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Thank You, Thank You Very Much

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By Thomas Fortenberry and Glynn Wilson

When the story broke, the news jackals descended on Elmore Reddy's house in Hollywood, Mississippi like flies on blackberry cobbler at a church picnic. This story had everything: High science, raw spirituality, soul shock, kooky humor, stomach-churning fright, and just plain old wow. It shook up a great many people around the world, but at least it accomplished one thing for sure. It answered the age-old question: Are we alone?

    After all these years of searching, it turns out we aren't.

    Reddy was shown on CNN and quoted on the front page of every newspaper in the civilized world as saying, "Wouldn't you know it. The first message from outer space comes from a dead white man with a black man's voice wearing a satin jumpsuit. Long live the King."

    Now Elmore was something of a local legend. As a computer hacker who had been busted for breaking into the FBI's Top Secret files on UFO's and electromagnetic pulse radiation, his mugshot was plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the country, causing him to become something of a recluse about the time the Internet got fast enough for half the country to get online.

    Elmore's father, D.B. Reddy, had spent his life studying the stars, "looking at heaven" he always claimed, and tinkering with electronic devices. The neighbors considered him eccentric for his crackpot inventions until one day the editor of the local Clarion Call heralded him as "Mississippi's Einstein." Elmore was not an athletic child, or musically inclined, so he took up the science habit at an early age. He was one of the first to sign up for the SETI@home program, where you download software to search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence from the University of California at Berkley. He had logged more CPU time analyzing data than anyone save the SETI@sun team and the Luke Mester, searching for a whistle in the hiss, down there on the electromagnetic spectrum in what scientists call the "water hole," a quiet region of the spectrum off limits to commercial broadcasters.

    Late last spring in the basement of their plain brick house in Hollywood he used as a lab, Elmore finally perfected an apparatus his dad had been working on since the Pentagon boys killed Kennedy. This device could distinguish ultra-EM emissions from the cosmic background noise, which was something of a miracle. It was so faint as to be almost impossible to pick up. It moved so fast — faster than light like a quantum Zen koan — that no one else had even believed him when he first published it.

    But it was true and he'd built the technology to finally prove his dad's theory correct, allowing him to narrow in on a source of noise in the direction of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to earth, and to interpret what other scientists could only get in modulated code. The first message came in the form of a picture, which showed what looked like a stick man playing a guitar. Then a series of dates showed up in the parity bits: 0 1 0 1 0 8 1 9 3 5 0 1 0 1 0 8 1 6 1 9 7 7 0 1 0 1. It'd taken him the whole summer to crack just the initial sequences.

    Then came the real shocker. There in the scrubby north Mississippi uplands just down the river from Memphis where Rock 'n' Roll was born, in that concrete-brick basement scattered with computers dating back to the first Atari's, the first communiqué from beyond this world had warbled out of Elmore's tweeter-cracking, woofer-fuzzing hardwood cabinet Altec Lansings. It was startling, unnerving. And he'd literally heard it all before.

    The day the world changed Elmore Reddy heard Elvis Presley in concert, finish singing a song and mumble, "Thank you. Thank you very much," to heart-felt, all too human applause.

Jump to Installment 2

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