“So That’s How the World Ends”

Jennifer Munt

All rights reserved by the author

 

            At first, they had no idea what they were dealing with.  But that’s how everything goes at first.  Nothing is ever certain at first.  And this first began something that no one saw coming.  This first was the last first, and led directly to the end.

Man had been searching for the same thing for ages.  Always staring into the stars, wondering what lay just beyond his reach.  It had become the last real quest, endorsed by the whole world.  In the same way men raced to the moon, men were now racing each other to find intelligent life in the universe.

            But in the end, it wasn’t a man who found what they were looking for.  Sadie Young found them, and it was the greatest discovery of human history.  Or so everyone thought.  At first.  

            But, beginnings are where stories begin, so let’s rewind.

***

            Nothing on that cold grey morning was going right.  Sadie sneezed as she walked down the corridor connecting her private quarters to the general rec hall.  The transparent walls revealed murky clouds and a gloomy scene outside.  Rain poured in torrents and Sadie had to cast her gaze to the floor to keep from depressing herself more.  She usually enjoyed rainy days – they gave her the opportunity to shelter herself in the lab, away from the humdrum of the millions of people living in such close quarters.  Only in her lab could she experience complete silence and isolation.

            But today, even the rain held a foul tone.  Her morning had began much too early for comfort when she awoke suddenly in her bed at 4:27 a.m.  A cold sweat had soaked through her sheets.  The fleeting sense of terror remained from a dream that lay just beyond her memory’s grasp.  She could not fall back into a peaceful slumber.  Each time she reached the edge of sleep, a tremor from that dream came back to haunt her.

            She felt a cold fear wash through her, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not reassure herself that it was just a dream.  Only the fear still lingered.  There had been too many of these dreams recently.  After an hour of restlessness, she rose from her bed and prepared herself to leave for her lab.  She stood in the hot shower for over an hour, hoping that it would wash away her fear.  When she finally got out, her long, lean fingers were shriveled and wrinkled like raisins.

            In her lab, she peeled a banana, sat on a stool and ate in silence.  She stared in amazement at the mess that had been building for quite some time now.  She stood and began putting things back in order.  Lately, the mess had really been getting unmanageable.  She noticed that almost everything was out of place.  Under normal circumstances, her organization and cleaning seemed to border on obsessive compulsive disorder.

            But things were no longer ordinary.  In fact, they hadn’t been for quite some time now.  Five months ago, her partner Jonathan cleaned out his desk and left after an incident that ruined his reputation forever.  The walls and shelves were still bare where his things had once sat.  Dust lay heaped in the empty spaces.  Sadie smiled slightly as she remembered how he used to move her things just to see how long it would take her to notice.  She caught him every time.  She missed the look of disappointment on his face when she would matter of factly say something like, “you switched the picture of my mother on the beach in Florida with the picture of my sister on the beach in Cancun.  But I do give you props for switching them inside the frames, rather than moving the frames themselves.  That almost… almost threw me for a loop.”

She understood the pressure that had seduced Jonathan into forging results.  “Yes,” she half-thought, half spoke aloud to herself bitterly, “I know that pressure all too well.  He just isn’t cut out for this work, I guess.  But I wish he was still here.”  She missed the slight scent of vanilla that would occasionally waft over to her side of the room as she worked.  She missed looking up to see his face scrunched about a problem he needed her help with, but refused to ask.  But most of all, she missed having someone nearby that understood her so well.  Yet she still couldn’t bring herself to call him just to chat.

In order to avoid thinking about it more, she flipped on her computer console.  Remembering only made her feel worse, especially after that awful early morning.  After a moment, her AI model chirped a hello through the speaker.  She had been working on the program for years, building her personality bank and teaching her to learn.  These days it seemed that the silly program was all she had left.

            Fresh out of college there had been much more hope for Sadie.  A bright young female programmer could make miracles occur in this day and age.  So far, she hadn’t seen any.  Her first step out of college had been to join SETI.  She wanted to know as much as anyone else if there was anyone else out there.  And now, six years later, she had few accomplishments to show for it.  “Only a few ugly plaques,” she thought, glancing idly at the wall.

            Her work for the agency consisted of searching data streams from other galaxies for information content.  Whenever someone asked her about her line of work, she would try to tell them in technical terms first.  “The information in a stream of data relates to the number of 1’s or 0’s needed to encode it,” she would often begin, but when she saw the landmark look of disinterest and incomprehension she would usually wind down with a dumbed-down version.  “It’s a long and complicated process, but basically, I interpret graphs to tell whether or not aliens are trying to communicate with us,” she would say, leaving it at that.

