A Distant Voice, Part 2: The Mentor

(Click here for the first part of this story: A Distant Voice: Preface.)

The Mentor

The rest of that evening and all day Sunday, Auntie was irritable, scolding me for the slightest infraction, especially if I made noise. She worked obsessively in her thinking room, only coming out for prayers or to give me another dry granola bar that I could hardly swallow. She wouldn’t let me invite my friend Kenneth over, so I went to his apartment, three stories above us, a much bigger, brighter place with polished hard-wood floors, new furniture, and sunflowers in a vase.

As we were jumping on his bed, I told him that my auntie had called E.T. He didn’t believe me and pushed me off the bed. I wasn’t sure I believed it either, so I didn’t fight back. I stayed as long as his mother would allow, even after Kenneth stopped playing with me. Quietly, I watched him play computer games.

Auntie barely acknowledged me when I came home around nine, well past curfew. I went to my bedroom, took down the framed picture of my parents and me in Disneyland and crawled under the covers with my clothes and shoes on.

My mother was so enchanting in a pink sari with tiny round mirrors sewn down the front, flashing in the sunlight. I remembered it better than anything else that day. It was more magical. My father was tall and stern, handsome in a black tie. His heavy, black mustache scared me, but I remember he was playful that day, almost silly.

I did not understand why Allah had allowed it to happen. A drunk driver hit us one night as we were driving home from a barbecue in the redwoods. I survived with a deep scar running down my hip. It took me a year to learn to walk again–I felt like a baby. I had a limp until the upload, something I was always self-conscious about, especially around girls.

My parents were good Muslims who did not drink, yet they were killed by a drunk. I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. I asked Allah to send them back to me and cried myself to sleep.

 

Monday after school, I heard Auntie squeal. I was picking at the stains in our gray carpet, daydreaming about Star Wars, when she ran up behind me and gave me a painful hug. I was annoyed, but her enthusiasm quickly swept away that bad feeling.

“Great news, Rasheed! Dr. Siverling wants to talk to me again. I think he believes me. And now I have more evidence, a lot more. The signal is more complex than I thought. It must be rich in information. This time he’ll believe me. He has to believe me! It’s the most important discovery of our time, maybe all time! Your auntie’s going to be respected, maybe even famous!”

Again she hugged me too tightly. “Rasheed, do you want to hear the signal? I’ve adapted the program to follow it through the frequencies. Do you want to hear what E.T. sounds like?”

Hesitantly, I nodded, afraid I was agreeing to something dangerous.

Through a wall of crackling static, I heard strange, wailing noises, punctuated with coughs and clicks. It made me uncomfortable. She explained that these were not their voices, just the signals they were using. It would take a long time to decode the signal and even longer to understand their language.

“We may never understand them,” she said, “but to know they are out there changes everything. Everything!”

I covered my ears and ran to my bedroom.

That night I had nightmares of being chased down endless hallways by my father and mother. Instead of arms, they had long, translucent octopus tentacles. Glowing lights dangled over their long, curving teeth, which they were gnashing.

“Rasheed? Rasheed?” they wailed. “Come give us a hug.”

I knew they were not really my parents.

 

The next morning, Auntie put on a skirt–something she almost never did–and spent extra time taming her short, unruly hair. I pulled on my orange pants and my favorite shirt: a Star Wars t-shirt with an image of Darth Vader that said, “#1 Dad in the Galaxy!” Out of my sock drawer, I took Cassandra’s spiral drawing, smoothed it out, folded it as carefully as I could, and put it in my back pocket.

Dr. Siverling greeted us warmly, gave Azra a quick hug, which she pulled back from slightly. For me, he plopped a brown, corduroy cushion in one corner of the living room and handed me a brown paper bag with a book called The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System. The receipt, I noticed, was still inside. Auntie and Dr. Siverling went into the kitchen, and I could hear them whispering about frequencies and patterns.

The door to the playroom was closed. I knocked lightly but no one answered. I knocked louder, then tried to turn the knob, but it was locked. I put my ear to the door. Nothing.

