The Deer Blind is the first short story I’ve completed. My eventual goal is to write two per month, on a range of themes or topics. I know there’s a chasm between me and this goal, but I’m excited to start making some progress.
Dr. Nora stared numbly at her screen. She checked, double checked, turned everything off and then on again, and re-checked. The translation algorithms were working properly, and the signal appeared to be genuine. “Hey,” seemed, for the moment, to be the first confirmed extraterrestrial message received by humanity.
A moment later, though no less surprising than the first time, the little light on the box containing the Natural Language Engine began to blink again, indicating a second signal had already been received and was in the process of being decoded.
“We have questions. Whom shall we direct them to?”
There was no way Dr. Nora could respond. The facility was not equipped to transmit, only to receive. Protocol dictated that the discovery of a verified signal would be delicately handled by a team of scholars, scientists, and politicians, as the implications and impacts of such an event on society at large couldn’t begin to be calculated.
The light blinked again, the third time in as many minutes. The third time ever, for that matter.
“We have Gmail, if that helps.”
Not funny, thought Dr. Nora, her heart still pounding in her chest as the realization that her life wasn’t, in fact, changed forever took hold.
“You guys are assholes,” Dr. Nora shouted into the adjoining office where her colleagues’ and manager’s desks were located. “And I’m going home for the weekend. See ya Monday, jerks!”
And with that, Dr. Nora slammed the lid on her laptop, swept out the door, moved quickly down the rocky path from the antenna array and “Shed” to her car, where she began the long, slow descent to town, and to nobody who was waiting for her in her tiny apartment.
Back in the Shed, which was now empty as Dr. Nora’s colleagues and manager had wished her a happy weekend hours before, the Natural Language Engine light began to blink once again.
It was Friday night, and Dr. Nora had a date. Or, rather, Nora had a date. Dr. Nora usually sent men running for the hills. If a man isn’t there to break things down and put them into perspective, what even is the point?
Dr. Nora tried removing the education information from her dating profile to wake her sleepy dating life. It kind of worked; men were able to stop seeing her as a three-dimensional human being, and start seeing her for the pretty face she had. Unfortunately (or not), most guys who were now interested would find creative ways of disqualifying themselves from her dating pool, typically with their first direct-message on whichever dating site Dr. Nora signed up for this year.
Anyhow, someone had made it through her gauntlet and tonight they were going out for drinks. Dr. Nora’s phone chirped to say her mother was thinking of her, or it was time to go, or she needed to plug it in. She ignored the chirp, finished her hair and makeup, found some socks, got into her boots, and ran out the door. Dr. Nora was late, and she hated that.
Her phone chirped at her again. Even more than being late, Dr. Nora hated being nagged. She grabbed her phone, chambering a series of blistering responses to whomever was bothering her, and froze stiff when she saw her screen.
Charlie Baker was, well, a baker. Or, at least he inherited a handful of commercial bakeries in Europe when he turned 25. Once a year Charlie would travel to Germany and then spend a three or four weeks at each location “observing” their operations; but really Charlie was secretly trying to learn how to bake.
Charlie used the profits from his Continental operations to live comfortably, and fund a small kitchen in town where he would try to put into practice what he learned each summer during his visits. This meant Charlie was at work by three a.m. to bake fresh bread and pastries for the town’s restaurants and cafes. He sold his less-than-brilliant creations, the ones his customers would send back, in glass cases at the front of his bakery for heavily discounted prices. Charlie would close up shop at noon and head home for lunch, find something to do in the afternoon, and be in bed by seven so he was ready to go for the next day.
Unfortunately this left very little time for Charlie to meet anybody so he decided to try his luck at internet dating. Charlie wrote a dozen variations of his introductory paragraph each time he reached out to a new girl. He was rereading his latest draft to Nora but felt fatigued talking about himself so much, so Charlie deleted everything on the screen and started over. Or, at least that’s what he tried to do. What Charlie actually did was remove all but the last sentence, which he then sent to Nora. Charlie said only, “I’m free on Friday night”.
