A short horror sci-fi story by Isaac Petrov

This story, like all stories, is inspired by other stories. However, I want to be specific in attributing the salient themes to the science fiction masters who first exposed my young and impressionable mind to them. This is my minute tribute to them.

  • The concepts of Raman and Varelse are explored in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and its sequel “Speaker for the Dead.”
  • Liu Cixin’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy explores the concept of the Dark Forest.
  • And, of course, the theme of searching for alien signals in the cosmos is explored in Carl Sagan’s “Contact.”

The nice lady escorts Sarah into what, to her fourteen-year-old, media-obsessed mind, seems like a spaceship bridge—except these console operators seem to prefer Hawaiian shirts to shiny uniforms.

Dr. Williamson?” The nice lady places a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “I got something sweet for you,” she says charmingly.

Hmm?” Dr. Williamson turns away his eyes away from a screen displaying colorful sinuous lines and beams at Sarah. “Ah, you came, hon! Thank you, Roxanne,” he says to the nice lady, who hesitates for an instant, then smiles shyly and leaves.

She wants to get in your pants, Dad.”

He frowns at her in confusion.

God, how can a genius be such a simpleton? “Never mind,” she says, rolling her eyes with teenage perfection. “You owe me the taxi fare. So what’s the big deal?” She asks, looking around. This is not the first time her father has asked her to visit his workplace. He secretly wants her to follow in his footsteps. Fat chance. There is tension in the air today. An unusual energy. Everyone seems more focused, more silent. And they throw weird glances at each other, like kids in a funeral not quite understanding the solemnity of the situation, but feeling it nevertheless.

I-I had to show you,” Dr. Williamson says. Sarah knows his father well—too well. How couldn’t she, being an only child of an only parent? Usually he is frustratingly machine-like, but today he seems almost… excited? The way he talks, more hurriedly than usual; the way his eyes jerk uncontrollably at the colorful, beeping console. “Before the press conference this afternoon. I wanted you to see this—to see us, before it all changes,” he says, waving his arm at the rest of his staff. They are all bent over their own consoles, ignoring her presence with uncharacteristic self-absorption as they frantically type on old-fashioned keyboards. Not even the hot PhD student—Geoffrey, she remembers his name all too well—has acknowledged her presence. And she came dressed to kill.

What’s gonna change?”

Oh, honey. You have no idea. We… we… Here, have a look! This is the spectroscopy of a nearby star called Delta Trianguli.” She puts a finger on the console and drives it along a line depicting a curve with two sharp peaks. “This is oxygen. And this is,” he turns to her with wide-eyed enthusiasm, “methane!”

Right.” Sarah throws a glance at Geoffrey, but he is as eerily enthralled as everybody else.

Life, Sarah! Biomarkers! We discovered life on an exoplanet!”

Seriously?!” To her own surprise, she leans in over the console with… interest? Fascination, even? “Are you sure?”

Of course we are! One biomarker would be astonishing enough, but two simultaneous ones… Look, both oxygen and methane are highly reactive. They dissipate quickly unless there’s something there continuously replenishing them.”

Something like life” Sarah says, staring at the spectrographic scan in awe, as if they were incomprehensible scriptures of godly revelation. “Life similar to us, right, Dad?”

Very good, honey! Yes, it must be very similar. If they were pointing their antennas at us, they would find very similar biomarkers.” His expression relaxes, as his eyes lose themselves in some random point on the wall. “I wonder if they can see us…”

They? You mean, there are people there, too?”

Dr. Williamson beams at his daughter, his eyes radiating like a summer noon sun. “After we detected the biomarkers, we naturally pointed all our instruments, and what we saw… Oh, God, look.” He points a finger at the console, which changes into a shaking horizontal line, which suddenly spikes at the center. “See that? That’s a radio frequency, honey. The hydrogen line. You could not choose a more universal channel than that.”

