Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

Audience of One

by John Hickman

The world inside is small and warm and inhabited only by me. The world outside is immense and cold and inhabited by wisps without names. Remaining inside is easy; venturing outside an ordeal.

Venturing outside is demanded by an audience of tens of millions (out of a potential audience of billions). So once a day at least, and sometimes several times a day, I leave the simple comforts of the inside. I am thankful that the days on Titan are more than a fortnight long; 15.9454 Earth days long to be exact. During the intervals between venturing outside, I record broadcasts to be consumed by those rare creatures back on Earth interested in the exploits and discoveries of the only xeno-anthropologist on Titan. To be more precise those would also be the exploits and discoveries of the only human being of any sort on Titan.

In truth, which does not characterize all of the content of my broadcasts, I often avoid recording for many Earth days on end. I avoid the elements, and the creature outside, by taking refuge in the habitat much of the time. Sometimes I don't even get out of my bunk.

The unwritten, unrecorded truth is that going outside terrifies me. Donning the bulky Titan-specific hard suit tales hours but is merely wearying. Leaving the airlock is merely annoying because it takes so long to cycle. I am not really afraid of dying alone out here. I have thought about that more than once since my arrival and considered it something of an escape. I am, however, afraid of being trapped because the habitat airlock mechanism fails. My nightmare is that after entering the airlock from the outside it drains the frigid nitrogen, methane and trace gases of the Titanian atmosphere from the chamber but then refuses to replace it with anything breathable. That leaves me stranded in the hard suit in the airlock. I picture myself standing there rigid in the hard suit issuing impotent commands to the airlock mini-mind and punching unresponsive buttons. There I stand terrified to attempt holding my breath and keeping my eyes closed long enough to struggle out the hard suit shells and manually open the inner airlock entrance to the habitat. And there I die.


I wasn't supposed to be the only human on Titan. I was supposed to be part of a team of explorers. I am here alone because the rest of the team is doing what attracts a larger audience back on Earth. When the Richard Dawkins set out on the first human expedition to the Outer Planets, Titan presented the only evidence of extraterrestrial life. By the time we arrived at Titan that was no longer true and the mission was reconfigured. I was left as the sole human on Titan while the other eleven members of the team on board the Dawkins flared out of orbit toward Neptune where the Artifact on tiny strange Neso was making its presence known in a spectacular way. The first thunderous broadcast from the Artifact captured by the crew of the Dawkins overwhelmed every competing news story and entertainment program. Saturn was at periposeidon when it was picked up and every day the Dawkins delayed departure meant less fuel available for any necessary maneuvering to follow Neso in its eccentric orbit around Neptune and the eventual long burn back return to Earth.

Being abandoned on Titan makes me the human farthest from any other human in existence. My old crewmates on the Dawkins have each other to entertain and annoy. Mind you I am still connected electronically to the rest of humanity. I still receive messages from Earth, including the broadcasts captured by my former crewmates now at Neso. I still have an audience of millions on Earth. However even when my broadcasts of encounters with a Wisp or the Wisp occasionally cross the twenty million mark, they remain a minority taste. Billions watch each show captured by the crew of the Dawkins at the Artifact. And who can blame them. Each broadcast from the Artifact presents a riveting, ever novel story of beings unimaginably beautiful, passionate and powerful. No work of human creativity, from religious scripture to high opera, is as compelling. The lives of even the wealthiest celebrity humans appear pitiful by contrast with the lives of even minor characters in the drama revealed by the Artifact. Each episode is followed by contagious Dionysiac rioting and a wave of suicides as thousands despair at the insignificance of their lives and petty accomplishments.

How could my broadcasts possibly compete? Consider the following conversation with a Wisp broadcast two Earth months ago. After trudging across the murky landscape of Titan the three hundred meters from the habitat to the edge of the inky New Caspian Sea, I stand in front of the translator. Lovely Saturn can be seen hanging in the Titanian sky in the recorded broadcast because of carefully boosted video take. My Wisp informant appears at the center of the pool and glides across its surface to appear on the other side of the translator. Nothing is visible to connect the entity to the surface of the cold gooey ethane sea except a thin, translucent tendril three or four centimeters in length. Above that forms the complex swirl of amino acid chains largely held together by the 1.5 bars of atmosphere pressure here at sea level.

"Greetings," I begin, not knowing whether this is the same Wisp I had encountered before or perhaps a different Wisp or perhaps the only Wisp in existence. Even after two Earth years of conversations that major question hasn't been answered. Bookies in Dubai puts the odds at three to one that there are multiple Wisps but no more than one has been seen at the same time.

"You have come to speak again rigid one," replied the Wisp. The reference to 'rigid one' might refer to the hard suit I was wearing or to perception of my relatively un-Wispy organic body within.

