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This story most likely dates from the 1980s, or possibly the very early 1990s.

The protagonist has discovered a BBS that you can download cool stuff from (like most BBSes) as long as you first give it a unique fact first. (I believe it was unique to you as opposed to globally unique.)

The story was set in the US and one of the odd things that catches the protagonist's attention is that it is using an unassigned area code. Upon investigation (phreaking, maybe) the phone number is traced to a building that turns out to contain some highly advanced alien communication gear.

The next fact the protagonist enters is something like "the owner of this BBS is not on Earth." He is congratulated, and promoted to the next level. There is some concern if the aliens are going to start demanding sensitive information about Earth; instead they start asking questions about culture and music.

I was sure this was by Vinge, but I just checked through True Names... and Threats... and it's not there. Which means that I have no idea where I read this; it's even possible it was something I read on Usenet.

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  • I remember reading this one too. I think it was in Analog or Asimov's. Late 1980s feels right. There was one bit about the alien transmitter hardware being totally unrecognizable save for the parabolic dish, because physics is physics. Oct 5, 2020 at 23:34
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    I concur with Dosco Jones. Analog, and probably late 80s. I remember the details that DavidW mentions. There may be a feeling of relief two or three paragraphs from the end, as you realise that the aliens are going to be OK guys and not demand the sensitive info. I wouldn't have credited it to Vinge, actually: I think his stories tend to be more serious in tone. Oct 5, 2020 at 23:49
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    @PhilvanKleur Thanks for the tip, it helped me find it!
    – DavidW
    Jul 6, 2023 at 19:03

1 Answer 1

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I finally found this one. It's "Phreak Encounter" (1986) by Roger MacBride Allen, published (only) in Analog, May 1986.

You can get anything from the BBS as long as you give it a fact:

YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORS BID YOU WELCOME. FOLLOWING IS A LIST OF SERVICES AND PROGRAMS AVAILABLE ON THIS BOARD. THE RULES OF THIS BOARD ARE SIMPLE. FOR EVERY USE OF A FRIENDLY NEIGHBORS SERVICE, YOU MUST FIRST TELL US A NEW AND INTERESTING FACT. ONE SERVICE, ONE FACT. WE HAVE PLENTY OF PHONE LINES—NO TIME LIMIT ON USE. ENJOY!!!

The BBS is using an unassigned exchange not an area code:

"Gimme a customer name and address on this number." He punched in the Friendly Neighbors number.

"That Maryland? Area code 301?"

"Sure is."

"Cliff, where you been? That exchange isn't even hooked up!"

They don't have to do any fancy investigation to find the address; the BBS tells them. But when they get there:

That melted green cable came through the wall over the door, and led to a—thing. Barringer didn't know what to call it. It was a boxy shape, about four feet square, of the same dark green color as the cable. It looked half-melted, too, its shape softened, rounded, droopy.

Another green cable led to a device Barringer and Zamoiski both recognized instantly.

There are certain machines that must be certain shapes if they are to work. A square wheel cannot roll, a lever must be long and thin to do any good, a knife must have a cutting edge.

Zamoiski gasped as Barringer shone the light on a twelve-foot diameter, bright-green, well-polished, very handsome parabolic dish antenna.

Zamoiski tells the BBS the fact that it's not from Earth:

Zamoiski reached for the keyboard. "They aren't spying. Just looking around. And that door wasn't locked. They must be expecting us. Lemme get their attention.” The sysop of this board is an extraterrestrial, he typed.

They are promoted to the next level:

HELLO, NEIGHBOR. YOU ARE NO LONGER LIMITED TO THE SMALLER BEGINNER'S BOARD, YOU HAVE JUST QUALIFIED FOR PROVISIONAL MEMBERSHIP IN THE MAIN BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEM. DO YOU WISH TO JOIN?

"Damn straight I do," Zamoiski said. Yes, he typed.

THE RULES OF THE BOARD ARE SIMPLE. TELL US ABOUT YOU. AND WE'LL TELL YOU ABOUT US. ANSWER ONE OF OUR QUESTIONS. AND GAIN ACCESS TO ONE SERVICE.

The operators of the board aren't concerned with deep secrets:

And Zamoiski was just crazy enough to show the Neighbors how he had patched into the Lawrence Livermore Lab computer that time, in exchange for an hour of gaming. What would they want to know?

The screen cleared. Another pause. And then, on the screen—

TELL US MORE ABOUT TED WILLIAMS.

Barringer sighed in relief. "I think," he said, "it's going to be all right."

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