By Frederick Rustam

Signal 145

"Hey Newell, we're still getting that modulated signal on 145 MHz. It's still so weak I can't read it, but the analyzer shows a voice transmission. It's terrestrial---southeast, down the valley."

"Tell me about it," said Newell Madsen, with as much irony as he could manage. He had come to feel that Sig 145 was his. But Robbie Traine, his associate, just had to involve himself.

"I can't figure this. If it's line-of-sight within the valley, or up on the ridges, we should be able to read it with what we've got here. And if it's not LOS, and outside the valley, we shouldn't be getting it at all.... Right?"

"Maybe it's distant and airborne.... Who knows."

Newell hung up his jacket and settled into his station in the radio observatory's cool workroom. The place was dimly lighted so the CRT monitors could be read without the distraction of the room as a whole. The place hummed with 60-Hz. energy. Along the walls, were racked the computer-controlled scanning receivers that swept preprogrammed bands, listening to the star-studded sky for SETI signals.

It was a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Outside, the massive steerable antenna pointed its spidery dish and centered antenna upward and outward. On the other side of the grounds rose the orange-and-white tower that mounted the observatory's other antennas, including the one for its utility commsystem.

When he could grab some time, Newell used the observation antenna to monitor the two-meter amateur band for extraterrestrial activity. His hypothesis was that extraterrestrials might be monitoring this talkative band to learn about terrestrial culture, firsthand, and they might decide to transmit something in it. He was using a low- noise, supersensitive scientific receiver. That's how he stumbled onto Signal 145.

"What're you doing fooling around with my program, Robbo? You said that monitoring VHF was, let's see... `the last word in futility because of the unavoidable interference.'"

Robbie, who was always at work on the night shift well before Newell arrived, shrugged and said, "I could be wrong. I was once, but I don't remember when.... Anyway, the hydrogen-line program is humming right along---but quiet, as usual. So I thought I'd fire up yours. And it is picking up terrestrial interference. Sig 145 is interference."

"Thanks for your conclusions, Doctor." From his station, Newell verified Robbie's remark about the mysterious, intermittent signal they called Signal 145. There it was, again: amplitude-modulated and as weak as ever.... Newell was annoyed by the signal. Since it didn't originate from an extraterrestrial source, it wasn't really any professional concern of his. But he was curious.... What source within this deep West Virginia valley could be generating such an unreadable voice signal, a signal which always began at night after 2200 hours?

He leaned back in his chair and addressed his colleague with a new seriousness. "Tonight, I'm going to track it down. I brought along a handheld receiver, and I have a shortie directional-antenna mounted on my truck's rear-view mirror. If you'll cover for me, I'm going down the valley and fix Sig 145's location, once and for all."

"Aw, man..." Robbie scoffed at his friend's enthusiasm, then changed his reaction when he saw how serious Newell was. "Okay... okay, go ahead if you just gotta. But don't get shot by some angry farmer." He tossed his utility walkie-talkie to Newell. "Use this. I'll listen for you on the tower set and tape your progress so you can prove you were on legitimate government business in case you get into trouble. And you will get into trouble wandering around the valley at night."

Newell caught the walkie-talkie, stood, and slipped it into his back pocket. "Maybe. Maybe not. I'll be back before quitting time." He added, "Until then, the extraterrestrial universe is all yours."

He retrieved his jacket and opened the outside door to leave.

"Hey!... No peeping in windows!" reminded his helpful colleague. "Around here, they only do it at night, you know."

"Can't guarantee that," Newell snapped over his shoulder. "Might have to do some quiet peeping."

"Hoo-ee!" crooned Robbie.


It was dark, as only the rural countryside can be. Tonight, though, both a three-quarter moon and the stars in the clear sky provided a welcome, pale illumination for the land on either side of the headlighted road. Newell drove with his windows open, the cool night breeze ruffling his youthful-astronomer's long hair.

Here, at a mailbox... He couldn't read the carelessly-painted name.

He slowed the pickup as he hand-rotated his antenna around to the east to keep the signal maxxed. He pulled over to the side of the paved road. Sweeping the antenna back and forth, he knew he was close to Sig 145. The weak signal was actually easier to pinpoint than a strong signal, with its strong reflections, would have been .

