by Richard Thieme
[This story has an interesting history. Way back, when I was still in the Episcopal ministry, I wanted to start writing again and wrote a story called "The Bridge" on which this one is based. I had no idea if it showed promise or not and on an impulse I sent it to John Updike, whose work I had been reading since college days. ("Pigeon Feathers" was the first, I think.) He wrote a nice letter back encouraging me to continue writing and made some specific suggestions. Much later, when he came to Milwaukee for a reading, I could tell him how much that kindness and encouragement meant. It reminded me of the time my eighth grade teacher, Ted Besser, told us to write a novel, so I did. I didn't know any better. It was about 150 pages long, a kidnapping thriller. He told me that it was really something, for a 13-year-old, and he took it to a master's degree class to show them. Now, growing up without a father, and male teachers not much in evidence in those days in lower grades, to have a male authority figure affirm a talent no one else in my small family valued very much, meant a lot. I have tried to find Ted Besser to tell him that the significance of his kindness and encouragement was magnified tremendously by my need for it, but never found him. I tell that story to teachers during presentations to remind them that they may never get feedback about the difference they make, but the vulnerability and inarticulate state of young teens nevertheless amplifies their positive energies beyond anything they can guess. In transition later as an adult, the same vulnerability made Updike's encouragement important. And I still have his letter.
This story, at any rate, is not only psychologically true, it is true in other ways too. We'll have to wait, however, for the Mind of Society to take it in. The woodcarver, of course, c'est moi.
"More Than a Dream" was published in Nth Degree, an online sci-fi magazine, in 2005.]
It wasn’t a dream.
I dream a lot. I know the difference.
It wasn’t a dream.
I am inside a dream when I dream. I am not transported out of myself into something else. Dreams, like cones, are enclosed. A cone is enclosed; the symbols on something conical, let’s say a conical hat, like half moons and stars on a wizard’s, are finite. What happened in the Bin was not enclosed and the symbols were … more than finite. I don’t mean endless or infinite, I mean … more than finite. I don’t know how to say what they were. They did not behave like delimited images meaningfully exchanged in a shared field of human subjectivity. The Aliens tried, I am sure, to utilize human symbols with care, intending to simulate or replicate the exchanges they had overheard for centuries. Nevertheless, at one point, all of the symbols seemed to rise into the air like a scream. Once a bat crawling down from the attic got caught in the ceiling fan in the bathroom. I thought some shrill metal pieces had come loose instead of it being a living thing shrieking. That’s how the symbols sounded, not only screaming but like that bat, bleeding into the darkness, bleeding into a whirlwind that transformed light into darkness, meaning into chaos. I tried to stand but was held by the straps. I could only clap my hands over my ears, mouth open in a widening O, and cry stop! stop!And they stopped.
The firestorm ceased immediately, broken symbols gently settling through the air like feathers floating to the ground. Symbols falling like confetti thrown by the wastebasket-full from office windows onto the streets below, astronauts back from Mars sitting in convertibles, waving dimly in the whiteout.
Inside the Bin I realized I had held my breath. I exhaled, and the Aliens rearranged things, causing a shift in what I heard or thought I heard. The force field within which they communicated either distorted or no longer distorted, I don’t know which. Either way, the pain ceased. Then clarity came, spoken symbols entering my awareness gently, feeling like good will, feeling like the generosity of spirit they intended, I know, to be the subtext of our conversation. The warmth of intentional benevolence is irresistible.
That’s how I know it wasn’t a dream.
In a dream, the screaming never stops. The invitation never comes.
My name is Hartmut Lipsky. I live in a basement apartment sublet years ago from a student named Jake who quit and went home to Natoma. He sent a post card once, wishing the oven and refrigerator well. Still stoned, obviously. I had settled in by then and stayed on. I have lived here for years, not by design, but by default. It was easier to stay than go.
On a bright day, the light in the basement is like twilight. So I installed bands of bright fluorescents that crackle above me when I carve, hissing like bug zappers, me the mindful moth, an erratic percussive rhythm above the soft chunk of the blade whittling wood in my outstretched hands.
I carve for a living, sort of. The simpler truth is, I carve because life seems to work better when I carve. It even made a little money – now it makes a lot of money, after the Bin – but I would have carved even if no one bought the fantastic creatures I release from their prison of wood. Some are based on games kids play. Some on toys. Vampires, witches, goblins are popular. Demons and gods from anime. Trolls and dwarfs, too, real ones, the kind that scared my grandmother silly. She told me about them before she died. Described their demeanor as they approached her in a dark wood.
I remember. I remember.
Keeping up with the images in kids’ heads is how I stay sane. They help me learn what symbols come to mean. The same symbols, differently meaning. When you live within symbols, you don’t notice how much they change because there’s no benchmark. It’s like fish swimming in a pond. They notice the water when something catastrophic happens or something anomalous, challenging the consensus, calling attention to itself.
