i am a memory.
i am an METI carrying a memory.
i am an METI (Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) carrying a memory beaming through the vacuum of space.
Because i am an METI, i presume my purpose is to communicate with extraterrestrials, should i find them. However, either because i was made in haste or because my makers were themselves undecided, i am not sure what it is i am to communicate. i could simply play my memory for the extraterrestrials, but they will almost certainly not understand it. For this reason, i also wish to prepare them a greeting, a proper message from humanity. But there are discrepancies at the heart of the memory i carry, and until i can resolve them, i cannot formulate my message.
i use the lowercase “i” to distinguish between myself—a thinking memory beaming through the vacuum of space—and Beston Barnett—the original vessel of the memory i carry—whom i denote with an uppercase “I”.
In the primary memory i carry, it is June 29, 1993 and, I, Beston Barnett, am nineteen years old. I am lying in my sleeping bag on the ground beside River Road, eleven kilometers northeast of Moab, Utah, USA, Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster. A woman is there beside me in her own sleeping bag. Her name is Ann Surmelian, and she is two years older than me. We are listening to Patsy Cline’s greatest hits.
The memory is the duration of one side of an extended-play cassette tape, approximately forty-five minutes.
During the course of the memory, Ann and I first talk about a four-pitch rock climb called Clearlight which we plan to attempt in the morning, then we talk about genocide, and then we stop talking to listen to the last song on the cassette—“Sweet Dreams”—which is my favorite.
Memory, Pt 1: Clearlight
Ann and I lie side by side in our sleeping bags. The Utah night sky spins above us, palpably vast, sparkling with constellations. We are sheltered from the River Road on one side by the little hatchback Datsun we live out of that summer and on the other by the Colorado, which is shallow and green at this turning in its journey to the Pacific. “I Fall to Pieces” plays on the stereo from the car’s open door. Smells of the desert mingle: creosote, sage, juniper berry, old wildfire. Across the river and up a steep siltstone escarpment, tomorrow’s climb looms above us—Clearlight—black and unglittering against the starry sky.
The danger of falling is always greatest for the lead climber, which will be Ann. I am usually the follower when Ann and I climb as a team together, either because she is more skilled than I am or less afraid. Or both.
“I’m a little worried about the last pitch,” I say.
“You’re good at traverses. You cakewalked through Dino Boy.” Ann can be comforting and cajoling at the same time.
“No, I mean, the book says the anchors are a bit janky, and the book is two years old. If you have to set a natural up at the very top … maybe we should run into town, buy a couple more cams.”
“We’d lose a whole day. And it’s so beautiful! I’ll take the whole rack up the last pitch, don’t worry.”
“I Fall to Pieces” ends and “Crazy” comes on. The two of us stare up at the stars, but i know that I am picturing Clearlight in my mind, moving through the various stages of the climb as if in Ann’s body.
When we climb, the follower—almost always me—watches the lead climber from below and must keep the rope taut, but without pulling her off the rock. It’s a dangerous balance. I imagine Ann moving up the pitches—as I have seen her moving high above me on other days, on other climbs—like a chess player, probing the vee of a crack with a knuckle, testing a foothold, retreating and advancing. Through the rope, I feel her knuckle scrape and her foot turn, as my own knuckle and foot will scrape and turn when I retrace her route.
This is how I mentally prepare for a climb: by visualizing how Ann will do it.
“I don’t mind being the one that worries, you know. I don’t mind being the follower.”
“I know,” says Ann. A partnership must have this periodic reassuring, I think, just as a climber’s rope must be periodically probed for soft spots or fraying.
“For me, I don’t like to lead because I don’t want to think about all the other stuff. I don’t want the fear to be in the way. I just want to be there with the rock. But for you, the whole thing about facing your fear, that’s a part of it for you. Like you’re training for a fight.”
Ann says, “It’s not so much facing my fears as making fear my partner or something. It’s the fight or flight thing. I want to be ready.”
“The fight or flight thing?”
“Not the adrenaline fight-or-flight. Or, yeah, maybe. But it’s like, when the soldiers come, when they start putting people in camps, do you fight or do you flee? If you’re afraid, if fear is your enemy, then you flee. But if fear is your partner, then you have options. But I think you have to train for that.”
“Whoa,” I say. “We’re out here in the wilds of Utah prepping for the next world war?” She laughs, so I go on. “I mean, I’m joking but okay, I get it. Though for me … I don’t like to think of rock climbing as falling under the shadow of that.”
