Cosmic Coffee Time
by David Far
by David Far
When you are on a first-name basis with Fernando at the funeral home, it has been a rough couple of years. My father went first from lung cancer. Seventy, too young, but at least he made a run at it. Mom came down with pneumonia three months later and didn’t really want to fight. I guess I hadn’t given her enough to fight for—no grandkids, no prospects for them. She never said anything, but I knew.
I’m not sure what I believe in, other than whatever it is does not like James Tillmore. People said they were sorry about my parents, who were in a better place, but they were just looking for something to say. Only Sean really knew them and me. He gave me a hug and said, “James, you are going to pull through.”
I would have except two weeks later two guys decided to rob my parent’s house. Sean comes out in the yard and surprises them. They were not expecting a stand-up guy like him. And they shoot him. That takes “pulling through” off the table. I’m passed forty with extra pounds and a fishing boat. No James Tillmore, the Dark Knight, for me. I just had to take it. When the Spike fell from the sky and started churning up all that water, I thought the world was ending right on schedule.
Sean Parsons grew up next door to me with his parents, his sister Iris, and an honest-to-god white picket fence in vinyl, not wood. Their ranch house had the living room on the left and the kitchen on the right. Our house had them flipped, but otherwise they were the same. Sean and I played together all the time--in the yard, riding bikes, shooting hoops. I was an only child, and it was hard for Sean to play with Iris sometimes.
I had to organize Sean’s memorial. Fernando hooked me up with the right cremation in ten minutes. I already knew all the packages. Iris couldn’t make it to the memorial, so people gave their condolences to me to pass on like grief mail forwarding. The Spike had plunged into the ocean just off the coast of Florida only two days before. Scientists didn’t understand yet that it was spewing extra greenhouse gases into the air equal to four Chinas. I remember people being happy it didn’t explode before they understood it was going to flood the earth in about ten years.
The next day, I headed over to Iris’ house with Sean’s ashes. It’s a hell of a thing carrying your best friend around in a fancy coffee can. I thought back to a happier time.
For my twelfth birthday, we drove with the Parsons to a dolphin sanctuary. The kids--Iris, Sean and I--all got to swim in the tank. The dolphins clicked at us and ate fish. We rode on their backs holding onto their dorsal fins. Sean and I loved playing catch with them. One dolphin spent the whole time with Iris. The dolphin nuzzled her a bit with its nose. Iris put her hand on the dolphin's head while it made noises. Iris laughed. She smiled. She hugged the dolphin.
She also blew a fuse when it was time to leave. Crying and thrashing, Iris yelled that she wanted to stay with the dolphin forever. But the dolphin came over to her one more time, made some more sounds, and somehow, she calmed down. Sean came back to my house for my party and Iris went home. She was still smiling when I brought her chocolate cake after the other kids left. Her parents had bought her a shirt with a picture of her swimming with the dolphin. It read “New Friends.” She wore it every day for a year.
I rang the doorbell at the Parsons’. It gave a two-tone whistle--a high tone and then that same sound being sucked out of an airlock. It sounded like ... VEEFFT. Sean got the custom doorbell last year. In their own language, dolphins have signature name whistles, and VEEFFT was the whistle of Iris' best dolphin friend Suzy, with whom Iris swam in the sanctuary. Eighteen years after the sanctuary released Suzy, Iris found Suzy during her research into dolphins.
I listened to Iris tell me all about the doorbell at her birthday one year. Sean told me they spent two hours getting the tone right because it sounds different under water versus going through the air. Iris answered the door but looked at my left shoulder instead of my face. She said nothing.
"Hi, Iris, could I come in?"
"I don't mean to intrude, but I think we should talk about Sean’s ashes."
We went into what had once been the living room. Iris' equipment filled the room. The shades were down. Stalactites of sound-absorbing foam hung from the ceiling. More foam covered the fireplace. We stood there, and Iris turned to me.
"Well, how are you?" I began.
"Bad. My vegan place closed, and I have to find a new one that doesn't make me puke."
"Sorry to hear that. Could we sit down?"
"Ok." Iris sat down on the floor where she was. She sat cross-legged and hunched over just like when she was little. I joined her.
"How has it been without Sean?" I asked.
"Bad. He's dead. Now I'm alone." She said it flat, and it was worse that way. I set the urn down beside me.
"I miss Sean too."
"I miss ..." and she gave the whistle VEEFFT. The dolphin had died two months ago, just before my Mom.
