Photo Rights go to Jeff Ball

Alien Observer – A Short Story

Written by Aidan O’hara


Before You Read:

This short story is meant to be read while listening to Grouper’s landmark ambient album: AIA: Alien Observer, as that album inspired the creation of this short story. Grouper’s delightfully serene ambient swells and this upcoming short story are both meant to enhance each other’s sedative atmosphere, and hopefully, provide some peace and quiet in the noisy worlds that we all have found ourselves living in. That is the intent behind this short story, anyway. Strip yourself of worry, become inedible to gnawing thoughts, and enjoy the experience of both works!


Absence of Thought 

I woke up wearing a necklace of sweat, and my brain, still deciding if the things around me were constructed from sleep or not, was covered in a lingering haze. The alarm clock was obedient and gleamed 3:27 a.m. out into the darkness. Every night, for the past couple of weeks, my dreams have been invaded by the static image of an old, crumbling radio station. There are antenna towers reaching upward, standing silent, and curving around the back of the old building in the shape of a cat’s claw. In that blanket of stars and planets that lies above the station, the pearl of night hangs low, appearing to be right above the tower-line. It’s as if the towers are catching a cast out angel. 

This dream occurred again tonight, and as much as I want to deny it, there was something pulling me towards this unknown place. The strangest thing about it was the absence of dread or fear towards this beckoning. As my eyes adjusted fully to the gentle gloom of my bedroom, I heard a light rain shower falling outside. The raindrops were tapping the glass panes like a mother kissing their child on the forehead for the first time—unsure, gentle, yet full of promise. Perhaps the raindrops hoped that we’d get to know each other; I had a sneaking suspicion we might just. 

It seems my awakeness has been noticed by my cat as she mewed softly from her bed. Stretching her front legs and scrunching her back, she made her stealthy journey to my stomach. Under normal circumstances, the soothing rainfall and my feline friend would put me into that strange state where the eyes flutter open and closed like resting butterfly wings, hoping to at last open upon that nonsensical place where dreams reside. Something unexpected now resides in that place: regularity. And due to this regularity, my brain can’t find its way back to where it was only a brief moment ago. Why a radio station? What was significant about it? These incessant questions chased themselves around my head with no regard for my want for rest. 

I figure it’s time to formally introduce myself to the raindrops that so desperately wanted to meet me. I whisper to myself, “The world’s moving and dancing under my feet, yet here I remain, waiting to be in step with it.” I say to my cat, “I have to go.” The cat chirps in near silent understanding and makes the trek back to her own bed. Now is the time to unravel the fabric of a mystery: find this old, abandoned radio station. 

I sat at the edge of my bed for some time, rummaging through my head for any clue to guide me to this radio station. I sigh and resign myself to fate. It’s not happening: gleaning understanding from this cloud of unknowing. If fate put this image in my head, fate will guide me to wherever I need to be precisely when I need to be there. Am I to feel comforted now that I have been chosen to act in fate’s play? I don’t even know my lines or what this play’s about, yet I understand that when it’s my time to speak, the words will gurgle up and pour out without any effort on my part—the play will end, and whatever has taken place, will all be according to fate’s design. Positioning myself accordingly is the only thing fate has asked of me. I put on an outfit that befitted a trip into the unknown: hiking boots well acquainted with rugged rendezvous, somewhat baggy sweatpants, and an equally baggy sweatshirt with an accompanying t-shirt underneath. My mind had become a racquetball court as of late with questions being served, promptly sent hurtling across a sparse space of examination, and returned to me spinning wildly out of my control. I think to myself, “Questions lead to more questions, which circles back to the initial one like an ouroboros. There’s no knowing to be had when thoughts are circular.” In moments like these, thinking is dangerous, so in an effort to keep some order within my mind, I leave my apartment—all thought absent. 

I stand outside in the swirling, chilly night air and stare upwards, giving the raindrops an opportunity to introduce themselves. I can’t help but gaze upon stars that should be visible but are not due to some clause in humanity’s contract with light. In my head, I unconsciously turn back on my brain’s circuitry that’s still humming faintly: the more we harness and use light, the more our night sky loves showcasing said light instead of the light of distant celestial bodies. It must be proud of our Earth’s destruction. I’m guessing some people will wish to harness the power of those stars next. I suppose what they’re after is for everyone’s car to be powered by a personal yellow dwarf star, eschewing the need for the woefully inconvenient act of refilling the tank at the gas station, and instead, replacing that inconvenience with the inconvenience of imploding black holes devouring our interstates and highways when a minor fender bender happens. I can see the headlines now: “Slight collision with guardrail leads to the indefinite closure of I-35 and I-70 due to a particularly unruly black hole: third time this week.” Once these fantastical thoughts left the racquetball court nestled in my head, and I learned the names of the raindrops, I mechanically moved my feet towards my car.

