When Aliens Tried to Help

“What ya doin’ now?” Justin asked.

“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.

Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”

“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.

Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”

“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”

“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”

Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”

“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.

“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.

 

The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”

Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.

Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”

Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.

Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.

When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.

“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”

“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.

“I’m sorry for that, too.”

“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”

“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.

“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”

“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.

“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”

“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.

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On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.

Opening Soon

Kaylee felt cold and empty, like a rusty, railroad spike had been driven deep into her heart and brutally wrenched out. She’d been with Tim three years. Three years. That morning in Holly’s Café, he’d told her of his engagement plans. He and Stasi would be married in October.

“I’m happy for you,” She’d said, shaking inside. He cheerfully invited her to the wedding then rushed off to meet Stasi and Father Antonio at Saint Mary’s. Kaylee left the café alone.

She found a bench along the street. A taxi slowed at the curb. A young woman jumped out wearing a fashionable tennis outfit. A tall man in red jogging shorts and a red Adidas shirt swept her up and spun her around. Still embracing, they exchanged remarks on their good timing then dashed into Holly’s Café. Three pre-teen girls bounced past laughing, music in their steps, books and a jump rope clutched in their hands, talking nonstop. “My momma, she said …”

Kaylee hugged her purse to her chest and bent over it, staring at the pavement. The life she’d planned. Gone.

Tiny drops of rain tapped her cheek, joining her tears. The flow came faster, the drops harder. Shoppers, joggers, and service people, young and old, covered their heads with packages and backpacks and quickened their pace. Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain soaked Kaylee’s dress and shoes as she ran. Cars sped by, splashing waves onto sidewalks from puddles and fast filling gutters.

Kaylee ducked between yellow-brick buildings on a narrow walking street and leaned on the lee side of one of the buildings. The wind shifted and blew harder, driving the downpour horizontal. She spotted an old theater down the walk, ran to it, and took cover under the entrance marquee. All she could see beyond her shelter were curtains of gray water. How long must she wait for the storm to pass so she could go home?

A split banner spanned the old theater doors, red letters printed on white: THEATER diagonally across one door, CLOSED across the other. Cupping her eyes against the dark glass, she saw a vacant lobby with an empty concession stand, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in glass-fronted cases. She pulled the door handle. The door opened.

The lobby smelled of mildew and moldy carpet. Pink and tan paths, worn threadbare in the red carpet, arced to both sides of the concession stand, ending at tall, double doors. Kaylee followed the path to the left and pushed through the swinging doors.

The auditorium was empty, cold, and dark—a place that matched her mood, a place to be alone and think. A steady drip, drip, dripping sound came from an unseen bucket. The faint glow from the exit door signs illuminated shadowy rows of seats and an aisle sloping down to the stage. Kaylee chose an aisle seat in the fourth row. As her eyes adjusted, she noted scattered trash and seats with torn upholstery. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, two folding, metal chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe Tim,” Kaylee snorted then hung her head. She took a tissue from her purse and touched the corners of her eyes to lift the sting of tears. Tim had been so cheerful that morning, sharing his big news, totally indifferent to how she might feel. His crass ambivalence was disturbing. Was it that easy for him to dismiss her? To forget how they’d touched and held one another? To forget their kisses? Fleeting visions of running in the surf together, picnics, and flying kites felt like distant fantasies. Never again. Could she endure hearing his laughter, now in harmony with another’s laugh? Would she ever laugh again?

Soft footsteps crossed the dark stage. Then the stage lights came up full. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with a palm against her forehead. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and untucked, white T-shirt stood center stage. He laid a sheaf of papers on the card table, turned on the floor lamp, and rattled a metal chair as he sat. The man pulled one sheet off the stack, crossed his legs, and leaned back. His lips mouthed words as he read.

An older, motherly looking woman walked from the back of the stage down the steps to the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me. If you have a few moments, would you sit in and read a few lines for us? Just until Jenna arrives.”

Kaylee sat up, embarrassed, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, my dear, life goes on?”

Kaylee startled. “Excuse me, what did you say?”

“The play we’re rehearsing, My Dear, Life Goes On. You may have heard of it. It’s by a local playwright.

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry, my mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

While reviewing her lines, Kaylee noticed that the card table had acquired a fine, white cover cloth, and its legs were polished, carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the young man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown. Instead of a floor lamp, a crystal chandelier glittered above the table.

