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Written in the Stars · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Published in the Stars
It began, as many odd discoveries did, in a small midwestern college.

The observatory was in the loving hands of graduate students during summer vacation, with all of the professors and PhD students having gone to their family get-togethers and only a few lowly Masters students still remaining. Between pizza and beer runs, there were games of Dungeons and Dragons, a few SETI experiments, and the eternal quest for an astronomical oddity which could be made to look obscene with the right shading. Before retiring for the night, the last student in the facility loaded up his laptop with a software package some CalTech student named Evarts Friedman had designed to assist with Near Earth Object detection and attached it to the CCD array on the telescope.

So in a way, a combination of insomnia, Red Bull overdose, and pure curiosity led to what might have been the most important discovery of humankind.

The documentation for the statistical software package was erratic, as it had been developed by a fellow Masters degree student and of course abandoned the moment the degree had been mailed, but Ravi Ravidesh persisted while the laptop thunked and chirped. It was supposed to allow a single pass of the heavens to be captured, isolated, reduced, compressed, and extrapolated out into a short character string instead of multi-gigabyte image files, therefore allowing multiple images of the sky to be compared in much briefer periods of time. That is, if you discounted the immense multi-gigabyte size of the software package to start with, and the long period of time it took to process an image from the telescope. A rational human being would have compared the time to examine ordinary photography with the time it took to run GigaSkyScan8K, carried the two, and decided to spend the extra time in their life doing something productive, like watching late-night infomercials.

Students are not rational creatures, no matter how much they protest in the inverse.

After failing to make heads or tails out of the documentation until the dawning sun caused the end of observatory time, Ravi packed his stuff back up, unplugged the microwave, swept most of the litter into a lawn and leaf trash bag, and drove back to his dorm room for a nap. Somewhere around noon, he rose again, opened his laptop, and in a fit of confusion caused by lack of sleep, double-clicked on the data file instead of the obese statistics package.

If that was as far as he had gone, the world may never have known what followed.

Written across his screen in a Notepad window, was a fairly short series of ASCII characters, which was supposed to be about ten gigabytes of sky pictures which the software had compressed and analyzed into a checksum of the sky, in a manner of speaking. Instead, he read it out loud in order to see if it made more sense.

MOTHEROFMANKINDWHATTIMEHISPRIDEHADCASTHIMOUTFROMHEAVN

Ravi hesitated with his finger over the ‘close’ button. It seemed rather odd, even if his Bangladeshi roommate had been playing a practical joke on him. Instead, he opened a different data file and read.

WHEREWHEREISMYUNCLECRIEDELIZABETHDARTINGFROMHERSEATASSHE

A few minutes with the student’s best friend, Google, and a test of each of the other data files revealed phrases from Proust, the King James version of the Bible, and two different phrases from Voltaire in the original French. A full virus scan of the computer revealed no lurking monsters, and only a few pieces of spyware which were probably making a few Chinese hackers scratch their heads as much as Ravi was scratching his. Checking the executable of GigaSkyScan8k showed no text files lurking inside, and a quick email to the author revealed that he had taken his statistics degree from the California university and fled for more profitable fields, along with a note from his student loan company asking for repayment information on several missed payments.

So Ravi did whatever any other curious student would do with an anomaly such as this. He put it on his Facebook page and headed out to his summer job.

Two days later, ripples from the original posting had drifted to Shrinivas Kulkarni, the director of Palomar Observatory at California Institute of Technology. Having tenure at a university meant he had seen far odder things travel by his desk, normally with rejected funding requests attached to them, but he told his computer to download the software over the course of a few hours while he was away from his desk anyway. After all, he had once suffered through Milton to get his own degree, and the idea of finding the text of Paradise Lost inscribed in the stellar firmament struck him as funny.

Twelve hours later, he did not think it was quite so humorous.

Fifteen hours later when the Director of Computer and Information Systems had been dragged into the growing discussion, she did not find it humorous either.

Seventeen hours later when the Director of CIS had quietly bribed a few graduate students who could still program into attempting to disassemble the gargantuan software package, she began to get nervous. Although her most recent coding experience involved paper tape and punch cards, she did manage to feed a few online sky photographs into the software package and observe the results.

