Chapter 7

Putabam, ergo cogito, ergo sum

Ellie would be the first to acknowledge she was not a very good politician. She had however been through some considerable induction throughout her involvement in the International Machine Consortium. Ellie had seen the building of the machine as an outside observer when she proffered her candidacy as the voyager.

She figured that politics was like religion, you had to feel it rather than analyse it. Even at university she had known political majors, and while they had obtained nice tenure positions at universities few had ventured into political careers.

No, politics was a game for those with the gift of the gab or the well connected. In that sense both needed each other. The well connected could influence a spokesperson. One obtained the power, the other the fame. Drummond was certainly an interesting blend of both of these traits. Ellie had learnt from the best. From the day he stepped in to take control at the first press conference for the announcement of the signal she understood Edison’s quote that ‘good fortune was where opportunity meets planning’. She also knew that much of the credit to Edison should have gone to the likes of Nikola Tesla.

She did some self critique. She was now well connected. She could ask for an audience with anyone of power, given sufficient justification she might even be able to access the President of the US.

In hindsight she had never considered what the repercussions of a successful SETI program might be. Her focus had always been on the fronts of technology and the battle for funding. She had the feeling that something was different on this occasion. Was this what it felt like to be in the drivers seat?

With this new perspective Ellie again looked at the facts. If someone in a government entity was trying to subvert an international research project for their own agenda it meant two things: that they needed resources that they were struggling to gain; and that they were thinking like bureaucrats. This ‘noise’ was entirely foreign, it needed an approach different to simple muscle.

Her first call had to be to Kent.

Kent was perplexed, the signal had been analysed, of course. Nothing had been found and the data was kept in an archival area awaiting new developments.  While the facts were perhaps not commonly known they were not deliberately withheld. There was approximately 18 hours of digital noise written to a system capable of thousands of hours, the remainder of the storage was utterly blank.

The data could actually be obtained from the SETI Institute by filling in a request form and having it authorised. Only one group had been successful in their request for the data. SETI@home had seen a brief new resurgence. Desktops had evolved to become Laptops. The battery conservation capabilities for laptops dynamically lowered clock speeds and power consumption. As a result SETI@home Mk1 could no longer claim to be ‘green’ in its recovery of ‘lost’ cycles. With laptops rapidly being replaced by tablet technologies the project received its death sentence.

There came some donated off peak time on corporate servers, this and the advent of cloud elastic computing meant that cheap computing time was available in off peak periods. Through philanthropy and grant money the use of distributed computing technology found application in SETI and humanitarian goals such as pharmaceuticals. The SETI research yielded no result, and as was required, the source file had been subsequently deleted from the servers.

Kent confirmed that if someone had the data they had to be a part of the IMC, or a higher authority.

Ellie made a point of asking Kent to see if the offsite copy of the tape was still in the archive. Of course the data may have been copied whether or not the tape was there. Ellie considered the possibility that while taking something might be hard, a thief may consider returning it as even more difficult, and unnecessary.

Her next call was to the Whitehouse Deputy Chief of Staff. This was a little trickier but Rachel Constantine had warmed to Eleanor Arroway.

Rachel liked straight shooters. Sure Ellie was not a person to put into a diplomatic mission, but if her indulgence in hands-on science could be excised she could have been considered as Science Advisor to succeed David Drumlin. At the time of Drumlin’s resignation and demise she had been excluded through being an IMC candidate. Ellie was also totally preoccupied in the post event inquisition. Unsurprisingly, she showed no political aspirations after this grilling.

Even now Ellie was not going to be offered the role of Science Advisor.  A rapid evolution of stem cell research meant the President needed a balance of Ethical and Scientific guidance in a different discipline. Although she would certainly have brought a great branding to the administration, this was not Ellie’s home ground.

One thing was now apparent. With the character building and political seasoning of the IMC behind her, Ellie’s file read ‘has become interestingly moderate’.

As Rachel contemplated this further she thought it likely that the actual contact event had perhaps purged Ellie of her fundamentalist scientific fire.

So now rather suddenly, Ellie wanted to speak to her. She wondered if she simply wanted advice on a good dress shop again. Unlikely, perhaps she needed another grant.

“Put it through Alice.”

“Eleanor, How are you?”

Ellie felt her out cautiously but directly, “I’m well Rachel, I’ve been busy key-noting for the Square Kilometre Array in sunny Australia.”

“Ahh, I guess you have been to a few airports then.” Rachel was now conscious that this was either a strong coincidence, or that she was in for an interesting conversation.

“That, and ribbon cutting,” was that hesitation she could detect? “I’ve also had a chance to see some of the early results from both sides of the Indian Ocean.”

Rachel knew that Ellie knew something. She now had to choose whether to play dumb, or play the game. But Rachel had been playing the game too long to be outmanoeuvred by Ellie’s novice skills. Besides, information is a two way street, she would learn more from Ellie by feeding her a little bit. “So tell me Ellie, are our project managers getting the South African telescopes a little further along now?”

