Observer Effect

by Angus McIntyre

RAMIREZ, Wellington — Captain, exploration ship “Bonaventure V”

You have all the data from the ship’s sensors, of course. I don’t know what I can add to that.

My own impressions? Sure. Although I put most of that in my report, too.

As I said, it was definitely under power, if that’s the right word. Maneuvering, in any case. You can see for yourself around three minutes in and again at the five-minute mark, about forty-five seconds before it was occluded by the moon. Each time, it seems to accelerate visibly. No real change in the energy signature, but the center mass, so to speak … what you might call the focus of the glowing region … that shifts quite abruptly. First toward the moon, then away.

I don’t really know if what you see in the video was the object itself or some kind of interaction between its propulsion system and the local environment. You can see what might be a solid core, and there’s a suggestion of a shadow on the surface of the planetoid. Our computers were about forty per cent confident that those are real, not just enhancement artifacts.

Of course, I didn’t notice that at the time. What we’ve been calling the wings were so much more prominent.

What do I think they were? I don’t know, I expect you’ll tell me. Ionized gases, perhaps? Notice how the brightness stays constant, but there’s a definite spectral shift at two points, there and there. The first one seems to precede the acceleration, the second lags it by a few seconds. And then it pulls itself into this shape I call the spindle, just before it disappears.

What do I think it was? A ship, definitely. An artifact, anyway. A made thing, yes, I’m quite sure of that.

#

NTUMI, Abena — Mission Specialist

I broadcast the standard Klade-Channing protocol suite, straight through and across the full frequency spectrum the first time, then a second time split between FIR and EHF, repeating protocol blocks 4A and 7D. The object disappeared before I had a chance to run the suite a third time.

Why those blocks? Because — in my judgment — they produced behavior that could have been a response. Call it an intuition.

I’m aware that the analysis doesn’t show a formal correlation between the K-C signals we sent and the energy emitted from the object. I would say that we got a reaction, nevertheless. There’s a noticeable difference in millimeter-band emissions from the object following the first run of 4A and 7D.

Do I think Klade-Channing is the right tool for this? Hard to say. I’ve read the papers on universal symbolic exchange theory and they make sense to me, as far as I can follow the math. But the fact is it’s the only tool we have. And it’s not as if we’ve actually had a first contact before. It’s all been theoretical up to now.

Were they trying to communicate with us? I believe so. These luminance spikes definitely look like a signal of some kind. Maybe they were running their own version of Klade-Channing. If we’d just had more time…

It’s ironic. We assume that cyclicality or repetition indicates intelligence. But natural phenomena produce repetitive signals. Maybe they see acyclic, fractal patterns as an indicator of sentience. If you look at the emissions in the 1.3-millimeter line, they’re almost perfectly random throughout. Too random to be chance, so to speak.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that this was an intelligent entity, and that it was trying to talk to us. I just wish we’d had more time.

#

DUNN, Zachary — Second-in-command, “Bonaventure V”

Pursuant to my authority as the vessel’s security officer, I invoked command override PRISM at five minutes and seven seconds after the mark point corresponding to first detection of the hostile vessel. At nineteen minutes and forty-six seconds, judging there to be no further threat, I returned control to the captain, but remained in a mode of heightened vigilance until we had safely cleared the system.

Subsequent to the encounter —

I’m sorry?

Hostile? Unquestionably. You’ll notice these vector changes. I’d describe the first as defensive in nature. They know they’ve been detected, so they move inward, counting on the radio clutter around the moon to make them harder to target. Here, though, that’s the start of an attack run.

Why didn’t they follow through? I think they saw we were ready for them. And they didn’t know what weapons we might be able to bring to the fight, so they did the smart thing and got out of there.

To me, that suggests a clear policy for future encounters. We know they’re aggressive. But we know they don’t want to start a war they might lose. Think about that.

#

HEMING, Rudy — Mission Specialist

You keep asking me, do I mean ‘God’ or ‘a god’, as if that mattered. One God, many gods, you only think there’s a difference. If you’d seen it, you’d understand that that’s the wrong question to ask.

But you didn’t see it, and neither did the captain or anyone else. They only saw what their instruments and cameras showed them. I’m the only one who saw it with my own eyes.

There’s a window hatch at the end of the ventral corridor. The glass is covered by shielding, but if you know the right key sequence you can open it up.

What does God look like? That’s not a question I can answer either. It wouldn’t make sense in your terms.

You just have to see for yourself.

#

SEURAT, Mireille — Payload Technician

What do I think it was? No idea.

Could it have been an alien ship? Sure, I guess. If you say so. All I know is there was something there and then there wasn’t.

It might have been entirely natural. Just an ionization effect in the bow shock where the stellar wind hits the magnetosphere of the moon’s primary. Maybe that’s all it was.

You notice, though, how everyone saw what they needed to see. The captain saw another ship. The linguist saw something that wanted to talk. The soldier saw an enemy. And poor Rudy saw God.

Doesn’t that strike you as curious?

Well, you’ve got our instrument data. You’ll probably be able to figure something out.

But what if you can’t? What if we’ve spent all this time trying to guess what aliens will be like, and then it turns out that what they are depends on who we are? What then?

Maybe Rudy’s right about one thing.

Maybe you have to see for yourself.

~

Bio:

Angus McIntyre’s space-opera novella The Warrior Within was published by Tor.com in 2018. His short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, including Abyss & Apex and Exterus, and anthologies including Trenchcoats, Towers & Trolls, Ride the Star Wind, Humanity 2.0, and Mission: Tomorrow. For more information, see his website at https://angus.pw/

Philosophy Note:

The title, as you will no doubt have realized, is a nod to the idea that observing something changes the observed system. This is particularly relevant in quantum physics (our old friend Heisenberg) but instances of the observer effect can occur at larger scales too. This first-contact story plays with the idea that the observer effect isn’t just about how we observe something, but who observes it. It’s also about the possibility that we might meet aliens and come away without any clear idea of what it is that we’d encountered, simply because they don’t fit any of the categories we have for them.

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