A harsh buzzer pierced the silence of the small, hot bedroom. Fully drawn curtains mediocrely kept out the severe afternoon sun and the hand of Heath Cooper emerged from underneath the doona to swipe at the offending alarm clock. In response, the buzzer changed to a local radio station playing jazz. Groaning and in pain, the lanky man sat up and rubbed his eyes, squinting against the outback sun. He looked over at the clock that read 5 pm.
He hobbled out of bed and moved through the small rented house towards the kitchen counter, reaching for the pack of cigarettes at the end. The scent in his apartment could only be described as Australian bush; hot and stale. Sweat had already formed on his brow in the unairconditioned living room. Lighting a cigarette and inhaling deep, Heath looked over to the coffee machine and flipped its switch. He leaned back with eyes closed and listened to the percolator, trying to remember how many stubbies he had last in boredom after his shift early this morning.
Reaching for the fridge door, he checked how many were missing. Six. Taking out one of the three food products in the fridge, the small packet with a premade bagel sandwich, Heath casually tossed it into the empty microwave. Moving back to the bedroom, he rifled through a pile of clothes on the floor before finding a pair of jeans and a collared plaid shirt, shuffling into both.
Fifteen minutes later his old Toyota Camry was cruising down the tar road around the edge of town. Sipping coffee from a travel cup, he eyed the setting sun and made a move to turn on his headlights, but thought better of it. The small wallaby he hit last week didn’t do much damage to his bumper, but it was enough for him to cringe. He only found out later from colleagues that it was attracted to his lights near sunset and remembered with chagrin the ribbing everyone had given the new city boy.
After a few minutes on the road, the satellite dish came into view. Briefly glancing up to it from the road, the slight discoloration from rust along the edges and the other subtle hints of age were well visible at this time of the day, even from the road. With chagrin it reminded him of the stark contrast between it and of his ‘home dish’.
When the primary dish in Canberra had an unexpected blowout in the main antennae and would require a 10-week repair, CSIRO, the main science institute for Australia, had put Heath’s project on the Parkes satellite schedule and he was shipped out to woop woop for the time plus some. He had expected a fossil, standing alone in the bush, maybe gums surrounding it. He wasn’t far off, but was happy to find that while the facility hadn’t changed, the satellite itself was regularly upgraded and technologically capable.
The sun fell below the horizon and the sky was decorated with reds and purples as he drove. While there was significantly less to do this far out, he could at least acknowledge that the bush had its own beauty, and ‘The Dish’ itself had some impressive history. Passing by old pictures and information boards in the visitor’s center every day, the most famous one that stuck out was its role as the relay station to America for the Apollo moon landing.
Still driving and passing a tourist information sign, he mentally made note to play the dutiful son next month and take his visiting parents to the National Rose Garden after they toured the satellite. Heath had only been in Parkes for six out of his potential twelve weeks, but it seemed he had already reached the extent of what the town could offer outside of a pub.
Turning onto Telescope Road, he recognized the red sedan passing as one of the staff at the gift shop. Glancing at the clock, he realized he was a few minutes late and everything would be closed up for the night. Although it wasn’t necessary for radio astronomy, Heath liked working the night shift more than the day; less incoming requests from the main office, less people, less distractions, and more thinking space. And when the work of reading monitors, collecting data and interpreting got too monotonous, he could always walk outside for the night sky where the universe seemed to be more than a computer screen and input/outputs. Just less bullshit really, he thought.
Parking in the small lot, he grabbed his messenger bag from the front seat and began walking across to the building. Despite being late March the bush was still hot and a warm breeze blew through the near-empty parking lot. He paused, closed his eyes and faced it, smelling the unmistakable trace of bushfire and eucalyptus, enjoying it ruffle his ear-length hair. Opening his eyes to the near-dark sky with it’s slim crescent moon, he spotted angry Mars rising next to it. It was going to be a clear night, and with that crescent moon, would have been a good one for the telescope if he hadn’t been working.
