I realized,about the time Tashel Ban pressed the key and started the program, that there’s more than one kind of silence. There’s ordinary silence, and there’s deep silence, and then there’s the sort of silence that you get when everything seems to stop, just like that, and hang there in the stillness until the silence breaks. That last kind is how silent it was there in Star’s Reach as we stood around the computer and watched the screen go black. After a while, some words appeared in the middle of the screen:
So that’s what we did. Lights down on the body of the computer flashed and flickered as though they were frantic about something. Around the time I was wondering if the thing was calling home to somewhere off past Tau Ceti II and waiting for the answer, a red point appeared at the center of the screen, and then grew into a ball that turned slowly. More words appeared:
Is something visible on the screen? y/n
Tashel Ban tapped the Y key. I swear the sound echoed off the walls of the room.
Is it a sphere? y/n
He tapped it again.
Is it red? y/n
Another tap. A moment later, a sound like a flute playing one note came out of the computer.
Can you hear the sound? y/n
Tashel Ban tapped the same key.
“Can you hear this voice?” It was the computer, no question, talking out of the little holes on both sides of the screen, but it sounded like a woman’s voice, cool and calm and not quite saying the words the way they’re supposed to be said.
“Yes,” said Tashel Ban.
“Is it speaking the English language?”
“Is it clear and understandable to you?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
I think we all looked at each other just then. “Yes,” Tashel Ban said after a moment.
“Thank you,” said the voice. The red ball vanished, and the screen stayed black for another longish time while the little lights on the computer body went frantic again. Then stars appeared, coming out slowly the way they do after sunset, and in the middle of them something that nobody in Meriga has ever seen and everybody in Meriga knows: what Mam Gaia looks like from space.
“This is your world,” said the voice. All at once, Mam Gaia shot away into distance, as though the screen had turned into a window on a spaceship like the ones in all those stories I read. After a bit you could see the sun and the other planets scattered around it, and then everything else fell into the sun and the sun turned into a little white star out there among all the other stars, and then you could hardly see the sun at all. The spaceship, if that’s what it was, slowed down; another sun came past on one side, and then another world came into view, big and pale green and covered with swirls and stripes.
“This is ours,” the voice said. “You would call it the fourth planet of the star Delta Pavonis.”
The screen turned and plunged down toward the planet. Green swirls filled it, and then all at once we were in among the swirls, in a place where the sky was pale green and big white clumps of something else that might have been clouds drifted past, and there was no ground at all, just sky above and below and as far as you could see in every direction. Something drifted into sight, something that looked a little like a clump of soap bubbles with a lot of thin feathers dangling down from it, but the feathers were moving and the soap bubbles got bigger and smaller as it drifted on by.
“That’s one of them,” Eleen said in a whisper.
She was right, too. Two others came into the screen, and the voice said, “You cannot visit our world and meet us, but if you could, this is what you would see.”
The image drew back, so we could see hundreds of the bubbles-and-feathers things, drifting around in the green sky. “More than four million of your years ago,” the voice said, “our species reached the stage of complex technology.” Something like a vast heap of soap bubbles and spiderwebs came into sight, glowing with points of light; I guessed it was a city, or something like one. “We made the usual mistakes, and suffered the usual consequences.” The image changed; the sky turned brown and murky, and another of the city-things came into sight, torn, lightless, empty. “Our recovery was long and difficult. Afterwards, we began reaching out, as you have, to try to contact other species on other worlds.
“We succeeded.” Another of the city-things appeared, tiny compared to the first, but with something I guessed was an antenna spread out over what must have been a huge piece of green sky. “Other worlds had already contacted one another by radio, beginning almost twenty-two million of your years ago. There are thirty-eight species currently in contact with one another. If you and the species you call Cetans both choose to open radio contact with us, you will be the thirty-ninth and fortieth. Our world is closer to your world and the Cetans’ world than any of the others, and we have been listening to your radio communications for many of your years now, so it is our place to invite you both to enter into communication with us. Here are the other species who are waiting for your answer.”
One at a time, as the voice went on, pictures appeared on the screen. Every one of them had something toward the middle that must have been an alien, and something behind it that must have been an alien world, but that’s about all that I can say about most of them. As I write this, I’m remembering one of them, a little like an upside-down flower with seven long fleshy petals, or maybe they were feet. The petal-feet were orange and so was the body of the flower, where the petal-feet came together in a spray of long thin drooping spines. Around the top of the body, where the stem would be, were a couple of dozen stalks with bright blue cones on the end of them; I guessed they were eyes. The alien stood on what looked like yellow sand, or maybe it was snow, and something like yellow fog swirled around it. The reason I remember that alien is that it looked more like a human being than any of the others did.
