Later Argo would marvel at how it all began: a droopy unknown bureaucrat making a dry announcement. Except instead of news about lunch he found himself listening to veiled threats and secret government schemes. The no-name messenger’s total disregard for optics inspired a hopelessness far greater than any show of force could have. Only autocracies, Argo would think, have so much confidence.
The droopy man entered the conference hall a few minutes before the lecture “Protoplanetary Discs in Exoplanet Formation” was scheduled to begin. He was slight of frame and wore a large suit that hung limply off him. What Argo remembered most were his flat, downcast eyes. It looked like it would take a great effort to get them up high enough to look at the world straight. He stopped at the lectern, in front of 200 or so of the world’s top astronomers, who had gathered in Dallas for the 2028 Deep Space Observer’s Conference. Like a nervous student called to the front of the class to demonstrate his correct answer, he spoke so loud into the microphone it shrieked.
“Professor Nav… Professor Navalny’s talk will begin shortly. I have an announcement from NatSCI,” he said.
Around the room Argo saw raised eyebrows, the NatSCI look. The National Scientific Center for Improvement and Standardization was the proverbial leash on scientific progress. Its Scientific Improvement Board had final say on all published work. Most of the researchers in the room had had a finished paper denied or a promising ongoing study shut down by NatSCI. The best-case scenario for a NatSCI announcement was something trivial like new citation standards.
The droopy man continued, “Scientists at the National Celestial Monitoring Center have been conducting investigations into a non-orbiting, radio wave-emitting mass on the far side of Mars.”
Murmurs and chair squeaks filled the room as the droopy man raised his voice without changing his flat tone, “We believe this mass is a new arrival in the area around Mars as of last summer.”
He said it as casually as if he were pointing out the moon.
On cue a voice from the audience echoed what was in Argo’s head, “A ship, then? A ship behind Mars?” His tone was a mixture of annoyance and incredulousness.
There were a few chuckles in response but as the voice in the audience spoke the man on stage raised his voice without changing his tone. “There is no need to look into this matter. Investigations at NatSCI are progressing in the most capable hands. I am here to deliver a warning. Information about this finding will be released some time before the end of this year.” He paused just long enough to lift those eyes and look up over the room. “When these finding are released there will be no debate, public or private. I remind you the word of NatSCI is final.”
There was no ripple this time in the audience. There was sudden stillness, an arresting absence of noise or movement. But for the stuffiness of the room and the tension in the air it might well have been the vacuum of outer space.
“I believe I have made myself clear? No objections.” Then he stood awkwardly at the microphone for several unnecessary seconds and left.
Professor Navalny came on to very scattered applause and gave his talk on protoplanetary discs and exoplanets. It was research Argo had been looking forward to for months and he hardly heard a word.
That night Argo sat alone in his hotel room. It would have been natural to use this time to catch up with old colleagues but he had no doubt the warning against discussion went into effect immediately. If he couldn’t talk to people about the “mass” behind Mars what was there to talk about? Argo imagined men in suits following around conference attendees and people in far away dark rooms watching restaurant security footage on computers. He looked at the walls of his room and wondered if somewhere someone was watching him on a screen as he stared into space, the droopy man’s announcement playing over and over in his head.
The general public may hardly have noticed, but for scientists the creation in 2021 of NatSCI had established extensive censorship and invasive surveillance almost overnight. Sold to the public as a new government commitment to understanding climate change, NatSCI was from the start a politically fueled vehicle to shut down research harmful to special interests. Its first action was to seize control of dozens of “promising” studies and even a few entire labs. Continuation of research outside the direction of NatSCI was strictly forbidden and ensuing laws classifying public speech as “academic work” allowed scientists to be prosecuted for efforts to publicize their own findings.
