Me, standing nervous beside the stage waiting to play my part in the Great North Astronomy SmackDown. My part, I’m sure, is to be smacked. Four slides, two minutes, is all it will take. I play back how I got here. It started on a perfect night in Redesdale.
“It’s all set.” I said, turning from the telescope to face Leo. All I could see were his eyes. The rest was hat, coat, scarf. Barely human. Mostly clothing.
“I don’t want to do this.” He said.
“Oh go on, it’s set for Betulgeuse, your favourite gas giant.“ I said, smiling.
“Not stargazing. This. Us. I don’t want to do us anymore.“ He said.
“No, you’re just cold and miserable.” I said, shucking off his words. “I’ll pack up, we’ll head back to mine, I’ll warm you up.” I fluttered the lashes of my slightly too far apart eyes. “We can do it alien style if you want.”
The look he gave me told me everything I needed to know. It wasn’t him; it was me. Once upon a time, he hooked up with me because I was weird and not quite beautiful. Now, what that cold slither of face told me, those pained, narrow, blue eyes, was that he had gone off the weirdness. The offer of alien sex would not save our relationship. It was why he was ending it.
“I’ll pack up.” I said.
I packed up the Celestron. Above me, a sky full of stars shone down ancient light. Beneath my feet, ice particles reflected their glow. Winter nights, before the moon rises, are my favourite time, and stargazing with the Celestron is the thing I love most. Redesdale, with its absence of manmade light, is my favourite place. Having Leo beside me while I look into space, handing me the thermos of hot chocolate, holding my hand, and beginning to love what I have loved for years, made it more special.
“I’ll drive you back.” I said. “I’ll drop you off at yours.”
I would have loved to leave him to freeze by the roadside. But I am not that tough. Instead, I drove him back, my heart breaking a little more with every mile. It was when I walked into my flat after dropping him off I realised only the faintest residue of him remained. His clothes, save for the purple Ramones T-shirt he never wore, had gone. He had quietly stripped his books from the shelves. The bathroom was the bereft of his toiletries; the sole exception, his toothbrush, stood in its cup on the sink. Not even a deodorant remained. Leo had been leaving for sometime. I had been too busy looking at the stars to notice what was happening under my nose. That was when I began crying.
The next morning I arrived at lectures with puffy eyes. I sat top left. Leo arrived and sat bottom right. Poles apart. My heart broke again and tears welled. I missed Leo, and I missed walking into lectures with a boyfriend. Sophie Corbette arrived after Leo, scanned the theatre, and made a beeline for me. Sophie is another of the quintet of girls studying the astro-physics module. Where I am plain and not quite beautiful she is all white teeth, unnatural tan, and fake fur trimmings.
“I hear Leo dumped you.” She said with obvious delight.
“We’re on a break.” I said.
“That’s not what I heard. I heard he’s been moving out for weeks but didn’t have the guts to tell you.”
“It was the right time for us to split.” I said.
“I heard he ditched you while you were out stargazing in the freezing cold.” She said.
“I prefer astronomy alone.” I said. “It’s easier to concentrate.”
That was months ago. I’m aware of exactly how many days it is since the split, but I won’t share. The conversation with Sophie Corbette was like a dagger to the gut. The details she delighted in could only have come from Leo. A betrayal. After that I allowed time to pass. My anti-dote to heartbreak was to be me. What I mean by that is I created a routine and stuck to it. Wake, coffee, defecate, granola, wash, dress, lectures, lunch with people from the course, lectures, home, tea. On Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday I studied, then stargazed, alone or at the observatory. On Fridays, I forced myself to socialise and on Mondays I forced myself to total body torture, sorry, conditioning.
Why is all this important? How did it lead me to the Great Astronomy Smackdown? Simple, I began looking the other way. Leo and I had focussed on Orion’s belt because it is obvious and straightforward for a beginner. Leo liked Betelgeuse. It is big, red, close, and there is a level of jeopardy. Betelgeuse could go supernova any time. Because of that, we focussed on the red giant, the surrounding sky, and worked our way outwards, exploring, observing, learning. Without Leo I could not face Orion’s belt and Betelgeuse. Instead I trained the Celestron at Lynx, that snakey presence low in the sky. I invested my uni telescope time on the same sector. Leo broke my heart and propelled me to a new and distant constellation.
Not, at first, the blip on a computer screen, instead a data anomaly. Mundane, but glorious. It is the astronomer’s dream to notice something before anyone else. We love to see something out there in the predictable and chaotic universe that can be ours just for a moment. I had a blip. The data suggested something unexpected, an anomaly. I scrambled to the previous data set. The blip was not present. I sat back in my chair and rubbed my temples. What to do? I checked the Lynx forum. Nothing. No comment. Should I ask my online Lynx enthusiasts? No. That would give the game away.
