It is the year 2459. Anthony and Clarissa are astronomers. They are working late at night in one of the observatory labs high in the Andes Mountains. (They don't have to be working late at night, or in the mountains, but doing so is part of why they like astronomy.) They are working through the data that was gathered the night before when a cyber system points out to them an interesting anomaly.
They look at the data on the screen. It is strange data, indeed!
"This is just nuts, Clarissa. What are we looking at here?" says Anthony.
Clarissa looks for a while before she answers, "It looks for all the world like a gamma ray star... but gamma ray stars don’t exist... not even in theory."
Anthony says, "Yeah, but it is dim in infrared, blue in visible, brighter in UV and even brighter in X-ray. What can you call it but a gamma ray star?"
Clarissa does some more checking of data. She looks through the historical record of that patch of sky. "And there was nothing there two years ago. It was there, but much fainter six months ago. Strange... most strange."
They publish a report and call it GO-1, for Gamma Object 1.
For the lay sky observers around the Solar System, this anomaly was nothing to notice because it was too faint to see. For another three years it remained a curiosity: a small mystery of the big sky.
Then five years later, in 2464, came a breakthrough.
John Foursmoots, an intensely studious looking, astronomy graduate student in his late 20's, gives a presentation on this anomaly. He is standing at a futuristic lectern and presenting both in person and on the web.
He says, "In summary, this radiation spectrum matches that of what would be expected to be coming from the exhaust of a star ship engine, an engine that was headed for our system at near light speed, and decelerating at about 1G, one gravity.
"I have on these screens my predictions of how the spectrum will change in frequency range and brightness as the ship continues its approach to our solar system."
This is an astounding hypothesis for such a small anomaly. But it is an exciting one, and it matches the data, so several other observatories now swing to look at this anomaly to: a) confirm data, b) see if there is anything that can disprove the hypothesis, and c) see if Foursmoots projections for its change with time are followed.
At the same time, John becomes an interesting item for science talk shows.
The data follow Foursmoots' projections -- the star is both getting brighter and reddening in its frequency spread -- and excitement about it grows and spreads. It becomes visible, first to observers with amateur equipment, then to the naked eye.
When this happens, John himself becomes more visible to a now curious public. He makes an appearance on a popular afternoon talk show hosted by Myrtle Oprah. John has risen to the occasion. He is a lot slicker now, and his presentation has gotten a lot slicker as well. It has a lot of animation now instead of static charts and graphs.
Myrtle says, "What can you tell us about this star ship?"
John says, "We can tell that the engine is powered by nuclear fusion, and that the space ship is a constant acceleration craft, which is currently decelerating.
"This means that it is headed for our Solar System, and planning on stopping here. We can also tell that it is ten light years away from us, and that it will arrive in eleven years.
"You learned all this from simply looking at a dim star? Amazing! Do we know what the aliens will be like?"
"Well, since we can't build this kind of ship yet, we know they are more technologically advanced than we are. However, we can recognize that it is a ship, it doesn't look like some kind of God Magic to us, so they are only modestly more advanced than we are.
"I have talked with some of the technologists at our university and they estimate it should be possible for us to build this kind of ship in large quantities, the quantities required for space commerce, in, say, three hundred years. If these aliens don’t have other surprises in store for us, they should be one-to-five hundred years more advanced than we are.
"Considering that there has been life on our planet for three billion years, and we have been the species we are today for one hundred thousand years, these visitors are practically twins."
"Will they be peaceful when they come?"
"At this stage all we can know is their star ship engine technology. We have no way of knowing their other technologies or intentions."
Myrtle starts talking to the camera, not John, "This is amazing! What a special time to be alive on earth. We could be witnessing a beginning... ending... and probably a mix both.
"With that in mind, we have a message from our sponsors."
There is excitement all over Earth and the Solar System at this news. Here are some examples:
o The chattering classes are texting about this all over:
"Did you hear aliens are coming?"
"Yeah. I wonder what they’re coming for?"
"Who knows? Could it be women?"
