One-Three-Seven By Dinker Charak
Radio listening-posts of many countries’ intelligence agencies picked up the transmission almost at the same time. Each thought they had picked up some secret message, coded in a new cryptographic method, from their rivals. Alert buttons were pressed, higher officials were called in, meetings were held and reports were made. Resources were allocated and as soon as possible, people were working full time to decode the message.
Even though the breakthrough came in early, no one was willing to accept the hints at what the source of the transmission was and what that meant. The issue was more serious than anyone had imagined. Apparently, the messages were not communication between the enemy and some co-conspirators. More panic buttons were pressed, highest officials were called in, meetings were held and top-secret reports were made.
In the end, it was the poverty of a small nation Kichori that changed the future of humanity. They decided to go public with their find. There was not much of a national security or national ego at stake for them. But when the news went public, all rushed in to announce that they too had received and deciphered the radio broadcast.
“What is it?”
“I do not understand it, boss. All I hear is Tuo-Tuo-Tuo!”
The commander snatched the head phones from the soldier. He listened carefully. After listening for some time, he decided that the noise might give him headaches. He returned the head phone to the soldier.
“Inform the unit-command that the guerrillas are using new method of transmission. Hmmm … beeps, instead of coded talk!”
“Wonder how they got that much money. They even have better guns than us!”
“Boss, we should start a guerilla army of our own. They get all sorts of funds from everybody!”
“Shut up and keep listening. Do you want to lose your job?”
The soldier meekly went back to eavesdropping radio signals using World War II dated equipment.
Back at the unit-command, the news was received with dismay. The clever and powerful guerrillas were becoming cleverer and more powerful by the day. Everyone feared for their life. And the news wasn’t going to do much good for the morale of the troops.
The unit commander called in his brother-in-law for advice. Young, well-educated and only one in the unit who wore his uniform properly, the brother-in-law was the only confidant the unit command had.
The brother-in-law heard the beeps for few minutes.
“This is a simple message. They are using a simple beep generator to send messages using something like a Morse code,” he declared.
The unit commander quickly retorted, “But they are not using any such code. I am unable to find any way to decipher it.”
Allowing his young brother-in-law to listen to the beeps for a while, he waited for some reaction.
“Any ideas?” he asked finally.
“No, I do not understand much. But hear, after every once in a while a pattern of beeps is repeated. It must be like a sentence ending. Or a letter or a word that is very common. Can I work on this at my ease?”
“By all means! Just make sure, the word on this does not reach the soldiers. I do not want them to think the guerrillas have got a new weapon.”
“Sure! I understand, Sir.”
Saying so, he noted the radio frequency at which the message was coming. After he was done, he rose and gave a taut salute. He was the only one in the unit who gave such a disciplined salute.
As soon as he returned to his barrack, he took out his radio and tuned it to this frequency. He was surprised to note that they were broadcasting at such public band. He wished he had his powerful radio here with him.
Later that day, he called his wife from the unit’s official phone. From her he came to know that a friend from the college days was in the town. He immediately ended his conversation with her and called up his friend.
After exchanging usual pleasantries and jocular remarks, he turned the topic to the beeping signal. The friend wanted to stay away from the matters of the army and guerrillas. But after listening to the beeps, his opinion changed. He promised to call back once he had figured out what to do.
The brother-in-law was happy. The secret of his success was not just personal competence, but also the company of competent people. His real chance at scoring big in the army came when his friend called back; informing him the signal was not as simple as he had thought in the beginning. The friend’s opinion on what it might be was far more dramatic than what he had hoped for.
Next day, when unit commander was confronted with all the analysis by his brother-in-law, he gladly agreed to call the Central Command. It took him few hours before he could talk to the Chief of the Intelligence Department in the Kichori army. Along the route he had to explain the situation to five other people and inform them that the matter might be very sensitive and they should not talk to anyone else about it. The Chief of Intelligence spoke for some time with the unit commander. He asked him to send someone over to his office with the detailed report.
After months at the outpost, his brother-in-law was happy to go back. He took the next courier bus and was gone. He hoped to reach there before the signals stopped. Else he would lose his job for wasting the chief’s time.
