Among the collective media experiences that punctuated our lives, the arrival of an interplanetary spacecraft was a dandruff shampoo brand above the rest. We all dropped everything when the spacecraft entered earth’s atmosphere. When it alit somewhere in Manitoba, we were gathered in front of televisions, computer screens, and handheld devices. Armed conflicts across the globe screeched to a halt so opposing forces could stare slackjawed at live coverage, united in awe. We marveled at the delicacy with with the craft touched down. We were glued to our sets as nervous mounties cordoned off a perimeter to keep the growing crowd at bay. We watched impatiently as the ship just kind of sat there. Thirty minutes. An hour. A day.
We had plenty of time to recognize the spacecraft’s technological perfection. Ovular, smooth, seemingly every color and no color at once: opalescent, iridescent, pearlescent, rich with the essence of all the -escents! We had no inkling what propelled this ship, how it had evaded every tracking system, nor whence it came. Its perfectly smooth and continuous surface created the impression it was not built, but had sprung into existence fully formed like a mythological brainchild. The egg-like shape begat questions about its contents; was there life within or was it an unaliened probe?
We waited for responses from the world’s governments. When the US gassed up its fighter jets and put the nukes on standby, the UK was quick to pledge support. Germany urged a cautious but peaceful reception. China remained outwardly quiet, but satellites showed unusual activity near the Indian border and at sea. France released a meandering philosophical treatise that never quite achieved comprehensibility but was lauded by university professors regardless. Canada’s Prime Minister simply tweeted an apology to everyone watching the televised hockey game that got preempted: “Hey bud, sorry the spaceship came down during the playoffs, eh?”
We speculated about our visitors. Questions about their intentions dominated the airwaves. Did they, at least for the sake of appearances, come in peace? Would they emerge to request an audience with our leader and demand capitulation under threat of total annihilation? Did they just stop to refuel on the way to a more urgent destination? Or maybe the ship was carrying refugees seeking a safe haven in an otherwise hostile universe? There were endless possibilities, and, given the circumstances, none was too far-fetched. All of a sudden, unkempt men from comic books shops around the world were thrust into the spotlight and grilled on the intricacies of intergalactic travel. Finally given a global platform from which to espouse knowledge (both real and imagined) of science (ditto) that was previously rarely solicited but nonetheless frequently dispensed, these men quickly began to bicker amongst themselves about minutiae largely considered insignificant to the matter at hand.
While reporters and politicians conjectured about motivations and courses of action, and hirsute men in Star Trek costumes argued the specifics of faster-than-light travel to the point of humorously inept fisticuffs, most of us were trying to guess what the aliens looked like. Elongated humanoids with bulbous heads and giant eyes as popular culture would have us believe? Or were they squat and furry with hundreds of groping tactile appendages? Winged or tentacled? What if they inhabited a different plane of existence, evolved beyond any and all physical appearance, a lifeform that exceeded human comprehension? Our imaginations were racing, our expectations ballooning.
But after thirty-six hours of global breathless anticipation, the ship simply floated up and bid the Earth’s atmosphere a silent sayonara.
Later, as confidence grew that the vessel wasn’t coming back, we were agitated and also a little insulted. An extraterrestrial spaceship, here on our planet, and then nothing! It just sat there. No peaceful greetings, no terrifying demonstrations of superior weapon tech, not even a single declaration of intergalactic war! No one poked a head out to have a look around or say “Greetings, Earthlings.” We revised textbooks around the world just to include it as the biggest collective disappointment in history.
With no other alternative, we gradually moved on with our lives. We returned to our jobs and our wars and our warming planet and our palliative distractions that enabled us to temporarily disregard our jobs, wars, and warming planet. We reenacted scenes from television shows that weren’t particularly noteworthy, but which we celebrated, cultlike, regardless. Sometimes, drunk at the bar, we would ponder the significance, or lack thereof, of human existence before pounding another cold one to enter a state of temporary blissful oblivion. We lived on.
Years passed. And then one day, when the ship had become a distant memory, a story to tell the children, we received a transmission out of the blue. From deep space, as deep as it possibly gets. It was an Interstellar Radio Message, according to the cryptologists and cryptanalysts working around the clock to decipher it. They had never seen anything quite like this IRM, calling it a Voynich manuscript of radio waves. The language was incredibly complex, and the content of the transmission eluded them for years.
After we had pretty much decided it was a lost cause, a man from a Lakota reservation in South Dakota cracked it. One day, he noticed how his dog and cat would sit rapt by the speaker whenever the signal played, nodding in unison at its swells of noise. After some experiments with other creatures, he hypothesized the message was in the language of Life itself, a tongue people had long since unlearned when we developed other languages. The media largely ignored the fact that the man was a renowned mathematician who used his theory to generate a decryption algorithm incorporating numerous laws of natural physics. The science was far too complex for us, but we feasted on the narrative of the Native American man whose spiritual connection to the planet was so intimate and finely tuned.
Official translations of the IRM were released in newspapers all around the world. We rushed, for the first time in living memory, to the newsstand. We all wanted a copy, proof of the fact that we were there when the aliens came. Evidence of our participation in an unprecedented event. Also, it was a message to us.
Inhabitants of Blue Planet Earth,
Thank you for accommodating Visit. We, a unified lifeform, are dedicated to Universal Fathoming. Cosmically diametric lies Home Planet; but no galactic journey is too far for Universal Fathoming.
We apologize for unannounced arrival—and unceremonious departure—of Planetary Observational Device. POD is the autonomous exploration vehicle, the silent emissary to gather data for greater Fathoming. In thirty-six Earth hours of Visit—nearly a millennium on Home Planet—POD conducted a thorough survey of Blue Planet Earth. Analyzed minerals, gases, and liquids. Assessed geology and inventoried myriad lifeforms.
Thanks be to POD, we Fathom human beings now dominate the planet and consider themselves in charge. The remainder of this communication is addressed to Humans directly. We see that, having established technological dominance over others, you spend lives constructing and squabbling over arbitrary systems of intraspecies hegemony. POD chronicled the histories, civilizations, philosophies, societal structures, and values. POD is very thorough. POD Fathoms, universally.
We were astounded by the biological diversity of Blue Planet Earth and appalled by the general indifference to it. We are the only life on Home Planet, a realm of biological uniformity in which all aspire to be same, to be mutual. We were surprised to discover such fixation on human individuality and aghast while reviewing the litany of the destructive consequences of this fixation.
We were quite amused by the conclusions of esteemed academics—the intake and output of stimuli was comparable to earthly biological processes of ingesting and breaking down nutrients for excretion in far less desirable states. I.e., the Great Minds of Blue Planet Earth do not Fathom. We are not confident they ever will, but the effort is noted.
While we recognize in you the same thirst for Universal Fathoming, motivations on Blue Planet Earth are more nebulous, illogical, and potentially nefarious. Clearly, a cavalier attitude toward Blue Planet Earth feeds hubris and allows a pretense of a comforting modicum of control over Universal Whim.
After reviewing all the data Blue Planet Earth could ever provide, we Fathom but do not appreciate you. We hope you are not offended when we do not return.
When we sent POD to Earth, we were energized by the prospect of Universal Fathoming in concert with intelligent life on Blue Planet Earth; we were sorely disappointed.