William Sharpe, ‘Willie’ wasn’t really upset. He had been given a good seat on what was the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. No, that was an understatement; the ride of the millennium. The fact that he, as an astronomer, had suddenly found himself in the realm of telemetry wasn’t a bad trade. He wasn’t a politician or a bureaucrat, he just enjoyed the science. And the science had gone screaming through the roof at the VLA.
Once the SETI signal had been deciphered he had let the materials engineers try to decode the meaning of the alien blueprints, it was their field. This was no ordinary telescope they were building. His domain was the signal processing side of Astronomy, it always was. He could discern the Doppler shifts in the solar radiation of binary stars, but rather than simply slide back into quasar astronomy he had wanted a part in the play that was unfolding, even if it was a bit part.
No, he wasn’t upset. But he sure didn’t like all the secrecy and cloak and dagger stuff. This was civilian science, not defence, and civilian science is built on peer review and lively debate. Shoot! he could’ve carved a good path into defence years ago, right at the start. Maybe it was the chaotic anarchist in him that perturbed his orbit and put him on that chance celestial docking with Arroway, Kent and Fisher. The same piece of his psyche that sought after an understanding of noise, and the same spontaneous rogue that prompted him to give the finger to it and walk away when it all turned out to be a waste of time.
Once it was seen that Ellie had simply dropped through the machine the disappointment was tangible, it was on everyone’s faces, and carried by many slumped shoulders. On his particular shoulders were the telemetry signals from Ellie’s personal recording device, which began buffering back into the system as soon as communications with Ellie were re-established. He snuck a look, noise, it just made you want to pack it all in and go to Mexico.
There and then he picked up the backup tape and tossed it in his bag for the offsite copy. He took a Checksum of the signal, and transferred another copy over the fibrenet before he shut the system down. He wanted to talk to Ellie, to ask first-hand what had happened. She had sounded, well ‘disoriented’ is an understatement. Maybe she had taken a bump on the head.
When he got home from Japan a few weeks later he’d realised that in the excitement and after all the transfers he still had the offsite tape. He had neglected to lock it away at the SETI centre on the cab ride home.
Willie momentarily looked at his computer and thought it would be prudent to make a duplicate copy of the tape, just in case some stray magnetic field damaged the signal. Such a beast had almost ruined his thesis at a library book security system years ago. He would calculate the checksum later for verification, besides he might look at the data himself. He then trudged back to his car and drove to the SETI Institute.
When he parked at the centre the hubbub was already beginning. People in dark suits, Kitz’s people were milling around muttering about wasted money and that “ET had picked up the phone but wasn’t taking visitors”.
They were already collecting evidence for the Hadden conspiracy enquiry.
When he told them he was bringing the backup tape they said they’d look after it for him. He had simply handed it over saying it was probably useless anyway.
Now, several years later, Willie was staring at the tape copy in the bottom drawer and wondering what he should do with it. He had kept it in case he needed to bring it to Ellie’s defence, but she had been acquitted. Strangely the evangelical freakshow, Richard Rank, had come to her side. He was saying that because she had found and declared her own faith through the process then she was either a hapless naive victim, or had become truly enlightened. He secretly thought that Palmer Joss must have intervened.
So now the fate of the tape needed a decision. He had looked at the data and found nothing of interest, just noise. He needed fresh, less jaded eyes to look over it, but who? Well there was that upcoming student, the one that must have Aspergers or something. He was taking Willie’s classes but also doing a major in Quantum Computing and cryptographic key analysis, heavy and heady stuff.
The young man had expressed a passing interest in Willie upon learning that he had witnessed the original Vega signal. Maybe this will ‘warm’ him up a little, it might take some of the ‘Vulcan’ out of him. He smiled at the thought.
He put the tape into his shielded bag, the one he had made especially with the conductive mesh. He put the bag in his rucksack with his lecture notes. He put his iPod in the top, passed the lead through and wired himself to it. He walked out the door listening to ‘The Verve.’
Ellie had rested well after the closure of the machine controversy. She wanted very little to do with it and had become a staunch supporter of the Square Kilometre Array, SKA, consortium. It was like something cathartic had occurred to her. She found she had no desire to re-open the SETI can of worms. Besides the SKA kept her very busy. She had to travel to Europe, Australia, Asia, and South Africa with occasional sojourns home in the USA.
Right now Ellie was in South Africa and the afternoon was moving on as she sat at her ‘hot desk’. Having undertaken some site inspections she was summarising her findings. She did this from a reasonably well appointed office that she ‘time-shared’ with other active members of the SKA community. The notion of the desk being ‘hot’ could be taken literally right now. The air-conditioning technicians had arrived that morning with the wrong fan motor, and had used her phone to arrange for the correct part to be couriered out. Meanwhile, they stood about talking about the heat which was building up oppressively.
Looking out the window she could see the sub-Saharan landscape rippling. She knew the same heat would become a longing memory as the boundary conditions approaching the Martian or Lunar extremes heralded the evening chill. The inevitable association to foreign planetary systems and Goldilocks zones bought the familiar SETI spark, but without kindling there was no flame.
