Chapter One: Out There
Subplanetary coordinates 23.47.78/5 from Alpha Centaurs, new system. The Scorpios constellation, Antares-3.
-Hey, Bob, come 'ere for a second. – The pilot of a tiny 'Artemis type 2' spaceship threw his back out in the uncomfortable chair while looking around in search of his 'business partner', Bob.
-Did you spill coffee on the control panel again? – Came the voice from the storage unit.
-Just get your lazy ass off the bench and come here!
Bob groaned, but entered the piloting unit. He stopped behind his friend and examined the pixilated image.
-Can you see this? – Way, the pilot, drew a line with his finger on the screen. – Unusual pattern, ha?
-Oh, come on. That's nothing special. Just a glitch.
-With such accurate waves? Too regular for a natural phenomenon.
Bob leaned against the pilot chair and squinted his eyes. Way watched him in anticipation.
-Nah. – Bob said. – It's probably an electromagnetic anomaly. Or it's the computer misbehaving again. I told you not to play RPGs on it, the system is overloaded.
-But this signal screams 'intellegent life'! What if we will be the first humans to discover aliens?
Bob lingered. – I don't buy this. Besides, how many times a month do you discover aliens? Remember last week? You thought there were silicon-based bacteria in your taco, but it was just your eyelash.
Way sighed, but nodded. – It's not like we have time to visit it anyway.
-Good boy. – Bob patted the pilot on the shoulder. – Wanna have curry at the Centex airport?
-What's your name, lad? - The guy behind the counter lifted his head from a pack of documents he was studying and inspected the person in front of him.
-Eli. - Was the answer.
-That's short for Eliot? - The counter guy's left eyebrow went up.
-No, my full name is Arielle. - Replied Eli, staring awkwardly at the ceiling.
The counter guy snickered. - You know that's a girl's name, right?
-Well, Jayne ain't a girl.
The last time Eli said this line in response to the same question was the first time he ever spoke to Rose. She approached him at a lecture 'after-party' while he was waiting in line to get his book signed by a scientist. She asked him what his name was, and giggled when he introduced himself. 'That's a girl's name' she said, but with no intention to mock him. 'Well, Jayne ain't a girl' escaped Eli's mouth before he had time to think about it.
By an unbelievable coincidence, Rose did know where that line was from. Out of millions people in the galaxy, she shared the same passion for classical sci-fi TV shows, including Firefly. She laughed and continued talking to him, and never found out that what Eli actually meant to say was 'But a beautiful name - beautiful, like you'.
Unfortunately, the counter guy has never heard of early 21 century sci-fi classics, so he stared back at Eli with confusion. Instead of telling the clerk to mind his own business, Arielle, once again, made a fool of himself.
-Can you give us the pass already? - Rose made a step forward and awarded the counter guy with an accusing look.
-Just a minute, lady, I'm searching the database.
Rose gave out a deep annoyed sigh. - Let's take a seat, shall we? - She suggested, and they sat down near the counter, next to a dozen more waiting people.
-He doesn't have to search the database. - Eli said, playing with a lock of hair on the left side of his face. - It's automatic. He has all the data right under his nose, and he's delaying everyone deliberately.
-It's the sense of power. - Rose lowered her voice. - Where else a jerk like him could make such 'important' decisions. – She made air quotes with her fingers.
Eli covered his ears, his body pressed into the corner of the sofa. - I hope we're not stuck here for the night. It's loud, and I forgot my headphones.
-A girl and a guy. The girl is short, looks very serious and has this silvery jacket on, and the guy is sort of gloomy, about as tall as me, dark hair, looks like a weirdo...
Rob got smacked on his palm by Jemini.
-Hey! - He protested.
-Eli Martinez and Rose Keylon. - Sally continued for him. - They should be somewhere in here.
The assistant they asked for help made a lazy attempt at 'looking through the data', but quickly lost interest and pretended to answer a call.
-Arielle is not a weirdo. – Jemini was not a feisty type, but she didn't tolerate condescending comments.
-Looks like a weirdo to me. – He shrugged, rubbing the bright red spot on his hand. Jemini frowned, but didn't reply.
-Why are they so rude? - Sally asked, searching for faces in the crowd. - Aren't they supposed to be friendly and helpful?
Jemini smirked. - Yeah, sure. The underpaid staff consisting of low educated people that gives out permissions to fly to nowhere, literally. The politest lot in the galaxy.
-But isn't it what we do? - Sally said. – We aren't exactly rich, only two of us have finished university, and we are kinda responsible for sending people out into space.
-That is so philosophical. - Rob replied. –I'm touched, and will have to reconsider my core beliefs. Now where's the weirdo? Ouch!
He hid his hands behind his back to protect them from Jemini.
-There you are! And we thought you were eaten by the space monsters.
Rob, Jemini and Sally found Rose and Eli sitting near the counter.
-Space monsters? - Jemini took a seat near her friends.
-Well, why else would they make a border here, in a middle of nowhere? There are space monsters here for sure.
-The space monster's right there, playing Rhingo at the holoface. - Rose replied with a sad smile.
-God gracious, he is playing Rhingo! - Rob shook his head, astonished. - And he's being paid for playing kids games and being grumpy? I want that job.
-Because shouting at strangers and catching holographic hoops with a rhino horn is much more interesting than discovering planets. - Sally said. - Sure.
-You see that table? - Eli asked, pointing at a wide plastic table in the opposite corner of the room. - It has all the passes that people give when they come back on the Empire territory. They're just lying there. No one counts or collects them; no one puts them into some database. They just throw them away at the end of the week.
-Do you want the tickets for you collection? I'll get your two kilos. - Rob pretended to grab a pile of paper in his arms.
