SETI-Back: a short long distance story by: GF Willmetts.

May 30, 2016 | By | Reply More

It was an amazing thing when it was found. A tiny pinpoint through the cosmos of radio and then TV reception from another world. Whereas we had originally been looking for widespread alien signals, this one was so small it took our finest instruments to detect and then lock onto it. Immediately, a series of satellites already available were lined up to keep the signal in-line and more were made to ensure we got all that was available. With the expanding universe, Earth itself was unlikely to get it direct for very long and all our satellites trained on the transmission so we could keep it as long as possible. Fortunately, it appeared as an extended burst with a recognisable end before starting again. We had it all.

Scientists theorised that the signal had never been intended to be sent out that way and was probably more akin to our own early telecommunication signals lost out in space. Something, whether it was gravitational waves or singularities had compressed the signal into a line and we were fortunate to get most of it from the beginning. It made us think of the possibilities of sending our own signals in a similar way or maybe that’s what happened to the ones we inadvertently sent out over the years. The fact that it repeated was put down to somehow it had echoed somewhere.


Of course, we couldn’t translate it at first but it was enough to know that the signal came from an alien species because of its variable beats. We just had to work out what kind of medium it could be listened or watched on. It took a while to discover that a substantial length was the equivalent of our radio signals. When it became more complex, the realisation that they had developed TV made it a little easier and we had the right algorithms to turn it first into pictures and then rolling film stock and to see just what this species looked like. Whereas some studied the radio transmission to master their language and translate it, many moved to the televisual because they could also be seen.

They were somewhat like ourselves. Bipeds although they also had some tentacles as well. Our biologists had a field day hypothesising what kind of species they evolved from until their biology classes came through about ten years of material down the line and they were totally wrong.

If anything, it was the classes for their children that proved the most worth as it gave the basics of their language verbally and objectively. It then made translating the earlier radio signals a lot easier and to translate. The decision to go through the material in order made sense.

Even so, with so much information, it could not be kept to one unit and across the world, not only universities but educational institutions and then some of the regular public, all analysed what we were receiving and building up an entire history of the Dormefahso. Their name derived from the rather sing-song way they talked. Of course, these were all translations. Although the linguists learnt how to speak the language in its purist form, it was easier for the rest of us to have it translated into English or any other terrestrial language let alone sub-titles.

It was a media sensation for everyone, looking at their arts and music. My own section specialised on their science and because they educated their off-spring, we could follow their rationalisation and logic a lot faster because it was a lot more familiar to us. Indeed, with their TV signals, we copied their own experiments. The early ones were very much like our own. Basic physics and chemistry was pretty much the same so, once we knew their word equivalents, we quickly moved on to the more juicier material, their technology, power sources and computer tech. Would they do anything different? More so as the geologists pointed out the mineral content of their planet had varied from ours.

In fact, it became a game of ingenuity with the element choices they had. They knew the same chemistry that we did but had different amounts of elements compared to what we had. Often of the rare earths and the transuranic elements which raised our eyebrows. They already figured out nuclear power on a different timescale to our own. Their history indicated that as they had no religion, they didn’t have any of the early wars that we had.

It was tempting to jump ahead and see where that would lead. We were certainly catching up on the download now. We decided against this because we might miss something. We decided to work harder on each project. The Dormefahso were certainly not secretive about giving us or any alien species the information they had.

That set a few of us thinking. Why such freedom? That made us doubly careful with the experiments from there on. Maybe the whole of them not being secretive was the point. We could create a bomb that would wipe out our existence. Maybe that was the whole point. What if they were really xenophobes? It would be a sure way to get rid of anyone else…including us.

The word quickly spread. Be very, very careful. Anything suspicious and all work stopped. Especially with anything nuclear. After all, who said that they couldn’t have a combination of devices working together, especially as we integrated some into the bigger projects. We saw it as justifiable paranoia. It would explain why our own SETI scans had never revealed anything. We could be next on the list. There already was thought to send out a signal in the direction the Dormefahso transmission was going to warn anyone ahead but we also figured it would be behind by a few many light years. Even so, if they were as careful as we were, then they would be from the beginning and not jump to the end.

We stayed cautious but determined to follow and learn from their inventions. Our own technology jumped ahead at a rapid rate and we were soon building in space and then on the Moon. We even saw the potential for terraforming which did make us worried because such a device could also destroy our planet as well. We didn’t have to try out every device they showed us.

However, after some fifty years, we were now down to the last section of the transmission. What was it they were going to end on? If they had achieved faster-than-light space travel, then surely they would be here not their transmission. Maybe they went in the opposite direction?

