John's preternatural abilities did not seem to be impeding his work and, indeed, the whole programme was completed very nearly on time and very close to the original budget - much more so than any reasonable expectation for the delivery of a large-scale software engineering project.

Even more amazingly, the whole earth-orbit-sized virtual antenna started producing results almost immediately. A new signal was received - one which would have been undetectable previously - and with hugely more data encoded within it. Once decoded - it was a minor variant of the scheme used in the previously-detected low-speed transmission - it was clear that this too was a recorded message, repeated with a period of a little over a day.

The analysis of the content was turned over to a worldwide team of specialists. Even though it was technically unencoded and unencrypted, the data in the message was still obscure. Clearly, with no common language or even a common intellectual point of view shared by senders and receivers, the interpretation of the meaning was something which demanded much cogitation and insight.

When the virtual antenna project wound down, John went on vacation, or perhaps a sabbatical; to this day, I have no idea what the man did when he was not working. He was resolutely uninterested in the import of the information which was being received, even though everybody else was utterly fascinated by the revelations which emerged irregularly but with increasing frequency from the analysis team.

As PM, the successful of the virtual antenna project was laid at my door. I did my best to make it clear that much of the credit should go to John. Not that he displayed any interest in that recognition, of course; he was always much more interested in solving abstract and complex projects. But a new challenge was beginning to emerge: some of the more obscure portions of the message hinted that it might be possible to jointly assemble some form of faster-than-light communications capability.

Over the last few hundred years, radio signals have been spinning off our globe with increasing power and variety of content - although that content would probably seem pretty banal for the most part. A sufficiently sensitive receiver near a distant star could pick up and perhaps even decode these signals. However, radio waves travel at the speed of light, which is very fast indeed but, given the vast distances between the stars, these signals would take years, perhaps decades, to reach even the nearest neighbours.

The signals we were now intercepting were a broadcast from more than fifty light-years away - the location was encoded in the signal in terms of the positions of certain high-brightness stars and distant Pulsars - so that a single two-way conversational exchange would take more than a century to complete.

Faster-than-light travel, or even just communication, is a form of time travel with all of the challenges to causality that this implied. But a limited form of instantaneous communication was suggested, the physics of which seemed just plausible. It was well beyond my understanding, of course, or even John's; these kinds of abstruse physics require a completely different kind of genius nerd to comprehend.

The theoretical understanding, supported by hints from the new message, congealed to the point where joint planning for more interactive communications channel could be started. Again, the receiving part of the system turned out to be a signal analysis problem. Rather than looking for weak coherence in cosmic noise, this time we would be looking for signals embedded in the quantum entanglement of pairs of stable elementary particles, most usefully, electrons, created shortly after the Big Bang and now distributed throughout the universe.

The physics suggested that a vanishingly tiny fraction of these particle pairs retained their coherent state, even though the two electrons themselves were an unimaginable distance apart, the practical implication of which was that changes to the state of some of these particles could be detected as a change to the older part of the pair instantly anywhere in the universe.

The big problem was that, because only a very few of the particles retained coherence and were distributed very thinly, the signal was very weak indeed. Hence the need for a very sophisticated signal processing system which required a vast amount of processing power and some even more sophisticated software.

Actually transmitting a signal was more conventionally physical, involving getting a high-energy particle accelerator into Earth orbit. Beyond the effects of the atmosphere, the quantum spin states of a few of the ancient electrons could be collapsed by the beam, effectively modulating the corresponding paired particle. This was a classic piece of heavy engineering and rocket science and the construction of an orbiting space station to house the accelerator. This would be a completely independent project, run by an international consortium of national space agencies and commercial concerns.

As for the receiver project, it was John who would be the technical brains behind the analytics and signal processing software and I would once again be the Project Manager.

Part 4 Part 6