Iris put her hands over her ears and began rocking back and forth. "Her name's not Suzy," she shouted. Then she gave the whistle three times, paused, then another three times. She put her hands down but kept rocking.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I know you really liked having her for a friend."
Iris stared at my shoulder.
I saw the flashing waves from her oscilloscopes and spectrograms. Sean had explained them to me once over a beer. Iris had started off just looking at dolphin whistles, which create these little colored curves on the spectrogram. The curve told you the frequency and amplitude of the whistle over time. She set up multiple screens under videos of the dolphins swimming with each other so she could see the movements, see the whistle, and hear the whistle all at the same time. Then she watched. And watched. And six months later she had a complete set of observations about how the whistles matched the physical movements and positions of the dolphins. These were like the hand gestures of the dolphins as they talked.
From there she and Sean got funding from something called the Peloton Foundation. She used the new money to build a little research pod and monitor brain waves from the dolphins. Then they built a device to talk back. Iris loved talking to them. She was still staring at my shoulder. Iris must have been the only expert on communication that didn't look people in the eye during a conversation.
“Do you think we should scatter Sean’s ashes somewhere?” I said.
“Why would we do that?”
I tried to remember the words from the funeral home pamphlet. “A sense of closure, a final goodbye, Sean rejoining the Earth.”
“He’s not joining anything, James. He’s dead.”
“Do you want to try talking to someone about it?”
“No. I want a new vegan place. I want to be alone.”
I wanted to say ok, but I owed Sean. “Do the other dolphins miss V-FFFT?” I butchered the whistle, but I had to change the subject.
“Maybe we could go out to your research site, and you could talk to them?”
“I’ll pick you up Saturday,” I said.
“5 AM,” she said.
* * *
The good thing about picking up somebody at 5am is that it limits how drunk you can get the night before. I needed limits. I crawled through the next few weeks sliding by at work and into the bottle at night. But I kept every Saturday for Iris. We would go out to her research station about ten miles offshore. We could see the Spike further east, guarded by military ships. The greenhouse gases poured out of the top of the Spike in a haze.
Sometimes we would see a research drone dive into the invisible plume and be repelled upward so fast it looked like a cannon shot. We could always hear the water churning as it flowed into the Spike and back out--a necklace of froth encircling the black needle, which stretched down to the ocean floor and up 500 feet into the sky.
Iris’ research pod was a clear bubble fifty feet below the surface filled with equipment to monitor the dolphins. Certain dolphins wore two sensors strapped to their heads, which read their brain waves. Iris would climb down a ladder into the bubble and send whistles and clicks out into the water to which the dolphins would respond. I usually stayed in the boat with a six pack of my best friends. Sometimes I would climb down to the second chair and watch the dolphins playing and chatting.
For Iris, that bubble might as well have been the entire world. We did not speak on the rides out or back except to say hello. She did not seem to be aware of all the reports pouring out about the Spike. All attempts to communicate with it had failed, but it was deliberately heating the planet. Scientists found that the water flowing out of the Spike had all contaminants removed but kept the base level of salts and minerals ocean water needed. Factions argued over the purpose of the Spike and whether the greenhouse gases were a byproduct of trying to clean the water or the water was a byproduct of trying to change the atmosphere. The military tried to cut and blast their way in, but it was like Neanderthals banging on steel with flint. The Spike did not attack, it just continued processing air and water. A week later, the news reported that the output from the Spike was increasing—its throughput had grown more efficient.
I kept going to work for three weeks and then decided to take vacation time. I told myself I could take Iris out more often. But I also thought I could achieve liver failure before the Spike brought us to societal collapse. I went to see Fernando.
“Extra crispy with barbecue sauce,” I said as I filled out the prepaid cremation forms. Scatter me with my parents.
I took Iris out four times a week. One night as we got back to her place, I asked to come in. We got comfortable on the floor of her living room again and I said, “Maybe we should put Sean’s ashes out at the research pod.” Iris did not speak. “Sean was your brother, Iris, we can’t just ignore him. Do your friends ignore V-FFFT?”
“No. They don’t. Why do you care so much what we do with the ashes?”
“Because Sean deserves to have things settled.”
“I think you want it settled. Sean is all set. He’s dead. You keep talking like if we put his ashes in the right place it will make it better, but it won't."
I saw a photo album of the Parsons family on the floor, opened to a picture of Iris and Sean. Then I thought the thing we don't think--she's right. Nothing makes it better. Sean is dead. All he ever did was take care of his sister and build stuff and now he's not here. Forever. That hug at my mom’s funeral had been goodbye. I cried for my friend or Iris or all of us. Full, sobbing, little-boy tears.
