Sunday, November 15, 2020CE
San Francisco, California, USA
Coffee. Many people look forward to this beverage every day. A great deal of time, thought, manpower and machinery goes into every single cup and pot of this drink. Hundreds of years of cultivation, brewing, experimentation and failure went into this single beverage of choice for millions of people. Professionally, it’s one of mankind’s greatest inventions, a symbol of innovation and trial and error.
Personally, it’s a bit crap for my tastes. I’ve told my brother it’s ‘simply far too young of a product’. Oh sure, hide it with milk, sugar, caramel, whipped cream, but that universally bitter taste and grimy texture makes me want to retch sometimes. Tea is much more my style, and if it wasn’t for my sister, I’d never have a pot in my apartment, let alone a bean grinder, press, or espresso machine.
Ironically, all those things clutter a portion of the countertop in the kitchen, and it was the smell of yet another of her ‘experimental blends’ that woke me up. Groping the top of my nightstand for my phone, I tapped the screen. 5:18AM. Twenty-two minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. Either she hasn’t been to bed yet, or she slept all day yesterday. Stretching, I slowly rose from my comfortable mess of a bed, quickly threw on some flannel pants and a t-shirt and went out to see what the fuss was about.
“Morning Lilli.” Jamie’s voice called out to me as I closed my door behind me. Yawning, I simply nodded, then slowly shuffled across the hardwood floor, scratching my arm in a half-dazed scowl. She turned, the bangles and beads in her hair clinking and clattering as they fell all around her. “Don’t worry, I’m making your tea too.” She blinked, finally catching sight of me. “Oh god, you really aren’t a morning person.”
I smiled, weakly and without humor. “Haven’t seen you in a few days.” I blinked, looking her over a little. I didn’t recognize the black jeans, but the yellow shirt and blue vest were overly familiar. “Are you going hippie on me or did you do laundry and change into the same clothes again?”
Jamie shrugged, placing a plate of eggs and bacon in front of me. “Laundry, three days ago. You must have been covering the fire at the time.” I leaned over the island, grabbed a fork and sat on one of our stools as she turned back to the stove and pulled the kettle off the burner. I clearly hadn’t noticed her, so I guess she was right. Shit, are my days blurring together already? I watched her pour a cup of blisteringly hot water into one of our taller tea cups, then reach into the cupboard while I cut into my eggs. Slightly runny but not too raw, Jamie always had cooked the perfect eggs. “You’ve been out too. I was here for the last two days.”
My turn to shrug. “Work.” I sighed, savoring the eggs while she put the tea in front of me. The scent of chrysanthemum wafted towards me, forcing me to smile. “There was that scandal over in the North Bay. The arrests were breaking, then they committed suicide in lockup.” Looking up to check if she was paying attention, I was surprised to find her paying rapt attention to me. “We basically hotel hopped for two days.”
Jamie nodded, nodding her head toward the answering machine by the door. “Kinda figured when Jayden left two messages. You missed dinner with him.”
Groaning, I mentally promised to call him back and apologize. There was no way of knowing when our brother would be available to see us again. Between his T.A. duties, studying for his credentials, taking lessons on his fourth- fifth? sixth?- instrument and that damnably clingy girl of his, it was hard enough to pin down a solid date to see him anyways. “Damn it.” I grabbed a piece of bacon and bit into it while giving Jamie a glare as she poured herself the first of many cups of coffee.
Jamie laughed lightly as I chewed away. “Don’t worry Lilli. I went for you, and you wouldn’t have wanted to go.” I tilted my head to the side as she sipped her coffee and made a disinterested expression before reaching for the sugar. “Mom crashed it.”
I felt my eyes widen. Mom must be getting desperate if she enlisted Jayden to help her. I mulled that thought over for a bit, then settled on the least offensive course of action. “Mom hates Greek food.”
Jamie laughed hard at that, letting go of the spoon mixing the coffee. “She does! She really does!” She clapped lightly at the memories. “You should have seen the look on her face when she ate the eggplant. Oh, I swear she was going explode. Thankfully, none of the other customers looked like they spoke Mandarin, or they would have heard an earful.”
Eating the last of the bacon, I smiled and swallowed before sipping the tea again. “At least she played nice right?”
Jamie laughed again, this time mockingly sounding like Mom on purpose. “As if. She mentioned that lawyer she’s trying to get you to see again. And she’s set up three more meetings for me.” She scoffed, folding her arms across her chest as she looked right at me. “Like volume and variety would do something about me.”