-This system is wrong. - Eli continued. - Why don't they make rules and follow them, like sensible human beings?
-Possibly because they are not sensible human beings? - Sally replied.
-It's too new. They are trying to make rules, but it's hard. - Rose said. - Twenty years ago Sirius B was as far as we could ever dream of getting, and now we take trips worth of hundreds light years every week. I remember when I was a tiny kid on Centex, a journey from Earth to Mars would take months. When my parents migrated to Alpha Centaur system, they flew for almost two years. Two years! And we've been there and back twice last month.
-Hyperdrives were invented fifteen years ago. They had plenty of time to adjust. - Eli disagreed.
-Let's take a pass from that pile and go. - Sally suggested.
-Counter suggestion! Let's start a riot and free these people. - Rob said, and everyone laughed.
-It's worth it though. - Rose smiled. - The miracles we see...
-Like that dead cold planet we saw two days ago? And a week ago? And a twenty more this month? - Jemini said.
-We did discover Arcilus 4. - Rose reminded her. - You know, the blossoming planet full of oxygen that can be colonized without altering the atmosphere.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
-I still wanna play Rhingo for money. - Said Rob with a strange sentiment in his voice.
Far away from the A23 border station, a tiny spec lit up in the sky. Native residents of the Silverstone asteroid cluster would surely appreciate the beauty of the night sky, if, of course, they had a concept of beauty, and a nervous system, and eyes – and if they existed in the first place. But dozens of asteroids that orbited a lonely star, Regal, were stone cold and heartbreakingly dead. So the only person who laid a gaze on the dim grey colors in this outer space oasis was Sally James, the pilot of 'The Wanderer'.
-As I was going over the Cork and Carrie Mountains, I saw the Captain Ferrell, and his money he was counting. – She sang along, tapping her fingers on the control panel. The track was wrapped in several layers of human culture – a modern cover of a 21st century rock tribute to an old Irish folk song.
Her work was nearly over. She was about to guide the ship into hyperspace and turn on the autopilot, but hesitated. Everyone else was asleep in their rooms, exhausted after the long wait at the Empire border, but she was wide awake and alert. She had no intention of slipping into the dream world just yet. Sally ruffled her short hair, took a deep breath in and decided against the hyperspace jump. So what they will arrive two hours later? The Silverstone asteroid cluster is beautiful, and her crew needs a good rest.
Arielle managed to fall asleep only after an hour of lying in bed and two melatonin pills taken. He returned to his room almost drained of mental energy, and he wasted the rest of it on drawing a sketch of an arctic tern. Surely his special interest was more important than showering or eating. He will do that in the artificially induced morning, before they will start on a new assessment.
He laid in his bed in darkness and thought about how their target world may look like. The raw numbers they received could predict a lot of things, and it was enough to hope, but the crucial question remained unanswered – can the planet be terraformed, improved and polished until humans could settle there? Their payment, and therefore their success, depended on that.
Eli and his crew were in business for seven months or so. They had occasional victories, and managed to make enough money to get by, but they were outright beaten by most of their rival teams. All their findings were accidental rather than carefully planned. Their work lacked a structure, a solid plan that would ensure a stable income. And they already went for several weeks without payment, so as the leader Eli was close to freaking out.
'I'm over complicating things', he thought. Maybe they aren't professionals, but this wasn't a good time to be professional anyway! The world was big and exciting as ever, and Eli felt like a brave explorer in times of Great World Discoveries. Only better, because he was travelling through outer space, and he didn't have to deal with scurvy. Or seasickness. Or pirates trying to steal their treasures since, well, they had no treasures. Sometimes he was able to see the bright side.
-Wakey-wakey, sweet little mermaid! – The door to Eli's bedroom opened with a clang, and Jemini rushed inside, like a tiny hurricane. She was still wearing her nightie, and her hair was bushy and tangled. – We've got news.
Eli woke up with an abrupt and muffled shriek. He tilted his head painfully quick and looked at Jemini. She was quietly pacing his room from one wall to the other.
-Are we in danger? – He asked, rubbing his eyes.
-Nope. – She replied.
He checked his alarm clock – full four hours early. – Then what the hell happened?
-What? – Jemini was preoccupied with Eli's ticket collection that was unsorted and scattered on the table.
-Why did you wake me up?
-Oh, that. – She turned around. – Is that a solar system above your bed? – She pointed at the small hand-made model of the solar system hanging right above his head.
-Yes. – He replied.
-Jemini. Why did you wake me up?
-Sally woke me up. She was flying past a system, and noticed something. She wants to investigate it.
-Okay. – Eli sat up on his bed and put his socks on. – I'll be in the piloting room in five minutes.
When he entered the piloting room, everyone else was already there. Sally and Rose were talking to each other, Rob sat at the screen for the main computer system, and Jemini was focused on the windshield, studying the scenery.
-Here's the captain. – Rob said, fingers tapping on the table.
-Technically, I'm not a captain of this ship, just an owner. You need to be in the military to be an official captain. Although this information can be a little outdated. – Eli shared some habits with Jemini; he paced the room from one wall to another.
-Why so nervous? – Rob asked, still typing something on the laser keyboard.
-You woke me up in the middle of the night, my routine went to hell.
-I didn't know that you have a routine for discovering alien life. – Jemini was preoccupied with the view. – Potentially.
-Alrighty. – Eli gathered all his patience. – Don't you think you should have started with that?
They all sat at the table in the main room, which was round, bright and empty. Some were holding cups of coffee in their palms. Rob was sneak checking his tablet that he managed to stick up his sleeve. Jemini was consuming one chocolate candy after another.
