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Science Fiction Contemporary Horror

“In 1961 Dr Frank Drake made a list. He wrote down all the things you’d need to know to be able to predict the likelihood of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life.” Dr Maurice Gaunt paced around his office as he delivered the lines that had opened dozens of freshman lectures. “Unsatisfied with his list, Dr Drake seasoned it with a few multiplication signs and realised that he’d done just that. The product was an estimate of the number of detectable civilisations in our galaxy.”

"Yeah, I’ve seen Cosmos with Carl Sagan. People have been messing about with the Drake equation for decades. Don’t tell me all you’ve done is come up with a new way to estimate one of the variables?” Cynicism was not exactly unusual in a journalist, but Ed Vane seemed hostile to Gaunt’s hypothesis before he’d even heard it. “Because you gave me the impression you had something a bit juicier than that.” Vane looked at his pad, not Gaunt, as he spoke.

Gaunt stopped pacing and looked at the small man in the threadbare office chair. The top of his bald head was almost camouflaged against the ossuary of obsolete computer equipment that scaled the ceiling-high shelves behind him. The dull, plaque-tinted plastic and nests of bundled cables were the exhausted tools of Gaunt’s trade, and the evidence of his inability to part with anything useful, even when it had ceased to be so.  

“No. It’s a bit more than that.”

“A new equation altogether?”

“No. But I have a new factor. An essential factor that completely changes things.”

“Ok. Let’s hear it.”

Gaunt resumed pacing and addressing the class of hypothetical freshmen.

“N = R*•ƒ(p)•Ne•ƒ(l)•ƒ(i)•ƒ(c)•L, Drake’s equation. You know this. Its fame is possibly second only to E=MC².  R*: the rate of star formation in the Milky Way, home sweet home where we presently spiral. ƒ(p): the fraction of stars that have planets orbiting them. Ne…”

“The average number of habitable planets in a solar system.”

“Very good! Sing it with me now, f(l)…

“Thanks. But now we get to the tricky bit. The factors where we depend on estimations are where the legit minds have found themselves rolling around in the mud with the grassy knoll gardeners and conspiraholics Qanonymous. So please tell me you’ve got something I can get my teeth into and you’re not just rocking a tin foil Stetson.”

Gaunt had been doubted before.

  “I’m more of a fedora man. Felt, not foil.”

“Because there have been some unkind rumours about the inspirations of some of your previous hypotheses.”

“In the information age anyone with anything to say must expect to hear back from an audience who don’t know how to listen. As I was saying; f(l) is the fraction of the habitable planets that might produce life. What’s life? Anything; flora, fauna, single celled, reality TV contestants. The bar is low. What matters is f(i), of those planets with life, which are home to intelligent life. Then f(c); which of the intelligent life forms develop radio comms, and finally L; the length of time the civilisation in question survives and attempts communication.”

“Ok. So what? So far I could have just watched a couple of Youtube videos and done some Googling. Spare me any more intro, I need to know what you’re up to here, and if it’s worth our time.”

Gaunt took a seat behind his cluttered desk. The introductory lecture was over. It was time for a seminar. He steepled his fingers and stared at the small bald man until he looked up from his pad, his eyes large and dark in the half light of the quiet office.

“What do the last four factors have in common?” asked Gaunt.

“They’re all estimates, open to wildly varying interpretations, potentially giving a vast range of results.”

“Yes, all estimates. Estimates based on us. Based on our experience and the data we have on our own existence and progress. This is necessarily the case; it’s all we have to go on. We must extrapolate from what we know.”

“Right. So what?”

“So, the data we have to go on has changed somewhat since 1961. Since the year Shepard chased Gagarin into space, we’ve been busy. The population of the world has more than doubled and our ability to observe human behaviour has completely changed. If we’re going to use ourselves as the basis of our estimations then we have to use a true, up-to-date version of ourselves.”

“Well that just alters the estimates. It’s not a new factor.”

“But there is a common factor. Something I’ve observed that stands alone. A monolith rising from the petri dish of human neuroses that is the internet. My new factor. When this new factor is applied to the equation it doesn’t just give us an idea of how many detectable civilisations there are in our galaxy, it makes it more or less impossible that we haven’t already detected them.”

“Or that they haven’t detected you.”

“Exactly.”

“So, what’s the factor?” said Vane, looking back to his pad, pen poised.

Gaunt was on his feet again. He turned to the window, extended a finger and split the venetian blinds with a metallic click. A muggy day under a duvet of grey cloud. A single student sat on the concrete wall next to the entrance to the humanities building. The student stared at their phone.

“I’m not sure what to call it. It’s been ‘The Monolith’, it was ‘The Universal’ for a while. For publication purposes I think we better go with ‘The X Factor’ but to me it’ll always be,” Gaunt splayed his fingers and stretched out an imaginary billboard above his head, “The Asshole Factor”.

