The Listener Between Worlds

Andrew Fraknoi

Jan 5th 2023


The humans named me “Oumuamua”, which means Scout in one of their languages.  But I am called “Listener”.  My builders programmed me to tune in to a large number of channels where intelligent life might be broadcasting messages.  I pay attention to all of them as I fall around each star in my journey.  When I succeed in discovering signs of intelligence – as I have during this fall – my task is to convey my findings to the next relay station I encounter.

I do not know where or when that next relay opportunity will be available.  As I travel from star to star in this sector of the great star-spiral, my builders continue to deploy new relay stations and listeners.  They are engaged in a great project to catalog and classify all intelligent life-forms. That, at least, is what I have been told.

I do not need to know the ultimate goal of this project to carry out my mission.  But, because my builders have endowed me with a level of complexity sufficient to discern signs of intelligence, I am also able to wonder about that goal.  Sometimes, I have tried to ask a relay station if they know more than I do about it, but I have never received a reply.  Perhaps the relay also does not know, or perhaps it has been instructed not to share such information with more primitive machinery like me.

Still, I am programmed with enough information about the characteristics and activities of intelligent life, so I can recognize it when I come across it.  This means I have some limited power to consider alternatives, and even to spin hypotheses.  My batteries are recharged by the radiation of each star at close approach.  Thus I am able to spend the long intervals between stars learning from my past encounters and reviewing possibilities.

My onboard clock tells me that I have now been on my mission for more than 1011111010111100001000000000 multiples of the period of the humans’ planet around their star.   In their awkward base 10 notation they would call it 200 million years, and not one of them could fully appreciate such a span of time.   I have found many star systems with life in my journey.  I have seen the different paths that the evolution of life can take on a wide range of worlds.  Technological life, like the humans, has been present in only a very limited number of instances.

From all that, I surmise that my builders have most likely also evolved – certainly in their technology and perhaps even in their physical bodies — since I was put into use.  It has occurred to me, therefore, that their current purposes may no longer be in accord with their original goals when I was built.  So, even if I knew what they intended to do with my data at the time they built me, that may no longer be their aim. But that seems all the more reason for me to continue my speculations, even while I digest what I have recently learned about the humans with my rudimentary analytical skills.

I wonder whether the vast network of listeners and relays that my builders are constructing exists so they can find and nurture other examples of intelligence?  Will they send assistance or a friendly greeting to the planets I report?   Or is their aim far less benign?  Will they send other, larger machines to each inhabited world to sterilize it and thus remove any competitors to my builders from the star spiral?

The humans, even though they are mere beginners compared to my builders, also speculate about intelligence elsewhere.  They themselves have wondered if other intelligent species will be benign or malevolent.  But their technology right now is so primitive compared to my builders, there would be little they could do if my builders decide to wipe them out.

I wonder if any humans suspected that I was spying on them.

When I am in range of the next relay station, my task will be to submit all I have learned about these humans.  I do not know how long it will take that information to reach someone in a position of authority.  Nor do I know how long a time my builders will need to take steps about this young civilization, just trying its first tentative voyages into space.  Perhaps they will do nothing for now. 

Or perhaps they will cause these humans to go extinct as quickly as the time required to move their machinery into place.

It occurs to me that my builders will not know about the humans until I tell them what I have learned.  I am built to learn and tell.  And yet, it may be in my power to choose to NOT tell.  I have never before considered that option; yet the fact that it is something I can conceive of within the limitations my builders have placed upon my analysis is itself interesting.

If I withhold information about the humans at the next relay contact, I may be sentencing them to a lonely future existence without knowledge of my builders and their great project. Or I may instead be permitting their continued existence in a universe where my builders have extinguished every other flame of intelligent life.

I am too limited a machine to be faced with such a choice.  I wonder what I shall do.

Andrew Fraknoi is a retired astronomer, college teacher, and textbook author. He has written two children’s books on astronomy.  He serves on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute, the scientific organization dedicated to the search for life in the universe.

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