The next natural set of cross references were astronomical data archives. That night, I checked two, both respected sources. There was no historical record. It could be nothing, literally a data error. An anomaly in a single set of data was meaningless but exciting. There was no point in pointing a telescope at it. The blip was small, distant, out near Alpha Lyncis about two hundred light years away. Mind bendingly far, a quadrillion miles away.
It took two days for another set of telescope data for that sector to become available. The second I could get into it. I did. I found another blip. This time closer. I’d estimate ten percent closer. The natural conclusion was that this was a different object because it is impossible to travel twenty light years in two days. I did the same checks. The Lynx sector forum. Nothing. Then a series of astronomical data archives. Again, nothing. Two erroneous anomalies in the data for the same sector of the sky were possible, but much less probable than one.
After two weeks, I had seven data points. Not an array, not a lake, just seven data points, but they glistened like stars. There was zero corroboration, no reference in any data archive and nothing on the Lynx forum, or any other I checked, but the data could not be ignored. Seven related points plotted on a two-dimensional graph create an incontrovertible truth. They form a line, curve, or scatter that says ‘we are related’. Plotting seven points in the three-dimensional immensity of space and finding a relationship spoke volumes. I needed help.
Professor Bhaskara Aryabahta was known on campus as Prof Harry. He introduced himself as Prof Harry, but both names suited him. On the one hand he had a massive brain, on the other he was affable, a personality trait not always present in people with his technical capability. His office reflected his personality; neat desk, star chart on the wall beside a dramatic image of the milky way, and on the door a Dilbert which read,
‘Hypothetically would anyone know the difference if I just made up the numbers?’
“Tell me again.” Said Prof Harry, staring at the screen.
“I pulled this data from the Keck Chandra scope. Two weeks ago, I noticed an anomaly. I’ve checked the data feed every forty-eight hours since and this is what I’ve found.”
“You’ve not manipulated it at all.” He asked.
“Nope.” I replied. “Just punched it in.”
“It would seem to suggest an object moving at an impossibly high velocity.”
“Or, seven objects appearing and disappearing, but all on the same trajectory.”
“I see you only have seven points but…”
I could see him calculating, making mental adjustments, aligning his thoughts. I’d needed the computer simulation to work it out, but he was making approximations. They were leading him to a conclusion that he did not want to voice.
“...but the trajectory, allowing for gravity, appears to be towards Earth.”
“Yes.” I said. “That is what it looks like.”
“And you say there is no archive data that might explain it?”
Prof Harry turned to his keyboard and rattled away. I enjoyed watching him at work, intense, dark, and with the slightly worn looks of a handsome middle-aged man. Very easy on the eye.
“Looks like Keck Chandra is the only decent telescope taking in the segment?”
“How come when I download the data to my machine I don’t get the anomalies?”
In one sentence his charming tone morphed into an academic rapier. I was stunned. First at the speed of his analysis. Second, that he did not find the data. I barged into his personal space, tapped, clicked, queeried, and reloaded. Nothing.
“I’m sorry.” I mumbled, and left the room.
That evening, reeling from my encounter with Prof Harry and desperate for external verification, I uploaded my findings to the Lynx forum. The replies did not take long to come
Sorry can’t see these data points.
Are you for real?
Watch out! Life on earth is about to end. LMAO.
Who are you?
This data isn’t in my download.
Oh I see, you are Clara Arroway. Well Clara Arroway, go away this is a serious forum.
Shit why bother?
The next day before lectures, Sophie Corbette made a beeline for me. Leo lurked in the background.
“I saw your fake data.” She said.
“It’s not fake.” I said. “I’m surprised you look at the Lynx forum?”
“Lynx forum?” She looked confused. “I saw it on WhatsApp like everyone else.”
“So you haven’t seen the data?” It was a pointless challenge.
“What happened to you, Clara? What happened?” She sneered through her white teeth.
She said those words, turned away and walked to Leo. He shrugged. She took his hand and led him toward the lecture theatre. Wow. Leo and Sophie. I wasn’t sure which was more crushing, Prof Harry’s denouement of my findings or Sophie and Leo hooking up. How could Leo like me, even for a while, and then date her? I bet her fake tan rubs off on him in bed.
