Words By Amman Sabet, Art By Alyssa Menold
It’s been two months since we last spoke. I left a voicemail but I didn’t hear back. I know you said you need your space, and I understand. I do. I just want to be sure you’re okay, what with everything in the news.
They say that Umbrus is too far out to see with the naked eye, but sometimes I look up when I drive home at night and wonder how it would appear in the sky if you could. Vera and Everett come into the studio some mornings complaining that it’s giving them migraines, but I think those are just hangovers. Roy let it slip that he talks to it when he opens the bar, just before his shift starts. I think he knows it doesn’t talk back, but that might not be true for everyone. People attach their own meanings.
I’m not going to be home for a while. I’ve found a job of sorts—not exactly like my usual film gigs. I’m supposed to let people important to me know that I’ll be gone for work. I’ll let you know more when I get there.
I brought your moped into the garage from the curb. Keys to the apartment are still in the rain gutter. Chewy is with my mom at her house on the coast if you want to go see him. I know he’d love a visit. Call me. Or email. Please.
Mom mentioned you stopped by on your moped. I’m glad. They closed the bridge after you left, so I’m guessing that it’s impossible to get back over now. Did you find the tote bag with your clothes I left back at our apartment? I guess I should call it my apartment now. Typing that feels strange. Your wet suit still had sand in it from when we hit the breakers over in Ventura so I hung it inside-out over the patio.
I’ve been flown out to the Excelsior Institute, a think tank in Nevada sponsored by the aerospace industry, the government, and a consortium of big data companies around the Bay Area. I’m not locked in or anything, but it’s definitely remote. The campus is on top of this plateau, about twenty minutes from an unmarked turn off the interstate. We come and go using a funicular that connects to the top from a parking lot at the base of the cliffs. Everyone putts around campus on funny little solar golf carts, and there’s even an encircling monorail. I feel like I’m walking around in a Syd Mead drawing.
FYI, I’m without a phone. Admins collected our computers and mobile devices when we arrived, claiming the need to maintain network security. We can still email from campus terminals if we swipe our ID cards though. My team head, Dr. Pearson, assured me you’re on my cleared list of people, so I can just go ahead and just write whatever I want to you. I’m not sure if that’s true, or what that even means, or if this is even reaching you. I wonder if they’re encouraging us to put our thoughts into our emails so they can read them.
The staff here is researching Umbrus, whether directly or indirectly. Lots of aerospace guys, some physicists, philosophers, and a few government types. Everyone has at least one PhD. I think I got myself in way over my head by saying yes to this gig. I asked Dr. Pearson if they made a mistake by bringing me on. She said she wants me to help the team by imagining all of the things the math won’t tell them.
I still haven’t heard back from you, and I don’t imagine I will any time soon. I’ll admit I don’t see the harm in writing you even if the emails are being read. Anything could be used to explain Umbrus. If they slap my hand for sharing secrets, I’ll know that they’re reading for sure. And you’d have told me if you wanted me to stop emailing you, right? Look, I’m not asking to pick up from where we left off, or to sort through what happened. We’ve been through that. I know you’re finding your feet. I know you will. I just wish you’d give me a sign that you’re okay. I still worry.
I think this is going to be good for me, though, to focus on work. I’m surprised the world isn’t flipping out. I guess it would be if Umbrus were looming visibly up in the sky, close enough that everybody could see it with their eyes. That would make it seem more real—to see their world was visibly changed. For most people, like Vera and Everett and Roy, it’s still only a thing that you can see with a telescope. But even though it’s out beyond the Moon’s orbit, it’s still basically on top of us. Perspective is funny that way.
At lunch, an older, tweedy scientist in my group named Dr. Malhotra asked me why they brought me on. For the life of me I couldn’t give the guy a short, straightforward answer. I tried, though.
He’d asked where I had been published, and when I said I hadn’t because I wasn’t a scientist, this scowl covered his face like he had just discovered the person in the room who farted. I told him that I’m a concept artist for the movie industry. I explained how collaborating with astrophysicists on ideas and effects for films like Outerplace, Truth Complex 4, and Kularis had inspired their own scientific work in turn.
