Mom and Dad were right that the air is cleaner out here in Wisconsin. The sky is orange only at night, and it’s not the smoky haze back home, dropping ashes and clogging our filter masks. The air here is weightless, clear; and in the clean light all edges and shadows are sharp. In the evening the sky is somehow bright and soft at the same time, an orange and gold glow that’s reflected in the lake, so that lake and sky look like two halves of one brightness.
I’m standing on the deck as the light slowly fades, and Mom and Dad are yelling from inside the house. Dad thought this getaway would be good for us all, but Mom’s still losing her funding. The lake town is pretty, but she’s still blacklisted; the world at large is burning, and the assholes still run everything.
My phone chimes. It’s Chloe.
She’s sent me a picture. A different sky shines from the screen: swirls of deep purple and clouds of stars. Glowing creatures of the sea. Fluorescent jellyfish pulse across a dark sea-sky.
I made this for our story, her message says. A bit of inspiration. My heart warms. The picture is perfect.
Chloe and I are writing an epic cross-over fanfic involving two of our favorite anime shows: From the Deeps and Sweep of Stars. I’m writing the chapters that take place on the ocean-world of From the Deeps, and Chloe’s writing the Stars chapters. We’ve taken two of the main characters of From the Deeps, Haru and Kes, and separated them by thousands of light-years. Haru is still a badass warrior fighting krakens in defense of his floating island-city. But instead of fighting alongside him on a cyber-whale, his rival Kes is now part of the 22nd class of the Star Ambassador Academy. Just as in the canon plotline, the 22nd Academy class is stranded in a remote sector of the galaxy after a field trip gone wrong, and they must try to find their way home, hopping across the universe through Star-Gates and getting into plenty of adventures along the way.
We’re almost to the turning point of the story: when Kes and his classmates tumble into Haru’s world. Kes hits his head, they all nearly drown, but they’re rescued by Haru’s squad, and Kes wakes up to Haru’s green eyes.
I’ve been listening to starsong while writing, Chloe messages me. I’m thinking of making a playlist to go with our story.
The Stars fandom has been obsessed with “starsong” of late. It’s our word for music from the show that incorporates patterns found in the Message. Someone noticed it (subtle, hidden) in two of last season’s episodes, and it ties in so beautifully with the season’s themes. Of course, once word got out there was the usual fearmongering by some over “Message music” and what it could do to young minds, even though people have been translating and playing with Message data as audible sound for years and no one’s mutated into an alien or lost their mind yet.
It’s a great idea. Go for it! I say.
I’m so glad!!! Chloe sends a series of hearts and smiles. She knows I can sometimes get a little weird about Message stuff.
I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.
That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.
There she is, in one of the first human-interest one-on-one interviews. Thinner and younger than she is now, dressed in a loose blouse and jeans, seated at her desk. Her smile is maybe just a little nervous, and her first words a little stilted. But her voice steadily warms as she speaks. The camera dissolves into a re-enactment of the historic night. Stacks of paperwork next to her computer. A potted fern. The ghostly reflection of office furniture painted on the black night that shows through the window. She was working late at the Institute, alone. Close-up on a cup of coffee. Then her computer chimes and trills. It’s the alert that means an anomalous radio signal has been detected, from an array of telescopes hundreds of miles from the office, in a remote northern valley. “The signal was so strong,” my mother says in voice-over. “It was practically screaming. It clearly wasn’t natural—it was very narrow band-width, modulated. I think my heart stopped when I saw it. I thought maybe I was dreaming, hallucinating. And then I was sure it was some kind of mistake.”
The interviewer prompts her to describe the next steps. The phone call to her boss. The way the signal just kept going. Confirmation of non-terrestrial origin, confirmation by other radio observatories—confirmation that it was real. The Message repeating itself, in certain narrow band-width frequencies up and down the radio spectrum. “You believe that it’s real now, don’t you?” the interviewer says, joking. This was at a time when much of the public still doubted. Mom looks at the camera. “Oh yes.” Her slight smile is soft with awe. Her voice lifts in wonder. “It’s real.”
Are you there? Chloe will message me late at night.
Are you there? I’ll message her.
It’s one of our catch-phrases. It’s what Kes famously says in the last moments of episode 12 of From the Deeps, when he’s anxiously monitoring Haru’s lone descent into the Deep Trench and there’s a sudden deep-sea explosion and the comm-link goes silent. “Are you there, are you there!” Kes shouts, and the panic in his voice is taken by many fans as the first real evidence that he has feelings for Haru.
