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February 29, 2072

To Lorraine Gilster, the Lunar Farside Radio Observatory was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. From the moment she arrived, she fell in love with it. When the brilliant, unfiltered by atmosphere sun was shining, as it did every two weeks for fourteen days straight, the light reflecting from the ten-square-mile array was dazzling. The yellowish plastic-like film in which miles of antenna wires were embedded contrasted with the gray lunar soil in a way that shouted, “I’m not natural! People placed me here!” As if anyone looking at it could ever believe it was a natural construct. The three large segmented optical telescopes that stood just on the horizon added to the majesty, and sense of amazement, as only massive objects standing in stark contrast with the blackness of space that provided their backdrop could.

Lorraine, or “Rain,” as her friends and colleagues called her, stopped at the observation window on her way to the data analysis and control room as she did at the beginning of every shift. She did not think she would ever grow tired of the view and, even though her current stay at the observatory was just short of half over, she fully intended to stop and stare every chance she could. Today was no different from yesterday, or the day before. The lunar night was just three Earth days in the future and then the other majestic view would be hers to see—the dark, desolate lunar night. All fourteen days of it. It was just as majestic and beautiful as the daylight view, but completely different.

She was abruptly shaken from her reverie by the nearby communications link buzzing and demanding her attention. On each wall and in every room at the observatory there was an old-fashioned, fiber-optic, hardwired intercom. No radios or wireless communications were allowed anywhere near the precious radio-quiet zone that was home to the Farside Radio Observatory. Being away from terrestrial radio sources, artificial and natural, was why it had been placed on the lunar farside with the mass of the moon providing all the radio frequency shielding needed to make it the most radio-quiet place in the inner solar system. Allowing personnel to use wireless communications this near the extremely sensitive radio antennas and receivers would compromise the environment and potentially introduce radio noise that would drown out the very faint signals they were there to collect and study.

Rain reached for the button to activate the intercom, cursing under her breath as she did so. This was her time. She wasn’t on the clock yet and had planned her day to allow ample time to look out the window undisturbed.

“This is Rain. What’s up?” She tried not to sound terse, but she knew that whoever was calling could probably tell they had interrupted something.

“This is Stephan. I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought you’d want to know that the ICC just denied Lunar Global their constellation permit. The vote was five to four.”

Rain sighed. The vote was closer than she liked but winning was winning. One of these days, though, they were likely going to lose. Gone were the days of unanimous support for keeping the lunar farside free of radio interference. The Interplanetary Communications Commission demonstrated they were still on the observatory’s side by voting down Lunar Global Corporation’s proposal to build a constellation of lunar-orbiting, high-bandwidth communications satellites—again. But how many more votes could those who wanted to keep the radio spectrum here quiet and free from interference win? One of these days, the lunar real estate developers would win and the satellites would be launched, ruining big swaths of the radio spectrum for science. Apparently, there was only so much one could do with miles and miles of fiber directly connecting the many lunar bases and outposts to one another.

“Thanks for telling me, Stephan. That means we’re safe for another three years or so. Anything else?”

“Yeah, you owe me a dinner. When can I collect?”

“How about tonight? After my shift.”

“That would be great. Come by my room at nineteen hundred. It will be the best meal on farside,” said Stephan.

“See you then,” Rain said as she closed the connection. She liked Stephan, but not in the same way he liked her. Rain knew when she bet him on the outcome of the ICC vote that she would probably win and that she should not have accepted the wager. She felt like she was leading him on. But his offer of a home-cooked meal, instead of one of her usual freeze-dried moon-meal specials, was definitely not one to ignore. Stephan was a good cook and good company. She just wasn’t romantically interested in him the way she knew he was with her. Relationships are just so complicated.

She glanced out the window one more time, catching the ghost of her reflection in the thick, multi-layered glass. With her salt-and-pepper hair cropped short, brown eyes, and high cheekbones, she knew men found her attractive and she was certainly interested, but not to the point that any man had ever been become more important to her than her career. Stephen was no exception. Maybe someday, she mused as she looked one more time at the image of herself superimposed over that of the moon and resumed her walk toward the control room. But not as long as I’ve got the moon.