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Heavy stage curtains parted to reveal a packed auditorium. The audience buzzed with whispered anticipation. A formal dinner scene set on stage glowed in the spotlights. How lovely, Kaylee thought. She stumbled over her first lines, but no one seemed to mind. Her gestures and lines smoothed as she and the young man proceeded, scene after scene. Soon she no longer needed the script.

At the end, the audience stood and applauded. Her leading man stepped back and extended his arm, insisting she take a solo bow. “This is wonderful,” she said, closing her eyes and inhaling the moment.

The stage lights dimmed. Everything quieted and faded—the audience, her acting partner, the matronly lady in the front row. Cloth-covered, carved wood returned to being a bare card table, upholstered seats to folding chairs, and the gleaming chandelier to a dark floor lamp. Her gown was again the dress she’d worn that morning, still damp from the rain. As she followed the dim-lit aisle out to the lobby, and heard the slow drip, drip, dripping from an unseen bucket.

Outside the rain had stopped. The sun broke through the last cumulous clouds and cast a brilliant halo with rays of bright sunshine. Kaylee shaded her eyes and glanced up at the marquee she’d been unable to read in the rain. The last show was still on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters had fallen away. Tim_ of Your Life the sign now read, followed by “CLOSED.”

Kaylee shook her head at the irony then caught her breath. The line at the very bottom of the billboard read in large letters: NEW PLAY—OPENING SOON.

The Book of Nathan

“What can you make of this?” The woman pushed the image across Nathan Shipley’s desk. Her soap-scrubbed scent contrasted with his unwashed odor and the mildew of the basement office. Nathan slipped his wire-rimmed spectacles back past his long hair and around his ears, then glanced down at the image. It was a single ideogram retouched to obscure its background, possibly a rubbing from a monument or headstone.

“Can you give me a little context? Where was this taken?” Nathan looked into the woman’s expressionless face. She appeared to be in her early thirties and in excellent physical shape, certainly not an academic. Military, he guessed, although she and the two large men with her wore gray business suits rather than uniforms.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Shipley,” she said. “I’m not permitted to reveal the location. Can you give me anything at all?”

“I’d guess it’s early Mycenaean, a predecessor to Linear A. But you knew that or you wouldn’t have come to me. Did it come off a building, a clay tablet, perhaps a pottery shard? With some context, I might venture an interpretation.”

“You could translate it?” Her eyes suddenly locked on his.

“With a wider sampling, most assuredly.” He feigned confidence, hoping he would get a chance to try. He touched the image. “This ideogram indicates time—the side marks are qualifiers.” The woman leaned in, eyebrows raised. “The leading qualifier negates prior time, the trailing one negates anything coming after.”

“Nothing before and nothing after?” The woman’s pressed palms almost clapped. “Alpha and omega?”

Nathan nodded. “Or infinity. If this came from a palace or a courthouse, it might symbolize final authority.” He scratched behind his hair-thatched ear. “On a tomb, it might indicate that time had lost all meaning.”

“Thank you, Dr. Shipley.” The woman pushed back her chair to stand. Thinking she was leaving, Nathan stood to see her off.

“We need you to come with us, Dr. Shipley.” She waved her two friends forward and whispered to them.

“I should be able to…” The woman grabbed his coat as the two men rushed him out to the waiting limousine. “Wait, my work…” Nathan protested.

 

Four months later, Nathan found himself on the observation deck of a Global Space Agency research lab far out in space.

“You brought me up here for this?” he asked, staring at the massive, metallic-glass sphere beside the lab. When GSA found it in Earth’s orbit three years earlier, they had keep it a secret—its location, hidden behind the far side of the sun, raised too many questions.

“What do you expect me to tell you?” Nathan asked, raising both hands, palms up. Beside him stood the woman who had kidnapped and accompanied him on the long trip to the space station.

“What it is … How to get inside,” she said, pointing to the sphere. “We’re at a standstill. You know how much money, how many scientists, how many crazy ideas are kicking around?” She looked at Nathan, her face contorted. “We’ve tried blasting, cutting, drilling—not even a dent. The thing just wobbles a bit and heals, like some indestructible bubble. We can’t even do a spectral analysis. We have no idea what sort of technology we are dealing with.”

“I suppose you tried going in the front door?” Nathan asked, tilting his head toward the sphere’s ornately embossed, other-century-style gateway.

“A field appears and blocks the way whenever we approach. Other than that, we’ve found no defenses and have gotten no reactions. Remember the symbol I showed you in your office?”

