Chapter 16

Virtually real

With the media engine tuned, the now augmented Fishbowl team resolved to return to their work. Goodbyes were said, and Kent told them that much hinged upon what they did. He would keep them abreast of any developments, and he trusted they would let him know as well.

Once back at John Meredith’s Lab some of the original SETI team were called upon to represent the geometries from Frank’s signal into a viewable form. This turned out to be one of the simplest tasks of all. Assistance came from far and wide. The modest Laboratory run by John Meredith was being put through a barely sustainable growth phase. Security enhancements and new protocols were starting to create some confusion, and many new staff were housed in temporary buildings annexed to the main one.

The range of contributing disciplines was also growing with a major injection of experts. This saw cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, cybernetic engineers, programmers of polymorphic code and inference engines, knowledge engineers and holonomic theorists joining the program. The astronomers had again stumbled onto something they were only just getting tooled up to understand. Phrases like; DC glial field potentials, neural networks or Strong A.I. were frequently heard in the cafeteria along with lively debates on the emergence of consciousness and philosophical discussions on the distinction between ‘attention’ and ‘intention’.

With the now generated multiple copies of the signal in archive Willie sought out some associates he had encountered at the university, avid enthusiasts of Conway’s game of life. This was a construct that created a ‘universe’ from an grid of ‘live’ or ‘dead’ cells, and some simple rules. Through a construction of various ‘gliders’ they had recently achieved a self replicating ‘space-ship’ and a “fractal life”. Willie was keen to explore whether they could see the same patterns, with mutations, across the sequence of acquired signals. He also joined in with a group debating the fusion of philosophies as some tried to explain Holonomic Brain theory. The similarities of the math provided some inkling of a common point, but it remained a field just out of reach for him.

Much of the team had seen this before with their involvement at the original signal discovery at the VLA. The chaos that ensued created a pilgrimage of extraordinary proportions that descended upon the VLA. The multidisciplinary teams that now converged added a similar air of excitement with a welcome omission; the Woodstock carnival element of the first event.

Where previously there was modest accommodation there now came makeshift offices and laboratories. Staff were also provided with alternative accommodation and the local hotels, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops experienced a boom in their economy.

Ellie was originally billeted in a well regarded Bed ‘n Breakfast with some of the others from the core team. As a result of the enhanced security protocols she and her team were transferred onto the military research campus.

Willie bought a bike. It was not unusual to see him risk life and limb as he donned his ipod and dodged traffic while listening to ‘Return to Innocence’, ‘100Billion Stars’, ‘Walking Away’ or ‘The Great Beyond’. He would take excursions,sometimes to smuggle in Tequila, and return to the security gate at the southern end where he would wave his card at the guards. They would generally recognise the madman on the bike and permit him entry. At the ring road he would ride his bike across the parade quadrangle, around the administration building and towards the cafeteria area where there were some bike lockups.

It was remarkable how at home he felt. It was just like any University campus except for the preponderance of uniforms. Even this didn’t bother him and he began to feel a degree of reconciliation with his parents’ military involvement. Of course the real test would be when the research outcome was ready to be released to the public. In any case he could not see how the military could keep all of this a secret for much longer.

James soon followed suit, and the two established their own cycling routine, sometimes going in pairs. James liked to visit a bakery that had scrolls that came hot from the oven at 7:30am. He would fetch several and have them back for the team warm, and only a little squashed, by 8:00am.

Eventually John had someone requisition a small case to protect James’ precious cargo. He would navigate the steps and corridors to a kitchen where they would meet and feast. Nearby was the skyway that connected The Fishbowl to the rest of the base.

The building that contained The Fishbowl began its life housing a wind tunnel. This became redundant as computer modelling improved the accuracy and range of the results. Its construction had a high self supporting roof with a mezzanine level which was the vestigial remains of the original cyclic wind tunnel which required access to both the upper ‘out’ and lower ‘return’ experimental platforms.

With the building being remodelled for The Fishbowl the lower access had been shut off. The upper tier then became the only point of access and egress to the sphere. This area had been fitted with the control laboratory and was where the team had conducted much of its work during Frank’s periods in The Fishbowl.

The lower area housed all of the control instrumentation, cryogenics and power. The system had been set up as a double jacketed environment, much like a thermos flask. With the primary criteria to eliminate external fields within The Fishbowl the lower section also had to comply with stringent isolation requirements. Ultimately the lower area was only easily accessible through an access hatch in The Fishbowl, affectionately named ‘The Jeffreys Tube’.

