“Alright…session 1,435. March 1, 2028. I’m Doctor David Tempel, filling in for Doctor Cavallari.”
He jotted D. Tempel roughly on the scratch pad in front of him, then laid down his pen, folded his hands over the page, and waited. The silence was eerie. Not so much as a crackle from the receiver. He’d never know such complete absence of sound in all his life. He had to say something. The tension was breaking him. It was either speak, or scream.
“So…” he began, awkwardly, “if you have anything to say…anything at all…well, I’m listening.”
He gulped nervously. His muscles tensed, prepared to leap from his chair and dash from the chamber at the first sign of danger. The threat was very real: he’d spoken out of turn. He’d broken the rules. The rules were there for a reason; for seven years no one had broken them. The rules were for their protection.
Now he’d broken the rules. He’d spoken, and having done so there was nothing he could do but wait. He couldn’t take it back. Fleeing would be no help. All he could do was wait. Wait, and listen.
No one had any idea where it had come from. One moment it was simply there: a wide, shallow disk, as though an inverted plate left spinning above the middle of the Atlantic. Its surface was dark, drab, pitted as though it had been battered by eons of meteor showers. Its scale was simply unimaginable: initial estimates had given it a diameter of roughly thirty kilometers. Final measurements, conducted years later by storm-hunting planes, confirmed it at twenty-two point five.
First there had been shock. Alarms were tripped: early warning systems decades old blared klaxon horns across dusty speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Merchant vessels were ordered off course, submarines and missile destroyers diverted. Fighters were scrambled by the Americans, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the Russians, until the airspace around the disk buzzed like a beehive. Mere hours after its appearance, the strange object had become the focus of hundreds of aircraft from a dozen countries: fighters, helicopters, bombers, surveillance and AWACS craft, even tankers and cargo planes. As they buzzed around, tiny aluminum flies dwarfed by the mammoth saucer, they kept cameras trained on the intruder. Helmet cams, gun cams, even personal smartphones from every angle were broadcast across the globe in minutes. Every single human eye was staring at this bizarre object from all directions, watching as it hovered silently over the ocean.
Scientists and strategists had argued tirelessly. Of course this had to be extraterrestrial; it could not simply have appeared out of nowhere. Of course it was a spacecraft; what natural phenomenon could do this? While those points were quickly settled, the natural progression led to more pressing questions, with murkier answers. Who were they? What were they? Was this a manned spacecraft, or an unmanned probe?
Was this a sign of friendship?
Was it the prelude to an invasion?
What would they do next?
What should we do?
Yet as time passed…first hours after the arrival, then days, then weeks…the spacecraft did the one thing none of them had expected: nothing. For months after a strange, disk-shaped spacecraft on a monstrous scale had appeared over the central Atlantic, it did nothing. There were no signals, audible or visible. No attempts to communicate of any kind. With each passing day the debate intensified. Everyone wanted answers, drove themselves mad hoping to divine them from what scant clues there were available. Yet still the disk had floated there, silent, immobile, defiant.
In time, the ships veered off, the jets refueled and made for carrier or land. The cameras mostly switched off, going back to covering car crashes, celebrity scandal, and the like. And over the course of ten months, mankind did something truly incredible: they grew accustomed to a visiting spacecraft hovering over their planet. It became one of those oddities one simply accepts as a fact of life, no different than a development group erecting an unwanted highrise next to one’s home. It may be eye-catching, ever-present. It may feel threatening at times. But it’s something one can grow accustomed to. And man did. Mostly.
Of course, the scientists, the military tacticians…those men were not satisfied. Scientists could not grow accustomed to burning, unanswered questions. Strategists could never grow comfortable with a monumental potential threat sitting at their doorstep. And so, as it had been for so many generations, soldier and scientist were united in an alliance of convenience.
And then, finally, more than a year after its arrival, the spacecraft opened. From its center, a small platform descended, lowering slowly through some unknown means until at last it came to rest atop the roiling sea below. No one could decide what to make of this new development. Was it an invitation? A warning? Some strange form of greeting? None could say, and seeking answers, at last the world’s leaders agreed to assemble a unified team to mount an expedition. Organized under the auspices of the United Nations, the expedition consisted of the world’s greatest minds, protected by its most feared special forces, all working together in hopes of finally determining who, or what, had appeared above their ocean.