            No one had ever been interested in really learning about her work.  No one wanted to know the gritty details behind her profession.  Sometimes it irked her, but most of the time, she felt an enthralling sense of superiority at the fact that she held so much knowledge.

            As the rest of her system booted up, she chatted idly to her AI Suzie.

            “This morning I had a dream, Suzie, but I can’t remember it.  Whatever it was, it scared me, though.”

            “Perhaps you’re subconscious is trying to tell you something, Sadie.  Or perhaps you are experiencing the first part of déjà vu.  I have been learning about déjà vu lately.  I cannot understand it.  Can you program me to experience déjà vu, Sadie?  I want to know this feeling.”

            “Sorry, Suze.  That’s one of those supernatural forces that can’t be programmed into a line of code.  I may be good, but I’m not that good.  And what do you mean by the first part anyway?”

            “Well, the literal translation of déjà vu means “already seen.”  Many people theorize that you first see the episode in a dream that you cannot remember.  Research shows that it most commonly occurs to people between the ages of 15 and 25.  Scientists have also connected it with temporal-lobe epilepsy, with it usually happening before a temporal-lobe epileptic attack.”

            “All right, all right, already,” Sadie interrupted.  One of her biggest struggles in programming Suzie was giving her the ability to recognize useful information.  She didn’t enjoy drab lectures on useless information.  She tried to explain out loud to Suzie why her lecture was boring, but this time she couldn’t find the words to clarify her point.  Instead, she stood above her keyboard and typed a few commands.

            When she finished, she opened the latest file she had been working on.  Even with all her skills as a programmer, they still wanted her to do basic jobs.  The file was a long string of what seemed like random noise from the Gamma Cephei system.  Years back scientists had discovered a planet orbiting the larger star of the binary pair, but then the smaller star had collapsed into a black hole.  SETI ruled out the area as unsuitable for intelligent life forms, but assigned Sadie to decoding the noise from the region anyway.  It seemed that they were always giving her the menial tasks.

            After an hour spent staring at her monitor she stretched her arms upward and arched her back.  She had the awful habit of standing over her computer, rather than sitting in her cushy desk chair.  That was one of the many things for which Jonathan had made fun of her.  He always chuckled and told her she would wind up with a hunch.  Thinking of his advice, she wheeled out her chair and sat down.  The soft padding squished as she settled her weight down into it.

            “I should really get to the gym,” Sadie thought, not for the first time that month.

            As she worked, she noticed a pattern in the lines she was decoding.  After an hour it was definite.  There was something – some kind of information in what she saw.  Elation slowly drifted into her mind as she worked on line after line, interpreting the graph.  What she was doing didn’t give her the meaning of the message – if in fact it was a message, but it did tell her the complexity of whoever – or whatever – was transmitting it.  And whatever it was, it was awfully complex.

            Finally, she couldn’t contain herself any longer.  She picked up the phone and dialed a number that she had avoided for quite some time now.  After two rings, a low voice answered on the other end.

            “Hello?” Jonathan said, with a hint of surprise that anyone was calling him these days.

            Sadie didn’t know what to say.  She had called him on instinct more than anything.  It had seemed completely natural to tell him first – he was her partner.  He was the first person she wanted to divulge her news to, but now that she had him on the phone, she could barely speak.

            “Jonathan… Jono… oh Jesus.  I think I’ve found what we’ve been looking for.”

            Fortunately, they had worked together for so long and he knew her so well that that was all it took.  In fact, he dropped the phone.  As he lurched to pick it up, he could hear her voice coming through the receiver.  Even her stammering sounded sweet to him.  It had been too long since he had last heard her voice.

            “Oh… so anyway I don’t know exactly what it is, but it looks so complex… I wish you could see these figures.”

            Their conversation continued for over an hour as Sadie explained what she was seeing to him.  The excitement on the line grew until Jonathan said, “You know you need to go tell someone important now, right, Sadie?  It’s time for you to make history.”  With that, they said their goodbyes and hung up the phone.

***

 

Three weeks later, Sadie painstakingly edged her way out of an aisle of seated people and down what seemed to be an infinite walkway.  The eyes of millions of people were on her.  Whether they were there in person or watching on a vid screen didn’t matter to her.  The eyes were still there.  Yet she was painfully aware that the one set of eyes she was comfortable with; the one set of eyes she wanted on her right now – the deep, dark brown eyes that seemed to envelop her in their stare – were not watching her right now.  The hope was there, but it was only a hope.  And we all know that hope is an awful thing.