The control room wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the view out the window, but it was pretty in its own way. Instead of a window showing the lunar landscape extending to a somewhat disconcertingly close horizon, the walls were covered with displays showing the engineering status of the various telescopes and spectrum analyzers scanning multiple radio frequencies from across the visible sky. Everywhere Rain looked she saw data, glorious data, and she knew that it was going to be a good day. She just didn’t know how good the day would end up being. After all, who could know such a thing? Who knew what great discoveries were yet to be made? That mystery was what had gotten Rain interested in science in the first place.

Modern radio astronomy, like just about every other aspect of modern astronomy—and science, for that matter—wasn’t “real time.” The vast amount of data collected by the radio telescope as it scanned huge swaths of the sky was collected across thousands of discrete frequencies, recorded, analyzed, cross-checked with previous similar data to look for changes or discrepancies, reanalyzed, and archived for future reference. Artificial intelligence systems, especially designed for the purpose of analyzing data, made the processing seamless and nearly transparent for its human creators and operators. Rain’s presence wasn’t required in the control room for data analysis but for troubleshooting and decision-making. AI systems were great at sorting, assessing, and presenting data, but they weren’t yet capable of the innovation and quick decision-making that humans were so good at. Rain wasn’t so certain as to when that might change, though, because the newest quantum processor-based cluster that housed over a million tiny protein-based nanoscopic processors used for pattern recognition in the signal data was getting smarter and smarter every day. There was talk of a new system coming out soon that would house a hundred million of the quantum physics-based processors. Who knew when such systems would start getting close to mimicking the human brain and make her obsolete and out of a job?

As the AI did its job, Rain busied herself looking over the data summaries generated during the last shift that would keep the teams of university scientists Earthside busy writing papers for the rest of their careers. The recent data collected ran the gamut, from new radio galaxies, quasars, and pulsars to the logging of yet another elusive Fast Radio Burst—this one from a galaxy “only” three billion light-years distant. But one bit of data caught her eye: the interference report. On and off during the last several months, a pesky UHF signal was encroaching on the gigahertz radio observations and the team from Beijing was not too happy about it. The signal was obviously artificial; the carrier wave was clearly modulated using some unregistered code. The AI had been running coincidence analysis, trying to figure out whose satellite was leaking radio signals into the array in clear violation of international treaty. Once they figured it out, there would be hell to pay for someone. Most modern spacecraft and satellites could fairly easily direct their antenna so that this kind of leakage didn’t occur. Someone was just being lazy or perhaps their system was malfunctioning. Whatever the reason, once they figured out who was responsible, they would have to fix the problem or face a heavy fine or, at the least, some political backpedaling.

Rain couldn’t figure out why it was taking the AI so long to determine the source. Every spacecraft operating in Earth orbit and throughout the inner solar system had ICC-registered transponders. Most used optical comm, which was much more efficient than radio and also highly directional. Laser comm basically had no leakage, unless the receiver wasn’t in the right place to intercept the message, in which case the signal would head off into deep space. The AI had mapped the timing of the signal being detected and compared it with the locations of all the registered spacecraft and bases and come up empty. There was no correlation. But there was regularity. The signal appeared on a regular interval that coincided with the lunar farside having unobstructed views of the same region of sky.

The same region of the sky, she thought.

And along the spiral arm. Where there are a lot of stars. And planets.

UHF was in the so-called water hole of frequencies that was the Holy Grail in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, and had been the part of the radio spectrum studied so intensely for over a century as various groups searched the sky for evidence of alien life. Radio astronomers called it the “water hole” because of the radio signals emitted by hydrogen atoms and hydroxyl molecules that float in free space. Hydroxyl, being an oxygen and hydrogen atom combined, only needs one hydrogen atom to make water. Hence, the hydrogen and hydroxyl signals were from the “water hole” as per those clever SETI astronomers of the past. Clever or not, the answer had remained the same since the beginning: nothing. No one was broadcasting, or at least no one was broadcasting with a signal strong enough for humans to detect.

Until now. Was it possible she was listening to an extraterrestrial signal? ET?

