The signal was clear and precise due to the voice qualities of the alien sending it.
Subsequently, the specific radio source was considered an element of a general-radio-frequency planetary beacon drifting in the mass radio confusion of naturally occurring background noise. The radio source was from a planetesimal 3.617 parsecs away, from a quite ordinary star. The position was the third plantesimal from that star, its distance ninety-two million miles.
Sometime later, correlation with a future event directed attention to this transmission. The connection would be explored and considered. Perhaps the time was now right to take advantage of the signal and tangent planetesimal recovery.
He could barely see over the desktop, but three thick Los Angeles phone books helped. His small hands were just strong enough to twist the stubborn frequency knob. But six-year-old Sam Alexander could copy Morse code at twenty-two words per minute, in his head, and no one his age in the United States held an Extra Class FCC Amateur Radio License. He was a radio-communications prodigy.
It was very early in the morning, and Sam was sitting at an old battered desk cluttered with amateur-radio receivers and transmitters and associated equipment. Pilot lights and power-indication bulbs of various colors glowed and winked as Sam's tiny voice was amplified and transmitted from a tall vertical antenna just outside his window in the backyard of his modes Pasadena, California home.
He was still dressed in his pajamas, his feet covered by a pair of old floppy socks.
The morning sun was blasting through an aluminum sliding window just to the right of his desk. It flooded the room with bright light that penetrated every square millimeter. But if could have been the dark of night; Sam was concentrating on the awkwardly accented English voice being transmitted from Yugoslavia, halfway around the world.
Most boys his age had posters of sports stars or movie favorites plastered over their walls. Sam's walls were covered with QSL contact cards from around the world. Artwork and photographs blended into a collage of colored images from the most remote parts of the Earth. The entire wall behind his bed was covered with a wallpaper world map. Sam had stuck small red pins in very country he had contacted either by voice or Morse code. He had 128 pins on that map so far. He was waiting for his father to buy another box of pins so he could stick in eighteen more.
Most boys his age knew where the nearest toy store or movie house was located. Sam knew the locations of the Seychelles, Sumatra, Western Samoa and Belize. Although English was the preferred language on the voice frequencies, passing pleasantries in German or Spanish or French was not difficult for Sam.
Sam said his 73s--his goodbyes--to Stephan in Zadar, situated on the Adriatic coastline. His voice carried through the Shure 444 microphone and into his Swan transceiver. The electrical signal was modulated and amplified further as it sped through the Heathkit linear amplifier. It moved out of the house through the coaxial cable to the eighteen-foot-long, ground-mounted vertical antenna. At the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it shot off the antenna and angled toward the ionosphere. The signal, for the most part, reflected back toward Earth. The process was repeated till some of the electrons passed the amateur antenna of YU2RST in Serbia.
But not all the signal was reflected back to Earth. A small number of electrons were headed on a journey into deep space.
Sam flipped the power switch to the off position and turned to look at the map of the world. Yugoslavia seemed to stand out in particular detail. He knew it was difficult to contact that country; not many ham-radio operators were allowed on the air there.
He swung around and grabbed a pencil. He began to scribble into his radio log the frequency, time as described in Greenwich Mean Time, Stephan's call sign, and Stephan's city. Then he put the pencil down, and a broad smile crept across his sweet face. His dark hair almost covered his clear brown-green eyes. He was excited, and he wanted to tell his father.
Sam swung his feet to the edge of the chair and hopped off. He padded to the narrow doorway, and then stopped as he sniffed the smell of bacon, suddenly permeating the house. He could hear his mother banging pots and talking back to the voice of the ingenuous talk-show host on her small kitchen radio.
On his route to the kitchen, Sam stepped into his father's combination office and ham shack. Now as many QSL cards or maps covered the walls, but here was just as much, if not more, amateur-radio gear of every type and description. The room was the same size as Sam's, but the lighting was more indirect. One wall was filled to capacity with books, mostly scientific; subjects ranged from astronomy to physics but were mostly radio-wave propagation and microwave radio astronomy.