The day was drawing to a close. With her work all but completed she permitted herself to indulge. She could happily dwell on the SETI ‘circus’ but it came on with a remoteness. Interestingly she could easily appreciate the reclusiveness of Neil Armstrong. She could never really muster the dryness of Aldrin and couldn’t easily come up with an equivalent response to ‘what was it like?’ to which Aldrin would quip ‘crunchy’. She smiled to herself, fetched a glass of water and continued her musings.
Sure, the research had continued. The dislodged seat had been left out and several people had tried going through the motions again, but nothing had come of the attempts. The same fireworks occurred, the same strange fields and interferences, several variations had been tried, but no one could claim to have experienced what Ellie had.
She wasn’t surprised; the transmission had mysteriously stopped after she had been a passenger in the machine. She was sure that the signal and her experience were related somehow, it was hard to conclude otherwise.
“Small moves,” she’d been told. She somehow had the feeling that the next steps were not necessarily hers to forge, and that they may be in a different direction. Still that did not quieten the scientist in her. Not that her scepticism was reasserting itself, it wasn’t. She understood faith now. It was more akin to a promise, one worth the time of seeing it come to fruition.
No, it was more of the investigator, the fact that something didn’t quite ring true, something missed. It was a bit like the forensic matchbook that was there, but ought not to be. Or was not there but ought to…
The blood rushed from Ellie’s face.
After a quick calculation over time-zones she made the call.
“Kent, how are you?”
Kent Clark had stayed on in the SETI program to direct further analysis of the machine. Kent’s level head and lateral thinking had complimented his perception, and as Director of Research at SETI he had provided several insights into its nature. “I’m well Ellie. Are you coming across to Japan again? The weather is quite mild at the moment.”
“No, not this time Kent, I’m just calling to ask you something.”
“Well we captured the entire Vega signal didn’t we?”
“Yes, and I know what you’re thinking. We tried replaying the signal during subsequent events and it hasn’t made any difference. And If there was a signal that we couldn’t detect, we can’t go back to detect it now.”
“Okay, so we are back to either causality or locality being wrong.”
“We sure are Ellie, they can’t have stopped the signal when they knew you had dropped because they couldn’t have known that you’d dropped for 25 years. We’ve discussed this.”
Ellie was now focussed on her point. “But listen Kent. Maybe they weren’t waiting for someone or something to arrive. Maybe they were waiting for something to leave.”
Kent had a way of using silence. Being blind he could send signals by not sending signals. As far as receiving was concerned… this transmission from Ellie obviously had him thinking again. “So… when this something in Vega was seen to have left, they simply shut the machine down. And at lightspeed 25 years later whatever left Vega, should have arrived here just as the signal was switched off to our ears.”
“What do you think?”
“OK,” began Kent, “so again, was it a part of another signal? Hang on! Are you saying that you being dropped in the machine allowed whatever it was to instantly leave Vega?”
“I didn’t say it, you did. But maybe the humanoid in the blueprints was not us waving goodbye, but greeting hello.”
“What could leave Vega, on an electromagnetic signal, which could be seen in Vega to have left because of an indeterminate event here?”
“Schroedinger’s cat, Kent, Schroedinger’s cat!”
James Frazer was significantly self aware. This hadn’t bothered him, having Aspergers he struggled to even contemplate if anyone felt the same.
This seemed to be a source of some disconnection but he quickly recognised this as a circular problem. He needed empathy to determine whether his self awareness was unusual, and yet he could not empathise. If this seemed to make him a little different, then was anyone the same?
Once Aspergers was explained to him it became something that was as prosaic as having orange hair. Others had it, he had it too, others didn’t seem to need the comfort of peers, nor did he. Move on. It bothered him that it bothered others but that was okay because there were enough people that it didn’t bother. Move on.
Puzzles! Life was a puzzle. Obviously it would be good to solve puzzles so you could get better at the puzzle of life. When in elementary school the teacher drew the number ‘1’ at the top of the board and went on to say that when anyone recognised the pattern they should speak out. He then placed two more 1’s below that in a small triangle, then the numbers 1, 2 and 1. Pausing briefly he then drew the numbers 1, 3, 3 and 1. Having noticed several patterns already James felt some distress. He wanted to be sure of a single pattern before he committed his answer, but with every line added he could see more patterns emerging. When the teacher placed the row 1, 4, 6, 4, 1 he could no longer stand it.
“Sir there are four patterns I can see already but I don’t know which is right.”
“Okay James, what are the patterns you see?”
“Well first there are the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 just inside the 1’s. Then there’s the next row that counts the number of balls in the triangle on my Dad’s pool table, then the next one tells me how many I can stack on top of that. The fourth is that each number tells me how many ways I can get to the number moving down from the top. I think there are more patterns in it but you would have to make some more rows for me to …”
Heather Sparrow, curly haired and freckled in the second row then interjected, “Isn’t each number just added to the number next to it to make the line below?”