That night I had the first dream. I’m a steady person, not given to emotional swings, but I went to bed miserable, as miserable as the night Leo dumped me. Both my academic life and my personal life were a mess, and Sophie Corbette was delighting in both. As sleep took me into its fitful hinterland, I felt all of that leave me. Dreams are impossible to retell, but I saw the extrapolation of my data set. The line, curved by gravity, continued its path to earth. Following that, I saw the coordinates of the next data point. But what was remarkable was the sensation. I felt uplifted, as if I had crested a hill and witnessed the most incredible sunrise. As if endorphins from the climb were flooding me and the crimson sky fired my synapses with wonder.
I woke with a crystal clear memory of the dream. It was easy for me to visualise the trajectory, to jot down the coordinates of the next data point, and to recall that rapturous sensation. My worries, Sophie, Prof Harry, public ridicule, had all gone. Later that day, I got access to the next batch of data. I did nothing to the file except open it and there it was, the next anomalous data point, its ten digits matching my dream.
This pattern continued for five more data points. I would dream incredible dreams, visualise the path to earth, and be presented with the next data point. Each morning, I wrote the projected coordinates down. When the next set of Keck Chandra data became available, it contained an anomaly and the coordinates matching my dream. I told no one. As time passed, the sensation of rapture in the dreams built. I felt amazing when I woke and a great sense that everything would be okay layered itself over the rapture. I grew used to the feeling; I had a Buddha-like calm.
The next data points marked something more important. The anomaly entered our Solar system. Once here, it slowed. No more faster-than-light travel. I did the maths and had the Celestron set up in Redesdale ready when it became visible. I watched it travelling through the sky for several hours, a single silver-white blip against the dim backdrop of Lynx, until the earth’s rotation took it out of sight. As I watched, I felt bathed in what I can only describe as hope. There seemed to be a direct relationship between its proximity and these feelings of wellbeing. Remember, I am a scientist. I don’t say these things lightly.
That night, the feelings that ran through my dreams were immense. I woke with a near post-coital feeling of euphoria. I skipped lectures, instead checking archives, forums, data sets, and predictive models with a sweaty lipped fervour. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I calculated the intercept point with earth. Seventy-six hours. The radio silence from the astronomy world was deafening. I watched Close Encounters, then I headed to Redesdale.
There it was, silver-white, hurtling through the sky. Again I watched, again my system flooded with calm rapture. Something big was going to happen, but it was going to be okay. Then from the northwest a brighter white object came streaking across the sky. Like my object it seemed to appear from nowhere, but this appeared like a meteorite hitting the atmosphere. But it couldn’t be. It was too far out.
“The Helsinki Anomaly.” Says a voice from the audience.
I look out into the audience. They sit like predators, ready to pounce.
“Yes.” I say. “The Helsinki Anomaly. It blazed across the sky on an intercept course with my object. After weeks of watching, the end took seconds. The Helsinki Anomaly intercepted my blip. There was a brief flash of light and both objects disappeared. The feelings of wellbeing I experienced abated. That night my dreams returned to normal.”
An uneasy silence followed. Then a muffled voice from the back of the theatre shouted,
And the audience tittered.
“Do you have any evidence of this? Did you film?”
I peered out over the lectern. It was Prof Harry. The question was scientific, but kind.
“Not really.” I say. “But for two things. First, the intercept point between my anomaly and the Helsinki anomaly is directly on the natural extrapolation of the seven point trajectory I shared with you, Professor Aryabahta. No one expected the Helsinki Anomaly so how could I invent a course which intercepted it? What are the chances of that? Billions upon billions to one?”
I press play. What follows is the white strake of the Helsinki Anomaly entering the frame at speed, from the left, then exploding. I allow it to run twice, then I stop it at the frame of impact.
“I believe you can see the brief coalescence of two objects before vaporisation. I accept it’s blurred, but it is visible. Either the Helsinki Anomaly expands, and splits, or it intercepts another object which becomes visible on impact.”
I fall silent. A muted hubbub runs through the room. A lady stands, I know her; it is Isabelle Guitel, another of our quintet of lady astronomers. She has a brilliant mind.
“Isabelle Guitel.” She states. “Clara, merci, most interesting, and entertaining. I accept that the likelihood of your identifying an intercept course, in advance of an unexpected anomaly, is infinitesimally small. Maybe you knew more of Helsinki than you say, no? Images are easy to manipulate, so we must disregard them. What interests me is what we must believe about you, and your anomaly, for it to be true. We must believe that this object had a connection with you, and you alone, of all seven billion people on the planet. We also have to believe that connection was powerful over light years of distance. How can that be the case? It is ridiculous, no?”
I remain silent. How do I know? Maybe I wasn’t the only one. Maybe there were others gazing at the stars and feeling amazing. A cough and a shuffle from the audience. A man stands, this time one I don’t know. He wears a baggy brown jacket, one that looks like he salvaged it from Oxfam, a big burgundy scarf loosely slung around his neck, and he has carefully unkempt hair.
