aliens will not save us
Deep red flames roared and launched into the sky across the length of Pearl Island. Fireboats pulled water from the Salish Sea and sprayed thousands of gallons into the air by the shore. The wind shifted and the view became hazy. On a cabin cruiser, Runa Lang rubbed her eyes. A Coast Guard cutter blared a warning and the cruiser’s skipper obeyed, pulling back from the island. When he reached a safer spot, Edgar Reade shut off his engine and sat back in his captain’s chair. As the motor noise died down the videographer on deck raised his camera to record the blaze. Runa pulled down her particle mask. “Dr. Reade, do we know what started the fires?”
Reade pivoted his seat and wiped ash from his eyes. “Should have worn glasses. Our best guess is a campfire, or perhaps a grill from one of the houses. Everyone on Pearl was evacuated. No one admitted to anything. Of course loads of boaters explore the San Juans, gunkholing they call it. With the lack of rain this year, it could have been anything.”
A whole island aflame looked like Hell itself to Runa. She realized she hadn’t recorded her subject’s answers, then hoped he hadn’t noticed. She raised her mic and asked, “It looks like it’s everywhere, do you think the firefighters can-“ Reade interrupted: “No.”
“There’s no chance of saving anything on the island now. The fire boats are only keeping the wall of spray up to stop hot ash and cinders from drifting over to the other islands. Some are positioned on the sides facing Henry Island and Battleship Island. If the fire jumps there, it will wipe out the bird sanctuary. If it makes it this way to San Juan Island itself, then the whole archipelago is in danger. These are all the boats from the Seattle area, more are on the way from British Columbia. They’re a big help, but they mainly don’t want Victoria to be next when the wind shifts.”
Even at this distance, the reporter and camera operator could feel the heat as if standing beside flames. “As we understand it, the fire fighters were ready because you predicted this and pushed your report and petitions before the state government. How were you so certain?” Marius trained his lens on Reade.
“Several people anticipated it. When the rain level dropped last winter, there was an 83 percent chance of fire. Your viewers will know about the wildfires inland. I focused on the islands because they’re harder to protect. Only a decade ago campers would leave driftwood fires going all night. No one ever worried this was a possibility, so far from shore. We’ve entered a new phase of climate breakdown.”
Runa spoke. “As an environmental scientist, can you explain to the public why this is a new phase?” She immediately hated her wording, but had been assured that experts are used to reporters who haven’t done their homework. Maybe she’s new on this climate beat, after all.
“This whole region is rainforest. Autumn fires this far north are a more harsh indicator than even Brazilian forest fires. We’re several tipping points into the Anthropocene now, an age where the environment is affected by humankind above all other factors.”
“Look,” said Reade, pointing. Marius turned his camera down towards the water where a bear was swimming from the inferno, the water surface around it all reflecting red. An impressive shot that could easily go viral online. Forgetting his voice wasn’t to be part of the segment, he spoke out loud. “Can bears swim that far?”
“Yes. Earlier I saw several deer swimming the same way. I hope they all made it out.”
Runa realized she had lowered her mic again while staring at the bear, and resumed the interview. “You work with a consortium of countries and groups. What’s next for you? How will you reverse this?”
Reade looked down and his mouth turned in. Was he stifling a laugh?
“The truth? There’s no reversing it. No stopping it. We’re just documenting the end now.”
The news team looked at each other then back to Reade. “That’s not the answer I was expecting.”
“I imagine it wasn’t. I wish I was only trying to scare the public, but we tried that a while back. Everyone is too optimistic. Normally I’d babble on here, about legislation, fossil fuel reduction, but it doesn’t matter now. I can give you a short list of places on Earth where you can go for maybe a decade or two of relative normality. But climate migration will catch up with you. First the nations will turn back the flood of climate refugees peacefully. Then they’ll bring in troops. It will get ugly and violent, very fast.”
Runa looked to the burning island, then back down to the water. The bear was invisible in the haze. She couldn’t think of what to say next. The fire was her excuse to set up this interview. She wasn’t expecting it to consume her thoughts and distract her from the goal.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure we can use that speculative bit.”
“It’s not speculation. This was all created by man, and man will have no choice but react to it. I know it’s irresponsible to take away hope, but I figure I can level with you since you aren’t actual journalists.”
