I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
-- Isaac Newton, c. 1725
The Benjamin L. Martin, the Benny to its captain and passengers, was at the extreme limit of its survey territory, orbiting a neutron star, catalog number VV651107, when it cruised into the history books.
Its captain was Michael Langley, married six times, father of three, reformed drug addict, one-time theology student, amateur actor, amateur musician, disbarred lawyer. Langley seemed to have led at least a half-dozen separate lives, but it was of course not too difficult to do that when vitality into a second century, and even sometimes into a third, was not uncommon.
The onboard survey team consisted of eleven specialists of one kind and another, physicists, geologists, planetologists, climatologists, and masters of a few more arcane fields. Like all the Academy people, they treated their work very seriously, measuring, poking, and taking the temperature of every available world, satellite, star, and dust cloud. And of course they loved anomalies, when they could find one. It was a fool's game, Langley knew, and if any of them had spent as much time on the frontier as he had, she'd be aware that everything they thought to be odd, remarkable, or "worth noting," was repeated a thousand times within a few dozen light years. The universe was endlessly repetitive. There were no anomalies.
Take for example this neutron star. It resembled a gray billiard ball, or would have if they'd been able to light it up. It was only a few kilometers across, barely the size of Manhattan, but it was several times more massive than the sun. An enormous deadweight, so dense that it was twisting time and space, diverting light from surrounding stars into a halo. Playing havoc with the Benny's clocks and systems, even occasionally running them backward. Its surface gravity was so high that Langley, could he have reached the ground, would have weighed eight billion tons.
"With or without my shoes?" he'd asked the astrophysicist who'd presented him with the calculation.
Despite the outrageous characteristics of the object, there were at least a half dozen in the immediate neighborhood. The reality was that there were simply a lot of dead stars floating about. Nobody noticed them because they didn't make any noise and they were all but invisible.
"What makes it interesting," Ava explained to him, "is that it's going to bump into that star over there." She tapped her finger on the display, but Langley wasn't sure which star she meant. "It has fourteen planets, it's nine billion years old, but this monster is going to scatter everything. And probably disrupt the sun."
Langley had heard that, a few days before. But he knew it wouldn't happen during his lifetime.
Ava Eckart was one of the few on board who seemed to have a life outside her specialty. She was a black woman, attractive, methodical, congenial. Organized the shipboard parties. Liked to dance. Enjoyed talking about her work, but had the rare ability to put it in layman's terms.
"When?" Langley asked. "When's all this going to happen?"
"In about seventeen thousand years."
Well, there you go. You just need a little patience. "And you can't wait."
Her dark eyes sparkled. "You got it," she said. And then her internal lights faded. "That's the problem with being out here. Everything interesting happens on an inconvenient time scale."
She picked up a couple of coffee mugs. Did he want one?
"No," he said. "Thanks, but it keeps me awake all day."
She smiled, poured herself one, and eased into a chair. "But yes," she said, "I'd love to be here when it happens. To be able to see something like that."
"Seventeen thousand years? Better eat right."
"I guess." She remained pensive. "Even if you lived long enough to make it, you'd need a few thousand more years to watch the process. At least."
"That's why we have simulations."
"Not the same," she said. "It's not like being there." She shook her head. "Even when you are, you're pretty much locked out. Take the star, for example." She meant 1107, the neutron star they were orbiting. "We're out here, but we can't get close enough to see it."
Langley pointed to its image on the displays.
"I mean really see it," she continued. "Cruise over its surface. Bounce some lights off it."
"Go for a walk on it."
"Yes!" Ava's enthusiasm bubbled to the surface. She was wearing green shorts and a white pullover that read University of Ohio. "We've got anti-gravity. All we need's a better generator."
"A lot better."
The Ahab image customarily used by the ship's artificial intelligence appeared onscreen. Like all AI's in Academy vessels, he answered to Bill.
The grim steely eyes and the muttonchop whiskers and the windblown black corduroy pullover were too familiar to elicit notice from Langley. But his passengers always went to alert when he appeared. Had Bill been a self-aware entity, which his creators claimed he was not, Langley would have thought he was enjoying himself at their expense.
