Chapter 18

The Key

The provisional release of The Fishbowl results to the SETI Institute had captured the imagination of every Post Detection Task Group member. Knowing now that there was indeed some form of A.I embedded in the original signal placed a strong probability upon this also being the case in the new signal. Even though this wasn’t made public there was an acceptance that it would all be common knowledge sooner rather than later. The challenge Kitz faced was to identify and mitigate any threat that the revelations posed.  He had to consider adverse effects after the release of the technology to aggressors or society in general, or the potential sabotage of the project. He often cited the first Contact event to reinforce his agenda. He had embedded advisors in the Post Detection Task Group that he met with regularly, their role was to analyse and translate the implications into ‘Kitz-speak’.

It was nonetheless becoming evident to Kitz that the technology being used by Ellies team in The Fishbowl could not be readily adapted for military benefit. ‘Damn smart aliens’, he thought. They had insulated their technology with a totally obscure and yet readily accessible encryption. Well, if the final release only served a level playing field it was better than one that was lopsided against his interests. Kitz now knew, from personal experience, that the only absolute way to obtain the keys was through the use of a Quantum computer. Only then could someone go ‘wherever it was that they went’. And so far, when anyone returned, they were more pacifist than ever. No alien soldiers were possessing scientist zombies yet.

It was the Quantum computer being developed by James that continued to worry him though. Six months ago Kitz had pressed for investigation into its application in breaking cipher codes. He had secured an early release of James’ work, which was now being used to develop better encryption technologies. Obtaining this technology from James before its public release had possibly averted a disaster, and it brought significant opportunity. The ability to decipher secure communications was now his before anyone else, and the potential to counteract public capabilities with better encryption was also his.

Kitz’s remaining problem was that in obtaining the release of the technology, it was now being used as a bargaining chip for publicly releasing the SETI academic research. These scientists didn’t understand, and nor could he really explain, that the point of the delay was to place as much time as possible between his acquisition of the technology and its public release. Only then could he feel secure of a sufficient head start in this new encryption race.

He had a attended a briefing with the President to advise him on the implications. Work needed to advance quickly on the re-encryption of existing files reliant upon the old encryption systems. While this left him a little preoccupied he had been issued a priority to stall the release as long as possible.

He knew he may not be able to stall for much longer and was barely able to contain his frustration. Outwardly Willie and the others thought he seemed extremely happy with the control he had been able to exercise, marginal as it was. All things considered it was remarkable the entire Frank episode had not leaked earlier. Innocuous news of the signal was deliberately leaked to key journalists as a precursor to a press release stating, “Encrypted Alien Signal under investigation”. Kitz now showed signs of working for the scientists rather than against them, he seemed more human than ever.

He was actually no longer concerned about the alien signal. He was now encouraging the team to perform more detailed research. He had secured funding that kept them fat, happy, self indulged, and quiet. He fed their egos; involved them conspiratorially in the deliberate leaks; gloated over their findings; encouraged their meticulous approach; brought auspicious experts in for consultation under non-disclosure; and smoothed the way to the building of a small ivory palace. He kept the General apprised and encouraged his medium term re-engagement. It was a short term benefit, but it was working.

He was relieved and ecstatic that James’ Quantum computing technology was now being analysed by some of the best minds the government could buy. Kitz also insisted upon a stronger security contingent, and to focus these resources on a very specific individual. James was now being constantly monitored. This was arguably for his own protection, but he was beginning to show signs of discomfort with all the attention.

Ellie had long suspected that Kitz had a more deep rooted agenda than the divulging of the ‘SETI secret’. Things had now settled to a sufficiently dull roar, and she felt she could finally confront James. She found him at the canteen interrogating the girl behind the Bain-marie. There was no anger in his disposition, he was simply droning on. This was the worst she’d seen him.

“The point is,” he was saying, “the insecticide you were spraying is a schedule six poison. You should not be using it anywhere near food.” Ellie could tell that the girl had had quite enough of his rant. Although she was saying that she would speak to the manager, he kept going.