Sean gave Iris that photo album when their parents passed. He showed Iris the story of their family--where they came from, how their parents met, how happy they were the day Iris was born. I went over and picked up the album.
Iris said, "I'm making one for VEEFFT’s family."
"A photo album?"
"A sound album." She walked over to her computer and hit a key. Squeaks and whistles and clicks cascaded out of the speakers. I did not understand, but I watched as Iris tilted her head back and forth with the sounds, her hands pulsing on certain beats.
"It is a very nice thing to do for a friend," I said.
"This is when they met another pod of bottle noses and played catch with seaweed all afternoon. It's the best day I had with them."
"They can remember?"
"I remember that day." I showed Iris the picture of the three of us at the sanctuary all those years ago. I smiled. She looked and smiled.
"What was it like in the pool that day?" I asked.
"People always try to help me. Some are nice. Some are not. VEEFFT was just open to me. That was the first time someone was just my friend. That was the first time I was just with someone else. People don't know how to do that."
"That sounds like a good day," I said.
"It was," she said. We looked at the picture. “Let’s bring Sean out to the pod tomorrow.”
* * *
Little clouds sped through the sky. The sun had peeked over the horizon, but the heat was biding its time. Light shimmered in the invisible plume over the Spike. We tied up the boat and Iris lead me down into the bubble. She flipped a switch and the bubble emitted a repeated whistle which pulsed like a homing beacon. The dolphins came twenty minutes later.
Iris put the completed sound album into a small airlock she had for sharing objects with the dolphins and jettisoned it out into the water. She explained to them that if they gave VEEFFT’s whistle the album would play back the sounds from the day they played with the other pod. The album was in a brown water-sealed box with a strap hanging from it so the dolphins could carry it in their snouts. Different dolphins took turns carrying the album around and making it play. One of them brought over a seaweed bundle and stuffed it into the little airlock.
“It’s a gift,” Iris said. “They want us to know they appreciate the album.” Another dolphin made clicks. Iris said, “They want to know who you are. Speak into this mic and it will auto-translate.”
“I’m James. I was a friend of Iris’ brother Sean.”
More clicks. Iris said, “Yes he’s my friend too. We have something else we want to do. We are going to scatter Sean in the ocean.” Clicks. “Just his ashes, like the sand on the bottom of the ocean. Would you pull him around the bubble?” She put the urn into a little harness with a strap for the dolphins to pull. She took off the cap and fastened a little membrane over the opening. She poked two holes. Then she put Sean in the airlock. The same dolphin who took the album pulled on the harness and swam around us in circles as a cloud of dust leaked out of the urn. Two other dolphins swam side by side with the first in a sort of honor guard. The dolphin nudged the urn back into the airlock. The dolphins all squawked and swam in an interlocking pattern. Iris said, “It means farewell.”
The same dolphin I thought of as the leader did a pass by the bubble, eyeing me. It clicked at Iris, who said, “She wants to know why you are sad.”
“I miss Sean.” I said into the mic.
The dolphin looked at me and gave two whistles and a click. The system translated it in a robotic voice, “You loved Sean?”
A shiver ran through my body as I accepted the truth the dolphin had sensed. All that time. I stared back into its face.
“I’m sorry,” Iris said, “the translation can be a bit rough. I will turn off the voice and interpret.”
The dolphin clicked some more. “She thinks you’re afraid of something,” said Iris.
“Death, the Spike.”
Clicks. Iris started typing in longitude and latitude for where the Spike was. She later told me that dolphins have a specific sense of navigation which it is easiest for the machine to translate. Clicks.
“Why do you call it that?” said Iris. Her face was lighting up. A new insight brushed the memorial from her mind. “But how do you know?” I was getting one side of the conversation. “That sounds good, but it’s not helping the air. It will create big problems for us on land.” The dolphins seemed more agitated. “I know. I agree ... But who?” She turned to me. “The dolphins have been talking to the Spike. It tells them it wants to help.”
“The alien spaceship speaks dolphin?”
“I am not sure, but it responded to some of the dolphins swimming nearby.”
“We’ve got to go tell somebody.”
“Well ...” she paused.
“I’ll get the boat ready. Just find out what you can from the dolphins.”
The evening news that night showed a huge shelf of ice breaking off Antarctica and three record storms battering Southeast Asia.
