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Message in a Bottle

December 4, 2013

Message in a Bottle
©2013 Kolyn Marshall

The Allen Telescope Array is where dreams come true, at least that was what Sarah told herself every day she went to work. Forty-two interlinking satellite towers all focused on one task. To find life on another planet.

Where is this forty-two LNSD (Large Number of Small Dish) array located, you ask? At SETI, of course. The leader in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Working here had been a dream of Sarah’s ever since she was a small girl, sitting on her father’s lap, watching old science fiction shows.

There was hope in those old episode. Hope of a better future, that man-kind would redirect all of their anger and aggression outward in a unified common goal. To find life elsewhere.

It was a noble concept but one which lived only in science fiction, not science reality. Very few people believed in life on other worlds and even fewer yet cared. Yet, the lure of possibility never lost it’s power over Sarah. As long as there were stars overhead and people looking up there was always a possibility.

Walking into the command center, Sarah paused just inside the glass door and looked around. For six years she has been coming to work at the SETI instillation and every day of those six years she has done the same thing each time she enters the room. She pauses for about ten seconds and just looks around at all the monitors, computer displays, work stations, and row after row of servers lining the far wall.

“Well, good morning, Mrs. Johnson.”

Sarah turned towards the sound of the welcome and smiled. “Good morning, Ravi.”

Walking past her with an arm load of data sheets and weekly reports was Ravi Deshpande, the great Desphande. He had come to the states from India when he was just ten years old. His father migrated here with the hopes of finding work in the aerospace industry but, instead, only found a job market full of laid off Boeing and Lockheed Martin employees. The early 90’s was not kind to the aerospace community.

Ravi, on the other hand, was a savant, a child genius no one was expecting. Suddenly thrust into a society which encouraged free choices and the pursuit of dreams, Ravi found himself confronted with new and endless possibilities. Tradition dictated he follow in his father’s footsteps. Although capable of being an engineer, Ravi had seen his father spend too many nights at home staring at reams of paper filled with equations and structural drawings. His father was a great man but his heart was never in engineering. Life took twice as much work with very little enjoyment.

That was not the life Ravi wanted to live. For Ravi, his future was elsewhere, as in other worlds kind of elsewhere, and he was eager to get there. Graduating from high school at the ripe old age of fourteen, Ravi entered the local community college not only as the youngest freshman but the youngest person to enter the astrophysics department. Three years later he was graduating college and moving on to his masters. By the time Sara was graduating with her undergraduate degree Ravi was moving on to a second masters degree and his third published paper.

Sarah’s career path wasn’t quite as straight forward or absolute as Ravi’s. Five years of undergraduate studies learning all the greats in literature and studying classical music gave Sarah the single most important lesson of all. She didn’t want to do anything with the past.

What she did learn from reading classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey was something about the human spirit. The internal drive to explore the unknown and to face the unexpected. Little did she realize then that her greatest adventure would come from her love of Beethoven.

Graduation came and went for Sarah and with it came the greatest unknown of them all – life outside of school. There was nothing out there she wanted to do. For the next five years Sarah bounced from job to job until one day she saw an ad in the local paper looking for a data logger at the ATA. Apparently the search for extra-terrestrials still required someone to punch a keyboard.

With butterflies in her stomach she called the number listed on the ad and talked to someone who sounded like they were barely old enough to drive, let alone run a research group. The conversation was just as out of place as the voice seemed, going from casual chit-chat to random questions about 10-key experience and blogging. What books had she read? Did she know who Carl Sagan was? What kind of movies did she enjoy watching? What would she do if she found a penny laying on the ground?

By the time the conversation was over she had a job. Just like that. No interview, no meet-and-greet. Nothing but show up on Monday and get started.

She really didn’t know what to expect that first day. Excitement kept her awake for most of the night before. Was she really going to work at the ATA? She was almost afraid to ask for fear it would turn out to be some cruel joke.