Hemingway. Blake. Woolf. And worst of all, James Joyce.

The graduate students reported back that the entire software package had either been put together by a mental patient or a genius, and that no text was buried inside or was being brought into the program by way of the internet. Also, that they were out of pizza and needed another research grant.

The university attempted to put a lid on all of it while sending out a quiet note to the missing programmer in hopes of resolving the mystery without any undue chaos. This, of course, caused the news of the program and its results to explode into social media.

The download server for GigaSkyScan8K, hosted at CalTech of course, promptly died.

The few copies which had made it out into the wild were copied to various download sites.

They promptly died too.

For about ten minutes, Google attempted to host the software package.

After the internet came back up and some serious throttling was put in place, they tried again. This time, they were much more successful, mostly because anybody who wanted a copy was downloading it from a torrent.

The Iranians declared the entire event to be a trick of the Great Satan and the Lesser Satan in order to prevent work on their peaceful nuclear program.

The Israelis didn’t say anything, because they had slipped a copy of GigaSkyScan8K infected with a new version of Stuxnet into the Iranian nuclear program computers and were busy turning entire racks of plutonium separation centrifuges into confetti.

MSNBC ran a story on the software package in which they managed to misspell the name of the California Institute of Technology, claimed that the failure to locate the programmer was due to insufficient school funding, and blamed George W. Bush.

The president went golfing.

The City of Seattle sent out a press release denying these ‘stars’ actually existed, and that all the rest of the country was just making it up because stars would just fall out of the sky without anything to hold them up. Later it was claimed that the mayor’s daughter had discovered an unlocked computer and typed the whole thing up as a joke, which would have made more sense if the mayor had a daughter younger than twenty-seven.

The National Science Foundation filed requests for 14.7 billion dollars worth of grants to research the possibility that the cure for cancer, global warming, erectile disfunction, and budget shortfalls was perhaps inscribed on the Andromeda galaxy, and that only an immediate gathering of all specialists and political consultants in this field would shed light on the subject. The meeting was proposed for Las Vegas.

The Scientologists declared the works of L. Ron Hubbard were immortalized above the plane of the eclipse forever and into eternity, which is where the supreme Thelemite Goddess was to reveal herself.

The Mormons refused to admit to the possibility of what was being called ‘stellar handwriting’ until sections of the Book of Mormon were discovered in the constellation of Draco, after which they convened a conclave.

Oral Roberts University announced a fundraiser which brought in several times the annual budget in just one hour.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association declared that the discovery of several paragraphs out of their founder’s Christmas sermon was ‘interesting’ and that they were checking to see if any other sermons had been deemed worthy enough to be inscribed in stellar material.

The Holy See declared that the Pope was looking into the situation and would release a statement shortly. Until then, the faithful were encouraged not to despair or panic, because if the End of All Times were upon the world, certainly His Holiness would have been informed.

Bill Gates announced that Windows 11 would have GigaSkyScan8K built into the operating system much the same as Windows Explorer, and would autoupdate by using the system camera to download updates from the sky.

Evarts Friedman came back from walking the Appalachian Trail, replaced his iPhone which he had managed to dump in a creek the first week out, and opened his mailbox.

After seventeen phone calls to various people who refused to believe it was really him, he managed to contact his faculty advisor for his Masters degree and find out just what had happened over the last few months. It was a long and drawn-out circuitous conversation, mostly in order for the FBI to track the phone call and get a team into position, and actually left Mister Friedman still completely clueless as to the events of the last two months.

Several hours later, Mister Friedman found himself in Camp David with mixed emotions. For starters, he had gotten to ride in Marine One, the helicopter that transported the President of the United States, which probably would have been a lot more pleasant if they had left the handcuffs and the hood off. Secondly, the interrogation would have been somewhat more effective if the interrogate-ee had even the slightest hint of what he was being charged with. And third, the FBI had confiscated his cell phone before turning him over to the Secret Service, who did not realize what the FBI had done, and attempted to confiscate his phone again, which of course would have worked better if the dead phone they were trying to analyze had not been submerged and left to corrode for two months.