For her part, Nora liked Charlie’s face and appreciated his brevity. She responded in kind with a time and place, to Charlie’s infinite surprise. Now, he was sitting at the bar and waiting for her to arrive.
Charlie came a little early so he could stock up on courage. He didn’t want to be too brave; just enough to make it seem like he’d done this kind of thing before. Charlie decided to have a second bout of courage when he began to feel like maybe he’d been stood up, and a third when he was sure he had been.
Charlie could feel his bravery setting in; beginning in his belly and pulling through his veins up to his face. Charlie was going to tell Nora just what he thought about making him sit alone for 45 minutes before they knew each other. Charlie was really beginning to enjoy the feeling of his lips.
Back on the mountain, a series of hydraulic actuators and stability gyroscopes whirred to life without any operators present. About half of the two dozen radio dishes that made up the array began to shift and tilt ever so slightly out of phase with their counterparts; and inside the Shed, in the Annex where Dr. Nora kept her workstation, the facility’s auxiliary signal processing units powered up and began to reconfigure themselves.
Nora walked into the small bar and scanned for men sitting alone. There was only one. After shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, and begging or granting pardon for being so late, Nora and Charlie began the process of discovering what they may have had in common. They both hated bar food, neither were great at small talk, both loved to travel, and may have almost crossed paths as kids while out of the country. However, that was about as far as they got. Charlie was too focused on not coming across as bravely as he felt, and Nora desperately needed to share what had been happening since this afternoon.
“Charlie, do you believe in aliens?” Nora may not have been the most experienced first-date kind of woman, but she was pretty sure that’s not a recommended line of questioning. She followed it by ordering a whisky sour.
“Believe? Like are we alone in the universe?”
“Something like that.”
“I never really thought of it like a belief thing. Like, I don’t feel the need to ‘believe’ in gravity, even if we haven’t fully explained it yet.”
“Good,” said Nora, “So where are they then?”
“Wait, do you not believe in aliens?” Charlie began to wonder if this was a test, or a trap, or if he in fact needed another bravery after all.
“No. I mean, yes I do. It’s actually kind of my job to believe in aliens.”
Despite his best efforts, Charlie’s eyebrows began to creep towards his hairline. Nora made quick work of her drink, and ordered a second.
“I work up at the array,” Nora began, “We’re funded to support the SETI project, and we focus on a narrow EM band that this array is particularly good at capturing”. Nora’s phone buzzed in her hand. She glanced at it, and put it face down on the table, intent on not letting it interrupt her again this evening.
Charlie, for his part, was genuinely intrigued. He couldn’t remember reading anything about Nora’s line of work on her profile, and began to wonder how impressed she would be to learn he had his very own bakery. Probably not very. Evidently, Nora was a real life scientist.
She continued, “We as a species have been talking to the sky for 70 years, and we’ve been listening closely for almost that long. So where is everybody? In the face of zero evidence, all I have left is my belief.”
“Ah, Fermat’s Last Theorem”, quipped Charlie, eager to demonstrate he was following Nora’s thought.
“Yes, close,” said Nora, “It’s actually Fermi’s Paradox”.
“Right, I think that’s what I meant,” Charlie’s face began to flush more fully than it already was, but Nora hardly noticed.
“So, does that mean we’re the only ones…alive?”
Nora’s phone buzzed face down on the table. Without looking, Nora scooped it up and stuffed it in her bag.
“Probably not. There’s like a one in sixty billion chance we’re alone in the galaxy, according to this guy, Drake.”
“Right,” began Charlie, “So…”
“Where is everybody? Do you hunt, Charlie?” Nora disappeared her second drink and ordered a third.
“Oh, well, I used to fish with my dad and grandpa,” Charlie started, “Are we going to talk about…”
“I’m not changing the subject, just bear with me for a moment,” For her part, Nora was surprised Charlie hadn’t already run away, leaving her with the check and no sounding board. “Do you know what a duck or deer blind for hunters is?”
“Are you,” Charlie suddenly lowered his voice, “are you saying we’re being hunted?!”
