There was that noise from the kitchen again! It was different though, more alarming this time. Pensacola dissolved, and the noise continued.
“Eugh! Okay, okay I hear you”.
Ellie threw on knickers and mumbled something abusive about timezones. She reached the phone, swiped the alarm off and saw that she had missed several calls. Knowing that she’d be likely to miss the business hours of anyone that didn’t know her new timezone she resolved to get to her voicemail over breakfast.
She found the usual array of breakfast cereals downstairs in the hotel restaurant, and elected for an alfresco cafe out on Hay Street. Half way through her ham and cheese croissant and orange juice she called her voicemail.
At about 9:30am Ellie noted down the calls. Willie, Willie, and Willie again. She tried to read between the lines. He had said he ‘already had a copy!’ How could he? He was not associated with the SKA. His second message was just, “call me”. His last call was perhaps the most frenetic. He was mumbling about prime numbers and signals. She tried to reconcile this against her picture of Willie: often irreverent but deeply honest; replete with a repertoire of bad jokes but good company on a long night of scanning wide open skies; dependable and capable; apt to lose his cool under pressure but quickly recover. There was also his deep suspicion of the military. This bordered on paranoia and was in part due to his upbringing. His parents were involved in military research which Willie did not talk openly of. Ellie suspected that the outward superficial bravado was also a distraction to assure that he did not divulge what he knew. It may also have been to present a visage of superficiality that assured he was not asked.
But prime numbers and signals? She checked the date-stamp of the message in case it was an old one she’d forgotten to delete. It was definitely last night, besides Willie was there on the day of the first signal, why make a song and dance by voicemail. The most likely interpretation was that he had already been provided this signal in recent research – she had gathered this much from his first coded message. From there Ellie surmised from his second message that he had either found something new and interesting, or he wanted Ellie to associate this SKA data to the Contact event.
Could there be a second event? This was unlikely as Kent had her number, and he would certainly have called. It was also unlikely that any new SETI signal would be given to the SKA project. No, this was connected to the SKA data she had recently furnished him.
That’s probably it. Willie is trying to warn that similar interests exist over this new signal. What a dreadful job he did of it though! A code is meant to fly under the radar of noticeability. This communique has alarm bells and urgency all over it. What did he say again? Something about having explored new systems to analyse prime number signals.
Either way there was something deeply disturbing in it. Maybe the ‘urgency’ was the message. Ellies mind began a meandering path through the realms of possibilities. She absent mindedly finished her croissant and ordered a coffee and a muffin she didn’t want. She chewed the muffin top and then suddenly decided that, despite the time, she needed to call Willie. She switched the SIM card on her phone and then called his mobile.
Willie didn’t recognise the number. It was late, and although he wasn’t sleeping he hesitated before he took the call. “Willie here.”
“Willie, what’s with all the cryptic messages?”
“Ellie, thank goodness! I need to show you something over here. When do you get back?”
“Willie, please just speak your mind, you’re starting to freak me out.”
Willie knew that the lines all over the world were tapped for key words on terrorism and espionage. He spoke with a deliberate obscurity, unsure of where the lines of the NSA, FISA and the FBI blurred. He was, however, a little more comfortable with an actual phone call; a voicemail had a definite half life of persistence.
He spoke hesitantly. “Ellie, I copied your sample signal and tried to trace it to a source. I used a spectrogram technique I developed to match time variant stellar signatures. It was a long shot but I applied it against the signals I’ve acquired over the past ten years. I found a match.”
“That’s fabulous Willie. So what is it?
“It’s a little complicated Ellie. How did you come by the signal?” Willie tried to keep his voice casual.
“Lets say that I found it undergoing a comprehensive analysis in an unexpected location.”
“Well I catalogued the signal about four years ago when we were just concluding our other project. I deleted the file from your cloud server after I copied it by the way. It was quite large. Anyway, I believe you’re probably familiar with the signal too.
“In what way Willie?”
“Well it represents about eighteen hours of data acquired near Vega.”
Ellie nearly dropped her muffin. “What?… Just give me a second.” Ellie focussed herself on the facts and decided that there were too few of them. “Can I call you back?”
Ellie placed a call to Henry Miller.
“Henry, I need a favour. Do you have a video conference call facility on campus?”
“Sure we do, Ellie.”
“Can I use it to conference with an associate in California? I think I have a lead on our mystery signal.”
“That was quick! Can I sit in?”
“Probably, let me confirm. Can you let me know the conference centre availability?”
“Ok, I’ll call you.”
“SMS would be better.”
She then called Willie again. ”Willie, I have a possible video conference call facility available. Can the person who gave me the signal come along for the ride?”