Perhaps the UHF signal wasn’t coming from any of the registered spacecraft now crisscrossing the solar system; maybe it was coming from outside the solar system. Maybe it was artificial. Rain made the leap from worrying about placating the Beijing team studying gigahertz-emitting sources in nearby galaxies to wondering how she could determine if the signal was from an artificial extraterrestrial source. But which source? Where, specifically, was the signal coming from? To answer that question would take some analysis, but given the speed at which the AI could sift data, she was sure it wouldn’t take too long. All they had to do was fine-tune the correlation with what specific stars were visible whenever the signal was received, look at the signal’s dispersion from traveling through the interstellar medium to get an idea of how far away it originated, guess at the relative motion between that star and Earth to make any required Doppler-shift corrections to the data, and look for similar detections in other radio telescope data archives that might perhaps allow her to narrow down the region of the sky from which it came. Maybe, just maybe, she could identify its likely star or stars of origin. If it is really alien, she thought. There is no way, not after all these years, that I’m the one finding a message from ET. No way, right?

If she had found ET, then she was determined to get as much information about their location as possible before going public. It never occurred to her to try to decode whatever message was contained in the signal.

* * *

The incessant buzzing of the intercom was finally more than Rain could ignore. She’d been buried in data for the last several hours and had successfully ignored all the distractions she could, until now. Whoever was trying to reach her happened to finally have the good fortune of their attempt coinciding with her need to go the bathroom. She stopped mid-sentence in her annotations of the anomalous UHF signal and accepted the incoming call.

“Rain? Finally. Are you okay? I thought you were going to be here half an hour ago.” Stephan sounded concerned and more than a bit annoyed. She had completely forgotten about his dinner invitation.

“Me? No, I’m fine. I just got wrapped up in something and forgot. Give me a few more minutes to wrap up and I will be right over. I have something I’d like to share with you. I need an independent set of eyes and you’re just the person to provide them.”

“Okay. But be ready to eat when you get here. The food is on the table and the wine poured.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said as she broke the connection. Stephan would be a good person to provide an independent look at what she was thinking. He, too, was a radio astronomer and, better still, one that she could trust not to scoop her on the discovery. His infatuation with her would see to that. She signed out of her account and moved toward the hallway and the bathroom she now urgently needed, barely acknowledging Ka-Lok, her control room replacement for the next shift, as she exited. She wasn’t even sure she had acknowledged him when he arrived to relieve her nearly an hour before. Her mind was again wandering to the signal and its repercussions. She was now sure that the signal originated from elsewhere.

Fifteen minutes later, Rain was walking down the sterile, gray, downward-sloping corridor that led to the residential section of the moon base, buried ten meters below the lunar surface to provide its inhabitants maximum protection from the solar and galactic radiation. Without an atmosphere or magnetic field to shield the surface from the at-times deadly streams of solar radiation and long-term, cancer-causing, very-high-energy galactic cosmic rays, having the crew’s living quarters underground was the best possible solution to keeping them alive and healthy. Rain hated it because there weren’t any windows providing views of the surface, just display screens showing whatever scenes the local residents wanted projected there and the occasional outside view from a surface-mounted camera. Today it was a view of the Grand Canyon. Awe inspiring, for sure, but the blue sky above the dramatic rock formations seemed incongruous with the low gravity that reminded them they were far away from the real thing.

She arrived at Stephan’s cabin and quickly moved through the door to enter. Stephan, like most everyone at the base, kept his cabin spartan and utilitarian, with wall screens showing various pictures of people and scenes from home. Bigger than the galley on most interplanetary cruisers, the room was nonetheless much smaller than a typical apartment back on Earth. Each resident’s cabin had two rooms—an all-purpose kitchen, living and bedroom area, complete with a Murphy bed that could be pulled down at the end of the day, and a bathroom. With the exception of the images on the wall and the occasional knickknack on the table, it could just as easily have been Rain’s cabin.