Dr. Malhotra grumbled that he couldn’t recall if he’d seen those particular titles, but “this isn’t science fiction.”
He acts like I’m some sort of clown and the Excelsior Institute isn’t taking him seriously by forcing him to work with a mental-midget like me. I get the sense others on my team have similar feelings. They want to know why I haven’t contributed anything. Drawings of Umbrus, or what not. As if I just snap my fingers and the pictures appear. I don’t think they understand that my creative process doesn’t work like that. I’m not just inventing concept art from nothing, like for a movie gig. This is different. This feels more like a portrait.
Please write back.
I saw it tonight, with my own eyes, through the telescope at the campus observatory. Dr. Farrah, an astronomer on our team, cleared some time on the equipment. First we looked at some images of Umbrus captured by the radio array—basically just a series of big red dots with thin edges of yellow and green distortion on one side. Something about the images and the sterility of the equipment took me back to when you and I went for our eight-week ultrasound. Remember how abstract those images were, and that little kick of wonder we got when the nurse pointed out the lump that would become a head, the arch of a back? Visible proof that something tremendously precious was emerging.
Dr. Farrah then brought me over to the high-aperture optical telescope, made some adjustments, and Umbrus appeared on the screen at the terminal. She fiddled with the contrast, and I could see its soot-gray surface punch forward from the background, lit by diffuse ecliptic light and the pale glow of the Moon. I had expected some sleepy lump of asteroid tumbling over itself, but that’s nothing like what I saw. It looked much flatter than I had imagined, like a featureless coin. The surface had some relief, but it was faint on the screen and hard to pick out from the visual noise generated by the equipment, so Dr. Farrah had me peer directly through the eyepiece with the lights off.
Keep looking. Wait for your eyes to adjust.
The facts we know about Umbrus read something like a riddle. Dr. Farrah used that very word, riddle.
- It’s in perfect equatorial orbit around the Earth.
- It’s in syzygy with the Sun and the Earth, holding stasis in the shadow of the Earth’s eclipse.
- It’s tidally locked, so the same side always faces the Earth.
- We don’t know when it arrived.
Dr. Farrah answers my questions with great patience. I think she can sense how my mind works, and she trusts that something will arise from my inexorable pondering.
With Dr. Pearson’s permission, I’ve commandeered one of the spare lecture rooms, converted it into an art studio, and brought in some equipment—a tablet computer, a drafting table, markers, pencils, cork board, etc. After loading all my presets, I started drawing with a fire under my ass, but all I’ve been able to manage are circles. Circles over and over. Circles in the sky, some big on the page like dinner plates, some small and dark like bullet holes.
My hands seem to be stuck in a holding pattern. Maybe they’re waiting for a sign.
We had our first brainstorming session today, and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Dr. Pearson, who I gather is highly respected, hasn’t been able to contribute because she’s taken on the role of moderating discussions and maintaining decorum. The PhDs seem very concerned with deductive questions. Why does Umbrus stay in the shadow of the Earth? Why does it remain at the distance it does? What is it doing? What is its posture towards us? I feel as though we are already asking the wrong questions, like we don’t even know how to think about this properly.
The media room in our building streams live feeds from all of the world’s space telescopes that are trained on Umbrus—Hubble, NEOSSat, Astrosat, Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s nice and quiet in there at night, like a movie theater. The floor steps down towards the screens, with a semicircle of desks on each level. Strangely, I’m alone most of the time I’m in there. I like to turn the lights down and put my feet up in the back and just watch and think with a sketchbook in front of me.
A few times, I’ve been startled by two or three PhDs bursting in through the entrance in mid-argument, pointing to one of the screens. It’s always jarring because they’re very loud and very passionate, like how you and I used to argue. If I’m seen, they’ll apologize for the interruption but continue bickering. Most of them don’t even argue about Umbrus, but rather they dispute established principles. They cannot agree on foundational thinking.
