When the Universe Listens

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023

“The universe didn’t blink in our staring match, it redefined how staring matches work by growing additional eyes.”

The universe is fundamentally composed of irony.  We live in a story, and that story has a genre.  It is a satire.  Let me repeat the most important idea here:  the fundamental building block of the universe, the smallest, indivisible component is irony.  When you take an umbrella, and so it doesn’t rain — dramatic irony.  The viewer, whoever or whatever exists outside the universe, or perhaps simply the personality of the universe itself gets to laugh at you.  It knows; you didn’t.  Dramatic irony.

Unless, of course, you brought that umbrella with you because you were trying to stop the rain.

That’s the thing about irony:  you can’t stare it in the face.  It will blink and play the, “I can’t see you, so you don’t know I’m here” game of a four-year-old child.  Which would be cute, funny, and harmless, except this four-year-old child can make the rain turn into hail, thunder, ice.  It controls the weather.  It controls the so-called fundamental laws of nature that determine the weather in the first place.

Because, remember, the only — the true, the deepest — fundamental law is:  the universe loves irony.  But you can’t have irony with an informed player.  Odysseus, Oedipus, Othello must strut the stage unaware — none of these men could know what was coming, because if they had, the audience couldn’t feel clever and important for knowing more than them.

So, when you realize this fundamental rule, when you learn to stare the universe directly in the face, unblinking, you can do some fleekin’ amazing things.

For instance, you can pour your trust fund into an expensive education in physics; you can study hard for a decade, ostensibly trying to build a time machine, joking to everyone you meet — including yourself and the silent spirits of the air, the silent Greek chorus that you feel watching you, judging you, and waiting for you to slip up and admit your true intention, which you never, ever will, not until you’ve achieved it — that it’d be hilarious if after all this studious research into time travel, you created an FTL drive by sheer accident.

All the while, though, you chant inside, under your breath that you recognize the irony, undercutting it.  Because irony acknowledged by the poor player strutting across the stage is no irony at all.

But you know that too.

And thus, the irony becomes an infinite tunnel of two mirrors, pointed at each other.  You know it would be ironic; so it can’t be ironic, making it ironic…

And so, after years of joking that it would be hilarious if I discovered an FTL drive by accident, I did exactly that.

But it was never by accident.

FTL was my goal all along, and the years of studying time travel were nothing but a ploy.  I never let the universe know my true plan.  And so the universe messed up.  After years of laughing nervously and avoiding my gaze, it suddenly looked me back in the eye.  The universe dropped the secret to folding space-time into my lap, due to a typo in one of my experiments.

And just to double down on the irony (I told you, the universe fleekin’ loves irony), the very next day, after just enough time had passed for me to make a fool out of myself on social media, posting all over the place about the importance of my latest breakthrough, my ground-breaking discovery becomes obsolete, because an honest-to-goodness interstellar spacecraft crashes down in the empty lot next to my own house.

Barely twenty-four hours passed between my discovery and the dubious gift of a spaceship falling from the sky.  I watched it streak, a blinding white line, across the star-studded sky.  I had been sitting on my roof, imagining all the wonderful places I could visit with the spaceship I would build.  Would it be like Star Wars up there?  Or just a lot of empty rocks?  Starkly beautiful, but empty?

And then the fleekin’ shooting star I’m wishing on — wishing for Star Wars, but with less war, right? — flashes like the end of the world.  Before my vision clears from the massive sunburst, the ground beneath me — my roof, remember? — gives way in the shock wave from the crash, and I feel jostling, jangling blows that rattle through my body.  I feel like a giant bruise, and I’m lying in the rubble that used to be my home.  The roof has collapsed inward, and everything inside is rubble-ized chaos.

I lie in the rubble, staring at the ruins of my life and feeling a stab in my side every time I breathe.  Eventually, a face appears above me.  It looks like a watercolor of a lion done by a five-year-old who loves the color green.  As the fuzzy maned face tilts to the side, the lines of yellow, gold, and at least fifteen different shades of green that make up the face run together, blending, reforming.  Somehow, there’s still a face with dark, sympathetic eyes in the blur of colors.  But I am not looking at something of this world.

“We didn’t mean to destroy your domicile.”  The voice sounds like a computer-generated imitation of human speech, played on a keyboard where every note is composed of an orchestral cluster of stringed instruments mashed together.

A paw that feels as soft as velvet and as squishy as a water balloon grabs my own hand, pulls me up.  Once I’m standing, I get a clearer look at the alien visitor.  She’s wearing a silver spacesuit with no visible helmet.  The way that her colors and outline seem to shift make more sense when I look closer:  she’s standing like a biped with a face, but she’s actually composed of a writhing mass of vines, quivering, thickening and thinning.  Is she a plant?  A mycelial mass?  Or just a colony of space worms that like to work together?

Behind the watercolor lion stands another creature in a matching silver spacesuit.  This one has a piggy nose, batwing ears, and bushy, bristly black fur.  Her voice sounds like a door with a squeaky hinge when she says, “It’s better this way.  Fewer entanglements.  More honest answer.”  She steps up to me and reaches towards my face with a keratinous hoof-like hand.  She pokes my cheek.  “Springy.  I like it.”

“What?”  I’m out of my depth.  The universe didn’t blink in our staring match, it redefined how staring matches work by growing additional eyes.

Then, just to make sure everything is as weird as possible and I know that tangling with the universe is a mistake, a third alien steps up.  This one is wearing the same silver spacesuit, but instead of a head, it just has a clump of glistening eyeballs all mashed together like a cluster fruit.  Except the fruit is eyes.  And instead of hands poking out of the end of the sleeves… more eyes.

