A Distant Voice, Part 1: Contact

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

The day Auntie Azra realized that she had probably found traces of extraterrestrial communication, I was bored and lonely. No one to play with, no one to talk to.

I was alone, as usual.

Auntie had ignored me for weeks, shutting herself up in her thinking room with a strict command against interruption. She told me she was working on something important that could change the way we saw this amazing universe Allah had created for us. I didn’t care. I wanted to go to Adventure Playground.

Instead, I was building a tower of alphabet blocks as high as my chest, the highest I’d ever made, but a shaky hand made it tumble, like the Tower of Babel. I kicked over the remaining blocks and left them scattered across the living room floor, a definite no-no, then went to my auntie’s thinking room and turned the knob without knocking, another no-no.

Auntie was glaring at her laptop, where an array of rainbow-colored bars of varying heights were filling a box on her screen. Once they completed the box, they disappeared and began again. She was concentrating so intently that the air in the room seemed dense and thick. I started pulling the door shut.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she said without looking at me. She seemed angry, but it wasn’t with me. I waited. She rarely spoke about her research. “It doesn’t make sense unless . . . Look, Rasheed, the spikes seem to come in diagonals. See? There, there, there, there, there, and there. These are signals from space, you know, microwave signals,” she explained, as if it would help me understand. “All the rest is apparently random and can be explained by natural causes, but what about these waves of stronger signals? Do you know what this could mean, Rasheed?”

SETI at home

I didn’t, but I felt her tension, and it frightened me. I backed into the hallway. “I’m bored, Auntie. Let’s do something fun. Can we go to Fairyland?”

“I need another pair of eyes. I need an objective perspective.” She picked up her cellphone and tried calling several times. I watched her and waited, afraid now to be alone. No one answered. “Come on, come on, come on! Why isn’t he answering?” She tried again.

With a growl of exasperation, she shoved her cellphone into her jeans’ pocket. “Rasheed, grab your jacket. Let’s go see Dr. Siverling. Come on, get your jacket. Stop sulking. You auntie may have found something important, really important! I may have found evidence of E.T., our brothers and sisters in space. In space, Rasheed, in space! This could change the world. Isn’t it exciting?”

She had said something about E.T. I knew the old movie, but her agitation made me think she was talking about something other than that lovable alien. I put on my jacket and pulled the hood over my head.

Even though I was nervous about the excursion, I was glad to be out of the house. I stuck my head out of the window as we drove through the tree-lined streets of Berkeley. Everything here seemed normal and familiar. I didn’t want the wold to change.

As we pulled up in front of a squat, blue bungalow, she tried calling again. When no one answered, Auntie chewed on her thumbnail, wondering what to do. Finally, she made up her mind, and we got out of the car.

A young girl about a year younger than me with long, red hair and a plain, green dress answered the door. I thought she was pretty. She glanced at my aunt and then stared at me with a questioning look in her eyes.

“Hello, sweetie! Remember me?” Auntie said in a rather deliberate way, leaning down. “It’s Azra. Remember? I came here a couple of times last year. Is Dr. Siverling at home? Is your father here?”

The girl kept staring at me, making me extremely uncomfortable. I hid behind my auntie’s legs.

“Sweetie, please go tell your dad that–”

The door opened wider and a tall man with silver hair greeted her. “Azra Saeed Patel! What a surprise! I haven’t seen you since you got your doctorate. You deserved it too, even if your dissertation bordered on pseudoscience. My critiques helped you scale back your claims a bit, I think. We saved your degree right here, you and I, and I appreciate the acknowledgment in the preface. You also got a couple of articles in Astronomy and Astrophysics Review I noticed. Heady stuff. A bit derivative of my research, wouldn’t you say? So, you finally got the recognition you demanded so vociferously when you showed up at Cal, a little lost Pakistani girl trying to storm the ivory tower?” He laughed.

“Derivative? I– I’m sorry for showing up unannounced, Dr. Siverling, especially on a Sunday. I tried to call, but l–”

“Yes, I’m afraid I am quite busy. I’m peer reviewing an article on gravity waves as a means of mapping the dark ages of the early universe. I think you would find it interesting. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I may have found something in the microwave signals from Kepler 266f. The experimentations I have been doing with the SETI programs pointed out an anomaly: waves of higher power moving progressively through the frequencies,” she said in a rush. “I know these signals have been examined many times already, and everyone has dismissed them as noise, but there seems to be a regular pattern, too regular for natural causes. I’ve been studying it for days, refining the program and each time the signal becomes more pronounced. They could be signs of extraterrestrial communication. We’ve been looking for narrow-band signals, but our own cellphones use spread signals. Why not progressive signals?”

“Slow down, Azra. Is this the kind of careful scientific caution that I taught you? I told you that your interest in SETI would damage your reputation,” Dr. Siverling said. “There is no room for impatience in science.”

My auntie looked embarrassed. “Let me show you, Dr. Siverling. Let me present the evidence. I am only asking that you take a look and decide for yourself.”

“Oh well, I can get back to the article later, I suppose. I forget myself. Come in, come in. Let’s see what you have found.” He pushed the door wider.

The little girl was still staring at me, her brow furrowed as if she resented the intrusion. She looked at my auntie, then her father, then back at me. The lines between her eyes deepened. “Take this boy to the playroom,” he said, then pointed at me. “Follow her, please!” He and my auntie went into the kitchen and I saw her open her laptop.

