Updated: Oct 24, 2020
I always hated when she spoke to me like that; as if my sheer existence was invalid, my emotions unworthy. It was a type of knowing condescension, the quality of which I’ve only found in her anger. It wasn’t uncommon for me to give up, simply cave into the annoyance it’d be to continue down this line of conversation. It wasn’t uncommon for the wall of effort posed by the argument to be too high to climb. I had taken my share of flak in the past, and while it was generally preferential to at least try to climb that wall, to show I care, today was not one of the days I managed to drudge up the energy and the willpower from that void within me.
Today I didn’t have much to give. I hate those days. It’s an easy way out, a low-effort escape from a sort of tangible instability. But today I didn’t have much to give, I locked myself away in my office. Today I wanted to be alone with my thoughts and my work; gone was the time I felt it necessary to try. And so, I closed the door behind me and dropped myself in my chair.
I don’t usually work at home, though sometimes I find it quite therapeutic, weirdly. I think as a general rule of thumb, it’s nice to maintain that barrier and separation of work and private life. However, I find myself in a privileged situation where I do actively enjoy my occupation. I find some level of catharsis in pouring over lines and lines of data; in becoming lost through lines and lines of dense code; in constructing an elaborate yet methodical spreadsheet with lines and lines of numbers. For years in my university life, I found the thought mundane. Empty. Unfulfilling. Yet now I hardly even recognize myself.
I booted up my PC and pulled up the thick, almost blinding package of data I had emailed to myself earlier. Lines and lines of numbers and code sat before me, non-unified, useless. It was time for me to give them meaning.
My work generally consists of deciding where in the sky to survey, what to focus our survey on, and how long to survey for/the method by which we complete our survey. It’s all about the survey. It’s a relatively simple process, really. Find an object or area of the sky that may be interesting; it can be one of note, such as an area with a high density of exoplanets. Or it can be one with more gaps, a void of sorts. Though there is the predicament that arises in that if we do find something of note, it's not like we could really act on it anyways. For now, we can hardly travel outside even our own solar system.
So, I help decide where to look. I help decide how long to look for. And I help decide what the signals and the data mean. Do we simply have numbers and information on a screen, or have we changed the course of human history? It’s a fine line to walk, though considering the SETI program has been running for 60 odd years now, perhaps the line is getting thicker and thicker.
We’ve come close a few times. The first pulsars were an exciting find: a regular/periodic radio signal from a discrete location, discrete in that it is non-continuous across the sky, sourced from a single point. I think the initial, innate, human reaction from all of us was that we had finally found someone else out there. But this reaction was quickly put down by the discovery and realization that neutron stars spin, spraying vast jets of radiation from their poles. We were simply in the line of fire, and as the star rotated, we found ourselves in the path of these jets. We were only staring at God’s lighthouse.
The “Wow!” Signal was another instance of our hopes climbing to an infinite height, only to be quickly dropped. My expectations regularly found themselves sliding roughly down a cliff face. I never gave up hope, but with each passing day and each false-positive, it was difficult to maintain the same awe, confidence, and excitement as the day I first started.
The survey we had recently completed saw us viewing roughly in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, towards the center of our own galaxy. To me, this was generally a good direction to look. More stars mean more planets mean more chances to find someone. Simple.
I’d say this was my favorite part of the process. While I did enjoy the administrative efforts of organizing and planning a survey, while I did enjoy the act of collecting and watching and studying a part of the sky in excruciating detail, I most enjoyed the scrupulous task of interpreting and understanding whatever random signals we picked up. And while usually we didn’t find precisely what we were looking for, I found that regardless, we would continue to come across something new that would help us further our understanding of the universe.
I began pouring through the information, looking for any signals that may stand out. I swear the majority of this part is just accounting for and eliminating background interference; radio transmissions from Earth that get in the way; the literal constant “hum” of the universe. But at the end of the day, you always find something you didn’t know you were looking for.
The logs took me to a star cluster towards the center of the Milky Way. I think Rosalinde had mentioned this to me before– another pulsar firing away at us, only a couple thousand light years away. I spent an unquantifiable amount of time processing the data and performing data reduction to isolate the signal. As she expected, all signs pointed to just another pulsar.