"You mean like Carrie Anne? In your history class? ROFL They see her. They fly away fast!"
o There are the religious points of view:
Preacher A says, "My friends. Jesus is on that ship. When it arrives Judgment Day will be upon us."
Preacher B says, "Allah Akbar. Allah has sent this ship to show all the people of the solar system the one right way."
Preacher C says, "The Anti-Christ is on that ship. He will be tempting us. Those who succumb will be lead astray. The message that ship brings is: Repent While You Still Can."
o The military has its points of view:
Colonel A says, "In sum, we are facing a War of the Worlds situation. These alien invaders have technology that is at least 100 years beyond what we have. We are the native islanders with spears and canoes defending ourselves from an ocean-going frigate with cannons and muskets."
Colonel B says, "Our best hope is to duck and cover. We need to be researching ways to hide our most valuable assets. By valuable I mean those things we will need to recover our civilization when this ship moves on," he looks around before he says this next part, "This includes our best women-folk."
Colonel C says, "There are people who argue our
situation is hopeless.
But before we take that as a given, consider: There are ten billion people in the Solar System. TEN BILLION.
"If the invaders choose to set foot on Earth, we should throw bodies at them until the last man and woman has died... on their side, of course! The cost might be high, but we will win.
"And when we do, we will have won their wondrous technology!"
o There are the business exploiting points of view:
Wonk A says, "This ship isn’t coming to make us part of some kind of galactic empire. Look at it realistically and that concept makes no sense: The distances and journey times are too large and long.
"This means they are trade. We should be preparing by researching they want."
Wonk B says, "Working out something exclusive with the ship doesn’t seem possible at this time. But working out something exclusive with our earth governments is something that seems quite possible."
Wonk C says, "These aliens aren’t going to be interested in gold or silver. They can get that kind of simple stuff anywhere. They are going to be interested in complex things... things that can’t be just picked up off the ground anywhere.
"Living things are a prime example of what they are going to be interested in. Living things are unique and complex." C thinks a bit then says, "They may want women... Er... I mean colonists... both women and men!"
o And there is the NGO point of view:
This is a NGO fund raising advertisement. It starts with a quick scene from the Star Trek film where the avenging alien whales come to earth. Then cuts to a famous NGO personality holding a fluffy kitten. She says, "The aliens are coming. Now it is more urgent than ever that we save the children, and the animals.
"Please donate to St. Judas Hospital so that we can provide more mobility for our crippled children. They will need it while they are being taken care of in shelters that will keep them hidden from the aliens. And with the children we will also send fluffy kittens to keep them company. They will save each other.
"Your donation will save a child’s and an animal’s life."
o And where there are NGO's, there are scammers:
This is a robo call on a phone, "Hi there. I’m Prince Nabanooboo from Nigeria. I’m calling to appeal to you to help save our Nigerian school girls from these terrible aliens. To make a donation, after the beep please say your name, address, bank account number and how much you would like to donate."
o There are deniers:
Denier A says, "Pfft! This whole star ship business is a hoax. Don’t believe it for one minute! ...The aliens are already here! They are holed up in Area 51."
o And of course the politicians have their say:
Populist Politician A says, "First, let me say that all these ugly rumors about aliens coming for our women are just that: ugly rumors. We have no facts at this point about what they are coming for.
"...However, if they are after our women we will fight them to the last man! ...uh PERSON! ...except of course for the children. We will keep them safer than the women. ...and the kittens, of course."
In sum, there is lots of cheap talk buzzing all around the Solar System.
In addition to the cheap talk, there is also some reasoned talk. A panel of experts that includes Anthony, Clarissa and John convenes on Myrtle's talk show. Behind them is an artist depiction of the nearby star Gliese 581.
Myrtle starts, "Anthony... Clarissa... I understand we have a new discovery about this incoming star ship. And you two are now newly-minted xenoculuralists. This is a role we haven’t needed before now."
Anthony says, "That’s right, Myrtle. Now that we really have aliens, we need people who can study them. Clarissa and I have taken on that role.