Hoping she wouldn’t notice my limp, I followed the strange girl into the playroom, the cleanest I had seen. Everything was in perfect order. The toys, mostly girly things like dolls and stuffed animals, were carefully ordered on the shelves by color: white toys on top, pink and red next, green and blue, other colors at the bottom. Every book on the bookshelf was flush with the edge of the shelf. They too were organized by color.

She sat down at a small, wooden desk, picked up a red pencil from a perfect line of colored pencils, took a sheet from a carefully arranged pile of paper, and began drawing wide circles on the page.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Rasheed.”

She glanced up at me, then returned to her drawing. A few minutes later, she carefully replaced the red pencil and selected an orange one.

“What are you drawing? Huh?” When I got close, she leaned over the desk and covered the drawing with her body. “Why won’t you let me see it? What’s the big secret? What’s your name? Why won’t you talk to me? I didn’t want to come here, you know. It was my auntie. She brought me here. She made me come. I don’t care about your stupid drawing anyway.”

She kept the drawing covered, so I rolled my eyes and walked across the room to the bookshelf. I found a picture book called Monsters of the Deep, but the photos of deep sea creatures, such as a translucent, jelly-like fish with a glowing light hanging over its long, curved teeth, frightened me, so I found another called Unlikely Friendships with a baby chimpanzee hugging a dove on the cover. That was better. I took it to the beanbag and sat down. The words were hard, so I just looked at the pictures.

Several times I tried to start a conversation, but the girl kept drawing, ignoring me completely as if there were no one else in the room. However, when I put the book back on the shelf, I turned around and she was frowning at me. I could see from her face that I had put it in the wrong place. She didn’t say anything about it though and went back to her drawing. I found the gap in the books and slid it in where it belonged.

“Look!” I said, pointing at the book. She continued drawing but had a self-satisfied expression on her face that annoyed me, so I pulled the book and several others off the shelf and left them on the floor, then wandered over to the toy shelf. I grabbed an armful rainbow-colored unicorns from the bottom shelf and carried them over to the beanbag. Again, I could feel her glowering at me, but I plopped myself down and staged a battle among the unicorns across the mountains and valleys of the bean bag. I wasn’t very careful with her toys.

A long time passed. It felt like hours. I worked my way slowly around the room, looking at stuff, then, when I was behind her, I tapped her on the left shoulder and grabbed the drawing from the right. I thought she would get angry, but she just stared at me in exasperation. I took the drawing to the other side of the room and turned away from her.

It was just a multi-colored spiral, many colors swirling down to a point in the center. I was disappointed. “What’s this supposed to be?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like anything. It’s stupid. I can draw better than that.”

I took a blue pencil from her desk and drew a stick figure of a boy on the back, then carefully, slowly wrote my name overtop. “That’s me. R-a-s-h-e-e-d. Rasheed,” I said, holding up the drawing to her. “See? That’s me and that’s my name.” I then drew a girl in a dress and put a question mark above it. The question mark looked more like a fishhook. I held it up so she could see. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t answer. I placed my drawings in front of her, and she stared down at the page. I couldn’t tell if she were puzzled or annoyed.

Just then Dr. Siverling came in. I jumped as if I had been caught doing something bad. He looked anxious. Since his daughter was staring at the page, he took it from her desk, then scowled at me. What he did next surprised and offended me. He wadded up our drawings and threw them into a waste basket by the desk. “Don’t touch my daughter’s drawings,” he said. “She doesn’t like it. Your mother’s waiting for you in the hallway.”

“My mother’s dead. That’s my auntie. What’s wrong with your daughter?”

His face turned red. “Nothing’s wrong with my daughter. She is a late talker. Several geniuses didn’t talk until for several years: Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Julia Robinson. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of them, have you, young man? Cassandra will talk when she’s ready. Your aunt is waiting for you.”

He turned to go and I started following him slowly. When I knew he wasn’t looking, I grabbed the wadded up drawings from the wastebasket. I glanced back nervously at the girl, afraid she would give me away. She didn’t do anything. Instead, she was smiling.

She is pretty, I thought, but she’s stupid.

In the hallway, my aunt was crying. She said goodbye to Dr. Siverling quickly, grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me from the house.

As she started the car, Auntie said, “He doesn’t believe me, Rasheed. He can’t see it. I know it’s a stretch, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the only explanation. Waves of stronger signals are definitely repeated across the frequencies. There is no other explanation. He said he would look into it, but he doesn’t believe me.” She turned to me. “Do you believe me, Rasheed? Do you believe me?”

“Believe what?”

“That I found signals from outer space, signs of extraterrestrial communication, aliens talking to each other.” She laughed. “I know it sounds stupid. I’m not even sure I believe it.”

“I believe you, Auntie. What did the aliens say?”

“I have no idea. I have no fucking idea.” She laughed again, covering her mouth. “And don’t you ever use that word, do you hear me? It’s a bad word.”

“Why? Why is it a bad word? What does it mean?”

“I’m having a bad day, Rasheed, but that’s no excuse. There are a million words in English, another million in Urdu. I’ll find a better one next time, I promise.”

(For the next part of this story, click here: A Distant Voice, Part II: The Mentor.)

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