Sarah blinks repeatedly at the console, waking up a curiosity—a thrill—that baffles her as much as her father’s words. “You mean…?”

The signal repeats! First one ping followed by a long pause. Then two pings, then three, all the way to twelve.”

It’s counting?!”

And then,” her father continues with unblinking shiny eyes, “eleven pings, ten pings—”

A countdown!”

A technomarker. There’s intelligence on that planet! A civilization, probably more advanced than ours, reaching out! And Geoffrey,” he points a finger at the handsome PhD student, “has found a code beneath it. Binary code. They—“

…are talking!” Sarah says, throwing bothhands to a nearby armchair to avoid staggering. “They’re talking!”

For thirty-five years. That’s how far their star is.” Dr. Williamson’s smile widens. “Welcome to the last day of human solitude, hon. Today we glimpse across the stars and find another soul.”

An alien soul,” Sarah mutters with surrendered fascination, her mind afire, wondering, imagining. An overwhelming surge of raw curiosity begins to crawl up her spine. More than curiosity. It’s hard to put a name to something she has never felt before: a craving for knowledge such that her life begins to shift under her very feet. She realizes, aghast, that she is just like her father.

Born to learn.

Born to know.

Show me the place where you can hear the Ramans, Mom!” Bryan asks, wide-eyed, scanning the enormous room filled with scores of scientists, engineers and automata in impollute white robes waving hands over enormous displays filled with numbers and charts, gesturing with their fingers in the air, eyes locked in a world digitally revealed by old-fashioned AR visors.

Sarah laughs. “This is the place, honey.” She waves a hand around. “It was this same room where Granddad heard the Ramans’ first words. And it was Dad who figured out how they talked. He used to sit in that chair, you know? Oh, God, I still remember that day like it was yesterday. The Ramans were transmitting numbers, you know? They counted. That’s how we knew they were like us. ”

Like us?” Bryan asks, wide-eyed, his ten-year-old mind absorbing her mother’s words with the same insatiable curiosity that plagues the rest of their family.

Like us. Biological. Product of the natural evolution of a thriving ecosystem. They are intelligent, social, curious. Like us. That’s why we call them Raman. That’s the name we give to aliens which we can comprehend. Which we can talk to. And since we haven’t found any other alien civilization beside the Raman, the name stuck.”

Oh, can I say hi?!”

Sara laughs again. “Sorry, hon. By the time your greeting reaches them, you would be my age. And about eighty when they reply. That’s how far they are.”

Oh.” Bryan tries, and fails, to keep his disappointment from his expression. “But I bet they’ve got superlistening machines, Mom. Dad always says they are very, uh, futuristic, with large spaceships and colonies and, er, habits everywhere.”

Habitats. Yes, that’s true. They are more technologically advanced than we are, and have colonized their system completely, but not even the Ramans can travel—or communicate—faster than light. Nobody can. Besides, even if we could, we wouldn’t send your hello.”

Bryan’s lips curl. “Why not?”

It’s forbidden to send transmissions to outer space.”

But why?”

For security reasons. Before you were born, when Granddad and Dad discovered the Ramans, all nations of Earth sat together and decided that, until we know more about them, we all better remain silent.”

But we already know a lot about them! Thanks to Dad’s discovery of the, uh, whatever it’s name, we know they’re cute and smart and friendly. I wanna talk to them!”

The Rosetta sequence, that’s the name. And we can’t talk to them because our scientists are still not sure how they would react to our existence.”

But wouldn’t they know about us just by pointing their telescopes at us, just like Granddad did with them?”

Maybe, but they would only find biomarkers—signs of life, not of technology,” she quickly explains, at the sight of Bryan’s baffled frown. “We aren’t using high-energy focused transmissions, like they are. The emissions of our civilization—the radio signals we have been radiating for the last century—are too weak. They quickly dissipate into nothing, like the ripples of a pebble on the ocean.”

But they’re sending hellos! Isn’t it polite to say hello back?”