Morning came none-to-soon and Sarah had to focus on driving to keep from speeding. When she got to the ATA it was barely seven-thirty but that didn’t seem to matter. Light filtered out through the all glass front doors and a steady stream of people filtered inward. Sarah got out of the car and fell in line, boldly going towards a future she knew nothing about.

Out of all of the possible people who could have greeted her, one thing was certain, she wasn’t expecting was to be greeted by a twenty-five year old. Apparently the look of shock on her face was more than she could hide as she read the greeter’s name badge: Director Ravi Deshpande.

Ravi laughed and led Sarah into the “PIT” as he called it. Sarah would later learn the designation came from someone saying their job was Preparing Interstellar Transmissions. Server racks lined the walls with cables, CAT-6 lines, and power cords snaked from the racks to a series of counters serving as desks. Computers, monitors, and half-filed coffee cups littered the counter while a dozen scientists and technicians shifted their gaze from one screen to another as fingers punching keys.

It was pure chaos. Sarah’s place in all of this? To take the data the techs were tagging and pull key metrics from them so they can more easily and readily compare all the data at one time.

Her expectation was the job would last six to eight months, just long enough for her to get comfortable, then she would be asked to move on. It was the pattern her life had been in for so long she just assumed it would continue. That was six years ago. During that time she discovered something about herself. She was a data guru.

More importantly, Sarah found a place she fit in. People here got her quirky humor and her endless movie references. She loved that David had as many Star Wars Lego characters positioned around his work area as he could fit and that Amy never did let go of her gothic roots. Black leather boots, black eye shadow, and black t-shirts all highlighted by interlocking tattoos hidden (sort-of) underneath.

Roger, though, was the one that made her laugh. He was a sixty-four year old trapped in 1969. Long platinum blond hair, hippy round glasses, and a scruffy beard. Each day he wore a different t-shirt highlighting a different band, shorts, and sandals. Not once did a t-shirt repeat.

Everybody was different and yet they were the closest group of people imaginable. It wasn’t uncommon for them to spend all day together then go spend the evening hanging out at a bar.

Unfortunately, Sarah rarely got a chance to hang out at the bar. Her work schedule at the institute was shifted four hours from the others. She would get to the station around noon and leave anywhere between 8 and 10 at night. Except for Bob the janitor and Ricky the security guard she was the only one in the building past six o’clock.

It was odd at first, but it didn’t take Sarah long to get adjusted. In fact, it was the only way to do what she needed to do. For the first part of her day she would begin crunching numbers. Then, once everyone left, she would go from station to station and verify any irregular data points. Sometimes things were transcribed wrong. Sometimes there was duplicate entries. Most of the time though, Sarah found herself simply listening and learning. Why did David tag that sequence and not this one? What made it special? How did he know?

The next six years taught Sarah a lot about space and the unique sound it makes. In a few years she was able hear the sequence of a dwarf star or the thrum of a pulsar before the computer even identified the anomaly.

When asked how she was able to hear those things she simply said they had a unique song. A musical voice all their own.

If it had been anyone else walking through the Pit that fateful Thursday afternoon the sound would have gone unnoticed, but it wasn’t anyone, it was Sarah. Arms loaded with data binders and a cup of coffee in one hand, Sara made her way through the chaos, dancing around chairs as she squeezed through towards her spot at the end of the row.

She didn’t make it.

Standing, frozen in the middle of the room, Sarah dropped her coffee cup, the ceramic mug shattering into a hundred pieces as it struck the hard concrete floor. Years ago someone had put a set of Bose speakers on top of the server racks to broadcast the sound of space for all to hear. For the most part the noise was ignored, taken for granted as simply white noise without the aid of computers to interpret the sounds. It simply blended in with the hum of the server fans and idle chit chat of the room.

But Sarah was different. The signal found her and Sarah heard it and froze.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet…deet… dohhhhhh. Deet…deet…. dohhhhhh.

“Sarah? You okay?”