Bored, I sneaked up to the edge of the kitchen and tried to understand what my auntie and the man with silver hair were saying. My aunt was insisting, very emphatically, “It’s more of a continuum of frequencies, a . . . I don’t know, a wave of signals. Just look at the complexity! I ran the algorithm and the amount of information it could contain is immense.  Plus, I began looking at thermal infrared ranges and there are other indications, perhaps richer and more complex–”

Dr. Siverling noticed me eavesdropping and waved me away with a deep frown.

I sat on the cushion and looked at the pictures in my book. The choice of books, about exploring space, made me uneasy, as if Dr. Siverling was in league with the aliens to take me out of the familiar world. I closed it and took Cassandra’s drawing out of my pocket. On the side with my drawings, I added a lopsided heart between the pictures of her and me, put the book on top as a present, and slid it under the door of the playroom. Unfortunately, I pushed it too far, so I couldn’t see if she took it or not. I put my ear to the door again.

“What are you doing?” Dr. Siverling demanded, a glass of orange juice in his hand.

I jumped. “Is Cassandra home? Can I see her?”

“Cass doesn’t want to see you, young man. Sit back down,” he said, pointing to the cushion. “Where’s your book?”

I shrugged, feeling like a criminal. Dr. Siverling glared at me, gave me the juice, then went back to the kitchen.

I laid down on the cushion and began daydreaming about a voyage through the solar system with Cass, that silent, mysterious girl with the sharp, perceptive eyes. It seemed less frightening traveling in space with her.

 

I woke from another nightmare. Needing company, I went up to the kitchen door again: “–essential that we wait until we have examined the evidence carefully and ruled out all natural explanations. I will contact several observatories to make sure the signal originates from 266f, as you claim, and to see if the signal continues. And, now that I have your files, I will assemble a team to examine every shred of evidence.”

“Dr. Siverling, I insist on leading the team.”

“Of course, of course, you are the leader! This is your project, your discovery! And, if it comes to it, your folly. These assistants, these grad students, will merely check your work. I don’t want you to pass on your biases to them, however. I don’t want them to get caught up in your enthusiasm. It’s essential that they remain objective. I will act as a go-between to ensure that you are not leading the witnesses, so to speak. As for me, I offer my expertise only as your mentor. I have nothing invested except a desire to uncover the truth. I defer to you on all major decisions. But I must warn you, Azra, everything depends on the utmost secrecy. If this leaks before we are certain, it could destroy your reputation. Mine could probably withstand the firestorm, since I am well-established, but you are just beginning to make a name yourself. Your reputation would not survive a false report of alien intelligence. Believe me! It’s nearly midnight, Azra. Close your laptops and take that adorable boy home with you.”

“Yes, but, Dr. Siverling, I still don’t understand why I need a new computer. Is this laptop you are lending me really more secure? Did I really need to reformat my own computer? It seems rather paranoid.”

“Believe me, Azar, this machine is a digital fortress. Moreover, you now have the best software and tools, so you may continue your research. I would like you to focus on identifying patterns within the signal, to see if you can recognize repetitions or anything else that might confirm your theory. Can you meet me here Sunday afternoon, say around two?”

“I will be here. Inshallah,” she said, getting up, and then translated for her mentor. “God willing.”

I hurried back to the cushion and laid down, pretending to sleep.

“And please find a babysitter,” the doctor said, nudging me with his foot. “And you, young man, must say nothing to any of your friends about your aunt’s research. It was quite careless of her to say anything to you about it at all. If you talk to anyone, even your best friend, you could destroy her career. Do you understand what I am saying? Your aunt may lose her job as an lecturer, and then you will have no way to feed and clothe yourselves. You may wind up homeless on the streets. You wouldn’t like that, would you, sleeping on a sidewalk, eating out of garbage can? Promise me! Give me the best promise you can.”

I looked at my aunt, and she nodded. “I swear on Allah’s name that I will not tell anyone.”

Azra gasped and hit me on the back of the head. “Rasheed! Do not say such things! Do not take such oaths lightly! I just wanted you to make a promise, an ordinary promise.” She rubbed her forehead. “Well, a promise is a promise. What’s done is done. Now you must keep your word, Rasheed, or God help you!”

Dr. Siverling looked amused. “And how will finding aliens affect your beliefs, Azra? I don’t think these creatures will be made in the image of your god. I don’t think they will look much like men.”