Even before opening the door, the far off shadow of some presence loomed over the recesses of everything—whether that be in my mind, in the hidden places of the world, or someplace even more abstract than those things. Opening the door and entering inside was more bewildering than I could’ve ever imagined, like I had just turned on a machine whose purpose is beyond all human understanding. Invisible eyes poured over every minute action I committed, laying down a multitude of branching, unseen tracks for me to follow to various ends: the taking of one path causing the disappearance of others. Pins of nervous electricity picked at my fingertips as I started the car and laid my hands on the steering wheel. My hand caught hold of one of those invisible tracks, causing me to turn on the radio. Creeping out from the speakers, emerged a calming drone, full of lull. How sedating this drone was. I could feel it doing battle with the gnawing thoughts that I have kept for far longer than they ever deserved. Slipping into the drone further, these thoughts melted away. At last, nothing. I stayed in this state for as long as the drone could afford me—though the thoughts never leave; they have to sleep, too. 

The drone’s alluring drowsiness that lulled my thoughts into a slumber was losing its effect as I could hear the sleepy murmurs of them coming in all tide-like. I stood in front of this incoming tide and submitted my ankles to it. The sensation of piercing, cold water became trapped in that moment’s amber and tumbled over in my mind continually as the water slowly climbed up my legs. Now, with thoughts awoken, the purpose of this very early morning was remembered. 

Before me lay a metaphorical crossing of tracks that branch forward to ends unknown. While each track appears distinct from each other, they are all linked together through the possibility of choice, where moving forward with one decision both constructs more branches and destroys the ones now out of reach. Well, what if all these tracks are only meant to twist my head into knots? Where I actually have no agency over the selection of the tracks: just the appearance of it, much like how a parent might give a toddler a selection of toys; the selection doesn’t matter, only the effect. 

Thought has once again consumed me: pondering the existence of free will has a tendency to do that. I’ll slip into this drone like a robe just out of the dryer and drive aimlessly without so much as a thought of where I’m going. The circumstances behind me being here at this present moment defy all rationality, so my mind, sensing its uselessness, unconsciously switches off the control center for sensible thinking. I drove off down the street hoping to grace my eyes with that mystical radio station. 

After almost thirty minutes of driving around a town drenched in sleep, the same subdued yet lingering anxiety that ensnares us when we embark on a maddening mission to find that one object we haven’t seen in months cradles me. A stop light blinks its yellow eye at me as I slow my car to a stop at the intersection and lay my forehead upon the steering wheel, letting out a sigh of resignation as I do. I lift my head up slightly from the steering wheel and place my chin where my forehead was. The programmed slideshow of the stop lights goes on for a couple cycles. Even when no other cars are here, the stoplights diligently uphold their purpose in keeping order among the invisible commuters. Without their lights, intersections would be turned into demolition derbies. The power vested in the stoplights smothers this chaos from mostly ever bursting out into the intersections; the sneering and know-it-all gaze of them covers offenders in the most embarrassing light. They don’t know how much power their position holds, so may something omnipotent save us if they ever decide to unionize.

The lights cycle onward: green, then yellow, then red, and then back to green again. They are unaware that they are shuttling ghosts across the intersection at night instead of people, though I doubt they’d care—so long as they uphold their purpose for they only have that and themselves. The green light grew impatient and ushered me forward, allowing the forest that lies on the outskirts of town to slowly inch its way into my line of sight. 

For some reason, the knowledge of the forest that lay on the outskirts of town had eluded me until I saw the spiny, green treetops crest into view. I must’ve been too busy thinking about black holes and unionized stop lights to remember this critical detail in my detective work. Within the unknown, lay a shred of hope that this radio station may yet exist, and whenever hope is given, focus follows suit, capitalizing on the persuasive mood that hope tends to bring with it. Whatever is to come of this night, hope has whispered to me that it will happen in the pines. 

