Authors: Ben Bova
I think, therefore, that we will get a message, but it will not be simple…
…which will come (perhaps in ten years, or a hundred, or maybe longer)—when some satisfactory radio-telescope work or something similar will acquire evidence of the deliberate beaming of a protracted message from space. First, the most important issue is the recognition of the message…
Life Beyond Earth & the Mind of Man
Edited by Richard Berendzen
National Aeronautics and Space
“Professor Markov, you are a Party member?”
Markov nodded at the woman.
“But you have never been admitted to the Academy?”
“Not yet,” he answered with a frosty smile.
They were sitting in a tiny interrogation room, a cramped, blank-walled windowless chamber. One of the fluorescent lamps in the ceiling was flickering; Markov could feel it tapping against his brain like a Chinese water torture. Deliberate? he wondered. Part of the interrogation? Or simply the usual sloppy maintenance?
The woman sitting across the small wooden table wore the tan uniform with red tabs and insignia of a lieutenant. She could not have been more than twenty-two, and she was taking this interrogation very seriously.
Markov decided to be charming.
“My dear young lady, you have my entire life story in those papers spread before you. It hasn’t been a very colorful life, I admit, but if there is any special part of it that you want me to relate to you…”
She glanced down at the checklist on which her left hand rested. She held a chewed pencil in her right.
“You are married?” she asked.
She’s going to go through the whole damned list, Markov groaned to himself. This will take hours.
“Yes. My wife is Maria…”
“Not yet,” the lieutenant said, diligently making another check mark in the appropriate box. “Children?”
“Wife’s first name?”
It made no impression on the lieutenant. She apparently had no idea that Major Markova had the power to make a lieutenant’s life very uncomfortable.
“How long have you been married?”
“All my life.”
She looked up sharply. “What?”
Markov smiled at her. It’s really quite a pretty face, he thought. I wonder what she would do if I leaned across the table and took a nibble of that luscious lower lip?
“Twenty-four years this January,” he said.
She looked down again and wrote on the checklist. Then her eyes rose to meet his. “Twenty-four years and no children?”
“I suffer from a sad malady,” Markov lied cheerfully. “The result of a war trauma, the psychologists say.”
“You’re…impotent?” She whispered the last word.
Markov shrugged. “It’s all psychological. Sometimes, on very rare occasions when I have found someone beautiful and truly loving, I am a tiger. But with most women…nothing.”
“But how does your wife…?”
The interrogation room door was flung open by a stocky man in a captain’s uniform. “Haven’t you finished the forms yet? The colonel is waiting!”
Unfolding his lanky frame so that he had the advantage of height over the young captain, Markov suggested, “If you are certain that I’m not a spy or an assassin, perhaps I could meet the colonel and then return here afterward to finish the forms.”
The lieutenant stood up too. “Or I could complete the interview after the working day is finished.”
Markov said carefully, “I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“I often work late,” she said. “And these forms are strictly routine. There’s nothing sensitive about them. We could even complete the interview at your apartment, if that is more convenient for you, Professor.”
The captain snapped, “We don’t conduct security interviews in people’s apartments!”
With a sad shrug, Markov reached for his chair. “Very well then. I suppose we’ll have to finish this here and keep the colonel waiting.”
“No,” the captain decided. “You will see the colonel now, and then return here to complete the interview. No matter how long it takes.”
“Whatever you say,” Markov agreed meekly. But he winked at the lieutenant.
She kept a straight face and said, “I will see you in this room, no matter how late it is.”
It was difficult for Markov to suppress a grin as he followed the stocky captain down the featureless corridors. The walls were bare of decoration and even though they had apparently been freshly painted, the halls looked grim and almost shabby. Men and women, most of them in uniform, hurried through the halls. Although Markov could see no cameras anywhere, he got the feeling that everyone was being watched constantly.
