Author: Philip Berry
Reciprocation minus 90 minutes: Rebecca Fenton tapped in the melt codes, but the circle of light that had appeared briefly on her curved monitor persisted as a dense shadow in her visual field. It was geometrically perfect, except for a notch in the 2 o’clock position. The door opened behind her.
“Early finish?” said her supervisor, Arthur Kopf. He glanced over her shoulder at the workstation as it powered down.
“A lecture, at the Ethnographic Institute.”
“You and your history!”
Rebecca laughed half-heartedly and gathered up her small rucksack. Arthur knew what it contained. Before he came to trust her fully, he had unfastened the top and peered inside. Just old books, besides the usual clutter and feminine mysteries.
“We’ll meet tomorrow, go over the week’s findings,” stated Arthur, in professional mode. “There have been some shifts in the quaternary echo-line.” Rebecca slipped past him into the corridor.
Reciprocation minus 45 minutes: Rebecca waited in the Institute’s lobby until the wave of applause subsided and the audience began to leave. Then she wove her way against the flow towards the stage. Rebecca’s presence alarmed the speaker, Professor Sheila Innis, who pointed to an area backstage where they could speak privately.
“It came through,” said Rebecca.
“When does the response go out?”
“Forty-five minutes from now. Enough time to give the impression there has been a discussion, and a consensus. I disabled the mainframe, it can’t be reversed.”
“As we agreed. Well done Rebecca.”
Reciprocation minus 85 minutes: Arthur Kopf’s palm rested on the monitor. He had noticed a fading shape in the layer of liquid crystal; a circle. And with the eye of faith, a notch in the predicted position. The universal greeting. A life’s work. But when he tried to power up the system there was no response. His head dropped.
Reciprocation plus 28 years: Arthur Kopf, 81 years old, hung back after a session that Rebecca Fenton, chair of the Global Committee on Elemental Resourcing, had facilitated with customary panache. Looking out over the audience as it dispersed, Rebecca recognized her aged, ex-supervisor. He walked up to the platform and faced her.
“None of this was necessary, you know,” he said, without introduction. “They would have shared their resources.”
“No Arthur, they would have taken them.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“It is universal nature. Loyalty to one’s own.”
“So parochial Rebecca, your philosophy. All your kind, all the Innis-cult.” A pause. Then, quietly, under a brow that displayed the hurt of treachery that could not be forgotten, he asked, “Was it you, Rebecca? Were you the first to see the signal?”
Rebecca, severe behind the thick-rimmed, assertive spectacles that she had acquired in public office, replied, “Would it make you feel more complete Arthur, if I said yes? For you to know the signal was detected by your lab first?”
“I saw it, Rebecca. The circle hadn’t faded. But of course, you had already entered the melt code.”
Rebecca could not look him in the eye.
“Fortunately, for Earth, I was able to halt the melt code. I wrote it, after all.”
“How long until…”
“Forty-seven years. You’ll see it; I won’t.”
Reciprocation minus 7 minutes: The mainframe was back online. The monitor glowed. The notched circle burned brightly in the dark of the laboratory. Arthur adjusted the angle of the notch and bounced the signal back: ‘We will welcome you. But wait. Seventy-five Earth years. When we are scraping the mines and asteroids for precious minerals, and the naysayers have been proven wrong, then come to us. We will welcome you.’