Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Short Story

I managed to salvage an old version of a SF story I wrote.


The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence finally seemed to bear fruit: A consistent signal was received that came from an entire quadrant of the galaxy, superimposed on the background radiation in that area. This was remarkable, because the source of the signal was not a stellar object or even a location in the universe, but it was like it was uniformly distributed over an area of about one sixteenth of the outer sphere of the universe. Hard to miss, therefore. The signal hadn't been there before.

It didn't take long before they cracked the code, to be more precise, the NSA did it. The CIA took it from there. They put a couple of bright kids onto the puzzle. The code was simply a sequence of zero's and ones. They discovered that the number of binary digits was the square of a prime number. When the digits were arranged in a square so that a side was equal to that of that prime number, the resulting box of 0's and 1's formed an image. Kind of like a fax.

There were quite a number of those images, and they were repeated all the time. It took about a month for all the data to be received.

Together, they formed the schematics of a rather simple looking electronic device. The images were annotated with a kind of symbolic mathematical script.

It didn't take long before also that was deciphered as well. Some symbols pertained to atom numbers, indicating the composition of the materials. Some symbols were measurements expressed in wavelengths of Hydrogen.

To make a long story short: The US government, even the President himself, were consulted. The CIA wanted to build the device. Experts said that it could do no harm, it seemed to be some kind of simple receiver that apparently didn't even need a power source. Although it was unclear what
exactly it would receive.

They built it and as soon as they turned it on, it outputted a similar stream of binary digits, only much more than had been originally received by SETI, and in much higher resolution and with a much higher frequency. It was like they had hooked up a Hard Disk, transferring many megabytes of data in an endless loop.

Everybody thought it was a hoax. Investigations were launched. They got people from outside the team to find malversations. They put the receiver in a cage of Faraday, and it kept on receiving. They let another team assemble a similar device, which worked just as well and produced the same output, synchronously to the last bit, with he first device. They took it into an abandoned coal mine, and it kept working. Components were replaced with equivalent components and it kept working.

People were getting nervous. The output of this device looked like the blueprints of some kind of transceiver. It would take a while to build it. Some of the components were hard, possibly impossible to manufacture. One of the components was a diamond ball of around 2 cm in diameter. They would have needed to steal the Koh-I-Noor and polish it into a rather dull marble, in order to comply with those blueprints.

And that is exactly what they did. Synthetic diamonds of that size were
impossible to manufacture. The team who did it, was immediately afterwards assasinated by a "special" team. And the assassins themselves disappeared shortly afterwards. The diamond was polished and the result was referred to as: "The marble". The engineers thought it was made of glass. For increased security, ten identical devices were assembled, nine of which used an ordinary quarz marble.

When the thing was finished, a small team of NSA mathematicians and linguists was assembled. All were in their mid-fourties. None of them was married. They were given the neccessary security clearance. They were informed about the need for total secrecy and the consequences of breaking secrecy. Curious as they were, all of them agreed. They would work in duo's, one mathematician, one linguist, taking turns on the thing that was presumed to be a communication device.

The machine, modest in size, was hooked up to the serial port of a computer. It only had one input or output (whatever it was), a copper rod, protruding from the base. The device itself was simple in construction, but the dimensions were extremely accurate and the materials were rather exotic. The spherical diamond was partly embedded into two blocks of Rubidium and Osmium alloy, joint at polished sides in the middle. The thing was like a crystal-earphone, only more solid and a tad more expensive.

The base was connected to the ground of the PC. It didn't say that in the instructions, but it seemed a good idea.

Only two mathematicians were allowed to do the initial testing. A NSA programmer had made a simple program with which mathematical symbols could be converted into zeros and ones, and put into the device. And whenever similar pulses would be received, those pulses would appear as their corresponding mathematical symbols on the screen. The "LaTeX" symbols the scientist were familiar with were translated in the deciphered symbols used in the original blueprints.

The most senior of the two was called McFarlow.

McFarlow started to type. Normally a touch-typist, he now used one finger at a time, slowly, hitting each key squarely on the head.

"This is my version of 'Who are you'", McFarlow whispered hoarsely, as he entered the symbols for:

"Outside This Collection Equals"

There was an almost unperceptible delay as the following appeared:

"Collection Sum Collections"

McFarlow seemed to hold his breath. In fact he inhaled very slowly through his nose, trying to remain calm.

He glanced around the periphery of the computer screen, as if to see if he wasn't tricked in some way.

This wasn't happening. If this was a joke, he wasn't sure he had the sense of humor to appreciate it.

He had just asked "Who are you", in mathematical equivalent symbolic notation. Or at least, that was what he intended to ask.

The answer could only be interpreted as: "I am somewhere that contains where you are" or, more dramatically "I include/encompass everything".

"This is impossible" he said.

"Whoever we are talking to, a signal can't go faster than light. The furthest anyone can be who's answering this, is the Moon."

"What about faster-than light, like gravitational waves?" Wayne Drury suggested.

"We don't know how this thing works".

