Rent (19 Feb 2003)

Here's the first part (of 2) of a really-short story.

Everyone in the capsule bustled around the window as the origin swung into view. The balance of politeness and eagerness kept the crew from pushing to get closer, but just barely. As the reflection of the ship and stars twisted and warped around the perfect surface its shape became clear. "Axial symmetry. Bugger. Doesn't define direction then" thought Rupert.

Rupert had been a middle manager at Nu-Vu Labs during first contact. Nu-Vu was the unlikely, but fortunate, result of the collapse of NASA. While most companies were happy to peck tiny parts of NASA for their own ends the founders of Nu-Vu had managed, somehow, to get funding to buy large chunks of NASAs' research divisions through a number of mind-contorting legal agreements. It now did outsourced research for hire for a fair number of the Fortune 1000 companies. Quite how it had all worked, Rupert wasn't sure. He was just very glad that it had.

Academically acceptable, Rupert had never excelled at anything much and had staggered, more than anything, down his career path. Well off parents had managed to get him into Stanford and he came out as an average management type in a world full of average management types. With a couple of years experience doing nothing of note, getting the job at Nu-Vu (which was hiring as fast as possible) had been the biggest break of his life. However, at the time, managing a group that researched communication theory had merely been a quick escape from a small company that now included the other half of the messy end of a relationship.

It just happened that a few months later the first alien message was received and the resulting effort to decode it meant that communications theory enjoyed the steepest rise in attention and funding of any research area, ever.

The media went into a fit. The raw data from the SETI project was distributed all over the 'net and it seemed that everyone on the planet had their own take on what it meant. Channels were dedicated to following the researchers who were pouring over the data 24 hours a day all around the world and while the cranks got their 15 minutes of fame, explaining to the camera their latest theory, Rupert's face led most of the reports.

It wasn't that he was partially smart (in fact, truth be told, he didn't even grasp half of what was going on in his own lab) but he had the right face and was junior enough a manager to seem involved. Because of this, it was he who announced, after 2 days, that the aliens had asked for us to ring them back and had given the position of a communications relay and frequency to do so.

The talk shows exploded. Everyone on the planet had an opinion of what we should do and it was only fueled by the pictures of the communications relay taken by Hubble (which silenced many of the people who doubted that the original message was genuine).

But few people commented that the debates were rather useless. If the first message had been picked up and decoded in private then it could have been contained. But SETI wasn't that sort of organisation and had spread the message far and wide.

Noone knows, to this day, who sent the reply