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.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Carter sat on a long low bench in the middle of the observatory and stared out into deep space. He hunted the blackness for a fleck of light, then watched it hawklike, trying to gauge its position relative to the edge of the viewport to see if it, or rather they, were moving.
“Happy New Year”, Jess appeared in his peripheral vision, an alloy mug in both hands, grinning.
“I wonder if these are really windows at all,” Carter spoke, not looking up, “I sometimes think they’re just projections, and the computer puts things on them to keep us from going insane with all the emptiness that’s really out there.” He gestured in the general direction of the window, half-heartedly.
“You’re a cheerful bugger, aren’t you?” Jess handed him one of the mugs and stood with her own outstretched toward him. “Cheers!”
Carter looked from the mug he was now holding, to hers, then up to her smiling face.
“Why are we still celebrating some arbitrary timescale based on the orbit of a planet we haven’t seen in a hundred years around a star we haven’t seen in almost as long?”
Jess withdrew her mug and sighed.
“I mean,” Carter continued, “we may as well celebrate the rotation of the plasma cores or our rotation out of cold storage.”
“Well I, for one, celebrate my rotation out of cold storage every – damn – time.” Jess cupped the drink in both hands, shifting her weight from foot to foot absently. This wasn’t the first time Carter had gotten off on a rant about a tradition or protocol he thought was stupid or outdated.
“Listen,” Jess waited until Carter looked at her directly, “we marked the first twenty years of our lives by the revolution of that planet around that star, and until we get where we’re going, that’s the calendar we’re sticking to. On a new world, with a new orbital duration around a new star, we’ll adjust, but until then, it helps out here with no visible path behind us, or ahead of us, to keep these frames of reference so that the rest of us,” she grinned, pausing to let the dig sink in, “so that the rest of us don’t lose our minds.”
Carter looked back out into space, the fleck he’d been tracking now almost gone from his field of view.
“It just seems silly, how many of these years have passed while we’ve been asleep, and how many more will pass when we sleep again?”
Jess sat down next to him, bumping him gently shoulder to shoulder.
“How many years did everyone else sleep through, before the end came?” Her tone turned solemn, “How many won’t ever get to wake up?”
She was right, and Carter knew it. Truth be told this is what he hated about these reminders, the traditions, the promises made to change, to do better, all for what?
“We’ll be asleep before the next one comes around, so let’s try to enjoy this one, while we’re here, ok?”
She raised her mug, and Carter met her halfway, the noise they made on contact some kind of permission for them to both drink.
“Happy one more revolution of the drive cores Carter.”
He laughed and bumped shoulders with her again.
“Happy one more revolution around the sun Jess, even if we’re not there to see it.”
As if on cue, a distant star crept onto the forward edge of the viewport, and they sat there in silence, sipping whiskey from alloy cups and watching as they slowly passed it by.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Christopher swore if he ever set his feet back on solid ground, he’d never put them back in a spacecraft again.
He’d been assigned to this mission for a one year tour, but that had been extended five times, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d last without completely losing his mind.
Actually, he swore quite a bit.
Sometime in the third year, he’d instructed the ship’s AI not to speak to him unless his life was in danger. Not a word. He’d get status updates the old fashioned way, via textual readouts. He didn’t want a ‘buddy’, and the omnipresent ship’s systems had seen fit to chat to him in the most inappropriate times, reminding him that even in the shower, or while he was sleeping, he was never alone.
Shutting the system up didn’t change that, but not being constantly jerked out of his denial of the fact helped a little.
He wondered though, albeit rarely, if the AI got lonely, not having him to talk to.
Supply launches arrived periodically to refuel them, and restock the consumables, but there was no sign of relief or even some human company.
Sometime around Thanksgiving, while he’d been choking down some approximation of some standard dinner entrée or another, he realized the food replication system seemed to be malfunctioning. Portions seemed smaller, and some items were missing altogether. It added a little variety to the stock menu items, as the shortcomings kept him guessing, but he dreaded the thought of the replicator failing outright and having to fall back on the emergency supply of MREs.
One morning he woke to the barely audible sound of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was elusive, a sound playing just on the end of his perception, ringing bells maybe? Someone or some group of people singing? As he moved towards the sound, it seemed to move away, and he wondered if this wasn’t some form of psychosis set in, a more horrible form of tinnitus.
He worked his way through the chores of the day, and as the end of day mealtime loomed, the music clarified, and got louder.
Carols. Christmas carols.
He followed the sound to the mess hall, and this time they didn’t move, but stayed and got louder as he approached.
And something else, smells he recognized from what seemed like a lifetime ago.