As Argo said goodbye to colleagues the next day all he noticed outside the ordinary was an intensity in the way people made eye contact. He had grown up as a scientist accustomed to the calculated and restrained interactions between scientists in public appearances and in their own easily bugged labs. He doubted he would hear from any of these people again for a long time. After the foundation of NatSCI a wave of early vocal critics had been stripped of accreditations and degrees and a few public examples even ended up in prison. The researchers who were left were people who kept their heads down.
Argo spent the flight back to Minneapolis with his face pressed against the window. Vast darkness expanded above and pale rumpled clouds stretched out below. “A non-orbiting mass. Some radio waves.”
One thing troubled Argo more than any other. It was, he had no doubt, what troubled his colleagues as well. NatSCI shut down research, they buried valuable data, they generally prevented information from being known but they had never, as far as Argo knew, fabricated something out of thin air. Entirely faked data raised the stakes dramatically. Why the escalation? He imagined a government announcement about a ship behind Mars: the fear, the panic, and the excitement. All easily manipulated emotions, but to what end?
With the cabin lights dimmed and the stale air grown warm from bodies he drifted to sleep, over Nebraska maybe, and didn’t wake until landing. He was still puffy eyed when his wife leaned over from the driver’s seat to shove the door open.
“Interesting weekend?” She said it with prepared enthusiasm. She was ready, Argo appreciated, to humor his desire to drone on about the isotropic signatures in methane plumes or whatever other tidbit had caught his attention the past weekend.
For a moment he thought about the silent conference room and the warning and what may or may not come of it and instead replied with what had long ago become their inside joke summing up his field, “The universe never gets any smaller.”
Argo dozed off again on the drive home from the airport and when he woke his wife was pulling the car onto the exit ramp and snow was hitting the dark window. They stopped at a street light and with the snow falling and blanketing the sidewalk and the warm car idling at the red light in his neighborhood he had a sensation of having passed through a portal into a different world, far from dry conference rooms and 80 degree Dallas and veiled government threats. By the time they had parked and shuffled coldly up the walkway to the house the conference and the droopy man seemed a distant memory. The long, monotone arm of the government still couldn’t reach into this warm home.
His daughter ran from the bedroom to meet him and even though it was hours past her bedtime Argo stoked up a fire in the grate. Wind shook the house in an oddly comforting way. Never mind that it was a school night and that he and his wife had work early in the morning. Never mind exoplanets and protoplanetary discs and non-orbiting masses that may or may not be behind Mars. His daughter read aloud from her book and Argo and his wife sat on the floor and leaned against the sofa and he eventually dozed of. It was hard to think anything else mattered.
Over the next few weeks the thin man’s announcement at the conference in Dallas became a bad dream, relegated to the back of Argo’s mind. He slipped back into teaching. Finals came with their usual flurry and were gone. The days lengthened as spring arrived.
For the first time in months Argo found himself pausing outside in unexpectedly warm patches of sunlight. Yes, there was a government censorship agency threatening disbarment and prison time for scientists who defied its rulings, but it was far away. Around him melting snow swelled creeks and left puddles in the swales in the fields on the edge of town. Flocks of birds, fresh arrivals from the south, filled the air with their calls in the low light of evening. “Let the thin men in droopy suits”, Argo thought, “obsess over the gloomy margins of the day to day that define power
But with the warmer weather came preparing for the spring intro class. Late one night in his office Argo found himself trying to envision his new students, their eager young faces, and the memory of the conference room came flooding back. There, sitting in his quiet office, he didn’t just remember the ominous words, he felt again the tension and stillness of that room, a tension shared by a collection of the greatest astronomical research minds in the world. He imagined walking into class some coming day after an over-dramatized announcement about UFOs in the solar system and facing anxious faces and the idea filled him with dread.
Argo planned the usual for his first class: a syllabus review and then half a lecture, but as he walked to class the foreboding came over him again. “Non-orbiting mass…radio waves…no debate.” The words were still going through his head, his heart pounding in his chest, as he set his papers down and looked up at his students. On a whim Argo did something he had never done before. He told them the unlikely story of how he’d become an astronomer.
