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Chapter 4

May 4, 2072

Luce received the news of the committee’s vote just as he and his wife were sitting down to have a quiet dinner at home. His wife of nearly twenty years, Maria, had prepared his favorite: lasagna, spinach salad, and a full glass of pinot noir. His AI, affectionately called Roberto, interrupted his second bite with its customary and polite, “Excuse me, Dr. Luce, but you have a call from one of your approved contacts, Dr. Felix Asiago.”

“Thanks, Roberto, I’ll take it on the speaker,” replied Luce, after getting an approving nod from Maria. Maria was used to the interruptions. After all, they happened almost daily.

“Joaquin, we won. The UN Committee voted against recommending sending a message to Proxima. And it wasn’t even close. I think the plea from Chayton Jonathan Williams sealed the deal. Once the scientists were up against Star Trek’s prime directive, they were bound to lose,” said Felix, his rapid speech betraying his excitement.

Luce was surprised and elated. He had sincerely thought the vote was lost after Ambassador Jesus’s economic appeal and Dr. Gilster’s emotional speech just before they adjourned. But fortunately, more cautious heads prevailed, and Earth wouldn’t be loudly announcing its presence into the great unknown—at least for a while.

“Felix, is the full council set to vote next week as originally planned?” asked Luce, his elation momentarily subsiding while his political mind reengaged. Though they’d won the committee vote, they still had to win the vote in the General Assembly and there was absolutely no guarantee that it would follow the committee’s lead. It was likely, but not guaranteed.

“Yes. And you can bet that the US and Chinese delegations will be lobbying heavily to win. Both will likely start calling in favors. The multinationals are lobbying heavily in favor of making contact. They smell new ideas, new technologies to patent, and new products to sell.”

“I don’t buy that last argument, Felix. We’ve discussed this before. If their tech is really over a hundred years behind ours, what can they possibly have to tell us we don’t already know? Other than their religion or philosophy, or perhaps their own version of the Kama Sutra, our science and technology are almost certainly way ahead of theirs,” said Luce, taking another bite of lasagna and washing it down with a large sip of wine.

Luce’s wife winked at him, nearly causing him to choke.

“The point is, we don’t know what we don’t know and isn’t that the whole point in not making contact? God only knows what sort of wonder weapon they’ve developed and that could be unleashed here. Talk about a potential for disruptive technology!” said Felix.

“I’m right there with you. We may not have the money like our opposition, but if the public opinion polls are accurate, then we have the majority of the world’s population on our side. The numbers I saw yesterday had the ‘no contact’ side up with about sixty-seven percent. The other side was at twenty percent with the rest ‘undecided.’ If the politicians are listening to their constituents, then they’ll have to ignore the big-money corporations on this one and side with common sense and caution, just like the committee recommends.”

“If I know you, however, you aren’t going to take a win for granted. Shall I reconfirm the appointments you have set up over the next few days?”

“Yes, please. And let me know if anything else comes up that might influence the vote. We don’t want to take anything for granted. Goodbye, Felix.” Luce ended the connection.

“Cause for celebration?” asked Maria, draining the last of the wine from her glass.

“For today, yes,” said Luce.

“Roberto, hold all calls until tomorrow morning,” said Maria as she scooted her now-empty plate of lasagna toward the middle of the table. She leaned forward and kissed her husband on the forehead, adding, “Let’s celebrate. I’m all yours and you are all mine.”

Luce looked at his still-uneaten meal and said, “There’s always the microwave…”

* * *

“Damn, damn, damn,” Rain cursed as she looked across the table full of take-out Chinese food in its customary tidy, small, and individually packaged white boxes. Stephan, her once-again dinner partner for the evening, looked back. Rain thought he looked wistful, but she was still seeing red.

“Rain, I’m so sorry,” Stephan said.

“The committee voted three days ago, and I haven’t thought of any meaningful way to negate Chayton Jonathan Williams’s isolationist revisionist history he gave in the General Assembly. If it weren’t for him, the vote would probably have been ‘yes.’” Rain said. “It’s like they didn’t even listen to that ambassador’s speech.”

“Agreed. I would have thought that the data showing we’ve been announcing our presence for a century and a half to anyone nearby listening would have swayed them. After all, anyone within one hundred and fifty light-years would have a chance of picking up one of our own early radio or television broadcasts. If they had sensitive enough equipment, of course,” Stephan said.

“Play the odds. Someone would have to be listening, with sensitive enough equipment, at the right frequencies, and at the right time. If they stopped listening before 1920, then they would be convinced there was no one out there and be blissfully ignorant of our existence. And to pick up our earliest signals out that far is a long shot in and of itself. They would be awfully dim at those distances and mostly lost in the noise due to all the other, much more energetic radio sources out there. No, the Proximans might have been able to pick it up, but they didn’t have the tech yet,” Rain countered.

“And now we’re mostly quiet,” Stephan nodded.

“And now, thanks to fiber and laser comm, we don’t emit nearly the radio noise we did a hundred or so years ago. And you know, as a radio astronomer who up until a few months ago fought against what radio noise we still produce, I was elated. Now, not so much.”