Stephan McGill, looking well-groomed as was his custom, greeted her with a smile and barely an indication that he was upset at her for being late. From his full head of brown hair without a hint of gray, to his high cheekbones and nearly perfect stature and proportions, he exemplified many of the benefits that came from being a member of the Earth’s elite. Now in his mid-forties, Stephan had been born in the early days of the designer-baby genetic engineering revolution. He was perfect. Which meant he was too perfect for Rain. To her, he wasn’t real. She didn’t know what she was looking for in a man, but she was sure that “perfect” was not on the list. At least, not for a romantic relationship. As a friend and colleague, “perfect” was just fine and she did consider him to be both.

“Food is on the table, so I suggest we go ahead and eat before it gets cold,” said Stephan, motioning to the small table upon which there were two place settings and a hot, steaming casserole. “I hope you don’t mind a vegetarian meal. I just couldn’t bring myself to cook another meal with synthetic chicken again.”

“Vegetarian is fine. I’m famished. And while we eat, I have something to run by you. I need someone else to tell me if I’ve gone off the deep end or not,” Rain told him as she moved toward the table, noticing that Stephan had also poured each of them a glass of red wine. The bottle was labeled as being from the lunar vineyards, which was fine; she loved the local wines.

As expected, the meal was fabulous. She and Stephan were able to eat small bites in between their discussion of the data she pulled up on the table’s built-in screen, moving the casserole dish more than once to uncover a specific signal spectrum that she wanted to reference. She laid out all the data for him, going over in detail all of her leaps of logic. Sometimes the utilitarian design of the base was truly annoying—having one’s dinner table also serve as their primary computer display was some efficiency engineer’s dream and a practical user’s nightmare. Let’s look at figure number three—there—just under the spaghetti noodle.

Rain patiently walked Stephen through her leap of logic that pointed toward the signal being extraterrestrial. And waited for some reassurance that she wasn’t nuts.

He nodded, asked a few probing questions, which she answered easily, and finally, taking the last of his third glass of wine and leaning back in his chair, commented, “Rain, the data is incontrovertible, and your logic is perfect. The signal must be extraterrestrial. If it were coming from any of the bases or ships in the outer solar system, the timing of its detection by the array would have been totally different. The only correlation is with an extrasolar source. And you’ve narrowed it down to a fairly small region of the sky. In the old days of SETI the first thing they would do is compare the sidereal motion of the stars with the signal, but all that was taken out by the various AI filters which actually made your problem of verifying harder. The simplest thing to do would be to look at the raw data once again and have the AI filter out everything without sidereal motion. With corroborating measurements from other observatories, we might be able to narrow it down to a few dozen star systems as opposed to the few thousand that are in the line of sight you’ve identified—maybe even better.”

Rain’s excitement from his affirming words was barely contained. She felt the same adrenaline rush as when she learned she’d been selected for assignment at the lunar array. It was an intellectual high. The observatory hadn’t been built for searching for alien signals, although it was always considered one of the lower-priority applications that could be running in the background while the real science was being conducted.

“There’s more,” she said. “The signal strength varies on an eleven-day cycle. It peaks on day zero, decreases for a little more than three days, and then disappears completely only to return near the end of the seventh day to peak again on the next cycle. I think the source is orbiting something that blocks its line of sight to us on days four to six.”

Stephan reached for his now-empty wineglass, stopped, leaned forward, and stared intently at Rain.

“What I don’t understand is why you haven’t analyzed the signal itself. It may be weak, but it is consistent and measurable across the sampling interval. From what I can tell, it looks like a frequency-modulated UHF signal similar to what our grandparents’ generation used to listen to radio and watch television back before everything went fiber. Here, let’s put it through the speaker system and see what it sounds like.”

He swiped across the screen, tapped a few virtual buttons, and looked up at Rain.

“Here goes. Let’s listen to what your ET is broadcasting,” he said.

Sound filled the cabin, but it certainly wasn’t the sound they were expecting. Instead of the chirps, bleeps, and Morse code-like sounds that were audible from data-encoded broadcasts, they instead heard melody and rhythm. Instead of incomprehensible noise, they heard what sounded like piano, strings, and what might be brass. Instead of confirmation of an alien signal, they heard what sounded like some sort of new music genre from an all-too-human-based composer. What they heard could not have been created by aliens. It was too familiar. Too human.

“Are you sure about your analysis?” asked Stephan, as he paused the music.

