That Universe We Both Dreamed Of

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Jay O’Connell

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After a dozen professional publications in the 90s, Jay O’Connell took an eighteen-year break to have kids, participate in failed internet start-ups, and stare philosophically into space. His unrequested return to SF has lead, so far, to another dozen sales, mostly in Asimov’s, (this is his breakthrough story there) but also to F&SF, Interzone, Galaxy’s Edge, and Fantastic, edited by his editor from the first go round, Warren Lapine. Jay’s novella “Of All Possible Worlds” is currently available in The Year’s Best Short SF Novels.

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MY SUPERVISOR MESSAGED ME Thursday night that a visitation request had been made in my name, and so I had Friday off. Chances were I’d be back to work on Monday. Nine hundred and ninety times out of a thousand that’s what happened. That one in a thousand? Officially, the Aliens weren’t responsible. Some people took advantage of the visitation to take off. Just hit the road, abandoning job, wife, family.

That made sense to me.

So Friday morning I logged into work, rescheduled my appointments and started a load of laundry: socks and underwear. For a while after Amy left, I’d just kept buying more. I had bushels of dirty underwear. Maybe I could convince my Alien to stay in and I could get some house cleaning done too. The place was a mess. No way I could invite anyone back here. If I ever, you know, met anyone.

A conference window pinged. It was Gharlane. I didn’t answer.

“Joel, want to do something after the visitation?”

He’d forced the voice message through the emergency access code I’d given him. Every communication from Gharlane was an emergency.

I sighed, gesturing the conference window to center screen. I was looking at a dark-haired, middle-aged man with round, wire-rimmed glasses not making eye contact with the camera. But then, Gharlane was never big on eye contact. He was maybe my oldest friend, certainly my oddest. Decidedly non-neurotypical. He subsisted on the WPA Creative Stipend, wrote absurdist fiction and created mildly popular video-montage.

“Maybe,” I said. “Look, I’m getting ready over here.” I hesitated. “What was your interview like?” I dimly recalled he’d been visited but was blanking on the details.

He looked me in the eye.

“It’s bullshit. Like Jury duty. But less interesting. There aren’t any Aliens, you know, it’s a plot by the Feds—”

It came back to me. I interrupted the conspiracy theory — that the withered Federal government was behind Disclosure — and said I’d talk to him later. Like so many, Gharlane despised the Feds. He hadn’t spoken to me for two weeks after I’d brought up the fact that half his stipend came from them. We’d stopped talking politics after that.

Were the Aliens real? I was agnostic on the subject. They certainly could be, but then, who knew? Who killed Kennedy? Some things are hard to know for sure, even when extensively documented.

Of course the joke was that by the time Disclosure occurred more than half the planet already believed in Aliens. It was the educated elites who had the most trouble absorbing the news.

It had been five years, maybe thirty million interviews, and nothing much seemed to have changed. Disclosure had occurred two days after the discovery of the vent worms under the ice of Europa, which was three days after my hyperacusis diagnosis. Somehow they were all mixed up for me.

I was too busy mourning my diagnosis, the end of my musical life, to care. I’d been a fan of space as a kid, caught up in the resurgence of interest following the discovery of the Martian microbes, but music had been my life’s focus. After that, after the diagnosis, well. I’d had to grow up.

The door chimed softly.

I opened it, blinking at the moist blast of mid-summer, heat-advisory air. My Alien was an oddly cute, youngish Caucasian woman, slender and blonde, with a pixie haircut. Aliens all looked perfectly human of course. Hence the conspiracy theories.

She wore a clean white tank top, faded jeans, and those barefoot shoe things with the individual toes, which I hadn’t seen in a decade.

“Hi,” she said. Her eyes were a friendly shade of blue. “Can I come in?”

I stood aside, still in my pajamas. My underwear was in the dryer, and I hadn’t wanted to go commando with the Alien. It was summer, and I had a tendency to chafe. My heart was beating too fast. I took a deep breath.

“What do I call you,” My voice sounded wavery and weird. I cleared my throat.

“What do you want to call me?” The Alien-girl-person-thing asked.

