Pictures Don't Lie - Cover

Pictures Don't Lie

by Katherine MacLean

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: ... Pictures, that is, that one can test and measure. And these pictures positively, absolutely could not lie!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The man from the News asked, “What do you think of the aliens, Mister Nathen? Are they friendly? Do they look human?”

“Very human,” said the thin young man.

Outside, rain sleeted across the big windows with a steady faint drumming, blurring and dimming the view of the airfield where they would arrive. On the concrete runways, the puddles were pockmarked with rain, and the grass growing untouched between the runways of the unused field glistened wetly, bending before gusts of wind.

Back at a respectful distance from where the huge spaceship would land were the gray shapes of trucks, where TV camera crews huddled inside their mobile units, waiting. Farther back in the deserted sandy landscape, behind distant sandy hills, artillery was ringed in a great circle, and in the distance across the horizon, bombers stood ready at airfields, guarding the world against possible treachery from the first alien ship ever to land from space.

“Do you know anything about their home planet?” asked the man from Herald.

The Times man stood with the others, listening absently, thinking of questions, but reserving them. Joseph R. Nathen, the thin young man with the straight black hair and the tired lines on his face, was being treated with respect by his interviewers. He was obviously on edge, and they did not want to harry him with too many questions to answer at once. They wanted to keep his good will. Tomorrow he would be one of the biggest celebrities ever to appear in headlines.

“No, nothing directly.”

“Any ideas or deductions?” Herald persisted.

“Their world must be Earth-like to them,” the weary-looking young man answered uncertainly. “The environment evolves the animal. But only in relative terms, of course.” He looked at them with a quick glance and then looked away evasively, his lank black hair beginning to cling to his forehead with sweat. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

“Earth-like,” muttered a reporter, writing it down as if he had noticed nothing more in the reply.

The Times man glanced at the Herald, wondering if he had noticed, and received a quick glance in exchange.

The Herald asked Nathen, “You think they are dangerous, then?”

It was the kind of question, assuming much, which usually broke reticence and brought forth quick facts--when it hit the mark. They all knew of the military precautions, although they were not supposed to know.

The question missed. Nathen glanced out the window vaguely. “No, I wouldn’t say so.”

“You think they are friendly, then?” said the Herald, equally positive on the opposite tack.

A fleeting smile touched Nathen’s lips. “Those I know are.”

There was no lead in this direction, and they had to get the basic facts of the story before the ship came. The Times asked, “What led up to your contacting them?”

Nathen answered after a hesitation. “Static. Radio static. The Army told you my job, didn’t they?”

The Army had told them nothing at all. The officer who had conducted them in for the interview stood glowering watchfully, as if he objected by instinct to telling anything to the public.

Nathen glanced at him doubtfully. “My job is radio decoder for the Department of Military Intelligence. I use a directional pickup, tune in on foreign bands, record any scrambled or coded messages I hear, and build automatic decoders and descramblers for all the basic scramble patterns.”

The officer cleared his throat, but said nothing.

The reporters smiled, noting that down.

Security regulations had changed since arms inspection had been legalized by the U.N. Complete information being the only public security against secret rearmament, spying and prying had come to seem a public service. Its aura had changed. It was good public relations to admit to it.

Nathen continued, “I started directing the pickup at stars in my spare time. There’s radio noise from stars, you know. Just stuff that sounds like spatter static, and an occasional squawk. People have been listening to it for a long time, and researching, trying to work out why stellar radiation on those bands comes in such jagged bursts. It didn’t seem natural.”

He paused and smiled uncertainly, aware that the next thing he would say was the thing that would make him famous--an idea that had come to him while he listened--an idea as simple and as perfect as the one that came to Newton when he saw the apple fall.

“I decided it wasn’t natural. I tried decoding it.”

Hurriedly he tried to explain it away and make it seem obvious. “You see, there’s an old intelligence trick, speeding up a message on a record until it sounds just like that, a short squawk of static, and then broadcasting it. Undergrounds use it. I’d heard that kind of screech before.”

