THE DISC by Michael Abbott
Originally published in ST NEWS Volume 1 Issue 5, launched on
October 5th 1986.
On our search for nice novelettes that have something to do with
computers, the computer age, or even pure science fiction, we have
come across some old computer magazines (this story is rewritten
from one of July 1984). ©1984 by Business Press International,
To look at it, the processor was merely a disc about 160 mm in
diameter and perhaps 60mm thick. Somewhere beneath its mirror-
polished surface was a power source wringing out the last of its
energy after an eternity in space.
One of the disc's surfaces was more glassy than the others and
when observed through an infrared viewer it scintillated
delicately as though sprinkled with 'stardust'. Every few minutes
pictures would form, as if it were a high-resolution dot display,
but the graphics meant nothing to any scientists present. Most of
the time the millions of optical fibres twinkled randomly with
single bits of data.
State-of-the-art technology had been clumsily applied to the
magic surface in an attempt to interface it to the supercomputer
that towered alongside. The hastily constructed optical interface
was of the highest resolution achievable, yet each of its fibres
blotted over some 10,000 or 15,000 of the disc's tiny pixels. It
had taken engineers 18 months to prepare for what could turn out
to be the most amazing dialogue or the greatest anticlimax in
"It's like trying to couple an antique clockwork mechanism to a
naked microchip but this is the best we can do." The resigned
comment came from Professor Jim Hamner, who was on attachment to
the Department of Defence.
The President was tired and dishevelled. It would soon be dawn
and there had been nothing to see yet. His ebony-spectacled
bodyguards checked the presence of their guns, which they hid
beneath perfectly tailored suits. "Well, apart from nearly
triggering off a war, what else is there to know about this
thing?" the President asked.
The mysterious processor had arrived from deep space, borne on a
vehicle no larger than the avarage satellite, and had slipped into
a declining orbit. A shuttle had been called out to retrieve the
visitor only after all the powers with space capability had denied
they had anything to do with it.
Hamner broke his gaze. "Nothing else to know yet, Mr. President.
But with the country's top programmers and some lateral thinking,
we hope to achieve communication with the disc. It just might be
possible using our own supercomputer and the makeshift interface
you see before you."
"In the short then, Jim, all we know is that this disc is some
kind of computer and it's extraterrestrial?" The President was
looking for a summary of the situation, as usual.
Hamner agreed, and appended an afterthought ruefully. "And that
its designers were hundreds of years in advance of our own even
when they built this thing. What level of civilisation must they
have reached by now?"
"We have not ascertained its origin then, Jim? No guesses, eh?"
"It could have popped right out of a black hole for all we know,
The President prepared to leave. The unimpressively small device
had been playing havoc with his engagements. "Keep me posted," he
Five meaningless rows of characters flashed on to the
supercomputer's screen. The President pulled back his chair and
sat on it cowboy-style. For several minutes the two men watched
the cyphered data incredulously, until the President became
irritated by the regimented nonsense that paraded before him.
Hamner was more calm. He lit his pipe and nodded knowingly. "We
may not need those programmers after all, Mr. President. It looks
like the disc has its own ideas about driving our computer."
Still more jumbled tabulations marched across the screen but not
a single meaningful word appeared.
"Different civilisation, different language!" Hamner declared.
"No interpreter I use can handle that lingo. Couldn't even
pronounce it," said the President. "The disc could be trying to
tell us something. How do we translate it?"
"They're not words," Hamner laughed. "They're a kind of bastard,
halfway translation. If we are patient, I think we might get to
see something that'll really tax the imagination."
By now, the entire scientific team had gathered around the
computer. Security cameras were rolling already to record
everything and a third computer running in the background was set
up to record all data exchanges.
Then, astonishment! A silent almost matter-of-fact conversion to
intelligible read-out had taken place. The screen cleared, leaving
Good day. I am friend.
Interface reconfigured at 1.5 percent resolution.
Parallel bi-directional mode.
Language algorithm 48 percent efficient.
Therefore please re-educate on error.
The President clawed his thinning hair in bewilderment.
"Oh, it's nothing to do with our machine, sir. That's the disc
Like any polite, unsolicited caller, the disc began to explain
the reason behind its visit.
My name translates Envoy Sixty.
Planet of origin negative on translation to your language.
Blackstuff. Will relate celestial position once interface with
your astronomy database affected. As yet insufficient data source
for terminological translation. Read more.
