I imagine just about anyone in the western world will recognize the eerie “dee dee, dee dee” tinkling sound of the opening of the Twilight Zone. The reboots were terrible, but the original stands untouched. No one can touch the ultimate coolness of Rod Serling, standing like he just walked out of a cocktail party to have a smoke. And the stories ranged from campy to crazy to totally wild. I especially loved the ones involving space aliens and space travel. I think one of the most iconic lines from the Twilight Zone has to be “It’s a cookbook!”
That said, when writing The Visitors I had TZ in the back of my mind. All I’m missing is Rod and his cigarette.
“Picture this, if you will…”
The Visitors arrived nearly a year ago. It seems longer. It’s amazing how quickly the astounding becomes the commonplace. We just take it in stride and keep on going. Astounded hardly encompasses the world’s reaction to the knowledge that other sentient beings inhabit our universe. We were all taken by surprise. Contrary to the conspiracy nuts the government had no knowledge of aliens nor were we keeping extraterrestrial bodies in cold storage in some secret government bunker. From the clearance I have in my job with the Global Security Department I know these things.
As you are surely aware, we have been watching the sky for ages looking for signs of other life. Since the modern era we have used radio telescopes and electronic imaging to test for evidence in the night sky. Ironically, the Visitors were not detected until they were nearly upon us. Their ship’s small size, low reflectivity, and we suspect, stealth technology, rendered them invisible to our instruments. Once our astronomers detected them, it was apparent they were headed toward us and only a few weeks out.
There was general hope that the news might encourage holdouts to join the world body. We have been marching steadily since the advent of the technological age toward one world government. It is only common sense considering the global marketplace controlled by trans-national corporations. Nationalism has become old-fashioned, even quaint. All the democratic republics and constitutional monarchies, basically the western hemisphere, quickly merged. The totalitarian regimes, whether philosophical or religious, refused to cede their limited power. By the time the Visitors were detected, some 80% of the world’s population were allied with the World Union. We kept the olive branch extended to the holdouts. Of course, as you can imagine, they were intransigent. The world was quickly leaving them behind, but they refused to budge. There was hope that the knowledge that there were aliens, possibly hostile, might move them to join in the common defense.
Because that was the major concern. Were the newcomers hostile? A few days out we began receiving radio signals from the craft. We put our best people on it, but it remained unintelligible. It repeated; the same message over and over. There was general hope that the message was “we come in peace” and general fear it was “throw down your weapons and keep your hands where we can see them”. Commerce slowed to a standstill, the markets plummeted and the world waited. Troops were called up and all our military capabilities were primed but were we really any match for a civilization that could send ships across the galaxy?
The visitor craft took up an orbit farther out than one might expect. Our strategists quickly surmised that this was to place them outside the range of our most advanced missiles. Neither a hostile nor peaceful move. Simply prudent.
Our cryptologists had not been sitting around wringing their hands. They had begun streaming linguistic information to the Visitors. It was hoped that between their linguists, ours, and the common language of mathematics, a dialogue could quickly be opened.
Our space-based telescopes were all trained upon them, scanning them in every way devisable – visible spectrum, x-ray, infrared, ultrafrequency, even with newly discovered gravitational waves. Not much was revealed. The craft was outwardly inelegant, at best. But I guess that really isn’t a concern in interstellar space. It was the general size of an ostentatious house. You know, the kind to prove to the neighbors that you aren’t struggling like everyone else.
Then our astronomers received a message that we could understand. It simply said “Meet us” and listed geographic and time coordinates. It turned out these were the coordinates of the newly established world capital. And the time was high noon. The Visitors had apparently learned enough about us to know we were politically aligned and that our Union spoke for the majority of the world.