-Two things. – Sally said, facing Arielle. – One good, the other… depends.
-Can you please drop the solemn and mysterious act? I'm getting the space horror movie feel. – Eli touched his cheek, aiming for the long brand of his hair with wooden beads carefully woven into them. – Explain everything the way it is.
- I was passing by the Scorpios constellation, and my navset broke down. I lost the beacon coordinates and had to reprogram the system. And when it was rebooting, it detected an electromagnetic frequency coming from one of the stars. – Sally made a sip from her mug. – I thought it was an anomaly, but I put it through the analyzing algorithm, and it couldn't match it to any natural phenomenon. So I stopped the ship and woke everyone up.
-Just a minor clarification here – why were we passing Scorpios in the first place?
-Aaahm. – Sally paused. – I went out of hyperspace.
-For what reason? – Eli scanned her face, trying to read the emotions.
-Because I wanted to look at the Rabbit hole nebula… – She said cautiously.
-Great. – Eli hid his face in his hands. – Didn't I tell you to save fuel?
-But life is short! – Sally protested. – I wanna see wonders!
-This wasn't the plan. I didn't expect this to happen. – He took a deep breath in.
-Eli, but isn't it exciting? – Jemini said. – What if will be the first humans to come in contact with alien intelligence?
-Half an hour ago you yelled at me and promised to cover the inside of my helmet in peanut butter, and now you are all enthusiastic about it. – Sally wasn't sure if she was on her side.
-You ruined a very nice dream. – She explained. – I was angry.
-What are our options? – Eli stood up.
-Fly there and investigate, or ignore it and go back to hyperspace. – Rose said, speaking up for the first time.
-We've got enough fuel to make the leap and return on our course afterwards. – Sally finished her coffee and wiper her mouth.
-But why do it? – Eli walked round the table, hands behind his back. – What are the facts?
-There's an EM signal coming from a star in the constellation, likely from a planet that orbits one of the stars. It's stable, regular and in no way explainable by natural causes. – Sally started.
-It can be so many things! A piece of alien technology that is leaking signal into space, a message sent by them to other planets in search of other life, or maybe an SOS from a person who is stuck there. We can't ignore it. – Rose continued.
-But what's on stake here? – Eli said, stopping his pacing. – We may fly all the way to this planet, descend on it and find nothing there. It would be a huge waist of our already limited resources. We have no proof, no evidence…
-But what if? – Rose asked, interrupting him.
Eli sighed. – I'm a Scully stuck in a room full of Mulders. Great.
-Let everyone speak, 'technically-not-a-captain'. – Sally looked around. – Jemini, what do you think about this?
Jemini had her digital camera in her hands, and she was tweaking the settings.
-Did you lose interest already? – Sally asked.
-I didn't. – She replied. – My ADHD did. I'm off my meds for the moment.
-You have anything to say here?
-The Rabbit Hole nebula is pretty. – She said. – And I wanna take photos of all the aliens.
-Looks like we already have three voices for. – Rose smiled with a corner of her mouth.
-But this doesn't make any sense! – Eli protested. – We are what, a light year away from the signal right now? You realize that whatever it is, it might be already gone by the time we get there. It's a message from the past.
-Why do you always have to be so skeptical? – Rose frowned. – You are a space explorer! You need to keep an open mind.
-It's a logical thing to do. – Eli justified his words. – I don't trust my brain, and neither should you.
'Besides, if they are wrong and I will say yes, I will be the one to blame' he thought, but didn't say it out loud.
For several seconds nobody spoke, as each side tried to come up with the best arguments. And before anyone had time to voice them, a loud high-pitched beep came from one of the computers.
-Did anyone forget lasagna in the microwave? – Rob said, getting up. – Oh wait, no – it's me! While you yelled at each other like fake talk-show guests, I calculated the possibility of the signal being a natural phenomenon.
-The signal could be a microwave. – Eli said with a smirk.
-It's 1.5%. – Rob pressed a button and projected his data on the opposite wall. – Here's your fact. Would you like to argue with numbers?
-Alright. – Eli lifted his arms in defeat. – You won. Let's chase your electromagnetic ghost into the void.
-I have a theory. – Rob was near the door that lead to the piloting room, leaning on the wall.
-You probably mean hypothesis. – Eli replied, too busy to look up from his tablet.
-Whatever your nerdy self prefers. I think that it's a commercial.
-They are advertising their planet. I mean, the signal is repetitive and stable, but short. It could as well be 'come visit us – we have the best acorns in the galaxy'.
-I like that your hypothesis requires the planet to have not only oak trees, but also a society of intelligent species that depends on capitalism.
-You know me. – Rob smiled. – I have an original mind.
The Wanderer floated gently on the metaphorical waves of hyperspace, gaining speed and steadiness with every second. Nothing was dense or solid in this peculiar dimension – the ship moved freely through stars and comets and dust clouds, as if they weren't there. Ordinary physics and geometry laws didn't work here. Distance from A to B didn't equal distance from B to A, parallel lines crossed each other, mass and gravity didn't exist. Everything was odd and out of ordinary.
Human mind couldn't comprehend this knowledge, it was too counterintuitive, too different from the world people grow up in. Instead everyone relied on machines that calculated trajectories and magically made sense of this other reality. It took responsibility off pilots and handed it to engineers who programmed the equipment.
It didn't bother Eli, he knew that ultimate knowledge is an unreachable goal. There was a story he liked to tell, one about the human nature of scientists.
Once in the early twentieth century a journalist approached Arthur Edington, an astrophysicist who supposedly proved Einstein's theory of relativity, and asked him a question:
-There is a saying, sir, that only three people in the world can understand the general theory of relativity. Do you agree with it, sir?