Upon reaching the platform, they’d found it did not float in the surf but rather in the air just above it. Its base somehow displacing the water beneath, permitting it to hover completely immobile. To their surprise, upon reaching the center of the platform each member of the expedition team was pulled upward, up and up and up through nothing, until at last they disappeared within the mammoth spaceframe high above. There, they found but a single door that would open for them. Inside the tiny room sat a single chair, in front of a single table, with a single receiver, switched on. It was a large, clumsy device, by all appearances antiquated, with large speakers on either side and what appeared to be an oscilloscope at the center.
At last, it appeared they’d received an invitation to communicate. Across the planet, scientists rejoiced at the prospect of conversing with the strange intelligence that had visited their planet from the void. Yet their enthusiasm faded quickly, upon realizing this would be no easy task. And so, years later, their task continued, with very little success.
David Tempel had been a young man when the disk arrived. Like so many others, he grew up hoping to one day study it, and perhaps be the one who finally established dialogue. The revelation that alien intelligence existed had spawned a generation of scientists, all eager to take up the daunting task yielded by the previous generation, who’d long tired of it. When he’d first been approached by the lead receiver analyst, Dr. Giovanni Cavallari, he’d been ecstatic. But Cavallari, a frail, elderly Italian man with a flair for the dramatic, had done all he could to put fear into him.
“When you arrive, sit at the desk. Try not to shift or fidget.”
“Why not?” Tempel had asked, puzzled at this odd suggestion.
“Because they may not like it,” Cavallari had replied. “When you sit, you will read off the date and session number, then tell them who you are.”
“Then, you say nothing further.”
“So what do I do?”
“You sit patiently, and observe,” Cavallari had responded. “Take notes on your pad. Note anything you see and hear.”
Tempel had nodded. The receiver, he’d been told in briefings, was capable of both auditory and visual signals. The speakers produced sounds; usually they were mostly static, pops and hisses. Occasionally there would be garbled sounds, almost voices, though hardly human. Sometimes there were other sounds: running water, the sounds of animals, some sounding like those native to Earth, others more…otherworldly. The oscilloscope would also produce images, usually simple wave tracking, but other times the display would seem to show images: shapes, strange symbols, perhaps characters of an alien language.
“So, I listen and watch,” Tempel observed. There was, of course, a real possibility he’d have nothing to report. Sometimes entire sessions passed without event. The beings of the disk did not always feel like talking.
“There is more to it than that,” Cavallari had replied. “You must take careful note of everything you witness. Any strange smells, anything you might see in the corner of your eye. Any sudden sensations of hot or cold, of feeling as though someone else is there.”
At this, Tempel at last felt a tinge of dread. “Why?”
“Because even now, we still do not know how these beings communicate, if they are even beings at all. They may use visual input, or pheromones. Anything you feel may be even more important than what is seen or heard.”
“Alright,” Tempel had replied, preparing to rise from his seat.
“I am not finished!” Cavallari had snapped. “If you are to do this, you must understand the rules, and obey them at all costs.”
“The rules?” Tempel had asked, nervously. It was hard to be at ease around a man so grave.
“Yes,” the elder scientist had responded. “In the beginning there were…difficulties. Some days they did not seem to want us there, until we learned the rules.” He’d sat in the seat across from Tempel, leveling his fiery gaze on him as he leaned forward. “First, you must go alone. They will not attempt to communicate unless there is only one present, and the door is closed. Second, you must bring nothing with you but your pencil and pad. There can be no electronic devices. No phones, no tablets. Nothing. And third, you must not speak out of turn. After your announcement, you must say nothing.”
“Why not?” Temple had asked, fighting the urge to reconsider.
“Because they may not like it,” Cavallari had replied, ominously, and left it at that.
Now, Tempel was extremely aware of his surroundings. He turned so quickly his neck nearly snapped as he heard a noise behind him. The door was now locked, sturdy medal bars having shot into place, holding it fast. He was trapped.
“I’m sorry…” he whimpered, rising from his seat. “I’m sorry! Please…I’m so sorry!” He shouted, feebly, in every direction he could think of. Soon, the lights dimmed. The room seemed to shake as the receiver croaked to life. Its speakers crackled with strange noises, garbled clicks and groans as though millions of alien voices speaking at once. The oscilloscope went wild, morphing wildly into strange symbols and characters, patterns of lines and cross-hatches. The lights, having dimmed, began to pulse and strobe. He felt dizzy, disoriented. Suddenly he felt terribly cold, his jagged breaths coming as puffs of steam as the entire room seemed to move and breathe on its own.
