… continued from Plan B
Anna pushed away from the window and over toward the end of the gate lounge, in the direction toward the dish antenna outside. The far wall had several portals, some closed and some open, so Anna pulled herself to the one closest to the hull, closest to the antenna. The door was closed, so she gave the handle a tug, but it wouldn’t budge. She pulled harder, to no avail.
“Jaci, what does this thing say?” She pointed to an illuminated Kwakitl text in the middle of the round portal door. She had a hunch, but hoped she was wrong.
Jaci pointed his tablet at it, then gave her the bad news. “Vacuum on the far side. The door is sealed for our safety.”
“Crap. Ok, well, we know from when we first got here that some of these chambers are open to space, so it’s a good thing the safety interlocks work, I suppose, but we still need to find a way to get at that antenna. What about from in here? This was a departure gate, after all, so there must be a terminal.”
She pushed back over to the portal they first entered through, with the chamber immediately facing the climber just beyond, and up to what definitely seemed like a gate agent’s console. She grasped onto a grab bar around the circumference of the circular console and let her body’s momentum pull her around so that she ended up facing back toward the rest of the departure lounge. From this angle, she could just make out the sun-brightened antenna cluster through the window, which now appeared sideways from her new perspective. As she expected, the console had an active alert pulsating maroon, but she ignored that.
“Jaci, come help me interpret these controls. I want to know if any of these mention communications or something similar.”
A display screen, also circular, took up most of the console’s surface area, with more of the familiar circular touch controls around it, including the one flashing the alert. The display was active, though unevenly faded and with some apparent dead spots, and it occasionally flickered in brightness. Still, it provided much of the illumination for this end of the room, with many of the chamber’s lights darkened or in emergency red. Otherwise, most of the lighting came from the central porthole window, facing toward the planet far below and letting in the reflected light of its sun. Laxmi continued to watch outside while Jaci floated over to join Anna with his tablet. He pointed it toward the display.
“It’s, um, it’s pretty garbled. I think it’s a touch screen, like so much else we’ve seen, because some of the shapes seem to be labeled icons. But, I think… yeah, try that one. The label says something like Works, but that might be the tablet trying to interpret Functions or maybe Menu.”
Anna touched the icon that Jaci pointed out, and the entire screen went dark. She looked at him, about to say something, but then the display lit up again, this time with new icons and messages.
“I was right! It’s a list of options, and… yes! Here we go, that one says Speak.”
“Well, remember, the translation is not perfect, nor complete. It’s an approximation.”
Anna pressed the new icon, and this time the screen flashed once before displaying a new menu, but it didn’t go completely dark.
“We’re getting somewhere. These are options around the circle, and, um, ok, we have Room, and then Island…”
“Yeah, I don’t think it means the island we came from. I think it’s a mistranslation. I think it means an area larger than one room, but not as large as the next option, which says All. So, maybe it means this section of the station.”
“And All would be what, the whole station?”
“I don’t know, Anna, anymore than you do.”
“What about communications to outside the station? Do you see anything for that?”
“I see Ground and Empty. That’s it.”
Jaci just shrugged.
“Empty… like space?”
Anna touched the Empty icon. Again, after a flash, a new menu of options appeared. Jaci read from his tablet’s display.
“The first few are Raft, Boat, and Ship. So, yeah, I think Empty meant outside the station. I guess these are frequency options based upon the type of vessel you want to speak with?”
“They probably had standard frequencies for ship-to-ship, ship-to-tender, and so on. What’s that fourth option?”
“It says Number.”
“Promising!” Anna touched that one.
The resulting screen presented a more complex array of options, including the now-familiar circular sliders. She looked at Jaci.
“Um, Tone and… Sideways? That doesn’t make sense. And that third one is Strength, while the toggle icon is Speak again.”
“I’m gonna interpret that as Frequency, Sideband, Volume, and Transmit. I think we’ve found what we’re looking for, but I’m still not sure how we can use it. But let’s see if we can pick anything up.”
Anna didn’t answer right away, but instead started sliding the Frequency dial slowly around its circle, with no visible or audible result.
“Is this thing on?”
She spun the Volume dial around, then tried the Frequency dial again. This time there was an audible hiss of static from the console.
“Holy shit! I think it’s actually working.”
