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Dr Rashmi Patel coughed spasmodically on her mouthful of coffee when she saw the computer analysis. With only two weeks left to finish a paper for an astronomical journal she was pulling another all-nighter, the hard fluorescent lights and third coffee guarding her from sleep.
The data from the radio telescope was unmistakably artificial – not the natural static of background radio waves nor the regularity of a pulsar. A signal produced by an intelligence.
Years ago SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, had been wound up. Decades of effort, and millions of dollars, sunk into ever more optimistic heavenly scans and the fleeting Wow! signal had been the only glimpse of success. All astronomers knew about the ignominious end to SETI, and the I-told-you-so sneering and jokes about little green men. The amount of repeating data in her latest scan had to be a message though; she knew it wasn't from a transiting spacecraft since they used different frequencies for communication. Dumbstruck, Rashmi stared at the data, her features stuck in a catatonic grin.
Her fellow researcher Dr Alvin Basford was expected in the office by
9am. But she couldn't wait that long to share the news. She picked up the
phone, and on hearing a groggy voice blurted out, “
“What are you babbling on about, Rashmi?” he asked, stifling a yawn. It wasn't the first time he'd experienced her resorting to metaphors when excited.
“There's an artificial signal in the latest scan, and it's not any of the usual stellar suspects. I think we've stumbled upon the jackpot SETI was hoping for.”
“Check the analysis again. I'm not coming in this early for a wild goose chase,” he moaned and put the phone down.
Rashmi reviewed the scan data again. Over the three hour period it was
there: a series of discrete spikes and troughs compared to the stellar noise in
previous scans of other star systems. By the time
“So what's all this about, Rashmi?” he asked irritably, still peeved at the early morning call. If there was one thing he hated it was having his sleep disturbed. He looked around the office which was more messy than usual. Empty plastic coffee cups and chocolate wrappers adorned the desks; printouts of research papers piled unevenly formed a little tower on his chair.
“I think we've got a signal from another intelligence in the galaxy. Last night's scan of the Deejnoy system contains a repeating message.”
“Take a look,” she said, pointing to a large monitor on her desk.
He turned to Rashmi. Tiredness showed in her slightly sunken eyes. “Of course, you're right, this is way bigger than the discovery of black holes or exoplanets.”
“Do we go public with this now, or shall we try to decipher its meaning first?” he asked, his mouth stretching into a cheeky grin as he winked at her.
Over the next two weeks both of them got little sleep. Other members
of the department began gossiping, half-jokingly spreading rumours that they
were having an affair. They found this amusing – Rashmi's husband was used to
her erratic shifts and
After several dead ends, believing the signal was more complex than it was, Rashmi had a brainwave. In the cafeteria the sound system was playing an old version of the song Over the Rainbow. She remembered seeing a regular marker in the data, then mentally joined the dots.
“How many discrete peaks are there in the data?” she asked
“Ten, I think,” replied
“That could be it! Seven colours of the rainbow, white, and two end markers.”
“You've done it, Rashmi. It's a simple image matrix.”
They rushed back to the office with the remains of their lunch. A
couple of hours was all
“But why would they send a signal like this with just pictures?” mused Rashmi.
“To tell the galaxy they're there, I guess,” replied
“Now their calling card has arrived, what next?”
The Interplanetary Coalition conference room was full. Large screens dotted the walls, windows into other meeting rooms around the world full of suited, serious looking people. Harry Pennington, President of the Coalition sat at the apex of the brushed steel elongated horseshoe table. After the last person entered the room he waited a minute before calling the meeting to order, letting fractured conversations finish.
“Welcome. As you know there have been rumours that what SETI gave up looking for has now been discovered by chance. Rumours which spread so fast they almost managed to break the speed of light barrier.”
A ripple of laughter spread through the room.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's true. A signal from another intelligent species has been discovered. And verified.”
Smiles immediately morphed back into serious expressions and gasps stood in for words. The President suppressed a grin at the sight of so many hard headed people with their mouths agape. He paused before continuing, knowing when to let things sink in rather than succumb to the temptation to explain immediately.
“Let me pass you over to Drs Rashmi Patel and Alvin Basford, the astronomers who picked up and decoded the signal,” he said, gesturing to the two people sat adjacently on his right.
“Tempting as it will be to interrupt with questions, please wait until they're finished and I'll moderate a Q&A session,” he added.
Rashmi gave some background to how they'd picked up the signal and
converted it into images.
“These are the images from Deejnoy 531c, the colour scheme is basic but clearly shows landmasses, polar caps, and oceans,” he said. “It's their planet, whoever they are. We believe the signal is advertising their presence, and maybe it's an invitation to spacefaring races.”
Harry Pennington moderated questions for an hour. The two astronomers could only answer so much, bigger questions about the implications for humanity were left until a closed session. Discussion raged all afternoon. The Coalition, along with every other interested party with access to a sufficiently powerful radio telescope in the northern hemisphere could scan the signal themselves. Harry anticipated the main points of discussion: what was the intention behind the signal, was there a global security issue, can we launch a mission to the planet and should we?
Rashmi and Alvin reluctantly returned to their original research which
felt irrelevant now even if the Deejnoy matter was out of their hands. Two
weeks later they were sitting in their office unenthusiastically writing up
results for an overdue paper. Rashmi's computer pinged an email alert; she read
the brief statement it contained and leant over to
“Take a look at this message from Harry Pennington. They've got funding to develop a faster than light drive to power a mission to the Deejnoy planet!”
“I wish we were going, it'd be fantastic. Maybe they'll set up a new Nobel Prize just for us,” he joked.