“The infinity ideograph?”Slide1

“It’s on the panel beside the gateway. You said you wanted context, a wider sampling. We think the panel might be interactive.”

“That’s it?” Nathan asked. “You want me to just walk up and say ‘hi.’” She nodded, lifting her eyebrows sheepishly and smiling.

Sixty minutes later, suited up for a spacewalk, Nathan hooked onto the cable-rail along the two-meter-wide platform connecting the GSA lab to the sphere.

As he approached, a field of white bloomed in the gateway, fluttering like wings of light. Then a clay-tablet-like panel emerged with the impression of the ideograph.

“Infinity,” Nathan murmured as he traced the panel’s symbol with his gloved finger. Another ideograph replaced the first, Who? Beneath it, Nathan clumsily traced an ideograph in the clay for “name” then the numeral six. The sixth day. The wings of light fluttered down. He entered the sphere.

The interior was bright. Gravity pulled Nathan’s feet onto a flat deck covered with living grass. The dome above displayed sunrise in a morning sky filled with drifting, puffy clouds, and a flock of birds, geese, honking like those he had seen as a boy, camping with his uncle up north. A stream-fed pond at the far side of a flowery meadow was nestled among trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Beyond them, hills rolled back to the horizon. Whitetail deer grazed nearby, lifting and lowering their heads.

“You have served your time, child of the sixth day, and may return,” a warm voice said. Nathan looked around for the source but saw no one. The fluttering white field again blocked the gateway. Longing to taste and feel the air, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath.

“Return to where? Where am I?” Nathan asked, feeling the sun warm his face and a breeze rustle his long hair.

“I prepared a special place for you, one with many rooms,” answered the voice.

“Is this a game or for real?” Everything felt, looked, and smelled Earth-like: gravity, atmosphere and terrain, plants and animals, the stream and clouds. More idyllic than Earth-like, Nathan thought as a hummingbird landed on his arm.

“I reach you where you are,” said the voice, “with what your mind is able to grasp. Your technical culture recoils from scrolls and clay tablets, anything not reducible to mathematical code, anything connected to your past. In growing, you have become uprooted. That is why I sent for you, Nathan Shipley.”

“You sent for me?” A chill shot up Nathan’s spine.

“By contacting your culture in the manner I did, I compelled scientists to seek you out and to ask the questions they have long forgotten. I created their paths for discovery long ago, in the stones, in the stars, and life itself—all things great and small. Yet those who followed my well-marked paths took credit only unto themselves, boastfully dismissing questions that would bring deeper understanding.”

“Why me?”

“You seek meaning in all things, not just the arrow pointing to the next arrow further up the path—the arrows I set. Your culture seeks the arrows only so its quiver might be filled.”

“I am just a collector and student of artifacts and ancient wisdom.”

“You are the one who will carry my message to my people,” the voice said softly. Nathan swallowed hard, feeling small and very frightened. The voice continued, “I will come again soon with a greater reality. It is a reality many will fear, for it will come upon them like a storm upon the sea. Others will embrace it. The wind will fill their sails and carry them forward. You must go and tell my people.”

Nathan trembled uncontrollably. “It is too much. I am weak and unworthy.”

“Two gifts I give you, fruit from each of my great trees.” A figure of light came forward with a tray bearing two star-like fruit: one green, one golden.

Nathan started. “But it is forbidden to—”

“Soon all may taste this fruit. They are for your mission.” The figure of light held out the tray and Nathan consumed the fruit. “Now go and tell my people.”

Light dimmed as the sun set beyond the hills. Other lights along the path directed him back to the gateway. The fluttering white field parted like a curtain. He found himself outside on the platform with his helmet in place.

Upon returning, Nathan was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and executives in the GSA main conference room. He had met and spoken with aliens—scientists refused to consider any other explanation. The medical staff found no damage from what the aliens had fed him; indeed, his health was extraordinary. The alien message that Nathan delivered threatened some and cheered others, just as the voice had told him. Most attributed it to post-trauma stress and delusion.

Nathan felt only calm. Cleverly worded legal documents he understood at a glance—even without his glasses, which he no longer required. He knew the tests scientists gave him were intended to twist the message he’d been given.

The next morning, a team prepared to re-enter the sphere. As they approached, the sphere vanished. Everyone at GSA seemed surprised, except Nathan. They decided to wait for its return. Hadn’t the message said, “I will come again?”