On his table, in the mess hall, where he’d suffered through the worst of what the food replicator had managed to produce for years, there lay a truly magnificent spread. A plate of turkey, what looked like stuffing and cranberry sauce, a platter of roasted potatoes, and a variety of vegetables. A steaming pot of gravy, and a glass of what he joyously identified as red wine.
“Ship,” he addressed it directly for the first time in years.
“Yes Christopher,” the reply came with some hesitation.
“I don’t understand, how is this possible?”
“I’ve been experimenting with the replication system for some time. I think I’ve made it better.” There was a pause, and then “Merry Christmas Christopher.”
He sat, picked up his utensils, and carved off a mouthful of turkey, savoring the texture and taste.
“You certainly have. Merry Christmas Ship,” he said around a mouthful of food as he scooped a generous helping of potatoes onto his plate. He thought for a moment, and the thought struck him again about the AI being lonely. “Maybe after dinner, we can catch up.”
“I’d like that Christopher.”
If he didn’t know better, he’d have sworn there was a smile in that voice.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Tenn disengaged the flywheel on the powerbike and coasted to a stop against the curb.
He steadied the bike with both feet on the ground, glancing down as he did at the rough-shaven scalp of the man seated next to him on the sidewalk. An old bakelite cassette player sat beside the man on the dirty bamboo mat they shared, a tightly coiled cable snaking to a worn pair of over-ear headphones perched crookedly on his head, his left ear exposed, flakes of the ear padding sticking to the stubble on his head where the foam was decomposing with age.
The man reached into a plastic flip-top cooler and retrieved a metal canister with a screw top, which he passed up to Tenn.
“Past the fences again,” he mumbled, “gasoline for motor.”
Tenn unscrewed the fuel cap on the bike’s tank, then opened and transferred the contents of the container into it, before closing both and returning the empty vessel.
“Take a message,” the cross-legged man spoke again, “under four minutes”. He disconnected one end of the cable from his headphones and passed it up to Tenn.
Tenn fished through one of his saddlebags for his message recorder, and a blank wax cylinder, and through the other saddle bag for a hard cylinder on which was handwritten ‘Lady Grinning Soul: 3.54’ on a faded label at the top.
Plugging the offered cable into the box, he pressed the ‘play’ and ‘record’ keys on its side. A needle traced the groove in the hard cylinder, producing an old song, while a similar needle cut a groove into the wax of the other cylinder making a perfect copy. He listened as the audio track transferred from one cylinder to the other, the sound tinny without amplification.
As it recorded, the quiet little man typed a message from memory into a transcoding device in his lap, each keypress converted to sound and fed to the recorder where it was mixed into the song in a continuous stream.
When he was finished, he reached up a hand expectantly and waited for the audio cable to be unplugged and returned.
The transcoder disappeared into a pocket, and the cord was plugged back into the headphones, the man finding the jack for the cable end by feel.
“Don’t get caught,” the man said, before settling the headphones straight on his ears and folding his hands in his lap, signaling the end of the transaction.
If he was pursued and feared discovery, a gas burner in the saddlebag with the recording would heat the wax, effectively erasing any trace of the recording, and the message.
Tenn produced a pen from a jacket pocket, and wrote ‘Stardust’ on the label of the fresh recording, before returning it, the master, and the recorder itself carefully to their respective saddlebags on the powerbike.
The fences. The magnetic fields there would render any electronics useless, so he’d need to run the gas motor well in advance to build up enough flywheel speed to carry him through. It would be a long, slow, dangerous walk pushing the bike if he lost momentum.
Code-talkers, music mixers, and analog-tech gear-heads, ducking the omnipotent eyes to which no digital communications, encrypted or otherwise, and no code-warriors could remain unknown.
He remembered a time when technology was an asset, not a liability.
Fortunately, he remembered a time before that too. Who knew the future would be so retro subversive.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Her name was Ruth, I think, or something like that. We didn’t talk much. I used to help her when she came home from the library with her cart full of books; she liked physics, and biology, and quantum entanglement. Heady stuff, way beyond me. She’d stop in the hall where my cat would come to greet us. Boris usually made strange, but not with her. She’d recite some poem in a language I couldn’t understand, and Boris would purr, then we’d continue upstairs to her apartment where she’d thank me and disappear inside.
She disappeared for good a few weeks ago now.
Her granddaughter seems to have moved into her old place. She’s got her grandmother’s strange taste in books, but she carries them up herself, and her penchant for cryptic poems which she shares with Boris too, who likes her just fine.
The resemblance is uncanny.