That's it, alright, he thought. It's coming from that farm. The signal was stronger, but still too weak for him to understand the voice modulating it. His handheld wasn't nearly as sensitive and quiet as the observatory's astronomical receivers. Even here, close, Sig 145 was just slightly above the handheld's background hiss.

He picked up the walkie-talkie. "Come back, Robbo."

"AH'M RAT'CHEER," crackled the reply. Robbie enjoyed imitating the local "hillbillies." He was from western New York, where they had the same kind of people in their rural valleys as those found up the West Virginia hollows, although he refused to acknowledge this.

"It's coming from a farmhouse set well back from the road. Still too weak to read. I'm going up their driveway, now." Shining a flashlight on the mailbox, he added, "Saunders... It's the Saunders place."


"I'll boldly knock on the door like a tax collector," joked Newell.


Newell drove onto the old, rundown farm. The barn had collapsed into a pile of red-painted lumber. The unpainted farmhouse was ramshackle. Grass and weeds grew unchecked in the old fields. Only in the kitchen garden near the house, was the vegetation neat and controlled. He saw a chickencoop behind the house.... The place was no longer a working farm. Like so many others, its owners probably commuted to day jobs in one of the nearby towns, or to somewhere outside the valley.

Newell drove slowly up the long driveway. He wondered how he would explain his nighttime presence---especially to someone transmitting an illegal radio signal. He knew that ordinary rural folk were wary of strangers in the daytime, and that driving onto private property at night was a real bummer. Just stepping out of your car could get you bitten by a watchdog.

He stopped short of the house and turned off the engine, but left the low-beams on. He pulled his earphones aside and listened to the night sounds for awhile. A first-floor window in the clapboard house was lighted. Somebody was still awake.

He heard only crickets and the frogs at a pond.... He replaced his earphones and listened to the handheld as he rotated his antenna. "Damn," he said softly, as he realized that Sig 145 was originating from somewhere away from the house. There was no radiating antenna in sight. He squinted into the moonlit darkness. There's nothing out there but an old well and a woodlot. From here, he could just make out the crank, windlass, and bucket of the well.

He alighted from the pickup, being careful not to slam the door, and detached the handheld from the antenna mounted on his large trucker's rear-view mirror. He attached a telescoping whip antenna. Then, he headed across the yard toward the well, hoping a dog wouldn't rush him from the darkness.

The residents of the house were apparently unaware of his presence. The night seemed halloween-spooky. Newell felt vulnerable as he trespassed on the property.... But his mood evaporated when he approached the well.

Sig 145 took a big jump in signal-strength. Now, he could clearly hear someone talking.

As he reached the well, a youthful voice swelled in his earphones.

"What the heck?..." Newell mumbled to the night.

He peered into the well. What he saw made him run back to the pickup for a flashlight---forgetting to be stealthy. Back at the well, he shone a bright beam into it, as the voice of Signal 145 spoke quite clearly.... But not to him.

Down in the well, a long VHF antenna had been mounted---vertically. The insides of the brick wellhead were lined with aluminum screening.

Signal 145 was being radiated almost entirely upward.

He considered the implications of this as he listened to the voice. It spoke calmly and sincerely. After some seconds, Newell had the answer he'd been seeking.

"My God... He's talking to the stars."

The Communicationist

No dog rushed him as he stole through the tall grass to the house. The residents were apparently unaware of his presence. The front windows were draped; little light escaped them. But a side window spilled its yellow radiance into the night. Nearby trees blocked most of this from the county road.

Avoiding the porch with its rockingchair and wide swing, Newell crept, catlike, up to the lighted window. Running down the side of the house next to it was a thick cable from the rooftop lightning rods. That ubiquitous salesman of long-ago had been to the Saunders place.

Newell peeped through the window, as he'd feared he might have to do.

A young boy, about sixteen, was sitting in front of an older model two-meter rig with a fifties-style ham microphone. The youthful talker to the stars was still talking. Away from the well, Newell's handheld could no longer pick up the words, but he still carried it. He'd left the observatory's walkie-talkie in the truck for fear that Robbie's loud transmissions might announce his presence.

Asleep on the floor was the missing dog, an elderly black-and-tan coonhound.

In the still of the night, he could just hear the soft, deliberate words of their speaker through the window glass of his bedroom.

