A soft but piercing tone cut through the white noise of the humming computers.
“What the hell!” Samantha Monroe, a research scientist, winced as the tone blended with the 90s music streaming from her MP3 player. She yanked the earbuds out of her ears, her eyes wide. She’d worked at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute for six years, but she hadn’t heard that particular 400Hz triangle wave tone in years. Not until now.
She pushed away from her desk and craned her head around the wall of her cubicle so she had a clear line of sight to the back corner. The Very Large Monitor Database, a suite of computers hooked up to four 40-inch monitors that had live data continually fed from the Allen Telescope Array, was the source of the tone. The lower-left monitor was lit up with a red-outlined alert window with “SIGNAL DETECTED” flashing in the center.
Almost falling out of her seat, she ran to the VLM. Without taking her eyes off the alert window, her mind ran through the possibilities as Groove Is In The Heart started to play. Sliding the earbuds back into her ears, she took a deep breath as she sat in front of the four monitors. They displayed spectrographic data that should’ve been impossible.
Okay, okay, okay, is this real? This can’t be real, but is it?
“Time to confirm,” she said out loud as the tone fell silent upon her clearing the alert. Time to see from what area of space the detected signal originated.
As the main riff of the song played, Sam’s mind and energy honed on this signal, her fingers typing while scanning local wide-band and narrow-band frequencies. Her first goal was to rule out any Earth-born signals that could’ve bounced off a satellite and hit the radio dishes at ATA.
“Holy shit,” she whispered as the data in front of her confirmed the space-born nature of the signal. Twice. Three times.
No. This can’t be real.
Sam chewed on her lip, scrutinizing the formulas on the monitor in front of her that broke down the narrow-band frequency into several distinct sections. She looked for common errors in the software that could’ve triggered the alert, then looked for modulations in the signal that would indicate a spinning pulsar or a late-type star generating the signal.
The analysis software worked as intended—no stars or pulsars existed in the direction that the signal emanated from.
This just can’t.
She glanced at the desk phone to the left of the keyboard. No way I’m calling anyone, she thought. Have to confirm everything. She knew better than to cry wolf when there were false-positives in the past. Calling in the entire brigade would result in her being in hot water if it turned out to be anything other than extraterrestrial in origin—something that seemed more and more likely.
She sucked in a large breath of air as she leaned closer to the monitor which displayed the source of the signal: Pluto. Pluto! At least, all indicators said that approximately seven hours ago the downgraded planet was the source of a possible extraterrestrial beacon.
She typed several commands to process the fresh data even further, triangulating the approximate location on or near Pluto that the frequency originated. After mashing the ENTER key, the displayed dataset made her blink rapidly with a slackened mouth, as if the data was a mirage and blinking would correct it. The signal originated fifteen thousand kilometers over the surface of Pluto and not beyond the planet. With every false-positive in the past, the signals originated from other stars. Detecting one just 7.5 billion kilometers away from Earth was a first. She had to make sure every decibel, every frequency, every number that had to be carried over another number—that everything was correct. And she checked again. And again.
As Groove Is In The Heart came to a close, Sam glanced at the date and time in the corner of the monitor. The signal was broadcasting itself for at least seven hours, the amount of time needed for it to reach Earth from Pluto. Everything pointed to this not being a fluke.
“Holy shit,” she proclaimed again, her right leg rapidly bobbing under the desk. “I need to call Jennifer. Get more people here now.”
She reached for the desk phone and dialed Jennifer Epstein’s cell, one of the Senior Research Scientists at SETI and Sam’s superior. She rarely called her outside of regular work hours unless it was an emergency or critically important—this signal classified as both. Her heart pounded as she kept staring at the spread of information on the four monitors. The sound of Jennifer’s phone ringing from the desk phone speaker was loud, but not enough to drown out the thoughts running through her head.
This is real.
Covered by an open magazine that contained articles on current world events, a smartphone began playing the first six seconds of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a ringtone selected for all stored SETI contacts. The sound from the phone’s speakers were loud enough to cause Jennifer to shift under her cotton bedding. It took three rings before Jennifer flung her hand over to the phone, knocking the magazine and her reading glasses onto the floor from the nightstand.
