Bip … bip … bip
“Okay Jim, we’ve got something … we can just make it out. Getting it confirmed … okay, sending through … now.”
No one would have believed in the first years of the 22nd century, that human affairs were not being watched from the timeless worlds of space. Even so, the speed of events in the few months leading up to this momentous point in history had taken all by surprise. It had started innocuously enough, with a routine inspection of software archives.
Francis ‘Frank’ Drake, a contractor from Chicago, was doing some spring cleaning and code optimisation for the Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts program, or SETA. After 28-hours non-stop raking through lists of variable declarations, Drake stumbled across a snippet containing an “unfathomable token”. Not the precise technical term for what he had found, but it was what he scribbled on his jotter, before collapsing into an exhausted heap.
The following evening, refreshed and zinging from his “eye-opener”, Benzodrene and a litre of java, Drake confirmed his initial doubts: he hadn’t been able to make sense of it, simply because it had no discernible purpose. It was a functionless function, a placeholder, for code as yet unwritten. Except, it had somehow become propagated throughout the interpretive algorithms of SETA’s signal analysis. Consequently, its null value was far from nugatory.
Until then, arguments about finding extraterrestrial life had questioned human ability. Was our technology powerful enough to detect alien radio emissions? Were we looking for the right thing? Had we been searching for long enough? Since Drake’s discovery, it was now clear that, more than anything, humans had not been listening properly.
But that had been then, and this was now. The ‘Fermi screens’ flickered in front of the assembled world leaders. Each craned a little closer, breathless, afraid. Risk and uncertainty had no place in politics, and here they were, faced with the greatest of all unknowns.
“Okay … you should be seeing something … about … now”.
Words slowly took form through the screen fog. They constituted the first communication from another world. The aliens had spoken. It read,

About jfderry

Resource Modeller incl. epidemics. Evolutionary Biologist Author+ Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Placeholder

  1. Katie Yeoman says:

    I love the last line! Actually laughed out loud.
    On another note, heard a documentary recently on SETA, suggesting that it had rather run its course and they were thinking of dismantling it as a failure. Do you know anything about that?

  2. JFDerry says:

    Thank you, I was worried it was too tongue-in-cheek / subtle. Relieved that you got it.

    wrt SETA, sorry I don’t have any news. seems currently discussed in the fora at

  3. I really loved your writing throughout. It worked so well to build your story, as well as set the tone. Love the humor of the message after all that build up to something profound.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Placeholder | OSQUALITUDE --

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