I think the most interesting find in the data was having to correct for a fast radio burst (FRB) that seemed to be interrupting the survey. Ask any radio astronomer, I guarantee none of them will give you a clear, definitive answer as to what an FRB is. The lame answers are just special pulsars, or quasars, or some other high-energy event temporarily blasting radio waves across the sky. But there’s a reason I work at SETI, and part of me is always going to hold on to the hope that maybe FRBs are something more.
I found myself lost in my computer screen for what felt like minutes, only to realize hours had passed when I heard her knock on the door. I shuddered out of my daze, snapped back into my office.
There was a long pause. She may have been waiting for a response, but it felt more like a silent consideration of what to say next; perhaps a moment for her head to leap 10 steps ahead in the conversation. I know her better than I know anyone… except myself, maybe. And I know that silence is indicative of some sort of apology, at least on some sort of level.
Admittedly, I didn’t read too far into it in the moment. The long pause gave me time to slip back into the data, only half present in my chair.
“Can we talk?”
Those words always felt like a weight to me, almost a cry for help layered beneath some dire tone. But again, I was pulled back into reality, and spun around in my chair to approach the door. I dragged my feet across the floor, pulling the chair along with myself. With a deep sigh, I raised my hand to the doorknob and twisted it, flooding my office with light.
She stood there, arms crossed, eyes towards the floor, though they rose to meet my gaze as I stood up. She never had to say anything in times like these; she’s one of those people who really do wear their emotions on their face. Plus, I’d like to think after 15 plus years I could read her expressions accurately enough. She was wearing her PJ’s. Baggy grey sweatpants and an oversized white t-shirt. Her wavy hair fell lightly past her shoulders, green eyes locked with mine. I always got lost in her eyes, meadows of rolling hills on a sunny day. It was frequent for me to space out staring into them.
“You kept it running.”
I hadn’t even realized. The computer was still working away, churning through signals, converting them, and outputting them as beeps on my speakers.
“Shit, sorry. I just- “
I had begun making my way over to the computer by now, too exasperated to finish my thought. As I approached, the beeps filled my ears, swiftly removing me from the conversation I was about to have. I went to turn off the speakers when I noticed I was hearing the same sequence of beeps again.
This wasn’t entirely uncommon. Again, FRBs are often repeated, and you’ll find a signal that comes through regularly and consistently. Every couple of seconds, the signal starts up again, just as before.
“Honey…” I started. “Can you come over here?”
Lauren walked over to me, clearly a bit caught off guard.
“Yeah, yeah, I think so…”
The beeping had gone through another cycle. Generally, the period of these beeps might be a couple seconds, I think up to 10 seconds was the longest we’d seen. By the time this one started again, it had been at least a minute.
You can always tell when it starts up again because the amplitude of the radio waves is precisely the same; you’ve got the same pattern in the sound, very visibly obvious on the monitor. But, oddly enough, this time, there was a clear and obvious restart of the signal that you could hear.
“Tell me if I’m crazy.”
She smiled at me a bit. This was a bit of a repeat offense. She knew exactly where my thoughts were headed.
“You’re crazy.” She chuckled.
“No, I know,” I said admittedly. “But just listen anyways.”
We stood in silence for the next couple minutes, listening to the signal play through a couple of times. About mid-way through the third go, she turned to me, perplexed.
“Babe, is this normal?” She sounded like she was on the edge of fear, a slight waver in her voice.
The two of us stayed silent for a bit longer, the beeps continuing to fill the room. There were clear separations between clusters of beeps, some short, others long. The beeps themselves displayed a consistency that you would expect from an FRB…. But not to this extent. No FRB regularly repeats over a minute, with gaps between series of beeps, and with beeps that-
“It’s morse code, isn’t it?” I said with a mix of excited realization and absolute terror.
We both turned to look at each other, considering the possibility that maybe I was right. The implications of that would be beyond ground-breaking. But before we could revel in that potential amazement, my doubts had already crept in. The problem with my theory was that I knew morse code, and I couldn’t understand this for the life of me. If this is morse code, and that’s a big if, it isn’t standard.
In all fairness, were this a message from aliens, we wouldn’t expect them to get it totally correct the first time. I mean, after all, they’ve never been to Earth. Perhaps their attempts at emulating morse code fell just a tiny bit short. That, or I just found a black hole merger. Or a neutron star merger. Or some other type of-
“IT’S FUCKING MANDARIN.” Lauren burst out suddenly, leaping ahead of my own thoughts.