“Your messages to the Cetans, and theirs to you, have taught us much about how you communicate and how you understand the universe,” said the voice, as the aliens appeared and disappeared. “The message you received from us was designed to launch a set of self-replicating patterns that can adapt themselves to any information technology. Those patterns analyzed your technology and your means of communication so that this message could be given to you in a form you can understand. If you choose to accept our invitation, the analysis will be sent to us by radio, and we will be better able to understand what you say to us thereafter. If you accept our invitation, we know that you will have many questions. We can anticipate certain of these and will answer them now.
“Most species, when first contacted by one of the worlds already conversing with one another, want to know if we can travel to their world, or bring them to one of ours. We cannot. Most of the technological species we have contacted have attempted space travel, and made, as you did, short trips to nearby moons and worlds. That much can be done, at a great cost in energy and resources. To travel from star to star, however, involves a cost in energy and resources that no species known to us has ever been able to meet, and technological challenges that no species known to us has ever succeeded in overcoming. You are free to make the attempt, and other species will gladly teach you what they have learned from their failures, but we cannot offer you any hope of success.
“Most species want to know if we can help them repair the damage to their world that they did when they first reached the stage of complex technology. We cannot. We can share our own experiences with you, and other species can do the same, but each world that supports life has its own unique patterns and problems, and the experiences of other species on other worlds may be of little help to you. At best, principles learned from those experiences may be of use to you, if it happens that you have not yet learned them yourselves.
“Most species want to know if we can teach them sciences and technologies they have not already learned for themselves. We can try, but this is less easy than you may yet realize. You will already have learned from your communications with the Cetans that different species understand the universe in very different ways, that many of the things you think are true about the universe are actually reflections of the deep structures of your own organisms, and that many more depend on conditions on your world that are not found elsewhere. We encourage you to tell us about your technology and the ways in which you understand the universe, and we will gladly try to share our knowledge with you. We will marvel at what we learn from you, but much of what you share with us, we will never fully understand; and you will find the same experience waiting for you.”
The parade of aliens finished, and then the screen showed the green sky of Delta Pavonis IV and the bubble-and-feather things floating in it.
“When our species first reached out to find other beings on other worlds, we expected to find beings much like us, living on worlds that were much like ours. We found ourselves instead communicating with beings we can scarcely imagine, living on worlds we will never fully comprehend. You will find the same thing.
“Thus we cannot solve your problems; we cannot come to you or take you to some other world; we cannot teach you anything you are not ready to learn. All we can offer is the chance to communicate with other intelligent beings, to try to grasp something of the way we and other species experience our worlds, to share your own experiences with others who are eager to learn about them, and to know that you are not alone in the universe. If that is enough, we welcome you to the conversation between worlds.
“Please communicate this message to the appropriate members of your species and make the decision according to your ways. We await your reply.”
The screen went black again, and words appeared a moment later:
You may repeat the message at any time. After each repetition, this device will ask if a decision has been made, and if the decision is favorable, you will receive instructions on how to proceed.
I have no idea how long it was after the words appeared that anyone talked or moved. I know that I spent a good long time staring at the screen, thinking about the green skies and bubble-and-feather creatures of Delta Pavonis IV and the other aliens, scattered across who knows how much of space, talking to each other since long before our first ancestors followed whatever hint Mam Gaia gave them and climbed down out of the trees in Affiga, if the priestesses are right and that’s where it happened. I thought of the blobby yellow Cetans, who practically seem like friends and neighbors to me, and wondered what they thought when they got the same message, the same offer to sit down around a table made of stars and talk, knowing that whole lives would pass by between asking a question and getting an answer.
“The usual mistakes,” said Thu. It was a moment before I realized he was quoting the voice. “And the usual consequences.”
“I was thinking about that, too,” Tashel Ban replied. “Also about what it means that they can send a program to a computer they know nothing about, and still get results like the ones we’ve seen. That shouldn’t be possible.”
“With four million years of practice?” Eleen pointed out.
“Twenty-two million years,” said Thu, “if they learned the trick from others.”
That brought another long silence. I don’t know for sure that everyone else was thinking about what that much time means, but I certainly was.
“There was a debate,” Eleen said then, “back in the old world, about technology. Almost everyone then thought that technology could just keep on progressing forever, becoming more and more powerful, until it could do anything. There were a few scholars who pointed out that everything else follows what’s called the law of diminishing returns. Trey, if you’re digging for metal in a ruin, the longer you keep digging, the harder it gets to find metal; am I right?”
“True enough,” I said.
“What these scholars were saying is that knowledge works the same way, and technology works the same way. So the kind of thing that Anna—”
Her voice trailed off. After a moment I realized why. Anna was nowhere in the room, and from the blank looks on everyone’s faces, nobody had seen her go. A cold thought stirred, and I thought I knew where she would be; I turned away from the computer and headed at a run to the room where the old alien-books were.
I was wrong, but as I got there I heard something hit the floor in the kitchen. I turned and sprinted that way, and there she was, lying in a puddle of blood with her hands on a knife and the knife in her chest. Her eyes were already staring up at nothing as the last color drained out of her.