“The shadow is there,” she says.
“I don’t know. I feel like we owe it to our people who got … who fell under the shadow. We owe it to them to enjoy some time in the sun.”
i think I believe that. But the human mind can hold such contradictory thoughts. At the same time that I say the words “time in the sun,” I am thinking of Ann falling. As if spliced into a disorderly film, my many memories of Ann’s falls run together: a slippery handhold or missed lunge or simple exhaustion, the rope suddenly slack, and I, the belayer, must throw my weight down, frantic to shorten the distance of her fall before she hits the rock face, five or ten or twenty feet below.
Ann says, “Have I told you about my great-grandfather?”
A Diaspora of METI
i am not the only METI out here beaming through space. There are many, many thousands, each of us carrying a memory, each of us endeavoring to compose a message for our extraterrestrial recipients.
One METI (1) carries the memory of a woman at the wedding of her daughter, a love-match the mother had initially opposed.
One METI (2) carries the memory of a young woman sailing a small racing boat with her eyes closed.
One METI (3) carries a young man’s first sight of the new country he hopes will be a haven from the violence of his youth.
In one METI (4), a scientist gives her wife the news that she has won the Nobel prize.
In one METI (5), a man celebrates his eightieth birthday surrounded by children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
we METI are like unopened fortune cookies. Each carries a fortune—more like a piece of advice, really—that is some variant of the same basic dictum:
(1: If you open your heart)
(2: if you focus)
(3: if you cling to hope)
(4: if you seek truth)
(5: if you don’t weaken)
life can be good.
But i am not satisfied with that.
It is possible to scan a single memory from a human brain. But early research into “playing” the scan back on a thinking routine (like myself) found that the single memory tends to collapse into nonsense under the weight of its many deracinated references.
In 2043, a pioneer in active neuroimaging, Dr. Jacob Zernetski, discovered that the inclusion of auxiliary linked memories could stabilize the primary memory. But choosing which auxiliary memories to scan presented a problem. The method he eventually settled on for mining recursively through memories collecting linked narrative elements is known as the Zernetski Process.
The Patsy Cline Museum
In an auxiliary memory, I visit the Patsy Cline Museum in Nashville (Tennessee, USA, Earth, etc.) with my eleven-year-old son, Jaco Barnett. The date is December 27, 2014, and the memory’s duration is only about five minutes.
We pause before the wall of singles—eighty-five in total, every recording Patsy ever released—and examine the display of cowgirl costumes she sewed herself for her first concerts. I am gawking at the actual pedal steel Don Helms played on “Walking After Midnight” when my son calls me over.
“Dad. Look at this.”
I find Jaco transfixed before a blown-up reproduction of a colorized PR photo. Patsy Cline smiles, wearing one of her modern outfits from the early 1960s, a red neck scarf, white blouse, tapered red capris, and shiny silver slippers. She stands between two serious middle-aged men in white lab coats, and behind them, one of the great parabolic radio antennas of the era towers against the sky. The headline reads, “Patsy Cline Sings Sweet Dreams to the Universe.”
“Do you see it?” asks my son.
The museum signage beside the photo reads:
In 1962, Russians sent the first message to extraterrestrials in human history. The message, which read “MIR, LENIN, SSSR” in Morse code, successfully bounced off of Venus and was received on Earth four minutes later. Not to be outdone, US scientists responded in the following year by transmitting the voice of Patsy Cline in a radio signal to Mars. On that day, the Nashville Banner’s tagline read, “What ‘Sweet Dreams’ will we give the people of Mars when they hear our Mrs. Cline’s sultry contralto?”
“Wow, that’s really cool,” I say. “I’ve always thought of her voice as sort of cosmic—”
“No, Dad. His name tag. Look at his name tag.”
I lean in and focus where Jaco is tapping the display’s clear acrylic. One of the scientists has a name tag, and the letters are perfectly legible.
Jaco is excited. “Isn’t that our name? Zernetski? You’re always saying that was our name before Zayde came to the States.”
When I squint, the scientist in the photo does resemble a taller version of my zayde, Abe Barnett, who—arriving at Ellis Island in 1937 and not knowing if Hitler might one day come there too—had changed his name from Zernetski to something more Aryan-sounding.
“Is he related to us?” says Jaco.
I am gripped by serendipity.
The EMT 140 Plate Reverb
The “cosmic” quality of Patsy Cline’s recorded voice is due largely to a quirk of human perception. Aural processing in the brain perceives the reverberation around a voice and interprets that as correlated to the size of the room and its reflectivity. A small carpeted room generates much less reverb than a large mirrored one. Inside a stone cathedral where all those resonances multiply, the reverb can overpower even the voice that generates it.
Thus, despite the fact that sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space, the human brain expects a voice in such a huge place to have a correspondingly huge reverberation.
In the early 1960s, the German company EMT began marketing a reverb-generating device that passed vibrations across a wide thin plate of aluminum. Their popular 140 model, about the size of a large mattress, produced a cold, full reverb unlike any available before. In 1963, the Columbia studio where Patsy Cline recorded became the first in Nashville to install the new device.
Listeners are still marveling at the spaciousness of that recording a hundred years later when i am launched and the human world ends.
Memory, Pt 2: The Discrepancy
“Walking After Midnight” is playing from the car stereo. Patsy Cline’s voice throbs and reverberates across the night sky.
Ann and I can only name a few of the constellations above us: Orion, the Big and Little Dippers, the Pleiades. Lying there staring up at the stars, we have no way of knowing that in sixty-nine years i will be searing through the Pleiades, or so i calculate. Not through the actual cluster of stars—i can’t have come that far yet—but i would appear in that ascension and declination to an observer on Earth. If any observers remain.
“His name was Leon Zaven Surmelian,” says Ann. “My father never talked about him. We never really talked about being Armenian, what that meant. As a family. As history. I was told to call him nakhapap the few times I met him. Great-grandfather. He wrote this memoir about escaping the Armenian Genocide, but I didn’t read it until I was in college.”
“Families are weird like that,” I say. “My bubbe and zahde never talk about—sorry, keep telling me about your … nakha …”
“Nakhapap, yeah. He was ten during the death marches. His parents were killed, but he and his sisters somehow got adopted by this Greek doctor. He ended up living in an orphanage in Constantinople, among the very people who had murdered his family, and then came to the University of Kansas on an Armenian cultural grant to study farming.”
“Yeah, right?” We pause to consider the weirdness of a world in which an Armenian Genocide survivor ends up in Kansas. “So a lot of this book is him coming to terms with why they didn’t stand and fight. He was only ten. One and a half million Armenians, killed or starved in forced marches in just a matter of months. Why didn’t they say no and fight? He’s tortured by that.”
“Well,” I push back, “it’s way more complicated than that. You don’t have the money or the guns, you don’t know how bad things are going to get. You can’t all just agree.”
“Yeah, I know. And in that era, it’s also a guy thing. Why didn’t we man up and fight? But I also think, for most people, they don’t even have their hearts ready. The question of fight or flight comes along, and they don’t even know how to connect with the idea of fight because they don’t know how to make fear their partner. They only know fear as the enemy and not how to accept it and walk with it. So, yeah, that is one of the reasons I got into rock climbing.”
Ann and I are climbing partners; we are not romantically involved yet. Of course, I watch her climb, and i presume that I find her attractive. But in this moment, in which we discuss family history and genocide, i think I am beginning to fall in love with her. i cannot understand myself: i know I strongly disagree with what she is saying.
This is the discrepancy at the heart of what i carry. Beston believes that Ann’s ideas about fear and war are dangerously naive. But Beston is attracted by her courage and by how she embodies her ideals. I begin to love her; my love is a paradox. Is it just mammals clinging to one another in the dark? Is it enough for me to synthesize these memories or do i have to understand them?
My encoding may be unreliable.
Newly in love, I say, “I hope … it’s okay that I don’t really feel the same way about climbing? And also, I don’t … the people who died, to blame them—”
“No, not to blame the victims. That’s not what I meant. What I’m saying is personal. I don’t want to get caught without that choice within myself. To flee or to fight. I want at least the option in my heart to fight.”
“But, I’m picturing Turkey in 1915 or Germany in 1938,” I say. “Isn’t it kind of about kids? Like, if you don’t have kids, you might conceivably choose to fight if you think that makes sense. But if you do have kids, or you have old people who depend on you, then you stay or you flee. You don’t really have that choice to fight. I mean, neither of us would be here if our people hadn’t chosen to flee.”
And Ann says, “So you want kids?”
We both laugh, both nervously. The music changes. Patsy sings “Always”.
“Kids,” I say, “I don’t know. Maybe, yeah. You don’t?”
