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).
Tanya ran up the metal stairs two at a time clutching the crumpled paper in her hand. Reaching the top platform she took a moment to catch her breath. “There you are. Did you know about this?”
Steve nodded, not turning from the junction box he was knelt at. He held 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,” said Steve, 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 hit 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.”
With another swing of the hammer, something came loose, and with a loud clunk and whirling the humongous dish started to move, slowly sliding from its horizontal position staring up at the stars.
“But there’s so much left to do,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Tanya watched the paper fragments blow away in the wind, leaned against the railing, and took in the undeniably beautiful sunset. The sun was only ninety-three million miles away, a stone’s throw, they’d reached so much further, practically the other side of the cosmos. 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 joined her leaning on the railing. “Magnificent isn’t it. It never fails to impress and inspire.”
She nodded as the dish continued its slow slide to the vertical. In the distance, a hundred thousand starlings took to the wing for their evening flight.
“You know, I often come up here,” Steve said, watching the starlings undulate as one. “I too always had my eye on that distant glimmer in the heavens.”
The dish reached the vertical with a reverberating clunk and sat silent.
“Recently however I’ve started to suspect we might be looking in the wrong place,” said Steve, tapping on his tablet.
Tanya looked at him quizzically. “How do you mean?”
Steve’s fingers danced across the tablet and a switch clicked behind them. The air hummed. “After all those years of listening and looking at static, each evening I would come out here to clear my head.” He pointed to the horizon. “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 nodded to the darkening heavens. “Is it not structure we’ve been looking for?”
She shook her head, “They’re just birds. It’s instinct, each one reacting to the next.”
“Is it?” he said. The humming increased in intensity as she watched the starlings step up their frenetic flapping, splitting into smaller groups they merged and separated. It dawned on her slowly what she was seeing. The birds morphed from a one into two, flowing into three, splitting into four, and so on acting out the first ten binary digits. She turned back to stare at Steve, “You’re broadcasting that at them?”
He nodded, “Yes. Keep watching.”
Tanya was intrigued. The dish was powerful, it wasn’t that much of a stretch that the birds could detect its signal and alter their flight. Momentarily, the digits one through ten repeated, followed by one, six, seven, eight, and fifteen before breaking into seven and five. “Nucleotides,” she exclaimed, watching as the starlings contorted into a complex 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, certain that he was mocking her. “What’s the point? So you can control a murmuration.”
He handed her the pad. On the display, the first part of the sequence, one through ten. She swiped up, nothing. Swiped down, nothing, left and right nothing. “What the!?”
“That’s it! We only broadcast one through ten.”
“What?” she cried. Her head spun. It didn’t make any sense.
Steve smiled. “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 gets really interesting,” Steve said, taking the tablet from her trembling hand.
Tanya watched 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 is it?”
“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.”