Sentient Beings

by Andy Oram

Andy Oram's tale of two zealous space explorers in search of intelligent life is dedicated to author Brian McConnell and his editor Chuck Toporek in honor of the release of their book Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations.

Paul [pointing a telescope outside the spaceship]: There it is! What a beautiful planet.

Gretchen: Where are we most likely to find sentient beings?

Paul: Your guess is as good as mine. The place is teeming with water and variegated landscapes.

Gretchen: We must go where we can find intelligence! This is the only planet within 3,000 light years of Earth that has the right conditions for life. I have staked my whole career, starting with my first undergraduate papers 25 years ago, on finding creatures like us on another planet.

Paul: I'll consider the 15 years we have spent on this ship well worthwhile if we succeed in your quest. After the intriguing radio signals we detected from this part of the sky, I feel a strong confidence that we'll find other beings like ourselves here.

Gretchen: And I appreciate your coming with me, Paul, especially when few others believed in my hypothesis. Without your knowledge of instruments, I could never have made it this far.

Paul: Well, the planet seems ideal for supporting life. Let's land near the equator on the coast of the largest continent.

[Ship descends gradually. Trembling with excitement, the two earthlings check the oxygen content of the air and then gingerly creep out into a lush landscape. Sunlight shimmers through a light green sky upon a rolling field of moss-like plants next to the swaying branches of a forest.]

Gretchen [whispering]: I see no signs of construction or conscious intervention in the environment.

Paul [excited]: Look over there under those branches! Creatures are milling around.

Gretchen: Get a photo!

Paul [rapidly setting up a camera and gazing through the viewfinder]: Amazing....

Gretchen: What do you see?

Paul: Nothing! I can anticipate that these creatures won't show up on any device that records light or sound. They must have evolved to the point where they exist just as some kind of vortices of concentrated energy. And therefore they have no need for food, reproduction, or any other physical pressures.

Gretchen: Then they must have reached the highest stage of civilized existence. What it must be like to spend one's life free from any worry of privation or pain!

In Anticryptography: The Next Frontier in Computer Science Brian McConnell takes a look at anticryptography and its applications for SETI research and for software development here on terra firma.

[The two earthlings step toward the crowd of aliens. Paul switches on an automatic thought-translation device.]

Gretchen [addressing the creature nearest her, which is pumping juice from fruit into a long hollow stalk]: Dear, dear friends whom we now join across the empty spaces of time....

[The creature turns and sprays an ugly, orange juice all over her, then turns away.]

Gretchen [to Paul]: Help! Help! Was that a defensive attack? What did I get sprayed with?

[Paul runs a sensor over her upper body, checking the chemical composition of the juice.]

Paul: Doesn't seem poisonous...just fruit juice...maybe that's some welcoming ritual. [But the creature has apparently forgotten them and has moved away. Paul addresses another creature, which seems to be randomly stamping on pods lying around on the ground to make them pop.] Friend, we come from another planet. How can we enter your community?

The creature: Whomp! [Jumps with both feet on a pod.]

Gretchen: Did that creature say "Whomp"? What does that translate to?

Paul [the truth dawning on him]: These creatures all seem to be engaged in some form of play....

Gretchen: Then we must join them! These are the sentient beings I have spent my lifetime searching for! [To the jumping creature!] Oh friend, let me join you in your sport.

Creature: Plenty of pods around, mate.

Gretchen [thrilled at being answered]: What is the purpose of your game? [The creature loses interest as fast as the other one did, and wanders off.]

Paul: We aren't connecting, somehow.

[Several creatures grab fallen branches and start to bat at each other playfully.]

Gretchen [running into the middle of the field creatures and shouting desperately]: Listen! Listen! I and my colleague have come 15 light years across space to establish bonds with another race! Let us interact with you!

[One creature runs by carrying a bunch of tiny amphibious animals by the tail.]

Creature: We're about to go down to the ocean and see who can squish one of these things fastest with his nose.

Gretchen: Echh, no, please...

Another creature: I want to belly flop off the rocks! [They all start to tramp off.]

Gretchen: Wait! We have things to talk about-- [But now the creatures have all left. Gretchen and Paul stare at each other.]

Paul: Who could have thought, after traveling across the galaxy for 15 years, that the only other sentient beings in the universe would turn out to be real assholes?

Gretchen [totally broken]: I have nothing to bring back home to flaunt in triumph before those who mocked me. We can't get photos or other records. These idiots here don't create any artifacts worth showing. And I'm sure I could never get one of them to return with us in the ship.

Paul: So are we just going to go back?

Gretchen [tears welling up]: I can't go back! No one would believe me; I'd have no thing to show for 30 years of space travel.... I hate those stupid aliens! I hate them! [Gazes up at Paul, who looks across the field toward the ocean.]

Paul: What the hell....

Gretchen: Do earthlings really have anything much better to offer?

Paul: If there's nothing else to do anyway....

[Gretchen and Paul run off to frolic with the belly floppers at the beach.]

O'Reilly & Associates will soon release (March 2001) Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations.