A coincidental analog: when a planetary culture creates something out of its own imagination which also turns out to exist elsewhere in the universe. The idea pretty much blew the global mind. What were the chances of this? Turned out: surprisingly high. To quote directly from the UN speech delivered by S2M (as he was dubbed at light-speed on social media), “The multiverse has as many instances of coincidental analog as life-sustaining worlds.” Relevant example: in the Andromeda Galaxy, on a planet of bodiless beings who have evolved over time to form a collective consciousness via ethereal “root systems” of thought, there is a million-year-old legend about honesty in which, once upon a time, a strange creature, a young humanoid, used a weapon (known to us as a hatchet) to chop down a tree bearing a small red fruit (known to us as an apple), and subsequently told the truth about his action. The name of that humanoid was Georg Vashingtone.
Hansen was working that night, monitoring the astro-communicational intake computer. Fresh out of an astronomy PhD program at the University of Toronto, there he was—paying his dues, listening to the Static of the Spheres in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere (Mount Kobau, Saskatchewan, to be exact)—when the message came through on sub-space radio. In English. It began: “People of Canada . . . ” Had to be a prank, though on a scale almost impossible to engineer. Though maybe not impossible. Because the hackers, the cyberterrorists, in those early days of the new millenium, were becoming both bolder in their anarchic hijinks and increasingly expert at the manipulation of systems once the exclusive ground of trained professionals (in this case, astral communications)—and the next part of the message was so absurd, it had to be a hoax.
Calling the rest of the duty team into the room (there were three of them that November night), Hansen showed them the message. Couldn’t be authentic. And yet the computer insisted that the signal’s point of origin was approximately three hundred million miles away, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, and was moving closer with each repetition. What else could the staff of Mount Kobau National Observatory do? They had to call the Director of the Agency, Heironymous LeClerc, a man no less ridiculous in physical appearance than the claim of the communication which was causing Hansen and the others to awaken the Director in the wee hours of the morning, Quebec Time.
“Who is this?” demanded LeClerc, after he’d come on the video line.
“Name’s Hansen, sir.”
“It’s three in the morning, Hansen,” he said, in his Quebecois accent. “This had better be a matter of national destiny.”
“It is, sir. I’m calling regarding a transmission we began receiving at approximately 11:30 CST from somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.”
“You’ve decoded it already?” he said.
“We didn’t have to. It’s in English.”
“Yes, sir. I know it sounds bizarre— ”
“Read it, Hansen.”
Hansen picked up the printout and cleared his throat. When he was finished reading, LeClerc stared into the camera eye. His hair, red and Einsteinian, was even crazier than usual after a night of being alternately flattened and kinked. For long seconds, he stared at Hansen from behind the thick lenses of his oversized and outdated eyeglasses, before finally saying: “Hansen, you’re fired.”
Guy Hansen was, of course, not fired. On the contrary, he was destined to go down in history as the first person to encounter the message that would change the fate of a planet. A few days later, the news leaked: SOURCES SAY ALIENS ARE HERE. Sounded like an American Presidential Tweet. But the reporters and the panelists were totally serious—and the longer the coverage went on, the more a feeling formed on billions and billions of screens all around the globe, radiating outward . . . a feeling that something of epic proportions was unfolding. Pretty soon, a news conference was announced. And the Canadian Prime Minister went on TV. To inform the world that alien visitors had come to Canada. From a planet long-believed to exist only in the realm of science-fiction—but which, incredibly and unbelievably, we now knew to exist in fact. The Planet Vulcan.
Next day, a Vulcan was standing in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations. Ambassador Senses Two Moons. The name struck Guy Hansen, as it did pretty much everyone on Earth (even those poorly versed in what we now refer to as “The Mythology”), as a strange one for a Vulcan. There was not, however, time to do anything more than mentally note the error, because the drama was playing out right before the eyes of the entire planet on its phones and tablets and TVs.
There he was.
At the podium. Pointy ears, upswept eyebrows, dark hair combed down onto the forehead. Before he said a word, it was clear to Guy Hansen. This is not an actor in makeup. This is an Actual Vulcan.
Guy Hansen was also in New York. He was scheduled to be a guest on The Late Night Show, the first of what would be many television appearances for the young astronomer whom everyone wanted to ask: how does it feel to receive the most important communication of all time? But the taping was not until two o’clock. Now he was in his hotel room high above the city, watching on television the Vulcan ambassador addressing the world. Telling of the ten year journey via wormhole from a solar system in the Sagittarius arm of the galaxy. Explaining the strange name—Senses Two Moons. Yes, he said, there are many things the Creators got right in their imaginations. The ears and the hand signal. (He did the hand signal and a ripple of laughter turned into applause and then, as he continued to hold the pose, a standing ovation.) However, he continued, the average “degree of correlation” in cases like this is about fifty percent.
Like all the other eyes from hemisphere to hemisphere, Guy Hansen’s were glued to the screen. He was perched on the edge of his seat.
The nerve-pinching. The mind-melding. Can Actual Vulcans make you faint by squeezing your shoulder with their fingers? If Actual Vulcans touch your face and stare into your eyes, can they put you in a trance and know everything you’re thinking? The answer to both of these questions was: yes. But, are Actual Vulcans incapable of lying? Is Actual Vulcan blood really green? Negative. And negative.
“As for certain other traits,” the Ambassador said, pausing at length—giving every Earthling sufficient time to get the gist—“the Secretary General and I feel that perhaps such subject matter does not befit this hallowed hall.”
And so did the momentous first step in the rest of Earth history end. In a state of suspense. With Guy Hansen and every other human left wondering: does an Actual Vulcan really do it only once every seven years?
That afternoon, Guy Hansen taped The Late Night Show. He told the Host his story, which personally he thought to be on the boring side, of how he’d been sitting at the astro-communicational intake computer, when the message came through from somewhere beyond Mars . . .
About halfway through the interview, the Host—a sketch comedian who had made himself a household name by impersonating a wide range of fools and criminals from the previous Presidential Administration—said: “Gotta take a commercial break but we’ll be right back with Canadian Astrologer, Guy Hansen, and a Special Surprise Guest, so don’t go anywhere.” Guy continued to sit on his seat. He was wearing a new Brooks Brothers suit tailored especially for the occasion and was sweating bullets. In fact, he was extremely concerned that there might be sweat stains coming through the jacket. That’s when the Host leaned closer to Guy and said, with a sort of wink, that it looked like he could use a handkerchief (or maybe a car wash sponge), and Guy said that no one had mentioned to him anything about a Special Surprise Guest. “Right, that, well, look— ” But the Director was already shouting, yelling, starting a countdown, and the Host was giving Guy some helpful claps on the shoulder while Guy endeavored to strike a pose that would conceal from the cameras and the studio audience (now applauding on command) the perspiration stains at his armpits.
A few moments later, she was emerging from backstage. The most beautiful humanoid Guy Hansen had ever seen. Long dark hair pinned back and cascading over her shoulders. Form-fitting silver dress hemmed above the knee. Ears curving to exquisite points.
Her name was T’Pree. When she left the Planet Vulcan, she had been thirteen Terran years old. Making her now twenty-three. Guy Hansen was twenty-six. He sat there, in his armchair on the sound stage of The Late Night Show, staring at her profile and listening to her talk, low soprano and slow, though Guy hardly knew what she was talking about because of a high-pitched whine in his ear comparable to the feedback caused by a looped signal between microphone and amplifier—caused, in this case, by the signal looping between her voice and his heart.
The taping was over by four o’clock and Guy Hansen emerged from the network building in midtown Manhattan into a brilliant peaceful snowfall. Snow in New York City, snow this far south, snow anywhere, had become less and less common in recent years; and Guy Hansen couldn’t help but draw a connection between the rarity of these tender crystalline flakes of frozen water vapor and the woman from another planet who, backstage, after the interview, had made a request of him so extraordinary that he stopped now, as if the cold air had slapped some sense into him, and asked himself if this was all a dream he was having at the astro-communicational station back in Saskatchewan . . .
The taping had ended and he was trying to figure out how to say goodbye to her. What else was there to do? But how should he do it? Shake her hand? Bow? Simply say, “See you later”? Should he try to get his fingers into the configuration of the Vulcan salute (the emoji of which he jokingly texted from time to time)? For some reason, everything, not just his personal fate, but the course of galactic history, seemed to hinge on how he said goodbye to her forever—except, as we know, that isn’t what happened at all, because she was the one who approached him, and said:
“Dr. Hansen, I pride myself on my knowledge of Earth cuisine. I have been studying your cookbooks and restaurant menus for ten years.”
“How do you like French-Vietnamese Fusion?”
“It’s my favorite,” replied Guy Hansen. “After pizza.”
She lifted an eyebrow, said, “Ah, a joke, quite clever,” and asked him to meet her in three hours at a place on 22nd Street.
After walking for a good hour in a daze through the fine snowfall, reminiscent of the aftereffects of nuclear detonation, he found himself in a bar with a sign on the wall that said: IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE 18th AMENDMENT, NO INTOXICATING LIQUOR ALLOWED ON THE PREMISES. Guy Hansen ordered an 8.5% beer; and after he’d gotten half of it in him, he felt tipsy enough to believe the situation. In two more hours, he would be eating French-Vietnamese with an Actual Vulcan.
The television was on above the bar. A commercial spot came on. For The Late Night Show. “Tonight,” the announcer declared, “Dewey welcomes Best Actor Nominee Balso Snell, Canadian Astrologer Guy Hansen, and a Special Surprise Guest from the Actual Planet Vulcan!” The bartender, a twenty-something in a tank top shirt whose right arm, shoulder to wrist, was tattooed with the circuitry of an android, said:
“Can you believe this shit?”
“All this Vulcan shit.”
Guy looked at him for a long moment. Drank some of his beer. While drinking, he took a very close look at the man’s arm. “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? What do you think I mean, man? Remember the old ‘military-industrial complex’? Well, this is the totalitarian-intellectual property complex. Did you see the speech this morning? That dude isn’t real. He’s an actor. Go back, watch it again. Slow the audio down, slow it to half speed, and then put it through this algorithmic program that analyzes the accent in somebody’s voice, and guess what . . . The guy is Turkish-American. Yeah. And you can tell the ears are prosthetic. Just blow the video up and you can see the glue. It’s all BS, it’s all fake, the media knows it but they want you to think it’s legit. And don’t tell me ‘we’ve seen it all before.’ This is a whole new level. This isn’t just domestic, this is international.”
The commentary didn’t shock Guy. Why should it? Practically everything that happened these days was claimed by someone to be nothing but a fabrication. Still, he was confused about the theory implicit in the speech. Say the whole thing is a government conspiracy, an international conspiracy (which Guy knew—better, perhaps, than anyone else—it wasn’t): What would a country, or a bloc of countries, stand to gain from staging the arrival of extraterrestrial life based on a TV show? Guy Hansen finished his beer, laid a ten on the bar, and left. There was no point in explaining, I’m the one who received the signal. People like that, you can’t get through to them.
As we know, that bartender’s particular rant (that the Vulcans were not Vulcans at all but human people playing Vulcans) had been trending on social media for hours, since the minutes after the UN speech—and was soon joined, as we also know, by a competing theory:
That the Vulcans were real, and they had been here before. To be specific, they had first come to Earth in the year 1963, when they assisted in the construction of a supposedly fictional character from a planet called Vulcan. Now they had returned, claiming that the situation was “coincidental,” when in fact it had been deliberately planned to create an illusion of coincidence.
What could be the endgame of such a scheme? That part was murky. But those who subscribed to this interpretation were not so concerned with the logistics of motivation. It was the premise that hooked them.
At five minutes to seven, Guy Hansen arrived at a restaurant in the Chelsea District of Manhattan called Franco-Siam. It was Zagat-rated and had been given a grade of A by the city inspectors. Just inside the door stood a hostess of Vietnamese descent. For all Guy knew, she might also have some French in her from way back—and it struck him that, if she had pointed ears, she could also pass for Vulcan. “Good evening,” she said. “You’re Guy Hansen, yes, the astronomer? Your companion is waiting for you. She is seated by the jade Buddha.” Yes, she was. Sitting alone. Looking down at something in her hands, which appeared to be a smartphone, while the Buddha looked over her shoulder. And another thing. A kind of scarf wrapped around her head that covered the tips of her ears.
“Dr. Hansen,” she said. “How pleasing to see you.”
“Miss— Um . . . ”
She set the phone down. So magnetic was her stare, his eyes seemed to throb. She said: “I trust you’ll sit while we eat.”
“You really must call me T’Pree, Dr. Hansen. My surname you could not pronounce. As for my head covering by which you are so preoccupied, it is a trope of your culture’s portrayal of us, is it not? Every time they go back in time, the Vulcans must cover their ears. Is that not a principle of the storytelling? Also, I thought you might find it alluring.”
His heart backflipped.
“I am being facetious, Dr. Hansen. The purpose of the scarf is entirely practical.”
“Can you imagine if I walked about with my ears showing . . . ” She indicated the phone she’d set down on the table. “A time will come when people will hardly notice us. We will be like anyone else. For now, however, camouflage is the wisest course. Nonetheless,” she went on, “it would be inaccurate to assert that, in wearing the scarf, I did not have the ulterior motive of inspiring in you a desire to remove it. Shall we order?”
Guy was surprised when T’Pree ordered the Phô with beef. He was not an expert in the Mythology, but he thought he remembered that Vulcans were vegetarians. Well, they weren’t. Some are, she said, and some are not. “Personally,” she said, “it is my intention to eat Terran cuisine of a different national or ethnic variety every day with the full spectrum of indigenous ingredients. Tomorrow, I intend to consume a pork enchilada.”
Not all vegetarians. In fact, the most popular food on Vulcan was a patty made from the meat of a creature that bore a striking resemblance to the giant chickens of Earth prehistory; and the tentacles of a certain cephalopod found in the northern ocean were considered a delicacy in some regions (though too sacred to be eaten in others). Still, culinary habits were insignificant examples of “analog gap.” The imagining culture always made much larger errors. For instance, psychology. In the specific case of Vulcans: feelings—or the lack thereof. Did Vulcans purge themselves of all emotion in a ritual on an altar at the foot of a smoking volcano? No. To the contrary. They felt all kinds of emotions. By comparison, the human range of feeling was sadly limited. Vulcans, fluent in not one but two emotional “languages,” simply did a very good job of what human psychoanalysts would call “repression.” And yet even such psychological issues were of relatively minor importance compared to those of biology.
“You know of what I speak,” T’Pree asked.
“I think so.”
“Do you find it probable, Dr. Hansen, that my species mates once in a lunar alignment?”
“Well, it does seem kind of silly.”
“Silly. No wonder your planet suffers from such racial and religious strife. To devalue the meaning of another being’s sexuality with such a word.”
“Forgive me,” he said, earnestly.
She touched her wine glass to her lips. “Oh, I’m being quite cruel. Of course it’s silly, Dr. Hansen. We, to utilize your Earth vernacular, ‘do it’ at any time we wish and with whomever we wish. Admittedly, on a certain southern island, there is a very peculiar lottery system, but that is an exception. Overall, in this regard, Actual Vulcans are very much like Actual Humans, with one caveat: As a rule, Actual Vulcans are pansexual.”
A few minutes later, they were in a taxi on the way to her hotel, the Ritz, where she had a room overlooking Central Park. On the car’s television screen, one of the new 3D holographic types, a US senator and a terrorism expert (a man with hair balding in the pattern of a crop circle) were decrying the shortsightedness of allowing aliens to simply land and start walking among us without any system of background checks in place.
Of what they were saying, Guy Hansen could be only half aware. Because the hand of the most fascinating female ever to walk the face of the Earth was resting just above his knee, on his inner thigh, kneading gently.
Before disappearing into what she called the salle de bain, T’Pree requested that Guy do the following: light the candles that were positioned on various surfaces in the room; disrobe; wait for her on the bed.
“Also,” she said, “select some Terran music which best represents your personal definition of romantic.”
Guy was compiling a playlist (hands shaking) when the news alert popped up: an Actual Vulcan had been killed at Universal Studios Theme Park in Hollywood while waiting in the line for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As we now know, that young male’s name was Touch the Stars. Two Caucasian men had approached him, wanting to know where he got off, him and all the other green-blooded freaks, just landing on our planet and walking around like it was going to be theirs, when it wasn’t theirs, it was ours.
Touch the Stars responded: “You are a life form sustained by the planet. A planet cannot be ‘possessed’ by a life form which it sustains. As for my blood, it isn’t green. It’s the same color as yours.”
They shot him in the head.
On the edge of a king-size bed in the Ritz-Carlton, naked in flickering candlelight, holding a smartphone, weighing his options, sat Canadian Astronomer, Guy Hansen. He could tell the news to T’Pree the moment she emerged from the salle de bain (in which case, the night of a lifetime would be tragically ruined); or he could make believe he hadn’t seen the story. It was, he determined, no time for self-centeredness and opportunism. Whoever had been murdered, it was someone T’Pree had been traveling the stars with for ten years. To withhold such information while going to bed with her would be almost immoral. Of course, he was going to tell her. Then the door across the room opened and she stepped out of it and into the tongues of flame which could not stop licking her bare flesh while a girl-boy indie rock duo sang a cover of “Leather and Lace.”
