They were going to fail.
The computers, row upon row of them, neatly settled in their niches, flickered their calculations here in the University of Toronto's linguistics labs and in labs just like it all around the world, billions of processors committed in parallel networks to the unraveling of one riddle. All those powerful tools turned upon this single purpose, working upon it at their near lightspeed rates of calculation, and they were going to fail in this latest attempt, just as they had failed time after time in the last six years despite employing every translation and decryption program ever written.
Gisette D'Antibe watched the Professors and her fellow grad students staring with hope and dread at their screens, the human thoughts as readable upon their faces as the numbers were upon the panels. Please work this time, they were thinking. Please, they prayed to the screens as people had secretly prayed to the binary oracles since the first computer had shown forth an answer with no human mind doing the work. Human hope and fear displayed themselves before inscrutable screens on all but one face.
Professor Constance Marchant, Gisette's Professor, was the sole exception. On her spare but youthful face was an expression that could not be named or catalogued in the lexicon of human masks. The tilt of her eyes, the strain of a curious group of facial muscles and the gentle motion of Marchant's head spoke volumes, but in what language and to whom, Gisette could not say.
In an odd three-fingered grip Professor Marchant clasped a stylus. As she watched defeat scroll up her main screen she used the electronic pen to flick little markings on the faintly glimmering pad in her lap. To each notation the slim computer beeped its objection: "Unrecognizable characters: Delete, Define, or Save as Picture?"
"Professor?" Gisette said. "Would this help?"
She offered an antique fountain pen and a hand-bound pad of paper to Marchant.
"Thank you, Gisette," Marchant said. The words sounded distant and tinny. The linguist's attention remained riveted in the same strange way on one small section of the large screen. Her eyes did not move while her hands abandoned the small computer for the anachronisms she needed.
Gisette looked over her Professor's shoulder to see what held her fascinated. It was the most basic failure of the entire process. In a small window shunted to the side the computer displayed its continual inability to render the alien signal they struggled to decipher into any coherent digital or analog form. Whatever means of communication the aliens had used to encode and send their message twenty-three light years defied all the categories and conceptions of human language and mathematics.
The creators of this alien-deciphering software had been so sure that whatever might be different about other intelligences, whatever oddities of culture and art might have been spawned on distant stars, they would share a mathematics with humans. Surely, they had thought, at root there could be only one way to count and measure the universe, and that any species that had developed itself enough to communicate across the stars would have devised that way, just as humans had when they sent forth their own signals.
So they had prepared. They had made their decryption keys. They had created their search programs to find all known forms of vital universal constants. They had created their solutions and waited for the problem to arrive.
When that great day came six years ago, they had struck their keyboards with satisfaction, letting their programs loose with a confident flourish. But the alienness of the aliens had defeated them, had crushed that confidence into desperate hope and prayer and a helpless trial and error which had soured the hearts of linguists worldwide.
Gisette D'Antibe knew with an awareness beyond logic or faith that though every other human would fail to unlock this mystery, Constance Marchant would succeed. Gisette had picked the Professor out of the thousands who had posted to the Web their ideas on cracking the alien's transmission. Professor Marchant had been vague in her page, had failed over and over to find words or metaphors to describe the means she intended to employ. Where the other linguists desperately echoed the boasts of the failing Information Age, Marchant had hemmed and hawed around what to Gisette D'Antibe were clear signs of incommunicable comprehension. Gisette had volunteered at once to assist, one of only two students who had lined up to help Professor Marchant.
Gisette had a serene, logically unjustifiable confidence in Marchant. She knew, because of the way Constance held her pen, the way a bit of Scottish "rrr" showed up in her Québécois French, and the way she looked at people when no one else was looking at her, that Marchant and Marchant alone would come to understand what the aliens were saying to the human race.
But it would take the Professor much time to come to this understanding. Gisette feared -- and this fear had a thousand logical reasons -- that the moment of success would not be soon enough. The crowds at university and governmental gates across the world chanted their false hopes for alien intervention. "A ship is coming!" they chorused in their mobs.
They had leapt to that conclusion, jumped to it because it was what was expected of aliens. It was an expectation drawn solely from fiction, since no one had met or, before this, heard from an alien. The idea of aliens had been deeply planted in their minds by stories and prophecies, by the freedom art has when it need not depict reality. A ship is coming. That was certain in art. Reality would take much more care to unravel.
Yet in the Information Age expectation overcame patience like an Ace over a Deuce. The people of Earth had been promised knowledge all their lives. Anything could be known with a few taps on a touch-sensitive screen; that was the boast of the age. Any question could be answered. The world was connected at the speed of light and all understanding was available to all people.
But now another world had joined in the conversation, and that selfsame speed of light which trumped all other speeds was itself trumped by the unbreakable distance between the stars, a distance measured in crawl-slow light-years.
Light-year was a fancy phrase, a bit of advertising for great distances. But now it was hard reality. It takes light one year to go one light-year, and nothing can beat that rate. Communication between the stars takes years, and you can't do any better than that.
Humans no longer measured anything except their lifespans in years. All endeavors, all works to be done were a matter of days, hours, minutes, seconds, and the prefixes of seconds: milli, micro, and pico.
To ask the aliens what they meant by their dense unrepeating message would take a minimum of fifty-four years to elicit and receive a response. No one had that kind of patience anymore. The world demanded an answer of the linguists and the mathematicians, of the cryptographers and the psychologists, and of their world leaders. The people wanted the solution to this inhuman riddle and they wanted that answer not in years, days, hours, seconds, millis, micros, or picos. They wanted it, as the Information Age had taught them to want, now!
But they wouldn't get what they wanted.
In how many pieces would they break the world in the temper tantrum they would throw when they found out how fully their lust to know was thwarted? Gisette had no answer to that question. But this she did know, that when the world had fallen apart in that pique, she would be the one to find the people who could put it together again.