Chapter eight of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
It was so subtle, not even those watching noticed it. The ruddy pink surface of Mars shimmered to a paler pink in three specific spots for only a second. Somewhere, in some laboratory, a computer clicked and chattered, recording the change in the surface features of the planet. But the detection, though logged, would not be seen as anomalous. After all, the shifting dust on the planet’s surface often revealed and covered shinier spots of the rocky crust. No one noticed because science, with its massive telescopes and most powerful microscopes, is only able to register what can be seen and can be reproduced. The pale pink flashes of light would not happen again, would not be seen, and would not be able to be reproduced.
To mainstream science, they had never happened.
But to the simultaneous dreams of two children, the pale pink flashes of light were real, in that odd way that certain dreams pull at something deeper and leave the dreamer with a distinct sense of being something other after they awake.
Each of the dreams was exactly the same: A rusty, rocky expanse of land stretching to an horizon unearthly in its stillness. The rocks strewn along the expanse began to quiver, jiggling like jello cubes on a plate. There was a low thrum, like the sound of a heartbeat with your ear pressed to someone’s back. Then there were the flashes—much brighter and quite distinct from this vantage point—and the resultant depressions left in the surface.
The boy interpreted the depressions as impact points, and the flashes as explosions. But the girl thought it did not show something hitting the surface, but something punching through it, from beneath. Something solid that looked like a pale pink flash of light.
Something—or rather, three somethings—that appeared to know exactly what they were doing.
One of the somethings called herself Ana-loop, and she felt quite good about herself, despite the sudden exodus with her partners. They had received the light messages loud and clear: Two straight, quick bursts of visible energy from Earth, aimed directly at them, that held patterns of information denoting intelligence. The problem with math, however, was that it only worked if you understood the characters and symbols. Ana-loop decided to send back an information-soaked packet of her own to see what would happen.
OFFENDING COMMAND: —nostringval—
“What the hell does that mean?” Admiral Thomas growled.
He and General Rauchbach leaned in to the screen, peering over Dr. Fobell’s shoulders. Howard fumbled nervously with the keys, trying to remember how to call up the necessary log files. The two computer operators in the room pushed back on wheeled office chairs, trying to get their own peek at the monitor.
“I don’t know…” Howard mumbled distractedly.
“It came from outside the network,” one of the operators piped up quietly. Both the general and admiral stood straight and turned to face her.
“Meaning what, exactly?” Admiral Thomas asked with visible restraint. His teeth were gritted and his face was reddening. This was exactly the kind of thing he’d been worried about: Strange flashes of light and anomalous computer messages.
The woman shrugged timidly. “Meaning, the data it tried to parse came from out there, not in here.”
Howard Fobell stopped typing and turned to face her, snapping, “How do you know that?”
This time she recoiled. She was used to working with vein-popping generals, but Dr. Fobell was always so kind and quiet—or had been, until the last day or two.
“That stack trace?” she checked, pointing at the screen. “Radial shade? That’s not one of our stacks.”
Howard glanced at the general, who said nothing, and the admiral, who appeared entirely too calm for Howard’s liking. He’d spent a lot of time with the two men this week, and he had quickly learned they’d be horrible poker players: their tells were obvious and predictable. The general was silently panicking, while the admiral badly wanted to punch something.
“Did it come from Mars?” General Rauchbach finally managed to wonder.
“Is it a response to our message? That… formula, or whatever it is you sent to Mars.”
“You don’t sound too certain,” Admiral Thomas pointed out. The woman slowly wheeled her chair back over to her own workstation and tried to look busy.
“Because I’m not certain,” Howard said evenly.
Along with learning their tells, he’d also learned that these two men needed him more than they let on. They knew they could push him, but they also knew they could only push him so far.
Halfway across the country at Bransen Labs, Carlos Resua said, “It’s got to be an image. We just have to figure out how it’s encoded.”
They had received the very same message, and since they had been expecting a response, they looked more closely. The printout was just the error message, after all: the data packet that had caused the error still sat, unprocessed, as a collection of 1s and 0s on a harddrive.
“Can you decipher it?” Bransen asked inoffensively.
“I can do it,” Carlos agreed. “Maybe it’s base-15… That is the most sacred system…”
Bransen and Mouse left him mumbling and walked into the other room.
“Are you sure we need a microbiologist?” Mouse joked nervously.
Bransen grinned, but didn’t answer. He stepped into a conference room with external audio-video feeds and went about his own morning’s work: While Carlos hammered away at the computer, Bransen was in the unexpected position of making the morning news circuit to counter Dr. Angelo Moore’s views.
Dr. Moore was of the opinion that if there was extraterrestrial life (which he had made clear there was not), it would, by nature, resemble us. This, he claimed, was evolution in action. To which Bransen expanded upon his favorite non-human-life theory, posited by Dr. Howard Fobell: that light itself—which looked nothing like a human—may be intelligent.
Unbeknownst to him, at the very moment that Bransen thought he should have tracked down Dr. Fobell before agreeing to appear on the shows, Dr. Fobell was thinking that he should track down Mr. Bransen. Not because Bransen was butchering his theories on national TV, but because he’d had no idea that the head of the Private International Space Administration was on his side.
Which was more than he could say for the representatives of the United States military, who had looked at the output of the message he had decoded—an image of a plain white circle that shaded out to an almost imperceptible pink along the edges—and had called for someone else to “find something meaningful in that transmission.” Even less did they appreciate Dr. Fobell’s defense that, should an intelligent creature made up of light send a picture of itself, it may look exactly like his decoded image.
Even more synchronous was that as soon as Dr. Fobell managed to get away from them and began to search through his scientific directories for Mr. Bransen’s direct (or most direct) line, his own direct line rang. The caller introduced himself as Dr. Carlos Resua, working on behalf of PISA, and he wanted to talk to Dr. Fobell about how he thought intelligent light might represent itself in an image.
Two hours later, Dr. Howard Fobell was finishing his letter of resignation.