When we try to translate a text, we discover the meanings inherent in our native language. Translations always fail. They never mean what the text said. Carving is like that, too. Translating from nothing into real imagined shapes which emerge from the wood as I whittle teaches … how, it teaches how the Aliens created a matrix of extended-alien-supra-human language as the basis for a self-transcending conversation out of nothing.
The Aliens pulled me through a knot-hole or a not-hole into a looking-glass world. I like to think my little immortals do that for children, too, while they play, all unknowing.
So comic shops and game shops sell legions of my painted creatures. Then I can pay for more wood and make more. Rent is low, heat adequate. Noise enough so I can pretend I am not alone. I hear buses and cars outside and when I climb up and look out the half-window I see through the bars feet walking in sneakers or boots, sandals or high heels, revelations in footwear of the psyches of successive generations.
I go out as often as I need. I don’t hide inside, as some stories have claimed. When I first moved here, I went to the coffee shop every morning and after a couple of years began to fill in as a barista, unusual work for a pretzel-head. Listening closely to long descriptions of the specialized latte someone wanted helped me to focus. That work enabled I believe the real work of my life which is understanding the people on the other side of the counter. Because I was barely above the counter myself, my head twisted back and away from their downward gaze, I learned to listen as well for what they felt. It was like learning to discern subtle colors. I learned to listen around the edges and then when they weren’t looking I would plunge deep. I picked up feelings or thoughts in a form that felt like iron filings in a magnetic field, feeding the base of my brain, going around. I learned to mirror more normal lives transparently and none of them knew when they looked my way that they gazed into the depths of a still pool.
But it’s also true that I prefer working to not and I work alone. When I carve, my imagination is all the playground I need. My inner snowglobe is lighted, alive with the world of my mind, a little blizzard always falling on elves or mini-dragons or stone trolls. I coax what I see from the wood into a tentative shape, but at some point, the wood itself begins to speak. Then I become its partner, a willing servant.
As I have been falsely accused by malicious and ignorant critics of being for the Aliens.
My head is bent up around as you have seen in pictures because of that spinal disease. That happened when I was four. Straight-ahead people as I call them never know if I’m coming or going. After a while, neither did I, which is fine with me. There is nowhere to go, anyway. Journeys are delusions, fabricated itineraries that enable us to invent the trajectories of our lives. I prefer to live with imprecision, poised on the edge of whatever is next; I learned to balance precariously on the heads of minutes ticking by, my tiptoe pirouette through life poised on moments before they dissolve. I dance on transitions, not notes. I live in the pause, and I grew used to funny looks from normals and returned their stares while peering into their souls. Between the things they say they reveal everything in gesture, inflection, silence. Then they feel me seeing deeply into their wishes or fears and turn away.
Is that why the aliens picked me? Because I can? I’ll never know. You’ll never know, either. Scholars weave hypotheses on looms of illusory objectivity, build reputations on speculation about two unknowns, me and the Aliens. They write reams of not-knowledge about worlds never explored. I don’t mind. They have to invent themselves the same way I invent creatures and give them form. I understand that who we present ourselves to be is carved from the wood of our hopes and dreams. Nothing comes from nothing. So – we speak again.
I am inscrutable to theories. I am impervious to lies and distortions.
Here’s an example. That proverbial knock on the door did not come at midnight. That’s the first distortion in a now-mythical narrative brimming with lies. The next is that I knew he was coming. The third was all the things I supposedly said when the colonel came. That’s not how all or any of it happened.
The simple truth is, me and the Aliens met in the Bin, wherever it was, whatever it was, and had the courage to face down the horror of the Other. That was the bridge, it turns out, so maybe they did know what they were doing.
However, dear reader, let us turn back to that proverbial first knock. Anything as archetypal as a midnight knock on the door is going to be distorted. So let me say plainly that it came in the middle of the afternoon, one warm day in late June. On a Thursday. It was cloudy, judging from the not-light not illuminating my work surface. Fluorescents hummed above my head as always, and I was twisted as always, twisted around to watch the knife in my right hand whittle the wood into a long-nosed elf with a green mushroom cap on his head. My hand had a life of its own and I was watching, a spectator at my own play, a disinterested tourist in my own territory.
“Who’s there?” I said, startled. I did not expect a visitor.
Knock. Knock knock.
“Who is it?” I said more loudly.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“Colonel Nate Reid formerly of the Air Force now of the Space Command.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to open the door,” he said, “so we can talk.”
I slid off the stool and scuttled sideways like a crab to the bolted door. I unlocked and opened it and looked up around at a tall officer. His immense bulk filled his blue uniform filling the doorscape. I thought of a large bullet with eyes and nose painted on for a face. Through his legs and the sharp creases of his blue trousers I saw the steps behind, littered with newspaper, saw the concrete wall shaded gray in the summer light.
“Talk about what?”