I correct my earlier understatement:  “What the HELL?”  Is the universe just inventing aliens to mess with me now?  I think about a staring contest in the privacy of my own mind, and suddenly an alien whose entire culture is probably constructed from staring contests shows up to stare at me.

Eyeball Alien blinks.  But only, you know, like half of its eyes.  Maybe that’s a wink.

Piggy Nose barks a laugh.

But then Watercolor Lion shakes her head, mane flowing like a waterfall with sunlight glinting off of it.  She’s more gorgeous than I ever imagined aliens being.  The other two… they look more like demon extras in a cheesy fantasy show.  Except, unbelievably high levels of realism.

Watercolor Lion says, “Your planet is one of the testing grounds.  Pre-sentient life grows here, and occasionally, someone like you, develops full sentience.  Then a team like ours shows up, signaled by the spike in self-awareness in the background brain wave radiation, and we give you a choice.”

“A choice?”

“Come with us or spend the rest of your life wondering what you’ve missed,” Piggy Nose barks.

Eyeball Guy rolls his eyes.  Again, only half of them.  But damn, it’s impressive.  No human with a mere two eyes can convey so much disdain in a single look.

“There are plenty of reasons to stay in the world where you’ve been raised,” Watercolor Lion says.  Her colors seem to shift from the palette of an early spring morning to a later summer afternoon as she looks at the wreckage of my house around us.  “But you will not be given the choice again.  And those who turn us down, well, they usually go mad.”

I wonder if Van Gogh met this lion.  “Who?” I ask, barely managing to squeak out the word.

Watercolor Lion shrugs, and Piggy Nose barks, “Who can remember?”

But Eyeball Guy burbles, somehow without a noticeable mouth, “Em-ee-lee Deek-een-sen.”

“Oh, yeah,” Piggy Nose barks.  “I forgot she used to be one of these funny primate people.  She’s awesome.”

“Is awesome?” I echo.  “Used to be a primate?”  Whatever brain spike of brilliance caused these aliens to come here, I can’t help but think I’m making a poor showing now.  I try to do better:  “I guess, um, that means Death really did stop for her…”

Eyeball Guy gives me a withering glare.  I hope to hell that looks can’t kill, and then I regret even thinking the phrase.  The last time I thought of a metaphor, Eyeball Guy showed up.  I can probably cause looks to kill by thinking about the idea too much.

I clutch my head, trying to hide from the horrible fool I’m being.

“Relax kid,” Piggy Nose barks.  “Your thoughts don’t shape the universe.  But they can talk to it.”

“And the universe likes talking to you.”  Watercolor Lion flipped her mane.  She looked like shimmering wheat fields, rippling in the wind.

“Why?” I ask stupefied.  “All I’ve done is study patently ridiculous concepts in theoretical physics, trying to invent an impossible time machine.”  I’m too embarrassed to mention my theories about irony.  Even as I stare at the proof — and it stares back at me from a cluster of narrowed eyes — I know there’s a better explanation for what’s happening than my quasi-religious devotion to the concept of irony that started when I failed an AP English test on the subject for the third time.

I pray to whatever gods exist and are laughing at me that the better explanation isn’t that I’ve hit my head and am imagining all of this.

“You’re not ready, are you?” Watercolor Lion asks.  “That’s okay.  We can make you forget all of this.  We’ll leave you with the solution for folding space-time that you happened on accidentally, and you can probably keep yourself busy enough exploring the empty wastes of this universe in your FTL spaceship to keep from going mad.”

I’m not ready.  But it sounds like I need to be.  “What do you mean, empty wastes?  You said Earth was only one of the… testing fields.”

“Sure,” Watercolor Lion agrees.  “But each world has to be protected in its own pocket universe.  For safety.”

“So… I can stay here, and explore the farthest reaches of the universe, be a hero and genius to my own people, like I always wanted…”  Inside my head, visions of starkly beautiful but empty asteroids echo.  Oh so empty.  “Or go with you… where?”

Watercolor Lion smiles, and her face glows like a ray of sunlight falling on a yellow rose.

All of the edges and vertices between Eyeball Guy’s eyes crinkle making another, if bizarre, smile.

And Piggy Nose whoops.

“That’s the spirit!”  Piggy Nose claps a keratinous hand roughly on my shoulder.  “Come on!”

I haven’t agreed to come with them.  But somehow, the curiosity is enough.  We all know — Watercolor Lion, Piggy Nose, Eyeball Guy, myself, and the universe — that one step will lead to the next.  In the end, I’m coming with them.

One soft squishy hand and one bristly-furred hoof hand pull me along, stepping carefully through the wreckage of my old life.  Eyeball Guy leads the way, glancing back repeatedly.  If they had a mouth, they’d be smirking, I’m sure.  But I don’t mind.  I can tell they want to soak up every moment of my experience, vicariously experiencing this awakening themself.

The spaceship on the — previously — empty lot beside my house stretches toward the sky like an arrow.  It’s sleek and silver, exactly like a spaceship should be.  A door slides open at its base, and they lead me inside.  As soon as I cross the threshold, I feel my mind expand, like a kitten stretching in the sun, yawning, and waking up for the first time.

There are more dimensions in here.  Time is a water droplet, hanging from the tip of a unicorn’s horn as it gallops through eternity.  The human concept of physical space is the lingering taste of cotton candy on chapped lips at a carnival of deathless souls.  And consciousness is a never ending conversation written in the poetry of a billion butterflies flapping their wings.

And irony?  It never existed at all.

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