Marius lowered his camera. Runa winced- don’t fold yet, keep up the bluff. Reade sat calmly and met her gaze while 30 acres burned behind him. It made the pretense seem futile. She’d rehearsed this meeting in her head since the lab results came back. It felt like intimidation wouldn’t work and she’d rather not go that route anyway. Maybe she could gain his trust by being honest.
“You’re right. Marius isn’t a cameraman.”
Marius retorted. “Actually I think I’m quite good at it by now.”
She continued. “And I’m not a journalist for the BBC. Most importantly, you’re not Edgar Reade. Can we talk about who you are?”
Reade smiled but kept silent, waiting to see where this was going.
“Okay,” Runa filled in. “Undercover work isn’t our thing, but I thought we’d pulled it off. Do I have a tell?”
“You were too prepared, I usually have to steer the conversation to salient points. Your associate spoke during the interview. The video people never do that. Also he has a pistol holstered behind his back. But I have no clue who you work for. Not the FBI or any American intelligence group, I think.”
“A new office of The United Nations. I’m Runa, from Holland. Marius is French.”
Marius gave a quick smile that faded back to deadpan. “Bonjour.”
The boat had drifted downwind into more smoke. Reade stepped down into the cabin, motioning the two to follow and folded out a table from the wall. He reached into a small fridge and tossed bottles of water to his guests, then twisted the cap on his own. He held it up so the plastic of the Evian caught the light of the fires through the starboard window.
“This is the whole thing in a twisted metaphor, isn’t it? Inside is what we need most, but we encase it in petroleum.” He took a long drink, wiped his mouth with his arm and leaned back. “So, you’re here to accuse me of identity theft, is that it?
“You could put it that way.” She pulled a bulging folder from her satchel, a stack of glossy print-outs. She spread them on the table; news clippings, ecological developments, environmental discoveries. All had group pictures, and on each a highlighter mark circled one man. Clothing styles and facial hair changed, but the bone structure and facial expressions were consistent throughout. “The longest and most wide-ranging case of identity theft in history.” Reade looked over the assemblage and they noticed him smiling several times. Memories, jogged.
“These were taken across more than a century, and you’re in all of them. Not people who look like you. You. I found this thread in a science reporter’s notes from 1972, George Besser. Chasing a pet theory about possible immortals among us. He had seen this 1938 photo before he interviewed you, James Gatlin then, for LIFE Magazine. He wrote that you laughed about the resemblance, said you would have been four then. And then you fell off his radar. George did well, despite having to travel the country looking through microfiche. I’ve had the advantage of facial recognition software. For months I scanned the archives of every major newspaper and magazine.”
Reade flipped through more articles, often pausing. “These are a lot of photos of handsome gentlemen, I’ll give you that. Genetics isn’t my specialty, but you are probably aware of common ancestries and recurring facial shapes.”
“Yes. You said something similar to Mr. Besser in 1972. Your looks aren’t the only thing that’s consistent.” Runa’s energy was building. She’d imagined this moment for months. “I was able to track down handwriting from six of these men.” She pushed over more printouts. “Analysis confirms they’re all by the same writer. I have a timeline of each man, which don’t overlap. Typically they stick around for six to nine years before vanishing. The longest I’ve found is a twelve year span. Edgar Reade.”
Reade grinned and closed the folder. “So you didn’t describe this department you work for. I’m trying to reason out what put you onto Besser’s notes. Something about human anomalies, perhaps?”
“No, we’re not interested in humans at all. We’re interested in what you are, Mr. Reade.”
Reade held back a laugh, one Marius recognized from years of criminal interrogation. It was the laugh of being impressed and perhaps relieved, the you got me reaction of a man who had finally been busted.
“I suppose we’re done here. Have you eaten yet? This feels like we should escalate to a lunch discussion. I’ll take us back over to San Juan Island. There’s a place I like.”
The server brought their meals and placed waters as well as an expensive bottle of whiskey on the table. Reade looked down at a large scratch on his forearm. “Two weeks ago, some worker with sunglasses and a hat bumped into me in the street, and one of his tools cut my arm. One of your people collecting a sample, wasn’t it!”
Marius nodded, “it was me, in fact.” Runa was breathing faster. Reade is confirming everything. This is a peak historical event for humanity and it’s happening at some place where he likes the sandwiches.
Reade shook his head. “What did your lab work find from my blood?”
“A lot less DNA than we’re used to.” Runa felt herself frown and course-corrected. Reade wasn’t trying to be patronizing, but it felt that way. You clever little primates caught me, and in a mere hundred and fifty years!