The colonel stooped and pressed his face against an invisible pane just inches from my nose.
“I would rather explain inside. May I come in?”
That was the real moment of decision, that was the instant in which I could have said no. But instead I backed in and he followed, closing the door with a soft click.
He looked around at my studio, the unmade bed, the dishes in the sink. He correctly identified a chair under some clothes. “May I sit down?”
I hobbled over and removed some dirty shirts and threw them into the corner.
“Thank you,” he said, settling as best he could into the low seat.
I could see his penetrating gaze more clearly now and looked him up and down and decided to listen. I think you get all the information you need in the first minute or two. I felt like I knew him well enough.
“Tell me,” I said, taking him into my confidence. Master and man becoming man and master. “Tell me.”
The colonel asked about my work, then my background, then my life. I have no reason not to live transparently so I told him. I discussed my childhood, how I learned to imagine in the absence of genuine friends. I talked about learning to like myself inside, then using myself as a sounding board when I decided to engage others. I described the nature of the transformational engine when I turned inside out in my twenties, how I came together again with a snap at the next level. I explained hierarchical restructuring of the psyche in terms of organizational complexity which he better understood. I told him how I listened with my ear to the ground as it were on which others walked. I talked about the wind harps I discovered were the inner lives of women and men, how their music moved me, how I learned to prefer it to making them do things or using them to advance. Because I was so warped or distorted in their eyes, any threat I posed was neutralized by their habitual dismissal of significant difference and I became more like water in which they dissolved. I seldom used what I learned to get things, so my power grew, I believe. I explained this to the Aliens too when they asked me to explain myself. It was little different, really, talking to them in the second phase after the horror of the first had passed, that and talking to this alien human from Space Command.
Then I asked why he came. I asked other questions too, and he talked all around them for twenty or thirty minutes, then got to the point.
“Do you believe in intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?”
“Of course,” I said. “Here or there, what’s the difference? There, here is there.
“I believe, too,” I added, “that we have been visited. We have been sending up smoke signals for hundreds of years. If anyone cared to look at the horizon and see them, if anyone else is curious as we are, always heading for the next hill, then they came and had a look. Wouldn’t we? Don’t we?”
The colonel smiled, his once-grave face reminding me of an egg breaking. “Yes,” he said. “Most of the stories about visits are silliness, disinformation, experiments in social control, the confused self-interest of useful idiots and a cottage industry thriving on lies. 99% of it is that.”
“And the other one per cent?”
“The remaining one per cent consists of observations of a cultural intrusion by a complex civilization into our spacetime. We’ve known they were here for a long time but didn’t know why. Couldn’t do a damn thing about it, either. Now they want to run some tests; more precisely, they want us to run some tests on their behalf while they watch. They’ll learn by watching and we’ll learn by watching them watch.”
I turned off the fluorescents and we sat in the twilight. This immense well-pressed fellow was as out of place in my cave as a gourmet meal. Still, I sensed his genuine interest as well a commitment to the job he had to do. I drew myself closer. If we had had a hearth or a fire it would have been perfect.
“So why are you telling me all this?”
He looked away, perplexed, I guess. The man was used to being in charge. His confident smile died.
“Because they made contact,” he said, “as I have been trying to say. They want a sit-down, want to meet with someone face to face.”
“Is that cool or what!” I felt like a little kid and know I sounded silly. But it was cool, damn it. Way cool.
“It is,” he acknowledged. “They chose three people and want to pick one to meet. Raafat Nakla from Abu Dhabi unfortunately dropped dead when told of their wishes. That leaves only Luisa Martinez from Union City. And you.”
There was more than a roaring in my ears. There was a maelstrom obliterating prior appropriate forms of thought or behavior, an annihilation of imaginative speculation as his words turned into cold fact. That was the first intimation of impending chaos, of breakdown. Elongated streamers of colorful beliefs were sucked through a knot hole. The twilight in the basement dimmed, the walls fractured, shattered into pieces. But I was still on my stool, somehow, head bent up toward a silent officer sitting improbably in my chair. I was Hartmut the harmless, the neighborhood cripple, the improbable part-time barista. I understood what he said, but felt that I knew nothing, not my name nor my history nor the form of the future. I was a blank space, an erased letter, a deleted word. The world tilted. The Colonel observed. I enabled, I allowed.
Yes, I said, oh yes I will, oh yes yes. Yes!
Nothing I have told you makes sense. I concede that. But then, that’s the point.
The way we think, nothing makes sense.
Besides, they – the powers that be – layer deceptive skins, playing with us, interlacing skeins of diaphanous fabric stenciled with colorful cartoons. I loved the stealthy way they arranged for everything under cover, for example. In the world, nothing happened. You will never find any evidence that any of this took place. Trucks went down roads, trees might be seen blowing in the wind, but nothing was what it seemed.
