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Astrid's Equation

by Eric Dovigi 2 months ago in Mystery / Short Story / Sci Fi · updated 2 months ago
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Chapter One; My Year of Bad Days

Astrid's Equation
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Nobody can hear your scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.

These words are written on a poster. This poster is blue and black and white. They never asked me for my input on the poster but happily, this is the color palette I would have chosen. A good omen. I remember thinking that at the time. “This is a good omen.” The phrase itself I thought a bit over the top, but people seemed to like it.

The poster is for a movie that I wrote. The movie was called New Worlds. If you are a science fiction film fan, there is an appreciable chance that you’ve seen the movie. Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars in his initial review in the Chicago Sun-Times. I’ve always really respected Roger Ebert. It was a blow when he passed. He wrote, “This is a strange film, but it possesses an ingenuousness that is compelling.” I think that is an astute critique. Roger Ebert was always reasonable, even if you disagreed with him.

In a very real sense, notwithstanding the fact that I married and had a child even despite my neurodivergence, writing the screenplay for New Worlds was the greatest accomplishment of my life.

Until now.

Bad Day #104

January 2nd

-3 C. Banana+muffin/tuna sandwich/pot roast.

A) Astrid said something cruel in the morning. I won’t repeat it. Naomi lost her temper because of it. This just made me sadder.

B) I had an afternoon nap and had a nightmare. Having a nightmare during a nap just seems like my own fault. Maybe that’s victim blaming.

C) The little black cloud was spotted on the horizon.

D) General malaise.

Please be aware that sometimes I will depict an intrusive thought. I have many intrusive thoughts. I'm not embarrassed about this. Even a spider will sometimes connect a thread to the wrong thread. Despite my intelligence, which, if you believe in the bell curve, is in the 99th percentile, I do not have complete control over my mind. In fact, I have even less control over my mind than most people. Sometimes it takes a great amount of effort to focus on one thing. Sometimes it takes a great amount of effort to tear myself away from the object of my focus. Like anyone, I have contradictions. Intelligence, I’d like to point out, is a not very useful concept. All it does is measure an individual’s situational aptitude, except it imposes a problematic lens.

I keep track of all my bad days. Do you remember Anna Karenina? The beautiful book by Leo Tolstoy? Even if you haven’t read it you probably remember the first line, “Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s such a good line. Its strength lies not in its truth but in its petulance. It’s whiny. But when we are having family troubles, we feel whiny. We feel entitled to self-pity. We each believe our sufferings to be unique. Well, Tolstoy could have replaced the word “family” with the word “day.” Good days are all alike. Bad days are unique. Each stands out as being bad in some unprecedented, uniquely unjust way.

I keep track of my bad days. I have a notebook for this. I keep the notebook on the desk. The desk is in my office. My office, where I am sitting now, is in the loft of the house in which my family - up until last year - lived. We live in Northern Michigan. I still see Naomi and Astrid almost every day. I am grateful for their patience with me, and for their generosity with their time. We have separated, but we still love each other.

Astrid is fourteen. Noami is my age. Naomi and I were born on the same day. The chances of this are not terribly small, but still small enough to be unexpected. We used to celebrate her birthday on the day of, and my birthday on my “half birthday” - six months after. The annual antipode, I used to call it. It embarrasses Astrid when I use “nerdy words.” "Annual antipode" is the sort of phrase I wouldn’t use these days. And not just when I’m around Astrid; it’s best to cut out “nerdy words” altogether or I’ll never lose the habit. She didn’t ask me to stop using them when she was not around. This was my own idea.

My office in the loft is my “safe space.” It’s where I feel most comfortable. It is no smaller than any home office but is filled with computers, radios (I am a collector), books, a nice digital telescope which I’ve connected to my computer, and many other scientific devices too various for description. Some are conversation pieces, some are for taking certain kinds of measurements.

By Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash

It’s best if I don’t tell you everything all at once. Aristotle wrote, in his book Rhetoric, that the job of a rhetorician is not actually to fully persuade the audience of your message. Rather the rhetorician’s job is to bring the audience along just as far as it will go. The art of rhetoric, then, is to carefully pave the way for each baby step between doubt and belief.