My position did not get me a place on the dais at the first encounter with an alien species, but I did have a closed-circuit feed that was more than what the networks could air. The crush near the capital building was incredible as the meeting time approached. I imagine every video device in the civilized world was tuned to this historic moment. The astronomers were reporting that a small craft had detached from the original ship. No larger than our largest automobile, it was dropping toward the meeting coordinates. Our monitoring stations reported that the module was circumnavigating the globe, perhaps to allow some of the heat of entry to the atmosphere to subside. Suddenly people started pointing to the east. All the cameras swiveled to that direction. Telephoto lenses could just make out a white dot approaching. More detail became visible as it neared. We could detect small wings, probably more for stability than lift. It glided with very little sound directly over the cheering crowd and came to a standstill hovering over the landing coordinates. Then it gently lowered. Standing on legs instead of wheels, it looked for all the world like a commuter plane, just with smaller wings and lower to the ground. A doorway on the side popped open and a small set of steps automatically folded out. A hush fell over the crowd. The momentous occasion was upon us. First contact.
As the world held its collective breath, a figure emerged from the dark interior of the craft. It was tall, much taller than us and more slender. However, it was vaguely humanoid. It had two lower limbs for locomotion and two upper limbs for handling things. The round protrusion on top was the approximation of a head. It was dressed all in silver, but the ‘head’ was bare. It was ugly. No doubt about that. Beyond just alien, it was incredibly ugly. Also, quite hairy. Its skin appeared to be rubbery, almost like a mask. What appeared to be eyes were too close together and with oddly shaped pupils. What I assumed were ears were too large and set at an awkward angle. It had some sort of metal register in front of its lower face. I found this was a device that amplified its voice and translated its words to our language. Our President bravely strode across the space separating them. The light flickered as dozens of cameras recorded the historic moment. When they met you could tell that the visitor was a full head taller than the President, and the President was considered tall. The President hesitated, not exactly sure of the protocol. The Visitor looked at him and raised its right forelimb, hand extended. I could see it had an extra digit. The President smiled and grasped the hand. The cheering was deafening. The following day’s newspaper headlines summed it up. “It’s official: they come in peace!” crowed the Chronicle. “We are peaceful, says spaceman”, reported the Monitor. I, along with everyone else in the world, breathed a sigh of relief.
I pulled every string I could to get myself into meetings and on panels working with the Visitors. Not only was I curious, but it definitely would boost my career prospects. That is how I became privy to information that many will never know.
It turned out the Visitors were new to spacefaring, only having recently developed a hyperlight drive. The leader was a bit cagey about how it worked and was unwilling to give our engineers access to his ship. He glibly advised that they could provide us some scientific help but did not want to disrupt our development by dumping technology we were not prepared for into the marketplace. They said their home was far out in the Sagittarian Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There were ten of them and they were enroute to explore a world near Epsilon Eridanus when a previously undetected black hole had slung their ship off course. They detected our radio waves and came to explore our solar system. There was some damage to their ship and they asked our help. Our President offered the world’s resources. Undoubtedly, this would open up many avenues for new technologies.
Our ethnologists and biologists were intrigued by the Visitors. There were apparently two genders like us, they reproduced sexually and brought forth their young live. They seemed like us in many ways. But there were also the differences. Something about them was incredibly repulsive, almost like an innate dread of their appearance. I was surprised to find such xenophobic bigotry within myself, but soon found many of my friends felt similarly. They were just so, well, alien.
Their leader made his first appearance alone. However when the President wanted to honor them with a state dinner, eight came. Their leader said someone always had to be monitoring the ship. Also, the leader sent down ahead of time food for him and his compatriots. He said our food was unpalatable to his kind. The President’s chef was crushed. He was hoping for world headlines and appearances as the chef who served dinner to the Visitors.
Their leader toured around a bit, making appearances, speaking of a new age of cooperation between our people. His subordinates were assigned to select factories to retool them to coordinate the repairs on the alien ship. No one factory got all the business. It was spread out so that the technology could not be held secret. The Visitors said this was their gift to the planet.
It seemed to be going so well. First Contact had been made and we would all be great friends. At least that is how it appeared. Although I am bound by confidentiality rules to never disclose my part, I like to feel that I had some hand in saving us from certain invasion.