The captain took him as far as an anteroom, in which a doughy-faced middle-aged civilian woman commanded a large desk with an electric typewriter and two telephones. She flashed Markov a disapproving glance, the kind that his wife often gave, the kind that automatically made him raise his hands to straighten his thinning lank hair and beard. Then she nodded to the captain and gestured wordlessly to the door beyond her desk.
The captain, motioning Markov to follow him, went to the door, knocked once and slowly—carefully—opened it.
Does no one speak here? Markov wondered. Are we at a shrine?
The captain would not cross the threshold, but he brusquely motioned Markov to go inside.
He stepped through into a sumptuous office. A broad desk of polished dark wood with crossed flags behind it. Oriental carpet on the floor. Windows that looked out onto Red Square. Plush leather chairs neatly lined against one wall. Gleaming samovar standing on a low cabinet.
The office was unoccupied. But before Markov could turn back toward the captain, the door at the far end of the room opened and his wife stepped through.
“Maria! This is
She was wearing her tan uniform, which made her look even squatter and heavier than usual. She scowled at him.
“My office? Hah! My office is smaller than the colonel’s desk.”
“Come on, come on. They’re all waiting for you.”
He crossed the fine carpet and entered the inner room. It was a conference chamber, the air hazy with cigarette and pipe smoke from twenty men and women seated around the long narrow table. Markov sneezed.
At the head of the table sat the colonel, a pudgy little man with narrow, squinting pig’s eyes. Maria introduced everyone to Markov. He immediately forgot all their names except for Academician Bulacheff—the head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and an astronomer of first rank.
Feeling somewhat uneasy, Markov took the seat Maria indicated between a slight, bald man who puffed nervously on a long, thin cigarette, and a female secretary who had a notepad on her lap. Markov noticed that her skirt was up above her knees but her legs weren’t worth bothering about.
“Now then,” the colonel said with a single nod of his head that made his wattles quiver, “we can begin.”
Markov remained silent, listening, as they unfolded the story. The planet Jupiter was giving off strange radio pulses, superimposed against the natural radio noises emanating from the planet. Could it be a signal of some sort? A code? A language?
One of the military men sitting near the colonel shook his head. “I think it’s an American spacecraft that’s been sent into a very deep orbit.”
“It couldn’t be,” said the man beside Markov.
“A secret probe on its way to Jupiter,” the officer insisted.
“For what purpose?”
The officer shrugged. “I’m not in the intelligence service. Let them find out.”
“We have no indication of such a launch by the Americans,” said a bleak-faced graying woman halfway down the table from Markov. “I doubt that the Americans could hide such a launch from us.”
“What about the West Germans? They have a launching base in Brazil now, don’t they?”
“It is under constant surveillance,” the woman answered. “And it does not have the capability of launching interplanetary missions.”
“Then it must be the Americans,” the officer said.
Or the Jovians, Markov thought.
“It is not a spacecraft,” Academician Bulacheff said in a mild, soft voice. “The radio pulses are coming from the planet itself. Of that we are certain.”
“Have the Americans picked up the signals?” the colonel asked. Apparently Bulacheff’s word was enough to silence the spacecraft theory.
“We have done a computer search of the American scientific journals,” one of the younger civilians answered. “Not a word about this has been published.”
“Perhaps they haven’t picked up the signals.”
“Nonsense! Their facilities are as good as ours. Better, in some cases.”
“But do they have a radio telescope operating at the proper frequency? After all…”
The man beside Markov shrilled in a high, reedy voice, “We know of at least four Western facilities that are devoted to studying radio emissions from the planets. The Americans are even mapping Venus with radar! Do you have any conception of the kind of equipment needed to accomplish that? No—if
have detected these strange signals from Jupiter,
have detected them also. That is sure.”
“But why haven’t they published any reports? It’s been several months now and the Americans are always in a rush to get into print.”
“Publish or perish,” said Academician Bulacheff with a slow smile. “Under their system, a scientist must publish papers constantly or be left behind in the competition for money and prestige.”