"...We Earth folks aren't really like those people you see on our television. That's just entertainment. You know how entertainment is different from real life. It's about people enjoying things they secretly want to do, but don't honestly believe are right.... You can tell from the TV shows like Star Trek and such that we want to go to the stars and meet you extraterrestrials. We want to be part of the greater community of the Milky Way galaxy. We're ready to make sacrifices to do it.

"I know we have nuclear weapons, but we've only used them twice, and that was right after we developed them. It was like we had to use 'em to justify building 'em. We've built and stockpiled bigger ones since then, but we haven't even come close to using them. Some say we did once, but I think they were just bluffing.... You know that we do fight a lot of little wars; but we've behaved responsibly, too, in many ways. We're not really a bunch of barbarians."

He smiled at the boy's naivety. He was actually lecturing unseen extraterrestrials on an old ham radio set!... He was probably a UFO believer, too. "Star Trek?" He's watched too much of that stuff.

At this point, Dr. Newell Madsen conveniently forgot that he had dedicated his own astronomical career to a passive search for just such extraterrestrials. His quest, however, was considered scientific and respectable. The quixotic efforts of UFO nuts like young Saunders were just laughable. Do his parents know what he's doing?

He was doing CETI: Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Newell's sense of humor had deserted him. He took himself and his honorable profession much too seriously.

In 30 years, since astronomer Frank Drake began a program of SETI, not one genuine artificial signal from the stars had ever been recorded. But scientists like Newell and Robbie with their academic credentials and their government funding justified their own quest for alien life by claiming that better equipment and more observation time would eventually bring results.

They viewed UFO enthusiasts as a bunch of---to put a kind face on it---well-meaning citizens who had too much time on their hands. People like this teenager with his radio in a well.

Just thinking about that UFO business made the astronomer agitated and careless. He stretched and looked directly into the window to verify his hasty conclusions about the boy.

Aha! On the walls of the downstairs bedroom were posters of imagined aliens and of sci-fi TV and movie personalities. Hanging over the youngster's ham radio set was a model of the ridiculous- looking spaceship, Enterprise. Case proved, Newell concluded

Young Saunders droned on, unconcerned about his unprofessional, not to mention illegal, misbehavior.

"We've learned that no nation can use nuclear weapons against another nation that has them because there's no way to avoid retaliation. Even a country that doesn't have nuclear weapons can have chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. They can hide them in a ship, or drive them over a remote border area in a jeep. So it's a stalemate. Nobody's been crazy enough to commit national suicide. That means..."

He suddenly turned, as his eye caught a movement at the window.

Looking at him was a stranger with a walkie-talkie.... The stranger beheld a boy who had suddenly become concerned about his behavior.

"I have to sign off, now. I'll try to talk to you again, but it might be awhile before I can."

Donny Saunders turned off his CETI radio and arose from his chair to admit the government-man who had come to arrest him for violating the law.


"My parents are working up in Pittsburgh. They come back when they can. They want me to finish school here.... They don't like city life very much. But they have to be there."

Newell stared down at the Donny, who had returned to his radio. The stranger had explained who he was, but the young fellow had remained apprehensive about the government-man who'd appeared suddenly out of the night and interrupted his transmission.

"Where did you get that two-meter AM rig? It's an antique." The loud hiss of the channel had been turned down so they could talk.

"It was my uncle's. He was killed in Vietnam, and my aunt gave it to me when she moved." Anticipating the next question, he admitted, "I don't have a license to use it."

Newell smiled to put the boy at ease. "You figured your transmissions to the stars wouldn't be detected.... Right?"

"Yeah. I put my antenna in the well to minimize sideward radiation ---and to concentrate it upward."

"You wouldn't have been detected if I hadn't decided to monitor the two-meter band for extraterrestrial sources with our very-sensitive radiotelescope. I couldn't read your signal, so tonight I started snooping down the valley. You're lucky I'm not the FCC."

Donny said nothing.

"Do you really think your weak signal will be read by distant aliens?"

Donny replied, "Maybe by those that aren't so distant."

"Oh, yeah. Those in the UFOs, you mean?"

The boy smiled wanly. "Something like that."

Newell looked around the room at the garish posters and the shelves of paperback science fiction books Donny had collected. On their colorful spines, he saw names he recognized from his own youth.

"I see where you get your inspiration." He added, "I used to read those stories, myself. But as I got older, I gave 'em up. It's just fantasy stuff. The realities of extraterrestrial communication are a different matter.... You know, we used the Arecibo radiotelescope to transmit a strong signal into outer space, but there's been no answer." He added, hastily, "Yet."