* * *
To whom do you say the words, “We think we know how to talk to the aliens?” We agreed to reach out to the foundation that had funded Iris’ work. They knew National Science Foundation people who would listen to us. We sent them a high-resolution audio file Iris had brought back from the pod and waited. The next day government suits drove me to a naval base. I asked about Iris, but they would only say I could talk to her after a first interview. I sat in a plain room for an hour before a different suit came in to talk to me. This one had dark, pockmarked skin and black hair. His suit looked like he had taken it out of a duffle bag.
“Mr. Tillmore, I’m Adil Patel. I am attached to the group studying the Spike.” He had no accent and an empty smile. He held out his hand, and I shook it. “You are James Tillmore of 749 NW 34th St? Age 42, single, no siblings, parents deceased?” After talking to the dolphin, I felt even more alone.
“Other than Iris, who have you told about your theory regarding the Spike?”
“We talked to Mr. Harrison at the Peloton Foundation. He contacted some other people. That’s it.”
“And how do you know Iris?”
“We grew up next door to each other. Her brother was ... my best friend.”
“That would be Sean Parsons?” He had a folder in front of him but did not look down.
“And what is the nature of your relationship with Iris?”
“My friend’s sister. That’s it.”
“So why did you accompany her to her research center?” His head tilted to one side and he folded his hands.
“We were actually spreading Sean’s ashes.”
“I see. And how did you come to listen to dolphins while spreading ashes from an urn?”
I inhaled. “Well, Iris likes to talk to the dolphins. They had also lost someone.”
“The dolphins had?” Mr. Patel shifted his eyes and I started to doubt myself.
“Yes. Iris told them a bit about Sean and gave the dolphins a gift. And the dolphins scattered the ashes.” As I said it, I knew I sounded weird.
“And what does someone give a dolphin?”
“It was a special audio recording to remember the dolphin who died.”
“So she gave them an audio recording that they swam away with?”
“And do you know what else could have been in that recorder?”
“How did the topic of the Spike come up?”
“I was talking to the dolphins and I said I was afraid of it.”
“I understand that Iris has studied their communication for years. Are you also a cetologist?”
“No, but she has a translator box.”
“That converts English to Dolphin?”
He studied my face. I looked down at my hands. “How would you assess Iris’ mental state?”
“You know she’s on the spectrum, but she’s not crazy. If she says the dolphins talked to the Spike, then that’s what happened.”
He got up and left the room. Ten minutes later a woman with grey, close-cropped hair and wrinkles quilted across her face and hands entered. She wore a black turtleneck with jeans and gave her name as Dr. Karen Saunders. She offered me a drink and apologized for the abruptness of the security people. Then she came to the point. “Mr. Tillmore, Iris does not seem interested in speaking with us. I am hoping you can persuade her. She could have vital information.”
“What did you do?”
“The security people insisted on screening her and she did not like their questions.”
“Seems like the people in charge of talking to aliens should be a bit more diplomatic.”
“Yes.” She smiled like a doctor with good news about your colon.
“I assume you can make things happen?”
“There was a vegan restaurant on 8th Ave near Iris’ house which closed. Find the chef and get him to make tempeh and sweet potato fajitas from the menu.”
Two hours later they put me in a room with Iris and her fajitas. This one had four chairs around a table and a two-way mirror. She ate. She drank. She did not look at me.
“How are the fajitas?”
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. I just don’t want to talk to these people anymore. We shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Iris, I think we have to talk to them. Communicating with the Spike is literally the most important thing in the world.” She started taking bigger bites of her fajitas as though, if she finished her meal, she would be excused to go home. “What is it they want to know?”
“These goons trapped half the pod and tried to steal my work. Even with the audio file I gave them, they can’t get the Spike to talk back to them and now they want me to fix it. They put my friends in cages. I’m not helping them.”
“But we need to stop the Spike.”
“Why do you care? You’re busy drinking yourself to death.”
“Maybe I’ve been doing the wrong thing. You know that if the Spike continues it will destroy humanity. How can you let that happen? You’re a good person, Iris.”
“Seems to me we are doing the same thing anyway. At least this way the water will be nice and clean for the dolphins and other sea life.”
“NO. NO. NO.” She knocked everything off the table and stood up. “We told them that the dolphins could help and the first thing they did was lock them in cages. What kind of a creature does that? We catch them to amuse us, we poison their homes, we take away their food and now we want them to save us so we can kill ourselves just decades later? No thanks.” She sat down and folded her arms. She closed her eyes and rocked in her seat.
“Iris, you told me some people are nice and some are not. I agree with you. These people are not nice, but some people are.” I sat back in my chair, shaking my head, trying to think. Then I asked, “Do dolphins deserve respect?”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
“Shouldn’t we ask them? Let’s give them the choice.”