I sighed. It was going to be a long day.

~~~

I decided to call her Zena, which had a nice Alien ring to it. She asked me questions while I folded laundry. It started out almost like a census: dull stuff, demographics. Then we talked about my childhood, my failed marriage, my subsequent love life, or lack thereof. I answered honestly. I’m not sure why.

It was a weird conversation, like talking to a therapist. Questions like, “What do you want to do with your life?”

How the hell do you answer that one?

“I want to be a pop star,” I said. Joking. Not.

“Are you in a band?” Zena asked.

“Not for a few years.” I saw no reason to bring up the hyperacusis, the excruciating pain that certain sounds, including my music, now caused me. My band, Tikkun Olam, was on hiatus, probably dead, barring a miracle cure. I didn’t talk about that this stuff with anyone.

Zena nodded, her expression neutral.

“My job takes a lot out of me,” I said. “I work for LiveWork, a big NGO, a non-profit. We feed people. Well, we teach people to feed themselves. Fund community gardens and self-sufficiency projects. Subsidize and police barter networks, work exchanges. We’re trying to do what the Feds used to do, with corporate sponsorships and social media donations. The private-private partnership, I call it when nobody is listening. Which is most of the time.”

“Do you enjoy your work?’ Zena asked.

“Not for years.” My own answer startled me. But it was true.

Zena nodded.

“It’s important work, though.”

Zena nodded again. “People won’t feed themselves?”

“They can’t really,” I said, irritated. “You know. Tech Shock. Half the population has nothing to do. Not that anyone wants to pay them for.”

“If you don’t do your job, it won’t get done?”

I snorted. “Plenty of people want work. They could replace me in a heartbeat, with a kid they’d pay half my salary.”

“I see,” said Zena.

She blinked at me. Silence fell. I felt the beginning of a headache throbbing in my temples.

“I don’t think you do,” I said. I sat heavily next to the stacks of underwear and socks on the sofa. My face was hot. I was angry. Something about the questions, and my answers, had made me feel terrible. She implied things.

“People can’t just do any damn thing they feel like. Grown-ups, I mean. People with kids, families…”

“Do you have children?” Zena asked. “Family? Pets? Anyone?”

“NO!” I shouted.

I put my face in my hands, ran them through my thinning hair, and thought about that one in a thousand that disappeared after visitation. How many were suicides? What an indirect way of killing people!

“Let’s change the subject,” Zena said. “I’ve upset you.”

“Good,” I said. “Something easy, please.”

“OK, Zena said. “Let’s talk about God.”

~~~

So we talked about God. I’m an agnostic, or an atheist, when I’m talking with a religious person I don’t like, which would be most of them. With Zena, for some reason, I didn’t want to poke fun at believers. Religion was important to a lot of people, and I’m people. I felt defensive about my species.

Finally, exhausted, I said we lived on a tiny dust speck on the edge of eternity, and if there was a God, some kind of universal intelligence, that we couldn’t be a huge priority for Him.

For it, I corrected, because God probably didn’t have a long white beard. Or a penis.

“The penis seems unlikely,” Zena said. I didn’t notice that she’d almost offered an opinion, at first. Then I did, and stopped talking.

Zena smiled silently at me. Her eyes were kind without being patronizing.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Did you make us? Seed the planet?” This was a pretty common assumption now. Life on Earth, Mars, and Europa, all based on DNA.

Zena raised her eyebrows. She turned to look at my wall screen and cocked her head a fraction of a degree. Task windows, camera feeds, my friend profiles, started blanking out, filled with buffering icons. A big “Network Outage” clock appeared center screen.

There were no recorded visitations: no audio, no video. The only thing we knew was what the visited had to tell us, and the visited had never said anything important. Except for the cultists. Every cult’s story was different. Well, they generally involved credit card payments.

“That’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? Directed panspermia.”

“You’re not going to answer, are you?” I said.

“Not yet.”

My heart skipped a beat. Yet? “Is this…a test?”

Zena nodded. “Test isn’t a bad word for it.”

“Has anyone else passed?”

“I can’t talk about anyone else.”