Edington paused and didn't reply.
-Oh, sir, I had no intention to offend you…
-No, you didn't. – Edington smiled. – I'm just trying to guess who could be that mysterious third person.
A joke worth its author, but what would he say now, when general theory of relativity went out of the window? Are there people in the world who can even begin to understand the nature of relative dimensions?
Eli changed his position, noticing that his legs were tired and heavy. His internal dialogue continued.
It's a bit scary to think that almost all 22nd century inventions are not that well understood. Hyperspace and relative dimensions? We know they are weird, and we can navigate them, but not more. Quantum computers? No idea how they work at all. Heavy neutrino engines? Blank page wherever you look.
Twenty first century was the time of discoveries. Twenty second is full of mysteries. Seems like a good place to start, but move where? In all directions until you find a magical door? That was a very good question.
-Hey, what are you thinking about? – Rose tried to trace Eli's gaze.
-Oh, nothing really. About the paradox of humanity.
Rose nodded and returned to her conversation with Sally. She was used to Eli's daydreaming. Sometimes she wondered what is really going on inside his head.
-Five minutes till our exit. – Sally notified the crew. – You may wanna sit down.
-This is not our first hyperspace trip. – Rob glanced at the main system screen and pressed enter. – We know what to do.
-The first time we did it you tripped on a wire, fell down and threw up on the keyboard. – Sally said. In her past as a military pilot she used to fly on first models of spaceships that were capable of hyperjumps.
-No need to remind me about that fun day either. – He replied, but took a seat at the table.
They emerged from their short hyperspace journey as close to the signal source as possible. Sally repeated their coordinates - 23.47.78/5 from Alpha Centaurs, Antares-3 in the Scorpios constellation.
-Triangulation was correct. – She announced. – The signal is here, and it's still working.
-Can we just run a standard assessment, like we always do?
-Because obviously we have nothing better to do. – Eli couldn't see much through the windshield. The planet beneath was shrouded in dark grey clouds that completely obscured the surface.
-It's a bit too late to be grumpy, Eli. – Rob returned to his place at the keyboard.
-It's never too late to be grumpy.
-Okay, team. – Rose decided to take the commanding position. – You all know what to do.
The standard assessment procedure consisted of several steps, and every person on the ship had their part in it. The first stage was probing: their data probe, nicknamed 'Dora the Explorer', was a DIY machine, and not an industrially made piece of equipment like 'Odyssey 1.5' that most of their competitors owned. It was assembled by Jemini and Rob out of various second-hand details and broke down every several weeks, but it was their best option.
Sally positioned the ship as close to the atmosphere as she could while Jemini checked the probe and turned on the manual control. The trickiest part of the process was opening the parachute at the correct time – the casing wasn't supposed to catch fire, but it didn't have a high enough percentage of fireproof alloy, so it was covered in scorch marks from previous accidents.
-We're ready to go! – Jemini announced via intercom, and pushed the heavy probe into the ejection unit.
This time they had a relatively smooth landing, and twenty minutes after ejection Rob was already establishing video connection. The entire crew gathered round the main system screen and held their breath in anticipation as the percentage was slowly rising from zero to one hundred.
-Dear space friends, I present to you… the alienpolis! – Rob pressed 'connect' and clapped his hands.
The screen was black for several seconds, then the camera became active. The surrounding area was… a rocky wasteland.
-That looks like Mars before it was terraformed. – Jemini grew up in a Mars colony, so she knew what she was talking about.
-It has… a lot of rocks and… dust… and… fog? – Rose tilted her head to the side, trying to make sense of what was in front of her.
-Maybe it's a desert of some sort? – Rob wasn't ready to admit defeat. – Should we try a different place?
Eli didn't even try to hide his triumph. – I told you so. – He answered with a smug face.
-Let's not make assumptions just yet. – Rose said. – Wait for more data.
-What data? – Eli felt his wrists tickling, so he pressed his hands together, reminding himself that it was rude to take glee in other's misfortune. – Rose, don't deny the obvious. This planet is as dead as dinosaurs. If this place had an advanced alien civilization, don't you think we would notice it?
-Well even Earth has unhabituated places! – Rose didn't want to give up. – Imagine if we would land a probe in Antarctica.
-The signal is coming twenty kilometers from here. – Sally said. – Rob, put it through your decoding program. See if you can make sense of it.
-I'm on it. – He replied. – How is the chemistry down there?
Jemini was looking through her tablet. – I'm already getting data on atmosphere, and it's not very good. Sorry, Rose. Oxygen less than 1%, a lot of halogens – chlorine and bromine to name a few. Also significant levels of SO2. Based just on this, I'd say it's hostile to carbon-based life.
-What if it's not carbon-based? – Rose interrupted her.
-Oh come on, that's ridiculous. – Eli said, more loudly than he planned. – Accept the truth! You were wrong and I was right.
-Temperature outside 42 degrees C, 1.8 of Earth gravity. – Continued Jemini. – Pretty high UV radiation. I think its half way to a massive greenhouse effect.
-How's the signal decoding? – Sally asked, trying hard to conceal her disappointment.
-Two more minutes.
-Party's over, lot. – Eli said. – I'll go back to sleep. You get back on our course and wake me up when we're there.
-Eli, wait. – Rose grabbed his hand. He freed it, but stopped. – I'm sorry that we wasted time and resources on this. Of course you were right. I'm sorry.
Eli smiled. – It's okay. Sooner or later we will learn to tell apart facts from wishful thinking. Good night.
He was already half way there to his room, when he heard someone running towards him. Seconds later Jemini appeared in front of him.
– Come back. – She said, trying to catch her breath. – They decoded the signal… and it's speaking English.