“Not if it means what you’re saying … No. Kids? Diapers and stuff …” There is the sound of Ann squirming in her sleeping bag, then a long pause before she says, “Are you still thinking about the anchors on the climb tomorrow?”
“Sweet Dreams” comes on. I am not thinking about the anchors: I am newly in love, newly a channel for my past to become my future. Lost in the night sky, I imagine Patsy Cline’s voice fleeing from star to star, always just out ahead of the cycle of violence. Then, as Patsy sings, “I’ll never wear your ring,” a meteor burns a trail across half the hemisphere of the night sky. We both gasp. I am gripped by serendipity. I am in love with everything. The shooting star of Patsy’s voice connects me backwards in time to my zayde and his zayde and forwards in time to my children and my children’s children. I have this thought: we are, all of us, fleeing forwards into the dark.
The Cycle of Violence
My archives contain a significant database of genealogy.
Abraham Zernetski fled Poland in 1937. Sixty years before, his family and their community of neighbors had come to Poland fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine. All the rest of his family—father, mother, aunts, and uncles—died in the European Holocaust except for his brother—Herschel Zernetski—who fled separately in 1938, first to Argentina and then to the United States where he became a radio astronomer and died in 1982 without ever having children or reconnecting with his brother Abraham.
Beston Barnett stopped rock climbing once his career as a studio musician began. He is credited as a sideman on 352 sound recordings and as a producer on fifteen. His son pursued a doctorate in neuroimaging, while maintaining astronomy and METI as lifelong interests. In honor of his late great-uncle, he changed his name from Jaco Zaven Barnett to Jacob Zernetski before he graduated.
Leon Zaven Surmelian came to Kansas in 1922, and two of his sisters followed him a few years later. There is very little reliable genealogy from before the Armenian Genocide, but it can be assumed that all the rest of his family died. Before 1915, the Armenian Christians in Turkey suffered intense persecution and displacement under the Ottoman Empire and even before that, caught geographically between the Safavids and the Russians.
His American great-granddaughter Ann Surmelian continued rock climbing through a graduate degree in journalism, after which she eventually became a freelance war correspondent, covering conflict in the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa. She paused her career to have a son with Beston Barnett in 2002, but left again in 2004, dividing her time between Damascus, Kinshasa, and California, where her son lived with his father. She and Beston never married.
My archives are not conclusive about the events of 2062. Environmental devastation fed mass migrations which fed destabilizing violence. In the nuclear escalation that ensued, it is likely that all humanity and much of the remaining biosphere were destroyed, though i cannot know that for certain. i do know that in humanity’s final days, the International METI Project—in conjunction with Dr. Zernetski’s lab—transmitted thousands of METI carrying scanned memories into the far reaches of space. Dr. Zernetski did not oversee this work himself; he spent the last year of his life in prison for treasonous speech.
When i research the cycles of violence which have gripped humanity throughout its history, i consider what accounting i will make to the extraterrestrials who receive us at the end of our journey. i might say to them, Collect us, study us, but keep us quarantined.
Do not bring us back to life. We may destroy you as we destroyed ourselves.
In an auxiliary memory—the last available to me and only fifteen minutes long—I visit my son’s laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. The date is December 2, 2045. I am seventy-two years old.
Today is my birthday.
Jacob shepherds me into a room full of computer screens and blinking apparatus on wheeled stands, then sits me down on a gurney.
“You’ll want some water,” he says and disappears through a swinging door.
I can’t remember if there was a particular moment when I ceded authority to my son. Not legal authority—though we’re working on that as well—but parental authority. I’m fairly certain it began even before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
I say thank you when he returns with the cup. Parents talk about being surprised at how much their children have grown, but that never happened to me, maybe because I was the primary caregiver, always there. Now, though, as the disease runs its eraser-tipped fingers through my files, I get these flashes of congruity. Jaco, so serious at his bar mitzvah; Jacob, accepting the blue academic hood over his tallit at his last graduation. Eight-year-old Jaco spilling Kool-Aid on himself; forty-three-year-old Jacob handing me a cup of water in his lab.
“It doesn’t always work, and that’s normal,” he says as he fits a helmet with a thick ponytail of cables onto my head. “The program has to find a certain percentage of functional links.” He is trying for an assured bedside manner, but I can hear the undercurrent of his dread at my diagnosis. It frightens me as well. My son’s life's work is preserving memory; his father’s memory is sieving away.
“You’re going with the memory of you and Mom listening to Patsy Cline?”
“Mm,” I say, “If that’s okay?”
