Mikal enjoys creative writing. She hopes that her writing would one day make a difference to the world.
The impact of a major discovery depends very much on who makes it...
Abraham Entskilling was working alone on a Friday evening when he made the most important discovery of the new century.
He had gotten up before seven, eaten breakfastalone - Mary never arose that early - and loaded the ladder, lawn mower, edger, gardening tools into the back of his blue Toyota pick up truck. He spent the morning alone, cutting and edging the grass, and trimming the few short trees at the sides and rear of the church of the Nazarene Reborn. Two other men of the grounds committee, both retirees, were scheduled to be there, but neither appeared. That did not really bother Abe. He had grown accustomed to working alone.
It was a typical hot, dry Arizona day in June, a brassy sun bringing sweat to his forehead in the first five minutes. Despite the heat, Abe enjoyed the mildly demanding work. At 41, he had been letting himself get flabby. He liked the feel of his muscles straining slightly as he lifted a bag of grass to his shoulder, the pulling in his thighs when he climbed the ladder. To his ears the singing whine of the edger, the comforting roar of the mower, were soothing and mentally relaxing. There was a pleasant satisfaction in feeling his body respond to the need to heave the steady accumulation of black plastic bags of cut grass and branches into the bed of the pick up. He was dripping with sweat and very tired when he finished, just before one o'clock, but he felt good. He had cut the entire lawn around the small church, nearly edged the side walk in front, and trimmed and shaped every young, struggling tree.
Mary had his dinner kit packed when he reached home, and lunch ready on the table. She ate in the living room, in front of thetelevision; her favorite soap opera had started at one. Abe ate lunch alone, showered, and tried to catch a short nap before leaving at three for the long drive to work. But his younger sister called from Birmingham before he could get to bed. Her 15 year old son had been arrested for vandalism at the school, and was going to spend the next year in a reformatory unless she paid for damages. It was a long conversation, and after he finally agreed to lend her another 500 - she had borrowed over 1000 from him last year - and could hang up, it was too late to bother trying to sleep.
Mary looked up from her second hour long soap as Abe was leaving. There were only a few lines in her face at 38, but gray streaked the dark brown hair, and her plump arms looked soft and doughy. "Have a good shift, dear. I'm going to the mall for a little shopping, and to have dinner with Peggy and Irene. I'll see you tonight."
Abe became sleepy during the hour long drive on the deserted back road to the observatory, and had to shake himself awake several times. It was a relief to finally see the ninety meter radio telescope dish ahead, towering above the barren desert landscape like some giant floor fan, ready to start revolving and stirring the heated afternoon air. A two story rectangular block building and three smaller wooden ones huddled near its base, as though seeking shelter in its huge shadow from the burning sun. The entire complex was surrounded by a high chain link fence. A large sign adjacent to the open gate informed the few visitors that this was the Associated State Universities Southwest Radio Observatory. The once bright painted letters had been dimmed by years of strong sunlight and sand abrasion. A much smaller sign, attached at the bottom like an afterthought, added that it was also the Billingham Analysis Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
The SETI offices were located at the rear of the main building, on the second floor. The lone secretary was leaving as Abe arrived, with the two day shift analysts right behind her. The observatory operated 7 days a week, but the always financially strapped SETI program could not afford to match their full schedule.
The local manager was David Collingsworth, a short, plump, retired teacher of astronomy from the University of New Mexico, the only member of the SETI team with a Ph.D. He stayed long enough to brief Abe on the day's events before starting his weekend.
"Finally got caught up, Abe, right down to the three o'clock cut off here. Several alerts, but nothing solid. You should have a nice quiet evening. And if you happen to leave a few minutes early tonight, no one is going to care. It's Friday! And we're in the best shape we've been in for months."
"Thanks, Dave; I might just do that." But they both knew that Abe would put in his full eight hours.
Collingsworth left, and Abe entered the cluttered operations room at the rear. He settled down at the micro computer and called up the equations he had started the night before. There was a minimal crew operating the big dish, but they were unlikely to disturb him.
The hours crept by. Abe became sleepy several times, and had to get up to do calisthenics to stay awake. At midshift he ate dinner at his desk, as he usually did, without stopping work. The primary analysis computer was highly automated and did not require much attention. The main task of the evening was to run data dumps received from several other observatories in their southwest district that afternoon. Abe later called up data from the big dish outsideCollingsworth was right. It was unusual to be analyzing data right on the heels of the regular operators.
When the computer sounded its third urgent "beep! beep!" within an hour after dinner, Abe looked up in annoyance. He was deep into verifying an algorithm he had worked out earlier that might eliminate some of these false alerts, and resented the interruption.
Abe sighed, and swung his chair around from the isolated desktop micro to the mainframe terminal. The analysis program was designed to hold the suspect data in memory until he had examined it, and a single keystroke brought it on screen.
And the discovery of the new century looked out to him in quietly glowing green numbers, standing out stark and clear against a black background.
Abe saw immediately why the analysis program had alerted him. The signal was near the center of the water hole, at 1.55 gigahertz, and only 5 hertz wide; far too narrow for any known source of natural origin. He felt a growing sense of excitement as he examined the data. The transmission was in the form of a series of pulses, recorded in small groups.
His hands were shaking slightly. The cursor blinked back at him with quiet persistence. The groups of pulses that emphatically signalled 'intelligence' waited for him to acknowledge their existence.
There were a few more confirming checks to be made. Abe called up the resources to analyze the characteristics of the signal. As expected, it was on a continuous carrier and drifting very slowly in frequency, indicating it was originating from a rotating planet.
Abe abruptly rose to his feet and walked across the small room to the coffee pot. He filled his thick, deeply stained mug, then stood waiting for it to cool enough to sip. There was so much to do...the feeling of excitement slowly changed to one of elation, as it finally sank that he would be the first to announce the discovery. It was only to the second-shift operators at the designated back up observatory, in Texas - but his name on the initial report. This was something he rarely thought about, had not considered a very realistic possibility. He had often heard the other analysts talk about what their reactions would be when it happened - a favorite subject of casual conversation, in which they always seemed to assume that it was only a matter of time - but the whole idea had never been very real for him. This was just another job, one that paid less than the good position his alcoholism had cost him, but certainly an adequate income. Engineers with a background in data analysis never lacked for work, or came cheap. Still, he had been lucky to get his job less than a year after Mary committed him to rehabilitation.
One of the first things he must do was to notify Collingsworth. And then...he hurried back to the desk and opened the procedures manual. What he must do was outlined, step by careful step. First was the confirmation process, a detailed list of actions to be performed which he could omit. They were designed to solve ambiguities and uncertainties where aliens seemed to be present; here there was no doubt. And Mary! He had to call Mary! His own wife should be among the first to know...