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Tapping the Line

by Ronald Linson

Dr. Sofia Henesova opened and closed one window after another on her laptop, checking and rechecking her experiment’s command and control settings.

“I’m all done,” her grad student Pauline Stewart called. “The Beach Ball is connected and ready to go.”

Sofia looked up at her and nodded. “Good. I am still going over the translation protocols. It will be a few more minutes.”

Pauline stood across the room, hands clasped nervously in front of her. Beside her, the device they had nicknamed the Beach Ball was hanging from the ceiling by a nylon fishing line.

About the size of a real beach ball, it was a sphere of intricately interlaced silver wires, each as fine as a thread of spider silk. Surrounding it was an open scaffold of popsicle sticks supporting an array of powerful electromagnets and these, in turn, were connected to a small, square black box. A single USB cable ran from the box to the laptop.

Sofia closed the protocol configuration window and straightened up. “I believe we are ready to proceed.”

Pauline hurried over to stand next to Sofia, and held out a digital audio recorder.

Sofia cleared her throat, then stated the date and time as she took the recorder. “I, Dr. Sofia Henesova, in collaboration with Dr. Neil Dryer of Perth, Australia, am about to attempt a full two-way data transmission between a quantum resonance matrix and an identical device at Dr. Dryer’s location.”

She paused to gesture at Pauline, who looked momentarily confused, then handed Sofia a smart phone.

“For our first experiment,” Sofia continued, “we will exchange short text messages via standard laptop computers connected to our respective quantum resonance matrices. If our calculations are correct, the transmissions will be instantaneous, with no light-speed delay.” She typed a text message on the phone, and received a response within seconds.

“Dr. Dryer has confirmed his readiness,” Sofia said and returned the phone to Pauline. “I will now type a brief text message into the transmission window on my laptop. Dr. Dryer and I will then conduct an exchange of several such text messages, after which we will examine the logs to determine whether the experiment was successful.”

Pauline took back the recorder and held it up

Sofia typed: “Greetings from Nebraska, USA” into the transmission window, giving a verbal play-by-play as she did so. “When I press ‘enter’, a connection will be established.”

She pressed “enter.” There was a faint hum from the Beach Ball, and random characters filled the transmission window, scrolling faster than she could read them. A few seconds later, the laptop sounded an alarm and displayed an “insufficient disk space” message. Then, to add insult to injury, the computer crashed.

“What the hell?” Sofia and Pauline said at the same time.

The phone rang. Pauline checked the screen. “It’s Dr. Dryer,” she said and handed it to Sofia.

Sofia answered. “What happened? Why did you— No, I did not. Yes, I agree. Something is wrong.” To Pauline, she said, “Disconnect the USB cable and reboot.”

Pauline nodded, moving to do as ordered.

“Yes,” Sofia said into the phone, “we are doing it now.”

The laptop started up, taking its sweet time.

Pauline frowned at it. “Huh, there’s hardly any disk space left. Whatever happened, it filled up almost two terabytes.”

Sofia nudged her aside. “And this data... it’s completely random. I can’t make any sense of it.”

“What do you think went wrong?” Pauline asked.

Sofia shrugged. “Dr. Dryer,” she said into the phone, “we have terabytes of— You, too?”

A tremendous boom rocked the farmhouse, shattering windows. Sofia and Pauline screamed and dropped to the floor, covering their heads with their arms.

“W-was that a bomb?” Pauline asked.

“I don’t know,” Sofia said. “Are you hurt?”

Pauline shook her head, and they helped each other to their feet. Out the window, a huge black sphere was hovering in the yard, a few feet off the ground. They gaped at it.

Behind them, there was a sound like someone opening a soda can. They turned to find a creature standing beside the Beach Ball.

Pauline screamed, but Sofia laid a hand on her shoulder.

The visitor was humanoid, about six feet tall, with yellow scaly skin, red triangular eyes, and a lizard-like snout. It opened its mouth, emitting a series of pops, hisses, and crackles, then it began to scrutinize the Beach Ball apparatus.

“What is it?” Pauline whispered.

Sofia shook her head. “My guess would be an alien,” she whispered back.

The alien turned back to the women. It hissed and made a gesture as if asking for something.

“Who are you?” Sofia asked. “What do you want?”

The alien made a crackling noise, then jabbered unintelligibly for a few seconds. Finally, it said in a monotone, “You have tapped a main galactic trunk line, disrupting communications throughout this spiral arm. Do not persist, or there will be punitive action.”

“Wait, we didn’t know,” Sofia said. “We were trying to establish an instantaneous communications protocol using quantum entanglement.”

The alien made a staccato growling sound. “That is amusing,” it said. It gestured at the Beach Ball. “This equipment is pitifully primitive.”

Pauline shoved Sofia aside. “Primitive? I’ll have you know this is a state of the art quantum resonance matrix! We spent years assembling it!”

The alien tilted its head as if considering them for the first time. “You are serious? You are not data pirates or playing a foolish prank?”

The women shook their heads.

“We’re scientists,” Sofia said.

The alien let out a farting sound, apparently a sigh. It surveyed the interior of the farmhouse, then nodded. “It is evident that you are a Class Zero technological culture. Very primitive.”

Pauline went red in the face and opened her mouth.

Sofia clapped a hand over Pauline’s mouth and said, “Listen, I will admit we have no idea what we’re doing. On behalf of the human race, I apologize for any problems we have caused.”

“There is still a problem,” the alien said. “Because you have shown ability to access the galactic network, you qualify as a Class One culture... barely.”

