Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Announcement - Part 1 of 2

© 1981 by Henry Melton

This story, published in December 1981 in Analog, feels a little dated now.  The world has changed, although the central point of the story hasn't.  

Glen Aldiman set his old black phone down on the only clear spot on the desk and with an audible stretch pushed himself out of his creaking chair. The three foot stack of frayed and faded international telephone books to his right tumbled off onto the hard linoleum floor with a thud and a rustle. It seemed only just. He'd fought those outdated listings for two hours trying to find English speaking strangers all over the world. He looked across the clutter on Jerry Mercer's desk. His research associate had been staring intently at the far wall. The classroom-sized blackboard was covered by the chalk graffiti understandable only to that brand of physicist whose mathematics had long since drifted away from the rules that made bridges and balanced checkbooks.
"Well. What do you think?" Glen asked. His voice was hoarse.
Jerry shook his head and closed his tired eyes. "I don't think we have any doubts. It works. Everyone on the face of the Earth heard a click..." Jerry glanced up to the wall clock, "just two hours and thirty-eight minutes ago."
Glen nodded and sat back on the top his desk. "Do you think we called enough people?"
He shrugged. "We called as many people as we could, in every country we could think of, and everyone heard it. A rulebook statistical sample for four billion people is beyond our abilities. And the  university's phone bill! I'm convinced. So are you. It's not just a research paper anymore. We succeeded. We built the thing. It works, and we really don't need statistics to prove it. Our only problem now is what to do with it."
A frown settled on' Glen's face. "I know," He sat back down in his chair. "We've got the world's most perfect public address system. Do you want to make an announcement?"
Jerry caught his tone and nodded. "What kind of announcement is worth bending the ears of four billion people? I'll scream if Madison Avenue gets hold of this."
"Or Pravda. I can't think of anything worse than having Official Truth broadcast into my mind on a regularly scheduled basis." He shuddered visibly.
Jerry pulled a silvery tool out of his pocket and began working on the cold ashes in the bowl of his pipe. He gestured with it. "Or, if you'll pardon me, some religious fanatic bringing enlightenment to the world."
Glen shook his head and smiled. "No. I don't mind." On impulse he got up to erase some of the more critical equations from the blackboard. "I'm not ashamed of my beliefs," he waved the eraser back at the other man, "but God is perfectly capable of doing a telepathic broadcast all on his own without a plenum amplifier; and excepting the Last Trump, I don't read of Him doing so. Somehow I'm reluctant to push my ideas with a method He decided not to use."
"No. If I ever use that thing," he pointed the eraser across the room at a gray equipment rack webbed via a half-dozen shiny, black coaxial cables to an unfinished aluminum box resting on the workbench, "it'll have to be something that'll save more lives than it'll take."
Jerry puffed silently for a moment, then pulled the stem from his mouth. "I see what you mean. The broadcast bypasses the sense channels. People have to listen--because it goes in their thoughts. It would seriously disturb the concentration. Bad luck for a pilot landing a plane."
"Or a motorist in a tight situation."
"Or a surgeon with a knife."
"Bad luck for the patient."
Glen returned to his task of erasing the blackboard. He went out and returned with wet paper towels and began washing the whole surface.
"Mmm. Yes?" He looked up from making ball-point pen entries in a bound notebook.
"Is there any chance we're alone in this discovery?"
"Don't know." Jerry sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. "How many people were there at Heinrich's presentation? Eighty--a hundred. And I'm sure he'll publish. You had the thought as well as I that his equations described something that could actually be built. I don't think we're unique. We're just the first to succeed. I'd bet another amplifier is in the works somewhere.
"I'm afraid this genie is out of the bottle--for good. Our randomizer is the only real chance for control. And personally, the sooner we get it built, the better."
Glen nodded. "Two days' work."
"If it works as planned." Jerry shook off a yawn. 
"The amplifier worked as designed. The theory is valid. Q.E.D."
"Optimist! I wouldn't bet even money I could get an electric toothbrush fixed on schedule. Certainly not an experimental gadget that exists only in equations."
"I'd argue. Everything is off-the-shelf. But you're probably right about timetables." Glen walked over to the workbench and turned off the standby power supplies. He paused at the last, switch. "Perhaps I should leave this on?"
Glen said nothing for a moment, looking at the equipment on the bench. Then, "In two days, or thereabouts, we'll have this broadcast capability blocked off. We have an opportunity. Maybe we shouldn't blow it.
