This story was submitted as part of India Science Festival’s flagship science fiction writing competition, ‘Spin Your Science’.

Amruta shrugged off the blanket – it was a sultry hot July morning, but her nightly fever forced her to wear that warm sack. Her family was concerned about her fever and mild headaches. She had tested positive for the inevitable Covid19 virus. Having completed few days in quarantine, she had few more to go before she could leave her room. She scowled at her sister Aarushi who just showed up at her room door, with a chirpy “Good Morning Didi, and what would Her Majesty have for her breakfast at coronation? How about some corona flakes?” That really blew the lid off Amruta’s patience. “WHY ME?” she whimpered. Even her early morning dream was about gambolling in the garden with flowery corona balls with obscene short trunks, that kept popping eyes and mouths. Just what IS this thing? Bigger question, WHY is it?

“I’m bored dead” Amruta bawled out. Aarushi offered to read to her some fascinating articles about SETI: Search for Extraterrestrial Life. “Anything new will do!” implored Amruta. Aarushi started “It all started with looking for sentient aliens like us…” “You, monkey, sentient?” Antara, their kid-sister, broke in excitedly with her childlike fascination. With a whack on Antara’s posterior, Aarushi continued about how the first human message believed readable by aliens out there, was an electronic broadcast of Hitler’s 1936 Olympics speech. Scientists started seriously looking for alien responses to the broadcast. Aarushi showed them some pics of Voyager1 – the only manmade artefact to enter deep space beyond the solar system. Antara asked with wide-eyed wonder, “So did the aliens see that golden phonograph on the Voyager, with lots of data about humans? Did anyone respond?” Amruta the eldest spoke with her expected protective wise angle: “Why did they have to send information about us to those aliens? Now they will know all about us, and would come and kill us”. Aarushi defended the SETI … “C’mon girls, huge telescopes, on mountains and the moon, were built to sense signals coming from aliens, hopefully telling
us about themselves…”

Antara wondered, “So, did either we or aliens find each other yet?” Aarushi loftily offered, “No babysis! It’s not that simple. See, when we think of intelligent species out there, to communicate with them, we make many assumptions. We discovered electricity and magnetism few hundred years ago, so we think electronic communication is the sign of intelligence. C’mon, we believe ants are intelligent, and baboons and dolphins. Do they know if we are intelligent? If you speak a language I can understand, or behave as I do, only then you may seem intelligent to me. It’s as much about our understanding the language, as theirs. That’s why SETI scientists keep sending info about humans in as universal a language as they can. Like, we believe it’s universally smart to know the Fibbonacci series. So if we show them that we know it, they may ‘realize’ we are intelligent! But in their beliefs, they may just have some totally different indicators
of intelligence. A Bengali and a Swahili, not knowing the other’s language would not understand what the other guy is saying, or if he is even ‘saying’ anything”.

Antara let out a yawn “Yaaar, this is too heavy for a covidy morning. But it reminds me of this nice game I learnt the other day, it’s called ‘Intro’. Let’s play it…. So, like, Amruta gives Aarushi the name of an animal, and Aarushi makes me guess, just by gesturing with her hands, who that animal is. Aarushi should not speak, mouth or write (even in the air).” Amruta nodded “Hey that’s tough, but everyone is too bored so might as well play.” Amruta gave Aarushi “Iguana” as the animal to introduce to Antara. Aarushi began with great gusto. Tried showing animal, green, herbivore, reptile, … but Antara just wouldn’t get it. As they ran out of time, Antara gave up with her answer “it’s a Gobbledegook”, Aarushi exasperatedly exclaimed, “it’s an Iguana, dumbo!” Antara, already smarting at having lost the round, shrieked, “What’s an Iguana? I never ever heard of one. How do you expect me to guess something that I don’t even know exists.” Aarushi stared wisely at the sky, “That’s how SETI scientists must be feeling, looking for signals from aliens, or sending them some”.