“What? No, I’m saying with a little fabric and some pee, we vanish from the senses of most mammals. I’m saying that to an even slightly evolved extraterrestrial species, creating a ‘man-blind’ may just be a matter of fabric and pee to them”.
Charlie flared his nostrils and took a sidelong look at the other patrons in the bar. Nora could see what Charlie was thinking and tried to put his mind at ease.
“I don’t think anyone…I mean, who knows for sure, but I think everyone here is people”.
“But I thought you were just saying,” but Nora was already on a roll.
“Let’s go back to the deer thing for a moment, Charlie. If you could suddenly talk to deer, would you spend time trying to find the King of the Deer, or would you speak to the first deer who didn’t run away?”
Charlie narrowed his eyes and looked suspiciously at Nora. “So am I the first idiot deer who hasn’t run away from you?”
“Jesus Christ, Charlie. No. I’m saying I’m the deer. Actually, I’m Nora the xenolinguist who works on the mountain, and I’m being pranked by my colleagues but can’t figure out how. But, because it’s Friday night, and because I’m nearly three drinks in, and because I don’t have anyone else I can talk to about this, let’s say for the moment that I’m the deer whose not running away.”
“We have policies, you know, for everything. Detailed procedures that cover what to do with each new circumstance and discovery. Did you know that? Important and intelligent people put enormous thought into how this is supposed to play out; I’ve read all those policies, Charlie, and nowhere in them does it say we should openly talk about it, at a bar, on a first date.
Charlie was hooked, and maybe a little dizzy. “So, what are your not-coworkers doing then, just talking to you?
The Shed was now operating at full capacity; new instructions and algorithms were being fed with incredible velocity back through the signal processing units to the rest of the workstations, which were now having a hard time managing the vast amounts of new information being received. Events that would normally trigger automated alerts to the facility director were being cancelled before notifications could be sent.
“That’s the thing! Charlie, these guys have my personal Gmail account. The one I’ve never shared with anyone, never sent messages from. I only use it as an archive for my own documents or whatever.
“They found it, connected it to my phone, and have been sending me messages all afternoon and evening, including while I’ve been sitting here with you.” At this, Nora pulled her phone back out of her purse and put it face up on the table.
“Have they said what they want,” asked Charlie.
“Well, no. Not really. I think right now they just want me to believe them. Like, they keep telling me stuff about my childhood, stuff in the news…they even told me something about you.”
“What, uh, say what now?”
“They said I should ask about the ‘pumpernickel incident’? Which is weird because I actually…”
Charlie’s chin went into his chest at hearing these words. “OK. Well that…That was a long time ago. Why don’t you ask them what they want? The worst that can happen is you play along, and someone claims they tricked you”.
Nora, perhaps because she didn’t feel alone in this thing right now, or perhaps because of the four ounces of whisky in her empty stomach, opened her secret Gmail account and began to compose a new email: OK – Say I believe you, which I don’t, what is it you want?
Nora then deleted the note and declined to save it as a draft. She felt this would be an acknowledgement of vulnerability, or gullibility, or whatever, in front of her friends, or colleagues, or whomever was putting her on like this.
However, before she had the chance to even shut off her phone’s screen, Nora saw she had a new message in her inbox. She opened the message and held the phone so both she and Charlie could read. Naturally, it was her discarded draft followed by the words “We’re bored”.
Nora responded “Bored of what?” as Charlie looked on.
As if in some chat room, the conversation continued below her question.
“Waiting for what, I wonder” Charlie said aloud.
“For discovery” came the reply, without missing a beat.
“Ha,” said Charlie, with perhaps a waver in his voice. “For a second it was like they could hear me. Can you guys hear us? Haloooo”.
Nora typed again on her phone; “Where are you?”
After a moment came the reply, “Deer blind” .
“Jesus, what the hell?!” Charlie stood up suddenly, knocking his chair over backwards and looking wildly about. “I knew they were in here”.
“Shh, calm down, Charlie. So they can hear us, that doesn’t mean they’re in here. That doesn’t even mean they’re aliens. For now it means they can access the bar’s security cameras. Probably everybody I work with can do that.”