On the other side of the skyway several of the rooms that fed to the corridor across the bridge had been converted to accommodation for the research subjects. Frank’s room was among them, as was the debriefing room, a kitchen area, a medical centre with a sterilised room for the care of recipients of the DBS, and a wheelchair-friendly hygiene area, with showers and baths.

On the day the team moved into the new accommodation they celebrated a housewarming in the kitchen area. John announced that he had not closed the door to his previous research activities, he was thankful for the injection of new ideas and new direction. He went on to announce that he would pull back from direct involvement but hoped that they would keep him informed of any significant outcomes. Before departing he promised that he would return fortnightly to keep abreast of  their progress. John also vowed that if they needed anything he would pull whatever strings he could to make resources available.

He could not be drawn on what he would be doing during this absence.


Willie’s discovery that The Fishbowl signal contained some form of geometric notation had led to a campaign of targeted reconnections at SETI. Some of the old team members were being reunited

Dr Merv Stanley was a gaming genius that had found a calling within the first SETI program contact event. When the means to decode the original signal’s images into 3D had been found Merv was tasked with the conversion to a more convenient 3D geometry. This was used to build the CAD diagrams of the original machine and needed adaptable visualisation to resolve ambiguities for the actual construction process. Several readily available technologies had been adapted and drew upon gaming and movie production industries for real time simulated flythroughs and data validation through virtual reality.

This new signal simply added the dimension of time. Merv took the geometries and processed them as if they were a games playback. Within a week he had interpreted and was able to represent the video signal through a computer to a 3D TV. When viewed, a remarkably true to life view of Frank appeared. He stood, surreal, in the magnetically shielded Fishbowl adjacent to his wheelchair. The precision of the scene imbued the sensation that fidelity to life could be dispensed with in favour of platonic perfection. This rendering had attained efficiency in its digital representation but the complete absence of imperfection did not simply infer perfection, it smacked you in the back of the head with it.

“Research Base, Research Base, Research Base, this is Frank Valetti, please respond. I am in Remote Base and would like to report in. Message follows.”

With the radio protocol now dispensed Frank went on to speak. ”My friends, I don’t know when you will find this little ‘message in a bottle’,” said Frank with a small smile. He continued, “I am confident you will though. I already feel that more time has transpired than normal; so you have somehow given me more than I could have experienced in a single event. I also feel a sense of continuity, and I have sensed you at times; perhaps when you have been near the Fishbowl. And so I’ve created this message, unique and unchanging in the hope that it remains obvious in a backdrop of change.

I have heard many of your ideas and theories, and though at the time I understood only some of it, I understood enough. I want to thank you all for letting me be a part of it, and become a beneficiary of the breakthroughs. Even with my humble beginnings I understand the astounding thing we have discovered. I hope we can soon meet again.

It was during my second event that I felt I really understood what was being offered to me. I could have left then. I gave it some thought and discussion with my guide. I came to realise that I first needed to let you know that you were on the correct path. I needed to come back to you one more time.

I had already chosen this path for my third event. In my state of health I could not be certain of a fourth, and I wasn’t sure you would permit me to go if you knew my intentions. Finally, I also felt it such an evident truth, that it would not be long before you too would figure it out. I could not be sure you would still offer the choice of euthanasia when you did.

So, now I have a gift for you. I have been mentored here. I have become a part of something… bigger. And so I have asked for help to pass some of this knowledge to you.

The original machine has a purpose and implications beyond imagining. The Fishbowl is humanity’s stepping stone. I hope we can use it to create a place of commune.

I recall talk of transforms and reading books edge on. Within the commune time does not cease or accelerate, it simply moves temporarily at a right angle. This allows a moment to be drawn out further so that we can commune. Life can jump the gap, I have simply chosen not to.”

Frank went on to explain that Ellie’s journey began with a low frequency magnetic field stimulus she perceived as a vibration. Higher frequencies and more detail were added through a feedback process. Eventually a map of her physiology was built, and it became possible to engineer the stimuli, interpret the result and provide more stimuli.

In short, even before Ellie was dropped through the gimbal  the system was learning how her mind was mapped. When she was at the core, the engrams of her experience were laid. The subsequent recording was an inevitable result.

Frank finally explained that the seed program had already been primed to understand human physiology. There is no longer a need to perform the preliminary stage. The Commune can actually be accessed quite readily within an environment just like The Fishbowl which simply needed the addition of feedback to the electrostatic and magnetic coils.

Frank concluded saying “Please conduct some cycles while present in the fishbowl. Acknowledge by employing radio protocol and the call signs I have specified. I will leave further messages in this bottle when I obtain acknowledgement. In this way we can close the loop and establish reliable communications. I look forward to seeing some of you again.

‘Science Base’ this is ‘Frank Valetti’. I require a Communications check, over.