Congratulatory plaques from various scientific organizations were situated next to achievements letters and awards from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One picture showed Sam's father, Peter, sitting in the small cockpit of an old Cessna 150 two-seat aircraft. Another picture was of Peter and another man standing next to a large steel-frame, dirty-gray radio telescope.
Peter Alexander, hunched down in an overstuffed chair, was engrossed in the morning paper; he didn't hear Sam until the little boy had bounced into his lap. Peter was startled but pleased to see Sam. Sam greeted his father with a big yawn and curled up in his father's lap into a small ball of love and warmth. Peter took off his glasses, gave Sam a hug, and kissed him on the forehead.
"Good morning, Sammy,” Peter said softly.
Sam seemed sleepy again, although he had been up for an hour working with his ham-radio gear. He replied to his father with small grunt, and then snuggled farther down into Peter's lap.
Peter folded his paper and tossed it onto the nearby equipment desk.
He looked down at Sam. "Hey."
Sam closed his eyes and looked very nearly asleep.
Peter moved a bit to look Sam in the face. "Hey, sleepyhead, I heard you on the air this morning. Any interesting countries you contacted? I got into Canada and Mexico. Whadya think of that?"
Peter hugged Sam again.
He was proud of his father's radio-astronomy work at JPL, although he didn't understand it. He loved his mother's cooking and admired her ability to throw a baseball, although he did wish she threw the ball a little harder and straighter.
"I'll tell ya what you can help me with," Peter said.
"What? Tell me."
"…'member what I promised last month?"
Sam sat up quickly, his eyes wide open. "This morning? Are we going this morning?"
Peter playfully grabbed his son's stomach. "While you were in your room talking to the world, I was in the garage packing and getting ready."
Sam jumped up in the excitement and landed on his feet.
"Oh boy! The desert!"
The incline of the blazing-hot sand dune was approximately twenty-six degrees, but the large black desert beetle had no problem scampering to the top. The low-angled afternoon sun glistened on its shiny carapace. The gentle tapping of its feet mixed with the soft whine of the wind. The sky was deep azure: the sand was blanched bone-white by the relentless sun.
The insect crested the dune, and then stopped, frozen in position. It flinched as the silence was shattered by the deafening roar of an unmuffled VW engine. Sailing over its tapered head, roaring over its jet-black body was a 150-horsepower sand-rail dune buggy.
The cherry-red vehicle threw its two occupants to one side, then the other, as it raced down the dune. The beetle disappeared under the sand, looking for shelter from the noise and vibration.
The dune buggy continued up, over and around the undulating dunes that stretched out for miles ahead. In every direction, all that could be seen were the dunes. Occasionally a motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle would jump over the horizon and then plunge into the sand valleys. Now and then, a screaming military jet would maneuver overhead, making another run and pass at the target range miles away. But it was the roars and screams of the dune buggies that dominated what was heard on those dunes.
To the north, the dark-brown chocolate mountains and the seemingly endless stretched across the Mojave Desert. To the west, more desert and the farming town of Brawley. To the southwest, the Mexican border and the border town of Calexico. To the southeast, the Arizona border and Yuma.
The Sand Hills were one of two favorite spots in the California desert where enthusiasts pushed themselves and their machines against the 37.7 degree incline dune limit, the scorching heat, and the unstoppable intrusion of sand. The sand that provided the perfect footing for the twelve-inch-wide paddle tires was also the enemy of carburetors and the possibility of a good night's sleep. Sand collected in carburetor eject tubes and human ear canals with equal ease.
The red buggy roared away from the still-buried beetle, kicking up rooster tails of sand in its wake. It crossed over the lip of one dune, made a dizzying run several times around a tight sand bowl, launched into the air again, and then jolted to the top of a 400-foot incline. It moved farther away, the engine noise becoming fainter, as the sun touched the top of the dunes in the west. The temperature and the wind began to drop as night approached.