"The astronomers watching the ship have now calculated that it is coming from Gliese 581. Gliese is a red dwarf star that is only 20 light years from the solar system, and it supports planets."
Myrtle says, "Interesting... what are the implications of that?"
Clarissa says, "These aliens are 'puddle-jumping'. Gliese 581 is one of the Solar System’s closest neighbors with rocky planets. They are moving from close star to close star.
"And it’s only one ship. This is clearly not some invasion armada."
Anthony adds, "It’s not an armada, but the ship could still be equipped with God-like technology, and the aliens could be bringing God-like terra forming equipment. They could be coming to make Earth into a Mars or Venus."
To this John adds, "If they are, we are screwed no matter what we do. If they have that level of technology they are way beyond our ability to influence."
Myrtle says, "What do you recommend?"
John says, "We should plan for trade, not
conquest. If they have god-powers and they want to exterminate us, they will, no matter what we plan.
If they are here to trade, then our planning can make a difference, a big difference."
For nine years GO-1 changed as predicted by Foursmoots. It got brighter, and the spectrum reddened. Then in 2473 something surprising happened. The first one to spot the change was Jimmy Golan, an intern astronomer in his 20's, working the night shift at Anthony and Clarissa's observatory.
The night had been dull and quiet until he noticed the change on one of the screens. When he did he immediately called Anthony. Anthony wakes up and takes the call groggily.
Anthony says, "Yes?"
Jimmy says, "Anthony. There’s a change in GO-1. A big one. You may want to come over."
Anthony does, and brings Clarissa with him. Jimmy is scanning the screens.
Anthony says, "What's up?"
Jimmy says, "The ship is about six months away and at 40 percent of light-speed, but look! It’s gotten real weird!"
Anthony and Clarissa study the screen.
Clarissa says, "It’s ten thousand times dimmer and oscillating in brightness. How can it be doing this?"
The trio keep looking at the screens. This is baffling.
Then Clarissa has an Ah-hah! "...Wait! Isn’t this something Foursmoots was speculating on? It could be corkscrewing its way in now instead of just pointing its engine steadily straight at us."
Anthony says, "If it is, start scanning for some kind of signal coming from it."
They do, and they pick one up. It is simple dot and dashes, like Morse code on an old-style radio. All three pair of eyes light up. This is big!
Foursmoots is on Myrtle's show again. He is explaining these latest developments. There is a screen behind him with an artist’s animated conception of what is happening.
John says, "This change is happening because the ship was now coming in like a corkscrew rather than on a simple linear trajectory. The astronomers have also detected a communication signal coming from the ship."
Myrtle says, "A signal! What’s in the signal?"
John says, "It is fairly strong, so the raw feed is being picked up all over the Solar System. We have determined that there are actually four channels of information being sent.
"The first channel to be successfully analyzed is a basic, '1+1 is 2.... 1+2 is 3...' mathematical sequence, followed by a 'galactic language' equivalent of 'A... B... C...'.
"This is a 'Learn Galactic' channel, and it cycles over about every twelve hours. People all over the world, including lots of school kids, are picking this up and deciphering it. Those who have figured out Galactic are using it to understand the second channel. This one is not nearly so easy to digest. We are all still working on it."
Myrtle says, "Have you figured out anything from it so far?
John smiles. He is proud of what has been accomplished.
"We have. A lot.
It describes more about 'technical Galactic' language, and it is telling us how to build a new style of transmitter/receiver."
"This new style receiver will likely allow us to understand channels Three and Four. Those we don’t have a clue about yet. They are indecipherable."
Myrtle expresses some concern. She is not alone in feeling this worry, "...Are we going to build it?"
John shows mixed feelings, too "...This new receiver? You are not alone in feeling concern, Myrtle.
"Personally, I feel the sooner the better! This is most likely a trading channel. This shows that these aliens have come to trade. With the receiver functioning we can finally get a lot of information about who we are dealing with."
"Could this be a tool to conquer us?"
"If it is, these aliens are way beyond our ability to resist. Here’s how I look at it: We might as well look at the bright side because the dark side is too dark to imagine emerging from."