“Yeah. If the Proximans are listening, they won’t hear much. Our peak signal years happened too long ago. Technology marches on. Their signals aren’t even digital, for God’s sake. It’s still analog and probably created using vacuum tubes,” he said.

Rain stopped chewing her General Tso Chicken and looked straight at Stephan.

“Technology marches on. Technology marches on,” Rain said after swallowing her half-eaten bite.

“You’ve got something,” said Stephan.

“Your comment made me think of those odd, almost-digital signals we started picking up on the carrier wave from Proxima two days ago. When did the code breakers at the National Security Agency get them to do their magic?” She asked.

“Not until this morning. I wouldn’t expect to get anything back from them for a week or more,” said Stephan, cautiously.

“Your mentioning old technology made me think of something. What if we’re trying to be too ‘high tech’ in looking at the data and in trying to figure it out? The intelligence community will be running their best code-breaking, AI-enhanced algorithms trying to figure it out. What if we need to look extremely low tech?”

“Go on,” Stephan said.

Rain reached to her side and pulled her tablet computer out of the bag from next to her seat. She was never far from her purse or her access to the data from Proxima.

“Here’s one of the new data sets,” she said, holding up her tablet and pointing to the rows of numbers. “Let’s not look at this as some sort of binary code to break, but as a simple binary encoding similar to what our technological forebearers had to work with. Let’s send the data to the image processor and tell it to render all the zeros as black and the ones as white and to arrange it into a single image.”

Rain’s fingers flew across the tablet as she had her computer do just what she said. Then, she stopped and stared at the screen.

“Oh my God,” she said, finally.

“What? What have you got?” asked Stephan, starting to rise out of his chair.

“It’s a picture. We picked up a fax machine transmission. They’ve got bloody fax machines!”

“What’s it a picture of? Don’t keep me in suspense,” Stephan exclaimed.

Rain turned her tablet display around so Stephan could see the image. On the screen was a black-and-white picture of a man holding what looked like a fish. He was wearing some sort of robe. He appeared to be in his early adult years, perhaps in his twenties, with features that were clearly Asian.

Both were speechless for several minutes. The room was so quiet that Rain could hear the sound of water dripping out of a faucet in the hotel’s nearby bathroom. Drip. Drip. Drip. It was almost a mocking sound to Rain’s ears.

“They’re human,” said Stephan.

“But that’s impossible. Parallel evolution toward bipedal shape, bilateral symmetry, and all that I can buy. But parallel evolution to looking just like us is simply…impossible,” Rain replied.

“We need to look at the other binary data sets. There are hundreds by now. How could we have missed this? How could the code breakers have missed this?” asked Stephan, now getting out of his chair and moving toward the hotel room’s desk where he had put his tablet.

“I don’t know, but let’s see what else we have,” said Rain, already scrolling to the next bit of data.

Two hours later, they had a collection of photos depicting different people, animals, buildings, and page after page of illegible text documents. It seemed that the Proximans used their radio fax-machine technology in much the same way those on Earth had—to send and receive documents. The additional images confirmed what they had seen on the first one: the Proximans were as human as Rain and Stephan, shared features that on Earth would be considered Asian, and they had cities and towns that anyone on Earth would recognize as such. There were humans just like them on a planet more than four light-years distant.

* * *

Five days later, the UN General Assembly, with hundreds of images received by fax from Proxima Centauri before them, voted nearly unanimously to prepare and send their new neighbors a greeting from Earth.

Though not a linguist, of which there would be plenty on the assembled message team, Rain Gilster was named the technical advisor. They were given one month to develop the message that would change the course of history for two worlds—two worlds inhabited by humans.

* * *

Not quite ten months since the discovery of the signals from Proxima Centauri, using a radio telescope in Australia modified for sending a message and not just receiving one, the people of Earth began sending their greetings.

In addition to mirroring some of the radio broadcasts that had been intercepted, as a way to get the Proximans’ attention, the message contained verbal and visual information about the people of Earth, its languages, cultures, arts, and, of course, its science and technology. It was the latter upon which most of team pinned their hopes of beginning a dialog: mathematics and physics had to be universal. Using the work of the late Carl Sagan and others from the 1970s as a starting point, they developed a message that used prime numbers as a starting point, followed by various universal principles and facts of mathematics and science, each building upon the previous. An Encyclopedia Mathematica.

Many members of the message team argued that communicating with these aliens ought to be relatively simple since they were, for all practical purposes and without having one to test and observe close up, human. The linguist developed a verbal and written language dictionary filled with common images and the associated words to describe them that almost any elementary school child would recognize: beginning with dog, cat, and house, the dictionary ended with more complex definitions like love, forms of government, and the performing arts. The result was probably the lengthiest and most complex fax ever sent.

The message, traveling between the stars at nature’s speed limit, light speed, began crossing the interstellar void and losing strength almost immediately. No matter what the broadcast power, the signal strength at any distance from the source dropped in proportion to the square of the distance, meaning that by the time it arrived at Proxima Centauri, the signal would be relatively weak. Much weaker than the local broadcasts. That meant there was a chance it would not be detected for quite some time until someone stumbled across it. For this reason, the signal was set to repeat indefinitely. No one wanted the Proximans to miss it just because they weren’t listening at the “right” time.

Two-way radio communication across four and a quarter light-years would take some time.

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