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Editorial: Out of the Dark Blue  

Mercury, March/April 1999 Table of Contents

Last week I was stranded on a country road. In the middle of nowhere special to anyone really, except the people owning the surrounding farms and the cows and the Tennessee Walking horses grazing nearby. My car was dead, a dark, jagged hulk alien to the surrounding smoothness of a late winter afternoon. Out of the corner of my eye I detected movement, a flash of red...and let me tell you that anything sudden like that in near darkness on a country road can make you start. But there it was: round and red and followed by twin tendrils of light blueness. It moved at a casual, nonchalant, liquid pace, floating eye-level above the ground. Out of the dark blue it had come. An alien surprising me, the local alien. Von Däniken's ancient astronauts had leapt into the future to explain to me the Nazca lines and the movement of megalithic stones.

Ahh, it was only a balloon. A red balloon with two long pieces of blue ribbon attached to its knot. It came from behind me, following the road north. Yes, following the northbound lane at a speed of about 10 km/hr. As the few autos heading north passed me, the balloon would lift, seemingly as if to let them pass under it. And it kept heading north.

Considering my visitor I began to think of things out of place, askew from what we might think or imagine. When we search the heavens for signals from Galactic siblings-literally put our ear to the cold wall of space above-we listen for something we can understand to be a signal. A pleasant tune from not-of-this-world beings wafted on zizzing, mated electric and magnetic fields through the interstellar murk, or a lance of laser energy slung at us and carrying the yell, "WE'RE HERE BUT WE'RE COMING THERE..." Yet there are complications to this passive interaction with something(s) that may not realize that Milton Berle in a dress is funny or that may not even have a clue to our fascination with prime numbers-"Oh, I'm 37 this year, and that's a prime number!"

We should probably disavow ourselves of the notion that anyone out there is a biped with silvery hair and an embedded universal translator making English, Spanish, and Chinese sound like &*(#-grr. And this is where, to me, the nauseating thrill of SETI lies: attempting to fathom the deep of language among creatures with possibly different desires and motivations and with probably different physiologies. How does one communicate with something one does not know? And in light of our SETI efforts, how does one realize when something is knockin' at the front door? How?

I don't remember the details because it was long ago, but two cartoons I saw as a child affected me. One was of a small, round-faced, rumpled-skin alien caressing an orange. "You don't say much, do you?" asked the visitor. And in the other, one that I've a copy of, a hapless ET crawls through the desert, its spaceship ("yep, it looked like a cee-gar and had 'UFO' painted on the side") crashed behind it and a saguaro planted prickly beside. As it pulls itself along, it moans, "Ammonia...Ammonia..." This is funny, even touching in cartoons of personified alien creatures, but the real thing is far more serious.

My balloon visitor continued north, drawn on by a breeze, and I finally lost it in the dusky twilight. It stood out from the surroundings. It wasn't supposed to be there, yet that is what made its presence so pronounced. Will signals from other intelligences in the Galaxy be so obvious-like a bright red balloon floating amid a sea of winter-pasture brown and Angus hide? I think not: Other intelligences wishing to be heard may not deliberately hide their signals from us. They just may be so very different, so Other, that we are stressed to discover and decode their greetings (or warnings).

James C. White II


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