The conversation drifted further and further into a guessing game about what the Americans were doing. Markov slumped back in his chair and studied Bulacheff. He was an elderly man with a thin, sallow face. The little hair that remained on his gleaming dome was pure white and wispy, like a spindrift of snow blown across the tundra. The old man seemed slightly amused by the proceedings. He caught Markov gazing at him and returned a slight smile.
“The signals can be only one of two things,” Bulacheff said. His soft voice quavered slightly, but everyone turned to him and listened.
Raising one finger, the academician said, “It could be some natural process of the planet Jupiter that is giving off these radio waves. Most likely it is exactly that and nothing more. After all, we have been observing Jupiter’s radio emissions for only a few decades. The planet has been in existence for more than four thousand million years. Who are we to say what is natural and what is anomalous?”
No one challenged his statement. The colonel gave a little coughing grunt and reached for a fresh cigarette.
“The second possibility?” Markov asked gently.
“It may be a deliberate attempt at communication by an intelligent race of Jovian creatures. Personally, I find that difficult to accept, but we must consider it as a possibility until we can actually disprove it.”
Everyone around the table nodded. A bit fearfully, Markov thought.
“Professor Markov,” Bulacheff called, “you are a well-known expert on archaic languages—and you wrote a most interesting monograph about extraterrestrial languages.”
Markov felt himself blushing. “The book was merely an amusement. It was not meant to be considered as a serious text.”
Bulacheff smiled approvingly. “Perhaps. Still, it was a thoughtful piece of work. We must have your help. We would like you to review all the data we have obtained and have you tell us if, in your opinion, these radio pulses could be a language of some sort.”
“Or a code,” Maria added.
“I would be happy to do so,” Markov said to the academician. “And more than happy to work with you, sir.”
Bulacheff inclined his head slightly, accepting the compliment. “Now then, Colonel, if you are truly worried about the Americans, I suggest that we pay special attention to the international astronomical conference that will be held in Paris next month. The Americans will have a large delegation there, as usual. We should be able to learn how much they know.”
“They talk that freely?” someone asked.
Bulacheff’s wrinkled old face eased into a tolerant grin. “The Americans have a fixation about freedom of speech. They don’t know when
“But suppose,” Maria asked, “they say nothing about these radio signals?”
The old man’s grin faded. “That in itself would be significant. Very significant.”
The colonel placed both his pudgy palms down on the tabletop. “Very well. Pick the people who should attend the conference,” he said to Bulacheff. “I will add a few of my own.”
He’s taken command of the project, Markov realized.
“But remember one thing,” the colonel warned.
Everyone looked toward him.
“If it becomes clear that these signals really are from an intelligent race, we must make certain that it is the Soviet Union—and
the Soviet Union—that makes contact with them. Such an advanced technology must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the West.”
…how might such a communication be effected? Space vehicles travel very slowly. A typical mission to the Moon lasts a few days, to the nearby planets a few months, to the outer solar system a few years. …Even quite optimistic estimates place the nearest civilization at a few hundred light-years, where a light-year is almost six trillion miles. It would take our present spacecraft some tens of thousands of years to go the distance of the nearest star, and several tens of millions of years to travel this estimated distance to the nearest other civilization.
A much quicker and more reliable means of interstellar communication is to send or receive radio messages that travel at the speed of light.
Murmurs of Earth: the Voyager
Stoner’s eyes snapped open like an electric light turning on. He was lying on the bed, still dressed. He had fallen asleep.
It was morning now, gray and dank. Rain drummed against the window.
The hallway door opened and Dooley backed in, carrying a breakfast tray. It had been his single sharp rap on the door that had awakened Stoner. Through the open door he could see the other agent standing in the hall, calmly appraising him, ready for anything.
“Breakfast in bed,” Dooley said cheerfully. “Not bad, huh?”
Stoner nodded blearily and Dooley quickly left. The door closed, the lock clicked.
Despite himself, Stoner found that he had an appetite. Juice, eggs, bacon, muffins, jam and coffee quickly disappeared into crumbs and stains on his paper napkin.
