36,400,000. That is the expected number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, according to Drake’s famous equation. For the last 78 years, we had been broadcasting everything about us – our radio, our television, our history, our greatest discoveries – to the rest of the galaxy. We had been shouting our existence at the top of our lungs to the rest of the universe, wondering if we were alone. 36 million civilizations, yet in almost a century of listening, we hadn’t heard a thing. We were alone.
That was, until about 5 minutes ago.
The transmission came on every transcendental multiple of hydrogen’s frequency that were listening to. Transcendental harmonics – things like hydrogen’s frequency times pi – don’t appear in nature, so I knew it had to be artificial. The signal pulsed on and off very quickly with incredibly uniform amplitudes; my initial reaction was that this was some sort of binary transmission. I measured 1679 pulses in the one minute that the transmission was active. After that, the silence resumed.
The numbers didn’t make any sense at first. They just seemed to be a random jumble of noise. But the pulses were so perfectly uniform, and on a frequency that was always so silent; they had to come from an artificial source. I looked over the transmission again, and my heart skipped a beat. 1679 – that was the exact length of the Arecibo message sent out 40 years ago. I excitedly started arranging the bits in the original 73x23 rectangle. I didn’t get more than halfway through before my hopes were confirmed. This was the exact same message. The numbers in binary, from 1 to 10. The atomic numbers of the elements that make up life. The formulas for our DNA nucleotides. Someone had been listening to us, and wanted us to know they were there.
Then it came to me – this original message was transmitted only 40 years ago. This means that life must be at most 20 lightyears away. A civilization within talking distance? This would revolutionize every field I have ever worked in – astrophysics, astrobiology, astro-
The signal is beeping again.
This time, it is slow. Deliberate, even. It lasts just under 5 minutes, with a new bit coming in once per second. Though the computers are of course recording it, I start writing them down. 0. 1. 0. 1. 0. 1. 0. 0… I knew immediately this wasn’t the same message as before. My mind races through the possibilities of what this could be. The transmission ends, having transmitted 248 bits. Surely this is too small for a meaningful message. What great message to another civilization can you possibly send with only 248 bits of information? On a computer, the only files that small would be limited to…
Text. Was it possible? Were they really sending a message to us in our own language? Come to think of it, it’s not that out of the question – we had been transmitting pretty much every language on earth for the last 70 years… I begin to decipher with the first encoding scheme I could think of – ASCII. 0. 1. 0. 1. 0. 1. 0. 0. That’s B… 0. 1. 1 0. 0. 1. 0. 1. E…
As I finish piecing together the message, my stomach sinks like an anchor. The words before me answer everything.
I held off on getting a cell phone for as long as possible. I didn’t really have a good reason, I guess, other than the cost. When I was just setting out on my own, there was no way I could afford the monthly plan. I was the only one of my friends to still rely on a landline, and it drove everyone nuts. I managed to wait until my twenty-fifth birthday, when I finally felt financially secure enough to justify buying one for myself. My friends all laughed about my change of heart, but I could tell they were relieved. To be honest, I was pretty pleased, too. As it turns out, cell phones are ridiculously convenient – who knew?
I didn’t start getting the texts until about a month after I bought my phone. It was the first message from an unknown number that I’d received, and it read simply, “I miss you.”
I was confused at first – what kind of introductory text was that? It seemed a little overdramatic to me… and that was when I made the connection.
About a year before, I’d dumped a deadbeat ex-boyfriend out of my life. Looking back, I can definitively say that he was really something of an overgrown child. He expected me to cook, clean, set up his doctors appointments, and give him – yes, GIVE him – half of my income each month, as he did not find it necessary to get a job. I shouldn’t have stayed with him so long – damn those devilish good looks – but once I came to my senses, I kicked him to the curb, as all his other girlfriends/victims had done before. My guess was that he’d stalked my Facebook or prodded my friends for my new number. After all, this wasn’t the first time he’d tried to reach out to me, and I figured it wouldn’t be the last.
In the end, I chose not to answer. For one, I knew he would just try to manipulate me if I gave him the chance, as per usual. For two, it would give me petty satisfaction to let him feel ignored and unheard. Now, as a rule, I try not to be petty, but sometimes such a perfect opportunity is just too seductive.