“Ahh yes,” Ellie felt a thrill, she had just learnt about the telescopes, but Rachel had just taught her so much more. She needed to keep the momentum. “It’s going so well in fact, that the computing facility is anticipating  the conclusion of some interesting bench testing being performed.”

Straight shooter, she enjoyed this. “So tell me Ellie, why is this bench testing so interesting?”

“Well, no-one seems to know why it’s being tested. What is really interesting though is what it’s being tested with.” Ellie decided that the silence now over the phone was an answer in itself. She simply waited for the Chief of Staff.

Rachel was awestruck. Had Kitz let himself get sloppy? Either someone on Michael’s team had leaked this, or it was a strange and risky game plan of his. Did he think himself beyond reach in South Africa, in the same game as Ellie?

Then she understood something Kitz had said about hiding things in plain sight, in actual fact this was a pretty good plan. The data was astronomical, the facility, also astronomical. Kitz had provided plausible deniability. She had to take her hat off to Ellie though.

“Really? and what is that?”

“Well, it turns out to be the data for approximately 18 hours of telemetry obtained during the contact event.” Ellie was certain Rachel knew more, how was she going to flush her out?  She was almost certainly not going to concede anything she didn’t need to. Perhaps she needed some assurances, and some time to make it look like she had investigated.

“Anyway it has people involved in the Array thinking about the coincidence of the government funding and the signal analysis. The cynicism runs so deep that some people are thinking about switching it off and seeing who complains.” She had now played her Ace. If there was a vested interest in seeing the analysis continue it would hopefully be flushed out.

“And what do you think Ellie?”

“Well I’d like to see the result. In fact I think it might be a project that I could support. If only I knew whom I was supporting. Of course this is all speculation. I’d hate to think it would go beyond you and I.” There, the seed had been planted. Would it grow now or later? She waited.

“Ellie, I’m so glad you came to me.” said Rachel, “I will see what I can find out. In the meantime it would probably be best to let the analysis run a little longer. See what you can do. When are you back in town?”

Rachel was glad Ellie had not pressured her. She needed to think about this. They made arrangements to catch up the following week.

Ellie breathed a sigh of relief. All this intrigue was heady stuff and she felt a little drained. It was very late but she needed to get some clear skies. She jumped into her hire car and drove north just beyond the light pollution from the Perth CBD. Sitting on a northern beach she watched half a sky of cirrus cloud. It resembled the edge of a torn sheet of tissue rent from the southeast to northwest horizons. It gradually dissipated leaving the wheel of the Milky way Galaxy playing slowly around her like some roulette wheel placed by Niels Bohr to illustrate improbability.

She thought of Palmer. It had been a while since she had spoken to him.

She pulled out her mobile and called. She had some credit available, and since she was flying out tomorrow it may as well get spent.

“Hi PJ.”

“Ellie, its nice to hear from you. What’s up?”

“Hmmm, just now it’s night, I’m between Sirius and Canopus, with Achernar over on my right, and I’m on a balmy beach. I have sand between my toes, and the waves are about to drench my shoes,” she said as she reached out to rescue her sandals. Returning she added: ”Need more clues?”

“Are you finally off on an overdue holiday?”

“Not likely, I just have some SKA work that took me here.”

Palmer did some quick time calculations, “Well that puts you in South Africa or Australia; my guess is Australia. Hey, I’ve got some plans to head over there sometime soon. Perhaps you can show me your beach, and I’ll show you some stations.”

“I hope I can find it again. I forgot my sextant. Can it wait for later? I’m heading back tomorrow.” Ellie contemplated whether she could indulge in a return trip with Palmer. A wave broke nearby, it punctuated the conversation and she followed the work segue. ”How was your day?”

“I debated Richard Dawkins, it’s set for televising next month.”

“How did it go?” She felt ambivalent over which polarity she supported. She felt obligated to support Palmer while feeling some sympathy for Richard.

“Well I opened on a topic I picked up from anesthesiologists recently. I asked him if it was faith, or a scientifically understood fact that he would wake up tomorrow morning with the same consciousness.” Palmer paused, “He hit back saying he felt sure his biology would maintain his initial conditions, and that a near facsimile of himself would wake up.”

Ellie gave a small laugh and then suddenly stopped. This had to be the most absurd notion she had ever had. ‘Adaptive’, ‘prime numbers’, ‘ticking’….

Palmer waited for a moment and then asked, “Ellie, are you still there?”

She was thinking at light speed now.

“Palmer, how do you think the spark of life jumps across the femtoseconds of time. Do you think it exercises its free will either side of the gaps or between them?”

“Ellie you feel your spirit the same as I do. You tell me. My gut feeling would be in between.”

But Ellie couldn’t. She wasn’t sure yet but she had a theory. A theory that she wasn’t even sure that she could test. She had to find someone else to discuss this with. She needed to know if the signal, the one currently being poked and probed like some microwave background radiation that should not have been there, was in fact the frozen representation of a consciousness. A consciousness that had a set of static initial conditions, and was ready to be adaptive at the next tick of the clock.

next Part 2

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