In retrospect I realize that the Colonel was not in fact in uniform when he called. He wore navy slacks, a light blue shirt, and a windbreaker, collar up. He also wore opaque sunglasses, which I neglected to mention. At the base the next week I saw him for the first time in uniform and must have pasted that impression onto his first visit like those paper doll clothes we used to cut out and put on cardboard figures with little paper tabs. So if I don’t know what I saw, exactly, that June afternoon, and I was paying close attention, then neither did a casual bystander. That’s why the stories in the tabloids are nonsense. No one saw an officer arrive improbably at the basement door of a crippled woodcarver. Nobody watched, but if they had, they would have seen an anonymous gent in a windbreaker, collar up, walk up the steps with the midget who lives in the basement apartment, get into a blue Ford Taurus and drive away.
Had they followed, which they did not, they would have seen us arrive at the airport twenty minutes later. Instead of following the public road, however, we entered a restricted area and then a hangar and then went down a ramp into a tunnel and came out in another hanger where we entered a waiting plane. The windows were blacked out, it was dark by then, anyway, early evening, and we flew secretly into a dark cloudy sky. We banked and circled and turned this way and that and climbed above the clouds, then headed what I guessed was north. We flew for at least two hours. The colonel was quiet despite constant questions overflowing my brimming brain and bouncing off his stony grave demeanor. The unreality of what was happening made my questions irrelevant, at any rate, because they all had as their point of reference a world that had ceased to exist.
When we landed we left the plane. I held to the wet metal of the handrail and stepped carefully down the slick steps. I inhaled the wet smell of the north woods. Litter and duff and felled timber, said my sniffer. Mold and moss and rich moist loam.
Time was already ticking to a different clock. The crystal prisms defining my landscape shifted sideways. Everything blurred at the edges where the world curved away into nothing. I saw trees and tarmac and hangars in the distance and a few parked planes. If you look at satellite photos you will see nothing. The base is not on any map. I looked, and reporters looked, later, and you can look if you like, but you’ll never find it. You will never corroborate the simple disappearance of a doubtful reality with maps built intentionally to a different plan.
“Smells like ripe watermelon,” I said. “Going to rain.”
“We need it,” he said, speaking down to me. “Farmers are upset.”
I followed him into a low building with naked bulbs surrounded by rainbow haloes as if I had just come out of a chlorine-saturated pool. I must not have been watching where I walked for I tumbled suddenly into a hole and fell end-over-end-over-end, and then I fell some more, end over end over end ….
They settled us into our plain but comfortable rooms and explained the plan for the daylight hours. Luisa Martinez and I would be given tests. That was it. The Aliens had tapped into the commercial database forever ago as well as all the government networks. They found back doors in our back doors and watched us, unobserved. They had been lurking for as long as we had networks. The colonel confessed one night after his third beer that semiconductors had in fact been seeded into our culture when an alien craft crashed but not by accident, oh no. They wanted us to find the chips and build computers and then networks and then the world wide web so we would project the contents of our lives onto screens of digital simulation, showing and telling them everything. The Net was a trojan downloaded into our hive mind and its contents were dye in the arteries of the world soul.
Luisa had little to say, in English. I had little to say, in Spanish. We groped our way toward a viable connection, nevertheless. I loved the way she smiled and how she folded her fat hands in her lap in the creased folds of her flowered dress. I guessed she hadn’t a clue as to what it meant to be chosen to test methods by which another species would arrange for a sit-down, flesh-on-flesh, face time with an alien race. Of course, neither did I nor did the Colonel nor any of the other actors on the set.
“How did they select us?” I asked again and again until it was clear that no one had an answer. It wasn’t something trivial like looking at ants from a high perch and blindly picking some out. These were sophisticated beings, after all, from a remote star system, infinitely older. They may have been ugly but they weren’t capricious. The simple truth was, the military didn’t know. The agencies responsible for intercepting signals and observing near-earth space, monitoring everything inside the asteroid belt in real time, knew for a long time there were meaningful signals and artificial observables behaving with purpose but they didn’t know what they were. They learned to live with ubiquitous surveillance the way the rest of us learned to live with their surveillance of us. After a while it becomes commonplace, and anyway, there’s not much you can do about it. We can learn to live transparently in a village of any size.
Maybe that’s where working with the kids had given me a leg up. I saw how the technologies of my time had transformed the best brains on a generation into hackers. The Aliens in a way were hackers too, listening in. Getting to the root of a questing humanity, unsure of its footing as it left its home planet for the first time.
Of course, it’s much deeper than that. My hunch is that the Aliens understand us in a way that we can’t imagine because they know with subtlety and depth that information comprises the essential structure of the universe, that relationships between things determine the identities of everything. Rearrange molecules and different substances emerge. Rearrange relationships of beliefs and meanings and cultures transform. Even if you don’t alter the beliefs and meanings themselves, the culture transforms.
