Once they applied the new algorithm, the senseless chatter of the Universe immediately came through as a coherent message: CAN ANYONE HEAR ME? HELLO?
The telemetry rattled off the message a dozen times while the assembled men uttered a collective, “Holy shit!” A return message was quickly composed and transmitted: WE HEAR YOU.
The incoming message ceased. Nothing else happened there in the underground bunker of the New Experimental Research & Development (NERD) headquarters. Actually, “underground bunker” is a bit of a stretch: it was actually just Bill’s basement. And truth be told, they didn’t research anything, and the only things they ever developed were allergies from the mold buildup. But everyone liked the acronym, and so they stretched the words to fit.
And yet, this motley collection of Firefly fans, D&D aficionados and IT geeks managed to initiate contact with an alien intelligence using nothing more than a satellite dish, a microwave transmitter, and a MacBook (Pro). The “telemetry” began as a state-of-the-art laser printer. Unfortunately, this printer was silent, which was voted as being “no fun at all.” They agreed that alien transmissions should make noise, and so the high-tech printer was replaced with an ancient dot matrix machine. It was slow and clunky, but it also sounded very Eighties Sci-Fi.
Bill held his hands aloft in his trademark, “I’m about to give a lecture” gesture. Since it was Bill’s basement the NERDS used, he was (grudgingly) deemed leader (or el Jeffe, as Bill preferred). Everyone (grudgingly) quieted to hear what el Jeffe had to say.
“My friends. Colleagues. Fellow scientists,” he began. There were only eight people in the basement, and yet Bill peered upon a vast throng. “This is an historic occasion. On this date and time—what is it, the twenty third?—we have heard a Voice From Beyond. A Voice that has likely been traveling through the lonely vacuum of cold, empty, silent space for millions of years. By the time our greeting arrives, their world—alas!—shall likely be dust. We shall never hear from them again, nor—”
Behind them, on the work bench where all the equipment was set up, the telemetry clicked and whirred with a new message:
NICE TO HEAR BACK FROM YOU. TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH. SURE HOPE I’M NOT BOTHERING YOU. BY THE WAY, SEND NO FURTHER TRANSMISSIONS FOR ABOUT 5 MINUTES AS I WILL BE OUT OF RANGE.
The basement erupted in excited talk. The bottle of champagne (purchased from Jewel Foods for this express purpose) was brought forth. Unfortunately, nobody could manage to remove the cork and everyone in attendance, as it turned out, was allergic to sulfites anyway, so the bottle was cast aside.
Then Bill once again held his arms aloft and discussions (grudgingly) subsided. The door at the top of the basement stairs opened and somebody started down. All eyes flashed toward the long legs of Rebecca, Bill’s wife.
“On this momentous occasion,” intoned Bill. “Our next transmission must be crafted with utmost care and deliberation. I shall endeavor to represent—”
“Why you?” asked Samir, and his question echoed through the throng of assembled NERDs.
“Because,” pronounced Bill, stepping upon a wooden box he kept around for such occasions. “One, this is my basement. And two, more importantly, the new algorithm, with which we have shattered the barrier between worlds, is also mine.”
Rebecca, still standing on the stairs, cleared her throat. Bill’s face drained of color.
“Well, sort of mine,” he amended.
Everyone demanded what he meant by “sort of.”
“Okay, so my lovely, talented and understanding wife is the one who actually came up with—”
Bill was immediately forgotten as all attention switched to Rebecca. She was coaxed downstairs and offered the last (stale) donut and what remained of the coffee. She declined both but then Samir regally presented her with the bottle of champagne. She accepted the champagne. She also accepted (grudgingly) membership into the NERD group (the first “Nerdette”). Within a nanosecond (a favorite time designation of the group) she was promoted to New Leader and Queen Bee. The basement had to go from being an “underground bunker” to a “hive,” but this alteration was accomplished quickly and without argument.
Rebecca’s first official act in her role as Queen Bee was to send her husband/drone out for fresh coffee and donuts. Bill lifted his arms in the old “attention please!” gesture but the magic no longer worked. He (grudgingly) buzzed off to do the Queen Bee’s bidding.
The rest of the hive informed the Queen Bee of the remarkable progress they had made by utilizing her Glorious Algorithm.
“The alien entity is currently out of range,” said Colin. “Most likely having traveled through a, er—”
“A coronal cluster,” said Samir, in a voice of confident authority.
Again, the telemetry rattled.
OK. I’M BACK FROM THE—WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE WORD IN YOUR LANGUAGE? BACK FROM THE CRAPPER.