I cleaned up the eggs while she talked, then finished my tea. I stood, grabbing the plate and moving around the island towards the sink. “Hope you told her to go to hell for me.”
Jamie couldn’t even hold the smile away as she shook her head, and I loved her for it. Our mother had an arranged marriage, luckily meeting our decent but often absentee father and falling in love with him, and so felt it was only proper for her two little princesses to go through the same. Unfortunately for her, I wanted nothing to do with such an archaic system and Jamie…well, Mom was in denial, even after Dad caught her in bed with Rebecca that one time.
I laughed, then reached over and ruffled her hair a little. “Thanks a lot.” Putting the dishes in the sink, I glanced at the clock on the far wall. 5:40AM. “I’m showering, then I’m gone. What about you?”
She pulled out her phone and quickly scrolled through the calendar app. “Hmm…homework’ll take about two hours. Then classes. You free for dinner?”
I nodded, headed for the bathroom and scratching my back. “In or out?”
“In. I’ll pick up sushi from Japan Town.”
“Sounds good to me.” I closed the door quietly, and turned the shower on to full power. There might have been the smell of coffee everywhere, but between the tea, eggs and promise of sushi, the day was looking up already.
As I sat in the news room for what seemed like the thousandth time, I found myself looking around the table and wondering just how some of my colleagues retained their employment. Two other reporters were having a thumb-war in the corner, something I hadn’t seen since elementary school. One of the newscasters was busy trying not to look like she wasn’t looking in her mirror every ten minutes. Thankfully, except for the nervous looking intern standing behind our boss, everyone else was calm, collected and seemingly professional.
Samantha Corazon sat at the head of the table, glaring down the twenty or so of us in the room while not-quite-successfully ignoring the newspaper in front of her. But with a headline like ‘Corazon censors employees’ and the byline of ‘Free Speech threatened from within’, it was hard not to cringe at least once in a while if her eyes glanced across its surface. Even if she can be kind of a hardass, I never really thought of her as oppressive or vindictive like the paper made her out to be. She was just doing her job, and required to be tough with a couple of our more zealous associates.
“So…are we clear?” She looked at each of us at the table squarely in the eye after passing out the morning assignments. “Each of you has your specialty, and I want you all to nurture those traits that make you an effective group. Understood?” There was a general murmur of acknowledgement, and I nodded my consent. Sometimes it was just best to not verbalize your feelings with Samantha, and we all knew it.
Smiling briefly, she nodded. “Good. Let’s get to it.” Everyone started to rise, and I looked over my sheet. Outdoor coverage of the superior courthouse in Civic Center might not sound glamourous most days, but today was probably going to be the exception. There were sure to be a few hundred people in the square trying to find answers about the abrupt suicide of the officials in custody yesterday. As our tech department had already told us, a few local blogs were already going into conspiracy mode, claiming it was a cover-up gone wrong.
I was about to get up when Samantha called again. “Lillian, a moment, please?” I sat back down and looked at her. She seemed exhausted, and I couldn’t blame her. I doubt she’d had any time to relax in the past week. As the last of the others filed out of the room along with the intern, she grabbed a packet of cigarettes from her coat pocket and twirled it around in her hand before continuing. “You’ve done some good work recently. Really, top notch field reporting.”
I smiled, trying my best not to look too nervous. Open praise was not one of her usual traits. A flash of intuition told me she was about to offer me something I might want in exchange for something not entirely pleasant. I remained quiet as I nodded, waiting for her to continue.
“I know we’ve never been…well, you’ve been nothing but professional your entire stay here.” She sighed, then tapped the newspaper in front of her. “I’ve made some…bad choices.” She frowned, and I quickly dropped my smile. “I need to know that my choices haven’t affected your ability.”
Confused, I nodded. “Nothing’s really changed on my end. I’m going to keep on this court case until it ends or you reassign me.”
“Good. Keep on it. If you need to dig around to get to the truth, dig around with my full support.” She leaned forward. “If you’re approached to give comment on this…” Tapping the paper’s headlines again, I nodded again in confirmation. “You tell me directly.”
“Right.” There was nothing else to say. My boss wanted my help in clearing her name from a simple misunderstanding and I would gladly oblige, now that I had protection in a potentially damaging political scandal. It was funny how easily some people would find assistance wherever they could once their own skin was on the line.