Charlie sat back down after sheepishly smiling at the few tables near him that noticed his outburst. “So, you guys can get into Gmail?”
“Well, no. Not easily.”
“And your coworkers could have learned about all the stuff they’ve been sending you here?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“And there’s only one person left who could have known about the pumpernickel incident, and I doubt he’d remember anything about it.”
Nora tilted her head and scrunched up her eyebrows at hearing these words.
“No, it’s not like that,” said Charlie.
“I have no idea what ‘like that’ even is, Charlie. But we’ll talk about that later,” Nora returned to her phone.
“So, what do we know for sure? They say they’re bored, which I believe. They’re waiting to be discovered, they’re technologically sophisticated, and they can hear us right now. They have access to my, and presumably your, distant past, but they haven’t tried to blackmail me. Oh, and this afternoon they said they had questions. So they’re not omniscient. But nothing in here is proof of aliens.”
Just then, every phone screen, television, and occasional laptop in the bar lit up. The words “Proof Enough?” flashed across all of them, and then disappeared. The patrons who were quick enough to read these words repeated them aloud with confusion, and for a few seconds “Proof enough” echoed throughout the bar.
“No! But don’t do that again,” hissed Nora. Where can we go to talk openly, the Shed?”
“Shed” flashed on every screen in the bar again, but for only a fraction of a second this time.
Nora’s eyes flew open in anger, then the words “Fuck, sorry” appeared in her message feed.
“And now we know they’re idiots,” Nora fumed. “Can you drive, Charlie?”
“Nope!” Charlie was having the time of his life.
The taxi pulled away leaving Dr. Nora and Charlie alone in the chilly evening air. Dr. Nora headed towards the facility door but paused when she didn’t hear Charlie behind her. She turned to see Charlie staring straight up at the night sky, the back of his head resting comfortably on his nape.
“I’ve never seen so many stars in my life,” he replied. “How do you not spend all your time up here?”
“It’s different when it’s work. Passion and obligation don’t always mix.”
“Oh! You’ve been married.”
“Har-har. Is this still a date?”
“Best date I’ve ever had, shall we go inside?”
Dr. Nora unlocked the Shed, turned on the lights, and walked in to find every computer alive and at full tilt.
“Well that’s weird, these weren’t on when I left today.”
Dr. Nora opened her laptop, flipped on the studio monitors, and fired up the box with the Natural Language Engine.
“Assholes?” bellowed into the room over the loudspeakers in a mechanical, sexy-Stephen-Hawking kind of voice.
Dr. Nora and Charlie jumped at the sound. Charlie looked around for the source while Dr. Nora turned the volume down.
“It plays the last ‘unread’ message received. I shouted that to my coworkers this afternoon and I guess they heard me,” Dr. Nora gestured to the ceiling, and presumably to the orbiting spaceships above.
“Well, they were messaging me here, and evidently they can hear us anywhere we are. So, can you guys hear us now? Your responses will be read aloud by the NLE.”
Dr. Nora inched the volume up, and sent a test message through the system. “Never married, Charlie. You?”
Sexy Stephen Hawking, this time at a much more reasonable volume, repeated the words Dr. Nora typed. Charlie was still having a difficult time following the events, and misattributed the source to the aliens.
“That was just me. They don’t seem to want to talk to us, Charlie, so why don’t you tell me about yourself. Actually, I’m dying to hear about the ‘pumpernickel movement’, that story sounds gross.
Dr. Nora set about trying to figure out what the computers, the array, and the absent alien voices were all up to, and thought that Charlie’s background commentary would provide some light entertainment in what otherwise would be a somewhat troubling situation.
“Well, there isn’t much to tell, really. The incident happened when I was about ten and visiting family overseas for the first time. My cousins took me to visit their dad’s bakery, and show me all the cool, random stuff he collected in his office.
“One of those things was a Viking Sunstone he found along the coast. It’s a flat, clear crystal, kind of like milky quartz, and was about the size of my hand. I wanted it more than anything in the world, so I stole it and stuffed it into a pumpernickel loaf they said I could have. When I got home, I tore the loaf apart but nothing was in there. I must have switched the loaves by mistake.