The Aliens did their homework, is what I’m saying. I think the medical data was key. Because they had accessed what every therapist entered in every patient record, aggregating and mining the scanned data of every registered human being, data fixed in chips embedded in all of us now, they could discern patterns we couldn’t because our minds were blind to the heuristics or goal states of the search. How could we find what we wouldn’t recognize anyway, even when it was right before our eyes? Which is where of course it always is, anyway. I mean, where else can anything be but existing in the fields of probability that we can or can’t see? The ones we see, we call reality. The others, we say, don’t exist. Reality is a probability wave actualized.
The Aliens, once they had me in the Bin, intended to stretch the boundary between potential and actual, I believe. Take me by the hand and lead me gently into a zone of annihilation.
So the data was our data, linked in ways we couldn’t see, related to points of reference that were utterly alien (duh!) to our history. Everything aligned differently, don’t you see, in their imaginations, painted with colors of a vastly different palette.
I am not saying this abstractly to avoid the hard work of disclosing the details of the complex process that led to the Bin. I am trying to say that the process was not something any of us understood. All we could do was do what they requested, run the maze and recognize when we got the cheese.
Luisa and I endured long tedious days of medical tests. We hunkered down like good little mice, rat-labs, guinea pigs, good little humans. They ran us through scans, sliding us in and out of tubes, sliced and diced our 4D digital images, showed us fascinating displays of fire and light in our brains, monitoring everything we said or did or refused to do. It was all transparent to the Alien Red Team somewhere out there in a nebulous haze.
Luisa grew on me, I admit it, and I think she was fond of me, too. She had worked in a cafeteria in Union City High School, serving macaroni and cheese and chocolate pudding to hoards of raucous students. I concluded that she did it the same way she went through the tests, with a smile and genuine pleasure in her eyes at being alive, just being in the flow. She served, I think, because she loved to serve, finding real fulfillment in dishing out steaming scoops of food to screaming teens. I searched in vain during our truncated conversations or quiet time together for guile, deceit or resentment. I never found any. She was rare, a human being transparent to her kindness, exposing the folly of trying to reduce benevolence to a symptom of dysfunction.
“How do we know the aliens are real?” I said one morning. “How do we know this isn’t a fake air base built to fool us so we’ll go through the tests for whatever reason?”
Luisa smiled, shaking her head. “No se,” was all she said.
“And how do we know that, even if the aliens are real, there aren’t ulterior purposes on either or both sides?”
“No se,” she said again and we both laughed.
Her parents died in an accident when she was a child. She came to Union City in the middle of the night in the back of a van. She worked for a few years picking crops, then got a job mopping schools. She heard about an opening in the cafeteria and applied. That had been her life since.
She spoke of the students with affection. They told her, she said, that she was shaped like a sweet potato, which was true enough, but her lumpy appearance disappeared over the weeks into her personality as I warmed to her presence.
I liked her, in other words, and enjoyed going through the motions with her, all unknowing.
My childhood had not been normal either. My parents did what they could and ran me through procedures at free clinics with predictable results. A little money moved from the government into the pockets of docs but I remained bent. I missed school most of the time and amused myself at home. Naturally other children mocked me and I kept a safe distance, losing myself in stories, dissolving the pain of daylight into the redemptive narrative of comic books and sequential art. I first learned about wood carving on the Hobby Channel. I begged for wood and a knife and began whittling. When the first vague shapes emerged from blocks of wood and little nubs of wooden eyes looked back at my own, I was hooked. The wood coming alive in my hands transformed my life, providing feedback loops that allowed me to leapfrog myself by stages. I grew somehow the way a tree grows from a seed, despite drought, despite fire. I consumed the myths and legends of my heritage, begged my grandmother to tell me again and again the stories of the northern forests, sitting rapt as legacy forms from ancient days threaded down my twisted spine to my stiff fingers and through the chunking knife into wood.
Others liked my little people. They saw in them their dreams, they saw the archetypal forms brimming with the deeper truths of their confused humanity. My little toadlike individuals were often fantastic, but people saw themselves in even the most extreme creatures. I showed them, I think, the gods and demons inhabiting their souls.
The darkness in which I worked turned into light. Being still, I learned to listen. Listening, I learned to see. Seeing, I became an invitation and people completed their own sentences, knowing I never tried to finish anyone’s sentences for them. Listening to their narratives through the feedback loop of my attention, they saw possibilities emerge as if we were at the terminator on the moon where darkness meets light and everything is thrown into relief.
After a month, Nate Reid said it was time for the next step.
We were contacted, he said, pretty much like that movie, Close Encounters. Nothing magical or mysterious, really. They gave us hints and we played them like a computer game. We followed bread crumbs through the forest, but not to a mother ship. Instead we discovered a collection of black boxes, appliances plugged into our networks that no one had noticed, stealthy devices never detected by security. Of course we reverse engineered them and made a honey pot, plugging ourselves and the Aliens into that instead. They knew that but didn’t object. Some think that was the plan all along.