"I know. Maybe the aliens don't want to deal with our government. I mean, they can see what's happening here on Earth."

"Well..." Newell's answer to that provocative assertion was choked off by a humming noise from outside the house. Suddenly, a bright blue-white light illuminated the window from above and splashed into the room. "What the heck is that?" He went to the window. He squinted at the sky. His mouth fell open.

Donny joined the astronomer at the window. "What is it?"

A spaceship was quietly landing in the yard.

The Ambassador


The harsh, accented voice came from the radio's speaker. Donny rushed back and turned up the audio gain. The background hiss was now muted by a strong carrier signal beamed from the ship's radio.

Newell was struck dumb by the alien sight of the ship resting in the overgrown grass and weeds of the Saunders' yard. It had come down, not on a plume of fire, but almost silently with only an electrical sound to announce its presence.... It was not a sleek, finned cylinder like those on the cover of Donny Saunders' paperbacks. Or a poster saucer. It was a boxy thing with technical excrescences like those craft which movie modellers envision as hopelessly spacebound.

The astronomer's head oscillated between the alien thing outside and the young boy at his radio microphone. He found himself seized by a newfound fear of the unknown, and wanted to tell Donny to keep quiet. But he remained a silent spectator. He knew this wasn't his show.

"Donny Saunders here. Who's calling?" was the polite reply.


"I understand." He understood in a way Newell could never have.


Donny looked to Newell for advice. The astronomer shrugged. What had happened here was something beyond his ken. His academic savvy was of little use to him in this unimaginable situation.

"Okay. I'm coming out." Donny released the microphone switch and spoke to the astronomer. "You better stay here and be a witness."

Then, he turned and left the room. He walked from the house slowly but bravely to a dark, open hatchway in the side of the ship.

Newell strained, but failed in the glare of the bright spotlight to see anyone in the hatchway or behind the dimly-lit ports, above.

"I guess I'm not meant to see them. I'm just a government-man," he concluded, philosophically, and damned himself for leaving Robbie's walkie talkie in his pickup. His two-meter handheld was just a homebrew receiver in an old walkie-talkie case.

He began constructing a plausible cover story to tell his associate. Robbie would absolutely freak-out about this.

* * *

Donny came as far as the front-porch steps.

Newell had gathered enough courage to walk out the front door and sit in the porch's rockingchair. Donny's coonhound had followed him, and now stood, sniffing the scene his old eyes denied him. Newell gaped at the moonlit alien craft. Its bright spotlight had been turned off. The only sounds were those of the unimpressed crickets and frogs, now joined by the unseen whippoorwills of the rural night. It was a scene from a major---but unfilmed---motion picture.

"I have to go with them. They say I've been chosen as... as an ambassador from Earth," Donny said, diffidently, as if he believed himself to be inadequate for such an office.

"I just can't absorb this, Donny. It's like some kind of dream. But I know I won't wake up and discover it was just some fantasy like those novels of yours."

"I have to go, now. Please don't tell anyone about this---even my parents. Things may not work out... and I might not come back here."

Or things will work out, and you won't be back. "That's okay. No one would believe me, anyway.... You go with them. I'll put your place in order and leave. You'll return someday. I'm confident about that." Newell smiled as he thought of all that science fiction Donny had read. It was as good a preparation for his new role as Newell could imagine. Better than a State Department briefing.

"Thanks. 'Bye." Donny whistled at his old hound. "Come on, Jepp. They say you can come, too." Then, he turned and strode toward the ship with a purposeful gait, the dog at his heels.


The ambassador stopped and looked back at the astronomer.

"Ask 'em why they've never talked to us at the hydrogen line."


Copyright 1997 by Frederick Rustam

If you enjoyed this story you can e-mail Frederick at:

About the Author: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who writes science fiction for the Web as a hobby. He formerly indexed technical documents for the Department of Defense. He finds constructing imaginary worlds of the future to be more rewarding than indexing the technology of our times.

As to other of his works, he says: "I have no webpage. My Web existence is entirely in ezines, mostly of the SFF&H variety. As a substitute for a webpage, I've been indexed by the Web search engines, and my readers can read some of my other stories by this means. As a former indexer, I find this gratifying."

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