The listening post Determined was built into a peak twenty-six-thousand meters above sea level and poked through the clouds like a jagged bit of glass waiting for an unwary foot. From the floor-to-ceiling window that wrapped around the observation tower it was possible to look down onto the steely clouds that covered everything from here to the horizon. Occasional flashes of brilliant pale light were the only sign of the storms going on below. It felt, to Sanguine, like watching a ghost train from behind the scenes.
Above the clouds the sky was uniformly just short of true darkness, dotted with enough twinkling stars even at this time of day to remind you how thin the atmosphere was. Sanguine had long grown used to the view, her pulse no longer raced when she caught a glimpse out of the window.
She stared at it now though, through her reflection and past the nearby crags of Mount Regret, over the storm clouds and into the emptiness beyond. Her pulse was racing now. She released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She girded her glands and turned back to the readout, expecting the thing she’d thought she’d seen to be gone, expecting to feel silly and to tell it to a colleague as a funny story once the embarrassment had died away.
But the readout hadn’t changed. Several short, sharp radio pulses, marking out a series of prime numbers, then a sequence of numbers where each next number was the sum of the previous two. Then a sequence of numbers that could, possibly, she hadn’t dared try it yet, but they could have been the numbers of a radio frequency.
Sanguine glided back to the console and squatted over the stool. She triple checked the point of origin. They were still inconclusive, but one thing was certain. This signal hadn’t come from anywhere on the planet surface. It hadn’t even come from orbit. Sanguine couldn’t, without any reasonable doubt, say for certain the signal had come from within the star system.
She reached out a tentacle and tuned the receiver frequency to match the numbers in the signal. The audio readout began to crackle, then warble, and then the warbling became something like speech.
“Please direct a response signal towards the following coordinates,” came the voice. Only it didn’t sound like a person’s voice. The coordinates came. There was no satellite, planet or other astral body along those coordinates. Sanguine fired off a simple response pulse anyway.
“Narrow the band of your response signal,” the voice added. “We’re quite a way away so we need you to give us the strongest signal you can.”
Sanguine narrowed the beam and boosted the signal as far as she could, then fired off another pulse. Little more than a long beeping sound as they would receive it.
“That’s better. Informal greetings!” the voice said, but there was no tone in its voice. “We would like to talk with your head of state, or their most readily available empowered representative. Could you help put me in touch with the right person?”
Sanguine froze. There were three people on three shifts at the listening post. There was nobody else to respond to the signal. Nobody else to even show it to. She wrapped a tentacle around the microphone and lifted it to her speech membrane, and was going to speak, when she heard the distant thrumming of bicopter blades. She put the mic down, stood up from the stool and glided over to the window again.
The bicopters were flying up from the north. There were four of them, black and unmarked so that nobody watching could have any doubt of where they came from or who they represented. Sanguine knew enough not to move when she saw the white dots of laser sights appear on her skirts. The large windows had never been about the view.
“Informal greetings! Is anybody there?” the radio voice droned.
Three of the bicopters passed overhead, towards the landing pads. The fourth remained hovering by the window, a reminder and a precaution.
Soft thuds sounded through the doors as troops clambered down the ladders, and seconds later the doors swung open and a squadron slid in and spread out over the room. Each of their tentacles was in a black armoured wrap, leading up to a black helmeted and gas-masked head. Entwined in their fore-tentacles each soldier held an automatic rifle.
“Move away from the equipment,” the lead soldier said.
“I haven’t done anything,” Sanguine said.
“Sir, this is for your protection. We do not wish to see you commit treason,” the lead soldier said.
Sanguine stepped away.
“I know the regulations,” she said sharply. “And I am not conversing with foreigners.”
“As I understand it, sir, these are as foreign as you can get.”
That was the last thing anybody said for a while. When the doors opened again the person to come through was not a soldier.
“Principal!” Sanguine said, a shocked farting noise escaping her gills.
He was decked out in a fine grey skirt with silver highlights, beneath a brilliant stony-coloured collar lined with rhinestones. His head was smooth, and flat, like a good throwing-pebble, and he looked shorter than he did on TV.
“Hello Professor,” the Principal said, a tentacle poking out of his skirts to wave, regally. “Thank you for the work you’ve been doing here. The entire State owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Sanguine curtseyed, but the Principal was already looking at the radio console.
“I’m afraid I’ve never been good with technology. Although,” he chuckled. “If any of you repeat that I would have to have you killed. I understand this is what you use to monitor the signals?”
“Yes sir,” Sanguine said immediately.
“And my staff tells me you’ve received a signal from… another world? Is that right?”
Sanguine’s stomach nearly fell out of her head. She took a deep breath.
“I believe so Mr Principal,” she said.
“I know you haven’t responded, because we’re all still standing here,” the Principal said with another chuckle. It seemed so avuncular on TV. In person that chuckle was frightening. “But could you arrange it so that I can respond?”
Sanguine rushed back to the console.
“Yes, of course Mr. Principal,” Sanguine said. She lifted the microphone and passed it to him unthinking. As he took the mic in his tentacle Sanguine realised what she had done and the shade drained from her face.