Are you there? Chloe says, and she sends a picture she’s made of Haru caught by a kraken, squeezed in its arms, our dashing hero bug-eyed and deformed and it’s grotesque but also hilarious. I laugh out loud. Together, we spin a comic story of how he ended up in that situation, of how his friends react and save him, of how the entire kraken army gets involved. We can riff like this forever. We make stories both tragic and light. We send each other memes, videos, funny pictures found online. We speak of favorite songs, a beautiful turn of phrase, poetry and whales and space and time-travel and stupid jokes that would make an 8-year howl.
So many of our conversations are marked by time-delays. There’s a short window when we’re both online at the same time. She lives on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, Australia, seventeen hours ahead. When it’s night for me, it’s the afternoon of the next day for her. It’s summer for me, and winter for her. It’s like one of those fairy tale stories we both love, where characters are trapped apart in opposite worlds.
It’s like Haru and Kes in the fanfic we’re writing: one in the deep sea and the other in the sky.
Do you believe in soulmates? I messaged her once, before going to bed.
I want to believe, she said.
Dad and I watched the Message documentary special last night, in the cozy living room of this borrowed house. Mom was half-watching, typing away on her latest funding pitch. In truth, I guess we were all half-watching; Dad was also checking his phone for news, as always, and I was browsing my social feeds.
We’d all focus when Mom came on the screen, or other scientists we know.
But most of the show was about the social-cultural impact of the Message. The way it changed the world. Journalists and academics and pop-culture figures speaking on the screen. A montage of crowds around the world, of congregations in prayer. The birth of the first Message cults, and doomsday fears, and Message-themed music and art and clothes. An embarrassing Message-inspired dance craze, popular in the clubs of Europe, which thankfully burned itself out over one summer. Solemn political agreements, earnest pledges of Earth unity, and then the inevitable suspicions and political dissension. “But in the beginning, above all,” the narrator intoned, “there was a shared moment of awe.” A shot of sunrise over an array of radio dish antennas in an Australian desert. The Earth rotating, the camera skimming to pause, a moment, on a single huge radio dish in a karst valley in China. Then shots of radio observatories in Europe, South Africa, Chile, the United States. A string of listening stations around the globe. All working together to confirm and share the Message. The SETI scientific community was completely open then, united, sharing everything they knew with each other and the world. “For that moment,” the narrator continued, “we were truly one. We learned that we are not alone. And that knowledge, all on its own, has changed us forever.”
Dad snorted. He hit the arm of the sofa in frustration. “Nothing’s changed,” he said. He’s more bitter than Mom, sometimes.
I sneaked a glance at Mom. She was staring at the screen and her eyes looked shiny—as though she were close to tears.
You’ll never know how it was, my parents have both said to me. This is when they’re angry again at the news, at reports of protestors shot in Texas, political scandals hushed up, new restrictions on the press. This is when even Dad’s non-political tech articles are edited for “political sensitivities.” When the government wouldn’t let Mom go to the big science conference in Beijing. “Can you imagine—now we’re the ones not allowed to travel!” she cried, and she and Dad just stood swearing in the kitchen together. They say I’m too young to remember what this country once was. They say I don’t know remember that brief period of hope and freedom, which bloomed just briefly between dark ages. When it seemed like the world might actually come together to solve its problems. When the Message was first found, it seemed it might extend that blooming of hope forever.
Are you there, Chloe? I type in the night.
Are you there, Sarah? she asks.
The truth is that I don’t like most of the Message music I’ve heard. It’s not because I don’t like the sounds themselves. It’s because I know it’s mostly so fake. Musicians have to manipulate the data so much to make something pleasing to human ears. I’ve looked a little into the data sonification programs, so I know. People have created the musical patterns popular on the web and among the Sweep of Stars fandom. They’ve latched onto certain signals in the Message, stretched them out, repeated them, tricked them out with extras. Real data sonification just sounds like noise.
Last year, for my birthday, Chloe wrote me a From the Deeps story and sent me songs recoded from humpback whales. The songs are the real deal, captured directly from hydrophone recordings made over fifty years ago. Nothing altered, no human compositions added—just the eerie wails and shrieks and moans of the sea, gliding up and up; the pauses between cries, the purrs. Cold rippled up my spine the first time I heard it. It wasn’t just noise. They were the calls of another intelligence on our world. Mom told me that long ago she had a colleague at the Institute who studied the songs of humpback whales. It may seem weird that someone at a SETI institute would study such a thing, but the idea was that the whale-song was a complex, non-human communication system, and that by studying its structure we might learn techniques that could apply to the study of extraterrestrial communication, too.