Eventually, the confrontation wound up with the unwilling defendant doing nothing but shouting for a lawyer, any lawyer, every time he was asked a question.

Strangely enough, even as close to Washington D.C. as Camp David was, it still took several hours to find a lawyer willing to work pro bono for a recent student who had a grand total of twelve dollars in his pocket and somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars in student loan debt.

Hector Does, who had graduated from law school and passed the bar a few weeks ago, sat very quietly with his client and brought him up to date on events. After Evarts Friedman finished laughing, he motioned the lawyer very close and whispered a few sentences in his ear.

The investigators from the FBI and Secret Service who were watching and very carefully not-listening to the ‘accidentally’ not-switched off microphone in the room were frustrated, but did not interfere until Hector left the room and asked to speak to the agent in charge.

This of course led to yet another meeting where a rather nervous Mister Does gave the Attorney General of the United States three options: charge Mister Friedman, release him, or be sued. If charged, Mister Friedman would stand quite firmly on his Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to say anything, which of course would be exactly what Hector Does would report in his press conference tomorrow. If not charged and still detained, the press conference would of course be to announce the upcoming lawsuit, during which Mister Friedman would still remain silent.

Both options, Hector pointed out, would leave world opinion and any social unrest pointing firmly at the United States Department of Justice.

The next day, Hector and Evarts held a press conference. It could have easily been a circus, but with draconian restrictions on the press permitted to attend, mostly restricted to those who did not have a major news anchor throw a nervous breakdown on the air in the last two months, they kept it down to a pool camera and a dozen members of the press.

The first announcement was that Evarts Friedman’s story was going to be made into a book. It had been already signed for and he had received an undisclosed advance, which was cashed, divided, and mostly in the hands of a good tax attorney.

Second was an upcoming lawsuit against CalTech, for releasing proprietary software developed by Mister Freeman, without his permission, which had not been given due to a minor bug and documentation updates still pending.

The software package in question recursively sorted stars according to a pseudo-random encryption and compression generator. For keys, Mister Friedman had used a polymorphic-encrypted multi-gigabyte collection of public domain texts, which he had stripped of punctuation and reduced to seven-bit characters. The contents of the output file were not important to the program, but their placement within the database indicated just what the contents of the subject photograph was. If a mobile Near Earth Object caused a point of light to move in the photograph, the pointer into the database changed.

The problem was the code output the decrypted contents of the database, not a pointer.

The second problem was trying to explain the first problem to a group of reporters.

The third problem was trying to get the reporters to be able to repeat the explanation without mangling it beyond recognition.

The fourth problem was convincing the Justice Department not to haul Mister Friedman back into jail and have him arrested for allowing his buggy program to be stolen and then deciding to take a two-month hiking trip without a working phone (which was not a crime, despite several stridently-expressed opinions from younger agents.)




Nearly a year later as Evarts Friedman settled down in his Colorado mountain cabin and adjusted the CCD receiver on his telescope, his phone had settled down enough to be actually turned on once in awhile during the day. He kept it for sentimental reasons, and as a reminder of the difference that several million dollars worth of book advance could make in a person’s bottom line. He took a sip of his wine and checked his laptop, which was happily burping along from the digital input of the skies. After setting the star tracker on the telescope, he replied to a few emails from Hector, who was taking his new yacht out for a spin. From student to unemployed to retired was a lot shorter trip than both of them had expected, which gave them time to doodle around on various hobbies.

The laptop chirped once, spitting up a message that showed no Near Earth Objects found, which was good. It would really suck to make all this money just to be blown away by some comet. He was moving the telescope to a new position when just out of whimsy, he opened up the data file full of pointers, just to be certain. After all, he had made a few changes to the software before it was ‘accidentally’ leaked again, and it would not do to have errors in the code.

He looked at the result.

Then he closed the window and checked the data file again.

It had not changed.

Leaving the laptop, he strolled through the house over to the writing table and got out his checkbook, mentally calculated fifteen percent, and began writing a check. It wouldn’t hurt. He had the money. And sometimes you just had to take the hint.

Over on the laptop, the open window still remained, showing the last lines of the computer data file.

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