“Well, you all have a lot of coding in there you aren’t using. Evolution, of course. Paths not taken, traits that lost out. Our process in building a host form doesn’t bother with things that won’t be used. I’m sure you’re recording this, by the way. If you want to put the mic on the table so I’m clearer, feel free.”
Runa’s pride ebbed as she brought out the microphone and placed it near Reade. For professional redundancy she then sat her phone out to take video. Marius pressed on, voicing her thoughts.
“No more avoiding the matter, please. Are you from another planet?”
Reade leaned forward. Runa felt a strong emotion, but it wasn’t her own. It was Reade’s, and he was happy for them. “Yes, I am.”
For a minute no one spoke, and the three could hear a couple at a nearby table making awkward conversation on a first date. Marius finally broke the silence. “Where?”
“It’s a long way away. I don’t have a map of the galaxy handy.” Runa felt her muscles relax and realized how on edge she had been. She was ready to draw Reade out even if it took days, but he had already made up his mind to talk. They were now observing the great tradition of all history, sharing information over a meal.
“If you want a name for my world, Hylaus would work for our vocal chords. It feels right to me. How I say it back home wouldn’t sound like speech to you, but I think I get to choose what you call it.”
Marius pulled out his phone and swiped through blurry images of UFOs. “You are connected to these, no? Our timeline has clear, recorded sightings, always before one of your new identities surface. All things we can’t do. Here- three years ago over the Pacific, Navy fighters observed objects going mach four and then changing direction at angles that should rip any craft apart. This one went straight into the water. Soon after, you turn up again in Hawaii, still Reade. You had been “on a sabbatical.”
Reade nodded and took a drink. “Yes, these are ours- well, that one’s not, I don’t know what that is, lens flare probably. But the rest are our surveyors, drones. I don’t come in a craft, it’s too far for that. Any planet is. My kind live a long time but we can’t travel for centuries. See, the- I’ll just say it- the flying saucers are not solid, they’re usually in a flux state, constructing themselves from particulates in the atmosphere. That’s why they can move like that, unaffected by gravity. We project pulses of neutrinos that can-“ Reade held his hand out flatly and pushed it forward-“ cut through space and time and gather the matter to construct at the arrival point. It’s a system of thousands of relays, each shaped like a dish because it’s all about receiving and sending data. The saucers scan for info at times, at other times they direct the beam so I don’t waste too much time traversing the planet when I come and go. Much, much faster than trying to cross half the galaxy. In fact it only takes six months to reach Earth. When you pick up a few coordinated lights moving around a vast area that’s usually me, returning. ”
“How many others of your kind are there around the world?”
“No others. Only me.”
Runa found her voice again. “So you’re traveling as information- you’re an AI then? But human shaped.”
“We don’t make these distinctions between the originators of intelligence like you do. I have a physical body back home, also kept in a flux state, ready to become solid when I return. My brain’s neural structure is encoded as a data spiral in the beam. A packet. My experience here is sent back to my original body and memories are compiled. I know you need a term to use so I’d suggest Somanaut. It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes when I want to return here, Earth’s orbit has you blocked by the sun and I have to wait a while. Not enough to justify putting a saucer in a deep space orbit, I keep them recording activity here until I come back. Then they rebuild this dashing devil, somewhere on dry land but always very remote. I do a fair amount of hiking upon return.”
Marius started to speak but Runa shot him a side-eye and he took a drink instead.
“How did you find us? If you’re that far away, our radio waves won’t reach you for centuries.”
“Right. We use the relay system and old-fashioned Astronomy to find populated worlds. We narrow our focus to planetoids orbiting in Optimal Threshold, what you call The Goldilocks Zone. Where conditions are just right for life to emerge. We send out the saucers until we confirm it. Most planets, that’s all we send. But when we find societies forming, and industrialization rising,” Reade poured himself a drink, “one of us visits. Usually me. Because that’s when it all starts to crumble.” Reade tilted his glass to the smoke rising in the distance. “The first populated worlds we found from radio signals were long dead upon our arrival. It was dispiriting, you can imagine.”
“By climate crisis? Hence the work you do now, warning the world?”
“It’s a near even split, once industrialization hits. Some by environmental catastrophe, others by nuclear war. I shouldn’t simplify, there’s also supervirus spread, often from biological warfare, that does it. But those are the main paths. So we started training our sights on worlds at an earlier point. We sent out many more saucers and looked for early signs of industrialization, hoping to guide them away from dead ends.”
