These are the very earliest days of a radical new telecommunications technology called MagentaChip. There's a rumour going around that it's called MagentaChip to avoid rapid uptake, because it's intentionally going for an unpopular, crafted, garish look. It's a little circuit board you can buy on Etsy and it lets you talk to anybody. Anywhere.
Which is, the marketing admits, something which you can already do. There's a lot of equipment which lets anybody do that. But that's kind of the point, the marketing says. There's a lot of equipment. You have your phone handset, in your hand, or your laptop computer, but beyond that there are network adapters, and ethernet cabling, and thousands and thousands of cellular communications towers, and government-owned routing hardware, and the physical layer of switching networks, and fibre optic trunk lines, and lightspeed delay and NSA splicer submarines and generic, industrial-scale untrustworthiness. A backdoor at every layer in the OSI model, a stack of slices of Swiss cheese.
MagentaChip lets you send data to any other MagentaChip anywhere. Directly. The signal comes out of the chip and is picked up by the other chip. The signal passes directly through the Earth. The signal travels at the speed of light, but does not appear to be any formally detectable form of electromagnetic radiation. Or any other kind of radiation. Security? It can be argued that even the strongest encryption is security by obscurity: obscurity of some 1024-bit semiprime or thereabouts. Ethical hackers take issue with this assertion in MagentaChip's documentation, but the fact remains that it could not be simpler: there are apparently an infinite number of discrete channels on which MagentaChip operates, so all you do is pick a titanically large, three-hundred-digit number — not even a semiprime, it's just got to be unguessably random. Then you share it with someone else, by post or some other trusted method of interchange. You tune both your chips to that same channel, and as long as nobody else, against highly calculable but remote odds, guesses your number, nobody can listen in.
It's point to point. You can encrypt the data on the wire too, if you care, but you don't need to care.
Does that make sense?
It kind of doesn't, which is one of the major problems. But not the major, major problem.
The problem is that these things are small enough to mail in a basic envelope, around forty-five bucks to buy, impossible to crack open, and violate significant physical laws. They're sold through a weeny little Etsy store front, which is almost perpetually sold out, and has seemingly sold only a few dozen of the MagentaChips total, and... it has now, in fact, shut down, and is proving to be totally untraceable.
Where are they from? They have apparently unbounded bandwidth. There's no signal attenuation. What the what?
Pemy — it's their screen name, they don't really have much truck with their birth name these days — bought the fifteenth or sixteenth of the MagentaChips, almost purely at random, failing to understand the incalculable value of the things. They thought it looked pretty and cool and wanted to try some stuff. The casing is delightful. It's a magenta chip, decorated with spiral gold and silver whorls, with a pleasing floral texture.
Pemy starts at the bottom of the channels, as most people do, and surfs upwards. Channel 0 is usually just noise, because lots of people start there. So are all of the single-digit integers. There are noisy chats.
Gaps start to show up in the hundreds, but there's always someone going to barge through. So Pemy explores their favourite numbers, anything which is a long string of sevens, anything which is digits of e, anything which is six and nine alternating for a long while. They do it on stream, with friends from the rest of the world yakking in chat. They achieve very little, other than one confusing conversation with a person speaking a language nobody listening could understand at first. Eventually the other person played a recording run through an automated translator, saying "Hindi", and Pemy found a similar translator, and they communicated in broken, ridiculous words through several pointless levels of indirection about the loveliness of ginger cats. There was no way to send cat pictures, though.
The chip doesn't need or accept power, so Pemy leaves it on during the night.
Then, at 6:55am, while connected to a random number which Pemy makes a careful note of in their sparkly notebook, they pick up a call from an alien. It's a comical blurp-blorp sound but it has structure and cadence. Pemy and their crew of online friends are not without some resources and some science fiction experience. They put the message together into a kind of binary image, after several extremely confusing false starts in which they get it very wrong. The image shows maps of the Earth. It shows a location in the world, in a reachable part of the forest a few hours from where Pemy lives. And a time. No, this isn't that kind of alien. It's going to be fine.
"Go it" is the first option on the poll Pemy puts out, "NOOP" is the other. The first option wins by 13 votes to 8. Pemy is going on a trip! They take their best friend Babs, who is older and blonder and less of a self-conscious mess and can be relied upon to keep Pemy out of trouble on a road trip.
The allocated time is during the day but it's a bit of a hike.