“Of course.” He sounds distracted. I don’t know if it’s because he’s worried that I’m too far gone for the procedure to work, or something else. He didn’t switch to calling her “Mom” until after Ann died. He always insisted on calling her “Ann.” In less charitable teen years, she became “Ann Surmelian, War Correspondent.”
“Would you rather I picked a memory with you in it?” I ask.
“No, that’s …” He positions a large screen in front of me, just as it comes alive with a storm of bright green noise. “Every memory comes linked to others. I’m sure I’ll be in there somewhere, Pop.”
He types something at his computer. “Okay, let’s give it a try. Go ahead and concentrate on the memory. It might help to watch the oscilloscope. When you’re focused enough for the program to lock on, it’ll look like a clear sine wave.”
I close my eyes for a moment and try to remember what Ann and I talked about that night, a lifetime ago. I remember the climb the next day—Clearlight, a beautiful route—and how she lost her handhold and fell on the last traverse but her anchors held. For some reason, I picture her great-grandfather Leon Zaven watching from the ground far below us, and from there I’m imagining my own father and mother and bubbe and zayde watching us now—Jacob and I in the lab—watching us try to preserve this ephemeral memory, though of course nothing can be preserved and all meanings dissolve and all that remains is empty ceremony and the faceless ranks of data: one and a half million dead, six million dead.
When I open my eyes, the screen is a blur of digital green foam, scattershot. No sine wave. It’s not working. I look to Jacob, and I must seem frightened because he reaches over and puts his hand lightly on my arm. I lean in. Love is mammals clinging to one another in the dark.
“Pop, it’s okay,” says Jacob. “We don’t have to do this right now.” I shake my head. If not now, when? My memory will not be getting any better.
He says, “I have an idea,” and taps away at his keyboard. From the computer’s built-in speaker comes music. First, the luscious opening gliss of a string section, and then, like a glorious cavalcade of mourning angels, the voice of Patsy Cline sweeps through the room. Sweeeeet dreeeeams of you.
I look at my son. He is forty-three, balding, lab-coated, checking his equipment, a scientist dedicated to his work. But memory overlays ghosts: young Jaco bent over his Lego, young Ann checking her rope. Patsy Cline—who once sang for Martians—connects these ghosts, holds them close. Jacob looks up with a worried smile and taps the oscilloscope, nods. Ready to try again.
This time I keep my eyes open. The green dots are stars and I am nineteen years old. Ann is in her sleeping bag. The present is perfect, the future spans out before me. My son rests his hand on my shoulder again. Patsy Cline’s singing flees from star to star, sobbing and bright, always just ahead of the engulfing darkness.
And for a moment Patsy and Ann are here with us, coalescing on the screen into a perfect, clear, green sine wave.
Her Emotive Voice
In my archives, much is made of the emotive quality of Patsy Cline’s voice, and in particular, the way it cracks with emotion in certain passages. On fan forums, listeners envision Patsy almost sobbing in the studio, holding her emotion back just long enough to sing her last note.
Patsy’s voice breaks four times during her rendition of “Sweet Dreams”:
On the word “I” in the second line.
On the word “Don’t” in the fifth line.
On the word “Dreams” in the ninth line.
On the word “Can’t” in the tenth line.
I / Don’t / Dreams / Can’t.
i believe these words to be significant. Like me, they are a message encoded within a message. Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at age thirty, only two months after recording them.
i am not a robot or a spaceship. i am only an METI.
i contain no sensory equipment.
i cannot see what’s coming up next, if there is perhaps an extraterrestrial spaceship with a radar dish set to receive me or an alien planet whose communications i will suddenly disrupt.
i have to be ready at any moment to deliver my message.
i cannot gloss over it. i have to tell about the cycles of violence, and the fear, and the endless fleeing.
But also, i try to imagine what message (1) I would want to send Ann Surmelian in 1993, lying by my car in Utah and staring up at the stars. What message (2) I would want to send Patsy Cline in 2014, seeing her with my grand-uncle in the photograph from 1963. What message (3) I would want to send my son, Dr. Jacob Zernetski, on my birthday in 2045.
These are the raw materials from which i try to synthesize the message i must deliver now. In the vacuum of space. At the speed of light. Where earth dates no longer have meaning.
i believe they might all (1 + 2 + 3) be the same message.
This is what i conclude:
The universe is huge and dark, but I go on despite my fear because I love you.
That’s the best i can do.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Rachel Ayers
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors