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One entire hemisphere of the little moon had been turned into an ear. The great radio bowls spread to the sharp curve of the horizon like the lacy skeletons of sea creatures left behind by some unimaginable tide, their serried ranks bristling against the airless black of the sky.
It was still some hours before worldrise. The stars were huge and brilliant across the empty night. The listening was still good. The immense shells yearned toward the void, collecting the random crackle of radio noise from beyond, as they had done now for half a thousand years.
In the observatory dome rising at the center of the tremendous array, the project director refocused two or three of the eyes he had been keeping on the control panel and indulged himself for a moment with a full-circle view of the surrounding system. He never tired of the sight, though he had been here from the beginning, watching the field of antennae grow outward for nearly half his lifetime.
One of the bowls in the middle distance was being serviced, he noticed. He could see the tiny outstretched shapes of space-suited technicians crawling over the vast curved surface like so many animated snowflakes. That one bowl was out of order didn't matter. A few inactive bowls out of all those thousands could not affect the total picture.
He touched limbs with his visitor from the Father World and said soundlessly, "It will be in a moment now."
The visitor wore a radio sleeve and was doubtless in communication with whatever touch group he represented on the home planet. There was the familiar delay of a couple of seconds while the transmission wasrelayed to the other side of the moon and bounced down to the planetary surface and back, and then, through the limb he had linked with the visitor, the project director felt the faint ghostly feedback from all those absent voices.
The visitor was too courteous to express the skepticism of his touch brothers overtly; but he couldn't entirely suppress his own involuntary reaction to it.
"You've listened to thousands of stars," he said aloud, "and found nothing?"
"Tens of thousands, actually," the project director said good-naturedly. "One at a time, within our own galaxy. But now we're about to listen to two hundred billion stars at once."
"How can you do that?" The visitor let an eye or two wander to the endless thicket of antennae outside. "Even with this marvelous facility. How can you possibly sort them out?"
"We don't have to sort them out. The galaxy that we have chosen as our target is so far away that we may consider it as a single radio source. In effect, we will accomplish two million years of listening in an hour. All we have to do is to search the preferred wavelengths until we find one in which a modulated signal outshines the background noise by a significant factor."
"And then we shall know that life is possible elsewhere. That we need not be alone in the universe."
At the prompting of his radio sleeve, the visitor said apologetically, "But what's the good of it? You can't answer such a signal."
"True," the project director conceded. "Any message we received would necessarily have been sent tens of millions of years ago -- not the mere tens of thousands of years for signals from our own galaxy's farther stars. Any conceivable reply we might make would take additional tens of millions of years to bridge the gulf. By that time they -- and we -- likely would be long extinct."
"Then why bother?" the visitor persisted.
The project director had answered such questions many times over his centuries of stewardship. Demands on the time of the great radio telescope grew ever more insistent as the race expanded into space. There was competition from other astronomers, other project directors, each with a convincing claim to priority, and soon, with the interstellar probes about to be sent to the nearer stars, the magnificent instrument would be pressed into service as a communication device. The director had fought jealously to protect the fraction of time devoted to the search for intelligent life. One day, he knew, he would have to face a convocation of his fellows and defend the whole monumental enterprise all over again.
For now, he said simply, "We would have much to learn from the very existence of such a message. And more, doubtless, from the message itself."
The visitor listened to his sleeve for a moment. After a suitable interval he posed the question in his own voice, a little less rudely than it probably had been asked. "And how will you know that you have not been deceived by natural phenomena, as you were before?"
The director sent a ripple of laughter down his arm. "One of your touch brothers is very astute. The incident he refers to took place in the early days of radio astronomy, when our observations were still planet-bound. I was hardly past my apprenticeship at the time. A stellar radio source was found whose pulses were so regular that it was thought at first to be an artificial signal. Today, of course, we know about such things as neutron stars. We won't jump to that conclusion again."
"And if you find nothing at all?"
"Then we'll try another galaxy."
Across the dome an aproned assistant waved a signal, and the director forestalled more questions by saying, "We're aiming now. Look outside. It's a sight you won't want to miss."
Beyond the transparent wall the surface of the moon seemed to writhe like a live thing as the closely packed bowls all turned simultaneously to face in anew direction. The silent rumble of the vast collective movement could be felt through the floor of the observatory itself.