“The saucer scanned people… so you could make a body.”
Reade nodded while eating his side salad. Neither of the UN agents had touched their food yet.
Marius tried to be diplomatic. “All the varied peoples of the world, and you pick the body of a white British man, why? Greater access, less social trouble?”
“No, I wasn’t aware of your focus on subtle characteristics then. It was based on where we were detecting the most pollution. In 1864, it was an ironworks in London. Reconnaissance showed me who was in charge. Keep in mind, at that point I didn’t understand your cultures, or capitalism, or even human biology. For all I knew he’d sired hundreds of children for working his factory. But I did locate the right man. Everett Fordham, steel magnate. This next part sounds bad. All I can say is, from my point of view he was leading you to that burning island.”
“You killed him.”
“Yes. To get a thorough breakdown of his body to construct mine, the saucers literally broke his down. Then they had to assemble a human brain that would accept my mind. If it makes things any better, I found out from the way people behaved around me that he was a real piece of shit.”
“You have to realize, I’m from a very different place. If the saucer reproduced my original body, the nitrogen here and your gravity would have killed me in hours. We can’t just look at your bodies and make an imitation. I wouldn’t know how to talk or walk or interact without that edge. The reconstruction leaves me memories of the original to work with. Not nearly enough, but I’ve gotten better at faking it until I catch on. I’ve kept this body ever since so I won’t have to do that again.
“I could see this was a very top-down society, and I thought I could effect the most change by supplanting one of these industrialists. But acclimating to everything on a new world is completely disorienting, no matter how much prep I do. For a few weeks I was able to disguise my confusion as illness…”
As Edgar recounted his arrival on Earth, Runa experienced profound dissociation. The smoke of the nearby fires became soot-filled clouds belching from tall brick chimneys, and the world seemed to wobble. She was now lying on a floor in a large room where molten steel was pouring from a heated vat into mold forms. The room spun and several men in heavy aprons ran up to her, looking down and offering help. Rolling over, she saw metal carts full of hot slag dumping out, and sweat ran down her face. The surroundings blurred into a manor with tall windows. Now men and women in much finer clothes were standing over her as she lay in bed. One man was consulting a physician in white.
“I was lucky. At first Fordham’s relations spoke of sending me to an asylum. I acclimated just in time to convince them it was physical. I implied the factory exhaust had caused my behavior. The workers’ health wouldn’t be reason enough to make big changes, but mine was. I began the task of shutting it all down, and moving operations to a place where water turbines could produce the power needed. I could walk around the factory and see what was being done and how to do it cleaner, but I had no concept of how the marketplace worked. While I closed up and moved to a new location, smaller companies filled the void I created. All I did was destroy the business. Maybe I slowed the pace of particulates down by a year at best.”
Runa felt herself back in place. Was Edgar’s mind, not housed in his original form, prone to pushing into other brains? Particularly when recalling a memory? (Marius seemed unfazed.)
The wind shifted, and the haze returned. The sun dulled enough that Runa could look into it directly. The silhouette of a helicopter passed in front of it, approaching the island. Marius squinted.
“My best shot at diverting industry to a cleaner process, squandered. Fordham’s enemies were determined to keep me from reopening, so I funneled money elsewhere and assumed a new identity. I ventured overseas and spent the next few decades working under multiple names with the National Geographic Society. I saw it as a chance to push global perspective. Needless to say, I didn’t have the influence I hoped. I aided the Suffragettes, hoping more women with power would help. That work took much longer than I guessed. In hindsight I should have instead duked it out with Edison over electrical engineering, through a proxy. I stand by my impulses, but I didn’t know you well enough to capture your imaginations. Or what ancient biases I was up against.”
Reade grew quiet, morose, and Runa pulled out her files again. Keeping the conversation moving.
“This is interesting, here’s you in Vichy France, 1943. You vanish for a while again here.”
“I was blasted apart by Nazis.” Another vivid burst of memories and reality shifting had Runa feel herself outside in the cold, a forest. Diesel fuel smell. An officer in Nazi uniform shouting and tearing up papers as she pleads her case. A shout: Hochstapler! and two soldiers step forward, raising machine guns. A loud burst and muzzle flash and Runa was back at the table, seeing that Marius was also breathing quickly- he had experienced it too. She realized Reade had never stopped talking. “-but I did get to see the horror in their eyes as I disintegrated- a saucer arrived in time to take my data or I wouldn’t have remembered any of that.”
