The Alien in My Headphones

Standard
Digital drawing. Overview of a wooden desktop. Clockwise from top right corner, most of a cup filled with a brown liquid. A cell phone displaying a checklist with a few items checked off. A hand with a bracelet visible, holding a pen perched over a folded-over notebook. A crumpled sticky note. A pair of over-ear headphones. A cylindrical container filled with colored pencils. A partial view of a pair of glasses folded up. A folded-over notebook with notes written on the top half lying over a document affixed with a binder clip holding a note where the sentences are partially visible under the headphones.

I settled the headphones over my ears.  When I inhaled, I felt a little lurch in my stomach.

Every time I turned them on, I was afraid I’d lost the signal.  And every time I turned them on, I was afraid I hadn’t.

This was getting out of hand.  This…investigation that I’d gotten caught up in.  But if it was a prank, it was—I was going to say “epic,” but that word gets overused.  It was…extravagant.

I mean who has the time?  Well, I guess some people do.  But who has the time who also has the skill and the motivation and the work ethic?

~***~

They were cheap.  I needed a quality pair, but was holding off on buying them until I did more research and asked around a little.  But in the meantime, I needed an everyday-use pair because my old ones were falling apart.  So even though I hadn’t gone into the store to buy headphones, I walked out with them.

Upon unboxing, I noted the radio receiver.  I didn’t need it.  My old pair didn’t have one.  And the only other thought I had about it was mild annoyance that I might accidentally hit the radio receiver button instead of hitting some button I meant to hit.

Sure enough, when I had them on and practiced feeling out where all the various buttons were, I accidentally hit the radio receiver button and started hearing the broadcast from whatever default station it had been set to.

“…well, there’s a sentient species on the planet, Glormynx, so I think that answers your question.”

“So is that the line for you?  There are millions of non-sentient species present.  If they were the only inhabitants—say if we were able to move the sentient species to another world—would you be more amenable to the plan?”

“Actually, I might. But I don’t know if we’ll do any better by Earth than the locals are doing.  I’ve got to go.  My transport…”

“Of course, of course. Thanks for your time.  And that, listeners, was a poet.  And I, as always, am Glormynx.  As you know, this week, I’m interviewing citizens at all levels of society—soldiers, politicians, bakers, mongrel-walkers, scientists, and of course, poets. And I’m asking what they think about the planned invasion of Earth.  If you have something to share—opinion, fact, half-truths hidden in shadow—contact me at…”

At first, I thought I’d tuned into a radio play.

It was luck that I heard enough to get me interested—amused is more like it, actually.  I was trying to reach for the Bluetooth button, but I hit volume or something instead (or maybe I hit the radio receiver again).

A female-sounding voice started speaking.

“Now, most of our listeners know that Earth is not an intersystem civilization.  Official observers are not able to visit of course, until at least one sentient species on a habitable planet reaches Level Zeta advancement, in either the technological or philosophical sphere.  But in most cases, unofficial observers manage to get past.”

“Officials often let them, usually in exchange a copy of whatever information is discovered.”

That was the male voice again.  Glor-something. 

“Right, right. But what our listener’s may not know is that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy affixed with a variable comm-shield.  What that means is, as the native civilization moves further out from their planet into their own star system and even beyond, the comm-shield expands.” 

“But the native population does believe in life outside of their planet?”

“To some extent, but only because it’s logical, not because they’ve detected anything. The Comm Thirteen is a custom-built shield that only blocks out sentient communications from any source other than Earth.  If they have signals reaching past the shield, those signals go through.  But if anyone should answer and send a signal back, the shield blocks it.  Also, as might be expected, any non-communications signals, like supernovas, and so forth, are not blocked.”

“That sounds extremely expensive.”

“It is, Glor. But due to this planet’s high habitability index, officials don’t want to take the chance that someone might gain a foothold.  It would be fairly easy for even a one-ship pirate crew to conquer a significant portion of the planet’s current sentients.”

“Should we be telling our listener’s that?”

It went on like that for a while.  I kept listening for the station break, because I wanted to look up the show, and see if I could catch it from the beginning.  It was the kind of thing I liked listening to.  And I needed something new for work.

