WHAT WASN’T OURS
Send more Chuck Berry, went the joke—how the aliens would reply when they got their first spin of the Golden Record on the Voyager. Sweet, friendly aliens with toe-tapping rhythm (whether or not they had feet), an appreciation for sweat and guitar riffs pooling together even if they had no first-hand experience with either. They would ignore Bach’s Brandenburg and the Javanese court gamelan, the “C’mon now, it’s okay” of a mother’s voice, the gloppy birth of mud pots, the map that showed them our neighborhood, gave them directions to find us, the silhouette family in all their kilogrammatic dimensions, embryo with proud jutting umbilicus, the images of stopped cars and tuk-tuks that made it seem that earthlings sat mired in traffic everywhere on earth all the time. None of that, none of that. Just more “Johnny B. Goode.”
But that wasn’t our joke. And we had no shortage of them. We had jokes upon jokes, piled up through the years, as if to decree that our relationship wasn’t one, and that the best way to ensure that was to construct an inviolable geodesic dome of jest around it. Not only did we have jokes, but we had whole languages; if anything, languages were what we had most of all. I specialized in them, was a programmer who bounced around Silicon Valley till I got stuck in one stringifying, brackety loop too many, hooked on Modafinil, sick of the bravado that we were going to engineer our way into ethical wealth. I’d been one of those nerdy teenagers who leapt at the chance to farm out my computer’s energy to SETI, and I allowed it to revert to the screensaver, a flickering spiky field, green to fuchsia, marching again and again across my monitor. I was crunching data from satellite dishes and telescopes, and I was hooked on the idea of panning for life in my own corner of the universe. This, I told you in our first conversation.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS AGAINST ANY MEETING
On the dessert line at the 2008 International Conference on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life in the Universe (ICSELU) in Jacksonville. A delay as the frazzled caterers fetched more actual ice cream for the ice cream bar they’d set up, and we struck up small talk over our empty bowls. I held mine up like a satellite dish, joked that my SETI screensaver had been keeping NASA’s refrigerators cold, and you shot back that astronaut ice cream, that dry, crumbly stuff, didn’t need refrigeration, that that was in fact its only redeeming quality, and already I could see your mind, how it would slice any topic. In the keynote we’d just heard, otherwise lackluster, the speaker had made the Chuck Berry joke, and so one of us said something like, “Maybe it’s Chuckberry Ice Cream they want, after all,” and the other said, “What would that consist of?” and we entered one of those zones where a separate universe is created between two people even in the middle of a crowded room, a line of scientists from around the world overstuffed with chicken cordon bleu and slivered almonds, now staring at toppings with nothing to put them on.
HOW I MET YOUR WHALES
Your table had emptied out by that point, people going to freshen up in their rooms, crash for the night, or having already shuffled off cliquishly into their drinking factions, so I sat down next to you and just we kept talking. You studied whales, which was so different from what I did that I thought I misheard at first. But whales, as I knew vaguely, had long played a role in the search for extraterrestrial life. The corrugations of their brains made ours seem like hammocks gone slack and tattered, having soaked in the laziness of those who lay in them. Whales had spindle neurons aplenty, the very things that seemed to give us social intelligence. Their messages pulsed across the ocean—you made me guess how far and kept signaling that I should go higher, not ten not a hundred but thousands of miles, it was believed, at five times the speed they would’ve in air, somehow remaining intact over all that distance, preserving their meaning. Part of why the astrobiologists were interested in them.