“I’ve worried about it ever since. It was too big to accidentally swallow, but maybe my uncle wrongly thought someone else stole it, or..I don’t know. He died a few years ago, and I never got to fess up to him. It’s just been something that’s kind of hung over me since I was a kid.”
Dr. Nora stared at Charlie for a moment, then went over to her desk drawer and pulled out the exact crystal Charlie tried to steal 25 years earlier. “Oh, this is too weird!”
“But, how did -”
“We found it! I found it! I told you we probably crossed paths in Europe when we were kids, my family must have bought the loaf you were trying to take.”
Dr. Nora weighed the sunstone in her hand. “Charlie, this is the whole reason I got into the sciences. My father told me how Viking ship captains used them to navigate the open oceans before the discovery of the magnetic compass. He showed me how to find the sun, even when it’s hidden behind clouds or just below the horizon. I keep it with me to remember him by.
She held it at arm’s length and peered through it out the window. “It works by polarizing the sun’s scattered light, which points you 90 degrees away from…” Dr. Nora trailed off. “Oh my god I know what they’re doing”.
“They…them?” Charlie looked up at the low ceiling.
“Yup. Charlie, have you ever heard of the Faraday effect?”
“That’s when you’ll be ok if your car is struck by lightning. But wait, you didn’t choke, or like break a tooth, or anything? Everybody was fine and you went into the sciences?”
“Yes, PhDs in Astrophysics and Anthropological Linguistics. Also, same guy, but different thing. The Faraday effect happens when light interacts with a magnetic field; it becomes polarized in two directions, and actually kind of slows down a little. Sort of. We use it a lot to measure the strength of distant magnetic fields, like pulsars and whatnot, but I think they might use it for something else.
“I think they’ve found a way to ensure all EM radiation coming off their ships is so far out of phase by the time they reach us that they are effectively hidden in plain sight.”
“The deer blind,” said Charlie.
“Bingo!” came the voice over the loudspeakers.
“That’s why half of our antennas are slightly misaligned, and what all this new code on our signal processors is doing. It’s correcting for this ultra-phase shift, so we can see what’s right in front of us.”
“And again!” boomed the voice.
“You have two PhDs?” Charlie asked.
“I wonder if we can see them now,” Dr. Nora turned on a screen connected to the signal processors, and typed something into the interface. “Also, I’m assuming they pointed the antennas in the right direction, because otherwise I don’t know where to look.”
“I was asked to leave a community college. ‘Academic probation’, they called it.”
There on the screen, albeit with grainy resolution, Dr. Nora and Charlie could see a swarm of hundreds, maybe thousands of little pings that must have been alien ships. “Goodness, they’re close. These guys are between us and the moon.”
Just then, the ships aligned in what were clearly English letters. “Welcome to the neighborhood, it’s about goddam time,” Charlie read aloud.
As quickly as they formed the letters, all but one of the ships zoomed off the screen. “Huh. They really must have been bored. I wonder how long they waited for discovery.”
Dr. Nora thought for a moment after reading the message. “So wait, I thought you guys said you had questions. What don’t you already know about us?”
No response. Dr. Nora then picked a random corner of the sky, this time much further out, and pointed the off-kilter array at it. After a moment, the monitor resolved the signal into what looked like a highway traffic there were so many blips. Dr. Nora picked another, and another, and then another corner of the sky. Everywhere she looked there was at least some movement, some activity that hadn’t been seen before. “They’re absolutely everywhere,” she said, breathlessly.
A few minutes later the NLE speakers crackled, and Sexy Stephen Hawking came back into the room. “We usually let the one who discovers their neighbors pick what we gift the local population. In your case, cake and ice cream seems fairly well regarded on this planet.”
“Chocolate!” shouted Charlie before Dr. Nora could react.
“What?! There are seven and a half billion people on Earth, millions of whom don’t have access to food staples or clean water, much less give a damn about…”
“Chocolate it is!”