Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team

For the Daily Prompt – Echo

The phone was face up and flashing strange colors and messy squiggle shapes that vibrated across the screen.  All she had done was try to send a text message.  A very important text message.

Vanessa slammed her phone down onto the table and swore.  A brand new Nine, with all the updates.  A line of phones that had never expressed the Bug before. Nothing she’d read before buying had mentioned the Bug finally getting to her preferred phone brand.

Deep breath.  Fine.

She glanced down at the mess of notes scattered across the kitchen table.  It was 3am and she’d already been up for an hour working out the idea that had woken her up.  A rambling affair of equations and arrows pointing to phrases like “cosmological inflation.”  All she had tried to text to her research partner was, “We need to figure out how to make an echo,” followed by a few snapshots of her notes.

And now her phone was refusing to send that message, overcome with strange, eldritch symbols and flashing lights like a dance club.  This new phone was the brand that wasn’t supposed to have the Bug; only Androids had been doing it previously.  It didn’t make much sense, and no one working to develop phone technologies had figured out what was causing the Bug.  But Vanessa was a theoretical physicist, and she couldn’t turn away from a mystery that needed a proper application of science.

So she made some strong black tea.  This entire situation had been instigated by her abruptly waking from a dead sleep, full of the understanding that solved the issue her research team was stuck on.  Vanessa sipped her tea.

The phone was still flashing, and vibrated occasionally.  Vanessa wasn’t an Android user, and had never seen a live example of the Bug.  She’d had the Nine for about three weeks, with no issues.  What was different?

She frowned at the thing, and began listing out everything she knew about the Bug.

It was first reported about 18 months ago, in high end Android phones.  Communications sent through messenger apps occasionally sent back strange forms of data that neither the app nor the phone could interpret; weird sounds, those flashing lights, the shapes that looked…wrong. Voice and video calls sometimes generated something that sounded almost like music, something on the cusp of being a true pattern.

Various causes had been accused; sun spots, Russian hackers, North Korean hackers, US government spyware, spyware in Facebook.  It took long a time for anyone to suggest it was the hardware.

Vanessa sipped her tea.  It couldn’t be the hardware, though, could it?  Not when multiple phone brands and operating systems were having the problem.  What else had changed?  Did the Nines have some new-ish technology that Android had been playing with for the last year and a half?  She tended to keep her head out of consumer product tech, and didn’t have enough information in her head.

Standing up, Vanessa walked to her bookshelf, where a stack of print magazines leaned precariously.  She knocked the whole thing over, searching for the scientific journals from three years ago, hoping they were there.  She knelt down on her knees, flipping through the magazines over and over again until she found what she was searching for:

“Nature 2019: New encryption technology potential in harnessing dark matter relay networks”

Vanessa went back to the table and grabbed a highlighter, marking the article up as she read, understanding washing over her.  She remembered the announcement two years ago of new encryption technologies, something “completely unhackable.”  There was a vague memory of Drake at the lab expounding excitedly about it.  He had very little technical detail at the time, and so Vanessa hadn’t paid much attention.  Was this theory about a “dark matter relay” really it?

She put more water on to heat for tea, then picked the quivering phone up and stared at it.  Shapes trailed across the screen, like an old fashioned screen saver.  There was a sense of depth, like watching a poorly made 3D movie, that made her stomach twist up as she watched.  Some of the shapes resembled viruses or bacteria under an election microscope, and seemed to gain more detail the longer she stared, ceasing to be formless blobs.

There were the squiggles, long threads that tied themselves in and out of complicated knots.  There was a pattern to the knots; she felt that if she studied them long enough, she’d find something mathematical being communicated.  She became increasingly certain that those knots represented part of the formula she had tried to text earlier, which was surely impossible.  The tea kettle screamed out, and Vanessa dropped the phone, her eyes snapping up and away.

Her stomach lurched, and she ran to the sink, retching while the tea pot continued to squeal.  Vanessa drank some cold water, and breathed slowly, turning to silence the kettle.  The phone was facedown on the carpet, still quivering every few minutes.  She made more tea, watching the steam rise slowly, which turned her mind back to her research lab.  Background radiation and echoes of the formation of the Universe, that’s what they worked on.  Questions about Dark Matter were discussed every single day.

Why hadn’t anyone looked into this encryption technology development?  It used concepts that, if true, could change how they studied the cosmos.  They could finally prove or disprove the hypothesis about the Milky Way’s dark matter disk and its effect on Earth and the evolution of life.  Or the idea of parallel dark matter universes.  That paper hadn’t addressed any of those ideas.  If there was another world right next to ours, this new encryption technology was bouncing our communications right through it.

The Bug did not happen with every single communication, or they would have killed the technology by now, rendered useless.  Perhaps the messages were for the most part traveling through empty space.  But if there was a dust cloud or meteor field of dark matter objects, sometimes those communications would bounce off the objects, creating an echo.  The bizarre way the messages scrambled when bounced back, could they be a key to Dark Matter?  What could the raw data of the scramble tell us about the Universe and matter?

Vanessa pulled the journal article back over, and started copying out equations.  This ridiculous Bug that so many people had come to hate had just given her the key to measuring invisible things.  As she began to work the math out and sketched some initial experiments, she decided that she would explain it in layman’s terms as “echolocation for space and the invisible world.”

She would start by mapping out what the phone messages were bouncing off of; a map might have practical, real world applications that could fund the rest of her research.  She was a bit disturbed by the sense of a pattern, as though the data was being intentionally manipulated, but that was one more mystery to solve.

Humanity had just been given a flashlight that could beam into the darkest, most impenetrable shadows of the cosmos.  Of course she wanted to go exploring.

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