When the Cluster was first discovered, it was met with predictable skepticism from the scientific community, followed immediately by equally predictable proclamations of “contact” from the wider popular science press. The Cluster was a small group of some several dozen stars, about 2,500 light-years from Earth, which were arranged in a roughly hexagonal matrix. This group of stars was all traveling at the same velocity away from Earth, and much faster than the dynamics of galactic evolution would suggest that it should. Furthermore, they seemed to be emitting a coherent pulse of energy, implying the existence of some organizing force (or, as the popular press would have it, an intelligence) to coordinate them. This coherent signal was poured over and analyzed by everyone from Fields Medalists to backwoods cranks with a computer, but no one could discern any meaning to it.
One popular astronomer had claimed that he had extrapolated the path of the Cluster back some several hundred thousand years, and that it would have coincided roughly with the location of Earth at that time, when humanity was in its infancy. The implications were big enough to seize global headlines for a day: “God Found in the Heavens”. Another suddenly popular notion was that of the Kardashev Type II civilization, able to harness and utilize the energy output of entire star systems, which might wish to optimize the placement of these stars in just such a hexagonal matrix arrangement as was observed.
Eventually, nothing new could be learned. The discovery was forgotten, but the mystique of it remained entrenched in the human imagination.
Civilizations rose and fell. Generations of astronomers came and passed. Knowledge of the Cluster was forgotten and revived over the centuries. The few dozen stars grew to include thousands, then millions. The signal, which had never been fully decoded, would captivate the minds of generations of astronomers and mathematicians for millennia. The best anyone could make of it was that it was almost certainly of intelligent origin, and that it had something to do with an intervention of some sort in the vicinity of Earth’s solar system. The problem in decoding the Message was lack of sample data. It would simply repeat the same short sequence over and over, millennium after millennium.
Why the meaning of the Message seemed to have been made deliberately elusive remained a matter of speculation. Surely, a civilization of such hyperintelligent beings would find a way to communicate, if that was in fact their desire. Many minds had come to the inevitable conclusion that it was a test for humanity, to see if this species was capable of understanding it and responding in some coherent fashion. We had failed.
Brill was working on his dissertation. He had been observing the Cluster for months, hoping against all odds to see something that had been overlooked for millennia. He was becoming truly desperate to discover something important, as funding for his project was soon to be cut, most academics having long given up study of the Message as a fruitless pursuit. Only a certain very dedicated lunatic fringe still clung to the search for some new meaning. In Brill’s case, the administration was actively considering directing its precious resources to more promising avenues of inquiry.
Suddenly, for the first time in 6,000 years since its discovery, the Message changed. The jelly doughnut that Brill had been mindlessly munching fell to the floor. Seizing upon this new data, he fed it to the decoding algorithm which was his thesis. Minutes of silent tension ticked by before the display read simply:
This message is to inform current occupants of this system that this project has been decommissioned due to lack of progress. Your star's energy will be redirected to more constructive purposes.
End of transmission.