"We can make an announcement. We can send a message to everyone on the face of the Earth. There will be no restrictions. Distance, language, governments will be bypassed--everyone will hear. You remember the phone calls. Even the people who are asleep will dream the message strong enough to remember it the morning after.
"We have power. Neither of us seems to have a burning urge to use it--to contact the rest of humanity, but maybe." Glen's voice drifted into silence as he worked on the thought.  "The chance will never come again
"The randomizer is so simple to build that once the principle is public knowledge, you can bet there will never be a time when one isn't running. There's only one channel on this 'radio' and once it's jammed, that's all there is.
"If there is something that needs broadcasting, and we're the only DJs around, shouldn't we at least give it some thought?"
Jerry puffed in silence for a moment.
"No. I don't see the problem. I don't have anything earth-shattering to say. You said that you didn't either. Let's build the jammer, put it in operation, publish everything, and then let the world hail us for our restraint." 
"Humor me for a moment." Glen returned to his desk, pulled a calculator from a drawer, and keyed rapidly. "I'm unsure of the ethics of something like this. We're both conservative. Better do nothing than do the wrong thing."
Jerry craned his neck to see. "What are you calculating?"
He didn't look up. "I'm trying to get a feel for the human cost to make an announcement. In addition to the accidents..." he tapped the keys again, "I figure each eight seconds of broadcast consumes about a thousand man-years of concentrated thought."
"And that's just on the Earth."
Glen looked up, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
Jerry grinned. "I mean the equation had no distance factor in it at all.  You know that. Your announcement is likely to hit every creature in the universe with a mind/brain reasonably close to that of a human."
Glen paused to digest it. Jerry could see the wheels turning.  "Does the lack of regular hallucinations on subjects Upper-Betelgeuseian mean we're the only ones here?"
Jerry shook his head, dismissing the idea. "Who knows? Maybe the signal is too alien. Maybe brain broadcasts are reserved for ten-thousand-year anniversaries. I don't know. I only know the equations.
"But if we do broadcast, we can't restrict it.  I'll make a note that any announcement shouldn't offend E-Ts. What other criteria do you suggest?"
Jerry closed his notebook with a sigh. "You won't let go of this. Okay. I'll play. But don't think I approve of actually sending anything."
"Sorry. I've got one of my famous moral dilemmas. But you've lived through them before.
"I can't shake the feeling that ignoring this opportunity without a little more thought is wrong. We have a tool. Maybe 'do nothing' is the correct response. It's also too neat, a pat answer. If I can walk over to that bench and save ten thousand lives with a five-second announcement, and I blow off the opportunity...."
"Oh, I see your point. If the H-bombs were over the pole now, a warning could save millions, and I'd help you with it. But I don't see any great peril at the moment. I do see a lot of pain and death if you do make an announcement. Let it go. The risks are too great. Even with good intentions, a flubbed message would have you in lawsuits the rest of your life, if the enraged mobs didn't get you first."
Glen nodded. He had seen that specter as well.  But he persisted, "Jerry, help me work this out. If there is an announcement to make," he itemized the points on the fingers of his left hand, "it should be as brief as absolutely possible, consistent with clarity. It should offend neither Aliens from Space nor the lynch mobs outside the door. And it should save a lot of lives."
Jerry shook his head and tapped ashes out of his pipe. "No. I can't get into this. You're pulling fantasy out of the air. Maybe there are people out there who would be happy to give you a script. The World Health Organization perhaps--certainly any group with a political or religious gospel to preach, but they are already pushing their beliefs with all the money and advertising time they can scrape up. As far as I can see, the only thing worth it would be a genuine emergency. Something with a real time-limit to it.
"We don't have that. So don't spoil my triumph with a made-up worry! We did a good thing. We built something that proves the world isn't our prison. We've tapped something in the mind that could open up a new age of human advancement. Maybe we can build spaceships that can ignore distance too.
"We also built a machine that's dangerous, but before we finished it, we designed the protection for it. We did good. We've certainly done enough. Don't borrow trouble.
"I don't see any emergency. So if you'll pardon me," Jerry got to his feet, "I'm going home to get a good night's sleep."
Glen said nothing. Their friendship was such that he knew not to push. Sometimes the itch in his imagination would not go away. He had few enough friends who could tolerate him when he had the bug. He let Jerry go with a smile. He'd have to resolve it himself.

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