“No one knows what Allah looks like. And such a discovery will only expand the glory of his creation. Who can fathom the mysteries of the universe?”

He chuckled. “Frankly, you may find aliens, Azra, but you will not find any deities hiding in the dark corners of the universe. We may not be alone, but there is no god. We wander blindly through the cosmos.”

Auntie raised her eyebrows. “You may wander blindly, Dr. Siverling, but Rasheed and I know where we are going.”

 

Auntie bought starlight mint ice cream for dinner, put on her favorite singer Fariha Pervez, and we danced around the living room in celebration. “He believes me, Rasheed! Dr. Siverling thinks I may be right. Underneath that skeptical exterior is a man who wants to believe in a wider universe,” she said, smiling like a little girl. “And I, a woman, a Muslim, and a Pakistani, will be known as the discoverer. Just think of it. Think what that means for our people!”

Life at home was a festival for a few days. Auntie kept teaching and researching long hours, but she found time to play with me every day. Only one thing was serious at that time. She kept reminding me of my oath not to talk about the discovery with any of my friends, including Kenneth, until they had analyzed the evidence and published their findings in an academic journal. (When she said “journal,” I imagined a diary-like record of her research and wondered if she ever mentioned me. Would I be famous too?)

As the week wore on, the mood at home sagged. Auntie complained that she was not given the leadership position she deserved and became irritable again. I could not speak to her without getting a scolding. I went to Kenneth’s apartment when I could. He asked me once if my aunt had talked to E.T. again. I shook my head and concentrated on the computer game.

That Thursday, which was Thanksgiving, Azra made the best of her Pakistani dishes: rice haleem and mutton karahi. Sullenly, she said it was a special celebration, that we had more to be grateful for than ever before.

The food was too spicy for me as usual. It was good, but I couldn’t help asking, “Why can’t we have turkey like everybody else?”

“Turkey?” she said. “What is turkey? It’s a big, stupid bird. Why would you be thankful for that? Now lamb appears in the Quran. It is a noble animal.”

“Then why do we eat it?”

She slapped me lightly at the back of my head. “It is not intelligent, so we eat it. Sheep are more intelligent than turkeys, true, but not as intelligent as a man. Or a woman. Especially not a woman! What about you, Rasheed? You had better study hard or one day I may eat you!”

The next day, on Black Friday, when I was watching TV, I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up with a sense of tension. I saw Auntie standing behind me in the doorway, gripping the doorjamb with a white hand. She was staring at the TV.

Long red banners scrolled across the screen: “Breaking news! Breaking news! Breaking news!”

The newscaster was extremely excited: “Once again, ladies and gentleman, we have a ground-breaking announcement: we are not alone in the universe! I repeat, we are not alone! Astrophysicist Dr. Raymond Wainwright Siverling of the University of California Berkeley has made an announcement to the scientific community, offering what appears to be convincing evidence of alien communication from a star nearly 100 light years away, known as Kepler 266. The planet in question, Kepler 266f, depicted here in this artist’s rendition, has been scrutinized carefully under the SETI program, that’s the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, but no evidence of a extraterrestrial communication or a technological civilization was found.

“However, advanced programs developed by Dr. Siverling and a team of graduate students helped him to isolate a progressive signal moving through the frequencies in a wave-like pattern. The Berkeley professor reminds everyone that his findings are inconclusive and must be confirmed by the scientific community. He has been working on the project for over four years and claims that–”

“It’s some kind of mistake,” Auntie said. “Some kind of mistake. He wouldn’t make the announcement without me. He couldn’t possibly claim that he– He would never– I know him. He’s an egotist, but he is a good man, basically a good man. I know him. There must be some kind of mistake.”

She tried calling Dr. Siverling. No answer. We drove to his house. No one came to the door. I had the impression that Cass was watching us from behind the curtain. When auntie turned to go back to the car, I waved to her. No reply.

Crying, auntie spent the evening on her cell phone, calling other professors at the university, calling the press. I heard her hurried, tearful explanations and was not sure if I believed her either.

I went to my room and took the picture of my parents and me in Disneyland down from the wall, then prayed as hard as I could.

(For the next part of this story, click here: A Distant Voice, Part 3: A Glimpse.)

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