“You mean they broadcast at us in code?” asked the News.

“It’s not exactly code. All you need to do is record it and slow it down. They’re not broadcasting at us. If a star has planets, inhabited planets, and there is broadcasting between them, they would send it on a tight beam to save power.” He looked for comprehension. “You know, like a spotlight. Theoretically, a tight beam can go on forever without losing power. But aiming would be difficult from planet to planet. You can’t expect a beam to stay on target, over such distances, more than a few seconds at a time. So they’d naturally compress each message into a short half-second or one-second-length package and send it a few hundred times in one long blast to make sure it is picked up during the instant the beam swings across the target.”

He was talking slowly and carefully, remembering that this explanation was for the newspapers. “When a stray beam swings through our section of space, there’s a sharp peak in noise level from that direction. The beams are swinging to follow their own planets at home, and the distance between there and here exaggerates the speed of swing tremendously, so we wouldn’t pick up more than a bip as it passes.”

“How do you account for the number of squawks coming in?” the Times asked. “Do stellar systems rotate on the plane of the Galaxy?” It was a private question; he spoke impulsively from interest and excitement.

The radio decoder grinned, the lines of strain vanishing from his face for a moment. “Maybe we’re intercepting everybody’s telephone calls, and the whole Galaxy is swarming with races that spend all day yacking at each other over the radio. Maybe the human type is standard model.”

“It would take something like that,” the Times agreed. They smiled at each other.

The News asked, “How did you happen to pick up television instead of voices?”

“Not by accident,” Nathen explained patiently. “I’d recognized a scanning pattern, and I wanted pictures. Pictures are understandable in any language.”

Near the interviewers, a Senator paced back and forth, muttering his memorized speech of welcome and nervously glancing out the wide streaming windows into the gray sleeting rain.

Opposite the windows of the long room was a small raised platform flanked by the tall shapes of TV cameras and sound pickups on booms, and darkened floodlights, arranged and ready for the Senator to make his speech of welcome to the aliens and the world. A shabby radio sending set stood beside it without a case to conceal its parts, two cathode television tubes flickering nakedly on one side and the speaker humming on the other. A vertical panel of dials and knobs jutted up before them and a small hand-mike sat ready on the table before the panel. It was connected to a boxlike, expensively cased piece of equipment with “Radio Lab, U.S. Property” stenciled on it.

“I recorded a couple of package screeches from Sagittarius and began working on them,” Nathen added. “It took a couple of months to find the synchronizing signals and set the scanners close enough to the right time to even get a pattern. When I showed the pattern to the Department, they gave me full time to work on it, and an assistant to help. It took eight months to pick out the color bands, and assign them the right colors, to get anything intelligible on the screen.”

The shabby-looking mess of exposed parts was the original receiver that they had labored over for ten months, adjusting and readjusting to reduce the maddening rippling plaids of unsynchronized color scanners to some kind of sane picture.

“Trial and error,” said Nathen, “but it came out all right. The wide band-spread of the squawks had suggested color TV from the beginning.”

He walked over and touched the set. The speaker bipped slightly and the gray screen flickered with a flash of color at the touch. The set was awake and sensitive, tuned to receive from the great interstellar spaceship which now circled the atmosphere.

“We wondered why there were so many bands, but when we got the set working, and started recording and playing everything that came in, we found we’d tapped something like a lending library line. It was all fiction, plays.”

Between the pauses in Nathen’s voice, the Times found himself unconsciously listening for the sound of roaring, swiftly approaching rocket jets.

The Post asked, “How did you contact the spaceship?”

“I scanned and recorded a film copy of Rite of Spring, the Disney-Stravinsky combination, and sent it back along the same line we were receiving from. Just testing. It wouldn’t get there for a good number of years, if it got there at all, but I thought it would please the library to get a new record in.

