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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Snippets

k. b. dalai (pronounced 'Dolly') is the pen name for the husband and wife writing team of Ken and Barbara (Barbie) Greer. Ken is a retired aerospace engineering tech, working everywhere from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California during the early '60's and '70's. Although they have written about their travels through every state in the U.S., Canada, and across Europe, this is their first effort in science fiction.
Roger swiveled his chair to gaze out his study window, half-seeing his wife's garden bloom into spring, relishing the down time. The doorbell rang and Roger smiled, listening to his wife Ann plead to their ten-year-old son to quit stomping down the stairs three at a time. Five minutes later, Mike Watson, Roger's boss at the National Reconnaissance Office, walked into the study and plopped a bulging attaché case on Roger's desk.
"No way, Mike, this is my first weekend off in over three months."
Mike cleared his throat nervously. "I know, Roger, but you're my best analyst on intercepts, and this comes from a pay grade much higher than mine."
"Ms. K. Shaw herself, right?"
"Higher."
Roger blinked. The only person the agency chief reported to was the president. Mike leaned closer and lowered his voice.
"Roger, this is off the clock. Any notes go on the enclosed flash drive. Otherwise, nothing on hard disc or paper, no memos. I don't know what it is, but whatever you find, you'll report verbally in person. And as of now, no one else is in the loop, including me." Mike paused to let the implication sink in that Roger Newman, junior NRO technical analyst, was going to brief the President of the United States. "Let Ms. Shaw know when you're ready, and she'll set up an appointment. Code word is 'WOW.'"
"WOW?"
Mike shrugged. "I'm just the messenger." He turned to leave and paused at the door. "Good luck, Roger. And sorry about your weekend."
"Yeah. Right," Roger snorted as the door closed.
Ten minutes after Mike left, Roger discovered the code word's meaning. An old computer printout had the alphanumeric string 6EQUJ5 circled, and the word WOW!! written beside it. Roger suddenly realized that he was looking at years of intercepts from NASA, SETI, and other astronomical sources.
Hours later, just before twilight, Roger leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath.
Snippets, he thought. All I have are snippets. My job title is signal analysis, but I need something to analyze.
The study door opened and a bearded head interrupted his thoughts.
"Not intruding, am I son?"
Roger smiled at Ann's father and stretched, glad for the respite. "Never, Ben. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine day?"
The spry old man dropped into a chair in front of Roger's desk and leaned forward on his cane, more for show than support.
"Got summoned for afternoon tea with Miss Daisy. Can't miss the thrill of a lifetime."
Roger laughed, and then turned serious as a thought struck him.
"Ben, during the cold war, weren't you involved with something or other in communications?"
"Yep. Studied the other side--sometimes our side--for irregularities. Did more looking at carrier transmissions than actual conversations. You can tell as much, or more, from how someone's doing their talking rather than what they're talking about."
"Take a look at this and tell me what you think. It's from--"
"Don't need to know where you got it; gives you false conclusions and causes you to miss critical details."
Ben's eyes lit up as he studied the printouts, and then looked back to Roger.
"Can you reformat this data?"
"Tell me what you need," Roger replied, reaching for his keyboard.
"First, lay all these snippets on a line, earliest to latest, and don't worry about exact time. Just the first, second, and so on."
Roger noted that Ben used the same phase, "snippets," to identify the data bits. Not for the first time, Roger wondered exactly where Ben had worked.
"O.K., now what?"
Ben studied the line of dots for a minute. "Show the length of time for each data point, shortest being one, relative to each other. By the way," he added, "has any of this data ever repeated, either in location or sequence?"
Roger shook his head as he glanced through the data.
Ben nodded. "I assumed as much. Now I'm guessing that this is some sort of radio transmission, so overlay a vertical graph of frequencies, lowest to highest, and re-position the data."
The result was a two dimensional grid, with numbers haphazardly scattered across the screen. Ben seemed pleased with the display.
"Well, well, there you are," he said smugly.
"Where am I?" Roger asked, totally confused.
Ben stared at him.
"You don't see it? Ah, of course not. You youngsters rely too much on computers to find a fixed pattern. Learn to look outside your data, Roger. Try to figure out what you need to produce that type of signal. What you're looking at isn't a set piece; it's random. Good grief, man, you're..."
The study door banged open as a five-year-old blond whirlwind rushed over to grab Ben's arm.
"Grandpa! You didn't tell me you were here! Now come on, your milk and cookies are ready, and Barbie and Mr. Boots are at the table."
Ben laughed as he hugged his granddaughter. "Ready when you are, kumquat."
"Grandpa! I am not a kumquat! Hurry up!"
"See you later, son. I seem to have a previous engagement."
"Ben, the data? What am I looking at?"
Ben stopped at the door. "Your snippets are just leakage, Roger," he replied as Miss Daisy dragged him off to tea. "You're being jammed."
Roger sat quietly at his desk for a long time after his daughter pulled Ben from the study. He didn't know what unnerved him the most; the realization that there really are civilizations among the stars or that Earth is--what?
Banned? Quarantined? Snubbed?
Roger shivered as a new thought struck him.
Scouting reports?
Who is jamming us and why? Roger wondered, looking out his window to the silent stars that now appeared colder and darker.
What are we not hearing?
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 22nd, 2013


During my years in the aerospace industry, I became involved in both near-Earth and deep space communications. At times, usually from deep space, we would receive a burst of random noise that could have meaning, had it lasted a bit longer. I heard about the “WOW!!” signal from a TV documentary about the possibility of life in other star systems and immediately considered the "what if." What if there is a vast interstellar communications network and Earth is kept out of the loop? The most effective method of jamming a signal is to overload the receiver using a strong carrier without modulation.

The result; a continuous background noise. Just like we hear.

- k. b. dalai

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