So they watched us watching them watch us. Nothing was being stolen, near as we could tell, nothing sabotaged.. As they claimed, the devices seemed to be translators, letting us interface with a network solely for the purpose of connecting.
Then one day they showed us a recording. This is how we draw you, they said, and now we want you to learn how to draw us.
I was standing before the wall of knowledge, the Colonel said, watching screens update. It’s the connections between the data, between the images, you know, that takes you to the next level. No matter how well we build it, we can’t build in the human brain doing that. There are post-it notes and people shouting around their laptops all the time in the skiff, which tells you what we’re missing. We’re missing the interstitial tissue which would give unity to the level at which we’re stuck and let us move up.
Anyway, on four of the sixteen monitors appeared quadrants of a face. It was more or less human, with reasonably attractive features, expressive eyes with real depth. The smile seemed right, words appropriate to gestures. The moving mouth said human words.
They said they had been observing us for centuries, waiting for the right time. They never said why that time was now. They sketched an image of their origin planet, the planet that spawned the !kiii–^6, they called it, three spiral arms across the galaxy, orbiting a middling sun like ours. Details were obscure, historical facts in short supply. Our questions focused on economics, politics, social and cultural life. They never answered. This was not a tutorial, they said; it was an announcement.
Nexus, they called it. Nexus.
Reid stopped talking. He showed us their planet and the simulated humanoid face. It felt like watching a puppet.
“So?” I said.
“That’s it,” he shrugged. “They concluded with a request for a training program for the three of you, now two. Then the sit-down. A face-to-face is not trivial, they explained. They did not want to alarm us, but they had been plugged into humanity for a long time and as sentient beings go, we are a little quirky. We were worth preserving but first they had to find a work-around so we didn’t sabotage our future. This was that point of inflection, they said, and it was critical to get the design right.”
He paused for effect.
“They told us this morning they had made a choice.”
Anxiety seized me and I jerked. I had treated the adventure as a lark, telling myself the experience alone was worthwhile. Now I realized I had lied to me again. I nearly pissed my pants.
Luisa sat quietly, waiting.
“Yes, well … Hartmut, the Aliens would like to meet you. If it doesn’t work, Luisa’s the backup.”
“Bueno,” she said, hands folded in her lap.
I tried to say bueno too but couldn’t breathe. The dizzying fall through the rabbit hole had ended and I landed flat on my back. I was exposed suddenly to daylight erupting in my brain so bright I had to squint. But through the narrower aperture of perceptual possibility the horizons of humankind widened at lightspeed and would never shrink again.
I was moved to another part of the air base. Luisa disappeared from my daily routine and I didn’t see her again until long after. I wanted her to confirm that we had indeed shared those four weeks of tests and she did. She has repeated her testimony many times, but you know what they did to the poor woman, ridiculing her broken English, making her sound stupid. Now this good woman is lost to us, ridiculed into silence.
With my physical infirmities, blasting off into space would have been impossible. The Aliens had a better idea.
I called it the Bin and now the rest of you do too. It looked like a storage container with grooves along the four corners in which strong flexible cables fit. The means of uplift was not disclosed. I went through the drill and sat comfortably in a padded belted seat facing a sealed window. The cables apparently contained a core made of composites which released the energy of uplift when injected with the right amounts of a radioactive liquid. The math breaks down when we try it. It simply doesn’t work. It worked on July 23rd, however.
This is what I remember:
Without so much as a tremor, the entire Bin rose on its cables soundlessly into the sky. Through the window the landscape fell away or I watched a video, I don’t know. The curvature of the earth appeared, then the blackness of space. I never entered orbit but hung at the top of the needle in the Bin, held there by inexplicable energies or maybe by black magic. There was no feeling of movement. Not a creature stirred, not even Hartmut Lipsky. I sat in my chair as if I were perched on my stool in the studio, waiting for what’s next.
The coupling happened behind so I didn’t see. Some deride me for that fact, saying it plays conveniently to my story. But that’s how it happened. There was a slight shiver behind me and then a sound as the wall became a door and folded down into another Bin or some kind of collapsible compartment which had brought the Aliens adjacent. The Bin became a bigger Bin and I felt a presence, a palpable prop wash of otherness surged into the cabin and I retched. Three of their species let my brain know and steep in the astonishing possibility that became actual after a long pregnant pause. How long did they wait? Hours, days, years. Who knew? Who knows? They waited until the nausea passed and I was breathing more normally. They waited until I was able to begin to understand.
I tasted something coppery, swallowing hard. The atmosphere was heavy with dread. Had I not been strapped into the seat, I would have plunged through the window, I would have done anything to escape. Through the window I saw the black and blue of sky and space but the hairs on the back of my neck rose with terror at their approach. Something smeared the floor, something green and liquid discharged or was happening behind me. I experienced their wordless greeting as a feeling of imminent doom.