“How much longer is the test?”

“I won’t know until it’s over,” she said.

“Do you leave when I fail?”

Zena smiled. “Yes.”

I blinked. I grabbed her by the shoulders, the first time I’d laid hands on her. Her shoulders felt normal. Nice even.

“Yes? Just yes? Not, ‘What do I think will happen?’”

“Yes, and Yes. Just yes.”

I wanted to kiss her. I was worried if I did I’d fail, though, so I just stood there grinning like a fool.

“I’m hungry,” she said, disentangling herself gently. “Let’s get something to eat.”

~~~

I picked an outfit up off the couch and got dressed in my bedroom with the door half open. I’d left Zena downstairs, flipping through a public photo album of mine on the wall, (a local cache, the network outage persisted).

“What kind of music do you play,” she called up. “In your band?”

“It’s hard to describe,” I said. What had I called it in the end? Klezmer Folk Fusion? I didn’t want to talk about it. I grabbed my ear protectors — bulky plastic earmuffs, the kind you use at shooting ranges — and met her at the door. She took in the ear protectors without comment.

“You eat falafel?” I asked.

“I’m omnivorous,” she said. “Well. This body is.”

“Very good falafel, up the street, in the Square, about a half mile.”

She nodded. So we walked. I wore my ear protectors past the construction site a block from the condominium. An old, static, office building was being pulled down, to be replaced with something smarter. I waved to a neighbor tending his roof garden. He’d have strawberries to trade for my tomatoes in a week or so.

Zena said something I couldn’t quite hear. Walking in the city without the protectors was always a crapshoot. A cop car might turn on its siren without warning and I’d have a headache for two days. Still, I was chatting with an Alien. I pulled off the protectors and hoped for the best.

“Lunch is my treat,” Zena repeated.

She paid for our sandwiches with her phone. There was no place to sit, the falafel joint was tiny, a converted White Castle hamburger place that had been made a landmark around the turn of the century. So we found a bench under a tree in the park across the street.

We sat across from a large fenced-in play area teeming with kids of a dozen skin shades and national origins. My fair city, the Hub, was home to tens of thousands of skilled temporary workers, in biotech, nanotech, and infotech, as well as the usual nannies and home health aids happy to live in the beltway dormitories.

“What would you say to getting off planet?” Zena asked.

“Is it something you’re likely to ask, do you think?”

“Seriously,” Zena said. “I’m saying it. You. Off the planet. In a colony.”

I stared at my falafel.

As a kid, I’d grown up playing video games, watching movies, TV shows, all filled with space travel. The discovery of extraterrestrial life by unmanned probes, even though it was just bacterial mats and worms, had made space travel relevant, less of a kitschy, retro, 20th century nostalgia thing. The super rich now routinely orbited the moon for fun. Zuckerberg’s generation ship was being constructed at L5.

“I don’t have the skills, or the profile, for Zuckerberg’s Ark. I’m turning 30. We wouldn’t reach a habitable exoplanet in my lifetime anyway, even if I made the cut. Assuming they ever finish the thing. Assuming it doesn’t blow up.

“I’m not talking about a ship.”

“No ship?”

“We don’t use them,” she said.

“What about all the sightings,” I said. “The saucers and spheres and cigars—”

“Surface craft. We don’t use them any more, anyway. They upset you. We use doors.”

“Doors? Teleportation? Wormholes?”

“Kind of.”

I took a bite. The hummus definitely improved the sandwich, and was worth the extra buck.

Zena took a bite. “This is excellent. Best I’ve had, outside New Jerusalem.”

I thought about it while we ate.

“Why would you help us colonize other planets?” I asked.

“That’s a good question,” she said around a mouthful of sandwich. A bit of tahini dressing had dribbled from the corner of her mouth. I brushed the same place on my chin. “You’ve got a—”

“Oh!” she laughed. She wiped it off with a napkin. “Thanks.”

“You gonna answer?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No. Well. If you guess, I might nod.”

I considered that. “Is that part of the test?”

“Yeah,” she said. “You could say that.”

We finished our sandwiches, and walked to where a scaffold had been erected against one wall of the basketball court. A group of kids were working on a mural mosaic, embedding fragments of colorful recycled material in some quick-setting adhesive. A WPA artist with a large data pad was directing the project. A stylized globe was taking form, recognizably the earth.

My planet. Which Zena was telling me I might leave behind.