Argo had made the decision after a nighttime field trip when he was 17. It wasn’t his field trip. He wasn’t even an astronomy student. He was walking by and a professor supervising an evening observation lab with a poor showing beckoned him over, set him up with a telescope and, with no scene-setting or explanation, told him to look through.
The image in view had been brighter than Argo expected, almost like the stars were close enough to illuminate the inside of the lens. But that wasn’t what caught his eye. In the middle of the frame was a faint spiraled wash of colors. Cool shades of blue and purple. Swirled like someone had stuck their finger in a melted snow cone.
He studied it for a moment, just until he started to feel self-conscious, and then he pulled himself back. The professor was still standing there. There was eagerness in his eyes. “The Andromeda,” he said.
“Another solar system?” Agro had asked.
“That’s a whole galaxy?” and he put his eye back to the scope.
“Not just any galaxy. That’s our galaxy’s nearest major neighbor, two and a half million light years away. It’s the theme of this week, how difficult it is to observe space. What you’re looking at,” and here he had paused, “is that galaxy as it appeared two and a half million years ago.”
Argo had taken his eye off the scope and stood up more slowly that time. And when he was standing up again he’d taken his finger and tapped the end of the telescope, as if the entirety of the galaxy were in there now. “That’s more than two million years ago?”
The next semester he enrolled in the required physics courses, signed up for the astronomy intro, and never looked back.
Talking about himself, about his younger self, felt self-indulgent, but Argo also felt the tension ease out of his shoulders as he recalled that first look into a telescope. The physical world expressed beauty at every turn, but it was messy too. For Argo there was a kind of art, a kind of good even, in teasing out the details of that mess and forming them into explanations. It required the humility to be awed, turn the awe into a question, and then follow that question wherever it led.
As Argo clasped his hands and set them on the lectern to mark the end of his story he saw a hand in the second row. He glanced down at his roster. Paul, it looked like. He was a broad shouldered kid and when called on he spoke louder than he needed to.
“So that was it? You got a PhD because you saw something in a telescope? One time?” It was a question meant to get a laugh and it did, students chuckling around the room, but there was a kind of incredulous respect in it too and Argo allowed himself a laugh as well.
“It was a mystery,” he said, “I wanted the answer.”
Another hand went up, a girl in the back. He started to look back to the roster but as he did so he noticed more hands. He felt something he hadn’t felt for a long time in a classroom, the slightest bit flustered.
“Amanda,” the girl in the back said while Argo was still scanning the roster, ”When are we going to do that?”
The waiting hands, the direct interest, Argo was taken aback. “Do what?” he asked.
“Look through telescopes. See the old galaxies?”
Argo started to respond when another student blurted out “How can you see something from two million years ago?”
‘Two and a half,’ Argo thought in his head as students started speaking out of turn all over the room. Someone shouted something about the speed of sound, another something about black holes.
Argo spread his arms wide, “OK everyone OK.” The class fell silent. Kids were so obedient on the first day. “I think,” he said, “this next part of class will start to answer some of your questions,” and he grabbed his stack of syllabi.
As the class noisily passed them out Argo allowed himself a small internal smile. The eagerness, earnest questions, impatience, explanations however poor, it had flustered him. But as his composure came back what was left was an energy. Argo felt like a spark. It wasn’t much but like his warm house on his first night back from Dallas his classroom seemed like a small bright world all his own.
The best first day Argo ever taught turned into his best semester. He took cue from that first day to open up more about what he felt about astronomy and the students responded. He could almost feel their wonder as they discussed new phenomena.
He pushed thoughts of Mars and made-up masses from his head. It was only in the stuffy silence of the late evening when he was the last left in the office that he couldn’t help his thoughts from drifting towards the dread of some looming announcement. Always he ended on the question: to what end? Military expansion? Security crackdowns? The Mars expeditions had never really gotten off the ground. Did the country want a new space race?