“That was… must have been terrifying.”
“I was stupid to get caught. Too used to breezing through polite society, I hadn’t been near war in some time. I was posing as a German physicist defecting with Resistance help to reach the British SOE.“ Reade paused. His audience was especially rapt by this. “I’d heard Oppenheimer was gathering minds for America. I knew they had a nuclear program going. But my group was intercepted. Someone in the chain wasn’t loyal. I tried to convince the SS that we were infiltrating a Resistance cell, but I was too many lies deep at that point. An alien posing as a human, posing as a Brit, posing as a German, I should have known I was doomed to fail.”
“You were going to help with the atom bomb? Were you afraid the Nazis would get to it first?”
“No, krihgs fa.” Runa noted the language lapse. Probably none of our words hit the right note, a sample of speech from another solar system. “Obviously they were going to use it for a bomb, it’s what most species do when their wars reach that size and their physicists are that far along. My hope was to join the Manhattan Project, delay it by distracting them with some tantalizing equations that ultimately lead nowhere, and then have them stumble onto Nuclear Fusion instead. The war would wind down and limitless clean power would be the big payoff. If the United States didn’t pursue it, I’d defect to the U.S.S.R. or China, anything to get it in operation. Once one nation uses it, they all want it.”
“Did you return immediately? We don’t have any more pictures from the war.”
“My people made me stay a year because it’s not considered sound practice to return soon after trauma. I worked out a new plan to infiltrate The Manhattan Project, but I got back just in time to hear the news about Nagasaki. Then I checked the papers and read Hiroshima was bombed only days before. A nightmare, I thought they were going to nuke everybody. I was furious with myself, I holed up in a pub and got numb while everyone else was celebrating. Look I get it, no one here saw the hell they unleashed, they only knew the war was finally over. If I’d spent a few more months preparing… but I had no idea how far along they were. I wanted to get over there fast.” Runa was surprised at Reade’s anguish, when he had spoken cooly about whole worlds that died on his watch. She wondered how it would be to live so long, maybe a century only felt like a few months ago to Reade.
“I know what you’re thinking. Hans Bethe would have known the Deutsch academe. He would have told Oppenheimer or General Groves I was a spy. But I could have gotten some math in their hands. They would’ve looked at it, and seen that it worked out! Ah, I’ve been over this a thousand times. I needed more intel and the war made that harder. That’s the conundrum, isn’t it? No one ever starts to explore nuclear energy until they want a weapon.”
Reade looked down at his plate. “Anyway, that’s where I erred. I ignored the ballooning carbon levels in the atmosphere. I wasted time, focused on stopping nuclear war and not advancing nuclear power. It wasn’t until the 1970s that I realized the real danger was still climate breakdown. Nations were moving to nuclear fission, but then Three Mile Island happened, and a few years later, Chernobyl. It almost felt manipulated. All at once support dropped for nuclear power, powerplants were shutting down. Like an unseen hand pushing us off track, right back to fossil fuels. All my calculations on carbon levels peaking and dropping? Useless.”
Marius digressed. “Let’s go back. Your saucer can make changes to a human brain. Why can’t you give your body more power, so you can’t be killed?” Reade gave him a knowing look. Runa rolled her eyes.
“See, no matter how much I talk about the destruction of your world, all you care about is me being an alien.” He pointed back to the tower of smoke in the distance. “That should be much more interesting than me. But you’re a security type. At least you aren’t making me look at pictures of crop circles. Yes, the saucers could modify a body. They have the specs of every race we’ve met. It’d be trickier doing it without changing the exterior, but I could probably be stronger, more resilient, with some subtle defenses. It would only benefit me, not anyone on Earth. I’m already too different from you by what I know. If I started giving myself power and advantages, it would be even harder to see from a human perspective.
“Assuming the form of the dominant species is the only approach that’s ever been useful. Admitting what we are is an enormous distraction. We tried that on Arriha, one of the early worlds we found. They were like you, separate nation states, long histories of competition and war. We didn’t understand their society and blundered right in with a team of twelve Somanauts. We shared our knowledge with the government we found most stable, and they immediately used it to conquer the rest of their planet. They were extinct soon after. So we learned that lesson, and started sending agents like me, alone, to get the lay of the land. Unified planets are so rare. But even ones that can coexist still respond to our arrival by doing the exact opposite of what they should. Someone’s here to save us, fix this! And they change nothing, or worse, increase their destructive behaviors, certain that my people will solve their problems. And they constantly demand more proof that we’re from another world until it’s a succession of silly party tricks. ”
Reade now looked very tired. “Six civilizations assumed we were an invasion force. Rejected what we told them, intent on protecting their world from us, paranoid that we were everywhere. You can imagine where that led.” Runa sighed. “Yes, I can.”
