We have one rule around here: under no circumstances are you to point any of our massive radio transmitters at any planet we know to be occupied by life. If the planet were primitive, then we would be responsible for widespread panic throughout an entire civilization. The paperwork would be a pretty big headache, I don’t need to tell you. If the civilization has the ability to wage interstellar war, then…
I mean, we have other rules, like not murdering, or leaving your identifier on any food item you place in the refrigeration unit. But the one about the transmissions? That’s the really important one.
So, when I was called into transmitter tower 1029LSB after the ceasing of crepuscular light, I knew it had to be trouble.
“What happened?” I asked the technicians assembled, although I already had an idea. Each tower is operated by two technicians: a level two and a level one. Level Two was seated in one of the auxiliary chairs, placing him as far from any of the instrument panels as he possibly could be while still staying at his post. His superior—Level One—sat at the main control console. His arms were crossed, an expression that plainly said, “It was his fault, and I’m not taking the rap for this.”
“All right, men?” I asked. “What happened?”
Silence passed, as Level One gave Level Two the stink-eye. “You better tell her,” Level One said. “It’s just going to get worse the longer we wait.”
“I…” Level Two began. “I…” he tried again. “I sneezed.”
Level One scoffed and returned his attention to his readouts. “I want you to put in your report that I was doing my job when all of this went down.”
I ignored him and remained focused on Level Two. “Despite some of the more ominous legends about our company, we do allow our employees to… sneeze?”
Level Two didn’t meet my gaze. “I was near the primary transmitter control…”
“Which you shouldn’t do until you’re a level one like me,” Level One chimed in.
“Do you want my report to reflect you were interfering with my investigation?” I asked. That shut him up. I turned my attention back to Level Two. “Go on.”
“And then I sneezed…”
“I got that part already…” Then the implication hit me. “Wait, the primary controls?”
He nodded quickly.
“Oh, no…” I sprung myself over to the control and retrieved the log from the memory banks. Sure enough, Level Two had transmitted 72 seconds of nonsense out toward the outer reaches of the Stwormian Belt. “If these calculations are correct, you either sent this signal out into a vast expanse of empty space, to a planet that has just recently figured out electricity can be used to do stuff with, or deep into the heart of the Gudmon Empire.”
Level Two gulped. Given that he didn’t purge his latest meal all over the carpet, I figured he was made of fairly strong stuff.
“You’ve heard what those Gudmons do to the people they conquer…” I shot Level One a glance. “What? They use us for fuel in their damned spaceships.”
I looked at the readouts further. There was no way to determine where the signal might have actually gone. Then again, it wasn’t much of a signal. In fact, despite the fact that it wasn’t static, it was still pretty close to gibberish. Measured by intensity alone, it would only amount to this:
I sighed; the choice was clear. “If it was sent out into the void, then there’s nothing here to report. If it was sent out to the Gudmons, then you’ve completely obliterated our civilization…”
Level Two whimpered.
“—I’m not done yet. If it got sent to this backward planet that probably thinks nothing can go faster than the speed of light, then they’ll spend the next 100 years trying to figure out what happened 20,000 light years away, and still not be able to answer the question, because another signal will never come their way.”
I tore out the log printout from the station. “Either way, I really don’t see how the absolute pain of a further inquiry will help anyone in this room. Anyone want to question my thinking there?”
Neither of them said a word as I tore the report further and put the remaining pieces in my pocket.
“Is this the last time or the first time I’m going to have to come down here?” I asked.
“Last,” Level Two yelped.
“Very good. Carry on.” I said, and then left them to their work.
August 15th, 1977, sometime after 22:16 EDT (02:16 UTC)
Ohio State University Radio Observatory - Known as “Big Ear”
Jerry Ehman took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Replacing them, he looked at the printout again.
It was still there.
A 6 on the scale was unusual, but not so rare that it never happened, but most signals never got above a 4. But going beyond the scales and into the—at that point theoretical—parts of the meter denoted by letters?
There was no other explanation that Ehman could come up with in that moment. This was a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. What kind of machine did they possess that could reach out into the cosmos like this? What were they trying to tell us?
He realized he was getting ahead of himself.
He circled the line on the printout in red pencil and searched for something to describe the momentous discovery. Something that would make Magellan or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong proud. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of the growing panic within him, Ehman scribbled “Wow!” in the same red pencil.
What else was there to say?