Willie trusted anyone Ellie did, but he also felt that some of what he wanted to discuss should be for her ears only. How ironic, that he was now starting to feel secretive. He justified it by the logic that he would want it released when it was verified and could no longer be commandeered, ridiculed or suppressed. Yet he needed the facility to show Ellie the data from James’ research. Things were going so fast again. He felt that they now had the jump on anything Kitz or DARPA could know, and he wanted it to stay that way.
“Who is the passenger?”
“Professor Henry Miller, he’s leading the SKA development effort. He is aligned with UWA which houses the conference facility we will be using.” Ellie could feel that whatever was happening needed some care going forwards.
Willie knew that Ellie’s choice of a University conference facility was a good one. These generally had a moderate degree of security since they needed to accommodate discussions of patent applications and research that was often Commercial in Confidence. He decided that he could reveal a little more throughout these subsequent separate phone calls. Each one in isolation may not mean much. He knew that Ellie would be able to piece them together though. This would allow Ellie to make better tactical decisions.
“Ellie,” he began, “the signal has also been analysed by an undergrad with a new kind of computer. I need to discuss our speculations on the result.”
“Okay Willie, I will take your lead on this, we can separate the discussions of SKA analysis and yours. I will ask for some discrete time.”
”But what’s there to say to SKA?” asked Willie.
“I think we will have something to talk about Willie, trust me on that. I’ll send you the conference availability when I have it, but lets pitch for 5:00pm tomorrow over there, that would make it 9:00am here. Can you check your facility and prepare?”
Gaven Shorten was really no longer in his comfort zone. This was something he knew he must acclimatise to in order to attain the success he aspired, but his capability was beginning to run a little thin. He had led a charmed life: born in the right time, at the right place, in the right family. From a humble beginning at university he had found the right course, the right project and the right supervisor to create the right innovation, again at the right time in the right place. This was drawn to the attention of the right people who made the right offer.
He soon moved beyond the hands on development of amorphous data linkage structures into a coordination role. He was fortunate to have a team that only required a light touch. Since then he had risen through the ranks of Hadden Industries to emerge as a technology scout. The grand patriarch SR Hadden tapped into Gavan’s pragmatism to counterbalance his bold, brash and strongly intuitive modus operandi. He saw some measure of himself in Gaven but without the humble beginnings. Perhaps he could impart a sufficient measure of vision for Gaven to assume the reigns of an enterprise now ready for some pragmatic consolidation.
But Gaven was not from the same mold as Hadden. Hadden had an uncanny ability to be in the hotspot of opportunity through feeling, and then trusting to the gravitational pull of it. His intellect would then invariably contribute its mass and create an epicentre from which waves of change would emanate. Gaven could see innovation, could smell it, could sense it like a snake with its heightened perception of smell or infra-red. But he had to be close, and it could not be obscured from his senses. So it was that the SETI program would have flown under his radar. Even in the ensuing discussions with Hadden the involvement in SETI was conceded to be highly speculative. Gaven knew his limits, although he also knew that with Hadden’s death his role was now quite different. He was no longer expected to watch his patron and help build the ship. It was sufficient simply to know how to navigate it.
Hadden had provided the charts and instrumentation for him, and it was just such a piece of instrumentation that was now pinging him.
He looked at the report on his desk. The chinese Kien Mu system had raised a ‘diagnostic error’ and had core dumped. Chinese engineers had been trained by Hadden Industries but could not make sense of the diagnostic. Under their standard procedures they copied the core dump and restarted the system from the latest known good snapshot. They then invoked their Hadden Industries support agreement who sent two of their Engineers to investigate.
While the Chinese exercised their right to carefully monitor the investigative process, its diagnosis was beyond any but those in Hadden’s Machine Learning development team. The core dump was analysed, and a hotfix applied. Apparently another self referential loop had been inadvertently created. This had previously been explained to the machine owners as a conceivable outcome when a machine learning system was issued parallel lines of enquiry, and each line of enquiry calls upon the other. The only thing that could be done was to identify the difficulty and enter it into the computer’s Koan Table. It had been demonstrated that some of these loops could be potentially very large, and through neural reinforcement could become very thick. The Chinese, flattered at the acknowledgement of a Taoist philosophical term understood this. By extension they also understood that when considering a circle it did not matter where it was broken.
So it was that few questions were asked when the loop elements were taken for testing. Hadden Industries were required to analyse these koan tables in order to mitigate the occurrence of these diagnostic errors.
In this way the entry referring to Eleanor Arroway and Quantum Computing came to the attention of Gaven Shorten. He invoked SR Hadden’s protocol, and set a train of motion into play. His first call was to his operations area.
“Please have Evgeny come to my office as soon as possible.”
He then called on the special projects team to initiate contact with Eleanor Arroway.