***

I can’t really use over-the-ear headphones at work. I need to be able to hear my colleagues and the phone ring and all that.  

So the first thing I did was check the manual to see if it had any information on the default station the headphones were set to.  No luck there, but I wasn’t really surprised.  Maybe there wasn’t a default station.  Or for all I knew, I could have unknowingly toggled to a different station while I was testing all the buttons.

So I did a quick search online using specific terms like “Glormynx” and general phrases like “Earth invasion.”  Still no luck.

I gave up after a while and spent the evening doing household chores so I could keep listening to the latest antics of Glormynx and friends.

They were doing general news that evening—general galactic news that is.  Something about peace treaty renewals and celebrations involving an elaborate cake.

“Do they keep this up all day?” I wondered out loud.

It had to be volunteers.

Suddenly an advertisement began.  There had to be a station identification after.  I grabbed a pen and braced myself.

Our station serves nearly every system in the galaxy, so of course we need the highest-quality translation matrices to ensure that our meaning reaches every mind.  That’s why we rely on Fvut’s newest line of matrices, the Stellar Academy class.  Available at multiple tiers, so whether you need to hold a private meeting or you’ve got to send out an intergalactic broadcast, trust Fvut.

I smiled and shook my head.  “Oh, so that’s how you guys are speaking English.  Good one.”  That was one plot hole filled.  But there were still so many, like how was I getting a signal if there was a communications blockade around our entire solar system?

Another ad started, something about synthetic saccules surgery for Blorgnathians whose slime ducts have dried up.  They went into what sounded like graphic detail, even though I didn’t understand any of it.

I shouldn’t be judging.  I’m a biological organism.  I’m sure I have wet sacs in my body.  But that one was a little hard to sit through.

The next ad was for some kind of dessert that actually sounded like something I’d want to try, kind of like a fluffy cheesecake.

After that ad, a voice just announced, “And now, back to our broadcast.” 

Another galactic news brief started.

I frowned.  But of course they didn’t announce the station.  For the same reason no one was breaking character.  If they did either thing, they’d be giving away the secret to their sauce. 

I wanted to try toggling to the stations on either side of the one I was listening to, to help narrow down the frequency, but I was afraid of losing the signal.  I got some crackling a few times.

***

I asked a few friends at work if they’d ever heard of the show I’d been listening to.  They all commented that none of them listened to the radio, not the old AM/FM stations anyway. One of them mentioned that my description reminded him of some old radio broadcast about an alien invasion.  It was fictional, but a bunch of people thought it was real and it caused a mass panic.

“This isn’t like what you’re describing,” I said.  “It’s definitely campier.”

He shrugged, the conversation turned, and I listened to other media while I toiled away at my section of a quarterly report that was due in a week.

***

When I got home, I tuned back in to what I had started referring to as Station Glormynx in my head.  And sure enough, my old buddy Glor-Glor was on, this time sitting down with a local politician who was against the invasion of my planet.

“Why you don’t call me, Glormynx?” I said.  “Ask a human how they feel about it?”

I shook my head at myself.  I had responded by reflex, in real annoyance at a fictional injustice.  Only, for a split second, less even, I forgot it was fictional.

“Maybe I should stop making fun of how cheesy this show is.”

And then, in a moment of recklessness, flavored with some residual annoyance, I toggled to another station.  They were in the middle of ads.  The ads ended.  The station identified itself (as expected, thank you!).  I wrote it down and toggled back.

Glormynx was still talking to the somewhat-boring politician.  I toggled to the nearest station in the other direction.  I had to sit through ten minutes of top twenty hits until they went to commercials, and I got their frequency too.

“Now, we’re talking.”

I toggled back to Glormynx.  He was still there.

As it turned out, I did have one other actual physical radio.  My older sister gave it to me, for some reason.  (Maybe she thought I would turn it into an art project?  But I don’t do that kind of art, sis.)  I dug it out of the donation box near the front door.  It was a little emergency radio that ran on a solar panel, or a hand crank.  Luckily, it also had a compatible power port.  I doubted I’d be able to find the right channel.  The dial was a little loosey-goosey.  The markings on the frequency panel were probably imprecise.