~~~

“Fermi’s Paradox,” I said. “Given the age of the universe, our own rate of development, the Drake equation, what we know…where is everybody?”

Zena nodded. “Your light cone should be packed with the evidence of intelligent species disassembling stars into Dyson spheres. Ringworlds. Immortal technological civilizations, self-replicating robot factories in the asteroid belts. Solar sails, ion drives, every habitable zone planet a radio star.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But we don’t. There’s nothing.”

“I could ask, how do you know what you see and hear is real?”

My stomach lurched. “It’s fake?” An old woman watching a pair of kids on a teeter-totter shot me a dirty look. I’d shouted. I waved back at her, regaining my composure. “Our light cone is fake?”

Zena laughed. “Sorry. We don’t do that. There’s nothing much to see, is all.”

“So there’s no quarantine,” I said. “No prime directive. There isn’t a big sprawling galactic empire out there, waiting to embrace us, the new guys?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” I said.

“Yeah. That’s the Universe we dreamed of, too. When we were your age.”

We sat comfortably for a while, saying nothing.

“Want another hint?” Zena asked.

“Do I fail if you give me a hint?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Then yes.”

“Intelligence evolves frequently. It isn’t rare. But it’s fragile and self-destructive.”

The self-destructive part needed no explanation. But fragile?

She continued as if reading my mind. “Cultural vitality, viability, is fragile, self-esteem, purpose, meaning, the big questions. The why of things. You don’t know it, because nothing has come in from the outside, to prick the bubble.”

We were walking in front of a storefront Buddhist center. Through the soundproof glass, you could see a class in progress, a grid of fifteen or so people seated in lotus posture on woven mats.

Zena smiled at the statue of the Buddha, a faux bronze thing seated blissfully by the Zen center’s door.

“Was he one of you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “We don’t mess with religion. Anymore.” She made a bad smell face as she caressed the Buddha’s bald head. “Not with your species.”

“You’re Watchers?”

She paused. If she were a person, I might think she’d subvocalized a search on Watcher, and was reading an online answer spat out by a search engine as a data overlay in a contact lens. Maybe that was what she was doing. I was avoiding wearable computing as long a possible, personally. But I had friends who had joined the Borg.

“The bald guys who introduced the Silver Surfer comics?”

“Yeah.”

“Would watchers disclose their presence?”

“No.”

“We’re not watchers,” Zena said. “We’re doers. But we’re careful.”

“The Watchers made terrible mistakes. Their gifts were turned into weapons. Species, whole planets were destroyed.”

Zena nodded. “That would be terrible wouldn’t it? To know you were responsible for such things. That your people were.”

My great great grandfather on my father’s side had been in the Luftwaffe. “You would get over it, I guess.”

“Probably,” Zena agreed.

“But afterwards…”