There’s a big french window on one side of the loft and a balcony. The telescope points out the balcony. Sometimes I sit out there and look at the stars. One of my favorite things to do is to try to see the star and not the point of light. See the star and not the star, if you will. It’s difficult. Very difficult. One never quite knows if one is succeeding. Astrid used to sit with me up here for hours and watch with me when she was younger and more patient. What a sweet girl she was back then.

I have had one predominant interest in my life. Everything I have done in my life has been intended to complement, facilitate, or at least not conflict with this interest.

Let me explain it like this: New Worlds was about one lone scientist’s search for extraterrestrials. Due to certain observations made when he was just a precocious teen, he has reason to believe that a particular patch of sky is the best candidate for alien communication. Every day from the age of fourteen to forty-four he sends a radio transmission to this patch of space. It is always the same message: Water planet seeks water planet. Friend seeks friend. Water planet seeks water planet. Friend seeks friend.

The transmission includes audio of this text in English, followed by Chinese, followed by a short selection of images. This is followed by a series of ones and zeros intended to communicate that the sender is positioned in the digital era. Then, a circle drawn according to Euclid’s method.

That’s it. That’s the message that day after day the scientist sends to this tiny patch of sky just to the left of the left star in Orion’s Belt.

Then, one day, this intrepid scientist’s extracurricular efforts - though impeded by quotidian distractions, family squabbles, even professional ridicule - are finally rewarded. He receives a reply. The bulk of the film centers around his attempts to interpret the reply and share it with the scientific world. The scientific world is at first skeptical - he has many enemies, this intrepid scientist - but the protagonist soon wins over the world due to his ingenuous persona and scientific rigor. It is clear that the protagonist is not after personal glory or riches. He wants only to communicate with these new beings.

It is no secret that this story is based on me.

Bad Day #105

January 21st.

-2 C. Waffle+butter/tuna sandwich/carnitas tacos, ate alone.

A) Naomi won’t talk to me.

B) Astrid tried to be nice to me in a way that made me just feel sad.

C) Began the day feeling good, but the Little Black Cloud found me by afternoon.

D) Transmission felt especially futile.

E) Remembered something embarrassing from my youth, and could not put it out of my mind. Usual CBT tricks did not work.

Every day since I was fourteen I have sent a transmission into space. Not by Orion’s Belt, obviously. I can’t disclose where I’ve sent them.

My family used to think it was really “cool.” Cool changed to eccentric. Eccentric changed to normal. Normal changed to irritating. Irritating became a problem. I have witnessed these gradual changes in my daughter since she was about the age of four. Naomi, who despite her above-average intelligence is highly impressionable, has a habit of echoing Astrid very closely. I am worried that it will foster in Astrid a sense of infallibility that will cause her pain as an adult. Whatever opinion Astrid has, Naomi must have too. Only very rarely will Astrid proclaim a belief that Naomi’s value system will not allow Naomi to accept, and in such cases my wife always remains silent. Once I tried to gently bring this up, but it didn’t go anywhere. “At least I talk to her,” Naomi said.

“I talk with Astrid," I protested. "We used to sit for hours on the balcony and chat while looking at the stars.”

“That was years ago, Neil.”

Astrid was in her room listening to music loudly. “I Know It’s Over,” by The Smiths. In these moments Naomi and I knew we could discuss whatever we wanted without fear of her overhearing the conversation.

Now Naomi and Astrid live across the street. Directly across the street. This is just for a trial period. We bought the house across the street years ago with the money I made from New Worlds. I had intended to use it as a laboratory and observatory since it has this marvelous cupola at the top where one could install a telescope. That way Naomi and Astrid wouldn’t have to put up with all my “shenanigans,” as Astrid calls them. For some reason, I never got around to moving all my things over there, and we mostly used it as a guest house and as storage (save for one brief awful period when we rented it out to a college fraternity).

Now Noami and Astrid live there, and I perform my shenanigans here. I am not insensible to the irony of my family leaving me to live in my laboratory because I could not bring myself to move my laboratory so much as twenty yards away from my family.

