Chapter nine of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
General Rauchbach was quite proud of the message they intended to send back. You couldn’t assume any amount of intelligence, so pictures were certainly the way to go. He wasn’t entirely convinced that whatever received it would be able to use the circle and representative equation to establish that they, the Earthlings, understood pi, nor that they could use the same equation to establish the average height of a human being (or would care), but Dr. Angelo Moore had assured him it was the best way, and it certainly made more sense to General Rauchbach than the near-lunatic ravings of Dr. Fobell.
“That’s the problem with genius,” the general had commiserated with Admiral Thomas when they’d read Howard’s letter of resignation. “They’re one tiny stumble away from insanity.”
He certainly didn’t think Dr. Moore was smarter than Dr. Fobell, but at least he was stable. Better yet, he was a company man—the kind of man who didn’t mind being told what to say when people asked him questions. Had this been a circus—and sometimes the general felt like it was exactly that—Dr. Moore would have been equal parts audience-plant and rube: He was fooled by others into fooling those around him. His arrogance made this task exceedingly simple: All they had to do was convince Dr. Moore that he was more intelligent than the general public, and that lying to them was for their own protection. The “father knows best” routine always worked with the unwashed masses, and when you were feeding the father figure his lines, the cover-up completed itself.
“Will anyone believe Fobell if he talks about this place?” Admiral Thomas fretted. General Rauchbach laughed incredulously.
“Just the same kooks who believe Dr. Resua.”
They both laughed loudly to hide their nerves. Dr. Moore had been easy to bring on board to replace Dr. Fobell—he’d already been hawking the low-level cover-up about the existence of UFOs for years—but Dr. Fobell was still a loose cannon.
“And Dr. Moore is up to the task? This isn’t lights in the sky we need a scientist to debunk as swamp gas, this is contact. Actual, direct contact.”
“I know what it is,” General Rauchbach snapped, ill at ease with being questioned by anyone. “Dr. Moore was ready for a promotion. He’s done fantastic work for us.” The general waggled the print-out of Dr. Moore’s message to Mars and sighed, trying to convince himself that the loss of a mind like Dr. Fobell’s was actually a benefit. “And this…? At least this message makes some sense.”
Ana-loop received the picture, decoded it, and slumped into dumbfounded horror at what it told her: These beings assumed every other thing was as stupid as they were themselves. It didn’t give her much hope. Her colleagues appeared to be right: The ones who could make light didn’t understand its properties. There was no meaningful contact. Their light was always inanimate. They couldn’t translate simple messages, even with the key. And they didn’t understand RadialShade—the undulating language of light that flickered along the spectrum from visible to invisible in meaningful ways. A language of light defined by dark pockets. Perhaps it was too much to ask. Simply because you could communicate in their language did not guarantee the opposite.
But Ana-loop had seen something as they’d emerged from the portal: She’d seen two figures standing on the surface, watching them, then the figures wavered and flickered out, their Radiance to be reabsorbed by their flesh.
Two had come; they had known they’d come, she was sure of it. They may even be aware of their own eventual return to Radiance.
But Ana-loop’s peers still didn’t believe her. They had again mocked her decision to journey there, to that portal, saying they had only proved that everyone else was right: These beings knew not what they were, nor how to communicate with them. Consciousness was not the issue; the question was wisdom.
So Ana-loop had gone back and waited alone for the responses, though now she didn’t hold out much hope for a response from the other site they had sent their message to.
“Then when I transcoded it that way, I got this,” Carlos explained to Howard, opening an image of a white screen run through with shades of darker areas (some almost black) emanating from the center, like spokes on a wheel.
“The word ‘radial’ naturally popped into my head—and not, say, ‘spokes’—because the error from the Mars message said ‘RadialShade’—and that’s exactly what we have here: Shaded swaths radiating from the center.”
Carlos slumped back in his chair and threw up his hands. “But that’s it. I’m certain I transcoded it correctly this time, but I’m stumped.”
Howard, however, was grinning widely. “How do you suppose a light being would communicate?”
Carlos sat forward expectantly, waiting for Howard to answer his own question.
“How are we communicating right now? At its root, we’re using sound—short bursts of sound interspersed with silence, thereby creating syllables and words. And when we write, it’s really just a string of ink and no-ink, correct? But do light beings see or hear? Do they have physical senses? All we can say for sure is that they are light. And so they might communicate with light—bursts of light separated by darkness. Or shade.”
He smiled broadly, not because of pride in his own theory, but because he—like Carlos—knew they had figured it out.
“And how would we translate that?” Carlos wondered. “Do we have some other, non-lingual way of transmitting information? Something that’s black or white, but can create differences by degrees?”
“Of course we do,” Howard agreed rhetorically. “Binary code. Ones and zeros.”
“Exactly. So you can look at this RadialShade as a string of ones and zeros—even create an image similar to this, if you use the right algorithms to create the shading.”
Carlos leaned over his keyboard and opened a code editor, as Howard watched over his shoulder.
“And that string might be an image, but it might also be audio or video or even an executable, if you parse it correctly.”
Ana-loop finally received the other message, sent on a concentrated beam of unconscious light. The RadialShade pattern of it was immediately discernible, though the exact message it contained was not. The use of the language was flawed and inarticulate in places, but there was a distinct pattern to the misuse of the language. It showed logic and consistency and, most important, that they did understand, just as Ana-loop had tried to convince the others.
Ana-loop framed her reply carefully for them, using their mistakes so she could be sure they would understand what she was saying. There would be time enough later to teach them the finer points of RadialShade. The others—who had sent a packet of meaningless shapes and forms that meant as much to Ana-loop as do the wild gesticulations of a monkey—she would not attempt to contact again. No point wasting resources.
Most important to her now was a meeting with these beings, and to that end, she’d explained how non-light entities could travel to distant places, using inanimate light. And she waited again, worried that she’d said too much, been too complex with her wording, or else had completely missed the form of RadialShade they had been using.
Mouse furrowed his brow and twiddled his beard, grunting every now and again as his eyes scanned every detail of the diagram he held inches from his nose.
“This isn’t a schematic for electricity, is it?” he asked.
“Maybe? It’s probably something to do with light,” Howard answered.
While the language made sense and the diagrams and equations could be written out, Carlos and Howard were frankly miffed as to what to do with them. They’d found Mouse discussing some kind of gear system with Bransen and had presented the bizarre blueprint to him, to see if he could make sense of it.
“Any clues as to its purpose?” Mouse checked.
Carlos sighed heavily and said, “The sender claims that this can be used to allow us to travel to them… Using light.”
Mouse whipped the diagram away from his face and stood somewhat to attention, making the others jump slightly.
His face broke into a wide smile, “No problem! I’ll work on it!”