She continued moving the dial around, pausing at intervals to try different positions of what she thought was a sideband modulation control, but she couldn’t be sure. She heard nothing but static, however, even after moving through the full frequency range. She turned the sideband control around the other direction, with no idea what the colors on the dial were trying to tell her, and moved through the frequency spectrum again, more slowly this time, all the way clockwise, then all the way counter-clockwise, unsure which direction meant higher or lower frequency.
As she passed through a band close to one end of the dial’s range, she heard a blip in the static. She carefully moved the slider back a millimeter or so, until she heard the blip again, a brief dip in the level of the static. She centered the frequency dial on that point, and adjusted the sideband modulation.
And then she heard voices.
Or, not voices as a human might think of them, but definite transmitted audio signals with some kind of meaning behind them. She turned up the volume.
The next thing she knew, Ca-Tren was at her side, staring at the console, and visibly shaking.
“What is it?”
Ca-Tren looked at Anna, then at Jaci. Laxmi watched with interest from her position at the window. Ca-Tren quietly squawked something, but Anna needed no translator to clearly hear “Orta” in her speech.
“So we found the Orta’s transmission frequency. This is probably their ground crews talking to the ship in orbit. Can we tell what they’re saying?”
Jaci shook his head. “No. When that one spoke to Ca-Tren on the boat before, it used a translator of its own to produce Kwakitl, and that’s what we were able to translate to Englese. Ca-Tren spoke to it in Kwakitl. But, she has heard untranslated Orta speech somewhere, probably back at Ar-Danel before we left.”
Laxmi drifted over. “If we transmit in Kwakitl on this frequency, they would hear and understand us, though?”
“That seems likely.”
“So they could rescue us?”
Anna thought about that. “It’s possible, but it’s a long shot. We don’t know where their ship is. If it’s orbit is much higher or lower, or if it’s on a non-equatorial angle, or even if they’re just around on the far side of the planet, it could take them days to reach us. And that’s assuming we can correctly communicate where we are, though I’d guess they probably already have a good idea.”
“Shouldn’t we try, though?”
Anna paused again before answering. Why not try to reach the Orta? Perhaps Laxmi was right, and this would be the wiser course, but…
“Let’s keep that as a last resort. We know where to find their frequency now, so it’s an option. But, I’m not convinced they’ll be very helpful to us, even if they are able. And, we know they’re water-breathers. How will they accommodate us on their ship, or even their shuttles?”
“We haven’t heard anyone else on the radio, have we? What other option do we have at this point?”
Anna turned to Jaci.
“You have a spectrum analyzer program on your tablet, right? As part of the language analysis pack? I had one on mine, but, well, it’s long gone.”
“Sure, but how does that help us now?”
“The tablet can pick up radio signals. Normally it’s locked down to just a couple of bands that we use for short-distance digital networking, and some medium-distance voice and audio. But if you load the spectrum analyzer, there should be a setting to unlock all frequencies. It’s meant for troubleshooting onboard systems, but…”
“But it might help us find local signals here! You think that…?”
“Yes, I think maybe the console has a wireless connection. And if we can figure out how to tune the console’s transceiver to known frequencies…”
“Gotcha! I’m on it.”
Jaci worked his way through his tablet’s options, looking for the program Anna wanted. While he did that, the eerie, almost ominous, echoing sounds of the Orta voices continued to emanate from the console, shifting pitches sliding up and down, interspersed with clicks.
“Got it! But how…”
“Here, let me see. I know this program well, so it’ll save time.”
Anna took the proffered tablet and tapped and swiped on the screen until she found the option she was looking for. She also noticed the battery indicator.
“Jaci, there’s only like 25% battery left on this thing. Haven’t you been keeping it charged up?”
“I’ve been using it! And, in case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been a bit busy.”
As they spoke, the battery level dropped to 24%. Anna bit back a retort, knowing Jaci was right, and that they were all on edge. She would just need to be as efficient as possible.
“Ok, it’s scanning.”
She watched the display while the Orta voice droned on. Very quickly she saw a narrow spike in the graphic display centered on 2.1 GHz. She zoomed in the display to show a steep signal cutoff on the lower side of the frequency range with a more gradual decrease in amplitude on the upper side. Imposed over the broadcast was a mirror image at half the amplitude with the gradual decline on the low side.
“What have you got there?” Jaci looked over her shoulder as Anna tweaked the scanner.
“I’m a seeing a single-sideband signal, but with a phase-shifted transform.”