"Yes, I have," I said, "I enjoyed the last encounter and hope to learn more."


"I am curious about your species."

"What is my species?"

"We lack a name for your species. What do you call yourself?"

"Until this moment there has been no reason to do so. Do you often refer to yourself? Do you speak about yourself to yourself?"

"My individual name is Roy. My species--creatures of my kind--are called humans. Do you have a name for yourself and a name for your species?"

"No," replied my informant before gliding away.

Here was yet another example of our fundamental communication problem with the Titanian indigene(s): their apparent complete lack of ego. The problem was discovered along with the Wisp(s) by the first mobile probe humanity had sent to Titan. Conversations like this almost made me appreciate the twisted neuroticism of the individual humans. We humans might spend our days deceiving one another and ourselves but at least it gives us something to talk about. We talk about ourselves as much as any other topic.

My communication problem with the rest of humanity was that the broadcasts of my conversations with the Wisp frustrated and annoyed most viewers. If mine was the only extraterrestrial show on offer then I might have held my own with decent audience share against terrestrial competitors. But my broadcasts of dreadfully dull encounters with REAL LIVE ALIENS had to compete against the periodic spectaculars from the Artifact on Neso. The show from Saturn's smallest moon utterly upstaged the show from Saturn's largest moon. Who wants to watch a guy in a hard suit try to extract information from an single, uninterested alien on a oily, murky moon when you can have a cast of thousands of compellingly beautiful aliens in high drama on hundreds of exotic worlds, many of them achingly Earth-like.

I attribute the Dear John message from Fiona in Edinburgh to low audience share. She recorded it outside in open air beneath swaying palm trees. I remember falling in love with her in Edinburgh on a warm Christmas Eve beneath a lovely Scottish Moon that seemed to hang especially close in the sky. In truth she probably ended our relationship because it was virtual and there was someone else more flesh and blood competing for her attention. An actor no less.


After Fiona dropped me I seemed to stop functioning for Earth days. Worried messages from the Space Corps brass in Yellowknife forced me to get out of my bunk and communicate and I ended up suspecting that every one of my words and expressions was being closely analyzed by the corps psychiatrists. When one of the daring space explorers wigs out it can be damaging to public perception of Space Corps and program funding could take a hit as a consequence. Besides, any rescue mission would take a long time and I might be merrily broadcasting insane ravings before help arrived.

Rather than continue to worry the psych section with complete inactivity I decided to entertain myself by violating a taboo. According to the 2026 United Nations Convention on First Contact (UNCFC) any and all exposure of sentient extraterrestrial life to the potentially damaging contamination by human culture had to be approved by the UNCFC Committee of Nine. In effect that meant no exposure at all because the committee had not met in several years nor was likely to do so. The current government of Greater China was in a decidedly unilateral mood and only the Japanese and Brazilian governments were on speaking terms with the New Caliphate. A super-quorum of at least eight of the nine space-faring UN member states would have to meet and then vote unanimously to approve any possible cultural exposure. In effect then the chances that approval would be granted for any exposure would be exactly zero.

So that's why I decided to violate international law. I decided to expose my target or targets to some of the glories or stupidities of human culture, which according to anthropological theory are indistinguishable in a first contact between sentient species. Since I was violating the law anyway and still knew so little about my Wisp audience choosing was effectively unconstrained by anything other than my own tastes. I could have confined the initial exposure to broadcasts of the Beijing Opera, the Passion Play from New Jerusalem or the Toronto Shakespeare Festival. High culture might have won some public support among cultural elites if I was ever brought up on charges for my international law breaking. But if you are going to violate the law why not violate it in fashion that puts your signature on the crime? I selected some of what I enjoy.

I chose something obscure from mid-Twentieth century Cold War period. Now almost forgotten, the television cartoon series called Rocky and Bullwinkle features an earnest flying squirrel named Rocky and a joyfully dim-witted moose named Bullwinkle who struggle against several pairs of pathological villains. Recall that this was an era when it was still acceptable to anthropomorphize non-human animals in children's programming. The episode I selected featured an encounter between the two protagonists and a pair of effete extraterrestrials named Gidney and Cloyd. My Wisp informant wasn't impressed.

"Rocky and Bullwinkle belong to two different 'species' but Gidney and Cloyd belong to the same species?" asked the Wisp.

"Yes," I answered, "but note that this is fiction. The flying squirrel--Rocky-- and the moose--Bullwinkle--are different and real Earth species, but specimens of neither species are actually capable of speaking as we are speaking to one another.

"You cannot speak to them with a translator such as the one we now use?"

"That is correct. Flying squirrels and moose lack the capacity for abstract thought that you and I possess. You should also know that no species corresponding to the characters Gidney and Cloyd exists."

"The Gidney and Cloyd species does not exist? The levels of intelligence and the communication abilities of the Rocky and Bullwinkle species are misrepresented?"

