Aphelion Issue 239, Volume 23
May 2019
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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.

And then—

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?”

No response.

“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 happens.

“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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