She rocked gently in her seat and stared at my shoulder.
I looked in the direction of the two-way mirror and added, “I’m sure the people here want to apologize for their mistake and release all the dolphins before we talk to them.”
Iris continued her rock. Minutes later, Dr. Saunders came in and sat down. She smiled. “Iris, I understand you want to help your friends. I do too. I can get them released if you agree to help us communicate with the Spike.”
Iris stood up. “I talk to them first. I tell them what is going on and make sure they are ok. Then, I will help you.”
“Agreed,” said Saunders.
* * *
The US Coast Guard gave us a ride out to the pod the next morning. Saunders and two federal agents with assault rifles went with us. Saunders offered Iris a breakfast burrito wrap from the same vegan place. I pictured one of the guys guarding the entrance while the other said, “This burrito is a matter of national security.” He then whispered, “I have the package” into a tiny microphone as he left with a foil-wrapped breakfast that tasted like cardboard. I didn’t get to finish this daydream, because the ride out took half as long as usual.
Iris spent the ride listening to the tapes of the government trying to ping the Spike with dolphin calls. She winced like a suburban mom listening to her son’s favorite death metal band. They gave Iris a mic, so the authorities could hear what she said to the dolphins. Saunders climbed down with her and I stayed on the boat. I could see the feed from the video cameras and hear Iris’ mic.
The lead dolphin did a pass on the research pod an hour after Iris’ first call. She asked about the members of the pod who had been freed. I’m not sure if dolphins swear-whistle, but it sounded like that to me. Iris asked Saunders to move the ships away from feeding areas the pod favored. The leader swam away to check on things and came back with a couple of friends. Then Iris said to the leader, “Can you swim up to the Spike and ask who is its leader? What is its mission?”
Iris checked the brain wave receivers closely as the dolphin approached. Before the dolphins could return with the answers, Iris started pointing frantically at one of the instruments. She kept saying “there, there” to Saunders. The Spike was talking back. Saunders asked for a translation of the reply, but Iris said she couldn’t tell from the brain waves alone. We waited for ten minutes while the dolphins returned. Up on the boat, the sun felt hotter than I had ever felt it before.
The dolphin arrived and the machine translated, “It has no leader. It is a made thing far from home. It studies oceans but it also helps whatever life it might find.”
Iris replied, “Is it trying to help life now?”
“Yes. It’s trying to help us.”
Iris typed something into her console. Sounds went out into the water. Then she said aloud, “I will explain it to my people. Be safe.” The dolphins swam away in the direction of the deep water.
Saunders turned and asked, “Explain what?”
“I know why your attempts to contact the Spike failed. You used a series of sounds from an underwater speaker. That was a bad idea. The Spike scans the sources of sound to see if they are alive. I could see it interact with the dolphin’s brainwaves directly. That’s why it responds to the dolphins—they are alive.”
“But why would the Spike care?”
“I am not sure, but it is a probe. It has no life forms from its home world on board. Maybe listening only to organic life is a safety precaution to prevent other probes from telling it to blow itself up or take some other harmful action.”
“The Spike says it wants to help us. Can we tell it to stop destroying the air?”
“It did not say it would help “us” humans, it said it would help the “us” it can talk to--the dolphins.”
* * *
The task force sequestered Iris while they worked out how to have the dolphins talk to the Spike. A suit stayed with me in a separate place for my “protection.” Iris gave me hope; I cut my drinking. I read in the papers about new protections for ocean habitats globally. The Spike kept cleaning the water, but the gas process changed. It took in carbon dioxide and pumped out oxygen and alcohol. A trust under Iris’ name owns the bottling rights to the alcohol, which tastes like vodka. At five thousand dollars a bottle, she now has quite a war chest to lobby politicians and purchase fishing rights.
I decided to try to meet someone. I went to the gym to lose the extra pounds. In a few months I’ll have a new me, a boat, and a hell of a story. A guy could do worse.
The headline read, “Billionaire Patron Saint of Oceans Disappears.” The day before, she dropped by my house and gave me a framed copy of the photo of her, Sean, and me taken at the dolphin sanctuary all those years ago. The frame reads “Old Friends.” In the photo, she is wearing her “New Friends” t-shirt with her and VEEFFT on it.
She said she had to go on a trip to protect the oceans, but she didn’t say where. The next day the Spike lifted off and left Earth, leaving behind better water and better air.
I hope you make new friends, Iris.