Dr. Pearson says that the first probe, Envoy I, should be within range of Umbrus in about six days. They timed this to make the most of the light reflecting off of the moon for maximum visibility. I’m dying to see this thing up close.
I need to get this down while it’s all still fresh.
I was woken at 3:10am by someone knocking loudly on the door to my quarters, and I thought, shit, I did something bad. I was only half awake, and that improvisational part of my brain that unfolds my dreams began to devise all these reasons for why someone would be knocking. For a moment, I thought you and I were back at home, and you were banging on our bedroom door. We’d been in the car, warming the engine to get to the ER. We had lost the heartbeat. You were mad that I had forgotten something important, something super critical about Umbrus, but you wouldn’t say what. You were just banging your fists, furiously, yelling that there was little time.
I think I shouted something like “I can’t fix it. I’m sorry.”
The knocking came again and by the time I reached the door I was fully awake. It was Dr. Farrah, telling everyone we had three minutes. Envoy I was about to begin its transmission. I shoveled my feet into my running shoes, but out in the hallway, Dr. Farrah was already far down the hall. One or two other stragglers pushed past, red-eyed.
It was strange seeing the media room so packed full of people, all listening attentively to the voice transmissions from the flight director at Johnson Space Center. I wedged myself into the back of the crowd, and when the video transmission from Envoy I lit up the screen, gasps crescendoed around the room. A woman in front spilled her coffee. A man next to me put his hands to his head, pencil still between his fingers. “Oh, oh my God. How is that… is that real?”
“Fix the feed. People be quiet. People calm down! People!” Dr. Pearson shouted from the back of the room.
With Envoy I’s camera trained on Umbrus, the moonlight swelled, softly illuminating the moment. Umbrus’s surface was round and smooth, but it wasn’t perfect. It had relief. I could see that in how the shadows pooled. But these were the shadows of dents, not craters. Millions upon millions of dents—like you see pocking the hood of an old beat-up car—radiating outwards from a single point on the surface. It was as if it had pushed through a hail of stones at great speed.
The camera focused and adjusted, and we could see that Umbrus’s horizon did not form a clear curvature as expected. It went on. Out into space. On and on, towards an unseeable vanishing point—like a white road in a black desert. The part of Umbrus that had been visible to us up until now was not a side of a sphere, it was a tip—the rounded, closed end of a seemingly infinitely long cylinder.
I couldn’t understand how we’d missed this—even if, from our perspective on Earth, we could only see Umbrus from the front. It made sense that it would look at first like a small moon, but we had equipment that should have given us an angle on this thing, right? Wouldn’t someone have told us it wasn’t just a sphere? Wouldn’t they have seen? Had the rest of it been hiding in some kind of pocket dimension?
Given everything we were seeing, the voice comms over the feed from the flight director were eerily calm.
“Guidance what’s the read on flightpath? Guidance?”
“Keep her pointed at the surface, INCO, we’re going to lose her.”
Envoy I was supposed to capture video on a flyby, but all the astrometric trajectories were based on a sphere, not an infinitely long cylinder. As the probe entered Umbrus’ gravity well, the surface along its length grew, filling the screen until we could see that the dents on the surface of the tip were many hundreds of meters wide. Along the length reaching out into space, there were no marks at all. The surface was so perfect that, with nothing else on the screen, it was impossible to see how close Envoy I was to Umbrus until the camera feed cut on impact.
I don’t know how to take in this new perspective. It seems somehow more surreal than the original discovery. Somewhere out there, just beyond the Moon, is an endlessly long cylindrical shape pointing directly at the Earth.
Dr. Pearson has shared with us that the higher-ups are readying another probe. Envoy II. This time, it will maintain a helical orbit to traverse the length of Umbrus, despite the fact that we are unable to anticipate its center of gravity. I’ve been asked to provide some images of what this would look like, both realistic images and abstracted diagrams that show the concept.
Again, I failed to see the usefulness of this exercise. I tried explaining this to Dr. Pearson but she said to move forward anyway, and I threw a tantrum in her office which I’m a bit embarrassed about. Again, there I was thinking I was brought on because it just sounded good. As if someone in charge of resources thought it would be cool to have an artist on the team to broaden the thinking. But they are telling me what to draw. I have to go to them and ask, is this how it looks? Is this right? So I fail to see how I’m being helpful by just parroting it back to them on paper.