Once again the crew stood in a tight circle around the computer screen. On it a string of numbers was displayed, with a transcription beneath it. It read 'communication algorithm one in operation; anyone out there?'.
-Are you sure that's what the signal is saying? – Sally scratched her chin.
-It's pretty straight forward. – Rob answered. – The numbers represent letters of the English alphabet, and each number is conveyed through an impulse of a certain wavelength. My algorithm calculated differences between frequencies and rated them from 1 to 28. Then it applied several common cyphers and found a message that made sense. I added spaces and the question mark.
-Could it be a coincidence? – Eli was already pacing – it helped him think.
-Don't deny the obvious. – It was Rose's turn to celebrate victory.
-Can you talk back to it? – Sally stared at the screen as if it was an ancient artifact.
-I can try sending signals to the source. – Rob began typing on the keyboard. – What do I say?
-Can we just take a minute to discuss this before we do anything hastily? – Eli stopped and lifted his head to the ceiling. – Let's say this is an intelligent life form. Why is it speaking English?
-I have a suggestion. – Rob was still typing. – How big is our radio bubble right now?
-Right. – Jemini said. – They could have listened to our TV shows and podcasts for several years. They can be enough to learn a language, if you are smart and dedicated.
-Or they got hold of one of the probes that we sent to space. – Sally said. – A one with our messages to aliens attached to it.
-We need to be reasonable. – Eli took a chair from the table to sit down and immediately began to bounce his leg. – And logical. If these are aliens sending this message, where are they? Underground? Invisible?
-Or they left a beacon here and it's sending the signal. – Sally suggested.
-Anyway, we're about to found out. – Rob pressed enter.
'Hello' appeared on the screen under the first message. Everyone in the room held their breath. It was so quiet you could hear dust falling on the floor.
'Hello. How did you find us?' came back a minute or so later.
-So… that's it? – Sally said, with slightly frowned eyebrows. – We just made contact with aliens? Somehow I imagined it would be a bit grander.
Suddenly there was a loud bang and a shower of confetti. Eli nearly fell from his chair. For some reason Rob decided that it was a perfect opportunity to use a Christmas cracker that he kept underneath the desk, just in case.
-I was preparing it for when Arielle will lose virginity, but this is a better moment.
-What the fuck is wrong with you?! – Eli was pressing his palms to his ears, his head ringing with noise.
Jemini reached forward and hit Rob hard on his shoulder. He gave her an annoyed look, but didn't say anything.
Eli thought about his friends seeing him freak out because of a cracker and felt his cheeks burning. He forced himself to calm down and hoped that everyone will forget about the incident as soon as possible.
-What should we reply? – Rose came closer to the screen and read the last line again.
'Hello. How did you find us?' it said.
-Tell them the truth. – Eli said. Rob began typing.
We received your signal and traced its origin
There was a long pause filled with machinery whistle and heavy breathing of the crew.
Where are you?
-So far so good. – Rob continued to type. – Is anyone filming this?
In the orbit above you.
-You're being too vague, they won't understand you. – Eli said from behind Rob's shoulder.
-Arielle – chill. The aliens are smart enough to invent the technology, they are smart enough to understand incomplete structures.
Describe what you see outside.
-Are they interrogating us? – Jemini frowned.
-Maybe they aren't sure where exactly we are. – Rose said. – Tell them.
Beneath us is a planet with a dense black atmosphere. We are in the Scorpios constellation.
How did you find us?
-They are repeating themselves. – Rob said, scratching his head.
-They are speaking an alien language that is probably full of concepts they don't even understand. – Eli replied. – You need to be more exact and simple. Here, let me try.
Eli got up and stepped forward, typing on the keyboard instead of Rob.
We come from a different planet far away from you. We want to talk to you.
-I told you I can do it. – Eli smiled.
How did you learn this language?
-So it's an individual person? – Jemini said after the message appeared on the screen.
-Looks like it. – Eli nodded.
Who or what is translating the language for you?
The message is generated by a program.
-He is using a program, like a google translator. – Rob said.
-He? – Sally said, suppressing a laugh. – Are you serious? You are gendering an alien now?
-Oh come on, I just said what came to my mind!
-Singular 'they' should have come to your tiny mind. – Sally crossed her arms on her chest. – Didn't you go to school?
Tell us about your planet.
There was a pause, longer than before.
It is my planet.
-Can we get an alien with a higher IQ? – Rob asked, gaining back his control over the keyboard. – This one is replying in short, meaningless sentences.
Do you live under the surface of your planet?
I live in my town.
Rob sighed. – This is beyond frustration.
-Don't you understand? – Eli shook his head. – If they are living underneath the surface, how would they know there is a surface above them? As far as they are concerned, the ceiling is the sky and the walls are the horizon. It's you who isn't making any sense.
-Jemini, can you set the probe to emit an ultrasound? – Sally asked. – Let's find out what's beneath it.
-Already on it. – She replied, taking her tablet.
Eli took his turn at typing.
Do you have a family?
-This says nothing about their species. – Rose said. - Maybe the concept of a family is foreign to them, or maybe they are single.
-Ask something about their biology, chemistry, so on. – Sally recommended.
-I can't. They won't understand me. – Eli was staring at the screen with slightly narrowed eyes. - How can I explain the concept of carbon to them, what if they have a completely different name for it?
-Try math, it should be universal. – Rob wanted to type it himself, but Eli was faster.
I don't understand.
-The cypher doesn't code numbers. – Rob said. – I forgot about that.
What is your name?
Was the next question.
What do you want to know?
-This is like talking to a reception droid. – Rob tapped his fingers on the desk. - How can we communicate when half of the stuff we say they don't understand?