As she mentally ran through the short list of people that had her cell number, Jennifer, now resting on her side, brought the now-muted phone at eye level. Though everything was blurry and some of her shoulder-length black hair further obscured her vision, the name on the phone’s screen was unmistakable.
Jennifer exhaled as she slid her thumb across the screen, answering the call while she pressed the speaker button, amplifying the excited voice of Sam. “Dr. Epstein! Get here quick!”
“What happened, Sam?” Jennifer queried, her mind still hazy from the abrupt wake-up call.
“I was just, you know, doing my usual graveyard shift, running some algorithms through the latest batch of spectral modulations from Allen—data mining and all that—”
“Please, cut to the chase,” Jennifer interrupted, her head now firmly planted back in her pillow and eyes closed.
“Signal detected, doc. Signal detected!”
Ah, this again. Jennifer had participated in dozens of events like this, all of which ended with false positives or were new astronomical discoveries that happened to emanate radio waves. One more such event, though exciting, shouldn’t get her protégé so frantic.
“Have you run the frequency through normal detection procedures?” Jennifer continued to make herself comfortable in her warm bed, not reacting too much to this news.
“I’ve triple-checked everything. This is real and coming from Pluto!”
“What?” Jennifer pushed herself into a sitting position against the back of her bed. Her brow raised slightly at the mention of Pluto—a signal coming from one of Earth’s own planetary neighbors was a twist.
“We need to bring in the rest of the team pronto, doc,” Sam said. “Gordan, Nic, the whole team! Alert the director, too.”
Jennifer leaned over the side of her bed to scoop her glasses off the carpeted floor. She opened the drawer to her nightstand and grabbed the thin, black slab that was her SETI-provided smartphone. Unlike her personal phone, this had secured access to SETI’s servers which included an app designed to push the same alerts the VRM received. After the screen turned on, she tapped her password.
“Dr. Epstein? Doctor?” Sam impatiently waited for a response as Jennifer swiped down on her phone screen to see the signal notification that was pushed to her phone at 4:39am. It included the signal origin coordinates and its frequency: Right Asc: 18h 52m 57.7s Decl: -20° 14’ 37.1” ; Freq: 5106.82MHz.
The numbers all came into focus as she slid her glasses on. She cocked her head as she scratched the side of her jaw. The frequency presented was far higher than anything they’ve detected in space before outside of pulsars—except this originated from Pluto.
“Why would there be a signal from Pluto?” Jennifer asked herself rather than to Sam.
“That’s what I can’t wait to find out,” Sam said. “Shall I call in the rest?”
Jennifer shook her head, despite Sam not being able to see the gesture. Stay composed. “Once I review the data, we’ll decide if having the team on-site at six in the morning will be better than at nine,” Jennifer said. She dropped the smart phone onto her bed while she slung her legs onto the floor and started toward her closet. She eyeballed a button-down shirt and pants that she could quickly throw on for her twenty-minute drive to the office. “However, I’ll be there immediately.”
Despite it being a weekday, the drive along Route 237 West was uneventful and fast. Jennifer knew the highways around her home well, though she was never a fan of waking up early enough to beat rush-hour traffic. Her work phone, loosely nestled in the cup holder in front of the unused CD player, dinged with text messages from Sam. She picked up her phone and scanned the first message before she placed the phone back down: “Still can’t believe it. Nicolas is on the way.”
Of course Nic’s on the way, Jennifer thought—he’s one of the most obsessed support scientists on her team. Even the slightest variance in a star’s brightness would send him into a researcher frenzy to understand everything there was to know about that star. Where his bursts of energy came from, she might never know, but his contributions to the team couldn’t be denied.
As she left behind the suburban blocks of Milpitas and looked at the water-starved fields just beyond the Los Esteros Energy Center, thoughts of both the past and future filled her mind.
Though she’d been working at SETI for over twenty years, every “signal found” message always found a way to send chills down her spine.
If this is really happening, everything will change, Jennifer thought to herself as the dried fields gave way to vast corporate parks and the large set of runways that sat behind the NASA Ames Research Center. Her personal phone vibrated atop her work phone. The predicted text message from Grace, her mother, arrived on schedule: a verse from the Bible that she likely felt was appropriate for the week.
Hopefully, Jennifer thought as she looked at the message from her mother while hearing her work phone chime once more. Hopefully this signal could bring the change we all need.