Dr. Pearson calmed me down, told me she understood that we were all stressed. She said that I couldn’t know how helpful my drawings would be until I actually went ahead and rendered them. I suppose that’s true, but still I don’t believe it.
Whatever, I thought. Feeling like a dumbass, I spent all day in the studio, drawing spirals around a straight line leading away from the Earth. I drew and thought to myself—wouldn’t the probes just crash again if the gravity was weird? If we sent a probe up to spiral along Umbrus’ cylindrical length in orbit, wouldn’t it eventually be pulled forward faster and faster by every point along the gravitational spine ahead of it? Eventually it would lose all control and crash. Thousands of them would crash.
I’ve been drawing spirals that lengthen along the gravitational spine, with spectacular explosions where the probes collide against Umbrus. I drew one picture with a joint along its length, like a big space knuckle. More probe explosions. Then I thought that a joint would be too structurally unsound. Maybe it would bend like a supermassive piece of hair floating in space. More spirals. More crashes. I drew what I thought might be at the other end. A convergence of other cylinders forming a space-hand with crazy long digits. It could be anything! I drew the cylinder tapering outwards. Tapering inwards. The cylinder as a cosmic pool stick aiming to carom the Earth off of the Sun.
Maybe the design of the probe wasn’t right. I started drawing big, structurally perfect Dyson rings, designed to encircle the length of Umbrus. Circular space stations that would be pulled forward by gravity along its barrel. The inhabitants of the first few ring stations would try to maintain a stable envelopment around Umbrus as they picked up speed and hurtled forward along the gravitational spine. But infinitesimal shifts would, over time, collide the rings against the surface after great distances and speeds. This would be Earth’s great cosmic game. It would become our purpose. Our meaning. Until we cast the perfect ring from A to B—reaching the end to win or forever failing in the dark.
It wasn’t long before the studio walls were covered. I had my headphones on, and when I turned to stick my pencil in the sharpener, Dr. Malhotra was standing behind me in the middle of the room, turning slowly and looking at the art I had tacked up on the wall. He startled me.
At first, I don’t think he understood what I was drawing, or why. I have to admit I was a little embarrassed when I explained to him how and why the probes were crashing in each image. Here was a man who could pack everything we knew about Umbrus’ cylindrical dimensions into an equation and then just feed it into a computer to give us an image way more accurate than anything I could put to paper.
He made me talk about every drawing. This one? he pointed. And this? When I was done, Dr. Malhotra assured me that on an infinitely long cylinder, the gravity pulling from one direction would cancel out the gravity pulling from the other, and I got excited because I believed that we were starting to speak the same language. Maybe we were going to be friends after all. I told him that I thought it would speed up, because we were starting from a finite beginning. Umbrus was not infinite in one direction, so the beginning had less gravity.
“Yes,” he said. “And if there is a similar end on the other side, your Dyson rings would slow down to a perfect stop from all the gravity along the spine that it had passed over, behaving like a brake of sorts.”
I had a cartoon tacked up in the corner of the cork board—a probe with a radar dish shooting little word bubbles down Umbrus’ length, with the words “help us” inside. Radio signals, I called them, but I wasn’t even sure if that’s what they were, or how radio signals behave.
As he considered the drawings, Dr. Malhotra’s face lit up, and he raised his index finger and bobbled his head, as if a sublime idea suddenly came to him. He said, “You are like a flashlight.” He said that eventually, at some point along the Cylinder, there would be no light up there. No light from the Sun. No light from the Moon or stars to help. That everyone here is making it up as they go along, and that this is our flashlight, pointing to my drawings.
I wish I knew what this all means and why it’s happening to us. I hope that I am doing right by this project, and that I’m not missing something important. I want to know how I am helping, but I’m not sure if I am.
We’ve lost Umbrus.