What else? They mourned. A creature capable of mourning was also, you were certain, one that possessed humor. You cited Aristotle, then said you might have made that up. You thought them more devoted to the ephemeral, without anything to cling to. What would constitute solidity to them? Our ice cream was melting, I observed. Later, you would connect the human obsession with solid things to our relationships, our respective families. You said our houses and our real estate and our trees and our basketball hoops, freighted with cement, tricked us into thinking that our lives were solid. Your whales, on the other hand, never fell into that trap. Others, yes—lines from crab and lobster pot to surface, the thunder of a container ship trawling the waters, more decibels than the space shuttle—those were traps they met. But real solidity for them was, you felt, something they found only in themselves, in its expression through lobtailing, gleeful fin slapping, peduncle throws, which, you explained to me, were like wrestling moves, though it would be only later that you would act these out with your full self, not just your hands. And of course the songs. Your very ring tone was a whale song, but you had all of these others on hand. You loved to record—for you a cellphone, I think, was more of a tape recorder. You had what sounded like a whale laughing on an old-time radio show, as if it were taunting a private eye in some underwater noir. I know that if you could have willed your wetsuit to thicken into blubber, smooth and glistening and slick, you wouldn’t have hesitated, would have slipped off into the ocean the first chance you got.
A whale joke goes like this: bump. Bump a boat, gently.
It’s a kind of slapstick, I suppose.
At least you knew your whales were there, somewhere. You were able to trace them meticulously, tag them, spoke about them as extended family—Crowbar and Maximus, your favorites. It took me a while to remember what your actual children’s names were; they seemed so mundane by comparison.
As for me, I couldn’t know for sure that the beings I was attempting to communicate with even existed. I was convinced they did—mathematically, given the Drake Equation, the number of galaxies and stars and exoplanets orbiting around them at distances that would have yielded up Goldilocks, earthlike conditions, given that even close to home, moons like Europa and Ganymede looked like they could harbor hidden life, it was unfathomable that there wasn’t someone, something out there. On Mars, there’d been an ocean once, and I suspected life—not whales, not some goofy bug-eyed green cartoon alien, but at least something carbon-based floating. Someone was out there. My life’s purpose hinged on it. Maybe cyanobacteria, maybe a civilization so advanced that we’d barely recognize their technology, wouldn’t know it as it headed for us.
In some sense, I was always a bit jealous of you. We ultimately shared common aims, doing our small part to advance human knowledge, but you had more instant results, more fun. The pictures of you in wetsuits with family members on the beach—your son in particular seemed determined to follow in your flippered footsteps—sometimes I had to change my settings so that I wouldn’t come upon them unexpectedly over breakfast and forget how to chew, risk choking on the spot.
THE FERMI PARADOX
It was with disbelief that I registered that your husband, who seemed a lovely family physician, and thus a man of science, did not believe that there was alien life in the universe—bluntly, he believed we were alone. He was proud of this view, felt that it gave the human condition a greater dignity, is how you conveyed it to me. No one was coming to save us. We called him “Fermi” as shorthand, after the paradox that if there are aliens they should’ve contacted us by now and haven’t. Lynne at least was agnostic about this. She said she would be happy for me as long as I was fulfilled. As a social worker, she was devoted to earthly problems. Both of our spouses seemed, in some ways, better humans than we were—Fermi tended to children who had lymphoma and sometimes they went into remission and grew up and sometimes they didn’t, and it made me feel, even as I aimed my strings of code at the stars, at the faintest hint of life, as though I were doing something abstract, bloodless. Lynne and I had decided not to have children after some agonizing discussions because she felt she’d seen too much, seen those who’d seen too much, and there were already too many children whom the world barely acknowledged, for whom life was survival.
HOW WE COMMUNICATED
We were far apart most of the time, me in the Bay Area where it was all happening in tech, you studying humpback migration from your charming house on Cape Cod, though sometimes I would lose myself in your photos, your updates, your pictures such that I would forget which ocean was which. When we would see each other at conferences in university towns, I’d bring jewelry made by a local artist as souvenirs and you’d reciprocate with pine cones and needles. But we were geeks so we couldn’t just trade these, instead inventing languages with them. A syntax of semiconductor, redwood bark, a coniferous braille, we’d combine them, rearrange them, banish words for hours, play with the lighting, as though the dimmer was built for intonation, eat your heart out, Chomsky. It was all in the name of research. Then another language, one made entirely of touch, the acrobatic arching of our bodies as they occasionally breached the surface for air.