The award she received at this ceremony meant little to her.  When she got back to her room, she tossed it into the bottom drawer of her dresser – the one usually reserved for items she didn’t want to throw away, but didn’t want to display either.  The whole process had been too nerve-racking for her to enjoy much of it.

First, she had had to present her material to her superior and then a review panel, until her claim was finally deemed valid.  From there events seemed to whirlwind around her.  The data she had accumulated was sent on to other specialists who interpreted the actual meaning of the message.  But the credit went to her alone.

In the end, it turned out to be a real message – an alien message.  A very simple message.  The translation was still slightly sketchy, but it was widely believed to be a distress call.  No one knew for certain, but most speculated that the most immediate danger to this alien race was the black hole in their planetary system.  Although it was light years away from the planet itself, it still posed a potential threat.  Sadie’s friend Joe, one of the multiple physicists employed by SETI, was chosen to explain this theory to the media.  He practiced first with Sadie.

“You see,” he had said, “the planet is in danger of losing its main source of heat – the black hole is close enough to slowly eat enough of the material that makes up the other star.  Eventually, there won’t be another star.  But even before that, the planet will have problems.” 

“Wait,” she responded, trying to play the role of a newscaster, “I’m not much of a physics reader… what exactly do you mean by eat the other star?”

“Well, once matter passes the event horizon of a black hole it cannot return.  In order to come back it would have to travel faster than the speed of light, which is completely impossible.  So really, the black hole eats the star, but it never comes out the other end.  Well, at least not in this universe.  There are multiple theories about wormholes,” but at that point Sadie interrupted him. 

“Joe I think you’ll be fine.  I’d love to stay and chat some more, but I really must run, I have so much to do,” she said, stretching the “so” over a few seconds for emphasis.  At that, she rose with a flourish and stepped out the door.  Physicists always seemed to be overly excited about the driest material.

In an attempt to evade the limelight, Sadie retreated to her lab and immersed herself in work.  Something still bothered her.  From what she understood of the meaning of the message, it was simple in nature.  Almost too simple for the calculations she had done.  The data she interpreted had told her that it would be complex – almost too complex to understand, yet it had been easy to decipher.  It made her feel uneasy.

On top of that, the dreams kept coming.  Worse than ever before.  She would wake at night drenched in sweat, without any remembrance of what she had experienced in her sleep.  Yet she knew, without fail, that it was the same dream every time.  Now and then she would get glimpses of it – strange floods of emotion that racked her body and brain, but they would fade as suddenly as they crept up on her.

And even worse than those dreams, her conversations with Jonathan always seemed forced.  She couldn’t stand talking to him like that.  She had thought that perhaps things would be better after her discovery, but it just made them worse.  There was no longer any light hearted banter or deep involved thought in their conversations.  It was all meaningless chatter and small talk.  Eventually, she just stopped calling him.  She couldn’t bear to hear what she thought was jealousy in his voice.

***

 

But now, we seem to have returned to the beginning.  As I said before, they only thought this was the greatest discovery in human history.  What seemed to be a simple cry for help turned out to be something much worse.  Not only was Sadie the discoverer, but she was the bearer of bad news that no one wanted to hear.  And like always, no one listened to it.  Like always, humanity was unprepared for what hit them.  And it turned out to be a real slap in the face.   

Her dreams had been the first warning – perhaps déjà vu, perhaps psychic ability.  But it didn’t matter in the end.  No one listened.  But even with advance warning, there was still no chance of survival.

The message really was just as complex as Sadie thought.  In fact, it was so much so that there was no way to understand the rest of it.  It was simply beyond human capacity.  The message the humans interpreted was sent to them as a pacifier.  To keep them calm before the hunt began.  Just as the Tanzanians weren’t human to the settlers that killed them as wild beasts for their pelts, the humans weren’t real life to these aliens.  They were sport.  Game.

But at least before it was all over, Jonathan had this to say: 

“Fine Sadie, I’ll be cliché.  It’s the end of the world and I’m in love with you.  There you go.  Happy now?  I love the way you wish on stars, the way you hold your breath in tunnels and on bridges, the way you make try to make a wish in a second before the clock turns from 11:11:11 to 11:11:12, and I love the way you organize your things so neatly that you’ve memorized everything’s exact location down to the inch.  There, I said it.  You win.”

            And perhaps… just perhaps… that made it all worthwhile.

 

 

 

© Copyright 2005 by the author

All rights reserved