NED ISLINGTON WAS USED TO BIG NUMBERS. As an astronomer, he dealt with them all the time, thinking nothing of distances measured in the megaparsecs, for example. Conversely, specializing in black holes, he dealt with very small numbers, such as those needed to describe the amplitude of black hole–generated gravitational waves originating far away. Such detections were the specialty of the Super Massive Gravitational Telescope, the SMGT, near Sudbury, Canada.
Therefore, on this Saturday morning at the beginning of his shift at SMGT, he was staggered by the size and frequency of the incoming wave. The amplitude was too big, the frequency too high, to be ascribed to any astrophysical phenomenon. The detectors were designed to pick up extraordinarily small effects, since the amplitude of a wave fell off as the inverse of the distance from the source. This reading almost kicked the detectors off their hinges.
Add to that, the source of the wave was no longer producing it. The wave was gone. Preserved in the passing, but whatever was out there had ceased to radiate. Even while it was coming in, it registered no sidereal motion whatsoever, suggesting that whatever its source, it was fixed in relation to the motion of the stars.
They’d never seen an anomaly like this one before at SMGT, ensconced as it was in the midst of the Canadian Shield, one of the least geologically active landforms on Earth, one of the least likely places to perturb the quantum interference devices.
With calls in to the senior staff, Ned took a closer look at the readings and waited for the quantum gravity folks, the ones whose research grants paid the lion’s share of SMGT, to descend.
In most respects the reading had the properties of a gravitational wave. It did not, for example, register in the electromagnetic spectrum. Quite a lot was known about gravitational waves, and thus it was easy to spot a bogey like this. It had been a major breakthrough in physics when gravitational waves had been directly measured for the first time in the mid-twenty-first century. Since that time, gravitational astronomy had become a major field. So unless it was a malfunction of some kind, it was a bogey, and he was quite interested to know what could have caused it.
His fingers were sweating on the keyboard as he ran a few analyses of the problematic data. Could the source be close by? Nobel Prize kept tickling the back of Ned’s mind.
But that prize was likely going to the lucky devils studying the star extinctions. Incredibly, Sirius was the latest disappearance. It had vanished without a whimper—no outburst of stellar material, no fluorescing gases— and its extinction had been confirmed on observatories throughout inhabited space. The astronomical community had been calling them occlusions. But the public and the newsTides were calling the phenomenon lights out.
Sometime later, when Ned was rather far back in the circle now crowding around the mSap control board, they found themselves with quite another issue, causing—incredibly—the complete sidelining of the question of source.
The sapient engineer had detected very small waves riding on the gravitational wave. In other words, there was information hitching a ride. The wave had an embedded signal.
Hearing this, the group of astronomers and quantum physicists generated a silence that spread out in its own stupefying wave. If this was an extraterrestrial message . . . but Ned was getting way ahead of things. Then again, what else could it be, but an advanced communication method, a method not even contemplated by those searching fruitlessly for messages from galactic civilizations?
“Try to decrypt?” Program Manager Laurel Friedman said, her voice showing the steadiness that Ned was fairly sure he couldn’t have mustered.
The quantum engineer nodded, leaning in to the keyboard.
It took him longer to type in the command than it took the mSap to unlock the code. Sitting back and staring at the screen, he said, “You’re not going to believe this.”
The signal was in English.
From the dark to the bright.
With the message on the screen still lit up in his mind, Booth Waller furiously drove his all-terrain rig off road, sending up clouds of dust. The quickest way between the detector facility and the transition camp was straight across the flat scrub-steppe. This was a message he’d deliver in person.
From the dark to the bright.
The fact that Booth happened to be present at the detector module when the signal came in was nothing short of miraculous. Now he drove like a madman, windows open, the sage wind hurtling through the car, the last of the sun beating on his elbow outside the cab. It felt like the last ride he would ever take. Likely it was the last ride. The transform was just a few days away. He pushed that thought aside. There were too many last times to endure; it would make you crazy.
He would never forget the image on the screen: six innocuous typed words carrying the freight of a permission to launch. A full year in development and assembly, their small-sized detector was viciously accurate and cooled to a few microkelvins above absolute zero. It was enormously expensive to run. They’d spent half the combined resources of renaissance to run the thing in the last few months.
It was a phenomenal success. The message had come through just as Helice and her crew had originally predicted: by gravitational wave. The Tarig wouldn’t use radio waves to reach Earth; the brane interface would form an impervious barrier. Helice was counting on gravitational waves, and she had been right. Even more critically, she’d secured their right to cross over, or demanded it. From the dark to the bright. The exact words contained another message, previously agreed upon: Expect difficulties with the Tarig; bring no weapons. It gave him some pause about what they would face when they got there. But, come over, Helice said.
What must the rest of quantum gravity research be making of this message? They’d be picking it up in Japan, Italy, Sudbury, Hanover. . . . It didn’t matter that there was no way to keep others from reading renaissance’s private communication; at first they’d be astonished; by the time they’d finished conferencing about it, it would be too late. Damn shame though. Those who were even now puzzling over messages riding gravitational waves were the very people who should be going along.
Booth shook that thought. Only a small number could go—the minimum likely to carry a sufficiently varied gene pool. Tarig paranoia would prevent a much larger group from migrating in. A damn waste.
As he came to a halt in front of the reactor building, the cloud of dust he’d stirred from the sage flats caught up with him, and he stepped into its sun-fired presence, squinting at the obscured surroundings as though he were already fading from the Earth. A few people were waiting for him, no doubt having seen his trail as he came barreling over the desert.
Peter DeFanti was foremost among them, but others were hurrying to join the small knot that converged on Booth’s ATV.
Booth caught DeFanti’s sharp gaze and nodded. “It’s started.”
“Holy shit,” someone said.
“Yes,” Booth murmured. That about summed it up.