-You need to be creative. – Eli said. – Remember the probes we sent to space in the 20th century? They used images and universal concepts.
-But we can't use images and concepts to communicate, only words. – Rob said, with a slight hint of exhaustion in his voice.
Eli snickered. – That's the story of my life.
Can we visit your planet?
You won't be able to find it.
-Maybe this is a beacon. – Rose said. – And not their actual planet.
Where are you?
Where I have been for the last two days.
-Ugh. – Rob put his palm on his forehead. – Eli, this is exactly what it's like to talk to you in the morning.
-Okay, we need to have a break. – Eli stood up from the desk. – Let's rest for some time, calm down, think about this and return to this conversation later. All right?
It seemed that everyone agreed with the captain.
-I'll go take a nap, and you brainstorm. – Rob said, stretching his back. – I don't like waking up in the middle of an REM phase. I need my smart sleep. – He was on his way out. – That's like beauty sleep, only for your brain.
-I don't think it works. – Sally said, after Rob has closed the door behind him.
Eli would give a lot for a chance to not deal with this situation. It was exactly the opposite of what he was prepared for. He didn't do well with responsibility, and he was terrible at working under pressure. What if he will do something wrong, and start a galactic war or something like that? He struggled to understand other people, even though he was a part of the human race. How was he supposed to communicate with an alien?
Eli found a quiet place, sat on the floor and started gently rocking back and forth. 'Think, Arielle', he said to himself. There has to be a way to find common ground with that creature.
When he came back to the piloting room, Rose, Jemini and Sally were already discussing something in slightly annoyed voices.
-Ladies, we have a problem. – Eli said, approaching them. – Let's get rational with it.
-On a scale from one to ten, how sure are we that this planet is dead? – Eli had a paper and a pencil near his hands, and that gave him a little bit of confidence.
-Nine and three quarters? – Jemini said. – There is no secret village under the surface. The signal is coming from a plane rocky desert. Unless they are completely invisible, I doubt there is a single living thing on this planet.
-That means that there is a transmitter on the surface, one that re-directs our messages and connects us with whoever is replying to us. Considering that there is no significant delay between the replicas, I think that they are not that far from here.
-But where? – Rose brushed her long black hair with her fingers. – I don't see any planet that is close enough to us that can be inhabited.
-This is not that important. What we need is a strategy in negotiating with them. I have several rules that we have to follow. – Eli took his paper. – Rule one – keep it simple. No complex sentences, no metaphors, no concepts that only humans can understand. Rule two – stick to the subject. If you asked a question once and they didn't get it, repeat in in a different way. Don't give up. Rule three – read between the lines. Keep an open mind and try to interpret the message the best way we can. Does everyone agree?
They all nodded.
-I'll wake up Rob. – Said Jemini. – And then we will try again.
Describe the location of your planet in space.
Several minutes of silence.
It revolves around a star.
-Are they trolling us? – Rob scoffed. – I think they are trolling us.
-Aliens aren't trolling us. – Eli assured him. – Stay calm.
How does the star look like?
It is round and bright.
-Ask what color it is! – Rob told him forcefully, as if it was painfully obvious,
-I can't. 'Color' is a human concept, it's not a physical characteristic. What if they don't perceive light as we do? What if they see in ultraviolet, or infrared, or in gamma rays? What if they…
-Okay-okay, Eli. We get it. Say what you want.
-I don't know what. I can't ask how big the star appears in the sky because I can't make an objective measure system that they will understand. I can't ask them to describe the star constellations in the sky because they have different names for them and it won't help us. I can't ask for galactic coordinates because they have their own system for that. We don't have anything similar to use as a point of reference.
-Well, what about the messages we sent to space in the 20th century? You said that they described the position of the solar system through some ways or something.
Rose, Sally and Jemini, who were quiet the whole time, exchanged confused looks.
-I can describe our location but that won't help, will it? It's not like they will jump on a spaceship and immediately take a course to our region.
Eli brushed his hair and almost pulled them out in frustration. He didn't like uncertainty. At all.
-I don't wanna be a killjoy, but is this the time we talk about our obligations? – Rose stepped forward and everyone turned their heads towards her. – Somehow I don't think that a bunch of unqualified space explorers are the people who should conduct the first ever human-alien contact. There is authority high above us. I'm sure Empire officials have protocols for this scenario.
-Yeah, it's not like they will take our discovery away, right? – Jemini seemed to agree. – We made first contact. Yay! Now it's time to let professionals do their work.
-Professionals? – Rob scoffed. – Wake up, girls. Yesterday we spent three hours on a crowded station to get a pass to fly to nowhere. Empire couldn't come up with an efficient way to regulate long distance space travels in fifteen years. Do you really think they are capable of negotiations with aliens?
Eli lifted his hand, gingerly. – I don't wanna be a killjoy either, but do you know why they record people who leave Empire territory? – He paused for a second. – They count how many people disappear.
There was an eerie moment of silence. This was a common rumor among mercenaries, self-employed space explorers and vagabonds of all sorts. People leave human territories and never come back way too often. The Empire officials are bound to keep at least some sort of statistic.
-The reality of the world we live in is this, - Eli said with a serious face, - nobody cares about us. Chances are they won't even believe us. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, this is only between us and them. – He pointed at the screen. – Let's not involve officials.
Nobody said anything, but it was obvious that the crew agreed with their captain.
Do you like to watch the night sky?
Yes, I do.
-Are you trying to make friends with aliens?
-Rob, shut up. – Eli continued to type.
What do you see when you look at the night sky?
What kind of stars?
Last remark was followed by a longer pause.
-Prepare to write down the answer. – Eli said, tapping his fingers on the table.