I have a lifelong friend who must remain nameless who is extremely adept with technology and doesn’t mind operating on the shady side of the law. He boasted to me that he had hacked into the old Department of Defense back before the World Union. And he covered his tracks so they never knew. He couldn’t prove it but I had no real reason to doubt him. I had yet to see a system he couldn’t break in to. He came to me to tell me of a discovery he had made. He had hacked into one of our space-based telescopes near the Visitors’ ship so he could take a look at it. Simple curiosity. He discovered what he considered a major flaw in the Visitors’ security. Their ship-wide intelligence network was not shielded. He could detect the radio waves much like our internet. I scoffed that he could link into an alien system when my two brands of office computers can’t even talk to each other. He said it was simple engineering. Physicists like to proclaim that we cannot know if the basic laws of mechanics are the same everywhere in the universe. But he said engineers know that there are only so many ways of packing information and sending it electronically. The simplest, most elegant design is a binary system. He was determined to find how the Visitors’ technology worked. I strongly advised against it, but owing to our long friendship, I wouldn’t turn him in.
When he returned to see me the next week I could see he was upset. He told me he had uncovered disturbing information. He said I should probably take it to the President. I asked him to walk me through what he had found. He said that hacking into the Visitors’ system wasn’t very hard for someone as adept at him. This was not an idle brag. I’d say he is the best at what he does. But the initial flaw he discovered wasn’t exactly a flaw. Once into the system, he found all the important files and documents were encrypted. Even he had failed at breaking the alien encryption. Technology, logs, mission notes, everything was off limits. Except the library. We assumed the library was not encrypted to allow crewmen to easily browse the collection. Using a translation app which had been leaked onto the internet, he translated some titles and downloaded a few books.
One was a general history of the Visitors. He showed me the translation and I was astonished. The Visitors were at best vicious marauders, nearly like locusts that pick an area clean and move on. Every civilization they have encountered they have enslaved, robbed and subjected to genocide. They had nearly destroyed their home world and were now searching for new ones to rape. That was likely to be the fate of any unfortunate world around Epsilon Eridanus. And now they had found us. I used every bit of capital I had to call a special meeting of the President and military chiefs that night.
The President and his men were aghast at our claims, saying there was no way the Visitors were lying to us as we were saying. They said my friend could have easily created fake documents to deceive them into believing the Visitors were working against us. In the end, the President arranged for several of his most adept technology people to sit with my friend. He opened up his computer, hacked into the space telescope platform and then intercepted the Visitors’ intranet. He browsed into the library and downloaded several documents. Even a few pages of the most innocuous seeming book immediately illuminated the Visitors’ credo of taking what they wanted by force. The President and his chiefs were all there to witness this. It was a somber group that reconvened in the Situation Room in the early hours of the morning.
Many hours later we were agreed. It seemed the Visitors had been thrown off course and their home world was unaware of their location. It was imperative that they not leave or find any way to contact their home. The fate of the world was at stake. One of the President’s tech advisors asked for a private moment. They huddled and eventually seemed to come to a decision. The President cleared the room of everyone except the four top military generals, his technology advisor and me. I was allowed to remain because I had brought the Visitors’ perfidy to light. My friend had to leave.
The President outlined an audacious plan that if discovered could be disastrous, but no less disastrous than the Visitors revealing our location to their home.
Several weeks later the repairs were finished and the Visitors said their time with us was at an end. The President ordered a big farewell banquet in the capital city. Once again eight of the Visitors attended. Speeches were made, toasts were returned and the camaraderie seemed genuine.
After the final speech the President joined the Visitors and prepared to walk them out to their landing module. Suddenly a shot was fired. The secret service men swarmed the President and ushered him and the Visitors quickly into a protected area. The protected area was filled with soldiers who quickly mobbed the Visitors and got them into shackles. The leader seemed to recover his wits quickly and tapped the communication device on his lapel.
“Blake, it’s a trap. Get the ship out of orbit. Now! Come in. Come in.”
“I’m sorry, captain,” the President said. “Your ship is no longer available. We have discovered what you are and cannot let your people destroy us as they have countless others. The parts that we repaired for you, several contained explosives. We detonated them at the same time we arrested you. I regret the loss of your two crewmen, but the rest of you may remain as our guests. Perhaps we can find ways to work to our mutual benefit.”
“You lying, lizard-faced son of a bitch,” the leader growled.
“Perhaps, but I have saved Darzha from the plundering and pillaging that the history of your Earth is rife with. Hopefully, our history will remember me kindly for that.”