He went to the window, stared outside and tried to figure out where he was. The rain was stripping the last leaves from the trees. Low gray clouds were scudding past, most likely east to west, he thought. So north must be in the direction I’m facing, more or less.
There were no landmarks outside that he could recognize, only wooded hills that might have been anywhere in New England.
With nothing else to do, Stoner showered. He saw there was an electric razor in the bathroom. They’re very thorough, he thought. And careful with their prisoners. Rummaging through the bureau drawers and closet, he found a blue pullover sweater and a pair of tan chinos that almost fit. The sleeves and pants legs were too short. At least they’re not prison gray.
No books in the room. No television. No phone. The bed was a double. Its fluffy chenille spread, the kind a middle-class housewife buys for the guest room, was rumpled and sagged halfway to the floor. The wingback chair was still a decorator’s nightmare. The carpet was thick, beige, ordinary. The night table was some unrecognizable variation of the furniture style carried by mail-order chains.
It was an odd room to be locked in.
Stoner shrugged to himself, thought about doing some warmup exercises, started pacing the room instead. He was by the window when the door’s sudden opening startled him.
Turning quickly, he saw that the man coming through the doorway was the observatory’s director, Professor McDermott.
Ramsey McDermott was a big man, physically big, with the heavy shoulders of a longshoreman and the rugged good looks—even in his sixties—of a campus idol. His blond hair had turned a dull pewter shade of gray long ago, but he still kept it in a bristling crew cut. His cobalt-blue eyes could still snap when he got angry.
Professor McDermott liked to loom over smaller people and convince them that he was right and they were wrong on the strength of precise logic and a booming voice. But to Stoner, Big Mac looked old and flabby, living on past glories and younger men’s achievements.
Stoner stood between the window and the chair as McDermott came into the bedroom. The hall door closed behind him.
“How are they treating you, Stoner?” No handshake. McDermott kept his heavy, blunt-fingered hands at his sides. He was wearing a tweed jacket, comfortable old slacks that bagged slightly at the knees, a checkered shirt with a hideous green tie.
“Rotten,” Stoner snapped. “What’s this all about?”
Looking over the room and seeing that the only chair was the little upholstered thing that Stoner stood in front of, the old man went across to the rumpled bed and gingerly lowered himself onto it.
“Damned arthritis,” he grumbled in a deep, surprisingly rich voice. “Weather like this really gets to it.”
“What’s happening?” Stoner demanded. “Why have I been locked up here?”
“Your own damned fault,” McDermott said, reaching into his jacket for a blackened briar pipe. “I know you were going to run down to Washington.”
“I’m still a NASA employee…”
“Only technically,” McDermott said. “You’re on loan to me, and by God you’ll take orders from me!”
“You can’t push me around like this.”
“The Navy can. The observatory’s funded by the Office of Naval Research, sonny. At my suggestion, ONR has slapped a Confidential classification on what you’re doing.”
Stoner sank down into the chair. “How in hell can you classify a natural phenomenon? What I’ve discovered…why would the Navy want to keep it secret?”
Puffing blue clouds of smoke that smelled like burnt pencil shavings, McDermott answered, “You have no idea what’s involved in all this, do you?”
“I’ve found extraterrestrial life, dammit!”
“Phah.” The old man looked completely unimpressed. “Listen to me, sonny. I saved your career. If it weren’t for me you’d be an unemployed ex-astronaut with a useless degree in astrophysics, teaching in some jerkwater college in Texas. Don’t forget that.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
McDermott puffed on his pipe. “Jupiter’s giving off some strange radio pulses, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. So
get the inspiration of bringing an optical astronomer into the observatory, somebody who can get us access to the first pictures Big Eye is taking, from orbit.”
“Okay, it was a good idea. A great idea.”
“You bet it was.”
“And it paid off,” Stoner went on, “with the biggest discovery in history.”