She turned to face the window, a clear signal that the conversation was over and I should get to work. I quickly left the room and made my way to the elevator. I checked the time on my phone as I waited for the slowly descending car to arrive. 8:35, a little later than normal but still plenty of time to get from Embarcadero to Civic Center before the case was set to begin. Hopefully, Dave and Ghassan were already in the van and ready to go.
Dave was grumpy again. I could immediately tell after stepping out of the elevator by the scowl on his face as he sat in the driver seat, even hiding his eyes under his sun faded Giants cap. There was no way of knowing what caused his moods to sour, and so at some point, I knew I’d be in for an earful as either Ghassan and I discussed something or he overheard nearly anything related to whatever spoiled his day already. I sighed as I made my way over to the van, slightly rolling my eyes and hoping to get it resolved quickly.
Ghassan, however, was cheerful as always. Leaning on the van with a broad smile nearly permanently plastered on his face, he spread his arms wide, causing the twelve bracelets on his arm to jingle slightly in a small chime. “Lillian, good morning. What do you think?” He gave a sweep of his arm downwards, indicating his clothes. The yellow and brown dress shirt happily clashed with his blue jeans and cowboy boots, and the green vest certainly stood out, but again, I was appalled by his fashion sense.
I shook my head, opening the passenger side door as he opened the sliding door on the side of the van. “I still don’t know how your wife lets you get away with dressing like this, Ghassan.” We slid into our seats as Dave started the engine. “I have to talk to Alize. This needs to stop.”
He chuckled loudly. “Alize is far too busy with making sure the kids look respectable in the morning to worry about me. But did you notice?” I turned to look back as he leaned forward, waving his hand near his neck in a pair of quick circles. “No cologne today.”
I gasped in mock surprise. “You’ve finally run out? I know it was your favorite but let me know if you need help finding more. Please. I insist.” That stuff was so bad it might make rhinos puke. Alize was a thoughtful woman, but her sense of smell was something else entirely. Ghassan must have been using the foul smelling cologne for nearly six years in heavily diluted doses, and it still lingered for hours after he’d left a room.
Dave actually laughed at that. “At least the skunks will finally come back for a little while.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that. Neither could Ghassan.
Dave smirked, but then started driving. “Where we going today?”
“Civic Center.” I relaxed into the seat as I strapped my seatbelt on. “Still covering.”
Dave nodded, making the turn out of the parking garage and getting us onto street level. “Good signal there. Feed shouldn’t have any problems.” The van’s breaks squealed slightly as he checked the traffic on Sansome before pulling out.
Ghassan made a slight grumble. “Bad traffic heading in. A few dozen protesters already lining up when I got in. Police will probably be there again, even if they are peaceful.”
I frowned, wondering if there’d ever be a day this year where there wasn’t protesting in some form or another. It was certainly better since they lifted curfew in the East Bay, and the San Jose Riots finally ending back in August, but even in California, there were still dozens of small groups trying to organize into larger waves of action against anything they saw as oppressive or corrupt. “Your tax dollars at work, Ghassan. At least this isn’t Charlotte.”
I knew Ghassan was unsettled by the reference, and he knocked on the side of the van with a closed hand. “That was some hairy stuff. Never thought I’d see the day a governor was assassinated on the same day he was sworn to office.”
Dave coughed lightly as he turned onto Market Street. “People want fresh water, people should have fresh water. Simple as that. His job was to make it work, not close down the desalinating plants.”
Ghassan laughed again, but it was muted compared to before. “I knew you’d take that side, my friend. You’re always so quick to take the defensive side.” He clapped his hands together, the sound echoing loudly in the small van. I jumped despite myself. “The police never did explain how the gunman got in, did they…I wonder how the investigation is going for Claire.”
I shrugged in my seat. “I’ll give her a call tomorrow during lunch. She’ll probably have something by then.”
Dave nodded. “She probably has something now. Just sitting on it until it makes enough sense to her…oh, come on…” He pointed down the road, and I frowned as I saw the ambulance pulling up behind the MUNI bus. He grunted, pulling the wheel left and driving around it, passing three police cars as he did so. “Damn separatists probably having another public display.”
I sighed as he made the turn onto Fifth and stopped at the light for Mission. “Rough times, Dave.”
He nodded but said nothing else. Ghassan clapped behind us. “No worries. Let us just be happy with what we have, eh? Good food, plenty of clean air, and warm homes to stay in.”