Sarah just stared at the speaker as Amy spoke, her black eye shadow making her iceberg blue eyes that more intense.

“Don’t you hear it?” Sarah whispered. She was afraid to speak louder for fear of scaring it away.

“Hear what?” Roger asked standing next to Sarah. His round glasses had slid down his nose making him look over the circular tops as he stared at the speakers.

Before Sarah could respond every computer, server, and printer in the Pit shut off.

“What the hell?….” someone yelled.

“Where are the back up power supplies?”

“How can this be?”

Questions flew around the room but before any of them could be answered everything came back on.

“That shouldn’t happen,” David said as he watched his monitor flicker back to life.

“Servers don’t turn on by themselves,” Amy said almost afraid to touch the keyboard in front of her.

“Sarah?”

Sarah felt the soft, gentle touch on her shoulder before she registered the sound of someone speaking. Slowly the blackness which had stolen her vision faded and the interior of the Pit returned as she turned to find herself staring into Ravi’s deep brown eyes. His young, gentle face alone seemed to ease the tension in the room.

“Yes?” Sarah said not sure what was going on. She had never experienced anything like this before. What’s more, it seemed as if everyone in the room was looking at her. What did she just do?

“What did you hear?” Ravi asked as he took stack of papers out of her arms.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said. It was….something. Almost musical in nature. Something not static.”

“Not static,” Ravi repeated.

Sarah hung her head. “I’m not making any sense, am I?”

“No, you are. It’s as good an answer as any,” Ravi replied. “You apparently heard something….big.”

Ravi looked around the room at the rebooting servers. Lights blinked as hard drives spun and CPUs came to life.

“David, I want you to pull the last five minutes of signal. Roger, see what the computers captured. I want to know if there was anything triggered before we lost power. Senior staff in the conference room in five minutes. We need to figure out what just happened.”

Everyone sprang into action. Requests called out, responses echoed. Keys clicked as people scrambled to enter passwords and get back into the system, praying what they needed was still there, uncorrupted by the power outage. Someone even managed to pick up the pieces of Sarah’s coffee cup.

Five minutes later Sarah walked into the conference room and took a seat between Roger and Amy while David queued up the audio.

“First things first,” Ravi said taking a seat in the middle of the long side of the table as David clicked the play button.

Overhead static played. Four minutes of random static filled the air. Then Sarah felt the hairs on her arms begin to stand. The energy was tangible.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet…deet… dohhhhhh. Deet…deet…. dohhhhhh.

The sequence was there, filling Sarah’s ears.

“There!” Sarah said right before the recording ended.

“There….what?” asked Ravi.

Sarah looked around the room at the assembled team. Once more they were all looking at her. David paused the recording and isolated a block of audio.

“Didn’t you hear it?” Sarah asked as she looked from face to face.

“No,” Roger said. “What did you hear?”

Sarah opened her mouth and closed it without answering. She really didn’t know what she had heard. In fact, what she heard this last time wasn’t even the same as what she heard the first time.It was different somehow.

“I don’t know,” Sarah finally said. “It sounded like music. Beethoven, I think.”

“Beethoven,” Amy repeated. “Maybe we picked up one of the local radio stations before the power surge killed everything.”

“Yeah…speaking of which, what was that?” David asked as he shifted through the stack of papers sitting in front of him. “Everything went down…even the power back ups. What’s even odder is everything came back on on it’s own. Almost as if everything went through a reboot cycle.”

Ravi sat there and listened.

“Was anything damaged?” Ravi asked looking around the room. “Any of the servers or computers?”

All heads shook slowly. No was the collective response. Nothing damaged. Nothing out of the norm except for the fact that everything shut down.

“Any thing which may keep us from continuing? Any possible risk to the ATA?”

Another collective “no” from the group.

“Sarah, anything else you wish to add?” Ravi asked.

Sarah shook her head no. What was there to add? She had no clue what was going on, how could she ‘add’ anything?