“In fact any insect you care to name probably has more protein and nutritional benefits, and would certainly be a whole lot less poisonous to your body than the food and that spray.” He spotted Ellie, “You tell her Ellie.”

Ellie placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay AngloAkira, I think she knows.”

James was rocked. He stood staring at Ellie. “How did you? who told? What did you just call me?”

“You haven’t been careful enough James. No more okay?”

James became pale and started moving his arms about nervously. Without a word he stalked off. Ellie thought a little extended discomfort might provide a pause for thought. She did not know if his Aspergers would  compound his stress, or simply send him into an Autistic shell. The problem really needed to be nipped in the bud, although perhaps it was now already in full bloom.

She let him go and went to meet Kitz. She had specifically requested to meet with him. She felt that the monitoring he was being subjected to could be a little more subtle.

+

The pressure cooker of secrecy was not going to be readily contained for much longer. The decision was made to prepare The Fishbowl for Ellie, and to then consider what results were ready for release. Now that she had been specifically invited there was little debate. She conceded to undergo the immersion, and pushed for it to happen soon. She was quietly yearning to confront the demons that refused to release her.

Perhaps she only needed confirmation that her abandonment after the first event was a necessary evil. The old familiar questions went around and around in her mind. Was she abandoned to ensure humanity’s ability to survive without the paternal tendering of an alien race? Would knowing the universe was filled with life somehow maximise humanity’s chance of survival? Did bringing human skepticism to the fore invoke some required species-wide introspection before a second contact event? Was it a technological limitation? Was it simply self preservation against a possibly hostile species?

She recalled a discussion with Palmer after his return from a forum to discuss bubbling tensions in Africa. Despite the newfound world stability that the Contact event had triggered there were still pockets that mythologised and twisted the event to darker purpose. It only took one despot claiming to have been contacted to rally a group of would be soldiers of revolution. The rest was textbook escalation of violence.

The forum was structured through a principle called “Spiral Dynamics”. This described human development through evolving models of interpretation or world view. Each stage embraced and transcended its predecessor, but still relied upon it. It proved a useful construct because, as observed throughout history, you could not simply bootstrap a culture to an enlightened state. This seemed to resonate strongly with Palmer. That this observation was supported by significant empirical data resonated with Ellie. The fact that it led to the logical conclusion of a “primary directive”, much the same as portrayed in Star Trek, put Ellie strongly agreeing with Palmer on the premature introduction of advanced technology. The words “small steps” echoed in her mind.

She was reminded of Palmer’s Missionary work. The suggestion that the Vegans were an intergalactic culture of Missionaries was almost plausible. In this event wouldn’t you provide artefacts to institutionalise deification. You might then provide a trail of breadcrumbs to lure the curious. You would evangelise an individual, and provide some spiritual credentials. Only after the dust had settled would you make contact. Without all these precautions, and after a twenty-five year journey, martyrdom would be a sad end.

How many human missionaries had been beheaded? If Palmer had been born in the 1700’s he may have been martyred in any number of colonies. At what cost to peaceful tribes were the colonisation policies of the same era. She refused to believe that the agenda of the Vegans was simple conquest.

She decided to consult the popular view and Wiki’ed martyrdom, knowing it was likely to be refracted by a western prism. She soon learned that while variants of martyrdom appeared in most civilisations, many martyrs were defined through revolution, rather than specifically missionary activities and faith

The Qing dynasty had persecuted the Shaolin monks 250 years before the seventy-two martyrs in Xinhai Revolution.

The Sikhs had defined it as an act of love centred almost exclusively around Gurus. Thee sense of pilgrimage or exploration seemed absent in many examples. Science had a fair share of martyrs: Antoine Lavoisier, Giordano Bruno, Socrates and Archimedes died through persecution due to their beliefs.

Of those that died through scientific exploration there was Amelia Erhart, lost over the Pacific; Marie Curie, from radiation; Grissom, White and Chaffee, in Apollo 1; Burke and Wills, sheer misadventure; Scott, in the Antarctic. Many others had made the ultimate sacrifice. But where did scientifically objective Anthropological missionary work fit in?