“Why is that a problem?” Sofia asked. “It sounds like a good thing.”

The alien emitted an angry crackle. “It is only my opinion, but you are not ready to enter galactic civilization.”

“Like hell we’re not,” Pauline cried. “We have a space program. We have computers. We have—”

“Irrelevant,” the alien said, cutting her off. “Your culture will not survive contact with the greater galaxy. Integration is impossible at your current level of development.”

“Oh,” Sofia said, “I believe I understand. It would be like dropping an ancient Sumerian into the middle of modern-day New York City.”

“From the context, I believe the analogy is essentially correct,” the alien said. “Unfortunately, this conclusion is unavoidable. Not only are you now aware of our existence, I am required to report this contact to my superiors.”

“And I assume you will get in trouble if you do not report this contact?” Sofia asked.

“That is so,” the alien agreed, hissing unhappily.

“Very well, then,” Sofia said. “Pauline and I are the only ones who know of you. We won’t tell anyone, and besides, I doubt anyone would believe us anyway.”

“We will still come here,” the alien pointed out. “Scientists, merchants, tourists, and many, many others.”

“Ah, right,” Sofia said, thinking. “Do you think you could convince your people to delay making contact with us for, say, a decade or two? It would give us a chance to make preparations, now that we know what’s at stake.”

“I am only an assistant communications technician, but perhaps we can work something out. I will speak to my supervisor discreetly. I will return shortly.” It vanished with a sound like a warthog sneezing.

Sofia and Pauline watched as the huge black sphere lifted into the sky. They began to clean up the broken glass.

Sofia discovered the smart phone on the floor where she had dropped it. She was about to put it in her pocket when it rang, startling her, and she nearly dropped it again.

“Dr. Dryer?” Pauline asked.

Sofia nodded and answered the phone. “Yes, Neil, we’re fine. Explosion? Oh, that. Lightning struck the barn. Scared the hell out of us and broke a window. We’re checking everything to make sure nothing else was damaged. I’ll call you back.”

“You didn’t tell him,” Pauline said.

“Of course not, we agreed we wouldn’t.”

Pauline shrugged, but before she could reply, there was a blast of air through the broken windows. The spacecraft had returned.

The alien appeared. “There has been a complication. My supervisor has been monitoring all the while. The situation has come to the attention of someone high up in our government.”

The women stared at each other, aghast. They began to shout at each other and at the alien.

The alien gargled at them. “Please calm down. A First Contact specialist wishes to speak with you. It will explain.”

Another alien appeared. This one was about four feet tall, with a large bulbous head atop a thin, spindly body. Its skin was smooth and light gray in color. It regarded the women with large black oval eyes.

“Oh, crap,” Pauline said. “Don’t tell me the Grays are real? I thought they were something the UFO crackpots made up.”

The Gray opened its narrow slit of a mouth. “Yes, we are real,” it said in a whispery voice. “We established first contact with your world many of your millennia ago.”

Stunned, Sofia tried to sit down on a chair but missed, ending up on the floor. “That’s impossible,” she said.

“Is it?” the Gray said. “We have introduced numerous starter technologies to your world in exchange for the occasional capture, examination, and release of certain select human subjects.”

“How dare you!” Pauline said. “That’s completely reprehensible.”

Though expressionless, the Gray managed to look amused. “Your distant ancestors didn’t think so when we gave them the gift of fire.”

Sofia started to cry. “I-it can’t be true. W-we did it all ourselves.” She looked around, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Didn’t we?”

The Gray stepped over to her and laid twig-like fingers on her shoulder. “It is nothing to be ashamed of. The very young must be cared for and nurtured. Growing up is never an easy process, and you have done well thus far.” It gestured toward the Beach Ball apparatus. “Do not be upset. It was a good first try.”

“Human science is a sham,” Sofia sobbed. “It isn’t our science at all.”

“That is not true,” the Gray said. “We merely introduced concepts and methods to your ancestors, ones they would not have been likely to develop on their own.”

Pauline loomed over the diminutive alien. “Why wouldn’t we have been able to use fire on our own?”

“It was not a question of being able to use it,” the Gray said. “They were terrified of it, and would not go near open flame. We taught them the difference between fear and respect.”

“And what else have you given us?” Pauline demanded scornfully. “The wheel? The bow and arrow?”

“The wheel was self-evident,” the Gray said. “We did, however, provide the basic form of the bow and arrow, but your people were adept at refining it.”

Sofia pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. “What I want to know is: what happens now?”

“Since you have accessed the galactic network, albeit inadvertently,” said the Gray, “you are no longer a Class Zero civilization. But you are also not a true Class One, either.”

“So, we’re stuck in a gray zone,” Pauline said, wincing as she realized what she’d said.

“In a manner of speaking,” said the diminutive alien, “you have managed to leave it. We can no longer assist you. You must take the next step on your own.”

Sofia stood up, brushing dust off her backside. “You did not answer my question. What happens now?”

The taller alien, who had remained silent for some time, stepped forward. “Continue the work. You are very close.”

Sofia shook her head. “But won’t it interfere with your network again?”

“It is no longer an issue,” it said, hissing. “We have prepared for it. We will isolate any improper connections made from Earth. You have been granted dispensation for your continued experimentation. Learn to connect to the galactic network properly, and your species will have access to all...” It trailed off, noticing the Gray staring at it.

“My young associate is excited, it appears,” the Gray said. “Indeed, you have merely tapped the line. Step across it, and we will guide you as equals. We shall then welcome the human race among us.”

Copyright © 2017 by Ronald Linson

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