 "Yes that is correct," I responded, "the characters represent human personality types rather than species themselves." By this point I had begun to wonder whether the blanket proscription of unauthorized cultural contamination in the 2026 UNCFC might not disguise a common sense norm meant to save anthropologists from having to explain their own eclectic tastes to sentient aliens. "This is entertainment."

"You are 'entertained' with crude and inaccurate representations?"

"Yes, at times."

"Knowing this fact does not entertain," commented my informant before gliding away across the smoked glass surface of sea.

On my next attempt a day later I offered, what seemed to me, lovely video of a swarm of sea nettles, species Dactylometra quinquecirrha to be precise. This prompted the question, "Is this species fully sentient?" When I replied in the negative, the Wisp withdrew in silence. I suspected but still do not know whether that expression of interest in the sea nettles was motivated by the hope for a conversation partner somewhat more like itself. Projecting one's suspicions is of course a major "no-no" among anthropologists.

Video of a major water-ice geyser eruption on Enceladus drew only the comment that, "This was observed long ago." After that I ran an old 2005 film called The New World that portrays the encounter between two different primitive human cultures with pretty images and very little dialog but the Wisp left half way through the screening. The Wisp was willing to watch four solid hours of video about Tibet with a soundtrack consisting entirely of Tibetan Buddhist chanting but it did not comment before leaving. An achingly dull documentary on the solution to the Collatz Problem won the same attention and the same lack of comment. So too did an episode of the popular and inane situation comedy Kenny Does Kensington.

I began to wonder whether the sentience on Titan was capable of curiosity or wonder, of finding delight or investing meaning in anything. My Wisp informant seemed disinterested in anything, and perhaps uninterested even in itself. Living in liquid capable of reflecting images hadn't engendered narcissism.

Fear of failure drives many successful people. Unfortunately it also haunts many of the unsuccessful as well. That's why I have decided to break another of the proscriptions in the 2026 UNCFC. If human culture left the Wisp unmoved why not determine whether the stupendously successful broadcasts from the Artifact would stimulate the sort of sustained conversation that would reveal something about the nature of the Wisp.

The most recent show captured from the Artifact had drawn the largest audience yet when it was broadcast. So that is what I screened for the Wisp: a drama so powerful for human audiences that global worker productivity collapsed for days afterward as people spent their waking moments retracing the exciting details of each scene.

How did the Wisp respond? Our conversation has been viewed by hundreds of millions, my largest audience share.

"What do you think about the presentation?" I asked. When I watched the recorded conversation later I could hear the odd mixture of triumph and trepidation in my voice. Curious isn't it how one can miss that when you are speaking?

"This has been seen before."

"Yes, it has. By billions of humans. Very popular too."

"No. This has been seen before on Titan."

"It has?" I was stunned.

"Yes. Tens of thousands of revolutions of the ringed world above you have passed since this was first seen on Titan. Why do you show something old? Interaction with you such as this is not 'entertaining'."

"How have you seen this before?"

"Before what you call the Artifact was removed from Titan it was a source of 'entertainment'. We discarded it."

"Where did it come from? How long did you have it?" I sputtered. "Who created the Artifact?"

Without answering me the Wisp turned and disappeared into ethane. Only sparkles from the lights on the translator and projector could be seen on its inky surface.

There you have it. That is the awful truth, or at least all we know of it now. The Wisp or Wisps had given up on being entertained by the Artifact some time ago. Nor was/were it/they impressed by any cultural works that humanity had to offer in comparison. To add insult to injury humanity had been enraptured by the Artifact, which was revealed to offer nothing more than re-runs. For many back on Earth, that fact soured the taste for future offerings from the Artifact. Where previously many believed they were enjoying the absolute latest programming on a cosmic receiver, many now see it as nothing more than a library of cosmic classics. After this last conversation with my Wisp informant--there has no further interaction since my apparent faux pas--the audience share for broadcasts from the Artifact declined for the first time. I guard the hope that I have achieved a measure of lasting fame for having discovered something about the sentience on Titan and the Artifact. After I get home to Earth I should be able to bask in that celebrity for several years. Even if I am pilloried for my violation of the 2026 UNCFC at least I am going home. Let some other xeno-anthopologist come out here and stand on the edge of an ethane sea trying to extract information from the uncommunicative.


© 2007 John Hickman

Bio: John Hickman is Associate Professor of Government at Berry College, where he teaches courses on Comparative Politics, Science Fiction and Politics, War Crimes and Genocide, and Research Methods. He holds both a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. His non-fiction work has been published in African Development Review, American Asian Review, Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Comparative Strategy, Contemporary South Asia, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Extropolation, Journal of Evolution and Technology, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, South Asian Journal of Socio-Political Studies, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review.

E-mail: John Hickman

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.