A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away … maybe. (No, not that galaxy.)
Avaan Fundebinder strode purposefully onto the auditorium stage of the Galactic Center to Search for ExtraTelemanny Intelligence (GC-SETI), to a storm of applause from the journalists assembled, live and via voomscreens, for the press conference. Behind him, far less enthusiastically, shambled SETI Search Coordinator Betell Sooth. A lectern bearing the wordmark of the GC-SETI stood center stage. Fundebinder, the institute’s Leader, marched to it, while Sooth half-fell into one of the two chairs immediately stage right of it.
“A joyous surnoon to you all, my fellow telemanx”, Fundebinder’s amplified tenor, a practiced presenter’s voice, rang strong and clear. “Malomalomalo for coming to our press conference, where we shall announce a key finding of our research. Our SETI Search Coordinator will give you the details. I present to you: Dr. Betell Sooth!”
More applause. Sooth initially half rose, hesitated, then, as if gripped by a “dammit, get this over with” resolve, straightened and made his way, grimly, to the speaker’s station, nodding at Fundebinder as the two passed. A look of concerned surprise spread over Fundebinder’s face as he took his seat to the right of the podium.
“Malo, Professor Dr. Fundebinder,” Sooth’s gritty baritone was a far less practiced speaking voice. At the formal title (“Malomalomalo, Avaan” was what was expected), and the speaker’s tone, Fundebinder’s expression changed to one of shock, and incipient anger. “I do not have an announcement for you. I have two. The first is, this press conference is my last official act as SETI Search Coordinator, and as a member of GC-SETI staff. My retirement takes effect when we are done, and my legal team has made it clear to me, and to all, that the Imperial Boons due to me on retirement are secure, come what may here so long as no crimes are committed. This allows me to speak, at long last, as a scientist, not as a shill, and to tell you, based on that science, what is, and not what will keep GC-SETI in Boons, or titillate your audiences and keep your journalist sucrooteries paid. And if saying what is be deemed a crime, so be it.”
The hall was silent except for the venomous glare that Fundebinder aimed at Sooth.
“Here, then, is what is.” The untrained voice swelled, and boomed through the hall. “We are alone in the galaxy, and probably in the universe. Our search is, and will remain, fruitless.”
The silence was replaced by a low buzz. Sooth’s voice projected over it.
“We have been puzzled for tenyears about fragmentary electromagnetic impulses that we collected from time to time, that could not be explained by random astrophysical events but were not sufficiently coherent to be assessed as purposeful signals. That puzzlement has featured prominently in our boonmanxship, and has kept a lot of us in sucroot.”
Fundebinder’s glare turned to red-faced fury. If Sooth noticed – Fundebinder was behind him and to his right, after all – he did not let on.
“We have finally collected enough of these fragments to compare them with what our own electromagnetic emissions look like in Hamestar space, and assess what they are and what they mean. We have identified eleven point sources for these emissions, distributed essentially at random throughout the galaxy. Eleven point sources that can be interpreted as purposeful electronic communications.”
“But you said …!” rang out from several places in the hall simultaneously. They were met with an inarticulate, visceral roar from the podium.
“I!!” Silence. Sooth ground out his continuation. “I … will tell the full story. And then you will have context for your questions.
“We have three explanations for the fragmentary nature of these signals. The first: their transmission is chaotic. Different signal strengths, different frequencies. Our own sound similar at the margins of Hamespace. Like ours, they are internal communications, not intended for far-distant earholes.
“The second: the interference of astrophysical phenomena. The signals are weak, easily absorbed or deflected by galactic dust, dark stars, and other material detectable and not.
“The third: the duration from any one point source is short; the Gander Algorithm variable L is vanishingly small. By the time we get enough signal for interpretation, the source vanishes.
“We have spent much time and effort on this third factor, again using our own communications as a model. Our conclusion: in each and every instance, before the community became capable of purposefully transmitting a coherent, and consistently interpretable, set of signals to space, the community had collapsed.
“In one such case – it was, of course, the one that was making the nearest approach to coherence – its star went nova. All the rest succumbed to some planetary catastrophe, either abruptly as in a global war scenario using doomsday weapons, or more gradually due to resource depletion or catastrophic climate change. We have interpreted signals from each of the ten non-nova-related clusters that are consistent with one or more of these outcomes. We conclude that, in each case, the technologies that permitted the producing communities to emit signals also caused those signals to cease. And, once ceased, signals do not resume. No new signals have come from any of the ten non-nova clusters that we have observed. The collapse, once effected, is permanent.
“Our creaturelocks tell us that evolution of lifeforms, whether carbon-based or silicon-based – we don’t yet know of any others – is a process that cannot predict the future. Selection in nature only acts on what benefits the creatures it’s acting on right now. We interpret our observations to mean that this evolutionary principle, as explained by the genius Windar in the face of great controversy two centares ago, applies throughout the galaxy, and is probably literally universal. The communities responsible for our signal sets either lacked the ability to perceive the onset of the calamities that destroyed them – they lacked the ability to predict the future – or they lacked the ability to act on the predictions they made, because such action benefited no individuals right now, whereas inaction benefited most individuals right now.
“Our sailingwizards tell us that our sailingwaters will start to lose breatheair sometime in this tenyear, thanks to the technologies that we use to communicate to each other. They tell us that the process, once started, will be unstoppable, and will kill us all in a centare or so, unless we either abandon these technologies or spend massive boons on additional technologies to correct the problems, with material resources that we may, or may not, have available on the planet. We are doing, and will do, neither, because neither benefits any of us right now. And so we go on, feigning that we have the time, and the boons, to send beepings to the interstellar dust, and listen for the beepings that others that we pretend are out there send to us.
“We conclude that we are alone in the galaxy. There is no intelligence to be found. And neither do we qualify. We are next in line for obliteration.”
“Tufortunoha to you all.”
Sooth, spent, stumbled out from behind the lecturn and shambled stage right. His departure was accompanied by stony silence. At a nod from Fundebinder, two uniformed telemanx appeared in the wings, escorting Sooth off the stage, out of the building, and off the GC-SETI campus.