In the closed-up building with the only noise the creaking of old pipes in the walls, these thoughts would bring on feelings of panic. It was on the walk home through the quiet streets with the calming brush of open air on his face that the panic turned to sadness and loneliness. He had not been able to bring himself to tell his wife. He told himself she would be more terrified of the government’s deception than any possible spaceship. But deep down, if he was honest, he held back because he feared it would enrage her more than anything and she was the kind of person who could only be angry so long before she would want to do something. “But,” Argo thought, “there is and will be nothing to be done.” He would have to hold what he knew in silence forever. He couldn’t ask that of her as well.
He thought of his class too. For all their promise and heart-warming earnestness they were not trained scientists. They would have no reason to doubt a government-sanctioned finding. Perhaps at some future professional conference he would get another opportunity to share knowing looks with colleagues and that would be it.
But despite Argo’s living in constant anticipation weeks marched on with no developments. Eventually the unending tension became impossible to sustain and apathy began to set in. He stopped checking his phone for alerts first thing in the morning. “Maybe,” he allowed himself to think, “someone high up at NatSCI came to their senses and shut down the whole thing.”
And then one day in late May he came home and opened the front door and found himself listening to loud voices on the television and staring at his wife’s back. She didn’t turn around. A dishtowel was draped over her left arm and her left hand clutched a half dried bowl. She was standing in the middle of the room facing the TV with her shoulders hunched forward and her neck craned out. Argo noticed how the curve of her spine shown through her t-shirt. He knew from her posture and from the tone of the voice on TV, even before he heard what it was saying, that it had come.
He pulled out his phone. The announcements ran in a terse scroll down the screen:
“White House press conference announces space finding with national security implications”
“NatSCI: ‘There is an unidentified vessel in our solar system.’ Watch Live: Director of National Security and Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
“We are not alone. White House announces imminent global threat.”
Argo felt a roar in his ears and for a moment his vision narrowed. He closed his eyes. When he opened them his wife had turned to look at him. He saw, despite the anxiety in her eyes, a look of puzzlement, and it occurred to him his reaction had been subdued.
“I,” and he thought again about sharing everything: the clumsy theatrics, the awful waiting, the insult to his passion for good science, the burden of waiting in silence, but he again imagined her anger, the need she would feel to act. After a pause he lied, “I saw the news at the office.” He could see she expected more and he added, slowly, “The news… always jumps to conclusions with readings like this. And anyways NatSCI…”
But she cut him off dismissively, “Oh don’t start on NatSCI, not now. Did you even read the news? They’ve been monitoring it for almost a year.”
Argo started to open his mouth in protest but before he could speak she continued. “Plus,” she said it as though what she were about to say would end any debate, “you can’t trust NatSCI? Take it from the university researchers. That’s how big this is, Argo, NatSCI and universities cooperating,” and she glared at him before turning back and gesturing toward the screen.
Argo looked too and he saw the faces of two colleagues, respected astronomers who’d sat in that conference room with him. They had joined the lead broadcaster at a half circle table. One of them was saying, “These readings are steady, non anomalous, and unexplainable by known celestial phenomena.”
The lead broadcaster pushed for more, “Then you agree, Dr. Bromer, these readings indicate a vessel? A, well, an unidentified flying object, in our solar system?”
“This is the conclusion the scientific community has come to, yes,” Dr. Bromer replied.
The other researcher at the table was adding, “This conclusion comes after exhaustive analysis by researchers in every sub-field of astronomy and physics. Abnormal readings are not uncommon in outer space but we have eliminated all other explanations.”
Argo ignored the pointed look his wife turned to give him and closed his eyes again. No one would ever doubt this story. It wasn’t just the people presenting it, it sounded too good. This was the kind of once-in-a-millennia thing people wanted to believe, even if it inspired fear. The same way the stress and panic from late nights alone in his office had turned into sadness on the walk home, so the initial shock of coming in the front door began to fade to loneliness.