The next few months seemed to corroborate my inference. His attacks weren’t constant, but were always vague pleas that seemed to indicate that he needed a new host to leech off and couldn’t find one. It was unsurprising that he’d try to reach out to me first, as I’d been the most loyal and long-lasting of all his girlfriends… and the most naïve. I was the perfect target.
The messages were always in the same vein, and quickly became tiresome. “I miss you.” “I wish I could see you…” “I thought I saw you in a crowd today, but it turned out to just be a dream.” Ugh. Pathetic.
One night, about eight months since I’d had my phone, I slipped up.
I have to admit, I’d been drinking. It had started as one beer to help me unwind after work and quickly snowballed into a one-woman party. I was thoroughly smashed when I received a much longer text than usual.
“I miss you so much. I know you don’t read these, but today of all days I need you to know how much I love you. I’d do anything to see you one more time…”
Today of all days? I wondered. I tried to wade through the mushy haze of my brain. The first thought I had, I seized. Today must’ve been our anniversary. Sure, why not? It would be the perfect opportunity for a little manipulation. He was a prick, but he was smart.
And then I had an idea.
He wants to play games? Okay. Let’s play. But I’m going to change the rules. I swear my thoughts slurred.
I began to type and my autocorrect struggled to clarify through my drunkenness.
“If you want to come see me, then why don’t you do it?” And then, just for good measure, I let him know that I knew he’d been investigating me. “You know where to find me.”
I sent it, and, with that, I changed fate.
When I woke up the next morning, I had thirteen missed calls. I tried to remember, through the throbbing of my skull, just what bullshit I’d done the night before. I groaned when my texting history answered my question.
Well, at least I hadn’t answered the phone, I thought. I silently prayed that he wouldn’t message or call again, but I feared that I’d merely succeeded in egging him on.
To my great relief, he stopped messaging me. For a week or so, my phone was blissfully free from his assaults. I was secretly satisfied, congratulating my drunken self on her ingenuity.
The next week, I received a knock on my door. I opened it only to reveal a man of the badge, his solemn face and blue uniform standing stark in the morning sunlight. His partner stood behind him, his face hard as stone. I felt a strange coldness seeping into my veins as they stared at me.
“Um – good morning, officers. Is something wrong?” I asked.
With very little introduction, they invited themselves inside. I let them in, not sure what they were looking for, but positive they wouldn’t find it. I figured they’d made a mistake, and was even more surprised when they began firing questions.
“Do you know anyone by the name of Silence Madison?” I was stumped, completely puzzled. “I can’t say that I do… why?” “We found a series of texts to you on her phone. We found only one reply from you.”
The younger officer pulled out a printout of the texts that I’d been receiving, along with my one drunken reply.
Reality started to dawn on me as the older officer asked, “Did you receive these messages?”“Yeah…” I answered. I added quickly, “But they were coming from an unknown number. I thought they were from my ex-boyfriend.” “And that’s why you sent that reply?” I was sweating nervously. “Well… yeah. I thought it would make him stop.” I couldn’t stop running my mouth. “I was a little drunk, so maybe it wasn’t the best decision…” The younger officer stepped outside as the older one sighed. “There seems to have been a rather unfortunate accident.” “What do you mean?” He took a deep breath and opened his mouth…
Silence had had a very rough first year of college.
Classes were hard. She didn’t quite fit in. Her life was a mess of stress and papers. And, just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, her best friend since childhood, Raquel Wagner, died in a car wreck. The death was instant, but Silence’s pain was not.
She’d withdrawn into herself as the semester went on. Her family and friends mourned Raquel’s loss, of course, but they continued their lives, as people are wont to do. Silence, on the other hand, could not bring herself to leave her friend in the past.
She tried to deal with it, she really did. She looked for outlets. She tried to put on a happy face when she went to class. But she sank slowly into a darkness that felt inescapable.
And when that darkness was truly thick, suffocating, insufferable… she’d text Raquel’s old number. A useless gesture, but sometimes it would bring her comfort.