I have never once used my neurodivergence as an excuse for anything. Never as a parent or husband have I done this. But Naomi and Astrid have. My daughter even went through a phase where she’d introduce me by a diagnosis. She’d bring a friend over and say, “This is my dad. He’s on the spectrum.” Naomi would get upset, but I would try to be level-headed about it. “It’s alright, dear. Maybe it’s good that she prepares her friends for the fact that I can sometimes communicate a bit differently from other people.”

Naomi has also used my neurodivergence as an excuse for certain behaviors of mine, no matter how much I try to accept full responsibility for my mistakes. I think she does this to make herself feel better.

For example, the absolute necessity that my transmissions be made every day has been one point of contention in our family, and it is this sort of thing that Naomi attributes to my neurodivergence.

This is actually the reason why I have set pen to page, to be honest with you. I am not telling you the story of my family separation or of my great film success just for fun. I am writing because I feel that I owe it to the world to produce a clear and concise statement concerning what has happened and what will happen next.

What I’m trying to say is, they’ve got my transmissions. They’ve responded.

They’re coming.

-

Charles and I have published a paper to this effect. Charles Schact is a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan. He has a house here in Marquette, where I have taught mathematics as an associate professor for the last twenty-five years. We are kindred spirits. We have been meeting for coffee every Sunday afternoon in summer since 2004. Charles is certainly my best friend (not including Naomi and Astrid).

I usually try to avoid parentheticals in my writing but I’ve been a little distracted this morning. Nicholas, my cat, has been demanding my attention.

I have never had a pet in my life, until last week. Astrid got me Nicholas. Nicholas is a black cat.

“He’ll be good for you, dad,” she said. “He’s eleven years old, which is past middle age. So he won’t be a crazy kitten or anything. He’ll just be a quiet companion, to keep you company if you get lonely.”

I don’t really get lonely very easily. As a younger man, I would have politely rejected this gift. But, largely thanks to Astrid, I have learned that the best ways to navigate these kinds of tricky interpersonal situations is usually to "go with the flow." The branch that bends, as written in the Tao Te Ching, is strong than the branch that does not.

“Thanks, Astrid,” I said, feigning delight. I bent close to the cat’s little face and gave it a kiss. I was startled by how this felt. The face, so fuzzy and small, the nose so wet and alive.

“This is nice,” I said.

Astrid smiled.

Astrid’s smile is the best thing in my life. It is the best thing that has ever been in my life. I have seen her smile 4,007 times.

“You fucking weirdo,” she said, showing those bright white teeth (it was I who made her brush so diligently when she was a child - Naomi would have let them fell out). “You’re actually surprised by how perfect cats are.”

“Purrr-fect.” I made a pun-based joke. Astrid groaned. Naomi, who knows how much work I have done to be able to banter like this, smiled, not, I think, without some pride.

I shouldn’t be blaming Nicholas for my absent-mindedness this morning. He only wants to go out on the balcony.

There, I’ve just opened the door for him.

I’ve been on the phone all morning with CNN. It hasn’t been easy to get them to take my claim seriously. Last week I emailed them a scan of the print-out of the signal along with a brief explanation of the situation.

Here’s the email I sent.

To CNN,

My name is Neil Union. I am a mathematician and professor of mathematics at Marquette University. For the last thirty years I’ve been transmitting a scripted message to a small quadrant of the night sky in the vicinity of the [xxxx] constellation in the hopes of it being received by a radio-capable technological civilization.

I have just received a response.

The response is as yet unintelligible, but I believe that it represents an attempt to convey certain basic knowledge which we would consider hallmarks of an advanced civilization (akin to those we put on our Voyager spacecrafts).

Please find attached a .png and a .jpeg of the transmission. My friend and colleague Charles Schact (astronomy professor at University of Michigan) has seen the transmission as well and also believes it to be an authentic communication from an alien civilization.

You will react with incredulity at first, but I humbly ask for your attention long enough at least to be assured of my earnestness.