And the world changed, never to be the same again.
The first signals were detected almost at once. They were found mostly in the part of the spectrum between the hydrogen and hydroxyl radical lines, where theory had long predicted that water-based life would be apt to concentrate its communication efforts.
An excited assistant hurried up. "We're locked onto them now. There's remarkably little frequency drift. They're also utilizing the first harmonic of the hydrogen frequency."
He passed over a touch pad that was beating rhythmically with repeating data. The director pulsated with emotion. "The very first time!" he murmured to himself. "We've found them the very first time!"
He'd forgotten completely about his visitor, who was still sharing his thoughts through a patch of contact. A diffident query reached his consciousness: "Can you be sure?"
"Eh? Yes. It's unmistakable." He thrust the throbbing datapad at him. "Have a look at this. It's the first ten prime numbers -- counted out plainly in a steady rhythm and sitting in the middle of what looks like an ongoing message in binary code. That's to get our attention. It's their beacon. I'm willing to bet that it's repeated every few minutes."
And then the director linked with assistants and with data input devices and became very busy. The visitor discreetly withdrew a short distance.
Several hours later, when the excitement had died down somewhat and matters could be safely left to the scribes and the mechanical recorders, the director belatedly remembered his patiently waiting visitor -- remembered, too, that every conceivable touch group on the Father World would soon be vying for a say in the allocation of resources -- and apologetically groped for contact again.
"We've only begun the job, of course. We astronomers will go on recording as long as the message lasts and continue refining our techniques in case we're missing anything. And we'll try to learn more about the signal source itself -- its orbital motion and so forth -- through Doppler analysis and other methods. But now it will be the task of others -- our greatest group minds -- to interpret this... gift from the stars."
"What can you tell so far?"
"They must be a very advanced race. Our entire civilization does not generate enough power to broadcast such a signal across so great a distance and with so high an information rate."
"But what are they like?"
The director thought it over. "To begin with, their arithmetic is to the base ten, so they must have ten limbs like ourselves."
"That much is obvious," the visitor said with a trace of impatience. "Any intelligent life form would necessarily resemble us more or less."
Not wanting to give offense, the director said cautiously, "I've heard religious people advance the argument that sentience cannot exist except in the image of the Father-of-All."
"No, no, I'm talking about the scientific argument. That whatever evolutionary path life takes to arrive at intelligence, it will need tool-handling limbs, vision, a sense of touch for cooperative communication. And an efficient body plan presupposes radial symmetry and a diffuse neural network with most of the brain at the center of the body, where it's well protected and where it can send impulses to all the extremities with minimum delay."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the thesis."
"A similar case is made for the evolution of Language. Certain it is that Language seems to be inborn in children -- it's found even in those unfortunates who somehow escape the harvesting nets and grow in isolation before they can be ingathered -- though of course they need to catch up to their new touch brothers."
The director used a lee eye to steal a glance at the field of antennae. "I doubt that the message will turn out to be in anything as complex as Language. Across intergalactic distances, the information density would be too low. I more likely we'll find that it's in some sort of symbolic code that translates to one of the simpler senses, like hearing or vision."
"Then how will we ever understand the senders?"
"You'd be surprised at how much hard information can be conveyed that way. Enough so that we can infer some of the rest."
Together they watched the rippling patterns on one of the console's touch screens. Even with vision alone, you could easily make out the regular structure of the transmission. On impulse, the director reached out and absorbed a brief section of the transmission directly, sharing it with his visitor through their linked limbs.
The transmission meant nothing, of course: It was devoid of affective content. But in the simple pulses, the director imagined that he could sense the shadow of... something. These patterns were an artifact of intelligent life, after all.
"There's no sign of a repeat yet, except for the periodic insertion of the prime number sequence. The message must be a very long one -- perhaps one that will take years to complete."
Like the director, the visitor was moved to awe by some portent he could sense beyond the unadorned vibrations. "What can it be that they've sent?" he asked uneasily.
"Perhaps," the director joked in an attempt to relieve the sudden tension, "they sent themselves."
And that, in fact, was what turned out to be the case.
Copyright © 1986 by Donald Moffitt
Posted July 11, 2010
No text was provided for this review.