Signs of Life

Submitted into Contest #103 in response to: Write about a character looking for a sign.... view prompt

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Fiction

As above, so below. Silence. Stillness.

“Put some more music on,” said Edwin, who was half asleep on the sofa in the corner of the room.

        Isaac rolled his eyes and looked about. He pushed backwards against the desk with both hands and guided the chair with little pushes of his toes over to the laptop. He selected the first Astrobotnia album. The electronic firework sounds and ambient hum of Lightworks filled the room.

“Nice,” said Edwin. “A little spot on, perhaps.”

        Isaac nodded. He pushed himself back to the bank of screens and keyed in some numbers. The images shifted and he flicked the back of the earpieces of his glasses so they jumped slightly on his nose, which he wiggled and sniffed through before focusing on the new images.

Edwin lay further back and put his right arm behind his head. He closed his eyes and felt the music around him. Isaac glanced over at his friend and shook his head. At least he’d be able to get some work done.

As the beat kicked in at the start of Hallo, the little computerised squelch lingering in the background, both of them grinned and nodded their heads in time.

Edwin sat up slightly again. He couldn’t seem to get comfortable tonight. He lit a cigarette and pulled a mug over and onto his chest, swirling the dregs as he looked into it.

        “Can’t you take that outside?” Isaac asked.

        Edwin ignored the request. “Hey,” he said. “Do you remember…”

        “Of course I do,” Isaac interrupted.

        “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

        “You always say the same thing when you come along to an all-nighter.”

        “I do?”

        “You’re nothing if not predictable.”

        “Damn,” said Edwin, exhaling a lungful and watching it dissipate above him. “Really?”

        “It’s true.”

        Edwin smoked without talking until the cigarette was finished and floating at the bottom of the mug. Maybe sinking. “Do you want pizza?” he asked.

        “I feel like noodles,” Isaac said.

        “I’m ordering pizza.”

        “Then why ask?”

        “Because I’m polite.”

        “Then get me some pizza.”

        “No problem. Atlas?”

        “Duh!”

“Do you think the problem is that we spend too much time here?” Edwin asked, before biting into another slice of Super Meat Deluxe.

        “What problem?” Isaac replied.

        “You said I’m predictable,” he said. “And maybe you’re right.”

        “So I’m right,” said Isaac, spinning his chair around to face Edwin. “So what?”

        “I was just thinking, is all,” Edwin explained. “Maybe it’s because we’re always here. We don’t do anything, and nothing ever happens.”

        “We do things.”

        “Yeah, we order pizza and play board games and listen to music and we look at those screens. Sometimes we even watch a movie, but you only half watch it because you’re looking all the time.”

        “What’s your point?”

        “I don’t know,” said Edwin. “What do you expect to find?”

        “I don’t expect anything,” said Isaac, feeling irritated and unaccountably defensive.

        “You know what I mean,” Edwin told him.

“I don’t know,” Isaac said. “There are so many things that might be out there, you know?”

        “You still want to find life? Aliens or something?”

        “I mean… yeah, sure. It’s not, you know, the only thing. But… can you imagine?”

        Edwin laughed. “What would you say to them?”

        “I don’t think it works like that,” Isaac told him.

        “Why not?”

        “Because I’m just looking at telescope feeds. It’s not like it would give me a direct link to them or something.”

        “But if it did.”

        “It wouldn’t.”

        “But if it did.”

        “I don’t know,” said Isaac, wracking his brain. “I suppose; hello!”

        Edwin spat pizza across the floor and roared with laughter. “Hello? That’s the best you’ve got?”

        “Shut up,” said Isaac, hunching over and staring down at his keyboard, punching in some more numbers. “Why do you even keep coming here?”

        “I don’t want you to get bored,” Edwin told him.

        Isaac didn’t look round. He checked some figures, logged some details, looked at the screens. “I don’t get bored,” he said quietly. “I like my job.”

        “Of course you do,” said Edwin. “Because you get to hide away in a room and stare at numbers and crap.”

        “And what do you do?”

        “I’m lucky,” Edwin told him. “I get to watch you.”

        “Yeah,” said Isaac. “Lucky.”       

“You want to know what I don’t understand though?” Edwin asked.

        “Social niceties?” Isaac asked back.

        “Sure,” Edwin acknowledged. “That too. But what I was going to say was: You hate people, right?”      

        “I don’t hate people.”

        “Sure you do. You’re one of those misanthropes.”

        Isaac sighed and rubbed his eyes under his glasses. He put his forehead on the keyboard. “What?”

        “You don’t like people,” Edwin explained. “You don’t like to be around them. You get anxiety attacks at social functions. You hate public transport…”

        “Do you have a point?”

        “Of course. My point is; you spend most of your life actively avoiding all of humanity except the chosen few like myself, and yet you seem determined to find evidence that there are other sentient beings out there.”

        “And?”

        “Well…” Edwin scratched his head in an exaggerated fashion even though Isaac still had his head down, probably with his eyes closed. “Wouldn’t you most likely just end up trying to avoid spending time with the little green men too?”

        “Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll wipe us all out,” Isaac said.

        “That’s the spirit,” said Edwin.

        The music had finished again while they were talking and Edwin got up to select something new. He scrolled through the artists and put on London Calling, then turned the volume right up.

        “That’s really loud,” Isaac said, still not lifting his head.

        “What?” shouted Edwin.