There is a figure right above my head that looks like an animal, with four legs but no head. There is a bright star with a faint glow and around it several other silhouettes, dancing people with swords. Above it is a fish with a long tail and a funny shaped head, and our two moons – one big, the other much smaller.
-Our alien is a poet. – Said Sally with a soft smile. – Can we do something with this information? Eli?
Arielle was already on his feet, running down the corridor to his room. – I'll be back soon! Don't touch anything. – He yelled over his shoulder.
He came back several minutes later with a big piece of paper and a glass full of pens. Eli was one of the few people who admired the ancient skill of handwriting and enjoyed practicing it. He laid the paper on the table, put empty coffee mugs in the corners, and sat on the chair with his legs curled underneath him.
-Give me twenty minutes. – He said, quickly copying the words from the computer screen.
It was fascinating to watch him in a state of hyperfocus. Eyes almost unblinking, fingers steadily drawing dots and lines on the smooth surface of the paper, his head softly nodding to a rhythm of a song playing in his head. Nothing in the world could distract him from his task. Not every computer could work as efficiently as he was working right now.
When he finished the drawing and checked the words for the last time, Eli got up and cracked his neck, making several of his friends cringe. He lifted the paper above his head, and was quickly surrounded by his crew. A dozen or so of constellations were carefully matched in an accurate scale with a big red X written somewhere in the middle.
-The animal with four legs and no head is Libra, seen from a similar angle to us. – Eli said, pointing to the constellation on his picture. – The fish with a long tail is the Snake, but upside down, and people dancing with swords are Sagittarius and Hercules mixed together.
-You drew all this from your memory? – Rob had a faint smile on his face. He was impressed, but there was something else in his expression. He was almost proud. Luckily to him, no one noticed that.
-Past obsession. Don't question it.
-So where do you think they are? – Rose tilted her head, trying to make sense of the 'treasure map'.
-I can't understand what the bright star with a faint glow is. I have maybe five guesses and it all comes down to what they meant by that. And I'm not sure about the moons either.
-This planet has two moons. – Jemini said, but was ignored.
-Can we try an algorithm of some sort? – Rob suggested. – It can calculate all the options.
-No, I can do it. – Eli replied. – Just step aside, won't you? This got too crowded for me.
Everyone made room quickly. Eli stood motionless with the picture above his head, gaze focused on the red cross. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, and squinted his eyes. And just when Jemini was about to say 'this will take a while', Eli laughed.
-Guys, you will laugh too when you will understand it. – He dropped the picture on the ground and turned to his crew. – The bright star is Antares. It's above us, above the spaceship! They described the location of this planet.
However nobody laughed. Silently Rob picked up the drawing and went to one of the smaller windows that were showing a patch of the 'sky' opposite the planet. He turned the paper until it became clear.
– This is exactly what Eli drew. – He said, stuffing the paper in his pocket with the dexterity of a performance magician.
-Is it just me, or is this starting to sound like a lame high school prank? – Sally was making another cup of coffee.
-Do you think the aliens are mocking us, Sal? – Rob resumed his place at the keyboard. He was checking the signal again.
-What does it mean? – Eli was pacing the room. – What if they are on the planet?
-I thought we agreed that it's out of the question.
-When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Eli said, stopping his pacing. – Try again. Ask them to describe their surroundings.
Describe what's around you.
The weather is nice today, isn't it?
-Alien is trying to make small talk. – Rob said. - Eli, run.
Do you think this is funny?
-Rob, what are you doing?! – Rose was very close to losing her patience.
I don't understand you.
-Maybe they don't have a concept of funny.
-I'm missing something. – Eli lifted his head and stared at the ceiling. – Something obvious.
Suddenly he rushed for the keyboard and typed really fast.
Are you a machine?
But there was no reply.
-What the hell? – Rob read the line on computer. – What are you trying to achieve?
-Have you ever heard of the Turing Test? - He didn't wait for the answer. – It's a bit outdated, we don't use it these days because we stopped making conversation robots. How did it not occur to me before? – He got up and continued to talk. – Back in the twentieth century a famous English mathematician and cryptograph, Alan Turing, proposed an idea for a test that could measure the consciousness of a machine.
Imagine this. You sit in a room, and the only way you can communicate with the outside world is written messages. You have paper and a pen and you can push the letters out of your room. But the problem is, people outside speak only Chinese – and you don't.
But you have a book with hieroglyphs, and one side of the page is the question, and the other is the answer. When you get questions from the other side, you simply find a matching page in your book and copy the reply, without really knowing what you are saying. Now considering that the book is excellent and your handwriting is impeccable, could you actually persuade the native speakers that you understand them? – Again, no one replied. – Well, if a human can use an algorithm to fake a conversation, why can't a machine do it?
-Oh. – Rob said. – Oh, now I understand. You think that we are talking to a conversation bot? You know, like the ones they have at history museums?
-Exactly. – Eli smiled, very pleased with himself. – I don't know how it didn't occur to me earlier. The way they… it answers, it's a classic algorithm! Maybe a bit more complex than a standard one, but a machine none the less.
-And how does the Turing Test work? – Rose asked.
-Well, it's not the point. What they used to do is make people talk to a real person and a machine, turn by turn, and then they asked them which is which. If a significant number of people couldn't distinguish the algorithm from a person, they would say that it passes the Turing Test.
-Yes, but… how can we be sure what that is? – Jemini said, pointing at the screen. – It haven't replied yet.
As if the fake alien heard Jemini, an answer appeared on the screen.
What makes you think so?
Prove that you are not an algorithm.
I agree. What do you think?
-This doesn't make any sense. It's pointless.