“Okay then,” Ravi said standing slowly. “Let’s get back to work. Take a few minutes to check everything over and keep an eye out for anything….unusual.”

Everyone stood, gathered their things, and left. Sarah returned to her station and tried to focus on what she needed to accomplish, but couldn’t. There was something…wrong. Something different now. Slowly, she looked around the room. Everything seemed to be ok, yet she couldn’t help shake the sensation.

The only way she was going to get over what she was feeling was to dive into work. For the next several hours all Sarah did was focus on the numbers and data given to her by her colleagues. Eventually, as the day wound down, the room began to thin out until it was just her and Ravi.

“Interesting day, eh?” the young director said as he looked around the room.

“That’s one way to put it,” Sarah replied. Concern and confusion still lingered on her face. “What do you think happened?”

Ravi Deshpande drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t know. I’ve studied outer-space my whole life and I have never seen, read, or experienced anything like what we did today. It could be anything from a new pulsar to a blip from a black hole. Whatever it was I know one thing.”

“What’s that?” Sarah asked eagerly.

“It’ll be something I won’t soon forget.” Ravi smiled at Sarah and picked up the stack of reports he had been carrying. “Don’t stay too late.”

“I won’t,” Sarah said with a smile. “I have just a few more segments to get recorded then I’ll go.”

Ravi nodded and Sarah watched as he disappeared through the door just as Bob came out of one of the offices pushing a rolling cart filled with cleaning supplies. Sarah smiled and waved as he moved to the next office. Eventually he would make it down to the Pit and they would spend a few minutes engaged in their daily routine. Bob would rattle off the latest not-safe-for-work adult joke he had heard that day and Sarah would try not to laugh and fail. For being almost seventy, Bob had the persona of a teenager.

Smiling to herself, Sarah returned her attention to her monitor and was about to enter the next string of data when it started again.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh.

The rhythmic pulse began to filter through the overhead speakers, except this time there was no power failure, no system crash, no nothing except the soft beat from the speakers.

Sarah stopped what she was doing, closed her eyes, and listened. The sequence repeated three times, each time drawing fainter. By the end it was barely heard. In fact it barely sounded like music anymore. Through the chaos of the surrounding static Sarah thought she heard something else. A single word.

Hello?

Then it was gone.

Quickly Sarah scanned through the master log and copied the last thirty seconds of audio into a mobile sound bite file and saved. Cautiously she opened the file and listened, hoping the system recorded what she had heard.

It had.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Hello?

The easy part was done. What she needed to do next was to isolate the frequency and determine if it was Earth based or not. As she listened to the sound bite again she began to wonder if it wasn’t some random bounce from someone’s HAM radio or simply atmospheric interference jumbling one of the local AM radio stations. Heck, it could even be some distortion coming in from the ISS. It wasn’t uncommon for them to get segments of conversations from the International Space Station.

Sarah rubbed her eyes and sighed. Whatever it was it can wait until tomorrow. A dull ache had started to form behind her left eye. The all too familiar sign of a migraine making its presence known.

“A hot bath and bed is what you need,” Sarah said to the empty room and shut off her monitor and left.

The next three days came and went and so did the dull ache in her head. By the end of the third day nothing was found to have caused the mysterious shutdown. No odd power surges, no signs of equipment malfunction, nothing. Even the logs on the power back up units showed no indications of having shut off. It was as if everyone imagined the same thing.

Sarah even isolated the segment where she heard the “hello”. To her it was clear, even on the replay, but no one else seemed to be able to hear it. Ravi called it ‘matrixing’, her mind was taking sounds and interpreting them as something familiar. It’s the same thing ghost hunters do when they ‘capture’ voices on tape. Your mind finds the closest word or words that make the same intonations. Suddenly a blurt of static sounds like ‘hello’.