“I’m sure. And now not sure. I know this signal came from deep space, outside the solar system—light-years outside the solar system. But how could it? That isn’t a song I know, or even a style I’m familiar with, but it sure doesn’t sound like it’s from aliens.”

Stephan resumed the playback and they listened to music play for another thirty seconds before it faded.

“Rain, I’m sorry, but this just can’t be what you think it is. I mean, that sounds like some new classical piece straight from Carnegie Hall. Is some startup company testing a deep-space relay station and just didn’t register it? Or maybe it’s a pirate radio station, like the ones the CIA used to run off the coast of Cuba back during the Cold War. I don’t know what it is, but you’ll have to eliminate all these possibilities before you claim to have discovered an alien radio broadcast of a Mozart concert.”

“Let’s play another segment of the data—from a few hours earlier,” was her only reply. Rain didn’t doubt her data analysis in her head; her gut was another thing entirely. That sinking feeling that one got at the bad news of a loved one’s death was the closest thing she could think of to describe what she was experiencing.

Stephan removed the casserole dish from the table, scanned the signal profile, and selected a new data set to send to his speakers. He leaned back after selecting the play icon on the screen.

What they heard was absolutely, without a scintilla of doubt, a human voice. A male human voice, complete with inflections, variations of intonation, and even a few “ums.” The language was clearly not English.

“That nails it. This must be some rogue station out in the asteroid belt or one of the most complex pranks ever devised. The speaker is clearly human, but I don’t recognize the language. Do you?” asked Stephan.

“No,” said Rain. She almost didn’t reply. Her mind was racing, trying to figure out what language the speaker was using. The lunar base was a miniature United Nations, with scientists and engineers from just about every country on Earth. In the hallways and cafeteria, she would hear a cacophony of speakers, each using their native language and shifting to English only when they needed to interact with someone from outside their native culture. She’d gotten used to the various accents and could, most of the time, discern the speaker’s native language. She could tell Belgian French from the French spoken in France. Puerto Rican Spanish from Costa Rican. But this accent she couldn’t place.

They played more data from different times, some going back more than a week. They heard more music and more speakers. Each bit of music was clearly different, but the instruments used were still basically recognizable: strings, brass, drums, and even what sounded like a piano or harpsichord. And then there were the speakers: male, female, male and female speaking together in what sounded like some sort of foreign-language debate.

The evening long-since passed and Rain discovered that it was after midnight, local time. With no window, she couldn’t tell the difference between the time she arrived, nearly four hours previously, and now. She fiddled with the display controls to get a view from outside. She then saw the same, unchanging lunar surface extending toward the horizon that couldn’t care less about her being exhausted and elated at the same time. The moon was as close as possible to something eternal and unresponsive as any human could ever hope to see and experience. It’s alienness reaffirmed her belief that what they were hearing was from somewhere else.

“Stephan, I need to go to bed soon. I’m exhausted. But before that, I think we need to discuss what we’re going to do with this.”

“What you are going to do about this. You made the discovery; I’m just along for the ride.”

“Stephan, I appreciate your gesture, but if it weren’t for you, I would only be announcing the detection of a signal. Instead, we will be telling humanity that we’ve found what sounds like an alien culture not dissimilar from our own—at least in the way they speak and the music they like. Which, by the way, is really quite unbelievable. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to make better sense of it after a good night’s rest. It wouldn’t hurt to get some independent eyes and ears on this before we tell the solar system. Deborah would be a good place to start. She is the director, after all. And she was a competent radio astronomer before she went into management,” Stephan said.

“I agree, but I don’t want to sit on it too long,” Rain replied.

“Agreed. But there is a protocol for this sort of thing and we need to follow it. Let’s get together over breakfast and figure out how we’re going to tell her and everybody else. Seven o’clock?”

“Seven o’clock,” she confirmed.

“Try to get some sleep,” Stephan said as he leaned forward and kissed Rain on her forehead.

Rain was pleasantly surprised at the chaste kiss. It made her feel . . . respected. And loved. She needed that affirmation and support now, at this time, more than she thought she did. It gave her peace.

“Thanks, Stephan, I will.”

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