“Careful.” she whispered, looking down at the statue, her finger tracing the Buddha’s smile. “Very very careful.”

~~~

“So, if life is plentiful, but intelligence is self-destructive and fragile. Panspermia… Empty real estate? And you said you wanted company. That big universe full of friends. You asked me if I wanted off the planet…”

We’d stopped at the entrance to a community garden by the river. A half dozen people were working in their plots, weeding, or putting in seedlings. Mostly vegetables, tomatoes, small high-yield GMO melons and breadfruit, fresh herbs. But there were flowers too: sunflowers and roses.

“You’re gardeners.” I said.

She nodded. Once.

I thought about the silence, the great silence, of the universe. Of the Martian bacterial mats, and the Europan vent worms.

“But it’s going slowly.”

She sighed. “Even for us. So slowly.”

“Do I pass?” I said.

“You passed two hours ago, when you said God didn’t have a penis. I was enjoying myself, though. I like your city. She stopped, and looked me in the eye. “I like you, too.”

I laughed. “Why?”

She shrugged. “No idea. Isn’t it like that with people too?”

I thought about Amy.

“Yeah, it is, sometimes.”

We stopped at another park, and watched the kids playing in the sprinklers, some made up kid game that involved lots of running, and screaming, and laughing, and filling up plastic buckets and throwing the water on kids who didn’t yet know they were playing. Off to one side, a little red-haired girl who hadn’t wanted to get wet was sobbing inconsolably. A lanky boy with dreadlocks, a head taller than her, stood sheepishly beside her, eyes downcast, as he was upbraided by a woman too young to be his mother. Probably a nanny.

“How many people pass?” I asked, thinking of that one in a thousand.

“About a third of you are fit to leave the planet. A third of you are deeply confused about your place in the universe. And there’s a third that shouldn’t be allowed to use sharp objects.”

This jibed with my own observations, over the years.

“The problem is, if we leave you alone, most of the time, the crazy third convinces the confused third to do stupid things and you die out. Sometimes you take the whole biosphere with you.”

I thought of the massive public / private investment in sustainable energy and carbon sequestration which had come on the heels of Disclosure. The polar solar arrays which had begun to put a stop to the runaway greenhouse effect.

I didn’t need to ask Zena if they’d had a hand in that.

“Which third am I in, again?”

“You barely pass,” she said. “I’m kinda bending the rules to be honest.”

This made sense to me too.

~~~

“I’m not a pioneer. I don’t enjoy camping. My practical skills are in middle management. I enjoy gardening, but if I had to do it all the time, I’d hate it.” I was thinking out loud, about Zena’s offer.

“We haven’t relocated anyone yet,” Zena said.

I figured as much. There had been maybe twenty million visitations, according to the Terran authority website. So there were millions of candidates, by Zena’s rule of thirds. You can’t hush up that many disappearances.

“The colonization, using the doors, when we start, we become real, really real…we’re only mostly real now. It might kill your culture. Most of the models say it will. Of course the models are wrong sometimes. That’s what makes them models.”

“Kill the culture?”

She blinked at me. “You know about the cargo cults?”

I nodded. During World War II, the pacific islanders believed that the airplanes and radios and technology of the Americans were gifts from Cargo Gods. They didn’t think human beings could have made such perfect magical things. The belief was persistent. You could take a cargo cultist to a factory where cars were assembled, and the cultist believed the parts had been delivered as cargo.

The cargo cultists built mock runways, to lure the gods to bring them the gifts the Americans pretended they made themselves.

“We’re that fragile?”

She shrugged. “We only intervene with a species on the eve of its suicide. We do the best we can, which as it turns out, isn’t all that good. We’ve tried to desensitize cultures through a series of manifestations, but that may not be working. Some models suggest it’s part of the problem.”

She took my hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry, I’m speaking in the wrong timescale. You’ll be fine, personally, your city, your commonwealth, your generation. Longer term, we’re hopeful some of the cuttings will survive.

“The gardening metaphor,” I said. “Ah.”

“You’ll be spread over a hundred worlds,” she said. “Cultures are sensitive to initial conditions. You won’t necessarily repeat yourselves, historically. At least we hope you won’t…”

She trailed off, her expression sad. “You’re not going.”

“This is my planet,” What was I saying? I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look at her, and say what I had to say. “These are my people. I can’t.” I felt shiver ride up my spine. As if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. A weight I’d never known that I carried. The madhouse door had swung open. But I wasn’t leaving the asylum.

“I figured you’d say no.”

“Then why ask?”

“I’m wrong a lot. And I like you.”

“Then stick around and help us rebuild the culture. After you wreck it.”

“That’s not my job,” she said.

“Your job won’t get done, if you don’t do it?”

She laughed. “No, they’d find someone else. But let’s talk about you. What are you going to do for the rest of your life? Play your music?”

A half block away, a car alarm went off, and the sound cut through my head like a heated wire through styrofoam. I fumbled for my ear protectors, as the throbbing headache struck. Waves of nausea, the taste of bile. I closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing, letting the moment pass.