Pulling a cigarette out from behind his ear and lighter from his pocket, he shielded himself from the wind while lighting. Examining the moon and the slowly emerging stars, he wondered, not for the first time, the irony of his choice of profession. Most satellites and telescopes have to be far away from cities in order to avoid light pollution, and therefore, people. But to be good in the field and have a high ranking position, you needed to be in a city, and most likely in a data-driven job. One or the other. Lowly and happy, or well-paid and have to drive 3 hours a night with your telescope in the boot.
After a few minutes of steeling himself with nicotine, he continued through the now pitch black parking lot to the front doors of the building, swiping his pass at the entry panel before pulling the door. Striding in and heading to the operating rooms on the second floor, he passed the visitors’ center with their replicas of Apollo 11 module, before coming to a door marked ‘Employees Only’ where a set of bare legs in low black heels greeted him. He blinked a few times to make sure this was what he was really seeing. Sure enough, his coworker, Veronica, was wearing a skirt tonight.
In a job where you had very little contact with more than two people and sat in a chair most of the night, nothing more than your most comfortable clothes were expected, and anything more was considered overdressed. Leaning forward to look around the wall, Veronica’s head came into view.
“Running a little late tonight?” She teased.
“Living on the edge,” he grinned and she returned a shy smile, tucking her hair behind her ear. He noticed the action and suddenly realized why the change in attire. She had mentioned a few nights ago about going out sometime for a drink. He had honestly pushed it out of his mind as soon as she had said it. Perhaps this was her way of reminding him of the potential date?
He smiled inwardly. They had been lightly flirting for a few weeks, but perhaps legs in his face was her way of asking for more? Unfortunately for her, Heath never tried it on with girls in the same, small, cramped, operating room. Too much chance for future awkwardness, a lesson he learned early on in a lab in the second year of uni.
He could understand her though, Veronica was a local. Growing up an hour away, she left for uni and came back. She was far too educated for the local male population and it probably was glaring obvious with her romantic encounters. She needed him, whether for the twelve weeks though or twelve days he didn’t know, he wouldn’t ask, and she wouldn’t find out.
Since graduating a few years ago, Heath could easily admit he was above the chaff of men who worked in astronomy and considered himself handsome. When he wasn’t slouching over a keyboard, at 27 he stood over six foot, thankfully with a slim body he attributed to his mother’s metabolism; the line of work didn’t exactly lend itself to a healthy lifestyle. Dinners from vending machines, where walking to your car and back counted as exercise, and for those in the night shift, socializing was cast aside in favor of sleeping through the day. But he had a strong jaw, and pleasing face to match a sturdy frame, he also knew it gave him a little too much confidence.
Veronica swung round in her chair to face her monitor, “Hey, it’s your research time, I just hate to see government dollars wasted.”
“For your information, I was late because the perfect bagel sandwich takes time to reheat,” he retorted with a smirk.
He passed her on his way to the slim lockers at the side of the room and opened the end one with “Cooper” written on masking tape. Placing his satchel on the hook, he took out his coffee thermos, closed the door shut and moved through the aisle of panels over to his station at the other end of the room, admiring Veronica’s legs once more on his way through. Landing in the chair, he placed the thermos onto his work station and logged onto the computer system in front of him.
Pouring a cup of dark brew out, Heath paused mid-pour as if trying to remember something, then swung his chair 180 degrees to face the desk opposite to him. It was clearly a panel that they hardly used with stacks of binders on the workspace, but the console was still operational as a small red light was blinking at him. It would have gone totally unnoticed if the folder were stacked 2 inches higher. Rolling his chair over, he placed them on the floor, and turned to Veronica.
“Ron, I’ve haven’t used this panel down here yet. What is it?”
She looked up from a book, and furrowed her brow in thought. “Thatttt issssss….ah, that’s the console we have reserved for the DSN. The Yanks ask us to check on Voyager 1 every now and then when they can’t, so the bosses set aside their own panel to kiss arse i think.”
Heath raised his eyebrows. “The Deep Space Network? And I guess you don’t know how long this receiving light has been flashing?” He motioned to the panel and light.