And on the anniversary of Raquel’s death, when she was at her lowest, she finally got a response.
“If you want to come see me, then why don’t you do it? You know where to find me.” She’d tried calling, but she didn’t even reach voicemail – because I had never set it up.
So, she’d done the only logical thing she could do. She’d reached for the box cutter she’d swiped from work and opened her veins to the possibility of infinity.
I made a terrible mistake that night, a mistake that ended the life of someone desperately struggling just above the surface.
Her father forgave me, but, no matter how many times I apologized, her mother had nothing but hatred for me. I understood that. To her, I had been the final push to kill her daughter. The police told me over and over that Silence, herself, had ended her own life. I was not to blame. But inside me, the seeds of guilt spread far across my heart, growing like weeds that I just couldn’t uproot.
It was a long, hard year. I managed to get back on my feet and continue on with my life, although Silence’s death hung over me like a shadow. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t forget her, no matter how far away the incident seemed.
Yesterday was her anniversary. I tried my best to get through the day, pretending I’d never heard that name, never heard that story.
It was going well until about ten that night when I received a text. A text from a number I’d been trying desperately to forget for the entirety of the last year.
“…Andreas Gruber discovered footprints in the snow leading towards the farmhouse. As he backtracked them he found they had come from the woods – however there was no trail leading back. Andreas rushed to the farmhouse and gave it a thorough search. When he heard footsteps coming from the attic he grabbed his gun and went for a look, but found no one there.”
As doctors, we can’t help patients who won’t help themselves. Like my patient, Maisy Leland. She has a condition known as atrial fibrillation, meaning her heart rhythms are irregular in a way that could induce blood clots. Left untreated, she could stroke out at any second. That’s why I’ve prescribed her with warfarin, a blood thinner that makes her less prone to clotting.
The problem is, Maisy Leland is what we call a non-compliant patient. It doesn’t matter what wonder drug she’s prescribed if she won’t take her medications regularly. She won’t admit to it, but her alarmingly low INR tells the whole story.
Her husband, a gorilla of a man, brought her to the appointment, mumbling about his time wasted. “Well doc, tell the silly bitch what’s wrong with her.” He barked a laugh, his grip firmly on her shoulder. Maisy Leland said nothing to her husband’s silent gloat of how he could get away with hurting her with no bruises.
“Ms Leland, as your physician I am concerned. Your bloodwork hasn’t shown any improvement. If warfarin doesn’t work, we’ll have to consider more expensive options.”
“Who’s gonna pay for that?” Her husband demanded. “Maisy, you stupid bitch! Haven’t you cost me enough money?”
“Do you remember what we’ve discussed last time, Ms Leland?”
Maisy Leland’s pale lips went thin. “Of course. You accused me of not taking my meds.”
“Accuse is a strong word.”
“I’m not senile,” she said as her husband scoffed, “I know how well my medication is supposed to work. I assure you, I never miss a dose.” She looked at her husband. “I’m a very patient woman, doctor. I know it takes time to see full effect.”
“Yes, but for warfarin, we’re talking two to four weeks at most. We’ve been incrementing your warfarin dose for months now, but your readings haven’t shown a tad of improvement. In fact, I’ve never seen even a grown man take this much warfarin without bleeding out sooner or later. But going by your INR, it’s like you’ve never taken a single pill to begin with.”
Maisy Leland’s lips practically lost dimension. “I wouldn’t worry about it, doctor. Like I said, I’m a very patient woman.”
I sighed. No doctor in the world can help a patient who won’t help themselves. “In that case, we’ll try upping the dose again. If your INR shows no improvement in two weeks, we’ll talk alternatives, okay?”
“Goddamn, Maisy,” her husband snarled, “your messed up heart is gonna bleed me dry one day.”
As they let themselves out, Maisy Leland’s husband turned to me. “And doc, those vitamins you had Maisy get me? You’d better make damn well sure it’s covered by my insurance this time.”
I met Maisy Leland’s petrified gaze. Well, damn. She’s a very patient woman, alright.
“Of course,” I finally said, “I’ll see to it.”
As doctors, we can’t help patients who won’t help themselves. That’s why we’ll do everything to help those who do.