The Principle chuckled again.
“Do not worry,” he said. “It is understandable to be excited on the dawn of this great discovery. We needn’t worry too much about protocol.”
He straightened up, but it didn’t grant him much extra height.
“Now please, tell me when I am ready to transmit.”
Sanguine pushed down the transmit button and gave the Principle a wave.
“To whoever is contacting us,” the Principle said. “We are receiving your messages. I am the Principle of the State of Uscana. I am invested with full authority to speak and negotiate on behalf of my people. What do you wish to discuss?”
“Informal greetings!” the radio voice responded. “It’s a pleasure and an honour, a privilege and a source of fond future memories that I am able to speak with you. I am signalling you on behalf of the Greater Galactic Commercial Network. Do you have a quick few minutes?”
The Principal took a deep breath, his membranes inflating. “This is a solemn and important moment for our world. I have put all great matters of state, both domestic and international, on hold so that we may talk,” he said.
There was a short delay.
“That’s really good news that honours and flatters us,” the radio responded. “As the head of state of a global superpower, I am sure you have many important demands on your time at any given moment. We understand and respect that and will take as little of your time as is necessary. I will attempt brevity.”
A short wheeze escaped the Principal’s membrane.
“Ahem. Thank you?” he said.
“Don’t mention it! You are extremely welcome!” the radio said. “We have been observing your planet for some time, and looking at our data we believe you have achieved the developmental stage appropriate to be admitted entry into the Greater Galactic Commercial Network. Obviously, it is difficult to judge from monitoring your transmissions exactly what your economic, scientific and cultural needs are. Therefore, with your gracious permission, it would be useful if I could go through a few questions with you to establish your needs and ways in which we might be able to help you.”
“That sounds… reasonable?” the Principal said.
Sanguine watched with quiet awe. As a listening post monitor, she was a level twenty-three civil operative, which meant she had undergone basic and intermediate interrogation training. The Principal was a former senior military officer, at which level the interrogation training required withstanding things you would only normally be exposed to in the more expensive schools. Yet here, on an unscrambled channel broadcasting right out into the cosmos, she saw a total stranger talk the Principal into discussing military deployments, mineral resources, encryption technology, ideological quandaries. The Principal himself didn’t quite seem to know why he was doing it. It was as if he didn’t know just what the question was until he’d answered it.
After an hour, Sanguine was called back to help interpret a set of coordinates that established a grid system and allowed images to be received over the transmission. What followed was footage of explosions that could level cities, bright beams of light that could slice through rock or burn a person to a cinder, and huge buildings that the voice said were power stations, but which looked like the mighty temples built by the Absentia in the Far West.
As the images flickered by and the voice on the radio continued to describe them, the Principle’s eyes gleamed.
“Would it be safe to say that, for you and your people, it would be worth exporting a certain amount of mineral resources in exchange for blueprints, equations and technical consultation that would allow you to build these technologies?” the voice on the radio was now saying.
“It… you could say that…” the Principal said.
“That is such good news, Principal. It gladdens my soul and those of my colleagues. May I roll out some figures to show you the sort of offering we would like to make as an introductory trade deal?” the voice said.
“Yes. Yes, that would be acceptable,” the Principal said.
Sanguine had no idea how, but the dot matrix printer in the corner of the room began to print. A list of metals, liquid and solid fuels, and chemical formula were coming out of the printer alongside quantities, all in Uscanan measurements. When the printing stopped she stepped towards the printer, but a soldier intercepted her and ripped the sheet out before she could take it.
The soldier passed his sheet to the Principal, who looked at it. He chuckled.
“This must be some kind of mistake,” he said into the microphone. “The initial down-payment alone would cripple us economically. Our manufacturing base would grind to a halt within a season.”
“These are the current market rates,” the voice said.
“It’s ridiculous. Our state will have no part of this,” the Principal said, ripping the paper in two, then four, and throwing it to the ground.
“I completely understand,” the voice on the radio said.
The radio went silent. Still, nobody knew where to move. The soldiers tensed as if ready to move out. Then with a crackle, the radio began again.
“Sorry, just checking my records here. There is another large state on your world is there not? My notes here say it is called… Askurg?”
The air froze.
“Yes, don’t worry, I’ve got it now. They are on your north-western continent? Very rich mineral resources from what we’ve heard, and their government uses a kind of representational vote-based system for their property-owning classes? Very progressive! Between me and you though, there’s some quite unorthodox religious beliefs going on there according to the transmissions we’ve seen,” the voice continued. “I am deeply apologetic to take up yet more of your time, but if you don’t mind me asking: Do you think Askurg would be interested in a deal like this?”
The Principal shrank into his robes. He turned to Sanguine.
“You must never tell anybody, anybody, what you have seen today, do you understand?” he said.
“None of you!” he cried. “The State will look after you, but holding this secret is your duty to your State, to your countrymen, and to your families. Do you understand?”
Everybody curtseyed. It was not enthusiastic.
The Principal brought the microphone up to his speech membrane once again and signalled Sanguine to press the transmit button.
“Perhaps…” he said, choking on the word. “Perhaps we can work something out after all?”