The basic idea for this story came fairly quickly, but it took me a few goes to get the format right. My first effort was from the perspective of the starlings but that was proving a little tricky. So I flipped it around. I hope it entertains (~860 words).
Breathless, she ran up the metal stairs two at a time, clutching the crumpled paper in her hand. “There you are, did you know about this?”
Steve nodded, not turning from the junction box he was knelt at. He had a tablet in one hand a hammer in the other.
“They can’t do this,” she wailed, ripping the paper to shreds.
“Yes they can,” Steve said calmly, “They fund it!”
“But why now,” she pleaded.
“You know why,” he said, rubbing his thumb and index finger together, “Money, it’s always about the money.”
He was hitting something in the cabinet, “Searching for ET ain’t cheap, and it certainly isn’t profitable.”
“But it’s not about balancing the books, it’s bigger than that” she raged.
“Easy to say when it’s not your money.”
Something came loose and with a loud clunk and whirling, the humongous dish started to move. Slowly sliding from its horizontal position staring straight up at the stars.
“But there’s so much left to do,” she said, her voice trailed off.
She watched the paper fragments blow away with the wind and she leant against the railing and took in the undeniably beautiful sunset, catching her breath. The sun was only 93 million miles away, a stone’s throw, they’d reached so much further, practically the other side of the universe. Across an empty universe, a million stars systems and nothing, nothing but static. Tears welled in her eyes, a million in infinity, they’d hardly begun. Somewhere out in that endless expanse, there had to be intelligent life. Not that she would hear them, they were about to make her deaf.
Steve walked up beside her and leant on the railing. “Magnificent isn’t it, it never fails to impress and inspire.”
She nodded. The dish continued its slow slide to the vertical. In the distance, a hundred thousand starlings had taken to the wing for their evening flight.
“You know, I often come up here,” Steve said, watching the starlings undulate as one. “And like you, I’ve always had my eye on that distant glimmer in the heavens.”
The dish reached the vertical with a deafening, reverberating clunk and sat silent.
“I only recently realised we might be looking in the wrong place,” said Steve, tapping on his tablet.
She looked at him quizzically. “How do you mean?”
Steve tapped the tablet with gusto, a switch clicked behind them and the air hummed. “All those years of listening and looking at static, each evening I would come out here, to clear my head.”
He walked back over to the railing and pointed to the sunset. “What do you see?”
She stared at the sunset, at the shimmering dancing starlings, countless like the stars. They moved and flowed like a single organism.
“It should be random, chaos, but it isn’t. There’s a pattern, structure here, more than we ever saw out there!” He pointed to the stars, “Is it not structure we’ve been looking for?”
She shook her head, “Yes, but they’re just birds, it’s just instinct, each one reacting to the next.”
“Is it?” he said. The humming had been slowly increasing in intensity.
As she watched the starlings stepped up their frenetic flapping, splitting into smaller groups they merged and separated. It dawned on her slowly what she was seeing, as the birds morphed from a 1 into 2, flowed into 3, split into 4 and so on acting out the first ten binary digits. She stared back at Steve in surprise, “You’re broadcasting that at them?”
He nodded, “Yes, but watch.”
She was intrigued, the dish was powerful, it wasn’t that much of stretch that the birds might be able to detect its signal and alter their flight.
Momentarily, the digits 1 through 10 repeated again. Followed by 1, 6, 7, 8 and 15 a break into 7, 5, “ nucleotides,” she exclaimed, watching as the starlings contorted into a double helix. She knew this pattern well, it was the Arecibo message broadcast to the star cluster M13 in 1974.
“I don’t understand,” she said, was he mocking her? “What’s the point? So you can control a murmuration!”
He handed her the pad. On it, it had the first part of the sequence, one through ten. She swiped up, nothing! Swiped down, nothing, left and right nothing. “What the,”
Steve smiled, “That’s it! We only broadcast 1 to 10.”
“What?” her head was swimming, he wasn’t making any sense.
“The rest is their response!”
Her legs gave out as she watched the starlings form a crude representation of the Arecibo radio telescope, the last part of the original message, sent all those years ago.
“Now this is where it really gets interesting,” Steve said, enthusiastically.
She stared on, as the starlings launched into a new set of complex patterns, clearly binary but not like anything she’d seen before. They were using the building blocks of the Arecibo message, but extending them in ways she couldn’t begin to fathom.
“What’s that?” she said, her voice wavering.
“I think it’s their way of saying, hi!” he said, reaching a hand out to help her up, “It looks like we’ve got our work cut out.”