The straps, I realized, were not meant for ascent but for the arrival of the three beings.
“Do you remember what happened on that hill in the driftless area?” a voice said in my head.
I flashed back years before. It was a time of alienation, a time when the pain of being alive made me writhe. Somehow in the ravaged landscape of my torn soul a flash of light illuminated the ragged edges, showing them to be places of possibility. I sat in a yellow van at the top of a hill in the driftless area, land untouched by glaciers, humps of earth and hills. The van was packed with the sick or retarded but I was encapsulated in silence, looking toward a river, a glint in a distant valley. Someone or something other than my companions communicated during that moment of hesitation an image which manifested in my mind, not a memory but a presence, a creature I had never carved, a face unlike and like my own, human more or less, redefining human in our moment of exposure. We looked into each other’s eyes and were fused by the glue of the universe.
“Yes,” I said. “I thought it was a hallucination. I was in that van and we were going to a river town. Everything stopped. Something happened.”
“You were alert during one of our searches. We introduced ourselves. That’s all. You were an ant learning that dogs exist.”
“Most ants don’t get that dogs exist. You did.” A presence filled the Bin like air or water ten degrees warmer than the layer adjacent. “The readiness is everything.”
Then the room grew cooler. I pulled at the straps. “I can’t turn. I want to see you.”
“Do you remember what happened next?”
“Yes. I returned home more than myself. More than human, as we had defined it. Knowing that another hunted our scent through the void.”
“Let’s test it, then.”
Straps fell away and the chair turned slowly. Three lurid creatures resolved dimly in the half light of the Bin and my stomach heaved. They spoke our borrowed language by moving air through body cavities, visible now through translucent skins. The gelatinous cavities were whitish, pinkish, reddish, veined with a vascular system the color of eggplant. Liquids must maintain a metabolic balance, for they dripped or surged in response to a flow that must have threatened disequilibrium. Were those faces? were those sense organs or something analogous in the sac-ridden ballast that filled the hold? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t see any pattern. My throat tasted of vomit. The stench of otherness, more than pungent, more than repulsive, nearly but not quite unbearable.
I held my gaze on their foreboding forms. I endured.
I trembled with helplessness, aware of being captive in a well-designed cage. They moved closer and that’s when the symbols, barely intelligible, started to scream. No longer chatting on a pre-school level, they endeavored to draw me into a zone of annihilation where the past could implode and impending transcendence emerge. There was no possibility of meaning, not in that moment of extinction when humanity vanished utterly. Nothing could be understood, nothing could span the incomprehensible gulf. I was a sacrificial ant in the slaver of the jaws of the dog. The symbols entering my head heated the circuits of my brain. I covered my ears and cried, “Stop! Stop!”
The communication aborted. Words or images, whatever, dissolved into the gurgle and flow. They immediately spoke a variation in a dialect that sickened me to hear it. I did not want to hear it. So that stopped too. I was still listening, however. I had not denied the necessity of their presence.
“Understood,” someone said. We were back in kindergarten again.
But it wasn’t over.
Fingernails screeled on chalkboard, but inside me, then stopped. Reach! I ordered my distant self, looking as the sun must look from Pluto. Reach!
From a nether world a question arose. I said it aloud, hearing my voice speak.
“What is it like to be a child on your world?”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Someone told me. The nurture of disturbing tendencies instead of elimination made for greatness, they believed. They cultivated anomalies, dismissed more conventional frames. Gently however. Always gently. Sports were woven in a glad-basket of helpful extensions. Binding otherhood in time.
“Ah! Then tell me about do you call it as we do family. When you travel, do you miss someone? anyone?”
Someone sighed. Family or its like was linked in inkless loops of bound discourse and the memory of pleasure, threaded throughout a vascular system that remained strange whether metaphor or fact. I thought it horrific a moment ago and now it was benign. As metaphor it was a shared point of reference, however I misunderstood. Bubbles looked like … inflections, not discharge. A means of equilibrium. Family too. Family a multiple spawn of a matrix of related skins, undiminished by outbreeding of sentiment or felt presence. Distance and the unexpected elimination of individuals weren’t the same because individuals didn’t exist nor would they ever exist again for us, not like they used to. Tiddlywinks. We were networked now and the network does its work quietly by design over summers of time. Then fruit detaches from a branch at a mere touch. Images of countless others glowed suddenly on their translucent skins like reflections on soap bubbles, an infinite regress making me cry. I saw more than possibility now. I had crossed over. I saw symbols become quietly more and I cried quietly for a long time.
When I was able to speak again, I said, “When you saw stars for the first time, did you sense the immensity of the universe? did you feel wonder?”
Listening felt like carving. Something out of nothing. Something was in the Bin that didn’t have a name. A smile or its analogue slid along their skins, a viscous slick, rainbows shining on its surface like water in oil.