The old man snorted. “And you want to run down to Washington and tell your old buddies in NASA about it.”
“For a start.”
“And become a big hero. Publish a paper in
. Get your picture on the cover of
magazine. Become another goddamned Sagan and get on the Johnny Carson show.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Stoner asked. The man was talking in riddles.
McDermott blew a jet of smoke toward the ceiling. “What have you discovered, Stoner? What do those Big Eye photographs really show?”
“A spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, for Chrissake!”
“Bullcrap!” the old man bellowed. “It’s a natural satellite. Another moon. The damned planet’s got fifteen of ’em that we know about. This makes sixteen.”
“With the kind of UV-to-blue indices we’ve measured?” Stoner countered. “It’s much too bright to be a natural moon.”
“How the hell do you know? It could be a chunk of ice that’s been captured…”
“It’s metal,” Stoner said, quietly, firmly.
McDermott took the pipe from his teeth and shook his head sorrowfully. “You’re grasping at straws, sonny. All you’ve got is a couple of photographs that show a tiny speck of light nobody’s noticed before.”
“Big Eye picked it up because it’s too faint for telescopes on the ground to see.”
“So why should you think it’s artificial?”
Eagerly hunching forward in his little chair, Stoner ticked off points on his fingers. “First, your people pick up these radio pulses—something brand new. Nothing like them have ever come from Jupiter before.”
“That we know of.”
“Second, you bring me into the game so you can acquire the use of Big Eye before it’s officially turned over to the universities. I get them to look at Jupiter and we find…something new.”
“A sixteenth moon,” McDermott muttered.
“Too much of a coincidence,” Stoner insisted. “The new radio signals and the new…object. It’s extraterrestrial life.
“Yes! Face it!”
Big Mac sucked on his pipe. It had gone out. Fumbling in his pockets for his lighter, he said, “Listen to me. Even if you’re right it’s too early to go running around yelling about it. It’s a million-to-one shot, and if you’re wrong about it, you’d be ruining yourself and the observatory by blabbing about it now.”
“But other facilities must be picking up the radio pulses. We can’t sit here and let them take the credit for discovering them.”
“They don’t have the Big Eye photographs,” McDermott said. “That’s our ace in the hole.”
“For how long?”
“Long enough. That’s why I got the Navy to classify everything.”
Stoner got to his feet and paced the length of the bedroom. “We’ve got the greatest discovery in the history of science…”
“…and you want to keep it a secret.”
McDermott gave a grunt that might have been a chuckle and, heaving himself up from the bed, jabbed the pipe stem-first toward Stoner. “It’s out of our hands anyway, sonny. Come with me. Come on.”
They went out the unlocked bedroom door, along the upstairs hallway of the old house and down the steep narrow stairs to the spacious new living room that bordered on the indoor pool.
Someone was swimming, methodically plodding his way slowly along its length in an overhand crawl stroke. Stoner couldn’t be sure, but he thought the swimmer was Dooley.
Then he noticed that two men were sitting in the living room, in front of the empty dark fireplace. They got to their feet as Stoner and McDermott approached. Stoner recognized one of them as Jeff Thompson, from the observatory.
“Jeff,” he said as he came toward the fireplace. “So they dragged you in, too.”
“Not exactly,” Thompson said, smiling a little guiltily. “I came voluntarily.”
“Everybody’s volunteered to keep this thing quiet,” McDermott rumbled from behind Stoner. “You’re the only one who’s giving us trouble.”
I’m the only one who’s not on your direct payroll, Stoner answered silently.
The other man stuck out his hand to Stoner. “Hi. I’m Fred Tuttle.”
McDermott explained, “Lieutenant Commander Tuttle is our contracting officer in the Office of Naval Research.”
Tuttle was in civvies: a neat tan corduroy suit with brown suede patches on the elbows. He was a small man, with the round freckled face of a Mark Twain character. But his grip was strong in Stoner’s hand, self-assured. A salesman’s grip, with the winning smile that they teach you in confidence courses.