Sincerely,

Neil Union, MS

They emailed me back,

Dear Professor Union,

Thank you for getting in touch with CNN regarding your story. Would you be willing to send over .pdf files of your teaching credentials as well as a photo ID? Unfortunately we receive many hoax-stories from unserious individuals.

Best,

Jordan Offerton

“There’s hostility to lying, and there should be.” - Bob Woodward

I was on the phone with this Jordan Offerton for almost an hour this morning. She wanted to go over the same points again and again. I didn’t mind.

“What did you say was in your own transmission?”

“Water planet seeks water planet. Friend seeks friend. Repeated a single time,” I replied patiently.

“And this must have been a purely symbolic effort since obviously the aliens don’t speak English.”

“That is not quite correct. I can’t deny that it took on a certain symbolic significance for me during these past few decades, especially during those moments when the whole project may have felt futile. But I expected that we, together with the communicating lifeforms, would translate the message after contact had been established. It would be a retroactive greeting. I hoped this would have some significance as a peace-making gesture, and, I confess, I hoped it would have a bit of charm.”

"And how far away is the star system this came from?" Jordan asked.

"Thirty light years."

"So this transmission was sent forty years ago?"

"That is correct. I presume that they sent it as soon as they received my first message."

"That means that... that you have been waiting until this year for the first possible response to come through?"

"That is correct."

"And it came through."

"That is correct."

“And please, again, help me to interpret the message you received. I’ve got a print-out on my lap here.”

“You see, it’s a mathematical sequence that Charles and I believe is designed to be a sort of algebraic extended metaphor. Just like humans, this exo-civilization seems to believe that interplanetary communication must be math-based at first. So I posit that this message is broken down into two chunks. The first chunk is trying to teach us a numerical and algebraic system. The second chunk shows us a handful of equations and expressions.”

“This first line of symbols looks like digits?”

“Yes, that seems to be the case.”

“I count twelve individual symbols here,” said Jordan after a brief pause.

“Yes, we posit that the civilization is using a base-12 numerical system. Perhaps they have six digits on each hand.”

“Interesting. So you’ve worked out some of the basic features of this civilizations mathematics using the little primer that they’ve sent you? How similar is it to our own math?”

“Essentially identical,” I said. “Mathematics, it seems, is truly a transcendental philosophy.”

“You say essentially identical. Are there any differences at all?”

“Just some oddnesses in what they chose to express. If it were I that had to choose a short-list of equations to send to an exo-civilization, I would have chosen, for example, something like F = mx + b. Or E = mc2. But we’re getting some equations here from this group of alien mathematicians that just seems a little… strange. This is why Charles and I think that it might be some kind of riddle, or metaphor.”

“Are any of the equations provided in the transmission unfamiliar to you?”

“Only one.”

“Which one?”

“The last one in the transmission.”

Another brief pause.

“Huh,” Jordan grunted. “Hold on a sec.” I could hear pages turning; she was leafing to the sheet that I had created which provided western-notation translations of the alien math. “I don’t get it. This looks like nothing.”

“Agreed,” I said eagerly. “It looks like nothing at all. But it must describe something. I have a feeling that whatever this mysterious equation describes must be an essential principal that has gone undiscovered by humanity.”

“Like what?” Jordan asked.

I drew a breath and delivered the joke I had prepared: “'How shall I live?'”

Silence.

“What do you mean exactly?”

-

I started tracking my bad days about five years ago. I realized a funny thing just now, looking at the Excel spreadsheet where I keep them all: I have completed a whole year’s worth.

I have had a year of bad days. And to top it off, the 365th bad day – my Bad Anniversary, I guess – was the day before Contact. Now I am not a superstitious person and I never have been. But once the idea of the Year of Bad Days occurred to me, I have looked forward to the Bad Anniversary with some trepidation.

Bad Day #365

Oct. 1 - nothing

Astrid is missing.

Astrid is missing.