“What do you mean from the sky? Is the moon sending it?”
In front of him sat a young office and a friend of his who studied in the university. The chief immediately disliked both of them. The officer seems more disciplined than necessary and the friend more intelligent than needed. But the chief knew when to use people and when to dispose them. That is why he had managed to stay on the top and alive for so long. For now, both were useful.
“Sir, the transmission is coming from somewhere in sky, not from land.”
“Are we catching some secret signal from someone’s satellite? I do not want trouble.”
“But the frequency is public. I can listen to it on my new radio.”
This blew the chief’s top.
“Stop telling me about your new radio! By now I am sure all of the whole command knows you have a powerful new radio.” He turned to the young captain, “And you, fresh boy! If you step on my nerve once more, I will put you in prison. I am still curious how come you heard this? I want to find out if you are a spy or anything. Wait, till I close this matter. And then, if I find even a thin crack in your character, I will ram a tank through it.”
“I understand, Sir.”
Sensing the direction of the wind, he stood up, saluted and left. In a single stroke, the chief had killed his hopes of success in the ranks. In short, the chief had warned him that any success from this would be chiefs’ and any failure, his.
The chief listened to the university student for some fifteen more minutes and had an idea on how to get rid of him. He called a reporter of a national newspaper. He would know how to handle such crackpots.
“I have a great news for you-Yes-University student detects radio signals from aliens-yes-no need to name any of us-yes-I will send him-ok!”
That was the first domino falling. As the news spread, the young army officer, and his friend were heroes, with their pictures on every newspaper in the region. However, that did not go well with other countries. They felt this was too much of credit for these chance discoverers. Thus, they came out with their finds and soon the secret everyone knew and kept from each other was out.
Earth had received, what seemed like a radio signal from extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Surprisingly, it was not a rat race. Not every nation rushed to solve the puzzle before the other. No spies were recruited to find out how far the rivals were in solving the problem. There was a general consensus on sharing the resources. Maybe so because not many resources were needed and not much money needed to be allocated for providing them. Information was flowing freely and everyone was building up on each others’ find.
As a token of recognition of the Kichoro’s decision to go public, the research centre was established there. That was the centralized location where all information flowed into and all came looking for more information.
There was another reason-the local climatic conditions and sparse population.
Soon a small township of scientific community grew there. Tasks were allocated and timelines set.
Meena was going over the list of facts known about the signal. Apparently, each message was punctuated with a series of beeps. First beep was followed by a louder beep and followed by an even louder beep. Then a noise followed.
The interesting thing about the beeps was that the second beep was three times louder than the first and the third one seven times louder than the first. The noise was analyzed to see if there was any such pattern in it. None was found.
Even some musicians were called in to see if there they heard any pattern in the noise-Hindustani, Zouk, Carnatic, Salsa, Tejano, Calypso, Celtic, Taiko, Samba, Sufi, Rappers and any one who claimed to be part of any school of music style. No one was able to detect any rhythm or pattern. Mathematicians used powerful computers having the best throughput to calculate if the noise had any know or identifiable waveform. Of course, all kind of noise is just a collection of wave super imposed on each other. But the key was finding if they could make any sense of any individual waves.
Meena had found a way to do exactly that. Pick out each thread of single wave form from the tangled skein of waves that the noise was. That had been her research subject. Whereas she could do it for simple wave skeins, this noise was far too complex. Nevertheless, in the department she was working for now, her line of research was among the few ones that were very promising.
On that particular day, she was trying her new computer program. It was comparing, in parallel, the wave forms from the sounds of millions of people who had volunteered to add their voice to a huge database of human voices. The database comprised of them reading out the complete dictionary of the language that they were most comfortable using.
The volume was turned up and she was staring blankly at the computer screen. She liked to hear the voice of some thousand people speak hundreds of languages together. It was her favourite pastime. At times, she tried to identify any one particular voice and follow it. Of course, she never succeeded.
The computer, actually, was also doing the same. It was trying to find if the wave pattern of human voices existed in the signal noise. While the computer compared it with human voices, in parallel it also compared these waves against various sounds from nature. Sounds like chirping birds, wind rustling through forests, waterfalls and barks of various animals.