Yes, of course! But…” She pauses, and then breaks into a laugh. “You know what, Bryan? You’re absolutely right. I also think we should reply. They’re obviously open to the existence of alien civilizations. And they’re so far away anyway, that any potential risk is meaningless. Especially compared to what a two-way conversation could bring to both our civilizations in the long run. Besides, they also deserve to know that they aren’t alone.”

So why don’t we do it?”

I told you. Many people are afraid. Have you heard of the Dark Forest hypothesis?”

Bryan frowns. “What?”

Sarah takes a deep breath. “It’s an old fear of humanity, and an explanation of why we don’t—” She stops at the sudden flurry of activity exploding in the room. People around them have just begun talking to each other, or rather, shouting over each other, almost at once. They’re gaping at the screen, wide-eyed.

Dr. Williamson! Dr. Williamson!” A young man sitting nearby calls her. “It’s gone!”

What?” Sarah approaches the young man’s display and leans over the numbers he is pointing at.

Raman! It’s gone!”

What do you mean, gone?”

It’s gone! It’s… God, it’s just gone! Look for yourself! The star—the entire Delta Trianguli system—has just vanished!”

A glitch? A dust cloud?”

No. Space is transparent. See that? That’s HIP 116805, the red dwarf behind Raman. Perfectly visible. Emissions as expected. But Raman itself? Nothing! No signal. No electromagnetic residue. As if it had never existed.”

Impossible….” Wetting her lips, Sarah begins to analyze the data, shaking her head slowly. “Impossible…”


Honey,” she mutters without looking at him. “Do Mom a favor. Call your Granddad and ask him to pick you up, alright?”


Rob, you mind taking my son to reception, and make sure he makes the call?”

Of course, Dr. Williamson,” the young man says, standing up. “Come, Bryan. That’s your name, isn’t it?”


But Sarah’s gaze is already lost in the display. As the young man begins to pull Bryan away, he hears her mother muttering a single word.

A word he has never heard before.

A word her trembling lips keep uttering over and over again with the terrified reverence of a medieval peasant facing the devil himself.


Is that what she said after learning about the disappearance of Raman, Bry?” Dr. Williamson asks, looking at him sternly from the seat next to him as the town rolls by outside the car window. “Is that the word she used? Varelse?”

Yeah.” Bryan has never seen his granddad so serious. It makes him feel cold butterflies in the belly, just like when his mother sent him away. He hates it. He finds it hard to ask, but his curiosity is as intense as his fear. “What does it mean, Granddad? Sounds mean.”

Dr. Williamson turns to face out at the town passing lazily by, the car AI at full alert for reckless human bicycles, a constant hazard here, in the university district. “Have you heard of the Fermi Paradox?”

Bryan shakes his head in silence.

Until we discovered Raman, it was perhaps the most nagging question for us, people of science.”

What question?”

Dr. Williamson meets his grandson’s gaze. “Where is everybody? Meaning, where are the aliens?”

What do you mean? They are in their solar systems, right?”

Before the Raman we had never seen the slightest hint of anybody out there. And that despite the fact that the universe is so unimaginably vast that, statistically, it should be teeming with life. Also intelligent life. Thus, the Fermi Paradox: where is everybody?”

But now, after you found the Raman, we know that there must be other aliens out there, right?”

Dr. Williamson nods slowly and lets his gaze drift out the window. “Which bears the question: where is everybody else?”

The other aliens? Mum is looking for them, isn’t she?”

And how many has she found in the thirty years since we discovered the Raman?”

None, but—”

There’s no but, Bry. The Fermi Paradox is as relevant today as it has always been. Perhaps more, now that the only civilization we know of has… vanished. Which hints at the solution, doesn’t it? Varelse, indeed.”

I-I’m sorry, Granddad. I don’t understand.”