Then they showed me something akin to wonder. It felt as if a toddler was coming down the steps for the first time, its little hand in someone’s bigger hand. Its wide eyes looked across the street where one day it might go.
We conversed now on new ground. The dude inside, obliterated, nevertheless abides. Heavenly delight sparked my realization. I had lasted. My capacity to remain intact while staying available to an alien presence had been tested.
And I passed.
”Takes time,” someone said. “Like leapfrog.”
The Bin emptied and filled with kinship and joy.
Then it emptied in fact, not a symbolic fact, a physical fact, and I was alone in a chair going down. The window became bright then gray then rain pelted the thick glass and I arrived at a base in the north woods. The door was a door again and opened, making me shiver in the wet chilly air. Rain blew into my face in sheets. The storm had broken in my absence and the sky was dark oh dark indeed.
I crept from the Bin, cold and wet, into a crowd of waiting expectations; I was unable then or later to shelter myself completely from their appetites. They all took a piece. I was debriefed, scanned again, debriefed again, then dissected by shrinks and all the means at the disposal of our primitive minds and science.
When they finished they told me the new plan.
I was to say nothing.
“It’s better that way,” said the Colonel. “Then we can analyze their game plan using the data you provided.”
“Is that all I am to you, then?” I asked. “A sensor?”
“In a nutshell,” said the Colonel, “yes.”
I was taken to a hangar and flown home.
Who leaked it first? No one knows or – more accurately – no one is telling. The media found Luisa and made her look like a simpleton. Her smile played well on the wide screen and her big brown eyes, without guile, were touched up to appear shallow. Then they found me and bent me a second time, this time with perceptual leverage, making me into the image that most of you know.
Transparent to the end, I told and tell my story without significant variation. I don’t hesitate or pretend to remember. I just say it. A thousand organizations from cults to corporations want to rent me, lease me, or buy me outright. All I want to do is stay in my cave, my tomb, my womb, and carve what I have seen, my life theme and its variations, worlds without end.
The Colonel denied everything. The event was spun in the mind of society as the febrile dream of a lonely mole. News groups gathered documentation to support the official twist. Tabloids, owned by intelligence agencies, did their job, rendering the event absurd by covering it in detail. Investigative reporters scoured the north woods and as I predicted found nothing. How could something so fantastic happen at a base that did not exist? Rumors grew like mushrooms, spreading wildly in the dark. Despicable as their campaign was, the malicious spin boosted sales and enhanced the value of my work. Reinforced by intermittent repetition, the persona stuck, and Hartmut Lipsky is now and will be forever a half-mad recluse inventing stories every bit as fantastic as his carved hobgoblins.
People looked for a squid and saw a squirt of ink or they looked at the wrong thing, the real eclipsed by sleight of hand. Or they looked at an elephant hiding in plain sight, unable to believe what they saw or afraid to say.
No secret sharer emerged from the shadows to reassure me with a furtive whisper that I was sane. No corroboration from an unknown source leaked into the public domain. Instead the horses of distraction went galloping down cobblestone roads, leaving me with a quieted if still slightly uneasy mind in a twilight world where I am free to carve, converting memories into images. My tableaux of the Aliens, me seated before them in the Bin, sold more than a billion copies. Alien dolls with sophisticated hydraulics sell for a good buck. Some discharge or leak by design. Computer games take you to the Bin to shoot it out with Aliens unlike any I ever met. Saturday morning cartoons retell the story, extending it in fanciful directions. Then they write books based on the cartoons and make movies based on the books. They twist the symbols into a thousand fantastic forms.
I give up. I surrender. If fiction is the only place I can tell the truth, then fiction it is. I have long been accustomed to looks and whispers and a reputation for strangeness. This is a deliverance. Inside my all-too-human heart now is a deep well of serenity. Even if everything I have said is a lie, the lie contains the deeper truth.
Tiddlywinks. One disc at a time, hopping another. Leapfrog. A fractal landscape we sentient creatures climb to self-similar discoveries at every level.
All I know is they came and got me and I went where they took me. Then I connected in the Bin with the slobbering ambassadors of another civilization. I asked some questions and listened to their answers. We created or discovered together a means of making sense. Then they left and my role, whatever it was, was over.
Sometimes at night when I am done working, I outwalk the city lights and scan the skies for stars. I see and imagine planets, half create or half perceive the inhabitants of whom the Aliens whispered. My dreams are alive with creatures with silvery wings hovering over oceans aglow with iridescent scales, with the heads of dragons, fire-breathing, and with gargoyles and angels, their glass skins the colors of amethysts, sapphires and rubies. I don’t know if I am remembering or merely dreaming. But I know, and you know too, now, that the angle of our consensus has shifted. I know and you know too that the future is past, that the days to come are already here, and the bridge that we built or became in the Bin is crossed in all directions, myriads of beings of a thousand shapes and hues streaming in the light of setting suns.