I tried, and sure enough, I couldn’t find Station Glormynx.

I took the radio to work the next day anyway, figuring I’d fiddle with it at lunch.

But I gave up on fiddling with the radio faster than I gave up on the truly horrible turkey wrap that I chose to buy. (I never have luck with wraps.  Why would I even try it?)

Work was a few cities away from home.  If the broadcast was super-local, it might have been too weak to reach. 

The only way to test that was for me to take the headphones to work and see if I could still hear the mighty and noble voice of Glormynx, the wandering journalist.

***

Well, I heard Glormynx, and I heard the people he was taking calls from.

A few cities away, I could still hear them with my headphones on. 

I listened at lunch.

“…that invasion might be good for the planet.  The native sentients are careless and reckless about its maintenance.  Our own civilization went through that millions of cycles ago.  So we in modern-day society cannot fathom such carelessness, and we can’t have any firsthand views of it because of the strict protocols that prohibit broadcasting unfiltered images of pre-Zeta societies.  That makes it hard for people who are doing the work that I’m doing to make our case for a compassionate invasion.”

I frowned and bit into my brownie.  Glormynx interjected.

“Don’t most projections predict a full recovery of the planet’s biosphere—though obviously not all its species—if the native sentients destroy themselves using their global-level weapons?”

“Yes, but isn’t it better that they don’t destroy themselves and the countless other species that would go extinct if they did?”

“It’s certainly hard to argue with that.”

Despite the delicious brownie, there was a bitter taste in my mouth.  I felt the guilty truth of the caller’s point. But at the same time, I felt a righteous rage about outsiders coming in and pushing humans out of the way.

Also…what the hell is a “compassionate invasion”?

***

I stared at the screen of my laptop in the darkness of my bedroom, too transfixed to go turn on the lights.  It had been growing dark while I lay on my bed, continuing my “investigation” into Station Glormynx.

I sighed heavily at the words “Item Not Found.”

I was on the company website for the headphones manufacturer.  It was my last visit.  I’d first tried a general search, looking for information on the model I had, the 42-MGNTS-09.  But weirdly, there was nothing.  No forum questions.  No display of stores where I could make a purchase.

I’d been hoping to find more documents or other information about my headphones, in an effort to look up whether or not it contained a chip or some other part that could receive radio signals from a wider range than older radios.  (While I was at it, I tried to answer that default radio station frequency question again.)

I had expected not to find anything specific.

But I hadn’t expected not to find anything at all.

There were other headphones with similar but not identical model numbers.  But I couldn’t find my particular one.

I submitted my questions to customer service and then went on to look up local radio stations in my city, thinking maybe I’d call them one by one.  I probably wouldn’t, but it kind of made me feel better to have a next step to do.  And I thought of a few other things I could look into, so I started a list on my phone.

I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and had one of those weird thoughts I sometimes had when I was half-asleep.  I grabbed a notebook and wrote it down.

***

In the morning, I looked at the nighttime notes that I thought had been the key to unlocking the mystery.  One of the notes was about asking my co-worker Joe about the radio receiver’s range.  Reasonable.

The other note was some insight I had about the station.  I tried making anagrams of Glormynx’s name.  At first, I just glossed over it, but then, I wondered if I could be on to something. 

I was off that day, so I sent Joe a message.  Someone from customer service called me, and was just as baffled as I was about my not being able to find the model of the headphones I had on their site, on auction sites, or anywhere.  She guessed it was some manufacturing error when the model number was being stamped on.  She offered to send me a replacement pair free of charge.

I’d been planning on going back to the store where I’d bought the headphones.  I had spun a scenario in which I was a stranger that some store employee was playing a prank on.  This employee had tampered with the headphones so they could receive this broadcast.  And the broadcast was some recording probably.  It had to be people who were old enough to have the technical know-how, but young and unburdened enough to have the time.

But why go to that much trouble to prank a stranger whose reactions you’d never see?  (They’d have to be spying on me from afar, and I didn’t think that was happening.)

Maybe the prank wasn’t meant for a stranger at all.  Maybe I was accidentally sold the headphones that were meant for someone’s friend. 