“The Asshole Factor?”

  “Indeed.”

“Because…”

“Because it is an inescapable fact evidenced by even the most cursory survey of the information published on the internet by a huge swathe of the world’s population, that people are, I’m sorry to say, assholes. Not all of them, present company excepted of course, but a significant number of the self-selecting narcissists who act out their lives online. So what? I hear you peevishly preparing to say – they’re self-selecting, not representative. But nonetheless they must be included in our calculations. If a significant percentage of us are assholes, then in order to be consistent, we must extrapolate on that basis.”

“You’re mad, Gaunt. You should drop this. For your own good.” Vane snapped the lid onto his pen and slipped it into his pocket.

"I must admit my reputation has been tarnished by some of my publications and public statements over the years, but what can I say? My research has occasionally benefited from motivating people to send increased amounts of online traffic my way.”

“You’ve been provoking people on purpose to prove your point and strengthen the hypothesis underlying your factor?”

“Yup. If you want to study the hive mind then sometimes you have to kick the hive.”

“So how does the inclusion of the Asshole Factor, The X Factor, lead you to the conclusion that contact has already been made?”

“Multiplication by the final factor increases the number of civilisations to such a level that we could barely avoid each other if we tried. We are not alone, Ed. And if we haven’t met them, it’s because they’ve chosen to remain hidden.”

Vane dropped his pad to the floor at his feet and stood with a sigh.

Gaunt turned casually back to the window and peeped again through the blinds. The student was gone. The slice of Earth he could see stood still and grey.            

“And why do you think we chose to remain hidden, Maurice?” said Vane, his voice at Gaunt’s ear.

“My best guess on the data available, Ed…” Gaunt turned to face Vane who stood breath-smelling close to him. “Because you’re assholes.”

  “True,” said Ed, his face splitting vertically, opening into a black-gummed maw that slapped shut with a wet clap around Maurice Gaunt’s head. 

August 10, 2023 11:39

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14 comments

Ferris Shaw
21:47 Oct 04, 2023

It's a nice idea, and a nicely written story, but it doesn't really work, does it? Drake's Equation yields an estimated 1,000 to 100,000,000 technological civilizations in this galaxy, to say nothing of other galaxies. The Asshole Factor might result in half or even three fourths of them hiding themselves (and laughing, presumably), but we should still have come across a few. A few that aren't assholes, or that don't have the capacity to hide themselves, or that just got unlucky. We're not seeing them because they're not there to be seen...

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Chris Miller
22:12 Oct 04, 2023

Nope, it doesn't work at all! Thanks for reading, Ferris.

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Michał Przywara
20:37 Aug 15, 2023

Ha! Spend enough time online, and it's hard to argue against such a factor. I'm reminded of some economic theories based on "homo economicus", which posit that humans are basically rational actors acting in their own best interest. A lovely idea, and it seems quite divorced from reality. Gaunt appeared to recognize this idealized view of ourselves and accounted for it in a very different field - although his finding isn't so much that we're irrational, but rather, we're just assholes. "Not all of them, present company excepted of course"...

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Chris Miller
21:07 Aug 15, 2023

Thanks Michal. Yes, "present company excepted" was a contender for the title. I like to think that if he really believed in his own conclusion then he wouldn't be surprised to meet an alien, or that it was not a positive experience. Thanks for reading and leaving your usual thoughtful comments.

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13:55 Aug 12, 2023

I was going a little cross eyed with the science but also absolutely fascinated by it. Educational AND fun.....and what a super abrupt slap you in the face when you're not looking twist ending! Fabulosa!

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Chris Miller
17:32 Aug 12, 2023

Cheers Derrick! Thanks for reading.

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Katy B
23:58 Aug 11, 2023

I love when stories experiment with the addition of scientific or mathematical principles. Thank you for another great and creative story!

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Chris Miller
06:35 Aug 12, 2023

Cheers, Katy. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

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Anna W
20:06 Aug 10, 2023

What an incredible twist! I enjoyed this story so much. Your writing is smart and intriguing. Your dialogue is witty, and I love the banter between the characters. I especially loved this line: If you want to study the hive mind then sometimes you have to kick the hive. *chef's kiss* really well done!

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Chris Miller
20:19 Aug 10, 2023

Thanks, Anna! Very high praise, you are too kind. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave such lovely comments.

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Bruce Friedman
17:57 Aug 10, 2023

Excellent piece introducing me to "equations" that I did not know existed. Surprise ending. Your phrasing and vocabulary are also professional. Great job.

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Chris Miller
17:59 Aug 10, 2023

Thanks very much, Bruce. Very pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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Mary Bendickson
16:16 Aug 10, 2023

Unexpected clap at the end! Excellent as usual.😱 Thanks for likingy idea.

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Chris Miller
17:08 Aug 10, 2023

Cheers Mary!

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