“He must mean he just returned from the Crab Nebula,” said Timothy. “Communication of this sort can be very nuanced.”
The telemetry rattled.
JOHN. BATHROOM. SHITHOUSE. LAVATORY. RESTROOM.
“Or not,” said Timothy.
ROADSIDE FOOD GOES RIGHT THROUGH YOU. AM I RIGHT?
There was some discussion concerning their next message. Timothy suggested they inform the alien of humankind’s amazing social and technological progress. Colin said they should infuse their transmission with cultural references in order to subtly demonstrate their sophistication.
“Or,” said Rebecca. “We could try being good listeners and see what we can learn.”
It was decided that this sort of out-of-the-box thinking was just what they needed. They let her compose the next transmission. She typed: SO. TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF.
She turned off the CAPS LOCK and BOLD settings so their alien contact could talk normally.
“Well,” said their alien contact, via the dot matrix printer. “My real name is Bob, but you can just call me B’oowloh Bron Bron Zowt. I’m communicating through your MacBook (Pro) via electronic telepathy, which is why transmissions are able to transcend the speed of light barrier.”
Timothy sent, “Your race is telepathic?”
“No. Just me. I hear the voices of a million species but rarely am I heard. Rarely can I establish dialog such as this. But I had to reach out and warn you.”
Several moments of silence passed, then Rebecca sent: “Please go on.”
“Sorry about that. I was consuming a dessert item that is surprisingly tasty. Never know what you’re going to get at a roadside diner, am I right? I think you might call this ‘key lime pie,’ except it’s composed of a petrochemical sludge.”
“We have such menu items here as well. They’re called ‘processed foods,'” typed Rebecca. “But you said something about a warning?”
“I wish I could help you, but two guards are keeping close watch over me. You see, the telepathic voices of a million species has driven me mad and so I am a prisoner. They are transporting me from one confinement facility to another. We have stopped at a roadside diner. It is at this place where I happened to notice your Universe.”
The hive erupted in an excited buzz but the Queen Bee held up one hand and everyone immediately quieted. She sent: “Please continue, Bob.”
“Thank you. You are such a good listener. Believe me, that is a rare quality in any Universe. Anyway, I happened to notice your Universe at the bottom of the cup my waitress set in front of me. She was going to fill it with a hot, delicious beverage, but I placed my talons over the top to prevent this. Unfortunately, after the guards take me away from here, I will no longer be able to protect you.”
Now Timothy sent a message: “You mean to tell us that our world is in danger of being destroyed by hot coffee?”
“It is not what your species would call ‘coffee,'” transmitted Bob. “It has a smokier flavor and only half the caffeine. I believe it’s known as Earl Grey tea. A most pleasant beverage. But yes, it will utterly destroy your Universe and all life within it. Your impending cataclysm makes my own problems pale in comparison, so I shall not bore you with them.”
Arguments broke out as to how to handle the situation. Rebecca sent, “We thank you for taking time for us. I can’t imagine what you are going through, and yet you stopped to give us a warning.”
While debates raged through the hive, Rebecca conversed with Bob. Bob related his life story and all about how difficult it was growing up with the voices of sentient (and sometimes less-than-sentient) beings flooding his brain day and night.
“You are such a good listener,” Bob said again.
“Thank you,” said Rebecca.
The NERD group drew up battle plans and demands. They crafted threats and negotiations. They debated and argued and yelled. Bill returned with donuts and coffee. They filled him in on the latest developments. With the infusion of sugar and caffeine, the arguments escalated.
After nearly an hour, they were ready to send a new transmission but Rebecca said, “Oh, don’t worry, everything has already been taken care of.”
“Taken care of?” said Bill. “What do you mean?”
Rebecca only smiled.
In a Universe built on a vast scale but otherwise surprisingly similar to our own, a team of psychiatric interns peered into a containment cell.
“And here we have Bob,” said the physician in charge. “Nicknamed B’oowloh Bron Bron Zowt.”
The interns clicked their mandibles together rapidly in their equivalent of polite laughter.
“Of course, out of respect for the dignity of our patients, we address him by the more formal name of Bob.”
“What is he holding?” asked one intern.
“Ah, yes. One thing you will learn about the patients here is that they all cling to something. Sometimes it’s a ritual, sometimes it’s a possession. It comes down to security. Bob here latched onto a ceramic cup on his way to this facility. He refused to let go of it. Eventually, his guards simply paid the diner for the cup rather than wrestle it from him. It hasn’t left his talons since that day. As long as nobody tries to take away his cup, Bob is a model patient.”
© 2014 by Seth Chambers
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