I Won't Mention Apophasis
by J. B. Toner
A long time ago—a long time for a child—Mr. Jenkins gave us droppers of
caffeine and alcohol, and had us drop them onto slides of amoebae. It
was beautiful and horrible to watch their hearts, cosmos-deep inside a
water-dot, frolic and languish at the warrant of looming things beyond
their infinite. Perhaps it was a rapture of magnificent transcendence,
before they died.
I’m Dr. Adriana Longinus, accidental founder of the science of
Biophilology. An especially peculiar circumstance by reason of my being
neither a biologist nor a linguist. I defended my thesis in Particle
Physics at MIT and went on to work for CERN in Geneva: the impossible
dream of a doe-eyed doctoral candidate. But as with so many of the
glimmering visions of youth, the reality proved flat and grey. That is
why I was alone and drunk in the bowels of the Large Hadron Collider
when the Apophasis appeared.
“Have you ever watched a baby who’s just learning to roll over?” Dr.
Mumford once asked us. “We figure out rolling long
before we learn about causality and gravitation. If there’s not a
grown-up in the room to keep an eye on things, that baby will roll
himself right off the bed and down the stairs. But in quantum physics,
there are no grown-ups. We’re all just rolling around with
thermonuclear forces, wondering when we'll find the edge of the bed.”
Snuggling up to a bottle of Scotch and a pulse laser was, indeed, not
adult behavior. But I was having a bad day. Year.
You’re no doubt familiar with the double-slit experiment? One simply
fires a coherent light source at a plate with two slits in it and
observes the interference pattern on the screen behind. Richard Feynman
famously remarked that all the mysteries of physics lay within this one
technique. Among other things, it demonstrates the impossibility of
observing a phenomenon without affecting it—which is taken by many as
corroboration for the absolute statement that there are no absolutes.
“What’s the point, then,” I muttered to my bottle of Dewars (which
deserved so much better than to be cretinously swigged). “What’s the
point of anything. Why am I even here?”
I thought I meant here at my dim-lit desk at 2 o’clock in the morning;
but the longer I glowered at nothing, the more I realized I meant. I
took another cretinous swig.
“Damn everything anyway.”
I hooked the thumb and pinky of my ringless left hand to electrodes.
Began to enter predictions into my console for how each light pulse
would react to the double slits. And set the power to administer shocks
when I was wrong. Everyone talks about the observer’s effect on the
phenomenon, I thought. What about the effect on the observer?
Maybe I hoped to extort some reaction from the placid bovine cosmos.
Maybe I just wanted to feel something.
My first two predictions were accurate. Take that, universe. The third
time, I got a shock.
It hurt more than I expected. Fearing weakness more than pain, I dialed
up the power.
Another right guess, another wrong. I yelped a bit this time, which
made me angry with myself, which made me dial it up again.
Wrong again. I screamed. Three rights in a row! Then wrong again. I
dialed it up.
Another shock. Shaking now, and crying. Seeing spots. I dialed it up.
You see the wind by the moving of the leaves. In that moment, as I was
reaching over to fire the laser again, I saw the words in the room
moving. But not the physical writing on the objects around me: rather,
I saw the zephyr-like fluttering of what those objects meant.
The laser: sunfire in a bottle, Man’s ascendancy through simple stone
and light, last century’s image of the Future, along with robots and
spaceflight, all now realized. But now a dull grey tool on a dull grey
table, a button-push and a mark on a dull white pad. The pen: reliquary
of wisdom, mouthpiece of the ancients, our own mouthpiece to those who
follow after. A relic, now, with dust on its scabbard and teethmarks on
its plastic shaft.