That night, Amruta slept hardly a wink. Kept dreaming about aliens, iguanas and viruses. Especially, Covid19 balls, whistling through their many pouty protrusions. She thought she saw patterns in the whistles and the geometry of those colourful balls flirting around with her cells. “But why do they attach themselves to our body cells? They don’t get food from us, why so get into our cells? They are not even really ‘living’, let alone be intelligent and scient. Who designed this whole thing about having half-hearted pieces of RNA strands, protected by protein sheaths, puke their pieces into our cells to try and mutate them? The results are good neither for the virus nor for the host. Host is living, virus is not really living, virus gets into host, host fires it out with antibodies, both weaken each other, virus attempts to mutate host at genetic level, finally one of them and then both “die” in the process. So why? These viruses keep happening every now and then: from common cold to cancer, playing internecine wars with humans and other animals. Any such useless process should have been kicked out by Darwinian evolution in nature, but hasn’t been. So, there must be a design, backed by an intelligence that keeps it going… What is the
design? Who is running it?” Amruta knew what she would be doing the next day. And promptly slipped into a delirious slumber dreaming about aliens, iguanas, viruses and Aarushi, all spinning thoughtlessly in her mind, like in a washing machine.

Next morning, head still spinning, Amruta bawled out “Mom! Mom! Give me access to your office account, NOW!” Dr. Mrs. Lata was a renowned senior Grade-F Scientist, at the International Institute of Virology. Nowadays, like everyone else around, she too worked from home, with remote secure connections to her office computers on the internet. Lata, obviously, refused Amruta that privilege: even thinking about doing it would be sacrilege. Besides, today she had online meetings planned through the day. Strangely though, for that whole afternoon, Dr. Lata Madam, simultaneously spoke in the meetings and also was actively logged in into her main computer account, accessing and processing petabytes of data from her dry and also wet-labs, through the institute cloud, free student accounts on AWS and, pouring results
into a laptop trackable at the residence of Dr. Lata. Amruta was deliriously hammering in code seeking patterns in the RNA structures, in geometric and visual structures of virions, of numerous strains of the covid19 virus.

One pattern stood out. The hex code, of the longest RNA string in every virion, hashed with a combination of BLAKE and Cityhash functions to 712. Amruta also observed another combination of the hash maintained one part of the string constant – mapping onto itself! This string kept referring its own value as its hash. Amruta’s feverish brain saw the vision of a giant Iguana acting out the word “Iguana” to Antara: Fellow kept pointing to its own self, but Antara couldn’t identify it as she didn’t know anything about it. Amruta ran the same program on the previous virus: SARS. The self-introduction string was identical to that of Covid19 but the first hash led to 710! Amruta collapsed in exhaustion.

Sometime the next day, Amruta opened her eyes, to see Aarushi poring over her with a worried face. Amruta blurted out “Aarushi, know what? The virus is a message, I guess, from aliens. Its appearance, behaviour, everything, is encoded in RNA strands, much like our DNA! Why RNA? so both they and we would understand it. Their identity is encoded into an RNA code describing itself! These constructs repair themselves on damage – a self-correcting message! It actively finds DNA based life forms that will understand it and then imposes itself on them to be ‘read’! Such messages must have come across millennia possibly. The Covid19 is 712th broadcast, SARS was 710th !”

Aarushi’s mind whirred at a zillion rpm trying to figure that out. “OMG”, she gasped, “and … so … what IS the message, Amruta?” Amruta collapsed in her delirium muttering incoherently “Hello!” A self-intro?! A sonorous “H.E.L.L.O.” kept haunting Aarushi’s head since then! There’s got to be more than just a “Hello”.
Should they say ‘Hello’ back? How? Shouldn’t she first find out the full message and who sent it?

She promised herself, she most definitely would. “Just wait, you viral messenger, we have seen your handshake and are coming to check you out now.”