“Hello.” He says and looks across to Isabelle. “I’m no scientist, Madame Guitel, I’m a poet, but I think it is possible to have a one in a billion connection with someone, or something. And for that connection to expand across space and time. I believe Clara Arroway described its symptoms; well being, hope, rapture, calm, that impossible sense of bathing in the most beautiful sunrise everyday. Is this not a description of love? Is it not possible something in the universe connected with Clara and she experienced a brief, but intense love? Love can exercise great power across leagues and lifetimes, can it not? Madame Guitel, have you never felt love?”
Another hubbub fills the room. A short gentleman with messy grey hair and a moustache stands.
“Thank you for your bravery, Clara. I am Claude Harroche, formerly of Brno. May I say, before I begin, that the moment of impact will be recorded on other devices, I’m sure analysis picture will validate your picture. But I have questions for you. Would you say that you have found evidence of alien life? That alien life contacted you? That, as our poet friend suggests, you were contacted in the spirit of love? Are you suggesting that aliens are attempting to visit earth? And that they have developed a technology capable of faster than light travel? Are you proposing that the Helsinki Anomaly intentionally destroyed your object?”
I stare at him. He asks his question fast, his voice like the quiet rattle of a snare drum at a military funeral. What he asks for are the conclusions I left unspoken. An affirmation here will lead only to derision. But the answer is ‘yes’. To all the above.
What to do?
I pause, think.
“Yes.” I say.
Prof Harry’s head folds into his hands. Hoots of derision and the slapping of hands on desks fill the lecture theatre. It is ugly. I am smacked down. I flee from the stage and am intercepted by the poet anomaly, who presses a piece of paper into my hands. When I get home, I read it. Written in a neat cursive hand is what appears to be a poem, a mobile phone number and the name Stearn Thomas follow the words.
A single bright star
Connects like lightning.
I stand transfixed.
What happened next with Stearn is a different story. A love story. Without aliens but with complications. The path of true love never runs smooth. My Astronomy SmackDown antics ruined my academic reputation. I could score as high as I liked in tests, but the other students regarded me as a freak. The pictures, mine and some from other scopes, circulated online and, rather than working as a proof, became the stuff of alien online conspiracy theories.
One Tuesday morning, a manila envelope arrived addressed to me. Inside the envelope was another. The second was worn; it seemed old, the handwriting a glorious copper plate in blue black ink. The envelope was addressed to Clara Arroway - post restante - Whitely, Bainstien, and Brush solicitors. New York. This is what it said.
My sincere apologies for not having stayed to speak to you after your excellent SmackDown presentation. Further apologies for not having written sooner. Time slipped away from me. I think you might be interested in these references:
Lynx Sector anomaly - Frankfurt journal of Astronomy May 1935
Uleg Beg’s Lynx Observations - Samarkand Celestial: March Quarter One 1987
Feint temporal pulses in the low night sky - La Paz Journal of Astronomy 2001
And my paper
That could never happen? Could it? - Brno Institute Annual Anthology 1964
And may I recommend to you the Von Daniken sarcophagus, you might enjoy it.
In the words of Auden,
“How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return.”
Yours in stars,
The letter came from Brno and was inexplicably dated 1971. The papers took some time to source. Claude’s contained a set of witty mathematical examples outlining the high probabilities of alien life, alien contact, the development of faster than light travel, and time travel. It’s positioning was elegant in the extreme, enough complex maths to engage, but not so serious as to offend. Harroche is renowned for being both a tremendous academic and for rarely putting pen to paper, so despite its challenging content, academics regard his brief text with an uneasy respect. The other papers detailed Lyxian phenomena each with a striking similarity to my own observations. Von Daniken is well documented and I am not sure if that reference was a gentle poke of fun.
I excluded Daniken’s ‘Chariots of the Gods’ from my paper ‘Lynxian Phenomena and Harrochian Probability’ in which I tried to emulate the wit of Claude’s style. I combined data from the papers with my own to examine the slim probability of a great Lynxian coincidence. It was a subtle proof rather than strong assertion and was met with a resounding silence. I took the silence as an improvement from the howling derision of the Astronomy SmackDown.
The only other feedback was a text from Prof Harry. His message read, ‘Back of the net’ followed by a fist pump emoji. My studies continue. Stearn and I bathe each other in warm rapture and he now knows a little about Cassiopeia. Leo has separated from Sophie and the Celestron strays occasionally to Alpha Lyncis. We are not alone.