"Davis, did you hear that?" I ask the other operator, hands cupped around my earpiece. external image featured-article-waveforms-400x257.jpg

"Quit it, Rita. It's probably just interference," Davis said without looking away from his console. He had one foot on the control panel, balancing his chair on the back two legs. He popped another potato puff in his mouth.

"Shut up and listen to this." I rerouted sound to external speakers and dialed up the gain. Davis looked up and tugged his earpiece until it sat around his neck. He stopped chewing and squinted past me.

We sat still for a few moments awash in the static hum from my station's receiver. "No, no, it was there! Where it go?" I frantically tried to find the murmurs again amidst the noise. Scanning every band our antennas can handle, I came up empty. Davis rolled his eyes and finished his snack.
I waited until the end of my shift before trying to find the voices again. The chatter was relatively quiet for a few hours before the next crew started at the mine.

As sleep weighed on my eyelids, I heard it again. A few clicks and chirps. I perched myself over my console and held my breath, waiting for another signal to confirm my suspicion. The chirp was answered by a companion, lower in pitch and with a lot more to say.

I listened to the two voices converse for what seemed like hours. Neither signal was at all intelligible, little more than a buzz against the cosmic background signal. Still, they held me captive. I knew all UNSF communication protocols and every comm channel. I used most of them daily. These voices weren't on our network.

I packed up my things when I heard the next shift coming along. I loaded the frequencies onto my interface and ducked out. As I made my way back to the barracks, my mind fluttered with imaginings of Domoring children playing with stolen radios and Arorem technicians stuggling to find DNA in the plastic radio shells. I rolled onto my bed and resumed listening to the chatter, dreaming of its origins.

It wasn't long before they consumed me. I spent every available moment tweaking frequencies, wandered to every corner of the ship hoping for a stronger signal. I swiped defunct drones out of the service bay and tried to fabricate a better antenna for my interface. Meanwhile the voices continued, their words attenuated just beyond comprehension.

The speech was unintelligible, but it was intimate. I heard laughter. I heard long, slow conversations. I heard anger, excitement, sorrow. I was a witness to the emotional lives of two strangers. But somehow, they weren't strangers to me anymore.

A week or two after I first picked up the signal, I sat at my position operating the Nina's comms array, granting clearances and directing traffic between the fleet and the big rock below us as usual. The mining ops guys always came back with stories about carving up the asteroid for bits of ore and even more stories about their escapades to the shops that sprung up beside the mines. The Drill-Jocks had the annoying habit of sharing them over the comms. I usually tuned out the cross-talk, but one story peaked my interest. A group of technicians were discussing where to modify their armor and interfaces. I briefly turned up the volume on my earpiece and jotted down the name of one of the shops they mentioned. I couldn't mod my interface to get a better signal, but maybe a craftsman could figure it out. A few days later I was granted a few short days of leave. I packed up a backpack with a few MRE's and the little UNSF cash I had, then boarded a transport to Garago.

I stumbled out onto the Garago platform. The air was thick with a sharp, slightly sweet odor tinged sour with mechanical oil. The streets buzzed with activity. Garago was nothing like the extravagent stories those Drill-Jocks had told, but rich with life and diversity all the same. I tried not to oogle at Domoring dancers or burling Machento as I wandered through the streets. I fished a scrap of writing out of my pocket and headed for my destination, Skolumen's Metalworks.
The heavy metal door let out an oily exhale as I entered the dark workshop. My eyes traced the hammers, knives and drills hung along the walls. I meandered toward the back, following the steady bleat of giant forge bellows. The silhouette of a man came into view.

I cleared my throat and asked, "Are you Skolumen?"

The figure paused from tugging on the bellows' chain. "Who's asking?" As he turned to me, the forge's glow revealed a grimy, bearded man. The wrinkles that creased his face were filled with soot. He slid his goggles to his forehead, and the area around his eyes shone brightly in contrast.
"My name's Rita. I heard about this place from a friend." Skolumen removed his gloves and waited for me to continue. "I hear you're pretty good at modding PI's," I said. I felt a bead of sweat drip down my back, either from the heat of the forge or from my nerves. Probably both.

"I'm pretty good at a lot of things, what did you have in mind?" He spoke with a friendly tone despite the throaty, rough sound of his voice.

I pulled my interface out of my bag and handed it to him. "I need an upgraded antenna. Here are the specs I'm looking for." I passed the smith a list of measurements. He eyed me and then the list. I paused while he looked it over, then nervously said, "I've got cash, how much you think it'll cost?"

He examined my interface and carried it toward a heap of metal scraps in the corner of the workshop. After a moment he said, "How much you got?"

I returned after leaving the craftsman to work for a few hours. The interface he returned to me was noticeably heavier than before. More importantly, the radio tuner was much more sensitive. I gave Skolumen my thanks and eagerly tuned the device to the channel that had devoured my attention since its discovery.

It wasn't perfect, but at long last I heard distinct language coming through.

"We're almost ready, brother," buzzed the first voice.

"Yes, our hard work is paying off," responded the second. "I have received word that the grenades are in place at the monument. Soon they will be sorry to have disturbed the Balesh. May you find equilibium, my brother."