• 13 Mar - 19 Mar, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Haruto nodded. "All right. My assistant will show you to your office and get you set up and introduce you to the concierges and such."

"Thank you, Mr Kobayashi."

"You will use the concierges," he told her firmly. "You will tell them as soon as you are inconvenienced. I don't care if you are inconvenienced by the air conditioning, your commute, our hardware, the time zone, your podiatrist, the government, or your bagel slicer. We hired you for your brain, we don't want to drive you insane, and that means that instead of taking extra hours out of your leisure time – let alone your sleep – we are taking them out of anything else that bothers you.

The concierge department's job is to fix your problems. Complain to them."

"Thank you," repeated Shelley, and she let his assistant lead her away.

Shelley couldn't stop cackling in triumph. She knew it was immature, she knew it wasn't academically responsible, she knew that the people who'd thought the message was a cellular automaton were contributing a valuable diversity of perspective, but they'd been wrong and she was right. During the fourth day of the third message, she made the concierge department have cake and champagne and balloons ready for her in her apartment by the time she got home and invited over six Team 5–D Image co–workers. Two cakes, one for her and the other folks with globalised taste, and one for Jun and Yuuto who would prefer something with about a teaspoon of sugar in it.

Shelley cut the cakes and whooped with everyone else as the bits kept pouring in and her visualisation, ticking along once every 1005 milliseconds on the screen that dominated her west wall, confirmed with each new starwink: it was a match for the theory that the messengers were sending frames of a video feed, projected down from five asymmetrical spatial dimensions. It wasn't "glorified Conway's Game of Life", as Yuuto'd derisively called the competing family of theories.

"You got to wonder, though," said her colleague Okafor, "you gotta wonder, even more – the one thing the Conway people had going for them is that you could sort of wrap your head around why, if they were doing a cellular automaton, they'd do it with stars. Doesn't answer the question of why we're in the middle of it. But maybe stars would make a good automated substrate for it somehow if you nailed down star to star... ansibles, or something."

"And if they're just doing pictures why not send us physical media or even, if they really like the bit stream approach, aim a big flashlight?" said Shelley. "Yeah. Well, we'll –" She swigged her drink. "We'll figure out what the pictures are of, and that'll

help, I bet."

"If the gap's ten years again?" said Okafor. "How're we going to figure anything out at one frame a decade?"

"Well, maybe you and I'll be dead," said Shelley,

"but somebody will be around.

You know how much money Starwink got dumped on it as soon as the second frame started up? Our endowment's not going anywhere. We'll figure it out. Humanity will."

"Yeah," he replied,

"but... I wanted to figure it out."

"Yeah," she acknowledged. "That's a bummer. We can get pretty far on a few frames, though, with this much time to crunch them. Hey, did my brother get back to you about your cute algorithm idea?"

"Yeah," said Okafor.

"He says it'll probably melt as I described it, but they might be able to tweak it so it doesn't, at least at the kinds of price points we can sling now, they've gotten better at predicting that for edge cases. If this message lasts as long as the last one did, we should be able to start assessing the forces that might be at work in Fiveworld as soon as the winks stop."

"I'm going to be so annoyed if Jun wins that bet," Shelley whispered.

Okafor clinked his glass to hers, but said, "I don't know, it'd simplify our lives, wouldn't it?"

"It'd be boring."

"Nah, we could move on to figuring out what all the stuff in the pictures is. Are you going to send the leftover cake to the Fresh Eyes team?"

"What, as an ironic taunt? It wouldn't be very good irony. They're not getting leftovers. I respect them. I mean, I wouldn't want to be in data quarantine with them."

"Of course not."

"…but I'm glad they're doing it, like other people were glad I showed up on my first day and hadn't seen the bit stream."

"…so, welcome to Starwink," Shelley told the new guy, setting her cane down. "Do you have any questions?"

"Uh," said the new guy, "I understood why you don't necessarily put a really complete job description out in public could be sensitive and all, but I got my more–complete job description and it's... sparse."

"Yes," said Shelley. "Your job's sparse. We get one new frame every ten years. They haven't surprised us with physics details since I was in my fifties. The organisation doesn't have to be the big fancy think tank it once was. The Starwink I'm retiring from is more of an intellectual generation ship."

"Oh," he said.

"Your job – everyone’s remaining job – is to make sure it can still be around in thousands or hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of years. You keep the tech up to date with the times, and make actually sure that all the old data makes the transition – you hire redundant data–entry drones and parity check their work, if that's what it takes to get stuff moved – and that all the software ports forward functionally. You maintain backups like one day seventy things will all go wrong at once, because in that much time they will. You protect the organisational continuity – you move out of Japan if you have to, you clone the org if that ever looks like the best plan for all of our work surviving and continuing, you play politics if anyone starts looking threateningly at our endowment."