I turned back to Ghassan as we turned on Mission, and gave him a smile. “I suppose things could always get worse.” He roared with laughter, slapping his knee repeatedly, and I saw Dave smirk out of the corner of my eye. I had a feeling nothing was really going to go wrong today; despite the bad start we’d been dealt.
I turned back to the front as City Hall came into view. “We’ve got about twenty minutes before we go live. What do you say we make something really boring into something noteworthy today?”
My head jerked back involuntarily as Ghassan leaned into the console, trying to make sense of what we were seeing. His voice was strained, clearly having as rough a time as I was grasping the enormity of the situation. It was barely audible over the shouts of the protesters nearby. “This…is really happening? It’s not a hacked signal with some…science fiction movie playing?”
Dave tapped furiously at the keyboard, checking the feed for any outside influence. “Code is clear. This is live.”
No sooner had we gotten out of the van and begun to set up our equipment, then the call came in from Samantha. A UFO, a real live UFO, was entering Earth’s atmosphere at incredible speed over the North Pacific, currently over absolutely nothing but heading east. Satellites in orbit had completely missed it until five minutes ago, but even passengers on planes hundreds of miles away could see the massive smoke trail streaking down through the sky. Social Media was exploding with conspiracy theories and speculation, but Samantha’s contacts in Washington were just as surprised as everyone, it seemed.
It was just suddenly here. No warning. No build up. But it was heading right towards us.
Dave was quickest to get over his shock. “We need to information to avoid a mass panic.” He half whispered, half shouted at the phone. “Is anyone headed for the beach?”
Samantha’s voice was stressed but clear. “I’ve got Rodney and his team heading there in the helicopter. They’ll be our first eyes on them, but the other teams are stuck in traffic and the other helicopter is down for repairs. We want as much coverage on it as possible because we don’t know where it’s going to stop. You’re the only group we have downtown, so I need you to stay there to get it on film as the object goes over us.”
Ghassan was already grabbing the power cord for the camera and heading out as I stepped back up and into the van again. “How fast is it moving? What kind of window do we have here?”
Snapping her fingers loudly, she was shouting at someone in the office. “LIVE FEED IN TWENTY SECONDS! Lillian, listen. Peter and Diane are anchoring, I’ll get science on that ASAP but you need to hurry and set up. Put your earpiece in now. TAP RODNEY AND GHASSAN NOW!” She hung-up, and I knew she was almost overwhelmed with what to do.
I pulled open the drawer and unwrapped the rubber band from around the earpiece inside, flicking it on and hearing Diane’s muffled voice as I did so. “Two cameras, that’s all?”
Dave was looking over my shoulder as I placed it in my left ear. “Ghassan’s hooked up. Maybe fifteen seconds before we can go live.” I nodded, my pulse racing, heart thudding in my chest. It was almost like the onset of a panic attack. Things were starting to make less sense the more I thought about it. I’d never liked science fiction as a kid, but I’d seen enough of the classics to understand that this kind of…suddenness wasn’t something we were prepared for.
I had just begun shaking when Ghassan grabbed hold of my shoulder. “Breath.” I did, and it helped. “It’s just another story. Just another day at work.” I let go of the breath, and nodded again, calmer. I was still nervous, but focusing was easing the tension by the second. “Good. Good. Come on.”
I grabbed the wireless microphone as I stepped out of the van and looked west, over the top of City Hall’s shining roof. A small black dot was forming just out in the distance, and I heard Dave curse under his breath as he pulled out the monitor stand. He damn near ripped the pole in half as he set it up, Ghassan grabbing the two LED screens and setting them up at head height next to the camera. Dave jumped back into the van and connected them within seconds, pausing only to give us a big thumb up a moment before they flared to life.
The left monitor showed Peter and Diane back in the study, hair perfectly styled despite the rush and suits spotless. Peter’s trademark coffee mug was even in the same spot, and while they were both surprised, neither looked panicked in the slightest. The hallmark of experience, I suppose. The right monitor connected directly with Rodney’s cameraman’s feed.
They were too low, but wouldn’t risk their lives trying to get level with what now looked like miles long and thousands of feet tall smoke trails. The smoke was a dark grey, nearly black but several shades lighter. I was about to comment when I noticed the deathly silence all around us. I looked around.