James Cook, Naval captain, was stabbed in Hawaii when he returned the second time to repair ‘The Resolution’. One theory was that the natives considered his return as that of a bogus impersonation of Lono, a Hawaiian deity. After tensions rose Cook attempted to retrieve a stolen small boat through taking the king as hostage. He paid the ultimate price.

Religious Missionary explorers, many martyred, seemed to be synonymous with Dr David Livingstone and the Jesuits. With the benefit of hindsight the missionary effort proved a very effective strategy in the dissemination of Christianity. Could an alien race be driven by the need to reinforce a memetic philosophy on life, rather than science?

She could understand Palmer’s concerns now, and needed to know that her convictions could survive being swayed by an alien missionary, possibly representing only one of a myriad of possible philosophies. She had previously taken for granted that life in the universe would be enlightened, plural and secular. As a scientist she could no longer assume this. If an enlightened-plural-secular collective could come in different flavours…

The preparations for her immersion progressed smoothly. On the night before her scheduled encounter with Frank she had a knock on her door. Palmer held a wooden object. It was just over half a metre in length with a small hook at one end.

Ellie saw the Woomera and smiled.

“I hope you’re not planning on using that,” she said.

“I need the long stick to go with it. No I brought it along because I think it’ll go nicely just,” Palmer scanned the room, “up there.”

He pointed over to the wall at his selected final location, walked in and slapped some double sided tape and a hook on the wall. A small string served to suspend the artifact.

“Nice,” Palmer stood back to admire his handiwork.

“Why the sudden need to decorate my room?”

“Jacques sent it to me. I just thought it might be a reminder of a simpler time, when we had no idea of what we were doing.

“I still can’t be sure I know what I’m doing. How about a beer?”

“Sure.”

Ellie walked over to the fridge and pulled out a six-pack. She tore two bottles apart and handed them to Palmer.

“The bottle opener is in there.” Ellie pointed to a drawer. Palmer popped the tops and took a swig. He proffered the other bottle to Ellie.

Sitting on the couch armrest he toasted Ellie. “To your second time around.”

“Okay,” smiled Ellie. “Any advice?”

“Well, don’t head for the light, apparently.”

“And don’t pay the ferryman either I’m told.” Ellie took a swig of her beer.

There was a moment while the air remained pregnant with unuttered thoughts.

“I’m serious Ellie look after yourself.”

“This is not dangerous Palmer, and besides the path is well trodden.”

“That’s not what I’m afraid of Ellie. I’m sure that when you want to come back it’ll be fine. What I’m worried about is that you won’t want to.”

“Do you think I’ll follow Frank?

“I don’t know Ellie, it’s pretty intoxicating. I can understand Frank’s decision. I just have the feeling that you could lose yourself ‘out there.’” He waved indiscriminately. “I just want you to know that, this time, I would try to follow you.

What if you were told you could travel to the stars. Really travel! I’ve heard the conversations. What if this is some form of suspended animation that Frank is now capable of. Would you really want your essence diluted into an enigmatic soup of consciousnesses and transmitted across twenty-five years of vacuum to run as a subroutine on a galactic supercomputer?”

Ellie laughed. Palmer had recovered his theological soul over the past few days. He had emerged from his experience with an introspective mood and although he was able to provide a fair account it was obvious that something in his outlook had changed. She was just growing accustomed to the new modest Palmer. This was the old Palmer bubbling back up.

Palmer had several points to reconcile. The biggest was whether transcending into an afterlife was something available only through this system. Where did that leave all the other faithful in history? From there he could readily imagine a state of heaven, because he had been there. Then there was the resignation that this would lead to a new faith and its multitude of implications. His days as a simple author were gone.

They talked deep into the night. They found more in common than they could have believed earlier.

After they’d made love Ellie’s last thought before drifting off to sleep was that she very much enjoyed this ‘species wide introspection’.

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