        “That’s really loud,” Isaac said louder.

        “I can’t hear you,” Edwin shouted back. “The music’s too loud.”

        Isaac sat up and looked at Edwin. He rubbed his head and thought about whether it was worth it. “Turn it down a bit,” he shouted.

        “Why? There’s nobody else here.”

        “I’m trying to work,” Isaac pointed out.

        Edwin stamped his foot melodramatically, but he turned the music down to a level where they could talk comfortably. “It doesn’t have the same effect if you don’t turn it up loud, you know,” he said.         

        “Then put something else on.”

        “Fascist,” said Edwin and swore at him.

        “Yeah,” said Isaac. “Sure. Whatever. Just let me log some figures, ok?”

        “Sure man,” said Edwin. “You’re the boss. Tell me if you see anything interesting.”

Edwin sat quietly for a while and Isaac worked. He began to forget his friend was even there and lost himself in the images and the numbers. In the details. They made things seem real. He didn’t know how to explain it exactly, but he didn’t have to, that was the beauty. He just had to scan and look and record and maybe… Yeah, maybe.

         “Do you even get to choose what to say?” Edwin asked out of nowhere, startling Isaac out of a daze of space and math that could have just as easily lasted ten days as ten minutes.

        “What?” he asked.

        “Or is there, like, a script or a handbook or something?”

        “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

        “You know, earlier, when I was asking about what you’d say if you discovered life out there and got to talk to them.”

        “And what was your question?”

        “Is there something special you’re supposed to say. Like ‘we come in peace’ or something?”

        “We don’t say anything,” Isaac told him. “Every console here and across the world has a red button underneath it and we press that as soon as we see something and the UN takes over with their special delegation.”

        “No way,” said Edwin, sitting up, suddenly excited. “You never told me about that before. Have you ever tried pressing it?”

        “Are you kidding?” Isaac asked. “It’s ten years in prison for a hoax.”

        “Seriously?” Edwin was over at the desk. “That’s crazy. Can I see?”

        “You want to see the button?”

        “Of course I do. Why didn’t you tell me before?”

        “I’ve signed a secrecy agreement, of course. You can’t tell anyone. Ever. Ok?”

        “Yeah. Sure. Just show me the button.”

        “You’re an idiot,” Isaac told him.

        “You mean…”

        Isaac shook his head and Edwin laughed and swore.

        “You’re…” Edwin paused, shook his head and licked his lips. “I can’t believe I fell for that.”

        “It’s because you’re an idiot,” said Isaac. “Didn’t I mention that?”

        Edwin went back and sat on the sofa. “So, what would you do if you, you know, made contact?”

        “How do you know I haven’t?”

        “Fair enough. So, if you did, or when you did, if you already have, how did you befriend them?”

        “How did I befriend them? The extra terrestrials?”

        “Yeah.”

Isaac shook his head. “It’s not about making friends,” he said. “It’s about doing something for science.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“For science,” said Edwin. “That’s such a you answer.”

“It’s the truth.”

        “Ok then. But why?”

        “Why?”

        “Yes, why?”

        “Why discover something new?”

        “Yes. Why?” Edwin said again.

        “Because…” Isaac paused.

        “Yes?”

        “Because that’s the whole point of science. To increase the wealth of human knowledge.”

        “But why do you care what humans know, seeing as how you don’t like them?”

        “You know what?” Isaac asked.

        “What?” Edwin asked back.

“I don’t like you.”

Back home that morning, with the sun up and the rest of the world going about their daily business, Isaac showered and made a hot chocolate. He made it thick and added chilli powder. He took it and a slice of leftover pizza and stood out on the balcony in his towel. It was a hot day. A nice day, as people describe such days. He didn’t care so much for the sun, personally. He’d be sleeping through the day anyway.

        He watched people and cars moving below, heading out to work or to school or whatever they were doing. He wondered what they were thinking. All of them. As a boy, he’d had difficulty with the concept that everyone had their own consciousness. That it was fundamentally impossible to understand what other people were thinking. He’d wanted to understand things. He imagined now that he was looking at a bank of screens, that each car and each person, antlike down below, was a number, a co-ordinate. He predicted their trajectories in a world where motivation didn’t matter. He finished the pizza slice and leaned over the railing. The apartment below had towels drying over their balcony railing.

He went back in and turned the TV on. There was no picture. He flicked through a few more channels. Still nothing. He checked the settings, then went over and checked everything was connected. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but still every channel showed a snowy black and white screen. There was something though. A sound. Something was there behind the white noise hiss. He was sure of it. He turned the volume up. He listened carefully. It was definitely there, ghostly and full of static, but he hadn’t imagined it. A voice.

Dashing through' the snow,

In a one-horse open sleigh,

O'er the hills we go,

Laughing all the way;

Bells on bob tail ring,

Making spirits bright,

Oh what sport to ride and sing

A sleighing song tonight.

Isaac turned off the TV and headed for the bedroom. He was tired and that was stupid. Maybe it meant something, maybe it didn’t. It wasn’t his concern.

He lay on top of the covers, his mug resting on his stomach, cupped in both hands. On the ceiling, he’d painted constellations and they always relaxed him. Edwin was wrong, he thought. He didn’t hate people. He just didn’t know many. That was all. He hoped Edwin wouldn’t turn up again that night. Really though, he didn’t mind either way.

July 22, 2021 18:29

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