Nobody in the plaza was talking. The protesters were totally silent, huddled in small groups and, I could only assume from their hunched poses, staring intently at their phones and other handheld devices. The police were staring at them and at each other, completely taken aback by the sudden lack of anything going on. Even the few homeless people who frequented the area were looking around in confusion, alarmed.
Diane’s voice called out in alarm. “Wait, what is that?” I strained my ears to hear something…
An explosion of noise rang out as birds everywhere suddenly took flight in great droves. The protesters, police and everyone else in the area looked to the skies as massive flocks of birds flew east as quickly as they could, crying out in echoing chirps and cooing. A few dogs ran past, their leashes dragging behind them, their owners unable or unwilling to keep up. Barking and other noises in the distance were quickly fading, obscured by dozens of buildings but filling my heart with fresh dread.
Ghassan grabbed my shoulder again, much harder this time, and shouted something I couldn’t hear as he pulled my attention back towards the monitor. The smoke’s color had changed, drastically, in just a few seconds. Now it was just a pale grey, looking more like the fog that creeps over the city than anything else. It was still rolling around it in a great swirl, but it was clearly changing color. I shouted back to him. “WHAT?!?”
He cupped his hands over my ear and shouted, cutting through the noise of the birds as they flew off. “I think it’s slowing down!”
I stared intently at the monitor, looking for whatever signs he had seen. He pointed to a spot above the center of the spiraling clouds and I saw it. Something within the smoke was slowly pushing it away from the front, expanding its mass.
Dave shouted out at us from the van. “Science got back to us. It’s slowing down fast! It’ll be here in six minutes but at the rate it’s decelerating, it might come to a complete stop over the bay!” His worried face shook in disbelief as he turned back to the consoles and screens in the van, trying to keep ahead of it to keep us informed.
Ghassan set up the display pad beneath the two monitors as I took a step back, running a hand through my hair. Oh hell, that means we’ll have less than a few minutes of air before it leaves. I might not even get to comment. Peter’s voice seemed to come in from a long way as we waited for the live feed to transfer over to the earpiece. “And we take you live to Ocean Beach to cover this unprecedented event, joining our field correspondent Rodney Malone as he gets first eyes on this…well, what can only be described right now as a UFO.”
Rodney’s face popped up on the right monitor, sliding smoothly into the shot as the camera pulled back far enough to capture his upper torso. His slick backed hair and overly wide smile made me groan internally. His brown business suit clashed horribly with his pale skin, though he looked more than a little sick to his stomach from flying. I was more than a little disappointed he was going to just blabber about some tiny detail no one would care about in order to calm his nerves.
I can only imagine the surprise and dread on Samantha’s face as he began talking without audio. I laughed briefly but loudly at the irony. Rodney tapped the microphone briefly, flicked the power switch twice and tried speaking into, but again, silence. I knew that his cameraman would be switching audio to the camera’s base microphone as a backup, but if the audio quality was too low over the wind and the blades of the motor, they’d be forced to cut to-
Ghassan snapped his fingers at me loudly as the shot panned away from Rodney’s face and back to the approaching cloud of smoke. Ghassan leaned into the camera, adjusting a few settings before holding up his hand in the four finger countdown we always used. Diane’s voice rang lightly in my ear as he began the count. “We seem to be having some audio trouble, so while we continue to have visual from Ocean Beach, let’s hear a word from our other field correspondent Lillian Chuang, live from Civic Center.”
The small red light came on just as Ghassan pointed at me, and I briefly flashed my best smile at the camera before getting rid of it completely, adopting as much of a neutral, pensive look as I could imagine. Checking the monitors briefly, I saw the confused and slightly scared face of Diane staring back while Peter looked both entertained and apprehensive. “Peter, Diane, good morning. I know you can see the cloud surrounding the UFO much clearer from our Ocean Beach unit, but you can see it from here if you look just above the middle of City Hall.” I turned and pointed briefly before readdressing the camera. “From what I understand, in a few minutes we should have a much better view of it as it passes overhead. Diane, do we have any idea on an estimate for that?”
Diane nodded. “We’ll get right on that, Lillian.”
Peter suddenly leaned forward, probably looking at their own view of the smoke from another monitor in the studio. “Is it…expanding?” For a moment, we all simply stared in silence, Ghassan even leaning back to look at one of the monitors in the van. I strained my eyes to see what he was talking about, but then there was movement.
