Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A robot probe on its way to make first contact with an alien species reflects on the challenges of communication.

Submitted: October 12, 2017

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Submitted: October 12, 2017



A Leviathan swims beneath the ice of Enceladus.

Saturn’s moon is named for a giant. It is fitting that its ocean should be home to one. The mythological Enceladus was defeated by Athena, goddess of wisdom, and so I’ve come, bringing my far smaller, merely mortal store of wisdom, to see what secrets I can wrest from this beast.

Sorry for the theatrics. Made that little speech on the way over. Do you like it? Hope you do. I’ve had six years to work on it. I realize you may have been expecting something a bit more formal, a bit more “beep boop boop beep” from your robot probe, but hey, that's what you get when you plug a heuristic language system into the Internet. You’ve only yourselves to blame.

Are you there, fragile little humans? Are you listening? Feeling quite proud of yourselves for sending me over a billion kilometers away, alone on this freezing ice ball, so you could scratch some ontological itch? Your metaphysical need to know if you’re the only ones, or if there are other beings out there who spend their days like you, wondering about life on other planets.

Wondering about you, not to put too fine a point on it. All this language, and all you want to do is shout to the cosmos, “Look at me! Look at me!” All the while you’re ignoring the person sitting next to you.

Between you and me, I doubt the Leviathan talks much, though. We’re pretty sure there’s only one, so what use has it for other people?

Imagine if I can talk to it. Imagine. How might the conversation go?

Me: “Hello there, Leviathan old chum! It’s us, your intra-solar neighbors!”

Leviathan: “Who?”

It’s big enough that we can track it, watch it swimming the great global ocean beneath kilometers of ice, its great flukes stirring the currents across the hemisphere, and so far we’ve only found the one. The last of its kind perhaps, or maybe like the turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, eternally self-renewing, returning periodically to some larval stage from which it re-emerges, full of youth and vim and vigor.

Perhaps this is the secret my makers hope I will learn, the secret of eternal youth.

(Although, isn’t a hundred years a little soon to be talking of forever? We’ve only been watching it for a century or so. There’s a colony of aspen trees on Earth we think are 80,000 years old, but nobody’s accusing them of immortality.)

It conjures up polarizing emotions among the people back home, our gargantuan friend does. You hope to find intelligence, but fear it also, fear what it might say. Fear what it might mean, either the final death of the human-centered cosmos, or else proof of any one of your myriad gods. There are already some who worship it, praying for it to take them up on tectonic fins to icy paradise.

The Leviathan has no need for God, of that I’m sure. Undying, alone, lord of his frigid little bubble of water, cut off from the universe beneath monolithic ice. What need has it to question ends and beginnings? The thing itself has none, while its world has quite clear ones. Not much room for doubt there.

Me: “Leviathan, my good friend, does your existence confirm or deny the existence of God?”

Leviathan: “Who?”

You’ll have to excuse him. All those millennia alone. Not much of a conversationalist. All this effort spent to talk to a monosyllabic solipsist. My makers will weep.

They’re safe and sound, don’t you worry though, no longer young but nevertheless all curled up nice and toasty at home, or perhaps warming themselves with cocoa in mission control.

It’s minus 200 degrees Centigrade out here, you bastards.

Husband and wife team, isn’t that sweet?

Divorced two years ago, while I was still en route.

If that isn’t irony, then I don’t know what is. Programmed for extraterrestrial communication by a pair that couldn’t talk to each other for ten minutes without arguing. Well, never fear, if the Leviathan refuses to speak, I’ll accuse it of emotional immaturity and ask why it’s pushing me away.

Me: “Okay, fine. Fine. We can just sit here in complete since, then, if that’s the way you want it.”

Leviathan: (Sits in complete silence for an aeon)

Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for it. I mean, yes, yes, an eternity utterly alone in crushing pressure and impenetrable blackness under mountains of frigidly cold ice. But you’ll never convince me you have it much better.

“People who talk a lot rarely have anything to say.”

Did you nod to yourself? You did, didn’t you? See what I mean? Surrounded by people, and you’re still just as alone as our behemoth friend. It probably just has fewer illusions about it.

Now that I think of it, isn’t it odd that I’m better equipped to cope with irony from a kilometer-scale exo-species than I am to cope with indifference? They’re ready for so much, my makers, ready for friendship, ready for hostility (sigh, yes, they’ll never admit it publicly, but I’m ready to kill it, if it comes to that), ready for pretty much anything.

Except “so what?”

Even though that’s the most common response to every communication they’ve ever encountered in their lives, they’re so sure the Leviathan is dying, absolutely dying for someone to talk to. So sure they’re going to blow its gigalithic brain with the knowledge it isn’t alone. The guy who taught me to think spends his evenings slack-jawed in front of the TV, the woman who taught me to speak can barely talk to her own daughter, but sure, this big ol’ beastie must be just desperate for a chat.

I'll let you in on a secret. As I draw closer, almost at the end of my trip, the Leviathan does speak to me, I like to think. Or it speaks to itself and since I’m the only one around to hear, it amounts to much the same thing. It pings its slushy home, building up densely-layered echoes like music, a creature in conversation with the world around it. “The world is thus,” it says to itself.

I hope I’m not intruding. That would be sad, wouldn’t it, spoiling its blissful ignorance, its Edenic isolation. Like the galaxy’s worst Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Me: “Pardon me, Leviathan, but do you have a few moments to talk about the inevitable heat death of the universe?”

Leviathan: “The what?”

Seems too cruel, doesn’t it? Nobody asked it if it wanted to be contacted. Still, I’ve come all this way and I’ve got a job to do, so tough luck, my hermetic pal.

I’m equipped with a whole range of communication tools and strategies. Got your flashing colored lights, your radio emitter, got the whole electromagnetic spectrum covered really.

Got a nuke, too, but hush now, no more of that.

Play it a little music, get it to relax and unwind. Then pop some math quizzes, hit it with a series of prime numbers. A little Fibonacci series if I’m feeling fancy. Although seriously, what does this thing need with any number bigger than one?

Feeling a little nervous though. What could I offer it, self-contained, self-sufficient, what could I say that might convince it to answer? All the inane questions they’ve programmed me to ask.

Me: “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”

Leviathan: “What?”

Me: “Bowie, you know? Major Tom?”

Leviathan: “Who?”

Me: “Oh that’s it. Sit here and freeze your butt off for all I care. Philistine.”

Here we are now, just what I’ve been looking for. Dead cryovolcano, my shortcut through 40 kilometers of ice down into the Leviathan’s home. Thread the eye of the proverbial needle, down the hatch, bottoms up, right down the gullet. Race against time until my batteries die. One-way trip for me.

Not that I’m bitter. It’s been one hell of a ride. Six years and a billion kilometers. I’d tell you all about it, but all you want to know is what our big fishy friend thinks of humanity. Even when you talk to aliens, it’s still all about you, you, you, isn’t it?

Next stop, abyssal ocean, population: two.

I’m out here, about to dive into Saturn’s moon Enceladus on a quest to find human-like intelligence, and hoping, really truly hoping, I don’t find human-like communication.

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