Sam put his hands behind his head as he stretched out on a small blanket, perched on the precipice of a flattened dune. Thirty feet away, Peter struggled to loosen a screw in the screw in the carburetor assembly; he readjusted the flashlight to move it closer to his work. The red dune buggy had turned black in the darkness.
Peter dropped the screwdriver and looked at the dunes. Far in the distance, he heard the road of engines and saw the pinpoint dots of hundreds of headlights of other dune buggies trying their luck on Competition Hill. Peter tightened his windbreaker. He looked over at his son.
"Sam, have you zipped up your jacket?"
Sam stared up at the dome of sky, filled with stars, galaxies, supernovas, pulsars, quasars…planets. He replied weakly, "Yes Dad?"
"That's all I need to do--bring you home sick. Your mother would kill both of us." Peter turned his attention again to the carburetor.
As Sam looked up, he tried to delineate the solar system. He saw the steady glow of Jupiter; that was easy. He could almost see the small bumps on either side of Saturn. The rings? Was that Saturn? He didn't think that any other planets were in the sky at the moment. There, the Orion nebula; the gas has a greenish tint. Right?
The silence of a meteorite encountering the Earth's atmosphere belied its brilliance as it arched overhead.
"Ooooooohhh! Did you see that?" Sam asked.
"What?" Peter replied.
Sam, continuing to watch the night sky, didn't answer. Then he rolled onto one elbow. The roaring of the distant dune buggies grew louder as several tried to scale the steep Competition Hill and be first to make it to the top. Bragging rights would be important around the desert campground fires that night.
Away from the hill, Sam could see single buggies bouncing up and over smaller, more manageable hills, moving in absolute silence. Their million-candlepower halogen headlamps were dots of light against the featureless blackness of the desert mounds below Sam's vantage point.
Rolling over on his back again, Sam looked up at the sky. He concentrated on the artwork above.
Peter, who finally had taken the carburetor apart, meticulously began to remove sand from the slender blower tubes.
"Yes, son, what is it?"
"How many stars are in the sky?"
Without looking up, Peter replied, "More than you could possibly imagine."
Sam seriously considered the answer and continued to stare at the sky.
The questions never stopped, Peter thought. He didn't mind but was amazed at how they were integral part of his son's personality.
"Yes son, what is it now?"
"How many of those starts have planets around them" You know, like the Earth is around our star, the Sun."
Peter stopped his tedious work and looked over at Sam.
"More than even both of us could possibly imagine.
Sam was very proud of himself and very pleased with the answer. He smiled and nodded. "Good, I hope so."
Below and beyond, the concentrated dune-buggy lights laced through the plane near Competition Hill. Scattered much farther away, tiny lights crawled across the desert floor almost to the horizon. Sparkling above the horizon were the tiny lights of distant suns--of stars millions of miles away in space and millions of years ago in time. It was difficult at certain moments to differentiate where the horizon ended and the sky began; they blended together without demarcation. It was difficult to separate the battery-driven lights of the dune buggies and the nuclear-force driven light generated by the stars. It was all one tapestry.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
All had not agreed on the wisdom of the program, but the program had been initiated.
Eighteen common-sized asteroids had been placed in position so that the entire quadrant would be covered. The asteroids were precisely carved and secured together. Linking multiplex duplicators were implanted and focused toward the main collector. Analysis and computation were performed by tuned wide-spectrum analyzers.
At first the received signals were random and disjointed. Their content made no sense. Finally, image formation had been completed, but the content again made no sense. Library images had been compiled and studied; still no sense could be made of the content. Trying to think like the aliens who had sent them did make it easier to decipher their meaning.
The decision was made to concentrate on audio signals containing voice component only to break down the psychology of what had been sent. Not as much data needed to be analyzed; more valuable were the message and the sounds made by the alien voices.
Then, there was an amazing happenstance. While data was being cleansed, a lower-frequency emission was detected, recorded, and then analyzed automatically, systematically.
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