It was beyond words for a moment, realizing just what was happening as the cloud of smoke thinned enough to make out the vessel beneath. It was cylindrical, oblong, and the surface appeared almost completely smooth, a kaleidoscopic swirl of colors almost hypnotic in its speed. It was unmarked from the sides, and from what I could see, no artificial light shone from its mass, only reflecting pure sunlight from it’s rapidly changing hues. I forced myself to pay attention to Diane’s commentary in my ear. “Well this is… certainly an unexpected shape.”
Peter chuckled. “Reminds me of a movie I saw once…”
But from the zoom enhanced shot of Rodney’s camera crew, I saw the entire front cap slowly begin to unfold. Giant protrusions erupted from the smoke, the outer layer rising in almost perfect synchronization all around the vessel. It expanded slowly, pausing briefly as a second layer began expanding almost as soon as the first layer had cleared.
My jaw refused to work for those first few moments. My brain certainly processed it for what it was worth, a momentous, world defining event that would be unlike anything else in human history, but for the life of me, I couldn’t speak. Talking was what my entire job revolved around, and here I was struggling to say anything other than ‘can you see this?’
I turned back to the camera and peered past it for a moment, staring into Ghassan’s wide gaze as he nodded furiously. Behind him, David slid in the van, flashing me a huge thumbs up. They knew this was the moment. Make-or-break time. I took a deep breath.
“I don’t know how clearly you can see it, Peter, but coming in west of us is what appears to be a large flying object unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” I turned my back to the camera and pointed, letting Ghassan zoom in as much as the camera would allow. “It appears to be moving quickly towards the city, but from this angle, it looks high enough that it won’t even come close to our tallest buildings.”
Back in the news room and directly in my ear, Peter’s voice was calm and clear, despite the confusion and wonder he must have been feeling like the rest of us. “Yes, and I’m getting word that all air traffic is being rerouted to avoid coming into contact with the…” He hesitated, and I heard a sense of pure astonishment in his voice. “Is that…Lillian, can you see a flower?”
I turned back around to face the monitor tablets, watching as the outer layer stopped moving, completely unfurled from the ship. The second layer was extending, and a third was beginning to spiral outwards. At the same time, the smoke dissipated completely. The remaining material in the middle remained nearly stationary, splitting only a relative fraction of space, and the colors finally settled into place, the vessel indeed appeared to be some strangely beautiful flower, oddly colored, massive in scale and distinctly shiny, but a flower nonetheless. Memories of my father tending to his garden came to me unbidden, but they helped me identify parts of it within seconds.
“If anything, Peter, I’d say it was a hybrid of at least three different flowers. I can see petals of a magnolia, azalea and violet mixed together. Almost layered perfectly together, like it was sculpted from some giant block of marble.” I blinked, surprised by my own metaphor. I reached out to the tablet tapping the screen, then looked over at the van, making eye contact with David. His head snapped back, but he nodded, dashing back to the van. “But if anything, I’m more interested in the colors of it. Can you identify those? It’s too far for me to make out clearly.” I stared into the tablet, remembering all the different meaning of flowers in an instant and completely ignoring to be unbiased.
I looked up, finally hearing the commotion around me for the first time. There were some people gathering nearby, staring into the sky as the gigantic flower moved ever closer, drawn to the spectacle like moths to a flame. Diane spoke up from the newsroom, eagerly taking the reins with information I couldn’t provide. “Lillian, I can see hints of purple, red and yellow in different spots. We’ll try to be more precise, but why do you want to know the colors? And how is it you can identify anything related to individual plants in that mess?”
I frowned, turning back to the sight of the flower, as people began coming out of the offices and buildings nearby in pairs or small groups. From the BART tunnels, dozens of people emerged as word got around on social media, peaking their curiosity. “My father forced me to take horticultural classes when I was a child. As I remember it, azaleas represent patience and violets represent honesty. Magnolias are supposed to be nature itself, so this could give us a clue as to the disposition of whomever or whatever is aboard that ship. As for the colors, different shades might represent other intentions entirely. I know it’s going out on a limb but…” My eyes blinked as I realized that it had already doubled in size since we’d first seen it. “Guys, this thing is massive, as in big enough to eclipse the sun if it passes overhead at this height. Can we get an estimate on how big it is?”
Diane must have been stunned, because Peter responded again. “Lillian, we’re on that right now. It’ll take a few moments but why do you say it’s a ship? If it really is a flower, couldn’t it be a lifeform instead? I mean…we don’t know what we’re actually seeing here yet.”