Disoriented and terrified, he stumbled out of his seat, clambering toward the far wall where he collapsed. With effort, he struggled to right himself, settling with his back against the wall, sitting though it felt as though the entire room spun. It felt as though his mind itself was spinning, the strobing piercing his brain as he fought to regain his senses.
He’d heard of the early days, when researchers had first entered the disk and used the receiver. Back then, they’d talk, speak aloud, trying to elicit a response. Those episodes, no doubt, had led to the rules. There were stories: men who’d gone mad, who’d been locked in the receiver room only to be fished out hours, or even days later when the door finally opened. They’d been taken away mumbling, or screaming, babbling incoherently about horrific images and experiences, saying they’d seen them, that they had literally crawled into their brains and torn their minds apart. Now, Tempel had spoken out of turn, and he was certain that soon, they would come.
Tears wetted his cheeks as he ceased his pleading. No doubt others had pleaded for mercy. No doubt they were the ones who’d been carted away screaming. His thoughts turned to his family, to his wife and daughter who’d never see him again, not as he was. Not as they remembered him. He regretted every decision he’d made in his adult life, every twist and turn that had led him to this terrifying room. Desperate for salvation, he closed his eyes tight. He sifted through his memories, searching for solace, for but a single moment of peace.
It had been two years ago. He’d taken Lena and Emily to Glacier National Park. It was a beautiful place, raw and unspoiled. Conifer forests practically dripped from jagged, ambitious peaks that rose high above. After a bit of hiking, they’d set up for a picnic. Their spot lay upon the shore of Lake McDonald. Its water was crystal clear, so clear you could see the bottom. Beneath the water the lakebed was comprised of millions of tiny stones, brightly colored, all stacked together as though playing cards being shuffled. The sun was bright, the sky clear and blue as the lake below. There had been a light breeze, and he and Lena had held one another as Emily splashed in the shallows near their blanket.
With great effort, he took himself back there. He sat upon a soft blanket, checkered white and blue. Lena smiled at him, that perfect wide smile beneath her perfect gray eyes. Nearby, he could hear Emily laughing as she jumped in and out of the water, bending down to reach for the stones she liked best. He turned, and gazed back into the forest, through the stately trees that reached for the sun. There were so many they seemed to stretch on forever, and slowly, several figures peeked out from the trees.
Tempel gasped as his eyes shot open. Something was wrong. Someone else was there, in his memory. They appeared almost human, but they were dark, blurry. Shadows in the trees, peering out inquisitively as though watching him. That day at Lake McDonald they’d been alone. Not a soul could be found for miles in any direction. Yet he closed his eyes, took himself back, and there they were again. Now, the memory seemed even more vivid, almost real. He could smell the air, the scent of pine on the wind. He could feel the breeze brush across his face. Lena remained perfectly still, frozen. Emily seemed to hover in mid-air, paused as she leapt toward the water. Yet the figures in the forest continued to move.
Now they emerged from the trees, moving toward him. They seemed hesitant, almost fearful, yet curious. As they drew closer, he still found their features difficult to make out. They had bodies, arms and legs, heads, yet it was all dark and fuzzy. Still they appeared as though shadows. Still, they said nothing. Though frightened, he rose slowly to his feet. They crept closer, then seemed content merely to stand there, watching him. Then, something changed…
It was quick. Just a flash, but it happened. He saw something. An image? No. It was several images, passing by his consciousness in a flash. It was too fast. Could he slow it down? He attempted to, willing the images to repeat, but slower. It was a series of faces: young and old, various genders, races, all passing by in a flash. Then there was another: him. It took a moment, but somehow he understood. It was a question, depicted visually, using imagery he would be familiar with.
Who are you?
Again, his eyes shot open. He was sweating, panting. It was them. The beings who’d built the disk. They were there. He could feel them. He could see nothing, yet he knew he was practically surrounded. They’d been watching him, all of them. Now, for the first time in years, they’d seen something they hadn’t expected. And they’d been waiting for it.
Who are you?