"Captain," he said. "We are encountering a curious phenomenon."
That was an unusual comment. Usually Bill just dumped information without editorializing. "What is it, Bill?"
"It's gone now. But there was an artificial radio transmission."
"Yes. At 8.4 gigahertz."
"What did it say? Who's it from?"
The sea-swept eyes drew together. "I can't answer either question, Captain. It's not any language or system with which I am familiar."
Langley amd Ava exchanged glances. They were a long way from home. Nobody else was out here.
"The signal was directed," Bill added.
"No. We passed through it several moments ago."
"Were you able to make out anything at all, Bill?"
"No. The pattern is clearly artificial. Any assertion beyond that is speculation."
Ava had been peering at the starfield images on the screens as if something might show itself. "What's your level of confidence, Bill?" she asked.
"Ninety-nine eight, at a conservative estimate." Lines of characters began rolling down one of the status screens. "This is what it looks like. I've substituted symbols for pulse patterns."
The captain did not see a pattern, but he accepted Bill's judgment without question. "You're saying there's another ship out here, Bill?"
"I'm saying only that there's a signal."
"Where'd it come from?" asked Ava. "Which way?"
"I can't be sure. But it seemed to originate in the general direction of 1107. The neutron star. Something in orbit, I assume. We passed through the signal too quickly to get a lock on it."
Langley frowned at the symbols scrolling down the display. He watched until they stopped.
"That's it," said Bill. "Do you want me to repeat the record?"
He looked at Ava. She shook her head no.
Langley glanced up at the AI's image. The face was thin and worn. The AI's gray eminence persona, which Bill usually adopted when things were happening. "Bill, can we find it again?"
The AI hesitated. "A directed signal? If we assume it's coming from a tighter orbit than ours, we would have to wait until it caught up with us again."
"How long would that take?"
"Probably several months."
Langley simply didn't believe it had happened. Not out here. It was more likely to be a glitch somewhere. "Can you make any kind of estimate on the location of the source, Bill?"
"No, Captain. I would need to find it a second time to do that."
He gazed at Ava. "It's just a screw-up somewhere. Stuff like this happens sometimes. It's a glitch in the system."
"Maybe," she said.
"Bill, run a diagnostic. See if you can find any kind of internal problem that might account for the intercept."
"I've already done that, Captain. Everything seems to be in order."
Ava's lids had gone to half-staff. She was peering inside somewhere. "Let's run it by Pete." That was Pete Damon, the project director. Pete was the best known physicist in the world, largely because of his tenure as host of Universe, an extraordinarily popular science series which had done much to win public support for organizations like the Academy, but which had also spurred the jealousy of many of his colleagues.
Langley could hear voices in back, where his passengers were conducting temporal experiments. Although 1107 was only two hundred million years old, it had actually been here well over two billion years. When Ava had tried to explain how that happened, how time moved at a far slower rate at the bottom of the object's gravity well than it did out here in a less constrained part of the universe, his mind had refused to close around the idea. He knew it was correct, of course, but it gave him a headache to think about it.
Ava brought Pete up on one of the auxiliary screens and conducted a hurried conversation. Pete frowned and shook his head and looked at his own displays. "Can't be," he said.
"You want to ignore it?" asked Ava.
More glances at displays. Whispered conversations with shadowy figures off to one side. Fingertips tapping on a console. "No," he said. "I'm on my way up."
Hatches opened and closed. Langley heard footsteps and excited voices. "Sounds as if you stirred up the natives, Ava," he said.
She looked happy. "I'm not surprised."
Several of them spilled out onto the bridge. Pete. Rick Stockard, the Canadian. Hal Packwood, who was on his first long flight and who drove everybody else crazy talking endlessly about the wonder of it all. Miriam Kapp, who was running the chrono experiments. And two or three more. Everybody was breathing hard. "Where'd it come from?" The question came from every side. "Did we really hear something?"
"Are we still picking it up?"
"For God's sake, Mike," said Tora Cavalla, an astrophysicist with a substantial appetite for sex, "are we scanning for the source? You realize somebody might be out there?"