Today, after some tries, Meena had given up on her small game of finding an individual voice. She drifted on thinking of some other things.
Meena had often noticed that there used to be an uncanny moment of silence when the human voices database played multiple voices together. As if, for a second everyone decided to stay quiet for half a second or so. Her task of the day was make the computer identify that moment of silence in the incoming signal.
She knew why that was happening. It was due to a phenomenon called destructive interference. It happened when two waves that are exactly opposite to each other overlap. When that happened, they cancelled each other. Thus, there used to be these small ‘dots of silence’ as she called them in the thick mélange of thousand voices. It was rare and she rarely caught it.
She decided to take the idea to the next step. She wrote a small computer program to find such small periods of silence in the noise. The results excited her.
There was never such a moment of total silence in the extra-terrestrial noise. No ‘dots of silence’. But in between, she noticed that the noise came down in a symmetric way. It meant some, if not all waves did cancel each other. She called these moments ‘dots of whispers’. That gave her an idea on how to unravel the mystery. At that given moment, the number of waves would reduce drastically. Therefore, she had a smaller number of waves to unravel.
“I want to talk to Bob,” she told her computer.
“I am scanning the list of scientists-I am sorry, I do not see any Bob.”
“But he works with me all the time. He called me just a few days ago.”
“May I search for him in the incoming phone records for this number?”
“Yes, please do.”
“In that case, I have to report this activity. I shall be sending a copy of your request and its result to concerned authorities. Is that OK with you?”
“Yes,” replied Meena.
“You are asking me to access records that may contain private information of people using your office phone. If your request is judged as an infringement of someone’s private life, you shall be held responsible. Do you take the responsibility for your actions?”
“Due to filtering of information based on certain heuristics, the result of the search may not be 100% accurate. You shall not hold the makers of this system liable for any kind of failure because of its inefficiency, however small. Do you agree to these terms?”
“I do not see any person named Bob calling you.”
“How can that be so?”
“Do you want me to dump the list of names and numbers for your perusal?”
“How will that be useful? You already do not see Bob and I do not know his number. Any other way you can help me?”
“Where did Bob call you from? I can compare numbers that belong to that region. That will make the list smaller.”
“OK. He called me from USA.”
“Applying localization now-Found Bob in the list of scientists.”
“How? Why did you find him now?”
“Localization tells me names Robert and Bob are to be considered same.”
“All Roberts are Bobs by rule?”
“It seems so.”
“That is weird,” Meena muttered to herself.
“I know. It is!”
Meena was surprised to hear such a remark from the computer. She smiled and was about to say something when Bob came online.
“Bob, I had a tough time finding you. I did not know your number. And then I realized I did not know your name too!”
Bob understood her subtle joke.
“You should have applied localization.”
“I did. That is how I found you! So all Roberts are Bobs, huh?”
“Yes, it is weird, I know.”
Meena started to laugh lightly.
“So, what’s the news?”
Meena explained her idea to him and he immediately liked it. He was the computer expert and was in the middle of his two months vacation. He and Meena had worked with each other for a small time. They had grown comfortable of each other’s presence, though not comfortable in understanding the dialects or accent that the other used. Bob was curious and wanted to actually hear the ‘dots of whispers’ as Meena repeatedly called them. She increased the volume in her computer so he could hear.
She had an idea. She lined up her small her powerful speakers in front of each other. In the middle she kept the mike she was using to send these sounds to Bob. The remote location did not have the best connections. Bob could not hear it properly. After some tries they gave up. The subtle difference in pattern was more visible on computer than to the ear. Bob decided to look up the computer analysis later.
When they had disconnected, Meena kept playing with the sound equipment. Suddenly, she increased the volume to full and turned up the bass control. She could hear the ‘dots of whisper’. She noticed after a dot there was a faster rise in noise level than the rate at which noise subsided before the dot.
She was almost done for the day when reached out for her glass of cold drink lying on the control panel to see if it was finished. She accidentally hit the cubic amplification response button. In an instant, the room was full of loud noises. She jerked in response.
In the meantime, the signature start of a new noise pattern, the beep, louder beep and then even louder beeps started and the rise in noise almost caused a tearing pain in her ears.