This is a bad sentence. As a writer, I cannot help but reflect upon the construction of a sentence like “Astrid is missing.” The first thing that strikes you is that it is in passive voice. Mediocre writers avoid passive voice whenever they can devise a way to get themselves out of it. Good writers know that passive voice has utility. A sentence like “Astrid is missing” cannot but be in passive voice. Can you conceive of another way to put it? If we rewrite it “Neil misses Astrid,” we have a different meaning altogether. The next thing I notice is that the verb “to miss” or “to be missing” shouldn’t really be assigned to the noun “Astrid” because to Astrid herself, of course, she is not missing. She knows where she is. The “missingness” is in us – myself, Naomi, Astrid’s friends, the neighborhood, the police investigators assigned to find her.

Astrid is missing.

I hate these words. It sounds like something you’d say about your car keys. Or if you walked by a Van Gogh painting and the stars were suddenly not there. “Hey!” you’d say. “The stars are missing.”

Astrid is missing.

She was last seen by an elderly couple sitting on their porch at one in the morning. “We saw a young girl,” they said, “walking with purpose down the road, headed north.”

What is north of Marquette? Lake Superior. Why would Astrid be heading north?

I have proven to the world – or I’m about to, once the story truly breaks – that aliens exist. That humanity is not alone in the universe. Yet I have never been more lonely on my street, in my town. The irony is maudlin.

I have written the ‘how shall I live?’ equation on the white board in my office. The more I stare at it, the less sense it makes.

Downstairs, Naomi and Charles converse in low voices.

Astrid’s bedroom is the first door on the right when you climb down the ladder that leads from my loft to the second story of the house. I open the door and peek inside. By the light of the street lamp outside her open window, I see a meticulously tidy room. I am reminded of stories I’ve heard of the parents of missing children keeping the childhood bedrooms complete unchanged for years, decades. If Astrid never returns, her bedroom shall not be such a shrine. The idea of such a thing would nauseate her. No, she would want us to turn it into a music room, or a library, or something of the sort. Or just clear it out and leave it empty.

The police have gone through the room meticulously. They have not taken anything from it, but tomorrow they’ll be back and perhaps then they will start to fill some boxes.

Above her desk is a bulletin board covered in pasted-up photos of musicians in bands Astrid enjoys. Most of them are anachronistic. 80s and 90s groups. It’s the nature of youth to idolize such remote figures. It looks as if she has torn pages from her diary and pasted them up on the bulletin board as well. Her handwriting is neat and clear. Much of this text is the archetypal, romantic effusions of a teenage girl.

I take a pink-inked pen from Astrid’s desk and scrawl the alien equation on a small blank space at the bottom of one of these pages.

2x+y / √x = 𝚫xy

It makes no more sense in this context than on my whiteboard. It looks like the gibberish that an amateur set designer would stick on a chalkboard in a student film about mathematicians. Yet it is included among other perfectly sound equations.

But then I see it.

Not in the equation; just below it. The diary page here – one among the twenty or thirty identical pink-inked pages pasted on the board – bears a single phrase repeated over and over. Sault Ste Marie, ON. Sault Ste Marie, ON. Sault Ste Marie, ON. Sault Ste Marie, ON.

By Caryle Barton on Unsplash

Accompanied by no explanation or elaboration, the phrase fills the whole page.

Sault Ste Marie is a town on the Saint Mary’s River, which connects Lake Superior, Like Michigan and Lake Huron. It straddles the river; there is a Michigan side, and a Canadian side. ON would stand for Ontario.

It is the evening of my year of bad days.

New Years Eve.

The clock on the bedroom wall shows 11:58.

There will be no counting-down. Times Square is empty. No rituals accompany such a dubious temporal milestone.

From downstairs, Naomi and Charles continue to whisper.

Turning to leave the bedroom, I see a poster on the inside of Astrid’s door.

New Worlds.

Nobody can hear your scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.

MysteryShort StorySci Fi

About the author

Eric Dovigi

I am a writer and musician living in Arizona. I write about weird specific emotions I feel. I didn't like high school. I eat out too much. I stand 5'11" in basketball shoes.

Twitter: @DovigiEric

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (3)

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  • Kat Thorneabout a month ago

    Wow, this is really great, well done!

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Awesome!!! Loved it! Captivating, outstanding, and amazing story. Subscribed and hearted!😊💖💕

  • Carol Townend2 months ago

    This is totally brilliant!!

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