By Richard Thieme and Aaron Ximm
[I was whining about rejection slips to my son Aaron Ximm and he came up with this idea. I wrote the story and Analog published it in the Zero Probability category in the October 2006 issue (Vol. CXXVI No. 10) .
This was a poignant moment, first, because Aaron and I had never collaborated before, and second, the first story I ever published, "Pleasant Journey," was published in Analog by the legendary editor John W. Campbell in November 1963. That story was about a virtual reality machine before they existed and a buyer for a carnival who, trying one out, did not ever want to leave. For the full story of that tale and the television program Twilight Zone, see "Talking to Ourselves" in the Islands in the Clickstream Archive (Jan 14 2004).
I was paid $63 for that first story at the age of 19. Imagine my delight when I was paid - you guessed it - exactly $63 for this one too. (I won't bother calculating inflation, it's too depressing.)]
We have been sending signals, one way or another, for centuries, and listening for a reply, thanks to the creaking machinery of that ancient looking-for-a-message-in-a-bottle process we affectionately call SETI.
Never mind that earth cultures long ago abandoned radio waves and adopted lower-register gravity waves for near-instantaneous transmissions to near-star systems.
And never mind that only a few hobbyists know how to build radios.
And never mind that our tidily-wink style of exploring neighboring systems has turned up nothing but rudimentary life forms.
Never mind all that. Religious rituals die hard even in our enlightened times and radio-band SETI searches are definitely a religious ritual. Custodians of the project, spending the accrued interest from an endowment that has grown bloated, are dug in and locked down.
So radio signal sending has continued for centuries because we had the means, the method, and the opportunity.
I don’t think anyone really expected to hear anything back. Even diehard SETIsts greeted the announcement with disbelief. One can announce the second coming only so many times before true believers stop selling their furniture and heading for the hilltops. Yes, maybe the Prophet is right, one learns to say, but … let’s wait and see.
This time, however, it happened. The design of dashes and dots was undeniable. Not in clouds of glory had the extraterrestrial message come but as coherent digital signals enclosed in code wrappers.
Those wrappers were tough to detach. They consisted of braided twists of alien symbols, hundreds of them, interlocking in complex patterns, and it took a massive cracking consortium using Monolith Links in four systems to distinguish the meaningless (to us) hieroglyphics of the alien race from the lucid Chingleese that remained when the wrappers were removed.
The message was distressingly clear.
So we now have a bona fide response to all those messages in all those bottles. But which one did they receive? To which of our many communications do they refer?
Hence this broadcast to all human-cyborg-kind-and-kin in near systems. If any of you has so much as a clue how we might respond, please transmit to Central Station immediately.
The problem is not trivial. Our forebears transmitted millions of ancient and modern messages from “Hello, Rainey,” to weekly installments of WormHole Runners of HyperSpace. We have transmitted on all frequencies, broadcasting in all directions around the spherical bandwidth shell. We have sent the silliest giggles and the most profound insights.
We have sent, alas, everything.
The received message was clearly a response to one of those transmissions. But which one?
We must redress the aliens’ error in judgment. We are a diverse multi-talented species with many variations. We are a bell-curve of modified life-forms, not a simple species that was merely born. Yet we can’t just transmit,
Dear Allegedly Superior Species,
Thank you for your reply. However, to which transmission do you refer?
Perhaps another might be more suitable? Something funnier, perhaps? Or shorter?
Human-Cyborg-Kind (and kin)
No, that won’t work. It would take forever to get an answer back, if they answer at all. I can imagine the blue-tipped tentacle of some clueless intern wiping out our message, oblivious to the implications.
So SETI may be nothing but a monument to the foolish optimism of human-cyborg-kind. At least the sentient life in our little neighborhood can have a good laugh before shooting itself in its collective head with a gun that flaps BANG! on a drop-stick.
Enough preamble. Here, dear kind and kin, is the unanticipated climax of SETI:
Thank you very much for your transmission. A majority of systems in the universe have now had time to review it and we believe that you show promise. Even the Blander-gsst-thupfft! agreed, and they seldom respond positively to any unsolicited transmission (they stamp “we have heard this before” on every one; given their age, maybe they have.)
While your transmission does suggest a certain quirky creativity, unfortunately you do not meet our current needs. There is, in addition, a backlog of species of your type in the universe, so we will not be reviewing transmissions from your sort for an indefinite period. Please listen to this frequency to learn if this policy changes. Policies are reviewed once every galeemp.
This negative response is in no way a comment on your planetary systems or the life-forms they have produced.
Although we would like to reply to each and every transmission, please understand that with millions of systems broadcasting in thousands of media 4889999955677000-seven, an individual response is impossible.
Perhaps a (very young) parallel universe would find your transmission suitable. I believe the Dirnsa are looking for a pet so you might try the umpteenth bubble in the thirieth froth. If you do transmit to a universe less than six billion years old, however, remember to include return-energy-bands to ensure a response.
(designated receiver of unsolicited Flotsam, Jetsam, Detritus and Fluff)
on behalf of HelllenWuline and Associates
(nested at the seventeenth level of the HoHo Reception Group and interim assistant to the seventh sub-Intern’s fourteenth aide)