She cupped her hands over the ears and shut her eyes as if that would help. As she leaned against the control panel and quickly move her hands and turn off the cubic amplification response button, she felt the drink fall on her. It was strange sensation as she felt it fall all over her.
It was almost half a minute before her ears’ pain subsided and she open her eyes. As soon as he saw opened them, she screamed and fainted. There was blood all around her.
Meena felt the stickiness of blood on her hands as she was coming back to her senses. It was on her hands and some on her face. Slowly she opened her eyes trying to fight her feeling of disgust and nausea.
The blood was splashed all across the room. Small droplets were dripping along the walls and the equipment. She had a strange sensation of intense thirst. She examined her body looking for some gash or a wound. There was none. She stood up and grabbed her chunni and sought a cleaner side. She wiped her face and her hands off it. It was an expensive and the most beautiful part of her dress and she hated seeing it get spoiled.
On a closer look she noticed that the blood looked more blackish than red. In a surge of realization she looked all around her and noticed it was not blood at all. It was some black, drippy liquid. Some part of machine must have exploded spraying some grease all over the place.
“Those damned ogling engineers! I will make sure they pay heavy price for this. I could have died.”
She picked up the phone and called emergency. In minutes, the room looked a crime scene.
“You know what?”
“Aliens are all physicists!”
Meena smiled. Bob had cut short his vacation on hearing about this incident. Working with Bob had its own advantages. If the work was tedious, Bob was amusing. Lately he had been pushing his theory that the one-three-seven code in front of each noise was not just a signal of intelligence but of brilliance! A small note in front of his computer read, “Searching for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence? I found Extra-Terrestrial Brilliance!”
To a physicist, 137 is the most intriguing number. This number sits in the middle point where electromagnetism, velocity of light and quantum theory meet. All Bob needed was a slight nudge and he used to go into the endless spiral of explaining significance of this number.
“It is inverse of finite-structure constant – will show you how thus it is related to probability of electron emitting or absorbing a photon – also as we look at alpha which is (here comes in the quantum theory) Planck’s constant times (here comes in the relativity) the speed of light dividing square of (her comes in the electromagnetism) charge of electron – see what we get – a number – constant – absolute – no units – no meters per sec or miles per gallons – wow!”
What was unnerving for many physicists was simplicity of this number – 137. They were used to strange looking number like the unending value 3.1413…. of ‘Pi’ or astronomically large or immensely small numbers which had even strange looking units behind it. But ‘137’? Absolute and dimensionless. This problem had many physicists going, including amateur ones like Bob.
So, while Meena was applying number theories and pattern recognition to solve the riddle of the noise, Bob used to compare the noise with data resulting from all sort of physics theories.
“Bob, if aliens are all Physicists, what are we Earth people?” Meena continued asking him in order to avoid having to bear another lecture on relevance of 137.
“We are all ecologist!”
“Ecologists? You shock me! I thought you would say Philosophers or something.”
Bob smiled and took a long sip of lemonade. It did taste fresh, though the mix of flavours was still new for him. He enjoyed Meena’s company and was willing to go any distance to spend more time with her. So, he often joined her on her evening walk to a local beverage shop.
The first trip the shop with her had been a disaster. She had refused to try some expensive wines or exotic fruit juices. After number of tries, he was able to convince her to try lemonade which she agreed to have and she ended up requesting some strange combination to be put into it. Chivalrous Bob also ordered the same and had spurted out the mouthful of juice when he tried it. Over time he was getting used to drinking lemonade with sugar, salt and black pepper. In fact, he had started enjoying it.
“See we on Earth are in a unique situation. Earth has, amazingly and coincidently, most of the elements that are to present in the universe. I am sure because of this we have the most diverse ecosystem in universe. Sun-light dependent, water based, oxygen based and even extremely high temperature Sulphur based ecology! And then there is Nitrogen.”
“Nitrogen! What about it?”
“No one knows why our atmosphere has the amount of Nitrogen it has. A major bulk of air we breathe is Nitrogen. It provides an inert aspect to our air. If there was too much of oxygen, everything would burn in a second and if there was too much of carbon dioxide-”
“-we would all die of suffocation.”
