REPORT OF A RETURNING STAR EXPLORER
The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.
JUNE 7, 2011. Frank C. Voyle was sent to the stars, and when he came home, he said he had encountered a man who sat behind a desk in a bed of clouds.
The man had begun talking. He made no sense, even though he was speaking English. The way he threw words together added up to complete gibberish. But gradually, Voyle claimed, he began to pick up a phrase here and there.
“They were like objects falling from a tree. There were periods when I blacked out, and when I came to, he was still talking. It didn’t bother him that I’d checked out.
“It was like listening to strange music. Changes of tempo, instruments arriving and going away, interludes. I learned to go along with it.
“It was almost as if I was receiving a treatment for a disease. I realized I’d been suffering from internal inflammation, because I had been subjected, somewhere along the line, to a form of indoctrination—and now this man was curing it.
“The programming…you see, it wasn’t a matter of content. Not at all. It was the basic nature of the method, which was reduction. That was the secret. In order to achieve clarity, and I needed clarity in my work, I had to eliminate vast amounts of potential meaning. And with reduction, I entered into a territory of sickness. Slowly. One step at a time.
“Everyone is suffering from this. We don’t see it because our only standard of reference is each other. We’re mirrors. And when someone doesn’t operate according to our rules, we can’t make sense out of it.
“Well, here was this man. He was talking on for what seemed like days, in the most outrageous way. He didn’t care. To look at his face, his expressions, the way he moved his hands, you would swear he knew exactly what he was saying. He didn’t have to think about things.
“As I caught on, I felt better. Coils and dead-ends left me. Tensions drained out of my body. But I wasn’t falling into a state of greater relaxation, I was more alert.
“I have thought about this a great deal. I don’t think he was trying to cure me. He knew it was happening, but he was merely talking. He knew that, for a long period of time, I didn’t understand anything he was saying, but it didn’t bother him. It didn’t bother him at all.
“He had arrived at a plateau that was entirely unfamiliar to me. He was comfortable there. He saw no reason to climb down. He wasn’t trying to make things simple for me.
“Of course, I’ve been trained in many techniques that hopefully bridge the gap when we encounter new species of intelligent life. But this was unprecedented. This was a man who was human and spoke English.
“I eventually reached a point where I understood a great deal of what he was saying. For long stretches of time, I was comprehending things without effort.
“So now I believe I need to learn how to talk like this. For many reasons. Of course, there is no way I can begin to explain to you what actually happened unless I can speak as he did. But beyond that, I want to talk in this way, so I can reach those places and those heights.
“Part of this man’s genius, if we want to call it that, was that he felt absolutely no suspicion about me.”
Q: Mr. Voyle, couldn’t you at least repeat some of this person’s statements for us?
A: I could, sir. But it wouldn’t do any good. You see, for him it was all spontaneous utterance. And that made the difference. It wasn’t only the words and combinations of words, it was the way in which they were being delivered. You could take a song and have two singers perform it, and of course there would be all the difference in the world between the two renditions.
Q: Well, we’ll have to decide on that later. But for now, we’ll continue to run tests. It’s apparent your brain patterns have been altered, to a degree.
A: But again, you’re not going to gain anything from that information—even if you reproduce those patterns in another brain.
Q: That’s quite an extraordinary statement. Would you care to explain it?
A: What might have happened to my brain is an effect. Of a cause. If you remove the original cause, you’ll at best replicate a series of electrical impulses without my accompanying perception. I was there. I saw him. I heard him. I perceived. It was the essence of the experience.
Q: Well, yes. But this is not the way science works. Most of the time, we aren’t “there.” But we nevertheless can infer.
A: In this case, science would bring you up short.
Q: Suppose what you’re reporting never happened to you. Suppose it was an extended hallucination.
A: Like a dream? Even if that’s true, I was there.
Q: Or you were tricked into thinking you were.
A: This is the crux, isn’t it? Do we take out our box of labels and impose one? Or do we treat my experience as genuine?
Q: Mr. Voyle, we really will need a number of examples from you. Things that…this person said.
A: I’ll be happy to provide them. But again, it won’t make sense to you, and nothing will happen.
Q: We can decide that. We’ll also present you with computer-generated examples of English spoken in random ways. You can determine which of these is closest to what you heard. You know, Frank, we have a whole file full of extraordinary astronaut experiences. They come back with stories. One astronaut stated he could see people walking around down on Earth from a hundred thousand miles out. Another one spoke to a dead aunt.
A: But in the end, there was nothing you could do with those events, because you couldn’t replicate them.
Q: That’s right.
