all the victims of imbalanced first contact and, as the previous speaker aptly noted, most have not yet fully recovered. Even if the indigenous peoples of the world had not been the victims of horrific diseases and physical conquest, their cultures would nonetheless have suffered, perhaps irreparably, from even a peaceful first contact with a more technologically advanced culture. In nearly every case of such interaction throughout human history, the indigenous peoples have suffered. It is for this reason that we oppose sending a message. We should honor the native inhabitants of Proxima Centauri and not subject them to the same sort of disruption that my people experienced in North America. We do not have the right to force ourselves upon them, potentially doing them and their emerging culture substantial harm.”

The room was silent after Chayton Jonathan Williams finished his impassioned speech. Luce, while grateful for the support, was surprised at the rationale behind it. The reverse consequences of first contact had never occurred to him and, for that, he felt guilty. And the fact that it had never occurred to him made his opposition to sending a return message more strident.

The committee was soon to break for the day. Tomorrow would be closed-door deliberations with a full committee vote scheduled for the day after. There was only one speaker remaining on the agenda, the discoverer of the signal, Lorraine Gilster. Luce had met Lorraine only a last month when her data was presented at special UN meeting called for the purpose of reviewing and assessing the radio broadcasts she received and recommending what the next steps should be. She seemed reasonable enough, but he was inherently suspicious of her and her motives. She had made it clear in those early days that she was in favor of sending a message in response to the alien broadcast and she didn’t appear to have given the consequences of doing so much thought at all. Reckless was the word that came to mind. Brilliant, affable but reckless.

“The chair recognizes Dr. Lorraine Gilster,” said Oliveira.

Rain, with her name tag hand-altered to read “Rain,” instead of “Lorraine,” leaned forward to the microphone, cleared her throat, and began speaking.

“Ladies and gentlemen. I had the honor and good fortune to be the first person to learn the nature of the radio signal coming across to us from Proxima Centauri just a short time ago. It seems like yesterday but so much has happened since that first ‘ah ha!’ moment I had at the Farside Radio Observatory. What we heard that day, what we learned that day, is extraordinary. We are not alone. Let that sink in for a moment. Since the dawn of history, when our ancestors were looking at the night sky and imagining that the lights they saw were the campfires of people like themselves, looking toward them, pondering their own existence, we have wondered about life elsewhere.

“You heard the scientific basis for making contact this morning and I won’t be redundant. I’m here to make the case on a deeper level, from a human level, from the perspective of sentient beings here and there. Whoever sent the signal we received is obviously sentient and perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing here, but if we wondered such things as we gazed at the sky, then how could they not also have the same questions? Aren’t they most likely looking outward wondering if they are alone? Personally, I cannot imagine making this discovery and saying, ‘Isn’t that interesting, now let’s have dinner.’ To dismiss this opportunity to communicate with another self-aware species is unconscionable, and, I would argue, inhuman. I urge this committee to approve sending a response message as soon as possible.”

A door in the back of the committee chamber opened, and an olive-skinned man made his way down the main aisle. He walked like a man on a mission. His appearance, from his jade encrusted bolo tie and sport coat to his straight black hair worn long and in a ponytail, screamed of a man who meant to be noticed and heard.

“Thank you, Dr. Gilster. I know everyone here is ready to go to your hotels and get some rest, but we’ve had a last-minute shuffle to the agenda with an additional speaker this evening. The chair now recognizes the speaker from the United States Space Economy Committee, Ambassador Charles Jesus,” Kiania Oliveira said as she read the name from the screen in front of her without looking up.

“It’s pronounced Jesus, Madam Chair, just like the Christian’s savior. Not ‘hey zeus,’” the man said lightheartedly as he settled into his seat. He adjusted his microphone and then took a sip of water from the glass before him. There was a light, embarrassed chuckle from the chairwoman. “I am here as a pragmatist and in some ways nonbiased in the decision either way to send a return contact signal to Proxima Centauri. Dr. Gilster and Professor Luce both made very interesting arguments for both and Mr. Williams’s speech, while historically correct, left out large portions, and dare I say important and fundamental components, of the positive side of the history of first contact. While it is true that millions of natives around the world and throughout history died due to accidental disease exposure, conquest, war, and exploitations of various sorts, the long-term results and economic benefits of contact are historically clear. The North American Natives made it clear early on that they were very interested in the technologies being brought by the explorers, as they quickly put aside their bows and arrows and picked up black powder weapons. The fur and domestic farming trade industry arose from the contact between the various natives and explorers and business peoples. It is true that cultures mingled, mixed, and some even vanished, but that is true of all cultures throughout history and has very little to do with first contact and everything to do with change, adaptation to circumstances, and simply time. We are certainly not going to be ‘accidentally infecting’ these people anytime soon as they are light-years away and we know of modern microbials, antibiotics, and antivirals. We could have a very slow cultural, scientific, philosophical, and economic exchange across the distance between the stars. Imagine, what if we can electronically invest in them and they in us? The wealth, the commerce, from information exchange alone could spark business on both worlds as to yet completely unimagined levels. So, I say, Madam Chair, and to the members in this gathering, and to the world, we should not dismiss the opportunity of a lifetime, of all times, here and now. Contact with these people might be the biggest investment we can make for our future and theirs. Thank you for your time.”

The ambassador from the US leaned back and looked across at both Rain and Mr. Luce with a look of satisfaction on his face. Luce glared back at him, disappointed in himself for not having thought of adding counters to the “economic argument.” Between Jesus and Gilster he was concerned that he had not been strong enough in his counter. Jesus’s speech was based on dollars and with many of the UN-based organizations being socialist it might not be as effective as the “cultural negatives” of Mr. Williams’s arguments. But the astronomer’s arguments were emotional and philosophical—two very powerful debate weapons. To top it off Gilster’s speech was not only emotional and articulate, but also, Luce had to admit, convincing. He wasn’t convinced, but he could tell by looking at the faces of the committee members that they were sympathetic to what she had said, and he now knew the vote would be close. He might even lose. If that was to be the case, then he feared for the future of every human on Earth. Stephen Hawking was right, he thought, and these fools can’t see it.

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