Anyway, it was decided to build the final device. That was all that was left. All the arts stuff had run out years ago. This project was also unusual. It wouldn’t show the entire thing. Apparently, each section would get a signal from the device before continuing. Maybe it was their version of what we did, being very careful to make sure each section was right. We had built this indicator as one of the earlier devices. It seemed harmless enough but was a key component here. Had they led us all this way so we would be careless here. Even so, it was decided that we wouldn’t build it on Earth. The Moon was considered and then rejected. If it exploded, we would get not only the fragments on Earth but no more tides. In the end, Mars was decided upon and I was head of the project. At home, the monitors watched me and my team. If we didn’t survive, then they’d know where to stop.

With this device, there was no clue what it was. Maybe they were sending this into transmission as they built it. Maybe they failed as well. That hardly built up any sense of relief. We treble checked everything. Nothing left to chance.

It was quite an elaborate device. Not particularly large. The size of a small room.

Before we put in the final part, we made sure it wouldn’t suddenly turn on of its own accord. It was mostly sold state. No wires.

As team leader, I saw it as my job to do the last installation.

We all held our breath.

Nothing happened.

The device did not activate. It stayed inert. Except for the indicator but that was still harmless.

The transmission kicked on. So did the translator. One of their devices we made a few years back but always had ready. All the devices had been geared for this time. Even most of their tools. The translator gave out clicking noises as it began to do the translation. It wasn’t going to release the message until it was all downloaded. Was this going to be our Armageddon? Was it just going to be a timed message and then explode? Was this it?

‘Life loses meaning when a machine doesn’t work.’

That didn’t seem like the voice of success but of failure. We hadn’t messed up. Neither had they. It just hadn’t worked. For a productive species that had never known anything but success, this must have been devastating.

Is this why the transmission ended here? We’d never seen any sign of their failures. What happened next? Had they sent the transmissions into space, hoping another species would solve something they couldn’t. Could we, without knowing what it really did. The other devices weren’t difficult. An engine. A translator. An irrigation system. A computer. Even a better spaceship. Those were easy to understand. This device was still a mystery. What conceivable thing could a room-sized device do that would make it so special or even tell us what it does? Should we just abandon it and go back to our lives on Earth? Maybe take it with us?

There was a lot of conference calls about all of this. All of the devices had a practical use. Maybe this had, too. Equally, they could also have run out of the practical and looking for something else. After all, they hadn’t invented faster-than-light spaceships or they would have been here and not their transmission. We had a second thought at that and directed all our telescopes in the direction the transmission had come from. Just in case they had worked out how to make it work or indeed done any faster spaceships. The colour spectrum remained the same. Nothing with a vector Doppler effect.

One bright spark thought they’d come up with a better radio but just needed someone at our end to signal them or even to forward their transmission again. If it worked and how did we know we weren’t the first species to see the transmission? The better thought was they were doing something more theoretical. A unified field theory possibly. We never solved it. Maybe they had the same problem. Maybe that was why they were spreading their culture around. Looking for some alien species who could solve their problem for them, assuming that they could live long enough for the reply to get back to them. Maybe they didn’t want to pre-empt our thoughts as to what it could do. Maybe its inventor died before completion and they didn’t actually know themselves. Maybe there was also a circuit in this gadget to send the reply back automatically if we did.

The question now was should we solve what they couldn’t? Were we even capable? They had advanced our technology several centuries. Trying to solve their problem was a justifiable payment. There was also the question as to why didn’t they tell us what it did. Was it part of the self-discovery. Maybe even they didn’t know.

Should we stop? What if the next alien species to receive the transmission solved it? What would they do with the advantage? That weighed on us the most. We could be the first to make the device and show our own superiority.

I couldn’t help thinking maybe this is what they want. To stagnate another species with their problem. The one except is how much they’ve also advanced us. We should be able to get a starship off to Tau Ceti in a couple years now. Something which we couldn’t have done a couple decades back. Hardly the sign of a species out to destroy us.

What of the Dormefahso? What had they done next? Were they still waiting? Had failure turned to despair for them?

Finally, we decided to prepare a transmission back in the direction we had received ours. We followed a similar pattern to theirs. A radio transmission that they could recognise and did it in their language. Examples of our culture, science and technology prior to theirs and then showed them what we had learnt from them and achieved afterwards. With their final device, we explained we failed with their final machine as well but would continue to examine it. Maybe we would eventually generate a genius capable of understanding its complexity.

Waiting for a reply would be a bitch. Who knew how far it would go or if they could receive the signal let alone get one back. All we could add at the end was ‘stay in touch’. Would they?


(c) GF Willmetts 2016

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Category: Short fiction


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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