-So, captain. – Sally said. – What should we do?
-We are going to land and see it for ourselves. – Eli replied. – Prepare the orange suits. We will need level three protection.
The Wanderer was sold to Eli with a small set of level three protection suits, and he never got around to buying more. So the only people who left the ship after it landed softly on the surface of Antares-3, were Arielle himself, Rob and Sally.
It was hard to see because of the thick grey smoke that filled the atmosphere, and the clear path between rocks and stones was so ridiculously narrow in some places that they had to squeeze through it. Rose was directing them through a communication line in their helmets, and if it wasn't for her, they could as well close their eyes and choose a random direction. It was painfully obvious now that this planet could not be a home to anything but dust.
Eli never liked stepping outside of the ship. Apart from the plastic spacesuits that made his skin itchy and red, he hated changes in gravity that made him even more clumsy than he usually was. He stepped carefully, paying attention to what was under his feet, hoping that the walk won't take too long. He was starting to feel the effect of disturbed sleep, a familiar, but highly unpleasant feeling.
-How far are we from it? – Rob's voice echoed inside Eli's helmet.
-Keep walking. It's at least a kilometer away from here.
Eli sighed, hoping that they won't have to walk through the rocky labyrinth for a whole hour.
The closer they got to the source of the signal, the more agitated the three of them felt. Somewhere deep inside they still hoped that they are about to meet an alien, for the first time in human history. But with every step that brought no changes in scenery the hope slowly faded away.
-100 meters away from it. What can you see? – Rose's voice announced inside their helmets.
-Rocks, dust, smoke. – Rob responded. – The same gloomy image.
Due to the atmosphere seeing past couple meters forward was impossible, so they kept following audio instructions. Fifty meters, twenty meters, five meters. Rob and Sally stopped and looked around. What were they expecting to find?
-I can see it. – Eli said, suddenly.
He made couple of steps forward and sat on the ground. In front of him stood a big metal box. He turned on the flashlight in his suit and leaned closer to read the inscription on its side.
'This is the property of Marlow Jerez. Information beacon model 2.1, production of the "technical infinity company". Equipped with Q&A bot'
-That's all? – Sally asked.
-No, there's also a handwritten note. 'You've been pranked, losers. This planet has already been visited by me and my team. Eat my shorts'. – Eli snorted. – How medieval.
The last tiny spec of hope was blown away like a miniature sun of a candle flame, and only smoke remained on its place. Everyone was quiet and a little bit sad. They came all the way for nothing.
-Alright lot, let's get outta here. – Said Rob and turned around to leave. - Should we pick up Dora on our way back?
-Nah, I'll pick it up with the magnet after liftoff. – Sally patted Eli on the back. – Come on Arielle, let's go back to the ship.
-We should turn it off. – Eli replied, opening the lid on the box and typing something. – I don't want other people to get caught by this. Just give me couple of minutes, I'll stop the signal.
-Don't argue with him. – Rob advised. – Once I didn't let him open the box with cereal first. He yelled at me for ten minutes.
When they returned to the ship and took off, no one had any motivation to talk. Tired and disappointed, they wanted to go to sleep and forget about it. Even Sally quickly sent the ship into hyperspace and activated the autopilot.
Rose caught up with Eli on his way back to his room.
-Hey. – She avoided looking at his face. – I just wanted to say that it wasn't your fault. You made excellent decisions and listened to us, even though we were wrong. Today you were a great captain.
-Thanks. – He replied, putting a lot of effort into every word. – Kind of a bummer, yeah? I mean, this is exactly the sort of thing I would expect from Marlow, but it's annoying nonetheless.
-Well, I hope the planet we are going to check won't be a total disaster. You are right, we are low on money and resources.
-Not the first time, and not the last. – Eli shrugged. – We'll manage. – His gaze stopped at her long dark hair, messy but as shiny and beautiful as always.
-Good night then? – She said, smiling.
This time Eli had no problems with insomnia. Three minutes after wrapping himself in his old weighted blanket and turning the lights out he was already asleep.
Rose found Rob in the main room, searching for snacks in the fridge. She coughed, pretentiously, to attract his attention.
-Oh, it's you, my dear dark flower. – He said, still going through leftover meals. – Excuse me while I pillage through this mess. This entire alien contact situation made me quite hungry.
-Eli is not a virgin, you know.
Rob lifted one eyebrow. – How would you know?
-I talked to his ex-girlfriend. – She said, hands on her hips.
Rob closed the fridge and faced her. – Look, I had no intention to hurt him. It was only a joke.
-Of course. But don't deny that you believed it to be true. Be honest with yourself – you see an autistic guy, and you automatically assume he is a virgin. Just like you automatically assumed that the alien we were talking to was, somehow, a man. I bet that when you read a book you automatically assume that all the characters are white.
Rob sighed. – I'm not a jerk, despite what you might think. And I don't hate Eli, not at all. He is a good captain, and I'm grateful to him. He was the one to take me off the streets of Nova, and away from all the nightmares.
-I don't think you hate him. – Rose said. – But it seems like you target him specifically with your silly jokes. Well, don't. I know Eli, he is my best friend. He is not an innocent child that you believe him to be.
-That's okay. – Rose turned around. – Good night to you too.
-Good night. – Said Rob, and stuffed the two day-old muffins in his pockets.
He came back to his room and closed the door on a lock. Looking around, Rob found a nice place that he could see from his bed, but no one could notice when standing at his threshold. Then he pulled out Eli's painting from his pocket, gently smoothed all the edges, and carefully taped it on the wall.
Far away in the dust clouds of Antares-3, the lonely beacon whispered it's last 'anyone out there?' to the vast emptiness of space. But no one returned its call.