Oh, Bry,” Dr. Williamson turns towards his grandson and puts an affectionate hand on his cheek. “It’s me who’s sorry. I was speaking more to myself than to you. Forgive me. Look, one of the many possible explanations of the Fermi Paradox is called the Dark Forest.”

Sounds scary.”

As it is meant to. It postulates that the galaxy is teeming with life in fierce competition with each other, like a forest filled with predators waiting for the mouse to lift its head out of his burrow. In such an unforgiving galaxy, everybody remains silent. Or else…”

The owl will eat you,” Bryan says, a chill running up his back.

Dr. Williamson nods gravely. “In the Dark Forest, when we point our telescopes up into the firmament, we find nothing. The Dark Forest is the most terrifying explanation of the Fermi Paradox.”

But we saw the Raman…”

The mouse lifting its head, Bry. And the owl came.”

You mean aliens ate them?”

Something so powerful and incomprehensible that there is no hope we can ever begin to understand. Or they understand us. Something so mindbogglingly alien that we cannot call raman any longer.”


After the sudden disappearance of Raman, your mum seems to believe they aren’t hypothetical. And I suspect she might be right. It seems we live in a Dark Forest, Bry, filled with varelse at the outlook for foolish raman.”

A long silence returns to the car, the placid drive home across the sunny town in disturbing contrast to Bryan’s stormy thoughts. “Are we foolish raman, Granddad?”

Dr. Williamson doesn’t reply, his eyes locked on the street, a crease in his brow.

Mom says we aren’t allowed to say hello. That’s good, isn’t it? That way the varelse won’t find us?”

Dr. Williamson takes a deep breath but remains silent.

Granddad? Are you crying?”

I’m sorry, kid.”

Why? What’s wrong?”

Dr. Williamson, eyes reddened, stares squarely at his grandson. “When your father and I discovered the Rosetta sequence, we didn’t sleep for three days. We spent the first night deciphering the beginning of the sequence, and the second night designing our own.”

Your own what?”

Our own Rosetta sequence. A message. A greeting. We sent it by the end of the third day to Raman and to all the systems in the vicinity. That was before the United Nations had a chance to meet to forbid future transmission.”

So they know we’re here?!”

We never told anybody. It was our secret: your Dad’s, mine and the rest of our team. Nor even your mum knew. And, let me tell you, we were proud. We’ve always been fiercely proud of sending it. We saw ourselves as forward thinkers, true scientists, free of the shackles of society’s irrational fear and absurd superstitions.”

The baddies know we’re here, granddad?!” Bryan begins to weep softly. “Are they coming for us?”

Oh, kid. I bet they weren’t listening. We only sent the signal to a handful of systems…” But there is something in the tone of his voice that tells Bryan that his grandfather is lying.

How long?” he asks between sobs. “How long until they…”

The closest system we transmitted to was twenty light-years away. That was thirty years ago.”

So… ten more years? Is that all I’ve got?! What have you done, Granddad? What have you done, you and Dad? What gave you the right to decide for the rest of us?! You’ve… killed me! And Mom! And everybody else!”

It wasn’t me or your Dad! I mean… Yes, we did it, but if it hadn’t been us, it would have been somebody else. It’s our nature. God knows, maybe your Mum has done it too, in secret. Or another nation. We can’t stop ourselves from reaching out to others. It is in our blood, in our human blood.”

Our raman blood…” Bryan mutters, tears running down his cheek.

Dr. Williamson clears his throat and gives his grandson an unconvincing smile. “Don’t be afraid, Bry. I bet they weren’t listening.”

They were listening, Granddad, Bryan thinks to himself, wiping off bitter tears off his cheeks. They are listening, because it’s in the nature of the owl to relentlessly scan the silent undergrowth of the Dark Forest.

Another thought flashes across his young mind, as sudden as bitter, and even more horrifying.

Because it’s in the nature of the abyssal fish to dangle its alluring light in the darkest of depths.

A light of technomarkers.

A light of raman.

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