Jan got to work thirty minutes early the next morning. She had not slept well. Thoughts bounced back and forth. Hackers? It had to be. But what about the eight-hour message? Was that a stunt, too? She didn’t think so. In spite of herself she wanted to believe it was an alien contact.
Jan opened the door and turned off the alarm. She busied herself turning on lights, starting coffee, opening blinds, all the time aware of the black screen on the main console. There was no need to check for a message. Two weeks. She would wait two weeks. She managed to wait five minutes.
After turning the monitor on she busied herself shuffling through backup tapes, pretending not to notice the image materializing on the screen. But she could see it out of the corner of her eye. “Hello, Jan. My name is Bill.” She turned to the keyboard and accessed the activity log. That did it. The message came in ten minutes after she had sent hers. It had to be a hacker. She crawled under the desk and checked the connection. The network cable was still unplugged. The only connection was the coaxial cable to the antennae array. Now she was spooked. How could someone hack in when there was no connection? It had to be the real thing. She accessed the star map again. She stared blankly at the cross hairs, willing them to move to a more reasonable location. Finally she powered up the transmitter and typed a message.
“Where are you? How far away?” She couldn’t think what else to say. She felt foolish sending such a message. It should have been something like ‘Greetings from Earth’ but how could they understand it anyway? There was supposed to be a lengthy process of communicating with math and the wavelengths of elements and such till they established a common language. This had to be a joke but how? With a feeling of hopelessness she hit the key that sent the message.
Jan wandered aimlessly around the room, watching the clock and thinking thoughts of straight jackets and padded rooms. At thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds a message appeared on the screen, in a smaller font this time.
“In your terms we would be at coordinates 847356.923 by 396546.002. I know that doesn’t line up with the coordinates you see, but I’ll explain that later. We are approximately two hundred and seventy light years from you.”
Jan typed and sent another message.
“How can you respond so quickly? And how can you understand my language?”
Jan had completely forgotten about the straight jacket and padded room. If it was a joke she was going to have to look like a fool.
After about twelve minutes Bill replied.
“We have a system of pathways that we use to communicate with our colonies. Call them conduits. You might think of them as vacuum tubes. We have set up a terminal on one of the conduits near your system to facilitate communications with you. It takes about five of your minutes for your message to get up to it and five minutes for mine to get back to you. Communication is virtually instantaneous within the conduits. So that’s ten minutes minimum turn around. With me having to interpret and analyze and for each of us to frame a response, it will be fifteen to twenty minutes between messages. Some way to carry on a conversation, isn’t it?”
“Anyway, before I talk about the language, let me explain how we approach new contacts. First, we do not actively search for new contacts. You came to our attention only because of your original message. By the way, the message that got your attention was an annual report from one of our colonies. The conduits sometimes ‘leak’, if you will, and you intercepted the data.”
“Now for the language. When we receive a new contact we begin to collect information about them from their broadcasts. I guess you might call it eavesdropping. From this we get your alphabet. Then it’s just a matter of sifting through the data to get a handle on your forms of communication. We have perfected this method over a span of about three hundred years. We’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Jan replied: Colonies? Do you colonize or enslave? Are we targets?”
Bill: No, no, no. Nothing to worry about there. We are peaceful. There is plenty of galaxy for everybody. We have built some colonies on uninhabited worlds for mining raw materials. That’s all. By the way, we have encountered five other inhabited worlds and we are on good terms with all of them.”
Jan: So what do you want? What should I do now? I’ll need to contact my superiors and turn you over to them.
Jan hit the send key and knew instantly she had made a mistake. ‘Turn you over to…” Now she sounded like the aggressor. What would he (she, it, they) think of us?
Bill: You are going to turn me over to who, if you please? Just joking. I know what you mean. But before you do that, let me explain one more thing. Long ago, even before we began to travel in space, we hit upon a way to settle disputes, to prevent armed conflict. Each side in a dispute chooses one person that they trust. Usually ordinary people, not connected with government or the military, as it were. These two people spend a lot of time together, six months to a year, and get to know one another. The goal is for each to understand the other person’s point of view. We have tried to use the same approach in establishing a relationship with other species.
