Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Jeb startled at the suddenly ringing telephone. It took a moment to register, the old analog handset on his desk hadn’t been used in years, and he struggled to identify what that sound was before digging through a stack of papers to retrieve the receiver from the cradle.
“Hello? Yes? Dr. Stenson here, who is this?”
A tinny voice crackled through the speaker.
“Dr. Stenson, this is Darlene at the Green Bank Observatory. Apologies for the wire call, it’s all we get out of the radio-quiet zone.”
Green Bank, the radio telescope out of the Monongahela Forest.
“Darlene, I don’t believe we’ve met, have we? What can I do for you?”
“Well Dr. Stenson, your name is on the top of my call sheet if anything unusual happens with the radio chatter we’re monitoring from space, and… well, something unusual has happened.”
Jeb straightened in his chair, pulling the bakelite phone across his desk as though having the unit closer might make the signal clearer.
“Unusual? How, unusual?” She had his full attention now. He’d been monitoring radio signals from space for most of his career, and they’d been described using many words synonymous with boring and uneventful, never unusual.
“A few days ago, the amplitude of all the incoming traffic cut in half. We checked the calibration of all the equipment, as we thought it may have been something out of alignment on our end, but everything checks out, the radio signals just got quieter, and then today…” She paused.
“Yes? What today?” Jeb almost shouted at the phone.
“Today it all stopped. Nothing. It’s all gone quiet. I think you should get down here, see the raw data, see if it makes any sense to you.”
The Dr. pushed back from his desk, holding the phone to his ear, waiting for an explanation to present itself, but nothing came.
“Dr. Stenson?” Darlene broke the silence.
“You’re sure this isn’t an equipment malfunction?”
“Positive. We’ve recalibrated.”
“I’ll head down now, I’ll need an address.”
“I’ll have to give you directions, you can’t trust GPS out here.”
Darlene dictated the route he’d need to take turn by turn, which Jeb scribbled on a notepad before hanging up and rushing to the parking lot.
A few hours later, as Tom Petty was belting out ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’, Jeb hit the first landmark from Darlene’s instructions, turning to head South on Route 92, and instinctively turned the radio down low so he could concentrate on following her directions.
Fifteen minutes later he drove through Arbovale. The sun already down, the road in near utter darkness, he turned the radio off completely so he didn’t miss his destination.
His hand froze on the stereo knob, and he hit the brakes hard as the realization struck him.
He sat in the middle of the road staring at the stereo for a long time, before slowly looking up.