We never collaborated, though we batted the idea around sometimes—the overlap between our research interests just wasn’t quite there, and we were always advancing in our careers. But each of us would tuck messages for one another in the footnotes of stringently peer-reviewed papers, none of which were ever flagged.
WHAT WE VOWED
That if humans ever made contact with an alien intelligence that we would tell our spouses we were leaving them that very day.
HOW THEY MADE CONTACT
Then it happened. Or it might have been happening. Our instruments started picking up FRBs, ultra-fast, nanosecond bursts coming from SDSSTOI422065.30, a galaxy similar enough to our own where there were exoplanets galore, and many of them had to be earthlike. It was like this perfect storm of conditions and sightings. There were 51 hours, roughly, of flashes and flickers, followed by 14 hours of a different waveform, followed by about 720 hours of silence. Dead silence. This went on for a while, happened cyclically, enough times that some of my colleagues were all abuzz. They’d have drinking parties after getting the data down. Someone invented an FRB cocktail that you drank in small bursts, nanoshots. We were all going wild with it.
I started to stay up nights. They had discontinued the SETI @ Home, but you could contribute to coronavirus research, which I’d been doing instead. ICSELU 2020, Barcelona, had already been canceled; the organizers decided it wasn’t worth doing remotely, which was ironic given that they were beaming messages across millions of light years, as was pointed out across social media. Lynne and I would sleep opposite shifts, as she still needed to be up and there for her kids, her clients, give them the structure that they so desperately needed.
HOW WE MET THE MOLECULAREANS
One night the series of bursts had come in its timely fashion, and I had a dream of contact so elaborate, so ornate that I awoke certain we had finally heard from another life-form. They were known as the Moleculareans, even though this was just the popular name—their actual name was a chemical compound, something like H2NCH2CO2SWH. I called you in the middle of the night. Your son answered. You had left your phone in the den, where he was up late. He was a teenager now. He knew of me—your whole family did—as “Your Alien Friend.” I’d helped him with his homework once or twice for a coding class. I wanted you on the phone but was afraid the details of the dream would slip into oblivion if I didn’t utter them immediately, so I told him. The Moleculareans communicated not through words but through rearranging physical reality—they could bring gasses, liquids, solids into being out of nothing, transform them with ease, playing with them like children with toys that link together, only with matter. Anti-matter, too. As quickly as I could say, “The antelope wander through the drought-ridden lands until at last they locate a watering hole, where they are slaughtered by a pair of mountain lions,” they could actually assemble an antelope and a savannah and make this transpire. They could make a 300-year-old battle-scarred redwood tree in an instant. They could make something with the mind of a human and the body of that redwood, or the inverse. They could make a person who was also ocean. They could disassemble these things just as swiftly.
“So, like, these aliens actually exist?” he said. “You’re not, like, smoking DMT?”
“What is that?”
“It’s a drug. I don’t touch it, but I have friends who have. They say they, like, talk to aliens and shit.”
“The Moleculareans don’t exist. I mean, they could,” I said, adding, “And no. No drugs. Just a lot of coffee.”
“Let me get my mom up,” he said.
WHAT WE SPOKE ABOUT
You got on, groggy and scratchy and a bit cranky, but you were willing to listen, and I was remembering more of the dream as I spoke, like one of those strings of handkerchiefs knotted to handkerchiefs and all I had to do was keep yanking.
You said, “Hmm. They speak by assembling molecules.”
“Something like that.”
“That’s interesting. It’s also. . . magic. Or science. I think they call it chemistry.”
“Ha,” I said.
“But language has to be able to refer,” you said. “It can’t just make things. It has to be able to point to counterfactuals, to history. Things that haven’t happened yet. Things that might never happen.” How were you this awake so quickly?
Another handkerchief emerged. “That’s just it. They would make a frame.”