I looked up some of that guy’s papers. It’s all information theory, mathematical equations, plots of “information entropies.” The upshot: humpback whale songs are complex. Human language is also complex. The Message beamed to us from the stars is complex. All the decades that humans have known of whale songs, the recordings we have, the analyses done. All the terabytes of data we have of a Message sent from deep space. But we still can’t understand either one.
This doesn’t mean that Mom and her colleagues haven’t learned anything at all, of course. They’ve devised whole new tools to describe and analyze the data. New technologies that are applicable to other fields. They’re scanning the skies for new Messages, still learning about distant stars and planets and moons. They just haven’t cracked the code to what they really want to know. The other day, I heard Mom say she’s afraid they never will.
Today Dad and I had breakfast on the deck. Mom was gone on a walk. She’s been taking walks by herself every morning, along the lake or through the woods.
Dad hummed to himself as he cooked. He made his usual scrambled eggs and toast. We took our plates outside and watched the light on the lake. A wind softly ruffled the trees. I wanted to ask Dad if everything would be okay. I wanted to ask what would happen if Mom’s private Institute really does shut down. Would we have enough money? Could she somehow still keep her research going? She wouldn’t really join up with the government, would she? For the past few years, it’s been policy that any government-funded Message research has to be classified. That goes against everything Mom’s always said she believes.
I wanted to ask, but Dad looked so relaxed for the moment—staring out at the horizon, coffee in hand. He and Mom were arguing last night, after I’d gone up to my room. I heard their tense voices, but not their words. And then I heard soft laughter from their room this morning. I wanted to ask Dad if he and Mom were okay. Instead, I ate my eggs and said nothing.
My parents don’t know it, but I do remember what they call the “good days.” I remember my parents laughing together every night, every day. All the time. Even when they were both so busy with work, even though one or the other was often out of town. Laughter over the phone, through the screen. In-jokes I didn’t get, references that went over my head. It didn’t matter. I felt like the laughter included me, too.
And I remember Mom showing me the stars. No one can see the stars back home, of course. Even when the wildfires aren’t burning, even when you can breathe without a filter mask, even when the sky looks clear—there’s too much light and pollution in Berkeley, California to see anything of the night sky. You have to leave to see the stars. We were on vacation somewhere green and cool, an echo of where we are now. No lake, but a meadow stretching before us. My mom holding me, although I must have been nearly too big to be held. Dad standing beside us. “There,” Mom said, pointing just above the horizon. She traced for me the great Summer Triangle, its corners lit by the bright stars Vega, Altair, Deneb. She spoke their names. And there—she showed me Deneb now as the tail of a swan flying across the sky, the constellation Cygnus. Somewhere in that patch of sky, in Cygnus, a star too dim and distant to see with our naked eyes. A star whose light (if we could see it) would take 289 years to reach us. Something near that star, my mother explained, had sent all of Earth a Message.
Haru and Kes have never met in the story that Chloe and I are writing. They have no idea who the other is. But they long for each other anyway. They’re searching for each other without knowing.
After fighting krakens all day, Haru falls into an exhausted sleep. Just before his mind tips into darkness—on the edge of sleep and waking—he sees, for an instant, a dark-haired boy outlined against the stars.
Kes has dreams, too: of a bright-haired boy laughing atop a cyber-whale.
While Haru fights for his homeland, Kes is desperately searching for home with his classmates, unlocking Star-Gate after Star-Gate. They don’t realize it, but the Gates are choosing them, not the other way around. The Gates are calling them to the worlds that need their help. And one Gate is calling Kes to a watery world he’s never seen, to a home that he doesn’t know exists.
“It’s like the red thread of fate,” Chloe said when we started this story, invoking the East Asian legend of a thread connecting soulmates. And she drew a map of the Star-Gates, red threads shimmering between them and dozens of worlds; red threads also connecting Gates to each other, a shining web. She’s so talented, an artist as well as a writer. I keep her map in my head when I write sometimes; I imagine Haru, unknowing, connected by a thread to Kes so many light-years away. The Gate as a conduit for that thread, the thread spun of both desire and fate. A thread that’s a song neither consciously hears.
Chloe and I talk all the time about meeting someday in real life, but I don’t know how it will ever happen. How would Chloe or I afford the international flight? And what flights will even be legal in the future? I think of how Mom wasn’t allowed to go to China. I wonder how far government suspicions of my mother extend—of how her open political ideals might affect me, her daughter. Tensions between the U.S. and Australia have been growing, too. We’re supposedly still allies, but everywhere the borders are closing.
