Weekend Fiction: The WTF Star

Janet Nordstrom cursed as she tried and failed to pick her way across mounds of debris in order to reach the sink.  The room more closely resembled a trash heap in Rio than the wooden floor of a suburban bungalow. Piles of paperwork had toppled and slipped to form a paper Death Valley with a riverbed of orphaned electrical leads. It was populated by a varied wildlife of shrivelled candy wrappers, paperclips, dribbling ink pens, used bus tickets and the occasional whiskey bottle.  It was on one of these bottles, its shiny shoulders poking out from under a ream of address labels, that her left foot skidded, causing her to slam down her right onto the top of a heaving bank of research papers which she slid down until she hit the body of a vacuum cleaner and, wavering for a second, fell flat on her back.  The landing was quite soft since she’d fallen onto a piled up dressing gown but her hand was in something sticky and holding it up to her jaundiced eyes she could see that there was something in varying hues of yellow smeared over her palm.   She sniffed it but was non-the-wiser. Stepping over the Hoover and muttering to herself, she made it to the kitchen counter.

To a casual observer, the mess that sprawled underfoot and over every surface would seem to be the outward manifestation of Professor Nordstrom’s catastrophic fall from grace – but Nordstrom had always lived like this.  A high functioning alcoholic, she had never allowed her habit to contaminate the world of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, it existed in the fringes, suspected but unacknowledged, indistinguishable from the eccentricities of a genius at work. No, neither was this a result of her giddying fall, nor was it the cause.  Her downfall had been her paper on KIC 8462852 – playfully known as the WTF Star.  WTF was extraordinary because of its inexplicable dimming.  In the search for undiscovered planets, the Kepler Telescope collated data on the light emissions from stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region. However, the WTF star showed dimming of a magnitude and duration that could not be explained by the presence of an orbiting planet.  Instrumental and data processing errors were ruled out, along with the possibility of dust emissions or pulverised comets. The scientific community fell over themselves attempting to formulate a hypothesis that would account for the dimming events.  Nordstrom was the only one who had the courage to say what everyone else was desperately trying to avoid – what if it was evidence of a civilisation far older and more technologically advanced than our own? A space-borne megastructure could cause dimming events consistent with this data, perhaps a massive engineering project attempting to harness the energy of their sun.

She had merely raised the hypothesis as a possibility not to be ruled out.  Indeed, every attempt to rule out this theory was met with more data that served to validate it.  Rather than lending credence to Nordstrom’s ideas, this merely caused greater frenzy amongst her peers and gradually her credibility and academic standing were eroded.  Her once steady flow of PhD students dried up and when her funding was due for renewal her application was denied.  Unable to continue with her research, a summons to the Dean’s office was by then an inevitable and welcome final nail in her academic coffin.

She jumped when the doorbell went, slopping water over herself. ‘Fuck!’  Who was this? She slung open the front door.  The daylight was blinding after the curtained gloom of the house.  She shielded her eyes but even squinting she couldn’t see anyone there.  Expletives erupted from her lips like pressurized steam.  As she turned to go in she heard something and looked up.  Maybe no-one was there but some-thing was.  Wrapped around the top of the veranda roof were three very long curved claws, thick and smooth with, thankfully, blunted ends.  She took a step back. Very slowly, a brown fuzzy head appeared. It had a light coloured face with a pair of small eyes set into dark brown patches, a short snout and smiling mouth.  The expression on its face, and the incredibly slow pace at which it moved, dispelled any fear Nordstrom may have been feeling.

The sloth unravelled itself, lowering its body to the ground.  She knew as much as the next person about sloths, but this one seemed to have a disproportionately large head.  She watched as the sloth lifted an impressive claw and appeared to point behind her to the interior.  Nordstrom looked into her shambolic home and back at the sloth.  What the hell? She stepped aside and waited. Using its long front arms to pull itself along, it mooched slothfully into the house.

Patience was not Nordstrom’s strongpoint, and she had to wait some time as the sloth did a better job of picking its way across the treacherous ‘floor of social ineptitude’.  Closing the front door with an exasperated sigh Nordstrom felt that, given the throbbing pain and nausea of her hangover, the path of least resistance was her best option.