“It’s Mandarin. Remember how crazy my grandpa was? I’m telling you, it’s Mandarin.”
I didn’t even think about that. Lauren’s grandfather was a lieutenant in the Chinese army before Mao took over. He escaped to Taiwan and eventually made his way to the US, but not without getting a couple of screws loose. He was convinced the PRC was on our doorstep at all times, waiting to strike. As such, he wanted to keep his family safe, and in the case of an emergency, taught his children and grandchildren to use Chinese telegraph code. Of course, this was pre-cell phones and pre-Internet, so as outdated as it may seem now, it made some semblance of sense to him at the time. Lucky enough for me, I married Lauren.
The natural follow up question now is why am I looking at a radio message received from… I hadn’t even checked where the source was. I scrambled to my desktop, taking a look at the data to determine precisely where this signal originated. Doing this is absolutely easier said than done, though after a few years it just sort of becomes second nature.
Lauren stood over my shoulder the entire time, dead silent. She was sure of herself, and I learned a long time ago not to doubt her when she was sure. One of her hands was on my desk, holding her up, the other drooped by her side. She was leaned over, staring intently at the screen.
I traced the source of the signal to the Trappist system, which conveniently enough, back in 2017, was discovered to have MULTIPLE habitable exoplanets orbiting its red dwarf star. The possibility that I may be right started to seem less and less crazy.
“Can you translate it?” I asked, glancing up at her.
She stayed silent as she turned and left the room. It was hardly 10 seconds before she came back in, carrying a chair, a notebook and a pen. I loved her for many reasons, but this was definitely one of them. I plugged headphones into my computer and slipped them over her head as she scooted herself into the desk. I sat back in my rolling chair and shuffled off, giving her some space.
I hadn’t actually seen her listen to/translate Mandarin before, specifically from telegraph code. It was one of those weird quirks I had always heard about, but never witnessed. Admittedly, I never thought it’d be relevant, though I’m pretty sure neither did she. Yet, here we are.
I still came back to the question: why is there a radio signal from the Trappist system in Mandarin telegraph code? What reasoning went into making this message? Was it even a message? Were we being played? Were we going crazy? Were the Chinese really about to attack?
But then I thought about it. Yes, while the vast majority of radio transmissions sent out from Earth are in English, aliens might not be so interested in that. They might be more inclined to communicate with us in whatever language is most prevalent on the planet. And right now, by sheer quantity, that’s Mandarin. I still found it odd, though, because Trappist is 40 light years away; the signal I’m listening to now was made and sent out 40 years ago. Back then, Mandarin wasn’t nearly as prevalent. China wasn’t a global superpower yet.
I got distracted from my thoughts by Lauren. I couldn’t see her face, as it was still bent over the desk, but I could tell she was shaken up. Her hand was shaking profusely, sweat dripping off of it. I could hear her breathing getting faster and less controlled. Is something wrong?
I didn’t want to interrupt, since she had the headphones on, but I was starting to get worried. I reached out and lightly placed my hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off and continued scribbling frantically, not even looking back to acknowledge me. After about another minute or so, she shakily and slowly took the headphones off and placed down her pen.
“What is it? What does it say?”
She didn’t respond. She grabbed the paper and handed it to me, still turned away. I held the paper in my hand, and I could feel myself start to shake, as well. My nerves began to show in the form of sweaty hands and a bouncing leg that would not sit still. I read the message over and over again. I didn’t want to know what it meant. I kept reading. And reading. And reading. No amount of understanding would make me comfortable with what was on this paper. I’ve eliminated pretty much every other possibility. Pretty much. This was it. This was the confirmation that we are not alone, that there is someone else out there. But… this was not how it was supposed to happen. Even after putting the paper down, after getting into bed, I lay awake the whole night, just thinking about the message. I couldn’t shake it, whatever it meant. The words just kept playing over and over in my head:
BE QUIET BEFORE THEY COME FIND YOU.
Not gonna lie, I got the inspiration for this from some reddit creepy pasta I read when I was like 16. Definitely expanded on it quite a bit, but figured I shouldn't take credit for a concept I didn't come up with myself, though I really wish I had.
I'm kinda bummed because I really wanted to do more writing and post more stuff here, but I've been drowning in uni work (sorry for being THAT guy). Hopefully I'll have more time over break/next semester, but right now it's a messssssss. Not like anyone's craving or dying for my writing aside from myself but we move.