I quickly looked around, and then stepped in front of the camera. Ghassan frowned, but quickly zoomed back out and readjusted the shot as I broke protocol to grab the tablet from the stand. Swallowing hard, I pressed forward with my theory, as insane as it felt. “If you can look at the petals, Peter, you can see a shine that doesn’t make sense on a living being.” David’s hand shot up, perfectly vertical, which meant that the shot now had the stream on one side of the feed, while our own shot was in the other. “If this shine were from sunlight or water, I’d understand it more, but it came from the sky, not the ocean and its clearly standing instead of lying down. I know it’s going out on a limb, but I’m going to say this thing was crafted, not grown.”
Peter and Diane must have been receiving instructions, because for a moment, there was total silence. I looked down at the crowd, numbering in the hundreds now, standing in almost total silence. It was a strange, eerie feeling, almost completely unlike anything Hollywood had come up with before. A thing from another world, and it looked almost as natural and peaceful as anything I could have imagined. It made my skin crawl for a moment, and while I was never one to be paranoid, at that moment, I felt truly uneasy.
Peter spoke up again. “Lillian, we’ve gotten word from the military that the object, if it continues steadily, will fly directly over your position in about three minutes, so we want you to remain there. But we’ve also been told that it’s roughly nine and a half miles in diameter.”
I blinked again, unable to wrap my head around the science required to create something so massive. Instead, reflexively, my mind processed it into something I could comprehend. “That’s…one fifth the size of San Francisco, Peter.”
Diane gasped loud enough for me to hear it, and Peter’s response was quiet. “Should we evacuate?” He was probably talking to some military or police representative in the studio, but I couldn’t tell. I was too focused on the people nearby. The crowd was certainly getting agitated, voices rising steadily around me as a murmur took hold of them, starting to realize what we had just reported. If we were informed to evacuate, it would cause a panic, one that might do more harm than good. Some of the people around the edge were staring to look around for anything that might be reassuring, and a few had spotted Ghassan’s camera.
Without warning, the cities air-raid sirens began to blare. Everyone froze in place. Anyone who lived or worked in San Francisco knew that these sirens occurred weekly as a test, but that was a Tuesday event, not Sunday. A calm, male voice resonated throughout the city. “This is not a drill. This is not a drill.”
Gripping the microphone tighter, I nodded directly at the crowd. “We’re going to remain on site, but we advise anyone who is afraid or otherwise concerned to calmly either return home or vacate the city. I’m sure there will be official instructions from the mayor’s office or the police shortly, but we don’t want a city wide panic on our hands.”
Sirens began blaring loudly, and I turned again to locate them, noticing the sheer variety of people joining the crowd in the rapidly filling plaza. It seemed like everyone who heard even a whisper of the news was filing out to see for themselves. It was like all doubt had vanished. There was certainly fear in people’s eyes, but also a sense of anxiety and awe, knowing that there would never be another chance like this.
One person seemed strangely out of place though. From the corner of my eye, a single man climbing the stairs from the ground at what appeared to be a very relaxed pace compared to the sometimes hurried, sometimes frantic gaits of the others around him. There was no fear, only a calm serenity on his face. It took me by surprise a moment later, when I had turned back to the camera as Diane asked. “Lillian, I can hear those sirens and we’ve seen the people gathering steadily nearby. Are the police coming to clear the streets?”
I spotted the first of the police cars at the other end of the plaza pulling over, each car emptying their passengers with alarming speed. Their trunks opened and the officers grabbed tightly bound spools of police tape, as the SUVs produced barricades and traffic cones. I watched as they began running around the plaza. “Diane, I can’t really tell but from what I can see they’re actually beginning crowd control procedures.”
The air-raid siren spoke again, overwhelming almost all the conversation around the plaza. “All citizens in the Civic Center Plaza must relocate to outside the plaza. I repeat: all citizens in the Civic Center Plaza must relocate to outside the plaza.”
Confused, many of the crowd simply stood in place, dumbfounded or unwilling to give up their views. The more sensible among them began to file out, and a few of them actively ran away. The police spoke calmly, despite their rush, asking, ordering, and sometimes outride pleading for the people who stood in place to please evacuate.
I was wondering about defying the orders of the police when I spotted that calm faced man again, leaning against the side of a fence around the sparse trees of the plaza. This time, we made direct eye contact, and he slowly shook his head from side to side. I blinked, swallowed and coughed lightly. My instincts were fighting my judgement, screaming at me to remain, to witness and to understand instead of following along with the orders of the city officials. I found myself smiling when the police officer came over and said. “Please miss, for your own safety, we have to ask you to move back two blocks.”