Six weeks later there is construction on The Moon of a new exotic-looking receiver and transmitter to talk on channels Three and Four. John explains what is happening, "Imagine building a 1960’s-style FM radio from an instruction manual when your current state of radio technology transmission is doing an electric arc telegraph similar to what the Titanic had in 1912.
"You know some of the theory of what’s going on with this advanced device, but according to the manual you need roughly a thousand components that you don’t have.
"Fortunately, the manual has the technical specifications for those components, and fortunately, they are all purely electronic components, not some mix of electricity and some mysterious 'Force X'."
The transmitter/receiver is up and going by the time the ship is one month away from the Solar System. Now the scientists, and the whole Solar System, listen successfully to the two remaining "mystery channels".
While the world listens, John and Myrtle are talking again.
John says, "The two mystery channels are actually sixty four channels each. One is sixty four channels of 'Galactic Education Channel' and the other is sixty four channels of 'Galactic Shopping Channel.'
"The educational channel talks nonstop about Galactic history, social studies, science and culture. The shopping channel talks nonstop about advertising things that the ship is offering to sell Earthlings and other Solar System members.
"Both channels also have text channel equivalents that are downloading encyclopedia and sales catalog equivalents.
"We have sent back a 'Hello.' and now the two beginner channels are being used for two-way communication. The aliens have, in effect, opened up two high bandwidth Internet connections, but connections with a one month lag time... just like we have hours of lag time when we communicate between planets. That, of course, is shortening as the ship gets closer."
Myrtle says, "Fascinating."
It is time for the military commanders to make some choices.
Colonel Sanders starts with a summary, "It has been roughly ten years since the alien ship was discovered and identified as such. Our solar system defense fleet has been created and now consists of ten carrier type ships, fifty manned fighter types, and over one hundred drone types of various sorts.
"In addition the moons of Earth and Mars are now supporting defensive bases.
We have had to prioritize. So we have not beefed up static defenses beyond Mars."
General Mayhem says, "So if these aliens stay out, say in Neptune orbit, what do we have to throw at them?"
Sanders says, "The defense fleet and the scout drones."
Mayhem says, "Not much... But then... I guess that’s a blessing."
General Destruction is a more hawkish sort. He sees no blessing. He thinks action is necessary. He says, "So, what sort of show of force are we going to present these aliens with? Are we just going to wave our hands and say, 'Hi there!'?
"How about we set off a nuke on Triton, just to show them that we do have some claws?"
Mayhem says, "And what if they respond by setting off some sort of... I don’t know... 'Z-bomb' on our Moon to show they have even bigger claws? I don’t think so."
Destruction says, "Well, we should do something."
General Havoc says, "We should be sending the scouts."
Destruction says, "That’s for sure."
Mayhem says, "Definitely."
Sanders says, "Are we in agreement on that? I will issue orders for the scouting to begin."
Destruction says, "Should we move the main fleet to Jupiter orbit?"
Mayhem says, "What’s it going to protect there? Asteroids?"
Destruction, "It will be between us and them."
Havoc says, "Only half the time. The other half it will be far, far away..."
Destruction interrupts, "Only if this goes on for years."
Havok finishes, "...Or it will be burning tons of fuel so it doesn’t orbit."
Mayhem says, "Lets keep the main fleet in the inner system for now. We can move it if the aliens move."
There are nods from all the generals. They have a plan.
When the star ship is first spotted, Earth is densely populated with both people and cyber. The rest of the Solar System is sparsely populated. There are a handful of people on The Moon and Mars, and that is it for humans. Wandering throughout the rest of the Solar System are about a thousand robot probes. They are all science probes. Science is the only reason to be off-Earth -- other than communication satellites nothing of commercial value has been discovered, so commerce is not swelling the Solar System population or activity level.
As this incoming star ship becomes more and more "real", the bigger governmental organizations react by militarizing, and calling for conferences on what to expect and how to coordinate Earth's response. The bigger supra-government organizations also convene coordinating conferences. But getting these big conferences organized is slow and cumbersome compared to virtual and video conferencing, so the big conferences become places to ritually approve the plans formulated and agreed upon earlier in the informal Internet-based conferences. It is good that these big conferences took a while to get organized, because agreement on courses of action didn't come easily.