The question seemed to repeat. Without even closing his eyes, he found himself once more standing on the shore, with them. Could he actually speak to them? Would they even understand? No. He couldn’t speak. That was the problem. They did not communicate verbally. He needed to show them. To think to them. Gradually, he compiled his own list of images: fragments of his past, his life. Having chosen as best he could, he replied.
I am David Tempel.
They seemed confused. Had he miscommunicated? Had he misinterpreted the question? Suddenly, a new set of images appeared. It was different this time: scores of faces, people laughing, smiling. Humans, of all shapes, sized, colors and ages.
What are you?
They didn’t want to know about him personally. They wanted to know about his species. They didn’t even know what, precisely, they had found on Earth. His response took some time, as he sifted through his knowledge of history, of prehistory, from cave paintings and stone tools to evolution and relativity. Images of Einstein and Newton, Hawking and the Wright Brothers, Shakespeare and Da Vinci, all filled his mind, and he sent them forth at last.
We are humans.
With each passing moment he found it easier to understand their questions, interpret their responses, formulate his own. It was surprising how fast he caught on. Were they helping him? It hardly mattered at this point. Soon, he found himself fully engrossed in a conversation the likes of which no human had ever experienced.
What are you? he asked.
They seemed to have difficulty responding. There was a pause. They seemed to look to one another in turn, as though deciding how best to respond.
We are different, the response came at last. It seemed vague, yet somehow he found it wasn’t. They were not like him at all: they had no bodies, no voices. They had only their thoughts, they were thought, energy, both one and many.
Where are you from?
They seemed confused. He adjusted his question.
Where did you come from?
There was an image: a planet, not like theirs, but it was dusty and brown. There was no water, no life. But once there had been, long ago, when their mother sun shone yellow and bright. Now it was sickly and red, but that no longer mattered. It was their home once, now they no longer needed it. He could see their star system, its sixteen planets orbiting far too close to the red giant that held them. Then he could see many stars around theirs, then a larger shape, a formation. It spun slowly, until he was viewing a disk of stars and dust edge-on. He recognized this image: NGC 5866. A lenticular galaxy, fifty million light-years away.
How did you get here? he asked.
They seemed confused once again. Again, he re-tooled the query.
How did you come to be here?
This, it seemed, they understood. We wanted to be here. We arrived.
He was shocked. They had no sense of distance. Their spacecraft could cross space and time at will, vaulting the vast distances between galaxies at will. Why would such beings wish to visit a place like Earth? He asked.
Why did you arrive here?
His jaw dropped at the response.
You are here.
Humans. They must have seen them, must have somehow become aware of their presence. They had no sinister agenda. No plans for invasion or conquest. They were simply curious.
Have you arrived anywhere else with beings like us?
Many places. We want to know.
What do you want to know?
His question seemed to puzzle them, as though it seemed oddly facile.
That was all. A simple response to what seemed, to them, a simple question.
How was this even possible? He’d come to the disk in hopes of answering one of humanity’s oldest, burning questions. Now it appeared he’d in fact answered several. Enthusiastic, eager to continue his dialogue, he replied.
We want to know everything also.
Now, there was another pause, this one longer than the others. They seemed to be deliberating amongst themselves. What were they saying?
Abruptly, they turned to him in unison, seeming to have arrived at an accord. Somewhere behind them, off in the forest, a door appeared out of nowhere. It opened slowly, pulling back to reveal a brilliant white light beyond.
What is that? he asked, nervous.
He recognized the images they presented: the arid planet, red sun, the distant galaxy spinning in space. They wanted him to come with them, back to their galaxy.
Why? He asked. He could think of no other response.
We want to know everything about you, they responded. And you will know everything we know. We will know each other, and we will know more together.
Now, Tempel was frightened. He couldn’t just leave everything behind. What of his family? His wife, his daughter? Could they even understand that?
When will I come back? He asked.
When you want to be here again.
At once, he understood. Space and time were meaningless to them. He could return whenever he wished, yet for them that truly meant whenever. He could come back thousands of years from now. He could come back yesterday.
David Tempel had become a scientist to learn all he could, to arrive at a better understanding of the universe, and help his species to do the same. Now, he stood poised at the threshold of the most incredible, most terrifying journey any human had ever been presented with. And to this, he felt, there could be only one response.
Moments later, the platform retracted, gliding slowly upward to mate with its mothership. Another moment, and the entire ship vanished. It left not a trace of its presence. After hovering over Earth for years, it was as though it had never been.