James looked up at Pascal’s triangle and thought about it. “But that’s just how you make it, it’s not what comes from it.”
That afternoon James secreted home an A3 sheet. He drew an extended Pascal Triangle and began looking for more patterns. He found ‘11’ and ‘11×11’ and ‘11x11x11’ hidden in the rows. He then started looking for other number patterns. He heard about, and saw Fibonacci’s sequence in the patterns. He then became fascinated by the golden ratio. Soon after James was put into a different classroom.
He found a support network on the Internet. This helped him to find a second opinion when he needed it. In fact this was almost like having a hive mind. He could visualise the threads of conversation, and he translated this to his own thought patterns. He contemplated whether this was a form of schizophrenia but decided that this path of reasoning did not interest him. It required empathy.
The bulletin boards he initially discovered soon became islands of alternatives: Google, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter. Now that was interesting! Not just different invocations of social networking, but different paradigms. It was perfect. He could avoid having to understand people face to face by using the layers of abstraction available. And it taught him how to relate face to face when it was required. He created his avatar in this universe and kept it very separate from his true love: maths. He was able to move on.
Mathematics was also an abstraction, one that didn’t have the same chaos as the human element. Once you delved beyond the second order of human understanding it became unfathomable. Mathematics however revealed new layers of beauty, symmetry, elegance, metaphors, and when you had dug down many layers you sometimes unexpectedly found yourself back on the surface. So it was that James’ life was full. He was able to relate to the world around him and the humanity he cohabitated with.
Having invited him for coffee and muffins Dr Willie Sharpe was evidently one of those not bothered. This meant no explanations, and you could get on with the real task. What was the real task? Now that really did bother him. Before that could be answered it had to be known what was real, and from “cogito ergo sum” he deftly sidestepped existentialism to understand that something really was out there, but what?
Willie was waving.
“Sorry Dr Sharpe, I was in a reverie. So you are saying that this tape doesn’t have any readily interpreted result. That you are happy to bequeath it to me, but that you’d like to be kept abreast of any outcome. You are also saying that you, as an expert in your field, have no idea if there is any substance worth pursuit.”
Said like that Willie was beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t have simply binned the tape. It certainly wouldn’t make a riveting display at the SETI interpretation centre. ‘No result’ was a little harsh, he had tried some basic analysis, and had found some curious results. The problem was that further exploration would need an inordinate amount of computational power. This was power he did not have access to, and in fact he doubted if anything on this earth had the computing capability required. No, this needed a lateral approach, and technology that transcended existing sequential computing.
“I guess I would really just like to have a fresh set of eyes look into it before I relegate it to the garbage,” he surrendered, “and call me Willie please”.
He leaned over the coffee table. ”Truth be said I can’t even be sure if this isn’t the last copy of the data that remains. I have my suspicions that the National Security Agency may have thought that the best security was the incinerator.”
James considered this. “You do realise that I am researching my thesis on quantum computing and key extraction, I may not have the time to extend to this pet project?”
Willie shrugged and reached over to place the tape back in the bag. James was secretly very excited about the proposal but tried to keep his head cool. He finally broke.
“So here is what I propose”, he reached out to seize the tape, “I will use this data as a blind test to the technology I hope to develop. In a sense creating an arbitrary problem only to verify the answer is not a demonstration of a solution. I need to show it solving a problem not yet solved, perhaps even NP insolvent.”
Willie looked up. James was frustrating but correct. Incorporating this into the research hit two birds with one stone. He could tell he was about to launch into a monologue on his project and gently, but firmly, interrupted.
“There is one more issue though James.” Willie leaned forwards conspiratorially.
James gave a blank stare. It took him several seconds to realise that Willie was waiting, “Go on…”
“This tape was not made with the knowledge of the International Machine Consortium.”
James failed to tune in to the lower profile of the conversation, “It’s pirated!”
“Shhhh! No, not pirated. I was the head of the telemetry section, and I had my own authority. Let’s just say that there were some competing philosophical perspectives, and that this became my insurance against less enlightened authorities simply burying the lot.”
“Okay, so I am on the side of information freedom rather than secrets?” James liked these sorts of games, ever since he had been given the ‘20Qube’ that seemed to always get the right answer after 20 yes/no answers.
“That’s a good way of looking at it.” Willie smiled and reclined a bit, leaving the tape on the table before him. He spread his hands. “We just need to be a little sensitive about the release of the results, if there are any. Some people on ‘team B’ might get upset that we didn’t let them in earlier, but we will want the results to be known. Refuted even.”
“Okay then, thanks for the challenge Dr Sharpe. Can I include the results in my thesis?”
“No problem James. Thanks for your help, I’d like to think we will have a very productive collaborative project ahead of us. I’ll chat to your supervisor.”
Willie stood to leave. “I have a lecture now, and if I’m not mistaken you have one too. Lets meet here next week.”
As Willie and James walked toward the theatrette where they were both scheduled. He considered it interesting that the one question he would have asked was never raised… “Why me?” Evidently James had a kind of fate that he alone understood, and that it’s purpose was unfolding as it should.