McFarlow unfocused his eyes for a moment in thought and then typed:

"Outside This Collection Position Equals"

"What does that mean?".

"I try to ask where this comes from, where he, she or it is located".

The answer was immediate.

"Outside All Collections Largest Sum Collection".

Wayne said nothing.

McFarlow looked intently at the screen and didn't blink an eye.

"Time Min Max Equals" he entered.

Again, the answer appeared barely after his finger released the ENTER key.

"ONE True Inside Collection Zero Towards Positive Infinity TWO True Outside All Collections Negative Infinity Zero Positive Infinity"

Wayne looked at him and before he could ask, McFarlowe said with a hoarse voice: "Shhst! Let me look at this".

He frowned as he made a smudge trail with his finger as it moved, word for word, over the text on the screen.

After a while he said with a sigh: "I asked about when it came into existence, when it would cease to exist". I think it means this:

"1. For us here, it has existed since the beginning of time and will exist until the end of time."

"Funny how it doesn't use "Infinity minus one" but simply 'infinity'.."

"2. For itself, it claims it has always existed and will always exist."

Wayne, incredulously but highly exited exclaimed: "So, what you are saying is.. We're talking to God!"

"It appears so". McFarlow looked very serious. Solemn, almost.

"Jezus Christ.." Wayne said.

"I don't believe it until he proves it" McFarlow said.

"I just don't believe it".

"Ask it a question" Wayne suggested.

"Like what?"

"Well, is it almighty, how's it like in heaven, that kind of stuff.." Wayne replied. Wayne was a religious person.

"I'm not sure how to translate that into mathematical notation". McFarlow obviously was losing his patience but seemed intrigued at the same time.

He started to type.

"Unknown True: Element A Inside This Collection Towards Not Element A In This Collection Equals Element A Inside Collection Sum Collections".

Wayne, the linguist, wiggled his eyebrows. "I'm afraid you've lost me here".

McFarlow hadn't hit the ENTER key yet.

"We have to hurry", he said. "We don't know how long the connection will last".

"I am asking whether there is a heaven, more exactly, something after we cease to exist, after our universe ceases to exist, is there anywhere we will still be". He pressed ENTER.

Again, the answer was instantaneous.

"Not True".

"At least it seems to understand what I mean", said McFarlow.

Wayne was visibly disappointed . He tried to hide that fact that he was taking offence.

"Ask whether it is almighty".

"Do you have any idea on how to formulate that?"

"Something with the collections?" Wayne suggested. "Like, can he make our world, our 'collection', disappear?".

McFarlow didn't need much encouragement. He typed:

"Unknown True: Collection Sum Collections Statistical Probability
GreaterThan Minus Infinity Towards Not This Collection".



"The answer is yes", McFarlow said.


"Are you sure?".

"I'm not even sure this isn't some sick joke".

"Ask it whether it knows everything, whether it is all-knowing".

"Unknown True: Collection Sum Collections Includes Equation Solved True Sum Actions This Collection"

"Not True"

"Hm", said Wayne.

"So he claims to be God and to be able to be all-powerful or at least able to destroy us, but there is no heaven and he does not know what is happening here?"

"Nobody was ever sure about the true nature of God" said McFarlow.

"It's obviously better to ask him directly".

"A pity he doesn't speak normal English" Wayne joked.

"Can't we send him some pictures, ask him what he thinks about starving African AIDS orphans, that kind of stuff?"

McFarlow looked at him.

"That's not such a bad idea at all. We could send it in the same format as the blueprints. Digitized pictures, black & white, as binary digit in squares with the same side length as the blueprints we got".

"OK then, let's do it", Wane said.

They Googled some pictures of starving children, victims of the Hiroshima bombing and a particularly gruesome image from the Holocaust. They scaled the images to the right size and converted them to monochrome.

From the network, they prepared to send the images to who- or whatever was on the other side.

"When were are really talking to God, I would like to see what he has to say about THIS" McFarlow mumbled. It would only take a second or so to send them all and they accompanied the images with the following question:

"Unknown: Sample Here Collection Towards Collection Sum Collections Unknown True False".

Both mathematicians realized there was no way of expressing an ethical judgement, of expressing "good" or "bad" in mathematical language. They needed a more subtle means of communication. But whoever was on the other side seemed to be able to make sense of their symbols, at least for now.

They proceeded with sending the images, which took only a second or so.

But there came no answer.

They tried a few more questions but there was no response. They thought they had perhaps overloaded the tranmitter.

Later that day, the engineers put the diamond marble into one of the nine spare tranceivers and McFarlow and Drury were allowed to try again. No result.

They handed over the records of communication, and they were reproached for having sent the images.

Another team took over, with NSA minders this time.

The line was dead.

McFarlow suggested offering an apology, which he creatively formulated in LaTeX:

"True True True: This Collection Element Equals Minus Infinity This Collection Element Equals Not True Not True Not True"

A tear ran over his cheek as he typed it. The only chance for a dying Earth to be elevated to a higher level - technologically as well as spiritually - forever spoilt by a reckless demonstration of the worst of humanity?

 An answer never came.