“Does any of this sound off-base to you?”
“No. It’s only… shocking that other life in the universe is so much like us. I’d thought that would be a comfort.”
“Well, they do look different,” Reade winked and took a sip. Was he trying to lighten the mood? She paused, quiet, and wondered what it was like to be Reade, to have to deliver this message. She had broken terrible news to people before, that someone’s family or friend had died. She’d never had to tell anyone that everybody would soon die. He gave her a sympathetic look and took another long pour of his whiskey.
“You know you won’t go all at once, right? Conditions will gradually worsen - you have a parable about a frog in boiling water. What galls me the most is people who can make a difference floating notions of terraforming other planets. If you can terraform a planet, then start with Terra! You’re ages away from such projects, and sending up the population of even the smallest country is a fantasy. Our relay system transference is feasible, but if you had a chance to live on a world that’s say in constant night, existing as a sort of arachnid person, would you jump at it?”
“Not being defensive, Mr. Reade, but extinction isn’t easy to accept.”
“Fully understand, I don’t expect you to embrace the outcome. I know it won't help, but it’s actually not the worst end. Several worlds fell by reaching The Singularity before they were ready.”
“Robots killed them?”
“Indirectly, mostly. It’s hard not to impart your characteristics on creations, including your worst. Here, where even the same species compete for survival? It would get ugly very fast. Also the AI were very good at finding outsiders like me and booting us out efficiently.
But the path now is most likely conflict through migration, fighting over shrinking resources. Some will find substitutes and adapt, but then it all starts vanishing quickly. It’s not even the necessities you imagine that bring the strife first. My guess is that shit will really hit the fan here once chocolate and coffee vanish.” Marius clutched his iced coffee without realizing it.
“Well what should we do?”
“At this point? The ice caps are melting, and methane release will speed it all up. One option is to capture that methane before it leaves the permafrost and use it for power. You’ve also got to reforest the world, and that’s hard without the water. But there are more efficient desalination methods. You need to put more vapor into the air to buy yourselves time, and that takes massive water dispersal plants. And you need to stop using petroleum, but your leaders and industry won’t go along with that, or not as fast as it needs to happen. I’ve been pushing these facts for years and most scientists here reached these conclusions on their own.”
Marius cleared his throat. “Apologies if I do not appreciate a post-mortem for our world while we still live on it. Maybe you’re not the right one for this job.”
Runa glared but Reade laughed like he was waiting for this. “Nothing I haven’t also thought.”
“What if we formally request more help? Would that matter? Could you send more experts to assist, instead of assuming we won’t listen? If we speak as the United Nations.”
“You’re right, one interfering outsider isn’t enough. Perhaps a few hundred of us, spread around the globe could steer things right. Tell me this. How are you two treated at the U.N.? Meet with ambassadors, office with a window, any of that?”
“They smirk at us.” Marius looked at Runa in surprise. “Never at you. They’re too afraid. But I see them. Our office is the smallest, behind the cafeteria. Our budget is cobbled from discretionary funds. There’s one other full-time person and sometimes we get an intern for a summer.” Runa hoped again that brute honesty might be reciprocated, and Reade nodded in empathy.
“When I said we once sent twelve people to a planet? That was all of us who do this outreach. The entirety. Becoming another life form is compelling to me and a handful of others. Those of us who want to connect to other worlds are few. And fewer still are willing to project across the galaxy, leave their lives behind and exist in an alien body. My peers value my findings but they wonder what is wrong with me, that I do this. Oh, they love to learn about the incredible life beyond the stars. But they look at the rest of the universe as a cautionary tale, they act… superior when we come back with another sad outcome. It affirms their brilliance, their lifestyle. Which is what you’d call being born on third- well maybe not you two. Baseball is more an American thing.”
Runa. “You mean your people got lucky.”