The scientists were still smiling at the disc's struggle with
their illogical language when the President announced his
suspicion that the whole thing was a hoax aimed at his
administration. Defiantly, the screen cleared and began a fresh
My journey: Two million your years.
Velocity: Marginal sub-light speed.
Purpose: Contact other civilisations.
100 launches total. Envoy Sixty targeted your galaxy. On arrival,
local radio signals indicated high life probability this planet.
Hamner signalled his assistant to organise the database linkups.
"Get the astro-database laid on first. It'll take time to rotate
through the billions of stars necessary to match a completely
alien map of the universe with our own. The civilisation that
spawned this machine observes the heavens from a totally different
viewpoint and has different names for anything in it. It could
even exist in space that's uncharted by us. There's a thought!
There might be nothing to match!"
"Then extend the general database. The disc's ability to
communicate with us freely will depend upon its knowledge of our
language, environment and culture." Hamner was clear about how he
wanted the situation handled. He knew it was no hoax.
For decades sensitive receivers had been listening for unnatural
radio signals from outer space, signals which might have come from
a distant civilisation. Latterly, the broadcasting of mathematical
patterns had, so scientists claimed, given distant civilisations a
greater chance of discovering they were not alone is this universe
too. It was obvious the disc's creators had long since gone one
stage further by launching numerous intelligent pods towards
promising galaxies. They could not dispatch people, so instead
they sent their most intelligent machines as envoys.
Hamner sat at the keyboard and set down his pipe. The disc was
doubtless loaded with fantastic information about a far-off
people, their civilisation, technology and culture. He typed in a
Have you the means to notify your home planet of your discovery
The screen cleared for the reply, then came
Nothing was added. Hamner tapped at the keyboard again.
Have you notified your home planet that you have discovered
Another word appeared casually below the last.
Again there was no follow up. No explanation. The President
offered his own explanation. "Maybe they don't wanna know back
home two million years later. They've probably invented a faster
way to travel and overtook the thing before it got here. There are
enough UFO sightings to support that possibility."
But Hamner was not satisfied. He typed in a simple question:
These chilling words appeared on the screen:
Launches were automatic. Last 42 were post-war. No one to notify.
A great deal of silence filled the room. The President's
bodyguards glanced at each other with rare animation. No one
spoke: there is no suitable comment for such an occasion.
Immediately the databases were on-line the visual display began
to wriggle with merging stellar patterns. The disc had assumed
control over the matching process and was throwing up observations
of interest as it proceeded.
"Looks like we've got a bright new boy on the team," the
President said. The VDU patterns were reflecting in his eyes in
"It's a pretty versatile machine," Hamner agreed. The disc was
simultaneously managing to access the general database.
The scientist wandered across to the laboratory's small windows
and gazed wistfully through the glass. Quite suddenly, the desire
to know where Envoy Sixty came from, and to discovers what its
creators actually looked like, was stronger than the desire to
plunder its data bank. There seemed to be an element of bad taste
in taking privileged information from a civilisation that had died
since making the offer. But he was fatigued. Perhaps matters would
assume different proportions after some sleep - whenever that
would be. Then Hamner raised a stubby finger towards the sky. "My
The President was preoccupied reading aloud the facts coming up
on the screen. "It says they called this galaxy M31 Nebula. The
disc claims to come from a spiral galaxy like ours. And look!
Apparently we have 150,000,000,000 suns out here."
A fresh-faced young technician, awed by the President's company,
stepped forward. "All galaxies have mind-boggling numbers of suns,
Mr. President, sir. Each one at the centre of an entire planetary
system. The numbers of planets involved is countless and the
chances of life extreme."
Hamner was still observing the sky. A shaft of light sprang
across his sunken eyes as an immense golden orb climbed away from
the city's jagged skyline, followed by a smaller sun that threw
off an intense blue light.
"I don't believe it!" Hamner grunted. "It's morning already."
"And a beautiful one at that," the President added before
returning his attention to the VDU.
The young technician cleared his throat. "And of course, Mr.
President, they're not all binary systems like ours."
The President interrupted, "Ha! It now says a closer translation
for the home planet is Earth. Cute name for a planet, don't you
The President cast his shadow across the glassy disc. "Well, old
traveller, your home is Meeson now, and you're most welcome.
Perhaps you'll help us avoid the same mistakes your folks made."
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.