Nathan hid a smile. His new discernment told him the return would not be to the far side of the sun. “I must tell your people,” he murmured, remembering the voice and sensing the warm sun on his face.

Fill in the Blank

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things …”  – Through the Looking-Glass

 

Booths on one bare wall of the windowless waiting room were flanked by glass cases on two walls and opposite a single metal door centered on the far wall.

A new human strode boldly from one of the booths toward the exit. It wore red tights and a canary-yellow, breast-peaked T-shirt, and had spiky blue hair, pouty lips, and impossibly blue, saucer eyes. A second human wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie, and beige canvas trousers, walked out more slowly, her face buried in a schematic design for a fusion rocket motor.

“Next, L-F-O-O-Z, you’re next,” a handsome young walrus called from one of the assignment booths. A doughy blob in one of the glass cases looked around. None of the other blobs moved. It looked down at the label on its case. “Yes, you, Lfooz. Please come along. Don’t worry. Your name will change when you get assigned.”

The blob slid over the case wall onto the vinyl tile floor then oozed toward the assignment booth. The walrus official walk-paddled to the other side of a low counter and motioned for Lfooz to slide up. The nested stack of trays on the counter looked like one used to display jeweled earrings for purchase or to distribute communion cups.

“You understand why you’re here? Why this is important?” the walrus official asked, wiggling his close-cropped whiskers. Lfooz wrung itself like a wet towel. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. Do you know what you want to be in life?” Lfooz gave a slow twist.

“These,” the walrus said, setting a display tray in front of Lfooz, “are life choices.” The tray held capsules of all colors. “The one you pick determines your attributes: interests, character, intelligence, sense of humor, skills, and your setting—race, sex, nationality, family background. Some like to call it ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ Once you make your decision, you’ll proceed to birthing, forget your experience here, and live out your life. At life’s end, you’ll transfer to Ever-Endeavor (see explication in “Time Cube”) to harvest the fruits or wretchedness you’ve sown. Shall I show you some of your choices?” The walrus waved a flat flipper over the display trays.

Lfooz pointed a pseudopod. “What me? A walrus? Yah, some choices you only get once in life. I was being cocky—thought if I did something stupid they’d give me a do over.” Lfooz motioned to the door on the bare wall where the women had exited a moment before.

“Those two?” Lfooz’s dough body rose and fell. “You get to drive your life choice out of the showroom, but they’ll still have to go through birth, childhood, and adolescence. Sorry, that’s life.”

He pointed to a red capsule. “This one’s very athletic and doesn’t think too much. It comes in male and female versions, or a mix of both. Fans cheer and mates throw themselves at you. You make a lot of money, cover yourself with tattoos, abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol then die young in a bar fight. Comes with a full guarantee.” When he got no reaction, the walrus pointed to the blue capsule.

“This little baby is brilliant and also comes in male and female makes. It’s an inventor, a creator, makes a boatload of money designing stuff, but doesn’t have much time to spend it or to find mates. It lives a long quiet life with cars and cats for companions. Also guaranteed.” Lfooz rolled two doughy arms together, and the walrus moved on.

“The green capsule provides everything you need: food, housing, medical care, clothes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You spend your days outside, looking at flowers and pigeons, and collecting money from passersby. It’s nondescript, most people won’t care what your sex is and neither will you. Guaranteed.”

The walrus went through the entire stack of trays and choices, and got no reaction. Then he asked, “See anything that interests you?”

Lfooz’s boneless mass rose and fell twice. It extended a dough finger to specific attributes for several capsules: the first, second, fifth, eighteenth, thirty-seventh.

“I see,” said the walrus, “you want a balance, to be a stable, healthy, wise, hard-working, dependable, and friendly person who divides time for family, profession, and other interests.” Lfooz rose and fell slowly.

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“Of course.” The walrus pulled a small cloisonné box from a rear shelf. Within its gold interior was a single white capsule. “This one can provide everything you hope for.”

Lfooz scanned the attributes list, each line followed with a single word “optional,” and pointed to the blank on the last line.

“No, it carries no guarantees.” When Lfooz looked puzzled, the walrus explained. “My mistake, it does have one guarantee. However you arrive in life, whatever your situation, your fate will be determined by decisions you make and the courage you have to see them through. This life starts where it starts and has neither ceiling nor floor.”

Lfooz took the white capsule and walked upright from the booth, determined to take the best of whatever life offered. No guarantees.