A: You see, this is my point. I already know what happened to me was unique. I’m not asking for anything from the Agency.
Q: Was there practical value in the “messages” you received?
A: In the content?
A: It wasn’t about the content. And for quite awhile, I assumed he was speaking nonsense, gibberish.
Q: So perhaps you inserted your own interpretation of what was essentially meaningless.
A: That would be you placing a label on what happened.
Q: What else can we do?
A: The official position will be that I had a dream or suffered from an hallucination.
Q: You spoke to a man who was sitting at a desk in a cloud.
A: I was outside the ship doing repairs, and I saw him. I made my way to him. I was still tethered.
Q: Did he introduce himself?
A: He just started talking.
Q: Did he look like anyone you know?
Q: But he was human and he spoke English.
A: That’s right.
Q: What was he wearing?
A: A pair of pants and a shirt.
Q: Do you have a sense of how long the event lasted?
A: The log indicates it was six hours.
Q: This was a one-man flitter. According to the main ship’s records, you took it to track down a transmission no one else was picking up. And there was nothing on ship’s instruments, either.
A: That’s right.
Q: You seem to have some mystical notions about language.
A: I’m just recalling what happened to me.
Q: Placebo effect. Dream. Hallucination.
A: From your point of view.
Q: This idea of “being cured.”
A: You go to a concert. The orchestra plays a composition that comes across as noise. It’s absurd. You wish you’d never come. You doze off, wake up. But after a while, the music begins to make sense to you, against your better judgment. You resist that. But as you keep listening, the whole thing falls into place. Only it’s a place you’ve never been. You can’t describe it to anyone else. You feel as if you’re flying. Your sense of well-being is extraordinary. You realize you’ve been perceiving reality inside a severely limited context. All your life.
Q: I see what you’re driving at. But then the person sitting next to you has a completely different experience.
A: That’s my point. We don’t know what would have happened if another crew member had been outside the ship with me.
Q: Actually, Frank, we wanted to get your impressions before we told you that we do, in fact, have a recording of what happened during those six hours. You were unaware your Cave-3 was on. We have the whole thing.
A: Really? That’s…amazing.
Q: And as you report, there was a monologue. An extended monologue. It doesn’t sound like you talking. But we have to infer that you were. Who else could it have been?
A: What do you make of it?
Q: We’ve had people listening. It’s gibberish. Words randomly thrown together. So far, we’re not finding any pattern.
A: Pattern? Of course there isn’t. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.
Q: We’d really like to avoid getting into a confrontational psych eval on this.
A: Oh, you mean you don’t want me going around like a religious convert? Don’t worry about that. You know, I could have kept silent. But I felt an obligation to report what happened.
Q: And we appreciate that. You’re paying a price for coming forward.
A: Doesn’t matter how high I test out on my annual anymore. Doesn’t matter how high my performance quotients come in. You won’t be sending me out again. I understand that. But I don’t need to go out anymore. I found what I was looking for, even though I didn’t know I was looking for it.
Q: Here’s the thing, Frank. On all the physical tests so far, your numbers are good. Things are checking out fine. If that continues to be the case during the whole debrief process, we’re prepared to make you an offer.
A: A pay-off?
Absolutely not. You’ll leave the service. Which you’d want to do anyway, because you won’t be going out on future space missions. Aside from your pension, we’ll see to it, through a cut-out, that a small stipend handles your “extra expenses.” You can set up a non-profit research foundation. Whatever you want. Continue to pursue this “avenue.” It would be completely unofficial, of course. No ties to the Agency. Once a year, you’ll meet with one of us, and you’ll report. We’re not demanding performance quotas. Nothing like that. We just want to be kept in the loop.
A: This has happened before.
Q: Several times. Not the way it happened to you. But we’ve got a few men out there in the world who are “following their instincts.” It’s our way of keeping an open mind.
A: You’ll give me their names?
Q: No. We don’t want to taint the experiment. But you’ll find them anyway. You’ll nose around and figure it out. Or somebody will contact you. We’re not in the business of Weird, Frank. Nevertheless, we’re not completely stupid…
A: And if at some point I go public? Not about our arrangement. But about what I discover?
Q: Up to you. Obviously, we don’t want a big splash that’ll make us look crazy for having had you in the program.
A: I’m not interested in making the tabloids.
Q: Not much chance of that. You’d be going up against some celebrity who had sex with a sheep in a hotel room…
A: So the Agency’s official position, if pressed, is that you don’t understand a word of what I reported happened to me while I was out there.
Q: If it comes to that, yes.
A: Which was exactly my position when the man began talking to me outside my ship. Until it wasn’t my position anymore.