The television displayed a split feed of four men, text labeled them as representatives of the Indian, Chinese, Iranian, and European Space Agencies. The European spoke first. Argo heard “With input from Chinese engineers and in conjunction with NASA launch plans are being drawn up as we speak.” The four representatives were dressed in suits but had added regional touches: a trim headdress for the Iranian and a turban for the Indian, a Mandarin collar collar on the Chinese man’s suit, the European had draped a wide scarf emblazoned loudly with repeating fleur-de-lis around his neck.
They had moved on to the Iranian who was saying, “special times require the full cooperation of international governments. Iran will offer expertise in fission-fusion propulsion systems for compact…”. He kept speaking but Argo had heard enough.
It was, in one sense, the most heartwarming scene Argo had ever seen. They might as well have declared, “Breaking News: Peoples of the world unite!”
In his musings over the ultimate objective of the faked story Argo had always dreaded the prospect of people’s fear leading to violent conflict. He had never imagined it could be a cheap ruse to paper over international conflicts. There were still questions, of course. There were endless questions. He imagined the full truth would have something to do with the fact that oligarchs and autocrats and the simply wealthy of the world had more in common with each other than anyone else. But inside Argo was defeated. The thought that this would lead to some phony increase in global cooperation and unity left him more isolated than ever.
With his wife turned back to the television Argo walked into the kitchen. He thought back to the people from the television. How many knew? The broadcasters? The space agency representatives? Would other astronomers and scientists figure it out? Pilots, military personnel, connected wealthy donors? How many people, across the world at this moment, had any idea of the truth? Hundreds? Thousands? More? Would a community of doubters spring up? Would they ever have opportunity to talk freely to each other about it?
On the kitchen counter in front of Argo an array of small half-folded pastries sat neatly where his wife had left them when, no doubt, she heard the news. Their carefully folded shapes had slowly drooped into shapeless blobs. It broke Argo’s heart.
He thought of his daughter coming in the door any second asking the same questions his wife had asked and he couldn’t bear it. The walls of the kitchen pressed in on him. The roaring in his head returned. With his wife glued to the television Argo slipped out the back door.
Their house opened into two rows of facing backyards, but beyond the next row of houses the development gave way to open land and Argo passed through the dark between two houses and then beneath the row of trees that bordered the field. It had been a farm in recent memory but then the land became too valuable for farming so a conservancy bought it and returned it to meadow. Meadow edged by trees and surrounded by houses. As Argo entered the open space his breathing came back to him. His head cleared and the roaring in his ears died. He became aware of cicadas in the tree line.
As last year’s dead plant stems brushed his legs Argo stole the habitual glances upwards. But the thought of the night sky, the same that had for so long been such a source of inspiration and wonder, brought a wince. How much of the world, usually so ignorant of that sky, was now thinking of nothing else? He envisioned countless faces illuminated by the glow of images of outer space displayed on screens. Would anyone step outside and look at the actual thing itself?
The black stretched above him punctuated by masses of burning matter in every direction. Somewhere up there were our neighboring planets, very real worlds waiting to be investigated and explored. And among those Mars, behind which stretched a great expanse of empty space. Absolute nothingness.
Shifting his posture on the uneven ground, the crunch of collapsed dried stems was shockingly loud. Old seed heads rattled against each other in the breeze. He bent his knees into a squat, and used his right hand as a brace to lay himself out on the ground. From his back he watched the stars through the stiffly waving seed heads and desiccated stems.
The ground was firm but not hard, the nice in between of organic-rich soil with healthy root structure. It hadn’t been a wet spring, but the ground hadn’t dried out either, like it might if the rain continued to hold off into the mid-summer. Argo stayed there lying on his back on the ground until the moisture in the soil crept up through his shirt and with a cold pinch touched the skin on his back.
Chris Erickson currently works as a tutor in the Bronx. He graduated from Carleton College with an English degree in 2008 and has worked a variety of jobs since: middle school teacher, basketball coach, retail associate, horticulturist, and supervisor at an overnight air cargo operation.