“Extremely lucky. Maybe the only thing that makes a difference. It’s hard enough to face self-extinction, you should at least know that it’s the usual path for everyone. Hylaus had every advantage. My people evolved early in the planet’s history. There weren’t multiple epochs before us, and so the ground wasn’t filled with fossil fuel like here.”
“We went through a steam-power phase but not for long. There are more naturally occurring subterranean systems and caverns, ore was easier to retrieve than petroleum. My ancestors were generating electricity relatively early. By the time another world would be tinkering with internal combustion, we had wind turbines and solar cells. One of our leaders, similar to say… something between a Queen and the Dalai Lama - was shown a working petrol engine. Before the inventors could make a speech about how it would transform society, our overseer had a coughing fit from the smoke. They ordered it destroyed, banned.”
Reade paused. “That’s evolution too, you know- one random choice cutting off an entire destructive path and forcing civilization another way. I wish you’d had a lucky break like that."
Runa paused to let Reade take a bite, and then asked another question, with more urgency. “How many worlds survive?”
“Very few at your level of development. We know of some who are going along fine because they never pursue driving, flying, mass production. One planet I visited, they had it perfect. They cultivated the natural world, set aside a small fraction for farming. Their culture was one offspring per parent, and they mostly stuck to it. They buried their dead in the forests, to restore the soil, no embalming or burning. Just an incredible sense of balance. It purveyed every aspect of their lives. So no radio or tv- who cares? They always had music, theatre. They’ll be there until the death of their sun. There may be many worlds like it, but for obvious reasons, they’re harder to find. A friend of mine says the end of civilization is always tied to technology outpacing the ability to adapt. I’ve seen little to contradict that.”
The wind stung Runa’s eyes, and spurred a strange thought. “ Why don’t you come back here as… a giant. Mountain-sized. That could take a few million tons out of the sky, right?
Reade’s eyes lit up. “You have an aptitude for this! The saucers’ assembly process can be used for carbon capture, built on a grander scale. You could even use the particulates to re-coat all this damned asphalt we drive on. Make it reflect heat instead of trapping it.”
“Tell us how to do it! I promise you, I have the ear of important people, desperate for solutions. Your knowledge won’t be buried! ”
“No, but within a year, you would. Like I said, you’re a divided world, battling for resources. The first nation to implement my suggestions would completely dominate the others. And for now that means China, Russia and America.”
“That’s easy then, America. You know the others are dictatorships.”
“Yes, but who was the first and only one to drop the atomic bomb on an enemy? I think you’re right, but again we’ve tried simply sharing information. I wasn’t stating a hypothetical. Seven other worlds still collapsed after our intervention, all at the same rate. We’re not all wildly different in our motivations. That part helps me. But our bodies, our customs and norms evolve so divergently that I never arrive early enough to make a difference. By the time I become Klii, or Tousa, or Human, and truly understand you, the downfall is fully in motion. Before you say I’m a defeatist, please consider how many worlds I’ve watched die. I think I’m an optimist to even be here. But I admit, I’m not a lot of fun.”
“If it’s all a waste of time, why bother with us?
“See that older woman walking to her car?” Runa looked at the lady. “If a truck suddenly bore down on her, you’d run to help, even though there's no chance to make it in time. But why? You know you can’t stop it, and yet you know you would run. Why?”
“Because I’d still have to try.”
Runa glanced at Marius, who shrugged. In an afternoon she had gone from confirming the existence of an alien civilization, to pleading the case for Earth’s survival. This should be someone else’s job. Runa had only one semester of debate club in school and little about her work required that particular skill. Worse, her debater was centuries older than her and must have heard it all, long ago. Still, some part of the interview felt off to her. Something about random influence and evolution. If she only had time to think…
Then time ran out. On the street two SUVs rounded opposite corners and came to a screeching stop, blocking the intersections. Men in SWAT gear poured out of the cars and ran towards the patio, pistols and rifles drawn, laser sights on. “Everyone, on the ground! Hands behind your heads!” Marius scowled. The gunmen were frightening everyone but their intended targets. Runa put her hand on Reade’s. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. These aren’t your people, are they? See, it doesn’t matter where I go. They’ll capture me and when they don’t get the information they want, dissect me. I can’t help. There’s never enough support on either end.”
The unit leader approached, now ten yards away from the table, very agitated that the three were not lying on the ground or putting their hands behind their heads. As he shouted again, a sound from above drowned him out. It moved as the wind picked up, scattering napkins and papers and blowing glasses off the tables. One of the men in kevlar shouted to his superior and pointed up. Cutting across the sky was an oval, moving in impossibly quick directional shifts. Though it looked like a solid vessel with weight, Runa thought it moved like the end of a laser pointer, and that wasn’t far off from what it was.