Rolling her chair down the aisle next to him, she studied the blinking light and even tapped on it. “Mmmm, I don’t know, I haven’t looked down here in awhile, but I guess I would notice it if I passed it. I’m sure Tom would have seen it when his shift ended half hour ago,” referring to their colleague who worked Heath’s station during the day.
She continued, “I don’t get it though, usually we don’t receive anything from Voyager one unless we are specifically tuned for it, and I’ve had the dish pointed at Vega for a while now. It transmits on the 8ghz frequency, but it only has 23 Watts of power, so it is too weak to flood the signal from all the way out…, gosh it must be a few light years out of the solar system by now.”
Heath leaned back in his chair, and thought. Voyager was now way out into interstellar space, which made it highly unlikely that the signal was coming from it. He logged onto the console and pulled up the receiving screen. The visual bar graph was stunning. The system showed that it had been receiving it for the last 11 minutes, and the signal was a powerful burst in some sort of order Heath didn’t recognize.
Veronica muttered next to him under her breath, “Fuuuuuuuuuuck.”
“No shit. Flip on the audio receiver,” he quickly motioned to the speaker at the end of the desk.
She flung her chair down the row, pressed a few buttons and turned an audio volume button to the right.
Suddenly there was a loud pulse in the room. It wasn’t exactly constant, but it had some rhythm to it. After thirty seconds of listening, the pulse broke and there was a loud, raspy voice over the receiver that spoke something between mumbled Maori and something out of Africa. After fifteen seconds of the voice, the pulse resumed.
Heath and Veronica looked at one another. “Wait. What?” Heath questioned, seemingly directed at the panel.
Veronica moved back next to Heath and typed a request into the system.
As if someone had doused a fire, the energy in Veronica suddenly subsided as she leaned back and looked at him with a smirk.
“I think we are being pranked. It says that the signal is coming near Jupiter.”
“It can’t be NASA’s ‘Clipper’ yet, maybe one of the European satellites off-orbit?”
Veronica shook her head, a puzzle on her face, “With that transmission? I don’t think so. Most likely some wise ass genius kid with some sort of powerful ham-radio is trying to get some shits and giggles. How he is faking the transmission source though, I have no idea.”
Heath looked at the visual receiver still on the screen. The pulse seemed innocuous enough, it could have been any coded message. Perhaps there was even a malfunction in their computer and it was actually coming from an orbiting satellite. But that voice felt a little too ominous and after a minute of thinking, Heath replied, “I think I’ll call Hilo, just to check,” and swung back to his desk to pick up the phone, pulling out a binder from a drawer underneath for the number.
A few minutes later he was talking to his counterpart on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Veronica listening to one side of the conversation. “Yeah, it’s on the DSN frequency of eight gigs, we are getting a strong signal here, and it’s... unusual. Seems to be replaying the same message every 10 minutes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, mate, I’ll wait.”
He pressed the phone between his ear and shoulder and looked over at Veronica.
“Yes,” she replied, biting her fingernails, “and increased in strength by.002 since transmission.”
“Jesus, so it’s either getting closer, or whomever it is just poured more juice into the signal,” Heath replied with awe.
A noise through the phone receiver drew his attention back.
“I know, right? It started about half an hour ago now, according to our recorders. Can you confirm with VLR in Mexico? I really don’t want to call anyone big about this til we’re sure. Great, call back would you when you confirm? I’ll ring up the Africans.”
He hung up the phone and made another call similar to the first,Veronica still sitting at the console jiggling her legs with nervous excitement. Hanging up the phone a final time near ten minutes later, he looked over to her, shaking his head with amazement. Leaning back in his rolling chair, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his packet of cigarettes and lighter, breaking protocol number one of no smoking near expensive machinery.
Placing one in his mouth and lighting it immediately, he wasted no time to take a long and deep breath before slowly exhaling. Veronica was on the edge of her seat. “Well?” Heath finished exhaling, a long cloud of smoke quickly rising above him. He looked over at Veronica again before one end of his mouth turned up into a child-like smirk.