It was an answer but not one that felt right, at least not to Sarah. There was something more to it than matrixing. The voice she heard was that of a young woman, maybe in her teens. A HAM radio interception sounded more plausible than anything, but she let it go.

The days came and went. By the end of the week Sarah had settled back into her routine and had almost forgotten about the strange signal when out of the static playing through the speakers it came again.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh.

Sarah froze and looked around the room. No one else seemed to hear it. Did she really hear it? She waited a second to see if it repeated. Nothing. Slowly her fingers began to strike the keys once more.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. “Hello?”

A cold sweat broke out across Sarah’s forehead and her stomach tightened into knots. What the hell was going on? Before she could think, Sarah had shifted screens and hit record on the audio capture program.

“You okay, Sarah?” David asked.

Sarah looked around her monitor and smiled weakly at David.

“Yeah, I think so,” Sarah said hesitantly. “You didn’t, by some chance, hear something just now….did you?”

Dave looked at Sarah and then to the speakers on top of the server racks and back to Sarah. “Just the rhythmic sound of outer-space. Why? What do you hear?”

Sarah thought for a split second of telling David what she heard. Would he understand? What would she say, that she heard something no one else heard? How would she explain that? What would that mean?

“Nothing,” Sarah said and slid back behind her monitor. On her screen scrolled the audio wave signal she was recording. Peaks and valleys danced as the indicator scrolled past. After ninety seconds the wave leveled off and returned to just static.

Apparently the computer heard something, why didn’t anyone else?

The next four hours took forever. Sarah did everything she could not to think about the recording sitting on her computer but nothing worked. All she could do was wait for everyone to leave before she could listen.

When she was finally alone at the end of the day, Sarah hovered the mouse over the sound bite and clicked.

“Hello?” spoke the young woman through the static of space. Her voice quivered slightly as she spoke. “I’m not sure if this will work but I have to try.”

Sarah sat wide-eyed as the sound bit scrolled past.

“Where to begin. I suppose with the basics. My name is Danzi-vahn Ella and my father is….rather was…. Danzi-vahn Ezi. He created this…the means by which I am able to send this message. I don’t know how it works. He tried to tell me once but I was too young to understand. My father said whenever I speak my words are sent out in all directions in space, searching for those special souls who can hear. That, my father said, was the greatest thing about his device. The signal can only be heard by those able to listen. I don’t know what that means.”

There were a series of odd sounds, like things being shuffled and the microphone being covered or moved. Then silence.

Sarah listened to the recording a dozen more times until her head started to spin. Convinced she wasn’t hallucinating or imagining the message, she saved the file in a folder marked Ella and shut off her monitor and went home.

The next day she casually played the sound bite for Roger and Amy, asking each if they heard anything out of the ordinary. To her it sounded like a pulsar but they both said they didn’t hear anything out of the norm.

For the next several weeks the messages kept coming at the same time of the day and lasting anywhere between one to three minutes. By the end of the third week Sarah had a fairly good understanding of what her new pen pal was trying to convey.

Danzi-vahn Ella was from a planet she called ZenToh, the fifth planet from their sun. Seventy five years ago their sun began to change. What should have taken millions of years happened almost over night. Their sun started the process of becoming a red giant. Radiation spikes killed millions the first week, mainly the old and extremely young. Life on their planet was doomed.

The changing light from their sun from yellow to red began to take its toll on the ZenToh people. Unprotected, the sun began to affect those who survived. Aggressions rose, as did murder and suicide.

The government did all they could to keep order but it wasn’t enough. Within months riots and crime soared to the point of being on the verge of complete social and economic collapse. Law and order had all but broken down. All, that is, except for a few small groups comprised of scientists, engineers, and physicians. These small groups had banned together to create what Ella’s father called ZenToh’s final message.

For the next decade the group worked in secrete building their world’s one and only life raft. A deep space vessel designed to take twenty men and fifty women even though the ship itself was able to hold almost ten thousand individuals.