The saucer slid into position 200 meters above their table- above Reade. A beam of light instantly connected to him. The unit leader bellowed another warning as Reade’s form began to glow. Runa knew there might only be seconds left before this connection to a distant world was gone for good. Then the shouting was followed by a rifle burst.
The round ripped through Reade, who didn’t feel it. He held his hand up to the two investigators. The edges of his form began to dissipate into the beam. Runa’s troubling thought surfaced at last, and she shouted it.
“Reade! The unseen hand- what if you’re not the only outsider? What if there’s another, working against us?”
Reade’s entire body was drifting apart like blown sand, and a shimmer trailed up the light to the saucer. Witnesses had their phones out, and photos from every possible angle were already spreading across the internet. As Reade’s face faded away, Runa thought she saw his expression change. Soon he was gone and the sound with him. The Identified Flying Object receded steadily into the sky. Runa heard shouting, grabbed her recorder, and turned to see Marius punch the unit leader to the ground. This could have been a fatal move but for a new command the squad received over their earpieces to immediately lower weapons.
Runa, Marius, the tactical team and many bystanders spent the next eight hours in interrogation rooms, being questioned by still more federal agents. They already have the whole conversation, what more could they possibly need? A few days later, she and Marius were in Europe undergoing a similar, but far less hostile debriefing. Many of the questioners were reverential and visibly elated. You spoke with an extraterrestrial, and now I’ve spoken with you! I’m only one degree removed from aliens!
Six months later, Runa was on her bike, riding across the Brooklyn Bridge and up the East River Greenway to her new office at United Nations Headquarters. It was twelve floors above her old workspace, three suites whose previous occupants no one could remember. As she pedaled closer, she saw her assistant Dani- also new- jumping and waving to get her attention. Runa slowed and she could feel her phone pulsing nonstop, notifications piling up. The last time it did that was when Papa died.
“Runa, you have to come up immediately!”
“Where else would I go? What’s going on?”
“I haven’t been in. They told me to find you. Someone mentioned a message.”
They were waved past the security entrance and guards held the elevator, telling VIPs that they would have to wait. Runa stepped in with Dani and wracked her brain. Her cachet had risen since the Reade Interview but this was the only time she’d ever known the whole building to grind to a halt for anyone. When the elevator opened, the hallway was filled with people chattering, who instantly fell silent and stared. When she reached her doors, there were shouts of “She’s here!” To Runa’s surprise, Marius stepped out.
His duties had changed drastically since The Lunch. Constant traveling, investigating phenomena detected by the military. He felt this was a vast waste of time but his salary increased five-fold so he never objected. Runa was surprised not that he was here but that he was so clearly excited.
“When the news broke I was in Paris. They let me commandeer an entire passenger jet to be here when you arrived.”
“I’m not even going to ask, I assume someday I’ll learn what happened.”
Marius took her hand, another thing he never did, led her into the large conference room and pointed at the young man working the wall-sized screen. “Put it up, in order.” The room lights went down. On the screen was video similar to the Navy UFO footage on Marius’ phone, but Runa could tell it wasn’t one she’d seen so before. She barely voiced “where-“ when a locator crawl specified LISSE, NETHERLANDS. “Radar tracked movement last night over Finland and the first object took a direct path there. It was joined by six other UFOs. See the flashes coming from them to the ground? No attempt to evade notice. Before you point out the incredible coincidence of it being your home country, watch what was visible after sunrise.”
Next was an aerial view of tulip fields bursting with color. Then a symbol was visible in one of the fields: two circles bisected by a horizontal line. Runa’s mouth was hanging open but she didn’t care. “You think it’s connected to Reade!”
“We don’t need to connect the dots. Watch this next part.”
Runa felt unsteady, then let out a loud single laugh. Marius smiled. “I am so glad I could be here when you saw.” On the screen were deliberate patterns across the acres of flowers. Not cut through like crop circles, the differing petals were turned a darker hue than the flowers around them. This wasn’t a hoax, even if farmers were willing to mar their fields. The Lunch had never been confirmed by authorities, and Runa’s name and position were not public knowledge. Yet there across the field was a message, left where she was born.
YOU ARE RIGHT