“Ok, that meant nothing to me. Is it the Orta transmission?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s local, and that’s what I was looking for. I’m hoping it’s the console’s wireless carrier. It looks like the network we use on Aniara for the tablets, just at a different frequency.”
“So you can tap into it, right?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s an encrypted signal. If Tak were here, he’d hack this with no trouble, I’m sure, but… well, I focused more on using computers, not hacking them. That was his specialty.”
Laxmi quietly called out from where she had drifted back over to the window.
“Ok, so if I apply a Fourier transform to this… crap, no, all that did is invert the signal.”
“Anna,” Laxmi said more urgently. “We’re running out of time. You said yourself, you’re not a hacker, we can’t decrypt this thing, and meanwhile…”
“I can see the cable. Or something. I think it’s lifted out of the atmosphere.”
Anna pushed over to the window beside Laxmi, with Jaci’s tablet still in her hand. She looked out at the planet, again fighting a brief moment of vertigo when her perspective shifted to looking down at it. Far below, the cloud disturbance she had seen earlier had grown and spun off cyclones to north and south. For an instant she imagined she could see a thin dark line bisecting the disturbance, but she knew that was her mind playing tricks on her. Somewhere well short of the forty-thousand kilometers of the cable’s length it dwindled to invisibility with distance. By the time she could see it curling up toward the station, it would well and truly be too late.
“I’m sure it has. But we can’t see it yet. We still have time.”
“Anna, we don’t! Please, call the Orta, beg them for rescue!”
Anna looked at Laxmi, then over at Jaci and Ca-Tren, then finally back down to the planet and the thin, thin cable extending toward it. Was Laxmi right? Was she unnecessarily risking their lives just to prove she could do this? She looked again at the tablet in her hand, and the signal waveform with its strange inverted ghost, and something clicked in her mind, something remembered from early university classes all those decades ago. She looked up at Laxmi, meeting her eye, unable to contain her excitement.
“Laxmi, give me just five more minutes with this. I think I know what I’ve been doing wrong. I promise you, if I haven’t cracked this in five minutes, we’ll put out the SOS instead.”
“Anna, are you sure?”
“It’s not a Fourier transform! Or, not a straight-up one, anyway. I think we’re looking at a Hartley modulator circuit, and if I apply the Hilbert variant on the Fourier… Damn, no one has used that for years, does this app even have that function?”
“A Hartley modulator what?”
“I should have known when I saw the phase-shifted single-sideband signal with its own inverse! It’s a technique for radio broadcasting that was popular a couple-hundred years ago, and for a while it was popular with early digital signal processors, but those processors became obsolete a long time ago, somewhere around the turn of the millennium. We learned about this in…”
Anna trailed off as she madly tapped and swiped at options on the tablet. Laxmi looked at Jaci.
“Do you have any idea what she just said?”
“Nope, but I like her enthusiasm. I say we let her run with it and see what happens. I mean, we’re all probably gonna die anyway, right?”
“I really don’t want to…”
“Hey, what did you do?” Jaci spun around to look at the gate console.
“What happened?” Anna pushed over to join him.
“A new indicator just flashed on here. Can I borrow the tablet for a moment? Um, I need to use the translator app…”
“It’s still running. Just…we’re at 19% battery now.”
Jaci took the tablet from Anna and pointed it at the console.
“You connected to it! Or sort of. It says New intake connected, or something like that. I think it’s reading the tablet as a signal source.”
“Ok, can we make the console route the tablet to the antenna arrays? And, like, all of them at once?”
“I think… yeah, this looks like it. Connected!”
Anna took the tablet back from Jaci and with a few taps opened another window, dark with a blinking cursor.
“Ok, slowly move that dial… yeah, that one, that’s the external frequency control. Keep going. Keep going. Wait… stop! Go back a bit. There!”
A line of text appeared in the tablet window. After a few seconds, the line repeated, then it repeated again.
“What is it?” Jaci looked over Anna’s shoulder. Laxmi pushed over to join them.
“It’s asking for connection credentials.”
“Shit. Now what? Wait… how… Anna, this looks almost like Englese.”
Anna beamed at Jaci and Laxmi.
“That’s right. Because it’s Aniara asking us to authenticate.”
“She’s my ship. Of course I know the password. And the tablet’s already certified, or we wouldn’t have got this far.”
She hugged them both tightly.
“We’re going home, my friends.”
The battery indicator on the tablet in her hand dropped to 17%.
… to be continued.
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