When asked why so big for so few Ella’s father explained that the vessel was designed to be a generational ship, taking tens, if not hundreds, of generations to reach their new home. The population would continue to grow, needed to grow, over those years if their people were to have any hope of surviving.

On the eve before launch the government discovered her father’s secret. Large groups of armed police stormed their home in search of proof, any tangible information concerning the vessel’s location. Ella managed to hide from the invading men but her father was not so lucky. Ella watched as her father died protecting their world’s only hope for a future.

Reluctantly Ella boarded the ship as one of the fifty woman. At barely twelve years old Ella was one of the youngest on board. Within hours of her father’s death Future One lifted off.

Four months after leaving ZenToh a virus broke out on the ship. A deadly mutation spurred on by the increasing solar radiation from their sun. Within days half of the passengers and crew were infected. By the end of the week those not strong enough to fight the infection were dead with the others beginning to show signs of illness. Only Ella and a few of the younger members of the colony still had no signs of being sick.

The message stopped.

Days passed without any indication of a transmission. No indication if the last sons and daughters of ZenToh had survived. No way of knowing where they were heading.

Sarah sat at her station and cried. She had no reason to but she did.

Ravi walked out of his office and turned off the light and shut the door. He was about to wave good night to Sarah when he saw her bent over with her head cuddled in her arms on the counter.

“Sarah?” Ravi asked as he walked up to her and sat down next to her. “What is wrong?”

Feeling awkward, Sarah smiled and wiped a tear. “Sorry,” she said. “I just got a message from a friend….who isn’t doing well.”

Ravi raised a quizzical eyebrow and nodded in understanding.

“Sorry to intrude.”

“Ravi?” Sarah said as Ravi stood to walk away. “May I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“How long would it take a message to travel 60 light years?”

Ravi looked at Sarah and sat back down. “Interesting. If the message originated in space, and assuming a strong enough signal, it would travel about 1 light year distance per year. So, in sixty years it would traveled 60 light years.”

“What about those that sent the message?”

“That one is a bit tougher. With current technology it would take us about twenty-one thousand years to travel one light year. If we were to perfect an ion based propulsion system it is theoretical to travel much faster. Maybe even half the speed of light safely.”

Ravi paused and looked at Sarah and smiled. “Your friend accidentally hitch a ride on a rocket somewhere?”

Sarah smiled back. “No. Thinking about her got me thinking about what we are doing here. What are we listening for? Wouldn’t any message we receive be from someone who lived a long time ago? There would be no way to send a reply.”

“Maybe,” Ravi said. “Even though they may be gone doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything important to say. Think of it as if you were reading a journal kept by your great great grandfather. You get to learn about the life he lived as a child. The first job he ever had. Maybe what he felt like the first time he kissed his soon-to-be bride. So much could be learned if we are willing to simply listen.”

Silence settled between the two as Sarah thought about what Ravi said. Deep down a small spark of hope began to build for Danzi-vahn Ella and her friends. Somehow she knew she would make it through. Somehow she knew there would be more messages from her. She just had to listen.

“Thank you Ravi,” Sarah said.

“I’m not sure what I said, but you’re welcome. Have a great night, Sarah.”

“Good night, Ravi.”

Sarah watched as the front door to the institute closed and Bob emerged from one of the offices pushing his cart.

With a smile on her face, Sarah opened the folder titled Ella and clicked on the first recording in the list. With a pen in hand she began to write what she heard.

The first line said it all.

“Hello?”

From → Short Story

2 Comments
  1. Dena permalink

    Great story. It’s very emotionally captivating, but sad. I kept hoping that somebody besides Sarah would be able to hear the sound. The story kept me engaged until the end.

    • Dena, thanks for the comment! It was a fun story to write. Sometimes it’s good to have all the pieces fall into place and sometimes it’s good to see what your character(s) will do when things just don’t. Not everything has an answer. It’s fun to play in that sandbox too. Thanks again. I hope you enjoy the other stories. More to come!

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