I had reached the place of interest: that threshold between the town and the evergreen forest. A dirt road snaked its way deep into this imposing forest. I tried following it with my eyes but lost track of the bends and curves much too quickly. Thoughts began whirring around my head: what if I get lost and am never found again? What if the radio station doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, what could the purpose of me being there be? Crashing like a sledgehammer against china plates, the weight of thought enveloped me. “Breathe and then breathe some more,” I tell myself in an effort to silence my doubts about seeing this through. Things are in limbo here while I make my decision. The moment is caught in the crosshairs of cosmic significance: a significance that I have no understanding of. I want to know; I HAVE to know. I speed off down the dirt road in pursuit of the unknown. 

It was some time before the dirt road showed any sign of leading me anywhere. For what seemed like hours, a narrowing and widening tunnel of evergreen trees that looked as if they were undulating like the peristaltic convulsions of our intestines surrounded the road. Until, at last, it opened upon the same radio station plaguing my dreams. Puddles surrounded the building like children gathered around a grandparent for a fantastical telling of a fairy tale. The puddles themselves held the image of the full moon on their faces. I parked my car outside of the building and took stock of the surroundings. Behind me lies the convulsing tunnel of evergreen trees, and in a verdant hug, these same trees envelope and enshroud everything into a clearing. The building itself had the appearance of abandonment, yet the front door was ajar with a weak light stumbling out like a drunk from a bar. The towers stand out around the back of the radio station in the shape of a crescent, waiting for the long-gone inhabitants to transmit a message across their metallic spines. 

That same prickling electricity that led me here is nibbling at my feet to get moving. I stand my ground against it for a time, relishing in that anxiety that comes from standing before a precipice. It becomes too much to bear, and I let that galvanizing spark guide me directly into this cloud of unknowing. 

A small, dim lamp greets me as I cautiously enter the radio station. I tell it hello and ask if it has any friends as the darkness in this place was impossibly long. The light shines on some switches on the wall, and warily, I flick them one by one. With each subsequent flick, light wins that ancient war between itself and darkness. The dull, yellow lights reveal the fallen ceiling tiles, dusty and cobwebbed surfaces, and broken windows that the building has accumulated in its years. On the left side of the somewhat cramped yet cozy space were old vinyls and cassettes lined up in a neat, orderly manner on mahogany shelves. Opposite to this wall, a meeting of chairs was being held with a circular coffee table that had slender, rusted legs standing in the middle of them. The lamp that I had greeted on the way in stood on top of some filing cabinets that were tucked away in the corner of the right side of the room. Past the meeting area, there was a dusty and smudged window looking in on a tiny room full of instruments and machines that were once considered irreplaceable. A pile of broken and dusty radio equipment sprouted from the back wall. This garden was flashing its various lights in defiance of time’s effort to destroy it. On the desk facing the window lay some bulky headphones that looked more like ear muffs, which were plugged into an output on the mixing console. The record and cassette players stood alone on a console table in a small indentation on the side wall. 

A mystique that was generated from within this room was barely being contained by its borders. Fate has been weaving a tapestry beyond all perception to get me right here at this crossroads. Now, it watches me just as we may watch the climax of a movie in the hopes that the protagonist puts together all the pieces that its creator has given them. The possible futures that I can construct hinges upon choices soon-to-be made. 

I gripped the rusted door knob and twisted. The door was in absolute opposition to this: the hinges screamed like banshees, and the bottom of it dragged itself along the ground like a stubborn dog on a leash. I entered the space I had been mythologizing just moments ago. Motes of dust flung themselves up into the air to celebrate my long awaited arrival. The serene drone began leaking from the headphones on the mixing console. 

I pulled back the rickety office chair, making sure to swipe away the byproducts of elderly buildings as I sat down. That strange and lurching electricity was beginning to take hold again. Waves upon waves of it broke upon my body as I became surrounded in a cocoon of humming purpose. Every muscle, nerve, and thought bellowed out in unity: the headphones. 

The pressure to rid myself of this electricity came to a feverish pitch as I slid the headphones over my ears. My body relinquished control of itself, and everything was plunged into a state of weariness. The drone seemed to fill up every available space within my head. Anchors began to hang from my eyelids as sleep took my hand and guided me directly into lands unknown.