"I’m right then. Okay. Yes."

"This is hard. It has in point of fact never been done. By the time this organisation is as old as Kongo Gumi, the oldest company ever in the world, had become at the time of its absorption in 2006? That is to say, in about fourteen hundred years? We'll have about a minute of video. And that's if the messengers like their frame rates the way silent films used to – physics team thinks they like it faster, so it might be thirty seconds of video by then, or less. The job is very hard and I hope to hell you can do it but it is – yes – very, very sparse. You will have a lot of down time. You were hired because we think you can do your job right even when on most days all it requires of you is that you pay the bills and knock off early."

He nodded. "…can I ask an irrelevant question?"


"Why the cane?"

"I like the look of it. I have the shoes too, but I just wouldn't feel like I was telegraphing being venerable as hard as I'd like with just those." She picked the cane up. "With that, I'm going to knock off early. I'll be in every weekday for another six months and then I'm retiring to Fukuoka till it's time to freeze me."

"You're not going back to the States?" asked the new guy.

"And waste all that time I spent learning Japanese?" Shelley laughed, and she zoomed off on her support shoes and left him behind.

Starwink did not replace most of its retiring staff. It shrank.

It waited.

It wasn't altogether idle.

It retained a staff for operations, for accounting, for maintenance and upgrades, for compliance and legal needs, for translation, for cleaning the offices, for talking to the press. It continued to hire scientists, xenologers, mathematicians, mostly funding their work on their own interests while obliging them to respectably represent the think tank now and then in public. They were brought in with the understanding that when more messages came, every ten years, they'd drop what they were doing, integrate the new material, study any discrepancies their predecessors hadn't predicted, and make sure that they were ready for the next batch of bits in another decade.

And it invested.

Starwink didn't just need to continue to exist in some form under the same name, it needed the conditions under which it could do its slow work to persist, and those weren't necessarily going to happen by default. Starwink took its revenue from its endowment that didn't go to supporting its decimated staff, and it paid lobbyists to steer the governments presiding over each site it controlled.

In addition to its more conservative purchases, it bought up stock in long shot technology operations that would make future work on the bit patterns more productive if they panned out. Starwink paid for the development of, and then bought and ported their software onto, quantum computers that skirted the edge of melting when they ran. It bought into augmented reality toys that could train players to think in additional spatial dimensions: the next generation of virtual pets and physics puzzles would prepare the next generation of scientists to consider the frames they were accumulating from the messengers.

Starwink subsidised research into life extension, because every round of hiring it had to go through to replace its dying workforce was an opportunity for someone prone to sabotage or mere dereliction of duty to slip through, and prevent it from sticking around long enough to learn what it had to know. It looked into psychological screening tests to reduce that risk. It offered cryonic suspension to its pensioners as a perk to tilt the applicant pool that little bit more toward long time horizons.

Sometimes it gave seed capital to would–be sister organisations. The slog was too long, the project of too–universal import, for Starwink to care much who held the blue ribbon for first to the real answers. It would be just as good if Lightcone or Datachewer managed, and if something happened to Starwink despite its money and redundancies and exquisite care, it would be good for one of the others to step in.

Decades crawled by. Stars winked in late March, throughout April, and a few days of May, every year ending in 1, like clockwork. Every time, there was a brief flurry of activity, predictions were refined (by less and less), the backups were all carefully checked and incremented, and the state of the art in five–dimensional VR got one more frame for the viewing pleasure of the next batch of bright–eyed young things who wanted to know what the aliens had to say.

All was not quiet. There were a usual number of earthquakes and hurricanes. There was a diminishing quantity, but noisily–vacillating severity, of armed conflicts. Starwink kept its main staff spread out, and usually managed not to have anyone in a place at all when something seemed to be threatening.

When a backup bunker was destroyed in a tsunami or an HR functionary got shot during an unexpected insurrection, the foundation fell back, bought more real estate, filled it with more hardware, and ran more employment ads.

It dumped extra cash into nuclear disarmament initiatives, and then the initiatives to disarm other, more destructive things.

It launched a backup into orbit, and then dropped another one on the Moon, each taking in raw bit stream data from automated telescopes with each new message and beaming it, over and over, to any hypothetical radio receivers. Just in case anything happened to their global civilisation and only a handful of people were left to rebuild something from the scraps and go find the lost frames later on.

The Earth lurched through movements and fashions; its people played politics and made art and studied things other than the Messengers' sidereal remarks. It would have been too much to expect for all of academia, let alone all of the dirt farmers and war refugees and un–contacted tribe members, to prioritise whatever else they were doing below the long, unrewarding work of Starwink, holding their breaths to see what was next. 

to be continued...