The night was cool and dry, with only a handful of clouds peppering the dark skies, allowing stars shine brightly through the window shades. Marcus Gaynes groaned sleepily, turned halfway around in his plush bed, shifting his weight to the side with a grunt and cursed, his arm searching for the cell phone on the bedside table.
It was ringing loudly for the past ten minutes. He tried to ignore it, hoping whoever it was that decided to disturb his blissful sleep would give up and leave a message. But the phone continued ringing, over and over, relentlessly, shaking him out of his nightly stupor.
“Hello?” He rasped, considering throwing the device out the window.
“Marcus, wake up.” the device croaked excitedly, and Marcus had to take a second to let his brain understand the words that came out of it in rapid succession. “Wake up! It’s talking. Talking! Making no sense at all, but by God it’s talking, and plain English, no less!”
“What?” was the only thing that managed to come out of his dry throat. The voice on the other side took none of it.
“You have to come. Listen!” A series of loud chirps filled the entire bedroom, threatening to pierce his eardrums. He pushed the phone away instinctively, flinching, his brain finally waking up.
“Dan? What the hell are you doing? It’s… ” He glanced at the screen, “jesus, it’s four in the morning.”
“Is it? Oh. I thought it was later. Or earlier, maybe. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, you have to come.” Dan babbled, then seemed to take a breath. Marcus took advantage of the moment of silence to rub the sleep off his eyes. “Marcus. You have to come. B55269 is talking. It’s talking, Marcus.”
“It’s TALKING. I have it all here, written out, it’s absolutely amazing. We’re going to win the Nobel. Oh, the hell with the Nobel, we’re going to be goddamn heroes. The bearers of a new revolution. Famous. Jesus, I–”
“Calm down,” Marcus finally awoke enough to take charge of the conversation, sighing to himself as he pushed his bulk out of the bed. “Calm down and stop yelling in my ear. I’m coming over. We’ll take a look at the instruments and run a diagnostics. There’s gotta be some fluke in there, or some kid with HAM radio running a joke on your expense.”
“It’s no joke. It’s no joke. Come and see. It’s talking freaking English!”
“Yeah, right, okay.” Marcus grunted and hung up the phone, sighing deeply. He’ll go, they’ll check the equipment and computers, and find out it’s all one big silly annoying equipment error, like last time, and the time before that. If he goes quickly, he might even have enough time to get back to bed and have some more sleep for the night before the day begins. Dan was a good researcher, but he was way too excitable for proper science, Marcus thought to himself. Science is about slow incremental discoveries, moments of doubt, verification and peer review, not… not… a friggin’ distant star suddenly sending us messages in plain English. That only happens in movies.
* * *
“I recorded it all,” Dan exclaimed, so excited that he bounced on his feet, jumping like a puppy from one computer to the next. “I was just shifting the array again like we planned, and then I heard it… it was like.. like a soft chirp.”
“Like a crossed wire?” Marcus offered, looking around for coffee.
“Maybe a little. But then I focused on the band and… and that’s no cross wires, Marcus.”
“Uh ha.” There were no clean mugs.
“Marcus, leave the kitchen alone and come see this. Listen.” Dan vanished into the computer room again, clicking keys rapidly. “LISTEN.”
Static filled the room. For a moment, Marcus paused, listening, his hand frozen in mid-air with the dirty mug dripping quietly into the kitchen sink. It was just static. He sighed and turned on the hot water, pouring generous amount of soap onto the dish, scraping the surface with the edges of the only cloth he could find.
And then he stopped. It was so abrupt, he didn’t even notice the splash of dirty water all over his tie, soaking the front of his buttoned shirt and making it stick to his belly. He stared, blinking, his eyebrows furrowing slowly and then lifting, vacating the space to allow his eyes to grow wider and wider.
It wasn’t static. He gulped, turning around slowly. Dan was back in the kitchen, a huge grin spread across his pale face, his chin bobbing to the rhythm of the static beats that came out of the speakers.
“Morse code,” Dan nodded, and his smile expanded even wider.
* * *
“This is impossible. It must be a mistake.”
“It’s not a mistake.”
“It has to be. It’s gibberish. Someone is pulling a prank, broadcasting some stupid message for the array to pick up.”
“I called Jonah in Fiji, asked him to confirm,” Dan nodded sagely, the smile dancing in his excited eyes.