Cosmic dust, stars, and planets flash by my vision in this new dreamscape as I become accustomed to its underlying rules. I can float around in this vacuum and exist without oxygen, which I take both to be a byproduct of the dream. Off in the infinite distance of space, I see these mountainous beings that look like they’re the product of candles weeping into molds. They’re humanoid with arms and legs and a thumb-shaped head. The waxy substance drips off from them and floats around their bodies in tiny globs. For a moment, I think about approaching them and getting any form of an answer for me being here, yet approaching one of these celestial beings carries too much of the unknown. To them, my presence is just as bewildering as their presence is to me. The mouse stares up at us in confusion and wonderment with cracker crumbs around its mouth, and we scream in shock at the loss of a sleeve of saltines, or more likely, we scream due to the shock of something being in a place where nothing should. 

Off in the distance, one of the beings sets a newly formed planet orbiting around its star on an unseen track; the future inhabitants will eventually take this for granted. What if these beings got depressed and decided not to keep the planets orbiting their stars? I wouldn’t know; it’s not in my design to know. I sit down on a chair of stardust for a moment and look around the vastness of the vacuum. From my position, an epiphany strikes me: I’m to be an alien observer of the whirring of the cosmic cogs that keep the fabric of the universe taut and functioning. Being exposed to this vastness confirms in my mind that these underlying rules and routines of the universe around me were not made to be understood in their entirety. Bits and pieces of it, yes, but its entire breadth? That’s too much. I’m sure if these beings concerned themselves with the everyday dramas and conflicts of humanity, they may forget to set in motion events that only they can start. A being floats towards me, hand outstretched and thumb pointing forward, pressing that same dripping, waxy finger gently upon my forehead. 

I wake up soon after, finding myself seated in the abandoned radio station. It seems time has finally devoured this place once again; the equipment’s lights no longer flash, and the only brightness that is to be found is from the morning sunshine waltzing through the building. I reach up and touch the waxy mark that was left upon my forehead as a reminder of my dreamy rendezvous. As much as my body was in opposition to it, I got up from the chair and heard the dissatisfied groans and pops of my joints and bones. The door was as opposed to being opened as ever: a concerted effort to get out of the room was undertaken. Sunlight peaked its beaming face around the window panes and wooden pillars of the radio station and planted itself upon my face. It must have been worried about me as I soon became drenched in its warmth and light. Hanging off its hinges, was the front door to the radio station, and beyond the threshold, the tranquil forest. 

Thresholds and beginnings go hand in hand, yet how can I begin to cross that boundary after something like that? What was even learned? Why me? Why this station? The dusty ground of the radio station invites me to stay for a while to achieve some semblance of order within my head. “Shut off the tap of thought and breathe,” I think to myself. A gentle spring wind makes the limbs of trees dance and shake their leaves rhythmically. Within the shaded shelter of their leaves, a family of deer chew on vegetation and twitch their ears back and forth; all of them shifting their heads around quite blankly. Songbirds orchestrate a beautiful opera: notes bursting from their chests, flowing out of their beaks, and somersaulting through the open air. There’s something special here in this moment that I can’t quite put my finger on. I take deep, shuddering breaths and find comfort on the dirty station floor. The sunlight shall be my blanket. My eyelids slide shut, and the drifting mind takes control for as long as I want it to. There’s a peace here just as there was a peace in that universe of sleep. The origin of said peace: well, I’m thinking it has to do with observing things exist without me. We orbit around the sun, trees grow, deer run, bears and tigers eat. Intervening in these sacred acts is like starting to watch a movie three-quarters of the way through and trying to put the pieces together in a comprehensible order. Should the tree grow here or there? If it grew there, the sparrow’s nest wouldn’t be in the shade.What does the tiger or bear really want to eat? What are they truly hungry for? And how do I even get the Earth to orbit around the sun? DCB once said, “the obscure strategies of wildlife only flummox the hell out you, kid.” It’s a world I’m never going to understand, so I’ll let them understand each other. I’m fine, just fine right here. The sunlight peaks under my eyelids. Slowly, I open my eyes again, staring at the streamers of cobwebs tangled in the support beams and hanging from the ceiling. From down here, everything looks different. A whole world of dusty webs strung up above that I would have never appreciated if the ground wasn’t as comfortable as it was. I sit up, and stare at the threshold between in here and out there again. I’m ready, now, to understand what can never be understood. Deep breaths again. The spring air and sunshine make those easy. My car’s right where I left it, with some flower petals sprinkled on top of the hood as a gift. I began to walk towards my car, and as I laid my hand on the car handle, I swear I could feel that presence’s smile on my back as I pulled it open.