The sloth reached her brown corduroy thinking chair and hooking its claws over the back of the folder she’d left there, dragged it with slow deliberation until it clattered to the floor spewing papers.  It pulled itself up slowly and arranged itself into a sitting position.  Nordstrom, far less gracefully, stumbled and slipped her way over to join it and exhaled herself onto the edge of the sofa opposite.  The sloth was rummaging in its long coarse fur and, to her amazement, removed an iPhone 6 from amongst the green lichen encrusted strands.  Fuckssake, I don’t even have a 6! Nordstrom thought.  It began tapping at the screen and after a few moments the electronic burble of a computer-generated voice, complete with inflexion, cut the silence.

‘Hello Professor Nordstrom.’

Nordstrom blinked.

‘I hope you don’t mind me calling on you like this.’ Tap tap tappety. ‘I thought a visit in person would be necessary. You see, I am not an ordinary sloth.’

‘No shit.’

Nordstrom was looking around for evidence of hoaxers. That would sum up the puerile behaviour of her ex-colleagues.  

‘I am genetically modified, adapted from the DNA template of my home species.’

Nordstrom half chuckled and half choked before beginning to toss things around in a quest for a bottle that had whiskey in it. Finding one under a cushion she trickled it into a used glass.

As the sloth spoke via its digital go-between, she drifted in and out of awareness, sometimes taking in the words, sometimes staring at this benign creature with the perpetual smile and bowl-cut hair do.  The sloth explained how its species of origin had populated a planet 600 light years away. That despite great care and frugality in their energy use, the planet had no longer been able to support this expanding civilisation and its technological demands.  Recognising imminent extinction, they constructed a vast sculpture around their sun in memoriam to their civilisation.  In addition, leagues of microscopic biobots were released into space, set to hone in on other habitable zones in the hope that a further, more comprehensive record could be carried. Upon arriving at such a planet, the biobots were designed to seek out the closest species to their own and attempt genome modification.

‘So here I am,’ it said, looking pretty smug the Professor thought.

‘I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get here. It took a few years for me to reach sufficient maturity to attempt the long trip and, as you can imagine, it takes quite some time for a sloth on your world to make it here from Southern Mexico without being incarcerated or killed.  And that’s not to mention the 600 years it must’ve taken the biobots to find this planet – it would’ve been the microwaves that drew them in, particularly the Ka bandwidth used by your Kepler Spacecraft.

Nordstrom drained her glass.

‘Jesus.  That’s some trip.’ She tried to take another swig and frowned.  ‘But I’m not big on visitors, particularly hairy ones.’  She made an expansive gesture with her arms, taking in the heaving proliferation of their surroundings, ‘It’s no wonder you’re all extinct if, given the whole universe, I’m your source of salvation.’ Leaning forward unsteadily she attempted to stare it down, ‘Tell me, if you’re a genetically modified sloth, how do you know about your origins, origins of which you have no experience?’

It scratched its belly leisurely,

‘The DNA of our species differs from yours in that it carries a collective consciousness - our genes are encoded with neurone patterns that represent the cultural memories of a generation, which are added to by each successive individual. Our DNA coding was sent here in order to carry this collective memory to your civilisation’ The sloth also leaned forward and widened its beady eyes ‘- it must not be lost, we must be remembered.’

‘Personally, I like to forget.’  Nordstrom said, rooting around again. The sloth persisted.

‘Our society dedicated itself to the preservation of energy and yet our resources ran out.  We hope that others may learn from this - I would like to work with you to document our civilisation.  I chose you as an alien-friendly intelligence on this planet.’

‘I’m not an anthropologist or historian, I’m an astronomer and I’m not even human-friendly! You must have studied our society; how do you think you will be received by humanity?  You know, you, the totally illegal genetically modified alien from Mexico.  Plus, given that we do anything but “dedicate ourselves to the preservation of energy” what chance do you think we stand if your civilisation didn’t make it?’ The sloth seemed to slump at this and watched as Nordstrom tossed the empty bottle into an open drawer with a clatter.  It turned and climbed the back of the chair reaching a long arm over to one of the bookcases that stood against the wall.  In one movement it swung across the gap and began to painstakingly traverse the shelves, oblivious as books dropped to the floor like a penny fall at the arcade.  Sniffing the middle row of books, it deliberately lifted a hairy arm and reaching behind them, cautiously removed something.  Cradling its find against its chest the sloth slowly picked its way back the way it had come and returned to the chair. Holding out an unopened quart of Jim Beam towards Nordstrom, the voice burbled,

‘I believe you need a research assistant?’.

Jay Kidd

Any similarity to scientists or civilisations living or dead is purely coincidental. 

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