Slow waves broke over the pier, vanishing into the grey mists beyond. Neal looked over the edge into the water, past his reflection into the shadowy depths. A white shape, flowing and moving. Arms reaching out, impossibly long. Tendrils of fingers breaking the surface, curling around his face smothering his breath. Gasping and choking, he pulled back sharply as the —
Neal snapped awake at his desk, toolbox in disarray next to his chair. As comfortable as his chair was, it made for a lousy bed. His neck and lower back ached. His hand still curled around the mouse. Neal’s workstation hummed softly, hard drive burbling to itself as he leaned back and rubbed his eyes.
What a strange dream.
Standing slowly, Neal made his way to the industrial coffee machine on the counter. It had seen better days, but the scratched and worn surface had a sort of character that Neal liked. “You and me buddy, until something interesting happens.”, Neal took the empty pot out and gave it a rinse. Something about regular routines that allowed his brain to roam free.
Discrete steps. Locate coffee pouch. Tear open, taking care not to apply too much pressure. Scattered grounds were the last thing Neal wanted to deal with. Besides, it would be a terrible waste of delicious brew. Filter, grounds, reinsert and lock. Filling the pot with water and dumping it into the machine, Neal slotted the pot and pressed the large amber “Start” button.
All sorted. Neal would complain about someone leaving the pot empty for the next person, but that someone had been himself. Not many visitors out here, aside from the occasional tour and official review. But Neal liked it this way. Coffee smells filled the room as he sat back down at his desk.
Neal’s monitor was decorated with various notes and reminders. Even in the digital age, Neal wasn’t comfortable with being fully virtual. He knew the fragility of whirling electrons on spinning platters, having lost a portion of work in a drive crash a few years ago. Backups were only as good as the last time they were refreshed.
Neal preferred to write his more promising findings on paper, in a log book decorated with a “I want to believe” sticker, replete with a blurry photo of a saucer-like object. It was Neal’s inside joke, as he was increasingly convinced that Fermi’s Paradox meant we were in the wrong period of history, all prior civilizations having gone extinct on remote planets we’d never see.
Still, it didn’t stop him from looking.
Sitting down, he scooted closer to the desk. Neal tapped the keyboard, awakening his desktop display. Neal had four screens, but when working with data he used the largest one in the center. The others were tasked to observatory data feeds and general communications with observers all across the globe.
He had left off near the end of his captured files. The algorithms hadn’t flagged any of the files for further study, but Neal liked to check to be sure.
Clicking on the next to last file, Neal invoked a utility that allowed him to see the spectrum data, in addition to a raw dump of sensor data for good measure. Waves wound up and down on a long horizontal axis, mostly sticking with the baseline drawn through its mean. The observatory was located in the outback of Australia for a reason, isolation from all kinds of signal interference.
It meant a few inconveniences, like the heavily shielded office that had no outside comms save the internet chat windows on his machine. Cell phones were prohibited, along with all their noisy bluetooth-enabled cousins. This allowed for sensitive equipment to receive faint signals from space, amplifying the output into a readable format for human and machine alike.
“Oh ho, what is this?”, Neal highlighted a segment of the display, routing the output to a smaller pop-out window that allowed for more detailed examination. A small waveform poked above the noise floor, like a curious porpoise peeking at a ship passing by. The algos had missed it, since the report threshold was slightly above the peak.
This deserved further study. Neal wrote down the file name and timestamp in his log book, tracing out an approximate profile of the wave. Printing out a screenshot, he attached it to the page as a reminder and bookmark. The shape itself was odd, smaller peaks-within-peaks that suggested something more complex.
It could be nothing.
Neal sighed, leaning back. How many years had it been, out here? He had a hard time recalling. Sunrise into sunset, short trips into town to get supplies. It stretched on like long shadows in a forest, blending together into a pattern of grey and black, until night fell and there was nothing but the rustle of leaves and creaking of branches.
Neal stared at this ceiling tiles, dotted pits like an inverted star field. He wanted to go out into space, but he wasn’t astronaut material. “Those also serve who only stand and wait”, Milton’s words rang true, even centuries later. In the corner of the room, a phone started to ring.
A call? Out here? How unexpected. Neal rushed to the wall-mounted receiver, knocking over a pile of old printouts.
“Hello?”, Neal paused, only hearing the hiss of static.
“Mr. Watkins. We need to talk.”
Neal nodded and listened, breaking dawn casting a dim orange light as the voice began to speak.
(To be continued.)