I was in the media room earlier this morning with the team, scrubbing footage to pinpoint the moment we lost track of it. Two scientists said that they were in the room at around 3:45am having a discussion in front of the screens, when they thought they saw it move—shrink, as if it had been pulled back. And then it was gone.
We found the actual timecode, but it looks as if it fades into nothing from one moment to the next. We scrubbed it down to the actual frame, and then messaged the ISS, JSC, Beijing Aerospace, RKA, the privatized network, all the vendors, anyone, to see if they had a faster frame-per-second capture that we could slow down.
Some of the aerospace folks are saying that it might have moved to another position nearby, and that the telescopes might have lost track of it because of a malfunction. Maybe its movement might have caused an electrical surge that would have disrupted the tracking cameras. I think that they are reaching. I think that Umbrus just left us.
When I go into the drawing studio, I have this feeling of emptiness. All the concepts are suddenly now old and wrong, and they embarrass me. I think about you. Even though you won’t talk to me anymore, I have had a sense that you’re there, thinking of me, too. Maybe you read these emails and they remind you of what we almost had together. I try not to think about what would happen if you never respond. If so much time passes that we don’t know each other anymore.
From the window of my studio space, I saw Dr. Farrah eating lunch by herself on the benches at the far side of the courtyard, near the supercomputing cluster. I think she was crying between taking huge bites of her sandwich. When she was finished with half of it, she stood up and threw the other half in the trash.
I feel like I’m falling apart here. Everything does.
It’s been three weeks since we’ve seen any sign of Umbrus. The Excelsior Institute still won’t come out and just acknowledge that it’s gone, but they’ve sent an email to staff stating that it’s no longer detectable. They say that there’s not enough data yet to determine the gravity of it all, if it’s presence or absence has shifted things in our little corner of the galaxy for better or worse. Most of the consultants in my group have already packed up and moved on to whatever was next for them—Dr. Malhotra and Dr. Farrah among them.
I can’t watch the news or follow my feeds online. The mania is pitiful. Some people thank God that Umbrus left us. Others claim that its departure has cured them of their ailments. Still others claim they had a role in making it go away, and that they should be thanked. People talk about it like it was a living thing. People claim it spoke in hidden ways. People rave that it will return—for good or bad. But people listen only to themselves.
I still pass Dr. Pearson in the halls now and then. We had a one-on-one earlier in the week and she let me know that I’d be finishing up my contract soon. So I guess I’ll be returning home. She asked if I had any plans work-wise, and mentioned another gig. Another team is assembling to look into why Umbrus left us. She told me not to give her an answer yet. Just to think about it for a bit.
I don’t know if it’s worth thinking about. How could anyone really know why it left? Who’s to say why it was here? We could spend ages examining every little moment it was with us wondering if our actions caused it to leave or if there was something we could have done to make it stay. It would always add up to a very human derivation of meaning. I’m reminded again how when precious things emerge, sometimes we just lose them, whether or not we deserved them. We also lose everything that they might have become. We could fill rooms full of doctors and scientists and we’d still fumble at understanding, pleading, grasping for reasons, when sometimes there just aren’t any to be had.
Maybe Roy wasn’t crazy for talking to Umbrus before opening the bar. Maybe I’ve been stupid for thinking it couldn’t—in some crazy, unexplainable way—be heard. Like all those PhDs squabbling over fundamental theories, I spent so much time looking up at the sky and drawing pictures—not of what I was seeing, but of how I thought it could be solved. None of us really saw Umbrus, even when we were looking right at it. Shining a million flashlights into space wouldn’t have shown us anything we weren’t already willfully blind to. The answer to why Umbrus left can only be found with Umbrus.
This may be my last email, at least for a while. Writing has helped me see this all clearly in hindsight, but I also see now that I’ve only been talking at you—and I’m sorry. I think I understand your silence and also the need for my own. It’s starting to come in clearer.
If you were reading, then thank you. I’m starting to see what’s on the other end of this for me. When I slow down, and come to a perfect stop on the other side, I hope I’ll find you there. But wherever you are now, I hope it’s where you need to be.