Jan: Yes, but I still need to contact my superiors so they can choose this person.
Bill: Why not you, if you please?
Jan had started wondering if she should tell him he was using those extra little phrases wrong. Maybe later.
Jan: I’m not the one for the job.
Bill: Why not, by the way?
Jan: Look, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I think I should tell you. Those little phrases? Like by the way, as it were, if you please? You’re not really using them right. And, besides, you don’t really need to use them. They just get in the way.
Bull still, I’m not the one. I’m… shy.
Bill: Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I wanted to be sure I understood what shy is. Shy is not bad. It’s better than brash. Did I use the right word there? Oh, and thanks for letting me know about the phrases. You saved me some embarrassment. Anyway… Did I use anyway right? Anyway, back to shy. I’m kind of shy myself when I meet new people.
Jan: I’m more shy than that. Let me explain. Have you ever been with a group of people and they’re all talking and you realize you haven’t said a word and you think everybody’s looking at you out of the corner of their eyes, wondering what’s wrong with you, and then you think ‘If I say something now, they’ll all stop talking and look at me waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from my lips’ and you wish you had worn something that matches the wallpaper so you could get really still and just disappear? That’s the kind of shy I am.
Jan hit the send key before she could think about it and back out. She didn’t know why she had done that. Maybe it was easier to spill your guts to a text message from across the universe.
Bill: Again, I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. You gave me a lot to think about and some new terms to understand. What’s wallpaper? (Just joking.) Even so, back to shyness. Believe it or not, I understand about shyness. As I understand it, it all stems from a general lack of confidence in yourself. I have had that problem too. I dealt with it to the opposite extreme. I was loud, opinionated, and angry. But something happened to change me. I met God.
Jan sat back in her chair, stunned. From across a hundred and something light years of space someone was. .. what did they call it? Witnessing to her. She had tried church once, but she was the same there, wishing to become one with the wallpaper. Besides, she had never been able to make up her mind. Was there a god? With all the different ideas about God here on Earth, what brand of god did they have out there. Wherever there was? Besides, God or no God, she didn’t see how she would ever be any different than she was right now. Well, no sense in hurting his feelings again. What luck. The first alien contact and we get a religious zealot.
Jan: How did God do that?
Bill: I don’t want to spend too much time on this. We aren’t really supposed to talk about this kind of stuff, especially on the first contact. But here it is in a nutshell. Was that right, nutshell? Well, we are separated from God because we are sinful. (I hope that’s the right word.) We don’t, and can’t measure up to His standard of perfection. We are doomed to an eternity of separation from Him and of eternal punishment. But He loves us, His creation, so much He sent His Son to die in our place, to take our punishment for us so that we can be free from sin. When we believe in Him and His sacrifice we are changed into a new person. There’s a lot more to it but that’s it in its basic essentials.
Jan: You’re talking about Jesus. Christianity. There are myths like that in every culture.
Bill: The thing about a particularly persistent rumor is that you can pretty well be assured that there is a truth behind it somewhere, don’t you think?
Jan never looked at it that way.
Jan: I’m listening.
Bill: Listen to this. All seven species, including us, are remarkably similar. Two eyes, two ears, one mouth, one nose. We walk upright. We are oxygen breathing. Our planets are very close to the same: at least two thirds water, length of day and years very close to the same. Our suns are of similar size and composition. Each is the third planet from their sun. each system has one or two large planets who’s gravitational fields acts as a deflector against destructive space debris. Sound like Somebody had a plan.
Jan turned and looked out the windows. It was dark outside. She looked at the clock on the wall. Eight PM. She had been ‘talking’ all day. She could see the stars winking at her between the slats of the blinds. Stars and planets and black holes and nebula, all created by…
Bill: Jan, are you still there?
Jan: I’m here.
Bill: Good. I was afraid I had run you off.
Jan: No. I was just thinking.
Bill: Jan, I’m not telling you God will change you into the life of the party. You may still just as soon be a part of the wallpaper as to be out in front of people. But if you believe in what He has done for you He will give you something that you will never find in all this vast universe no matter how far you search. Something only He can give you.
Jan: What’s that?