The "realists" among the military argued that what was coming was some form of "War of the Worlds" space invasion. The "pessimists" among the realists argued that since the space invaders had a 300 year technology lead, we had already lost, and we should concentrate on hiding and hunkering down. The "optimists" argued that ten billion people and a whole Earth was a lot of people and resource. If there was a fight on Earth's surface, we would win, and the "dessert" would be access to all that wonderful technology!
In the end, the big organizations that controlled the big resources decided to plan for both trade and invasion. And the smaller organizations all planned for whatever they felt like. The world was definitely in a panic, and there was a whole lot of "end of the world" mentality being thought and spouted. What people came to blows over was how the world was going to end. Was it going to end heavenly, or going to end hellishly? Guessing the answer to this turned out to be something worth fighting for -- mostly in backwater places that were not coping well with modernizing, anyway.
The good news was: the world had ten years to indulge in a lot of foolishness before the steadily brightening star did anything but steadily brighten. By the time the ship did something new, a lot of silly things had been done, but their silliness was being recognized as such, and the solar system community was starting to recover its "coolheadedness". Starting to... but process was far from complete.
The argument over whether or not to build the transmitter was intense for about six weeks, but was decisively won by the "Lets build it." side. The insurmountable justification: Build or not, the aliens would be here in six months... make that five months, now! For the same reason, it was decided to build the transmitter/receiver on the Moon rather than some remote asteroid. If it was done on a remote asteroid, it would be finished well after the ship arrival.
A month and a half after an Earth delegation sent back a "Hello" message, the two beginner channels changed to the Standard Galactic formatting of channels Three and Four. Both were now available for two-way conversations. The aliens were, in effect, opening up two high bandwidth Internet connections, but connections with weeks-to-hours of lag time. Humans were familiar with this lag, there had been "Internet" to Mercury, Mars and Titan for years now, called Spacenet, so the alien channels were quickly integrated into Spacenet -- the solar system-wide communications net. The transmitter/receiver was the focus point: data from Spacenet was translated into Galactic there, and vice versa.
By this time it was also clear that the ship was going to end its initial approach at the orbit of Neptune, not somewhere in the inner solar system. The military had had ten years to prepare for this moment. The fleet was in top shape: the best shape it have ever been in. When it became clear that the aliens would stay "coy", it was decided to take a "watch and wait" stance rather than launch a defensive armada to surround the incoming ship and escort it. The main fleet would stay at home, but, in spite of yells and screams from the extreme pacifists, a few fast, lightly armed scout ships were sent to get closer to the alien.
The alien ship replied to the Earth "Hello?" with their own "Hello!" on Channel One of the reformatted beginner band, and went on to explain that they were delighted to encounter a new civilization here, and that they wanted to trade. They continued on with an hours-long monologue asking questions about Solar System resources and explaining their trading policies. They were clearly used to long distance communication, so they expected that Earth people would be formulating replies and their own questions while they listened to this inbound message. They expected that the Earth people would begin broadcasting their reply as soon as they were ready, not waiting for the aliens to end their message. In Earth-Earth communication this would be rude, but this is the way of long distance communication.
Oh... and it turned out "Galactic" was a misnomer for the communication protocol. According to the education channel, these people were Mirondians, and the Solar System was on a distant edge of their cultural area, which was about 300 light years across, and there were other civilizations that the Mirondians were in contact with. The center of the Milky Way is about 30,000 light years away from the Solar System, so Mirondian culture looked like "Galactic" only to Earth people who were making first contact. And, the Mirondian language that was being used between Earth and the spaceship was a scientifically designed, easy-to-learn "Pidgin Mirondian" rather than a full language. Usage around the Solar System was quickly updated from calling them Galactic to calling them Mirondian protocols.
Now that the Solar System community and the space ship could talk, it was time to see if fighting or trading would come next.