He said: “T’Pree, there’s something I have to tell you.” (She was already kneeling over his lap.) She responded: “Your relationship status, Dr. Hansen, is of no importance.” He shook his head and told her that wasn’t it, it was something else. He shifted her off of himself and took her hand, glimpsing in her dark hair the white curve of an ear . . . She listened to the report, drawing her legs up against her chest, clasping her hands around her knees. Teardrop: inner canthus of right eye. Reflection of candle flame sparking within it. Twinkling starlike. And when, with an acrophobic vertigo, Guy leaned forward and kissed it away, he discovered that the sadness of an Actual Vulcan tasted exactly like the sadness of an Actual Human.
He said: “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, Dr. Hansen. It’s not logical.”
T’Pree closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it. It seemed she might never let it go, until she did, and said:
“I knew him since childhood. We grew up in the same village—and when the time came to leave, we left for the same reason. It’s true, we came to Earth because of the analog. But the analog is not the reason we left.”
“I don’t understand.”
Pressing the palm of her hand to his cheek, she said she could answer all of his questions. He could know the whole truth. Who they really were and why they’d really come from across the galaxy and how his fate was entwined with hers.
“Allow me,” she said. “To join your mind.”
More than once had he seen it, in storylines spread across the breadth of the Mythology. But watching it on a screen was no preparation for the real thing. ‘She’s going to touch my face,’ he thought. ‘Then our thoughts will blend.’
But there were two things Guy could not know.
Number one: how it would feel for him, the meldee. How he would come, in the first instant of mental connection, to comprehend the truth of the human mind: solitary confinement, living burial, a hostage of its own privacy. Now, all at once, he was going to realize the meaning of freedom. Actual Freedom.
The other thing Guy Hansen couldn’t know is that Actual Vulcans can mind-meld and have sexual intercourse at the same time.
So, while Guy was reaching epiphanies about consciousness, T’Pree was also kneeling over him, right hand on his face, left guiding that other part of him inside her as a mellow voice crooned: “It’s a fantabulous night for a moondance . . . ”
Must have passed out during the climax. Because all of a sudden the room is still, the candles are nearly burned down, and the music isn’t playing anymore. Though she is still there. Asleep. It all comes back to him. They did it in every position (and she never broke hand-face contact!)—and she shared her backstory . . .
Their society. How far from the Utopia of human imagination! Logic? A façade! Emotional control? Hypocrisy! It was all an act. Underneath, tortured by feelings just like ours. Infected with the same troubles. Violence, poverty, prejudice, addiction. A drug called Kallokáay. Used by everyone. And while the people who make it profit from its use, the users can’t stop using it, and killing in its name. A troubled world, an unsafe world.
Those who left, who came here through the wormhole, T’Pree and Touch the Stars and the others, were children when they left—and they left their parents behind; for, above all else, the parents valued the futures of the children. Now here they are, two hundred of them, interstellar journey scarcely over, and what happens?
Hate lessens their number by one.
Well, what did they expect? Didn’t they know the sociopolitics of this world had been slipping for decades into the dark ancient isms? Yes. But the analog! Underlying all of it, at the heart of things. The ideal of the analog, which is called coincidental, but is really something closer to magic or destiny. Name it what you will, it brought her to him, brought them to this place, together . . .
Moving closer, he touches his lips to her cheek.
“Dr. Hansen,” she murmurs.
“You look beautiful when you’re sleeping.”
“In that case,” she says, eyes still closed, “why wake me up?”
“Is it true?” he asks.
“Is what true?”
“What you said, well, not said, but, when our minds were joined—what was in your mind. What you told me. About us . . . ”
Once upon a time, a highly advanced civilization sent forth into the cosmos a fabulous time-traveling probe bearing in its memory banks the record of every coincidental analog that has been, currently is, and ever will be. Through the multiverse it travels, transmitting from its matrix the histories, past and future, of kindred worlds—and by chance or design, these tales are sometimes heard, and sometimes heeded.
So did the Vulcans know of Earth.
Faraway planet that had already dreamed of them. Thus did a woman with pointed ears, a refugee, a seeker of asylum, journey through spacetime to find a man who studied the stars. As it was archived, let it now be. To them may a child be born. And the tide begin to turn. Toward a more perfect version of us. An image to be remade in.
Greg Hrbek‘s novel, Not on Fire, but Burning, was an NPR Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Book Review Editors Choice. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories anthology.