But if that were the case, I imagine someone would have contacted me.  I had used a rewards card to get a discount.

I decided against re-visiting the store.  I didn’t have the time that day to play (creepy) detective with the store employees.

I spent the day listening to Station Glormynx, while I worked on my midterm project for the mixed media drawing class I was taking “for fun” (for now.)

It was the usual.  Galactic news briefs, ads, a few hours of what sounded like pleasant ambient music.  No Glormynx, though.  It must have been his day off too.

I didn’t want to keep the headphones on all day, so I turned the volume up and just lay them on the table. 

I was ten minutes from calling it a night, packing away my pastels and pencils, when the droning of the latest galactic news brief was interrupted.

I grabbed the headphones and held them close to my ear.

“…repeat, this is breaking news.  Earlier today, we were informed of a possible breach of the Comm Thirteen shield surrounding System-Seventeen, which contains planet Earth.  We were awaiting official confirmation before reporting this information.  However, we have received an anonymous but unofficial confirmation from one of our most reliable sources.  Again, this is unofficial confirmation, but we believe the information is solid and true.  According to our source, a number of devices were somehow smuggled onto Earth’s surface.  How this happened is still being investigated.  What is significant about these devices is that they are capable of receiving signals through the comm-shield.  Officials are working to recalibrate the shield.  That’s all we have for now, but we will break in periodically to bring you more details and information as this new story in the Earth invasion saga unfolds.”

The station went to commercial.  

I sat down so I could stand up again, and I slow-clapped.  “You guys have thought of everything.”

There it was…the answer to why my bargain headphones were able to pick up an interstellar transmission through a communications blockade surrounding my home planet.

I considered staying up for a bit, to see if any more details were revealed on this newest of breaking news.  But even my curiosity was tired and sleepy.

I went to bed, and went I woke up and felt sufficiently ready to get up, I reached for my headphones.  My smuggled-onto-Earth-by-invasion-dissidents headphones.  I gazed at them for a few seconds.  I should have known they were an alien device.  They were too pretty.  Who makes eggplant-and-teal-colored headphones?

I turned the volume back down so I could put them on.

I heard only static.

Cold filled my chest.  I felt genuine fear for a second, and then I shook it off.

I pressed the radio receiver button, just to make sure I was on the right setting. 

Still nothing but static.

I toggled to the next station on either side of the static.  Those stations were working.  They were on their morning shows as usual.

That chill in my chest came back.  I took my headphones off and stared at them.

Recalibration.  Of the shield.

“Did the recalibraton succeed?”

Had I lost Station Glormynx?

Suddenly, I laughed, but it was a nervous laugh.  “You guys really did think of everything,” I whispered to myself.

***

I had work that day.  But I brought the headphones with me.  I did the same thing I’d done the day before, turning the volume high enough so I could still hear with the headphones lying on my desk, but low enough so it wouldn’t bother anyone else.

No one said anything.  Our office wasn’t typically quiet during peak hours.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear my headphones.  But there was no need for worry.

All day it was static.

On the train, I wore the headphones and put the volume low.  I didn’t usually wear headphones on the train, but I arranged it so one of my ears was uncovered.  The static was actually kind of soothing.  I started feeling drowsy. 

The static stopped. 

A beep.  

Then, a loud female voice declaring, “Signal Reacquired.” 

I almost jumped out of my seat.

I sat up and readjusted my headphones so they covered both ears.

The broadcast began again.

It was in the middle of an ad for a wormhole transport service that used the “same wormhole network that the major transporters use, but at a fraction of the cost…”

I felt my heartbeat quicken.  That ad was followed by one I’d heard half a dozen times before, the one about the saccules. 

My heartbeat slowed.  I exhaled.  I leaned back in my chair again. 

***

I called a friend on my way home, one ear still covered by the headphones.  I asked her if she was free to come over.  It was time for me to confess to someone about the mystery that was becoming an obsession, one that needed an abrupt and definite end.

She might come up with a logical explanation, one that I hadn’t yet thought of.  Or she might help me investigate the items on my list, and find proof of a prank or a misunderstanding or an experiment or whatever it was that I had become so engrossed in.