I think of my parents’ stories of the good years, when everything and everyone seemed so free.
Hey, I message Chloe. I can’t draw like her; I’m not good at making actual pictures of starry sea-skies and maps and the characters we love. I only have words to share. I send her my stories and words.
Mom wasn’t telling the whole truth when she told me the Message was intended for all of Earth. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this. The truth is that it’s not clear at all that the Message was meant for us. The Message encodes no detectable explanation, no clear announcement of intent. There’s no transmission of prime numbers or cosmological constants, no obvious clue to crack a code. No obvious greeting to strangers. So perhaps we’re not the intended recipients after all; perhaps we merely intercepted the Message on its way to somewhere else.
Maybe there are Messages constantly crisscrossing the universe, sent from one technological outpost to another, and we just happened to eavesdrop on one. Can we join the conversation? (Do we want to? Would it be safe?)
The documentary special yesterday brought this and all the usual questions up. Pundits with titles rehashing old topics. Old arguments of what to do, how to respond. Fifteen years ago, Mom saw a Message. It was repeated at irregular intervals, detected by scientists around the world, over the course of two and a half days. Do those intervals mean anything? Are they part of the Message, too? No one knows. There are radio telescopes trained permanently now at that spot in the sky. But that fragment of space is silent.
There’s a story Mom hasn’t told in any interview. She’s told it to me. On the night of the Message, she came home very late, in the blackness before dawn. Dad was asleep. She went to my bedroom and stood by my crib. Overwhelmed by all that had happened, at the reality of the new world that we’d all just entered, the world her daughter would grow up in—Mom looked down at me while I slept, and she cried. I was a little over a year old.
And fifteen years is nothing in cosmological time, but it can seem forever in human years. Next year I’ll be applying to college; my parents expect me to. Even though I’m not sure of the point; I don’t know what jobs will be available when I graduate, I don’t know what I can do, and all I really want to do is see Chloe, and travel, and make stories.
But this is a terrible world, and few of us get to do what we want. Back home, the fires are burning, and the air is soot; there are hurricanes and drought and famine; the ice caps are melting and the seas rising, and the humpback whales are all dead. I never got to see one, and the other whales are dead or dying, too. My best friend lives thousands of miles away. We communicate with radio signals beamed from our phones through the air, but I think we’ll likely never meet.
I love you, she tells me, but I don’t know if she means the words the way I do. Because she says I love you all the time--Love you! she signs off on group chats. Love you! she tells all her friends online. And I’ve said those words to only a few people in my life, and it always means something special when I say it. I want to believe that it means something special when she says it to me.
Daylight is slowly fading over the deck. I see the first stars shining from a swath of deep blue. My parents are arguing from within the house. I thought that maybe things were getting better between them. Mom and Dad fought after the documentary special last night, but this morning I heard them laughing. We went into town for dinner and ice cream, and afterward they were holding hands.
But now they’re yelling again.
I have to go, Chloe tells me. I love you, my dear.
I love you, I say.
She sends me a string of hearts.
And then I’m alone on the deck. I look out over the lake, over the horizon, and after a moment I find it: the great Summer Triangle, marked by three bright stars. Vega, Altair, Deneb. If I wait, it will darken enough that I’ll see the rest of Cygnus. And somewhere in that patch of deep blue is a star I cannot see, a star 289 light-years away. Something there sent out a Message, and maybe they’re still there; maybe they haven’t blown themselves up like people are afraid that Earth will do. Maybe those beings are talking happily to others across the universe, all the time. Or maybe they’re lonely, and they haven’t heard anything, and they just send out a signal every thousand years or so to say We’re here! and Are you there, are you there? Two of the planets around that star are in the habitable zone, and scientific models say they’re great watery worlds, covered almost entirely in liquid seas. Chloe is my soulmate, my heart, the other end of my red thread. I hear the door slide open behind me. “Sarah?” my mother says. I feel her standing behind me, waiting for an answer. And suddenly there’s so much I want to say to her, but I don’t know how to begin. It’s been years since we’ve truly talked. She steps up to the deck railing beside me and looks out over the lake. After a moment, hesitantly, she puts an arm around my shoulder. Slowly, she pulls me close. I let her. And after a moment, I relax into her embrace. Mom and I stand side by side like that, silently, looking out into the night.
This story originally appeared in The Future Fire.