“Exactly. So Nitrogen fills in to help us out. Right gas at the right place.”
“That is right though. Interesting thoughts! So what else is special about Earth?”
“Meena, the report concludes that due to some reason there was a spontaneous combustion in your lab!”
“Spontaneous combustion? Thankfully it was not Spontaneous Human Combustion!”
Bob did not find that funny but Meena did and she had a good laugh on her joke.
“What else does the report have to say? Was all that black gooey stuff carbon resulting from combustion?” Meena asked.
“Interestingly, it seems that there was sudden presence of many elements in your room and once they appeared, they interacted chemically. Some encouraged by presence of oxygen underwent combustion, and hence the noise and some decided to form salts and solutions with other elements and moisture in the air and hence the gooey stuff.”
“My medical report showed me dehydrated to some extent where as I had had a large glass of my cold drink! Maybe…”
“Yes, there were some Sodium salts found too. The hygroscopes absorbed water from your body!”
“That is scary!” Bob joined in.
“Yes, you could have died. Man, wonder what exactly had happened then!?”
“Worse than death, I could have become a dry brained computer programmer! Then it would have been fun asking you what else is special about Earth!” Meena said and laughed at her jibe at Bob.
“Do you have any enemy who would like to harm you?”
“No, I do not think so!” Meena replied.
She was being visited by the head of the research facility. He was to give a report on what exactly had happened. The final conclusion was that someone had tried to harm her or play a dirty joke. Bob too had been questioned extensively. Lately he and Meena had been closer than what they considered as professional closeness. Meena being a very intelligent and attractive girl had many admirers. Maybe one of them got a bit too jealous.
“I am going to call it an accident with suspicions of malice against a researcher. There are enough strange people opposing this project. Someone will fit the profile. You be careful and report any suspicious activity to authorities. Is that fine with you?”
“Yes, it is. I am glad to put this behind me and get ahead with my work. I had some very leading thoughts in my mind when the incident happened. I want to pursue them. That is, with your kind permission-”
“Good! I shall consider the matter closed. You are a very bright researcher and we have hopes in you! This project is going nowhere and we need results fast. You know how things are outside. People believe in whatever they are being told by whosoever who can talk.”
“The importance of the work I do here is never lost on me, sir!”
Many would say the biggest contribution Meena made to the humanity was sticking to her habits. The next day Meena walk into her office just like she had done so many times before. Just like the day she had done when her office rained of black carbon-like gooey stuff.
With the chamayli oil making her hair glisten, she walked in the next day full of ideas and enthusiasm. Her hair oil had a distinct smell which she did not particularly like even though some people liked it. It was just good for her hair. The long black tresses needed a lot of attention.
She used to light some incense to smoothen the smell of her hair oil. After doing that she used to take her big mug and head for the dispenser to get a large helping of her favourite cold drink leaving behind a cloud of smoke as if a chain smoke had spent the night there.
By the time she had greeted all her co-workers, shared a joke or two, give a passing wink’n’whistle at Bob and reach her office, the smoke used to vanish leaving a fresh garden fragrance to invite her to a long day ahead.
Meena hated conditioned air. So she had requested an office by the window. She had installed a new window. A thick, porous cloth hung on the outside. She used to sprinkle water on it. That used to cool the breeze as it gentle entered her office. That was her last chore before she started her day’s work.
Her mind was full of ideas. But before she tried any new one, she wanted to complete what she was trying to do that day. So, he set up things exactly like before and pumped up the volume at about the same time.
When the splash hit her, her first thought was the dread of having to clean up her hair again. But as she realized what had happened, she screamed at the top of her lung bringing her neighbours rushing in. It was not some miscreant who was behind the strange implosion, but the noise following the signature one-three-seven.
In next few days the conditions of her office would be duplicated at many places across the world. A request was issued for people to stop tuning onto the radio signals. Initially there were some complaints but mostly people stayed away. Though there was no way one could make sure.
After study it was revealed that the humid air because of the wetted curtains, colloidal carbon in air due to the incense and few other related matters was a very conducive environment for the splash occurred.