“Oh,” she said.

We walked home slowly. I was thinking about an experimental surgery for hyperacusis, one with a thirty percent success rate. A third of the time, the operation did nothing, and a third of the time, it made the condition worse. Suicide rates in the final third were high. Still, I could sign up to be a test subject, hope I made it into the trial.

“You know, there’s no proof,” I said. “Until the colonists leave. I have no way of knowing if anything you told me is true.”

“Funny how that works, huh?” she said.

“I can’t even be sure you’re an Alien.”

“I could peel my skin off, if you want,” Zena said. “Eat a gerbil?”

“Salt water!” I said. “Salt water will melt you!”

We both laughed about that. Salt water.

“You want a miracle?” She asked quietly.

I thought about it. One thing that seemed certain was that we, humans, had developed the ability to implant memories sometime over the last decade or so. The drug treatments developed for PTSD had had many unexpected applications. Computer graphics could create any kind of imagery imaginable. These images could be converted into memories with a combination of drugs and hypnosis. Even if she gave me a miracle now, tomorrow morning, I’d have no way of knowing if it was real, or a movie I’d watched.

“I still wouldn’t know for sure.”

She nodded. “It’s hard to know the important things for sure.”

I thought about Amy.

“We aren’t allowed to do miracles anyway.”

“Of course not.”

“Last chance on the colonization thing.”

“No thank you. But, I’m glad you’re doing it, transplanting us. Thank you. We deserve another chance.”

We looked into each other’s eyes.

“Ok, maybe not really, but I mean, if there’s room, why not?”

“That’s how we think about it.”

She reached out and touched the side of my face, her fingertips cool, my skin tingling at the point of contact. I wanted to kiss her, and I knew she didn’t want to. Yet. So I didn’t.

“So, does a saucer pick you up?” I asked. “Do you teleport away?”

“I’m going to walk back to the subway, she said.

“That works too. Look, Zena, could I see you again, sometime?” My mouth was dry, and the words came out oddly. The first girl I’d asked out in a year was an Alien. Probably. You have to start somewhere. “I enjoyed this visitation thing. Even though, you know, there was no probing.”

Zena made the bad smell face. An awkward silence descended.

“Hah hah,” I added.

“Mail the Terran Embassy,” she said. “Use the name Zena, next time your band plays out. I want to hear that music of yours that’s so hard to describe.”

Ouch.

I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I opened my mouth, to explain, and then thought, no, it didn’t matter. I closed my mouth. She was an Alien. I’d thought she understood, about the hyperacusis. How I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted to do anymore.

But I didn’t want to talk about it.

We said goodbye. I closed the door on her feeling suddenly spent. I didn’t feel like doing laundry, so I stacked it up and got it out of the way. I wandered around the apartment, looking at stuff. I’d purged the photos, the mementos, all the Amy stuff, but for the first time, somehow, she felt gone. That part of my life over. Really over.

Instead I picked up my guitar. With the protectors, I could usually manage a song, or most of a song, before the hyperacusis got too bad to play. Tuning the guitar was also an unpleasant experience, but strangely, I’d done that yesterday, taking breaks between each string. It had taken hours. I found the guitar pick, a chip of plastic clipped from a recycled credit card, on the mantelpiece.

On impulse, I plugged into my Marshall, an ancient thing, with 3d-printed vacuum tubes. I turned a dusty knob up to a setting I hadn’t used in a decade. My amp goes to eleven. I removed the ear protectors from around my neck, and threw them on the couch. I had a half bottle of oxy from a broken elbow I could use to glue my head back together before work tomorrow. You only live once.

I struck a chord, and the sound exploded from the amp, flooding the room, filling the spaces, my ears, my brain, with sweet fizzing electrical joy. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I shivered.

There was no pain.

I laughed so hard I cried. I lay on the carpet, with the guitar on my stomach, staring at the ceiling.

Maybe I had a shot with Zena.

Maybe we all had a shot.

“That Universe We Both Dreamed Of” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, in September 2013.


If you enjoyed this story, check out the rest of the March-April 2016 issue of FSI!

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