“He gets it too. Same coordinates, same message, same interval. Repeating every 3 minutes and 14 seconds, like clockwork.”
“But… but this… this doesn’t make any sense.” Marcus leaned forward, partly to get a closer look at the screen, and partly to remove some weight from his legs, which started shaking. “The message. Are you sure you translated correctly?”
“I passed it through the Morse code translator ten times, then validated personally. I know Morse code.”
“But it’s gibberish… what the hell does that even mean?”
“I don’t know,” Dan shrugged, looking at the piece of paper with reverence, as if it was a lost library book he happened to find in his attic. “The message doesn’t really matter, what matters is the fact we’re getting a message at all. Someone — something — is communicating. You have any idea what that means?”
Marcus suddenly felt dizzy. He sat heavily into the chair and took a deep breath, lowering his head to his knees. Dan narrowed his eyes at him in concern, but before he could say anything, Marcus looked up and nodded. “Yeah, I know what that means. If… if it’s true, if it’s not a malfunction, or some elaborate hoax, then… then…” he seemed to be lost for words.
“This is insane.” Marcus noted, slumping deeper into the chair.
“Yeah,” Dan repeated, his eyes shifting between the piece of paper on the desk and Marcus’ pale face.
“We need to tell someone. We need to call.. call.. I don’t know who. The President? Jesus, who the hell do you call when aliens send you a telegram?”
“Sure. Right. Yeah, that makes sense, of course, you’re right, NASA.” Marcus nodded, oblivious to the swap in positions between him and Dan; he was the babbling one now, and Dan the calm and rational. Had he had the mental capacity to notice, he’d have laughed.
“We have to validate this again before we tell anyone,” Marcus noted, some semblance of rationality — though heavily mixed with panic — creeping back into his consciousness.
“Okay. I can play it again, we’ll let the computer analyze it one more time.” Dan reached for the computer, loading the Morse code translator. The room quieted suddenly as he rewound the tape, the computer screen showing an eagerly blinking cursor.
And then, just as suddenly, the buzzing returned, full of soft bleeps in the unmistakable rhythm of Morse code, and the screen started filling up with letters, one by one forming words.
Marcus took a shaky breath and stared at the screen, mesmerized. Dan was so giddy, he seemed to be ready to jump out of his chair and cartwheel around like a little kid.
“What the hell is…” Marcus blurted, frustrated and amazed and, mostly, confused.
“Shh!” Dan hissed, as if any external sound could disturb the computer from translating the message. “Let it run.”
Marcus grunted quietly, his palm raising to his forehead, his fingers digging through his scalp as he concentrated.
Marcus held his breath.
“… EARTH… WALLNUT….”
Dan pointed at the screen in excitement. “See?! These are the words, Marcus, the words that can lead to a brand new–”
“No! Space age! Peace on earth!”
“Yes, with walnuts, curtains and prostheses…” Marcus grunted quietly, still staring at the screen. “But what does it mean…”
“Who knows, Marcus! Who cares! It’s a message from outer space, man! A sign of life! Intelligent life that wants to communicate! It can be anything. Symbolisms… random words to demonstrate sentience,” Dan’s voice rose with his excitement, “hell, it could be some cryptic code or something. Who cares! The important thing is that it exists, Marcus. THEY exist.” Dan announced animatedly, glaring at Marcus with such intensity, he thought he might burst into flames.
“Mark my words, Marcus,” the younger man continued, a bit more measured, “everyone on this planet is going to remember these words, the words that brought the biggest revolution in how we understand the world since the Eratosthenes found the world was round!”
Something incomprehensible wheezed out of Marcus Gaynes chest, his body unable to catch up to his racing brain. The repercussions of this discovery slamming into his consciousness like a hundred tons of stone brick. He wasn’t sure he could achieve analytical thinking at that moment. Or any moment to follow, for that matter, for a long long time.
“Call NASA,” came the muted followup from far far away, quiet and tiny, from within his throat. “Let them make sense of this mess,” this was the only coherent plan his mind could formulate. “Let them deal with the consequences.”
“But we’re the ones getting the Nobel.” Dan muttered, the smile on his face wide and maniacal.
Marcus couldn’t help but wondering if the only Nobel they’ll get is an imaginary one, from within an asylum, surrounded by white coated people and heavy drugs.
Dan picked up the receiver and started dialing.