“Two weeks later, when we caught and slowed a new batch of recordings, we found an answer. It was obviously meant for us. It was a flash of the Disney being played to a large audience, and then the audience sitting and waiting before a blank screen. The signal was very clear and loud. We’d intercepted a spaceship. They were asking for an encore, you see. They liked the film and wanted more...”

He smiled at them in sudden thought. “You can see them for yourself. It’s all right down the hall where the linguists are working on the automatic translator.”

The listening officer frowned and cleared his throat, and the thin young man turned to him quickly. “No security reason why they should not see the broadcasts, is there? Perhaps you should show them.” He said to the reporters reassuringly, “It’s right down the hall. You will be informed the moment the spaceship approaches.”

The interview was very definitely over. The lank-haired, nervous young man turned away and seated himself at the radio set while the officer swallowed his objections and showed them dourly down the hall to a closed door.

They opened it and fumbled into a darkened room crowded with empty folding chairs, dominated by a glowing bright screen. The door closed behind them, bringing total darkness.

There was the sound of reporters fumbling their way into seats around him, but the Times man remained standing, aware of an enormous surprise, as if he had been asleep and wakened to find himself in the wrong country.

The bright colors of the double image seemed the only real thing in the darkened room. Even blurred as they were, he could see that the action was subtly different, the shapes subtly not right.

He was looking at aliens.

The impression was of two humans disguised, humans moving oddly, half-dancing, half-crippled. Carefully, afraid the images would go away, he reached up to his breast pocket, took out his polarized glasses, rotated one lens at right angles to the other and put them on.

Immediately, the two beings came into sharp focus, real and solid, and the screen became a wide, illusively near window through which he watched them.

They were conversing with each other in a gray-walled room, discussing something with restrained excitement. The large man in the green tunic closed his purple eyes for an instant at something the other said, and grimaced, making a motion with his fingers as if shoving something away from him.


The second, smaller, with yellowish-green eyes, stepped closer, talking more rapidly in a lower voice. The first stood very still, not trying to interrupt.

Obviously, the proposal was some advantageous treachery, and he wanted to be persuaded. The Times groped for a chair and sat down.

Perhaps gesture is universal; desire and aversion, a leaning forward or a leaning back, tension, relaxation. Perhaps these actors were masters. The scenes changed, a corridor, a parklike place in what he began to realize was a spaceship, a lecture room. There were others talking and working, speaking to the man in the green tunic, and never was it unclear what was happening or how they felt.

They talked a flowing language with many short vowels and shifts of pitch, and they gestured in the heat of talk, their hands moving with an odd lagging difference of motion, not slow, but somehow drifting.

He ignored the language, but after a time the difference in motion began to arouse his interest. Something in the way they walked...

With an effort he pulled his mind from the plot and forced his attention to the physical difference. Brown hair in short silky crew cuts, varied eye colors, the colors showing clearly because their irises were very large, their round eyes set very widely apart in tapering light-brown faces. Their necks and shoulders were thick in a way that would indicate unusual strength for a human, but their wrists were narrow and their fingers long and thin and delicate.

There seemed to be more than the usual number of fingers.

Since he came in, a machine had been whirring and a voice muttering beside him. He called his attention from counting their fingers and looked around. Beside him sat an alert-looking man wearing earphones, watching and listening with hawklike concentration. Beside him was a tall streamlined box. From the screen came the sound of the alien language. The man abruptly flipped a switch on the box, muttered a word into a small hand-microphone and flipped the switch back with nervous rapidity.

He reminded the Times man of the earphoned interpreters at the UN. The machine was probably a vocal translator and the mutterer a linguist adding to its vocabulary. Near the screen were two other linguists taking notes.

The Times remembered the Senator pacing in the observatory room, rehearsing his speech of welcome. The speech would not be just the empty pompous gesture he had expected. It would be translated mechanically and understood by the aliens.

On the other side of the glowing window that was the stereo screen, the large protagonist in the green tunic was speaking to a pilot in a gray uniform. They stood in a brightly lit canary-yellow control room in a spaceship.

