Anders stepped onto the bridge. He noticed the empty captain’s console and chair (though he knew his father rarely sat when he was running the ship) and looked around briefly. He noticed the patriarch leaning over the chair at Tully’s messy station, his eyes flitting over a green-lit display.
Malcolm turned and raised an eyebrow to Anders. “On time, as usual.”
Anders nodded, then relaxed. “What’s the dig, sir?”
“Couple of data pulses over the last few hours,” Tully answered. She nodded to Macbeth without taking her eyes off the screen. “Gramps thinks it might be from Earth. Maybe even a ship. I think it’s a beacon or a probe.”
“What’s the nature of the data?” Anders said.
“Take a look,” Macbeth said, then strode over to his command station. He opened up several display panels and looked through them. With the touch of a button, the tablet at Anders’s belt lit up. Anders looked and scrolled quickly through a few screens.
“Interesting. I can tell you right now it’s not a data packet meant for a particular recipient.”
“What makes you think that?” Tully asked.
“Coherent and self-contained. This is 256 bit binary?”
“You bet. Ones and zeroes, just like in the bible,” Tully said.
Malcolm chuckled. “Clearly I have failed the clan as theologian. Anders, you said it was coherent?”
“Yes. Well, I should say that I believe that it is coherent. These aren’t pieces of random data, they are complete abstract equations. Some are geometric and four dimensional.”
“Take a look while you have the bridge, will you?” Macbeth stepped away from the command station and nodded at Anders.
“Not much else to do, eh?” Anders said.
“Let’s hope. I’m heading up to get some sleep. Try not to wake me unless it’s urgent.”
Malcolm turned and walked toward the lift. He paused as the door opened for him and looked off to the side, his brow wrinkled.
“If you determine it’s actually from Earth.”
“Collect what data you can. Then it is probably best to destroy tit.”
“What if it’s not just a probe?”
“It’s moved another point-ten of an arc second into our path, judging by the last pulse,” Tully said.
“Fortuitous. Intercept?” Anders leaned over his displays, each showing a realization of the four dimensional geometric equations they had gathered from the data pulses.
“We’ll miss it by about 500 billion kilometers. It’s also going to traverse our course about 20 billion k positive Z.”
“That’s not a terribly large course correction.”
“Not terribly, no,” Tully said. “But you know the old man.”
“How much time would we lose if we decelerated and shifted trajectory to at least get a good sensor sweep?”
“Let me see,” Tully said. She flipped over to a new screen on her display. “Two years.”
Anders tilted his head. “That’s pretty reasonable. We’d still be well within the window we presented at Edi.”
“Are you ordering a correction, Andy?”
“It’s madam.” Tully shot her uncle a smile. Anders raised an eyebrow. “Should we wake the old man?”
“Probably not worth his time,” Anders said. “We make two year corrections all the time. Besides, he left me in charge of this situation. I’ll go ahead and enter our course. We’ll at least be able to do a sensor sweep and destroy the probe if needed.”
“Aye.” Tully looked across the flat workspace of her station at Vanessa, who nodded back, then set to calculating the risks and obstacles of the new course.
The ship lurched slightly as acceleration began again on the new heading. The anti-inertial gravity field switched orientations, stirring up a slight queasy feeling that Anders had never found palatable, despite having grown up on the ship. He watched the coffee in Tully’s cup float up, attempting to make a sphere at the slight loss, the slosh down below the rim. She took a quick sip and looked up at the main viewer, upon which Anders had projected the data relative to the probe. Jon, the sensor manager and back-up helmsman, turned around and pulled his chair up beside her.
“That stuff smells like death,” he said, peering at the top of her black cup.
“One of the ways you know it’ll work as promised,” she replied, cracking a smile but not bothering to look away from the screen and meet Jon’s eyes.
Vanessa, her hands flitting over her keys, said, “Coffee doesn’t have to taste bad to be effective. I have a cache of beans from the last port, if you’re looking for a roast that’s actually palatable. Some of us actually have discernable tastes.”
Tully forced out a false chuckle that ended up sounding like something between a cough and choke.
“Bah, gimme tea,” Jon said. He took a drought out of his own tall cup.
“Now, there’s two equations – three, actually, that stand out among the rabble of data,” Anders said. He highlighted and expanded several sections.
“What makes them stand out?” Tully said. “Just looks like a standard proof series.”
“They are proofs, for the most part,” Anders said. “Except these number sequences are all based on prime numbers. They are designed to not look like noise.”
“Except they do look like noise.”
“Only to your average human brain,” Anders said.
Tully shot a shocked look at Jon. “Did you hear that? He just called me average.”
“He said your brain was average,” Jon said.
“So you don’t care about my mind,” Tully said. “Typical man.” She turned away from Jon, who rubbed his cheek bashfully with the palm of his hand. He could not see what Anders did, which was a smirk cracking her freckled face. Vanessa frowned at her, but Tully pretended not to notice.
“Turn away all attention, Tully, and you’re going to find that nobody-”
Anders cleared his throat. “The number sequence and these equations are designed, or should I say I believe they were designed, to communicate design itself.”
“What?” Jon said. He continued rubbing his cheek.
“They are un-random, which, by definition, means they were designed. Designed to be un-random – to look designed.”
“Sounds like an existential question,” Tully said. “All that talk about design.”
“The concept of design is what makes them stand out in a noisy environment,” Anders went on.
“What noise?” Jon said. “Background radiation? EM radiation from stars and dwarfs? Binary is a hell of a long way from that.”
“It is,” Anders said.
“Maybe the creators of the probe wanted to make sure it could be understood by someone who wasn’t specifically looking for it.” Tully leaned forward and cued up a number series on the screen. “Binary is the simplest language that I can think of. If we look at this area here, we see that each of these numbers is surrounded by a field of on/off messages across the broadcast spectrum. A bunch of ones and zeros. An alien intelligence could easily understand those data pulses to be on-off sequences. Then they could decode the number sequence after that.”
“Yeah, but to what end? A bunch of numbers. So what?” Jon said. “The binary is enough to communicate intelligence, right? There must be an actual message in there that we don’t understand.”
“Definitely,” Anders said. He cued up the original sequence. “But not this sequence. It’s purely mathematical.” He smiled and leaned back in his chair, looking out at the stars. “I think the old man is right.”
“Earth?” Tully said.
Anders nodded. “It think about the beings that might have created these transmissions. It’s not enough to broadcast in binary. You have to broadcast math as well, to prove that what you are sending out isn’t just part of a random data packet, because Earth now – or when this probe was created – was in a very literal sense nothing but a sea of massive data packets. When things are encoded or encrypted only a piece of them makes sense. They designed this probe to make its data stand out to anyone listening or sniffing up transmissions, partly by being self-contained. The beings made a common enough assumption – that the macro is the same as the micro. That worlds outside of Earth would be as noisy as Earth is.”
“And that they would also be singularized,” Jon said.
“Interesting hypothesis,” Tully said. “Can we test it?”
“Once we get closer to the probe, I imagine that shall be automatic,” Anders said.