A plan was forged. A bubble would be made. It would have all components of the ‘Meena atmosphere’ (as the air content was now being referred to as) except that no oxygen would be present. The source of sound would be inside the bubble.
In few days the ‘Smoky’ (everything was given a name) was ready. Amidst lot of hype and coverage the experiment was tried again. It was considered the biggest event watch by all humanity together. Had anyone known what the result would be like, it would have been the least witnessed event.
As soon as the volume was turned up, there was an implosion and the walls of the bubble were littered with small globules of pulsating matter. It was the most disturbing sight. As if a jelly fish had burst into many pieces. As the pulsation slowed and ultimately stopped, humanity had witnessed the death of first alien to arrive on Earth.
Once again there was restriction on any sort of experiments on the radio messages except in the lab in the deep Africa where Meena was almost a presiding deity. But now the matter was beyond her. The biologist and ecologist had the last say. The Meena atmosphere had been modified. Analysis had shown that almost all of it just had to be Nitrogen under pressure. A dense atmosphere of Nitrogen provided the inertness so the chemicals appearing did not react.
This breakthrough had come from Meena her self. Her simulation-analysis showed that ‘Meena atmosphere’ was also about dense air than just carbon or humidity. Almost an iconoclastic revelation, her hypothesis considered very seriously.
In the end a second bubble or ‘Two Smoky’ was made. New acoustics were installed such that the sound emitting equipment was physically outside the bubble. But the sound was directed such that it would move towards the center of the bubble. New stereoscopic speakers were designed. They produced sound along a focused direction and their point of their parabolic center lay in the center of the bubble.
All was set for the big day. This time the event was not public. Only few top scientists were allowed to witness. Meena and Bob were also allowed in. The radio signal was tuned, volumes manipulated by computer and fidelity managed by best circuits. As the one-three-seven pattern emerged, everyone held on her or his breath. At last, the moment came.
Meena tried her best to resist the pressure when one fragrance company wanted to issue a fragrance based on her favourite chamayli and name it No 137! She was too occupied to join the world to celebrate the first contact. Picture of a jelly fish like creature were being circulated all over the planet.
As soon as it had appeared, the jelly blob had divided into two. Not only had an alien made it alive but also managed to reproduce. One part had a strange spot of contrasting color on its underside. It had vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Radio monitors around the site had detected the one-three-seven signature of a radio signal going out of the lab. It was concluded that the spot was some sort of equipment. The alien apparently had started journey back home to tell of its discovery.
The other piece pulsated for a while before stopping. The bubble was smashed and the blob studies. It was given a name of Z-137 based on its signature one-three-seven pattern when it was in wave form.
Teachers all over the world were explaining the matter-wave duality to school children. How the light and other electromagnetic radiations behaved as waves at times and as particles at other and how the alien had managed to conqueror this. Apparently, the alien had equipment that converted them into waves for inter-stellar transport. If humans could learn how to do this, all the problem of transportation through space would be solved in one tick.
In the meantime, once in a while a Z-137 would be caught and one of its parts radioed itself away. More studies were done on their composition. They were made of elements available on Earth. All the radio operators listened avidly for any signature other than one-three-seven. Listen for any other alien form coming along the Earths way.
That included radio scientist and also the amateurs. Included in the amateurs was the young officer of the Kichori army, who had first sought to pursue the matter. The brother-in-law of the unit commander was now in charge of the laboratory’s security.
The world was back to, in strange way, normal. In back of everyone’s’ mind was the possibility of the second level visit. Would it happen? Or was this all? Nobody knew. There were many theories about the world of aliens or about the purpose of the Z-157s.
Everyone had a pet theory. That included Bob, who never missed a chance to explain it to Meena.
“The humans are so short sighted. We have painted the alien world as per our imagination and knowledge. Why don’t people realize that our knowledge is also our limitation? There might be no device converting aliens into waves. Maybe, they are waves. Living waves! Their world is just a bunch of waves. And it is we who did something what they may call miraculous – converted them into matter.”
Meena, as always stopped him when ever he went too far.
“Living waves, eh!” Meena said as she reached for him. “Come here and show me a living tsunami!”
Cover pic by Adam Jones.