I shook my head. All this voltage was addling my thoughts. Leaning back
in my chair, I gazed wearily at the ceiling and the meaningless sky
beyond. It didn’t strike me odd just then that I was looking past the
concrete overhead, as if through some new spatial dimension. I heaved a
sigh and spontaneously muttered:
“Galactic miles, untracked exile,
The vacuum-silence, empty space—
Dead flares once hurled from glaring worlds,
Now barren pearls bereft of grace—
A swirling stair unfurled through air-
less whorls, uncaring brooding wastes—
A skylong wrack, an aisle of black,
A smiling, hacking, drooling face.”
Another swig of Scotch. Then, abruptly—
“What the hell?” Leaping out of my chair, I stared around the room.
These words, this vision, couldn’t be coming from me; yet they felt
like my own, merely amplified somehow. My simple light, focused through
some hovering diamond.
“Is. . . Is someone there?”
And something answered.
Have you ever tried to look at an English word and not read it?—to see
it as an alien might see it, as squiggles of mysterious portent? It’s
not possible, of course; our neural pathways are now indelibly trained.
But when I spoke to the empty space, it answered me by showing me those
squiggles. The writing on the laser, over the doors, on the papers on
my desk, was suddenly nothing but haywire markings. And where I would
normally have thought or spoken words of alarm and confusion, I did
neither. I heard a low, keening sound like the growl of a startled cat,
and knew that it came from me.
Then the eye in the word-storm closed, my tongue returned, and a vast
relief enveloped me—and with it, the vast curiosity of a scientist, a
cat who can’t help poking at a socket. I reminded myself perfunctorily
that I’d been electrocuting my brain and might be imagining things; but
I never truly doubted that I had encountered some form of intelligence.
The absence in the room with me was far too strong.
“Who are you?”
The language rippled around me again.
“Can you speak English?”
Nothing happened. Tentatively, I took that as a no.
“Are you—are you an alien?”
My word-sense was engulfed again: a yes. Now that I was prepared for
the sensation, I was able to process the experience (a little bit)
without articulating it, almost meditatively. An image formed in my
mind of a sentient energy somehow connected with speech and rationality.
“Is this your first time on Earth?”
“How long—” Yes or no questions, Adriana. “Have you been here
for long? Years, decades?”
Engulfed again. I visualized two beings, intertwined, each leaning on
the other. A gulf of aeons.
“Symbiotes,” I whispered. “You and—and us. All along.”
Engulfed, I saw myself asleep at my desk. My forebrain muttering in
garbles, while my deeper mind formulated ideas.
“Dreams. You breathe in dreams. And you—exhale language! Is that right?”
Engulfed. This time, as my words returned, a funny old term popped up
from buried memory: apophasis.
The explicit non-statement of an idea, as in “I won’t say I told you
so.” That’s how this creature talks, I thought, by not talking.
Or creatures. “Are you the only one?”
A frisson. Xenophobia from the depths of my DNA. Thousands—billions?—of
this nameless thing, this Apophasis, slinking through our slumber, all
over the planet. Since the dawn of history.
But we wouldn’t have a history without them. Would we.
Nuclear power and digital communication have surely shaped our
interaction with the physical world. But the microscope—the first
glimpse of a universe beneath the universe—revolutionized our concept
of the world, perhaps more than any other discovery.
Until now. A will behind our words. A will from the stars.
“Why?” I stammered, forgetting our binary idiom. “Why now? Why me?”
Another image: cluttered laboratory, moldy samples. Dead bacteria.
Fleming’s inadvertent invention of penicillin; millions of lives
accidentally saved, an accidental Nobel Prize. Sometimes science just
“So you’re ready, your people? To reveal yourselves?”
An image of my own face. Of my colleagues, of people on the street.
Cities, continents. Earth.
“We’re ready.” I took a long, deep breath. “I hope you’re right.”
© 2018 J. B. Toner
Bio: J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and
holds a black belt in Kenpo-Jujitsu. He blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com
and tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com. He would also like to take
this opportunity to thank his dear friend Dan Sadasivan, who constantly
tolerates his drunken questions about Astrophysics and tries to answer
them in a way that a mathematical illiterate like Toner can understand.
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