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Little Green Message


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"You need to look at this." Ray Beach nodded toward the screen.

"Oh damn." Wendy Ng, director of the radio astronomy observatory at the newly opened University of California, Las Vegas, slumped into the chair beside her grad student. "How long have you been picking it up?"

"Maybe half an hour. I'd nearly finished the final engineering run. I was testing the orientation locks on the antennae.'

"Could it be a blind injection?"

Beach grimaced. "No, our sadistic colleagues don't deliver fake signals when we're just testing. Anyway, I checked with them. It isn't a pulsar, is it?"

Ng shook her head. "No. The frequency's all wrong, and anyway pulsars don't behave like that." She moved closer, running a finger along the screen under the displayed string of pulses, collected together in groups—1, 2, 4, 8, 16—repeating over and over. "You're recording this, I presume?"

Beach fought back the urge to be sarcastic. His thesis advisor had no sense of humor. "Yep. It's standard procedure on engineering runs, for diagnostics."

"This could be LGM-1 all over again."

"As long as the discoverer gets treated better. I want my name on the Nobel."

Ng snorted. "Yeah, Ray, but you have the advantage of being part of the patriarchy. When Jocelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar and her boss scooped the prize, she wasn't so lucky."

"It's changing," said Beach.

"Too slowly."

"No," Beach said, pointing at the screen. "Look." After hundreds of cycles from one to sixteen, the pulses were now displaying a pattern, anything but natural in appearance.

"Damn," said Ng again, quieter this time. "Jocelyn and Hewish were joking when they called their source LGM for 'Little Green Men.' This is bound to have a natural explanation too, but it sure as hell looks like communication. Maybe there really is someone out there." She bit at the flesh between her thumb and forefinger. "Get me the press office, Ray."

"Are you sure? You know what they'll do. However much we emphasize restraint, they're going to pump out 'Aliens contact Earth!'"

"It's my job to make sure they don't."

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8/11/27, 6:00 P.M.

When Beach got to his condo, his girlfriend Maya Karlsson was playing something on the PS6. He wasn't sure what, but from the stream of invective, she wasn't winning. Seconds later, she tore off the headset and broke into a smile. "How long have you been there?"

"Not long. Have you got a minute? There's something I'd like you to check out."

"Sure. There's only so much trashing I can take from teenagers." Karlsson peered over Beach's shoulder as he opened his laptop. "What's this?"

"A signal we picked up today. See what you make of it." Beach pulled up the recording and let it run from the point that the regular count changed to a more complex pattern.

Karlsson stared at the screen, her mouth slightly open. "Local interference? Picking up a broadcast?"

Beach grimaced. "Nope. It's definitely from deep space. No clear source yet, but it's for real."

"Forget the WOW signal, then, you've got first contact, Ray. This is intelligent, there's no doubt. Can you show me that as binary? Take the peaks as ones and troughs as zeroes."

"No problem." Beach tapped at the keyboard and a string of zeroes and ones started to fill up the screen. "Is that too fast?"

Karlsson shook her head. "You know reading binary's my party trick. So, first we've got the simple number sequences, but the rest of it, that's not random garbage. It's structured, I'm sure. It could be code, you know? It feels like code."

"Don't give me that," said Beach. "If this is alien, it'll be nothing like a recognizable programming language."

"I realize that, but there's something familiar in the structure. Like it's doing something I should recognize. Print the first page off for me, I'm going to take a bath and think about it."

Ng was on the phone when Karlsson burst from the bathroom, dripping water over the floor. Beach shook his head, pointing the phone and mouthed "The prof." Karlsson didn't speak, but waved the sodden printout at him.

"Sorry," Beach said down the phone. "QRM."

"The press office is very excited," said Ng, "and they've got the provost involved too. You don't tell anyone, okay? Not until we're sure what this is."

"I've already told Maya," said Beach. "Code is her thing. She can help."

"Put it on speaker!" Karlsson said, waving the sheet of paper again.

Beach shrugged. He flipped up the phone's settings as Ng said something inaudible.

"Hi Wendy, it's Maya here. Don't blame Ray, he had to tell me, and I know what the signal is."

"How can you know?" said Ng. "It's got to be totally alien."

"Is it, though?" said Karlsson. "It'll take time to work out the detail, but I've already identified three basic operations for a Turing machine. Totally different from how we'd do it, but that's what it is. A Turing machine is universal, though it'll be frigging slow to untangle and execute."

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9/3/27, 10:00 A.M.

Sweat was dripping from Ng's brow, though the a/c was turned up too high. She tapped Karlsson on the back. "Any progress?"


"Jocelyn and Hewish were joking when they called their source LGM for 'Little Green Men.' This is bound to have a natural explanation, too, but it sure looks like communication."


Karlsson shook her head. "There was no need to do it this way. Standalone computer, Faraday cage—it's dumb. Alien code can't be a computer virus that can escape onto the Internet and take over the world. You've seen too many movies. It's like expecting a Windows virus to infect a person. It couldn't happen."

"The precautionary principle applies," said Ng. "However small, there's…"

"Whoa!" Beach jumped from his seat alongside Karlsson. They all stared at the screen. A collection of windows monitored progress of the Turing machine simulator running the alien code. Now, the windows seemed to melt, dripping down the screen to leave behind a blank nothing.

"Couldn't happen?" said Ng.

"Okay, we don't know… Oh, my God!" Karlsson was staring not at the screen, but the wall behind it. As they watched, the wall itself began to melt away, just as the image on the screen had done. In the gap they could see the building, the sky, everything dissolving.

"So, maybe it was a virus," said Karlsson. "But for the universe's operating sys …"

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0/0/0, 0:00 A.M.

UNIVERSE BOOT SEQUENCE RESTART

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Author

Brian Clegg (www.brianclegg.net) is a science writer based in the U.K.


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