The Times tried to pick up the thread of the plot. Already he was interested in the fate of the hero, and liked him. That was the effect of good acting, probably, for part of the art of acting is to win affection from the audience, and this actor might be the matinee idol of whole solar systems.

Controlled tension, betraying itself by a jerk of the hands, a too-quick answer to a question. The uniformed one, not suspicious, turned his back, busying himself at some task involving a map lit with glowing red points, his motions sharing the same fluid dragging grace of the others, as if they were underwater, or on a slow motion film. The other was watching a switch, a switch set into a panel, moving closer to it, talking casually--background music coming and rising in thin chords of tension.

There was a closeup of the alien’s face watching the switch, and the Times noted that his ears were symmetrically half-circles, almost perfect with no earholes visible. The voice of the uniformed one answered, a brief word in a preoccupied deep voice. His back was still turned. The other glanced at the switch, moving closer to it, talking casually, the switch coming closer and closer stereoscopically. It was in reach, filling the screen. His hand came into view, darting out, closed over the switch--

There was a sharp clap of sound and his hand opened in a frozen shape of pain. Beyond him, as his gaze swung up, stood the figure of the uniformed officer, unmoving, a weapon rigid in his hand, in the startled position in which he had turned and fired, watching with widening eyes as the man in the green tunic swayed and fell.

The tableau held, the uniformed one drooping, looking down at his hand holding the weapon which had killed, and music began to build in from the background. Just for an instant, the room and the things within it flashed into one of those bewildering color changes which were the bane of color television, and switched to a color negative of itself, a green man standing in a violet control room, looking down at the body of a green man in a red tunic. It held for less than a second; then the color band alternator fell back into phase and the colors reversed to normal.

Another uniformed man came and took the weapon from the limp hand of the other, who began to explain dejectedly in a low voice while the music mounted and covered his words and the screen slowly went blank, like a window that slowly filmed over with gray fog.

The music faded.

In the dark, someone clapped appreciatively.

The earphoned man beside the Times shifted his earphones back from his ears and spoke briskly. “I can’t get any more. Either of you want a replay?”

There was a short silence until the linguist nearest the set said, “I guess we’ve squeezed that one dry. Let’s run the tape where Nathen and that ship radio boy are kidding around CQing and tuning their beams in closer. I have a hunch the boy is talking routine ham talk and giving the old radio count--one-two-three-testing.”

There was some fumbling in the semi-dark and then the screen came to life again.

It showed a flash of an audience sitting before a screen and gave a clipped chord of some familiar symphony. “Crazy about Stravinsky and Mozart,” remarked the earphoned linguist to the Times, resettling his earphones. “Can’t stand Gershwin. Can you beat that?” He turned his attention back to the screen as the right sequence came on.

The Post, who was sitting just in front of him, turned to the Times and said, “Funny how much they look like people.” He was writing, making notes to telephone his report. “What color hair did that character have?”

“I didn’t notice.” He wondered if he should remind the reporter that Nathen had said he assigned the color bands on guess, choosing the colors that gave the most plausible images. The guests, when they arrived, could turn out to be bright green with blue hair. Only the gradations of color in the picture were sure, only the similarities and contrasts, the relationship of one color to another.

From the screen came the sound of the alien language again. This race averaged deeper voices than human. He liked deep voices. Could he write that?

No, there was something wrong with that, too. How had Nathen established the right sound-track pitch? Was it a matter of taking the modulation as it came in, or some sort of hetrodyning up and down by trial and error? Probably.

It might be safer to assume that Nathen had simply preferred deep voices.

As he sat there, doubting, an uneasiness he had seen in Nathen came back to add to his own uncertainty, and he remembered just how close that uneasiness had come to something that looked like restrained fear.

“What I don’t get is why he went to all the trouble of picking up TV shows instead of just contacting them,” the News complained. “They’re good shows, but what’s the point?”

“Maybe so we’d get to learn their language too,” said the Herald.

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