“A frame?” you said.
“A frame,” I said, “out of tungsten.”
“Tungsten.” Your skepticism, sweetly glazed.
“Tungsten,” I echoed. “A tungsten frame meant that it could happen but wasn’t actually happening. They would put a tungsten frame around the events.”
“Tungsten is very specific,” you said.
“It is that,” I said.
WHAT WE DIDN’T SPEAK ABOUT
What I wanted to say was that we had talked for so long about leaving our spouses and being together, spoken of it in so many idiolects, over so many thread counts and speared, martini-drenched olive buoys, spoken of it without ever mentioning it, and here, for the first time, there was a very real possibility that it was the case. Not the Moleculareans, which was just a crazy cascade, my own spindle neurons in melatonin-drenched overdrive. But the FRBs—what if there really was someone out there, sending us messages? There were no specifics of what our future together would look like. Would you uproot and move to California, shift your focus to Pacific humpbacks, a whole different migratory route, or another species entirely, orcas? Would I leave and come to New England, since I had less to carry? Who would break the news to Fermi and Lynne? To your children? Who would break the news to Crowbar and Maximus? Would we dare to go through with any of it? And if we were so set on it, why wait for confirmation? Were we just chickenshit?
There was a long pause and now I was about to say these things, about to spill them into the phone. I was sweating like Chuck Berry.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve taken chemistry,” you said, “but I remember tungsten being really durable. Like crazy. Just shy of a diamond.”
I said, “Um-hm.”
“I mean, you can’t even melt the stuff. Well, you can, but. . .”
“Well, it just seems like a strange choice for building a frame around something. I mean, these aliens are presumably extremely intelligent, right?”
“So, they’ve got all the elements in the periodic table to work with. Probably a bunch we haven’t discovered yet. They’re probably handy with subatomic particles as well. I’m guessing.”
I nodded, because I knew you and could already see where you were going with this and loved you for the line of thought as much as anything.
“But tungsten holds together so well,” you said. “They would want something like what whales do. They create these bubble nets in circles around schools of fish, then feast on them when they have them surrounded. Or stingrays, they flip them over and drown them. And then the bubbles are gone. Like that. So if you wanted something that would frame something as merely hypothetical. . .”
“You wouldn’t want to use tungsten.” I completed the sentence in the way that Dr. Watson might have finally, laggingly having figured out a crime that Sherlock Holmes had long since put to bed.
“Otherwise, though, a perfect idea,” you said. “Those aliens get all the Chuckberry Ice Cream they could possibly eat. And they don’t put on a single pound,” you added.
It is impossible to laugh into a phone adequately. It was not designed for that.
“Anyway,” you said after a long pause, “it’s 5 a.m. here. I have to get the kids up for school tomorrow. Today. Even if it’s online.”
“And Fermi. . .”
“Mostly doing telehealth, still, but still.”
ARE WE ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE
I wasn’t able to fall back asleep, but I lay there staring at the ceiling. It was hard to believe there was a sky beyond it. The word “tungsten” was repeating in my mind, and it split apart into “tongues” and “ten,” and then I was thinking about all sorts of things, ten-tongued aliens, but mostly thinking of you. I got out the sound machine, which I sometimes used to soothe myself enough to fall asleep. Then I remembered the recording you’d made me. You’d recorded it over three days, just buried a waterproof recorder at the beach, hidden in rocks. It contained days, tides, gulls, cyanobacteria. There were several points at which I could hear, faintly, children squealing on the beach, maybe adults. It never repeated exactly in the way that the artificial ones would, except I suppose it did every three days. What if we lived together in a little cape at the edge of rocky coast beside an actual ocean, one that never repeated? I imagined myself, then, a stingray, bobbing in that ocean of sound. I heard a rustle and saw Lynne turn over on her side—why at that moment? Lying there, I couldn’t tell what direction was up or down anymore, nor could I vouch for whether these words, in the end, had any meaning at all.