Come in Science Base.”

The message was played several times by those at The Fishbowl before the activity again became frenetic. The message was dissected and analysed and plans were drawn up.

This culminated in the conversion of The Fishbowl into the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation system that the team had considered as an option in earlier discussions. Without this new information the team lacked any guarantees that this idea had merit over any others of the multitude they were considering. Frank’s voice from beyond time and space had now very much provided wings to it.

Frank’s message also introduced some interesting challenges in relation to the isolation required. In order for the new configuration to work nothing could be implied from the currents and charges outside of the experiment. The Fishbowl needed to be fully self contained. All control systems, signals, the quantum computer and the input and output recordings needed to be isolated within The Fishbowl. With this work performed it meant that anyone could now join Frank in his Quniverse.

The Fishbowl control room was refitted with shielding to accommodate the isolation requirements. This alone consumed several weeks before the first attempts to renew contact could be made. Many early attempts failed to provide real time contact with Frank. However, with the progressive cycling and analysis of the signal, Frank was able to provide feedback through the output signal he had devised.

After several iterations and progressive improvements in signal levels, feedback polarities and isolation they became confident that the next immersion would produce actual contact with the Commune space.


John returned to congratulate the team, and to help with the next decision: who to send? Willie expressed an interest while James held strong reservations. Ellie said she had already had a chance at being test pilot and John said his rank precluded his involvement. No-one could honestly say they knew how to prepare or what to expect, even though the risk to life and limb appeared marginal. Willie quietly stood aside when Palmer requested that he perform the first trial. All conceded that this was now probably more of a spiritual journey.

Palmer was taken through the preparation and fitted with a simple white coverall. Because of the potential to create interference with the generation of magnetic and electric fields all metallic items were removed. When Palmer confessed to having dental fillings he was told they would be okay, but was asked if he had any metal implants or shrapnel wounds.

Palmer received farewells from various people as he was taken through the preparations. Willie and Ellie entered The Fishbowl in the latter stages, and approached where Palmer sat reclined in Frank’s spot. The dentists chair had remained, although it had been modified for access by able bodied recipients. Willie broke the silence, “Hey preacher, good luck! Say ‘Hello World’ for me.”

“Yeah, thanks Willie.” The reference to the typical output of a computer program’s ‘maiden run’ was lost on Palmer.

Willie leaned over and grabbed Palmer’s shoulders. He gave them a brief gentle shake and pretended to examine some of the fittings at the console. He continued, “OK, just so you know what to expect, with Frank’s new configuration the whole thing is sped up. It’s no longer eighteen hours in our time, in fact, its only about ten minutes. I’m not too sure what that means. Does it mean that our ‘physiology’ isn’t very efficient, or does it mean we get one hundred times the experience in that ten minutes? Anyway, Bon voyage.” He winked and provided a thumbs up. As he exited The Fishbowl he nodded and smiled at Ellie.

Ellie walked over to Palmer at the locus of the spherical room.

“You will be completely isolated, you know that. You are the proverbial Schrodinger’s cat in so many ways it scares me.” Ellie shuddered to contemplate the chance of survival of this metaphorical cat.

She then indicated a control console on the chair. “This green button here is the ‘play’ button. It will light up once we have closed the doors and we have isolation, and will go amber when you press it. The last recording is already loaded with the keys.” She shifted her focus to a second red button. “This one is the exit. You can press it at any time but after thirty minutes we will open the doors anyway. This is the other button we spoke of. It administers some mild anodyne gas, more to relax you than to put you to sleep. We believe you need to be conscious for the process to work, and we don’t want to suppress your ability to respond. You can press it if and when you want; although we suspect that instead of inducing the connection it might suppress it.”

Palmer looked carefully at Ellie. “I’ll be fine Ellie. I’ve been through the briefing and I know all of this. I’ll see you soon.”

“Don’t get lost,” was the last thing Ellie said before the room was evacuated.

Once up in the control room they monitored the systems that prepared The Fishbowl for isolation. The closed circuit TV’s became snowy and the sound noisy until noise gates attenuated the audio to silence. Arrays of computer screens displayed digital readouts of the internal sensors, these all approached zero.

The prevailing magnetic declination was measured from remote sensors. Internal coils worked to nullify The Fishbowls internal magnetic field. External coils simultaneously compensated any residual field to assure realignment to the prevailing magnetic declination. This would leave The Fishbowl transparent to any external measurement. Electrostatic field plates performed a similar  function.

In The Fishbowl the light went green. For what he figured was about ten minutes Palmer felt very little except for some mild vibration, this progressively dissipated. It left him wondering if he was immune to the whole process.

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