It took ten years to develop the light transcendent drive. Even with funding from governments and enormous revenues from planetary mining, the project became a deepening money pit. Millions of dollars were pocket change to the budget. Wrangling between governments threatened to scupper the project several times amid calls that the money could be used for better, Earthbound, purposes. And every financially contributing country wanted industrial participation or representation in the spaceship's crew. Despite the real danger of the project becoming a disaster by committee, the Interplanetary Coalition stood firm in managing it.
Harry Pennington turned sixty on the day the massive spaceship Santa María launched from Earth orbit, his face now furrowed with lines etched by a decade of managing egos and vested interests. Yet it hadn't dampened his enthusiasm for humanity's greatest exploration. His address to the world media would be made from the same conference room that he announced the Deejnoy signal.
“I'm going to keep this short,” he said to the world. “You already know what's happening.”
“Ten years ago I sat in this room when two research astronomers told a select few about the Deejnoy signal. Since then you've all known about it. Don't believe all the speculation you've heard, this is essentially an unknown world. All we can say for certain is that our biggest mistake would be to ignore the message, to cower in our solar system afraid of what we might find beyond. We wish Godspeed to the crew of the Santa María on their epic interstellar journey to a new horizon.”
The public slowly lost interest in the mission as the months passed. Regular transmissions from the crew held less and less interest to anyone outside their families, or those who looked beyond the quotidian cares of life. More immediate issues filled the news.
When the Santa María entered orbit around the planet, Rashmi sat watching the first report at home with her husband Peter, while Davey played, gabbling contentedly in his playpen.
“Safety protocols state that a full planetary survey must be carried out before a dropship can be sent to the surface,” relayed Captain Fenton across the years to the live TV feed on Earth.
“Two satellites showed something we didn't expect. There's evidence of planet wide quarrying, great swathes of land have been dug out. No lights shine at night, and the deep zoom shows only dereliction and desolation. Whoever, whatever, lived here has perished,” he concluded sombrely.
Rigorous protocols for the mission had been agreed, but so far from home and facing a unique challenge, who knew what the crew of the Santa María would do? Neither the Interplanetary Coalition nor governments could interfere at this distance. Signals in either direction were on a vast journey – by the time they got to their destination anything could have happened.
Rashmi and Peter marvelled at the detailed images from the planet's
surface. The crew nicknamed the planet Avaris after a lost capital of
Over the next two days sporadic live reports punctuated the talking heads on the dedicated TV channel. Audience figures soared when the captain authorised a dropship landing. On the planet's surface the captain's helmet cameras showed row upon row of ruins, crumbled and eroded from Avaris's incessant winds. “I wouldn't like to be stuck here, stranded under this endless sky,” he quipped. “The desolation is eerie.” At that moment the feed died, as did the heartbeat signal from the mothership.
Peter looked at Rashmi, concerned. “I don't know what this means, but let's hope that signal you and Alvin picked up wasn't a Siren's call,” he said, nervously.
Unknown to anyone in Earth's solar system, they were already on their way across the black expanse – a race of beings who plundered worlds and enslaved a few of the indigenous race for curiosity's sake; the zookeepers were to become an endangered species themselves. This invading race would be fearfully named the Toughbacks due to their leathery grey skin, hard and tough like the hide of a rhinoceros.
It took them only a few years to arrive, uninvited and unwanted, in their armada of military and mining vessels. First contact, rather than a meeting of respectful races, was Armageddon for most of the population. The Toughbacks’ aggressor technology laid waste to large parts of Earth, all military installations were vapourised and billions perished. The last thing that many people saw were great rents in the sky as fireballs rained down.
“Tell us about the spacemen, daddy.”
Peter Godwin warmed his hands on the sun. Brighter and hotter than a thousand red giants, prominences tickling flesh held too close. He looked round at the three families spangling in the firelight.
“Okay, but only until curfew, then you go to bed,” he said to his son Davey.
Excitement spread among the children, they loved to hear this story. Yet they never understood why their parents looked wistful, and why they held them closer when the spacemen tale was told.
Peter took a swig of firewater, grimacing as it briefly stripped his throat, then wrapped his arm around his wife's waist. Rashmi snuggled in to him; she knew the story only too well.
“Look up, do you see that star to the right of the bright one?” Peter said, finger pointing into the pin lighted darkness.
“Yeah, what is it?” two of the children shouted with glee, pretending they didn't know.
“Remember what I told you about light years. That orange star is 37 light years away through the magnificent void. Five planets circle it, though they're far too small and faint to see without a very powerful space telescope. Avaris, the third planet, is Earth's distant twin.”
“The giant spaceship Santa María took four years to reach Avaris. When they arrived in orbit Captain Fenton sent his first report, he said it was a doppelgänger planet of blue oceans, brown landmasses, and white clouds. It was an emotional time for the crew, many of whom said they travelled all those years and felt like they'd ended back home. Only the unfamiliar shape of the continents and two silvery moons indicated it was an alien world.”
“Are there more doppelgängers out there?” asked one of the children.
“There could be, Phillipa,” Peter responded gently, “there's a lot of room in the universe.”
The martinet call of the curfew klaxon harried the air, broke the mood. Even the chirping of insects ceased during its warning. Only Badger, their pet terrier made a noise. He barked at the klaxon nearly as much as he did at the Toughbacks on their daily patrols. Peter looked out over the reservation. Serried ranks of dormitory buildings stretched for miles in the same pattern as the ruins on Avaris.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he said to his wife, standing up as the children skipped inside. “We don't want to be caught out under our endless sky after curfew.”
I enjoyed it, but it could have been better. Nice twist at the end, though.
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