“You’re Air Force, aren’t you?” the lieutenant commander asked.
“Inactive reserve,” Stoner replied. “
Tuttle’s smile widened, showing even white teeth. “Well, we may be forced to put you back on active status, you know.”
“No, I don’t know. I don’t understand what in hell is going on.”
With a gesture Tuttle got them all seated. Stoner took the sofa that flanked the cold fireplace. It smelled of carbon and wet leaves. Thompson sat next to him. McDermott grabbed the big cushioned chair opposite. Tuttle remained standing, in charge.
“What we’ve got here”—the lieutenant commander’s face went serious—“is something that may be vitally important to the nation’s security.”
“Important to the nation’s security?” Stoner echoed, incredulous. “How can ETI be…?”
“ETI?” Tuttle asked.
“Extraterrestrial intelligence,” Thompson explained. “Astronomical jargon.”
“Let’s not get carried away here,” McDermott rumbled. “All we’ve really got is these anomalous low-frequency radio signals and a few photographs showing what’s most likely a sixteenth moon of Jupiter.”
“Even if that’s all there is to it,” Stoner countered, icily, “we should publish the information. In
. Before somebody else scoops us.”
The old man glowered from behind his pipe. Tuttle clasped his hands behind his back and stared at his shoe tops.
Stoner felt the glacial calm that always descended upon him when he grew angry. Very quietly he asked, “What in hell happened to freedom of speech around here? Whatever happened to Faraday’s dictum: ‘Physics is to make experiments
and to publish them
“I’m not going to put my reputation on the line for some radio pulses and a couple of photos!” McDermott blurted. “I’m not going to make a jackass of myself claiming that we’ve discovered ETI and then be forced to retract it all when it turns out to be completely natural.”
“Then publish what we’ve got,” Stoner said in a cobra’s whisper. “Forget the ETI conclusion, but at least let Jeff publish the radio pulses. He deserves that much. Get the priority. In print.”
Thompson’s eyebrows went up hopefully.
“The problem is this,” Tuttle took over again. “If there’s any chance at all that we
discovered extraterrestrial intelligence on the planet Jupiter, we’ve got to keep it confidential. It’s important to the national security.”
“How can intelligent life on Jupiter affect the national security?” Stoner asked.
Tuttle responded immediately, as if rehearsed. “If there is intelligent life on Jupiter, it must have a level of technology far ahead of our own to launch a spacecraft against a gravity field that’s much more powerful than Earth’s. We can’t allow other nations—Russia, China, others—to get their hands on that technology. We’ve got to make certain that the free nations of the West get it.”
Stoner felt his shoulders slump. “The same old shit,” he muttered.
Undeterred, Tuttle went on, “Moreover, we’ve got to consider the possibility that the Jovians, whoever they are, might not harbor peaceful intentions. Maybe they intend to…well, invade us.”
“Sure,” Stoner said. “Maybe all those flying saucers the UFO freaks have been seeing for the past thirty years are really scouts from Jupiter, checking us out before they come here to rape and pillage.”
“UFO’s do exist,” Tuttle said seriously. “And if there’s intelligent life on Jupiter…”
“I’m starting to wonder if there’s intelligent life on Earth,” Stoner snapped. He got up from the sofa and headed back toward the stairway.
“Dr. Stoner!” Tuttle called. “You can’t leave this house, you know.”
Stoner glanced back over his shoulder and saw that Dooley was scrambling out of the pool. He stopped and stood where he was, seething.
Thompson was suddenly at his side. “Come on, Keith. Sit down and hear them out. It’ll all work out, one way or another.”
Clamping his teeth together so hard that his jaw throbbed, Stoner went back to the living room with Jeff Thompson.
“What you’ve got to realize, sonny,” said McDermott once he was seated on the sofa again, “is that if you’re right, if we
found extraterrestrial intelligence, the implications are enormous. Enormous!”
“The social impact alone could be incredible,” Thompson agreed.