Maybe she and I would stumble upon a little theater where locals were acting out and simultaneously broadcasting a signal.  Maybe they meant no harm.  Maybe it was part of their art to see who managed to track them down.

Or maybe Joe would get back to me in the meantime with another clue that led to a simple and logical explanation.  One that didn’t involve in planetary invasion. 

***

My friend put the headphones on.  She heard what I heard.  There was no doubt the broadcast was real.  I’d had colleagues listen.  I even had my mom listen when I took the headphones to her place, as part of my test of the receiver’s range.

She took them off and set them down.  I resisted the urge to reach for them.

“You’ve only been on this for a week?” she said. 

I nodded.

“You’re not obsessed.  I’ve seen you obsessed.  This is more like intensity.  But it’s not ruining your life.”

I sighed.  “Yet.  I just want to find out once and for all that it’s not real, so I can just sit back and enjoy listening to the show.”

“You can sit back and enjoy it now.  If we’re getting invaded, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”  She grinned.  “At least you’d get fair warning, so you can pack up and hide in the woods or something.”

“I wouldn’t last a single night.”

She laughed.  “Same, but warn me anyway when they announce a date.”

She agreed to help me work through my checklist.  She wanted to go looking for radio stations or go talk to theater groups in my area.  I thought she might.  She was better than me at the talking-to-humans part of life on Earth.

While she was over, we caught up and watched a movie. 

The whole time, the headphones were there in the back of my mind, even though they were out of sight, in my bedroom.

If there had been just one weird thing—like the headphone’s model number, or how the show kept addressing all my questions and suspicions—then I would have been able to let it go.  But there was a whole list, a whole chain of weird things, one link leading me to the next, in a chain that rose up to a massive mother ship descending onto the city, blocking out the sun, changing the course of human history, maybe ending it.

~***~

Midnight.  My friend had gone.  I was lying in bed with my headphones on.

Glormynx and crew were half-jokingly wondering if they should shift the tone of their reporting to allow for human ears hearing them.  

“Our manager has warned us to shift back to general galactic news until the shield can be recalibrated again.  Apparently, these receiving devices that were smuggled onto Earth are more sophisticated than officials first thought.  They are able to adapt to and compensate for recalibration.  But if we change our reporting because of who might be listening, well, then we haven’t been honest up till now.”

Glormynx.

I liked him, but so far, in all the interviews I’d heard, he had never revealed his stance on the planned invasion of Earth.

“I disagree, Glor.  If human ears could be listening, then we’d better start being careful what we say about them. But let’s ask our first caller what they think.”

The caller came in hot.

“What are they going to do, hurl an asteroid at us from their lunar sling—oh wait, they don’t have one.”

I felt my jaw tighten and my face get warm. 

“Oh? Like you’ve ever built a lunar sling with your own bare hands—tentacles—or whatever?” I muttered.  “No? Then shut up about Earth.”

“Caller, the reason the Earthlings don’t have a lunar sling is because they are very young in their sentience.  You wouldn’t insult your still-gestating offspring for not being accepted into a top academy would you?

“Well…”

“I ask that you and all callers be mindful of being respectful and compassionate when expressing your thoughts and opinions.” 

I took a deep breath and exhaled.  “Okay, you shut that caller down, but where do you stand, Glor-Glor?”

I wondered what he was like, off the clock.  I wondered if we could be friends, if his people—or the coalition they were part of—weren’t planning to invade my planet.  And in a total leap, I wondered if he had anything to do with getting me the “device” I was using to hear his voice.

There were other devices out there.  According to the news broadcast, the alien transmission.  More headphones.  If I could find another one, maybe that would lead me to a definite answer.  Or maybe it would be another piece of the puzzle—another link in the chain.

I’ll keep searching…

…to find some way to confirm if I’m just a sucker for really earnest performances and intricate pranks, or if our planet is about to be invaded.  But if it’s the latter—if it’s invasion—my friend was right.  What would I do about it anyway?  What could I do? 

I reached up with both hands to adjust my headphones.  I closed my eyes. 

And I kept listening.


Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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