"We are," said Langley. He didn't care for Tora very much. Her behavior disrupted the ship, and she seemed to think everyone around her was an idiot. It was an attitude that might have passed unnoticed at, say, CalTech. But in the intimate environment of a superluminal, where people had to live together for months at a time, she created claustrophobia and jealousy. "Of course we're looking. But don't expect much. We've no idea where the source might have been. And any kind of scan near that pile of iron is suspect. The gravity well distorts everything."
"Keep looking," said Packwood, speaking as if he were in charge.
"Is there any other likely explanation?" Tora asked. Her wide white brow was furrowed. She was really intrigued by the event.
"There's always the possibility of an equipment malfunction. But Bill says no."
She glanced over at Pete, her gray eyes pleading for him to turn the mission into a hunt for the signal.
"This isn't something," Pete said, "that we want to write off until we have an idea what caused the transmission." He was tall, long-legged, solemn. His eyes were furtive, always suggesting he was hiding something. Langley thought he looked like a pickpocket who'd made good. But he kept his word. You could believe what he said. "What have you actually got, Mike?" he asked.
"It was a one-shot intercept. But Bill can't give us any more than that."
"Can we hear it?" asked Packwood.
"Bill," Langley said, "run the record. Audio this time."
It was about two seconds long, a series of high-pitched blips and squiggles. "We can't read any of it?" asked Pete.
"No," said Langley. "Zero."
The team members looked at one another solemnly. A couple more pushed in. "It has to mean there's another ship here somewhere," Pete said. "Or an orbiter."
"Nothing of ours out here," said a quiet, very young, female technician who had just come in. Her name was Wanda. "I double-checked."
"What would anybody be doing here?" asked Tora.
"We're here," said Langley.
Tora shook her head. "Sensors aren't picking up anything?" Langley had already checked the stat board. But he looked again. It was still quiet.
"If there were something out there," said Stockton, "I'd think we'd be able to see it." He was gruff, aggressive. A man who, in another age, would have been career military.
"Well," said Packwood, "conditions tend to be strange in a place like this. Space folded over on itself, time warps blinking in and out. Still--."
"Why don't we turn around and go back?" said Pete. "Search the same area?"
"Can't. We can't spare the fuel for a U-turn. If you want to get back to the same spot you'll have to wait until we go around again."
They all looked at him but there wasn't anything he could do. Langley didn't think anything out of the ordinary was happening anyhow. He'd been carrying Academy teams into deep space for almost forty years, and he knew if there was one thing about neutron stars a man could be sure of, it was that nobody else was hanging around.
In all the time since the superluminals had left Earth, they'd found only one other living civilization, if you could call it that. The inhabitants of Nok went back about fourteen thousand years, but they were just now coming out of their industrial revolution. They were strong believers in various causes, and they were constantly at war with one another.
There'd been ruins in a few other places. But that was it. Langley had personally seen upward of a thousand terrestrial worlds, and there weren't thirty that supported any kind of life whatever. And two-thirds of those were single-celled.
No. Whatever Bill had intercepted, or thought he'd intercepted, the explanation would not include a vessel crewed by something from another world. But it was easy enough to understand the excitement of his passengers.
"What do you suggest, Captain?" asked Pete after a long hesitation. "Can you run a diagnostic to determine whether the intercept is valid?"
"We've done that. Bill doesn't see a problem anywhere." But of course if Bill himself were the problem--.
"All right. What else can we try?"
"We could reconfigure the satellites and launch them to look for it. Then we go back to our routine mission. And when it's over we go home."
Pete didn't look very happy with the strategy. "What about the satellites?"
"If they find something, they'll forward the results."
"You still think it'll take that long?"
"I'm sorry, Pete. But there's really no easy way to do it."
"How many satellites?" There were only seven left. He was going to have to sacrifice parts of the program.
"The more we put out there, the better the chance."
"Do it," said Pete. "Put them all out. Well, maybe save one or two."
The Author Comments: Chindi: Keeping the Channel Open