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Pattern Recognition

Izzy Wasserstein's short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Fireside, and many other magazines and anthologies. She shares her life with the writer Nora E. Derrington and their furry companions. She is queer, trans, and has been obsessed with SETI for decades. She's an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017.
Darren showed up at 7:35. I'd been at my terminal for an hour by then. He had a bruise on his cheek--a new one--and bags under his eyes. I pretended not to notice.
"One of these days I'll get here before you, Felicia," he said. Not likely. I liked to be out the door before Morgan woke and back after they fell asleep.
"Do you see this?" I asked. For five minutes I'd been staring at the data, unsure I could trust myself. He frowned at the screen.
"Primes," he said after a few moments. "Definitely a pattern of primes." His voice was tinged with excitement, one of only a few times I'd heard that in years of working together.
As the years have gone on, the importance of human operators for SETI has diminished greatly, both due to the increasingly powerful computers that do all the real work, the lack of contact. But technicians were still needed, and we still found ourselves watching the data.
When the servers spit this pattern out, I didn't know what to think. The fact that we'd not seen it before didn't prove anything, nor did the primes, necessarily. They were emerging from the data at roughly seven second intervals. 181 was the next, the computers translating from binary, both of us independently confirming. We checked the source, crossed-referenced it against known local objects, local broadcasts.
By the time the signal spat out 3571, we had already contacted other listening posts, asking what they had. The next number flashed 2, and ticked upward. We were sending text messages now. Others were arriving. Again the first 500 primes flashed, then restarted. The physicists were on a conference call, speculating on possible natural explanations. Brazil was reporting the same data, though they reported interference due to particulate matter in the air. The rainforests were still burning.
For weeks this went on. Eleven days in, the pattern changed, picked up where it left off, primes 501-1000. I was the first to see it, since by then I was sleeping nights in the breakroom. Only Darren seemed to notice, and he didn't say anything. We were all too busy with the game changer.
Then, almost a full month on, the pattern broke. The world's enthusiasts and experts were paying attention, and even news coverage showed an interest, despite increasing war casualties. The new pattern was a signal on loop in Morse code: stay tuned for an important update.
Darren looked even paler than usual, and bruises purpled his neck. But his eyes were shining. Contact, definitively. And someone who had been listening. To the point of idiom, the linguists were quick to point out.
The update came two days of Morse code later. I'd just received some news, bad but expected, from home, when the atmosphere in the room changed. Dozens stared up at the projected screen, scientists, technicians, a few politicians, and three carefully chosen journalists (more waited outside, sheltering as best they could from the blowing dust and suffocating heat). The room buzzed, then went silent as the words began to appear. I realized I was holding my breath.
Across the screen the message flashed: Thank you for your interest in galactic civilization. We regret to inform you....
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 4th, 2020


I've watched with alarm as climate change, authoritarianism, and systematic oppression have threatened the future of humanity. Since I was young, I've desperately wanted to know that we aren't alone in the galaxy. But when I stare up at the stars these days, I can't help but think the human species has a lot of work to do if we want to survive, let alone be welcomed by potential alien neighbors. I haven't given up hope on us, and I hope that if any extraterrestrials happen to be watching, they haven't either.

- Izzy Wasserstein
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