Babs takes a bunch of delightful "adventuring mode" photos of Pemy in their boots and adventure hat. Pemy's backpack is covered with jingling buttons and patches contributed by friends and bought from cool places. Babs is a little more practical and has a walking pole. Pemy somewhat envies Babs, who appears to put far less effort into existing.
"You'll get older," Babs tells them, "you'll adult eventually. And it'll suck. Enjoy being a screw-up."
Pemy has a kind of microphone rigged up to the MagentaChip. "Am I nearly there?" they ask.
The chip makes a kind of blop-borp noise which means they are on the right track.
They reach the top of the hill. The view is so-so, scrubby yellow land and poorly-performing plant life in one direction, the forest back in the other direction. Babs settles down and takes a long drink from her water bottle, and then gets out a sandwich.
"No signal," Pemy reports, checking their phone.
"I've got signal," Babs says, not even checking. "It's fine. I just checked in with my parents."
Pemy spies something in the sky, in the opposite direction from the Sun. "There!"
Babs holds the whole sandwich in her mouth and fumbles out her phone and films the thing.
It is asymmetrical and strange, a rounded bullet nose at the front and a splatter of metallic or fibrous claw/antennae/manoeuvring gewgaws at the back. It's difficult to judge scale. The thing's noise is discontinuous, a sort of echoing, sonorous clonkclong every two or three seconds, and its movement is similar, wafting to the floor and then kicked upwards by each burp from the engine. It comes to rest at an angle nobody was expecting.
A hatch opens in the underside of the machine. A man drops out, upside-down. He lands with a little awkwardness, like he's done this before, but only once, and doesn't yet know the trick to it. "Unff." He stands up. Dark suit, blue briefcase, an ID badge which can't be seen from here. The ship makes a very human-like mumbling and a part of its sensors swings towards Pemy, specifically the MagentaChip in their hand.
"Would you like some Cheese Dew?" Pemy asks. It's one of the more appalling of their favoured junk foods.
The man walks right up. Babs holds a hand up. "My dude, you want to explain any of this?"
"Can I take a quick look at the MagentaChip?" he asks.
Babs looks at his badge. "'Forster'? No, dude. Hold on. 'FCC'?"
"Yeah, I work for the Federal Communications Commission," Forster says. "These devices aren't licensed. There's a penalty of up to sixty thousand dollars for each offence and the possibility of jail time."
"The MagnetaChip is an alien communications device?" Babs says.
"Yeah, you know that."
"I knew that," Pemy says.
Forster smiles a pained smile. He gestures, awkwardly with the briefcase. "The aliens," he says, "are not licensed to use this part of the spectrum. We've confiscated this ship already and served notices to their homeworld. It's going to be a pretty significant court case. Now we're collecting all the unlicensed chips too. That message was from us."
"Yeah, you haven't spoken to an alien."
"This is a perfect new frontier of free... of free statements and self-expression!" Pemy says. "You can't just lock it all up before it's even begun!"
"Hmm, what? Yes, yes we can."
"The aliens invented this spectrum!" Pemy says. Forster makes a grab for the chip. Pemy evades him.
He huffs. "The spectrum is naturally occurring," he says. "It falls totally within FCC jurisdiction. It is totally regulated by existing law. That device isn't legal. Look, I'm carrying quite a bit of paperwork. You're just going to have to haul it all the way home with you. And the chip."
"But... what about the aliens? Where are they from? What do they look like?"
Forster looks aside. "I've never really been interested in that part of it. I mostly do legal work."
"Are they nice?"
Forster hesitates. "Uhhh." He's trying to figure out which answer will make Pemy give him the chip. "Uh, no. No, absolutely not. Just the worst."
Babs raises her eyebrows. "They're bad?"
"Oh yeah. Slurs for days."
"Oh no!" Pemy cries. They stare at the MagentaChip in their hand, conflicted now.
Babs says to them, "I don't believe him."
Forster makes another grab. This time he gets it.
Pemy exclaims, "Hey, poop!" They make a grab for Forster but he's already going. Babs runs after him. He's slowed by the briefcase. She grabs it, and gets it, about four kilograms of thick legal paperwork. As for the FCC guy, he gets back to the ship, which flips up like a tiddlywink as soon as he's in, and lurches away towards the horizon.
"Poop!" Pemy says. "Do you really think they're big alien jerks?"
"I don't know," Babs says. "I don't know if this is a lesson about free expression or regulation of the airwaves or G-men lying about stuff." She stirs the paperwork around with one foot. It looks real.
"I wanted to meet an alien," Pemy says.
"I don't know," Babs says, "maybe we did."