15 June 2012
By Curtis C. Chen
"You are a bad person," the radio telescope said.
Rhonna couldn't be sure the signal was talking to her, but it seemed likely, since the voice sounded just like her dead mother-in-law. Rhonna also couldn't be sure she wasn't going crazy, but that's why she was recording.
The next sentence was mumbled and difficult to make out. Rhonna leaned closer to the computer speaker and turned the volume dial clockwise just a bit.
"BAD PERSON ON THE SWANEE RIVER!" the speaker blared.
Rhonna jumped back, then dialed the volume down as the song continued, going more and more off-key with every phrase. The live waveform displayed by the audio recording software pulsed, illustrating the changes in the signal being received by the telescope, drawing a ragged, infinite, impossible line across the screen.
The voice had started talking to Rhonna two nights ago. The signal hadn't tripped any of the automated detection systems, either on the computers or in the analog equipment, but the handheld MP3 recorder that she used for voice dictation had definitely picked up the sounds.
Rhonna had listened to the recording over and over that first night, not wanting to believe the words she heard:
"I know why you killed me."
It wasn't true, of course, not strictly speaking: Rhonna hadn't intended to kill her mother-in-law. She had meant the poisoned casserole for her husband, who had been cheating on her for months now.
The tracker Rhonna had planted on his car in January showed him going to different bars every night. And though the footage was dark and grainy, the video camera she'd hidden in their bedroom clearly showed Darryl bringing several different women home on various nights when Rhonna was working at the observatory.
Of course, Rhonna thought, if I'm hallucinating now, maybe I imagined all that other stuff, too. Maybe Darryl wasn't ever cheating on me. Maybe—
She shook her head. That line of thought was not productive. She was a scientist. She had to deal with the evidence presented. Until something happened to disprove the current theory, she had to work with it.
She hadn't told anyone about the voice yet, but maybe it was time. She'd been recording the signal continuously for the past two days. Surely in that time it had spewed something more meaningful than this horrible rendition of "Swanee River."
"All up and down the old creation!" the voice caterwauled. "Sadly! I roam!"
"It's too bad I can't talk back to you," Rhonna muttered.
"You can talk back to me," the voice said.
Rhonna looked around the empty room. "Goddammit, I am crazy."
"You're not crazy," the voice said. "Bad, maybe. But not crazy."
"You're a radio signal from a point source five light-years away," Rhonna said. "It is physically impossible for us to be having a conversation in real time."
After a pause, the voice asked, "What makes you think this is real time?"
Rhonna threw up her hands. "Great. The voices in my head are wiseacres."
"I don't know that word."
Image: Time Is Passing by DonkerDink, August, 2007