5 of 5 | Chapter 15

 

Karen moved forward. “You have all heard the conditions. You can either take the opportunity or not, it is up to you. You have 24 hours to decide. We will accept your answers until this time tomorrow. Feel free to use your biocoms. Sleep on it and choose well,” Karen concluded the presentation.

Without further discussion, the ASEC representatives left the candidates and made their way towards the elevators with the robots following them closely behind.

“That last part was a bit harsh,” Karen whispered to Steersman.

“They've had the first push. They now have to stand up and face the challenge,” he answered.

 

Another possibility

Ruy Santos Martins raced through the transportation corridors of ASEC towards the hall where the elevator that lead to Steersman's office was situated. Of course, it would have been far simpler if he had used the internal transport vehicle system, but he felt that running would allow him to avoid traffic regulations.

Jumping through the elevator doors as they opened, he renewed his efforts, running across the foyer and across the hallway and past Karen's office.

“We got an answer,” gasped the astrophysicist breathlessly, as he entered Steersman's office.

Steersman looked up from behind his desk visibly preoccupied with something, and after a short pause—in which he recognized the unexpected visitor—realized the importance of the exclamation. He immediately jumped up from his seat.

“What did you say?”

“We have picked up a response from the aliens, and we are still receiving it as we speak,” Martins explained further, still laboring for breath.

“Have you decoded it?” Steersman snapped.

“Not yet. It's very complicated,” replied Martins, puffing.

“Then how do you know it is an answer to our message?”

“Because it's completely different from the previous transmissions. All signals suddenly changed, and the signal became focused, without ambient noise,” said Martins.

“Okay, that's an obvious difference,” said Steersman thoughtfully. “When do you expect to have the message decoded and translated?”

“Well, therein lies the biggest problem. The transmission far more complicated than the previous ones, and our algorithm can't cope with it. It needs further development, but as it is, it's not up to the job,” said Martins.

Steersman pondered the options.

“How about seconding some of the up and coming scholars from PrEUST?” Steersman asked quickly.

“I know that there's a cryptology department at the university, but this job requires a great deal of experience in decoding.”

“Look, we've got nothing to lose. Let's give it a go! Put a list of tasks together, a test if you like. You can use it to find out how much potential is lurking in the cryptology department,” Steersman suggested.

“That's not a problem.” Martins face lit up. “I'll make a five part test with embedded levels of difficulty. If someone makes it through all five then they may have a chance.”

*

The icy cold morning was unforgiving. Almost all those outside held hot beverages in heat-retaining mugs or thermoses against the harsh winter weather. The ancient trees that rose above the university park lived together with the seasons, as if they had been standing there for hundreds of years. Their crowns had shed their leaves and while most had been vacuumed up by the park caretakers, the remaining drifts left a magical riot of color.

Archer Pineda arrived sooner than the others, although this went against the usual trend. He felt strange. He saw some friends that he usually liked hanging out with, but he didn't feel like it right now.

“Hey, what's up?” asked Jeff when he ran into him. “What are you doing here alone?”

“Waiting for you, dude. Pat's late too. What have you guys been up to?”

“There was bit of a family gathering at home,” said Jeff.

“Problem?”

“Nope. We just talked about the ASEC offer. I told them the whole thing last night, and then we agreed that we'd decide in the morning.”

“And what was the decision?” asked Arch with an anxious expression on his face.

“Positive,” Jeff grinned.

“You look pretty enthusiastic,” noted Arch. “If I recall, you were recently pretty aggressively anti about even the sound of the name.”

“That was Pat,” Jeff protested.

“What was I?” asked Patricia, having just arrived.

“Finally! Did you have a family gathering at your house as well?”

“What?” Pat looked confused.

“Doesn't matter. Listen, Jeff has accepted the ASEC offer,” announced Arch.

“And so moves on to world wide glory and fame,” she mocked.

“Right,” agreed Arch.

“Oh, stop it you two! The thing is, when I'm there, I can easily keep an eye on the big man,” Jeff explained.

“Of course, Jeff,” said Pat sarcastically. “Hey, did you two receive another message from the ASEC this morning?”

“I didn't … again,” said Arch, sadly.

“Me neither,” added Jeff. “Why, did you get one? What is it?” he asked

“It seems to be some kind of survey. An algorithm-based test, I reckon.”

“Well then, it's not surprising we didn't get it. You're the math genius,” said Jeff with Arch nodding in agreement.

“Read it!” said Pat, quickly shoving her inboard towards them.

Jeff took it. “It's not that long: ‘We are looking for applicant to a new ASEC scientific program. You may apply and demonstrate your suitability by completing the attached test and returning it within 48 hours. Each of the five exercises are built on the previous. Submit your results for each step. Good luck!’.”

“That's it?” asked Arch. “It's pretty short. And what are the tasks?”

“It consists of five-levels, five sequential tasks for each of which has a solution key. At the end, the five keys should give a final message. I did the first one and sent it off while I was on my way here. I have no idea what they are expecting,” she said lightly.

“It sounds like it's definitely for you,” said Jeff.

“I don't understand why others don't get a chance,” whined Arch in a mocking imitation of Pat.

Jeff laughed and Pat punched him in the arm.

“Apparently everyone's gonna get an ASEC badge,” he said.

“We'll see what happens,” said Pat.

“I wonder if I'll be given an opportunity like this?” Archer mused.

“If they don't need you, my friend, with such technical prowess,” said Jeff, slamming him on the shoulder, “then I … I will eat my pants!”

“Yes, Commander,” said dejectedly, slumping down onto a park bench.

 

***

 

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CHAPTER 1 | EXCOLOPOLIS
CHAPTER 2 | MACHINES
CHAPTER 3 | A NEW TECHNOLOGY
CHAPTER 4 | ATTACK
CHAPTER 5 | THE SOURCE
CHAPTER 6 | THE SCIENCE CENTER
CHAPTER 7 | UNIVERSITY CITY
CHAPTER 8 | GLIDECRAFT
CHAPTER 9 | SECTOR TWO
CHAPTER 10 | THEY KNOW WE ARE HERE
CHAPTER 11 | GRAVITOR
CHAPTER 12 | INSTALLATION
CHAPTER 13 | ENERGY WAR
CHAPTER 14 | AFTERSHOCKS
CHAPTER 16 | PREPARATION
CHAPTER 17 | DEFENSE CORPS
CHAPTER 18 | TRUTH
CHAPTER 19 | BEYOND EARTH