I looked him square in the eye. “No.”
He was taken aback by the directness for a moment, freezing in place and tilting his head as if to check if he had heard me incorrectly. Shaking his head, he tried again. “Ma’am, I can see you’re with the media, but I have to insist.”
I faced him directly, confidence in my decision overriding my sense of reason. “This could very well be the biggest story in the history of mankind. I am not leaving.” He frowned deeply, and made to grab my arm when I took a step back and took a split second to read his body language. It clicked nearly instantly. It was the only thing that made any sense. “They’re stopping here, aren’t they?”
He stopped instantly. Diane and Peter both gasped. David cursed under his breath.
I looked down at his badge. “Officer Sanchez, thank you for your concern, but please, see to the others.”
Nodding in a daze, he moved away, towards the remainder of the crowd. I turned to watch another officer attempt to talk to the calm faced man again, who simply smiled and spoke quietly to him before pointing at the incoming vessel. A sudden gale swept up around us, kicking up massive amounts of dust and loose trash from the ground. Thousands of people cried out, unprepared for such a blast. I turned back to face City Hall, and gasped as I saw the massive flower-shaped ship growing ever closer, but now, tilting back as it began to rotate.
I stared at the tablet in my hand, still focused on the ship as the shot suddenly panned left and zoomed out, shaking violently as the helicopter was bucketed by the high winds from the rotation. Diane’s voice reverberated in my ear. “Oh, shit.” For a few tense moments, we simply stared and hoped that our colleagues would make it out alive. But then, the helicopter stabilized, several hundreds of feet away from where it had last been. For a moment, the camera was, understandably, pointed at the ground.
It was then that the vessel’s massive shadow began to creep up along the coast. To his credit, the cameraman zoomed in on people standing on the beach for scale, and part of me was terrified to see them swallowed up in the darkness in seconds, before watching the same thing happen to nearby buildings. He panned left and showed just how far out the shadow was as it rested on the ocean, covering miles of coastal waters despite being so high above the ground.
Panning back up the vessel itself, the cameraman was lucky enough to see it finally level out horizontally, the stigma of the flower aligning vertically and swaying ever so slightly in the wind.
Peter regained his composure quicker than I gave him credit for. “Now I have to inform our viewers that while Lillian’s statement as to its destination is unconfirmed speculation at this point, the object does appear to be altering its trajectory significantly, possibly giving some plausibility to her idea.” He cleared his throat with a brief cough. “And according to our analysts, its descent has nearly stopped. It’s currently twenty five hundred feet above the city, and as you can clearly see, just now entering our airspace.”
Diane was quick to chime in. “With the Transamerica Pyramid under nine hundred feet, there should be no danger of it crashing into anything as long as its decent stops soon then.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “But our estimates of the new ‘height’ of the vessel are now saying that it is almost… two miles tall.” She paused, and asked someone who must have been in the room almost under her breath. “Is-is this accurate?”
The figures raced in my mind as I looked up from the tablet. Two miles tall, nearly nine miles long, but so spread out that its mass, from the naked eye, couldn’t be more than a fifth of it. Transformable, from something as neutral looking as a geometric shape to the complicated shape of strangely hybridized flowers. Whoever or whatever designed this vessel was a master of engineering and architectural aesthetics. I turned back to the camera. “Looks accurate to me.”
I shook my head briefly as the view from the beach swerved without warning, the helicopter changing directions and flying inland, the shot angled up to provide us with a view of the rapidly moving underside of the flower. Its petals danced lightly, causing me to wonder if my mind was playing tricks on me or if this was confirming my suspicions of a lighter frame than its size would suggest. Regardless, I couldn’t help but speculate aloud. “Peter, Diane, the helicopter is moving inland, so does that mean it’s hovering directly over the city now?”
I stared at the studio monitor, watching as Peter and Diane paled slightly as someone off-screen gave them a signal. Peter visibly choked up, but Diane nodded slowly. “Yes Lillian, it seems that the ship is passing the Richmond and Sunset districts now and should be arriving over your position momentarily.”
Peter looked straight at the camera. “It looks likes its vertical descent has stopped completely, maintaining a cruising altitude of fifteen hundred feet. And its forward momentum is rapidly decreasing.” He let out a long low breath. “Lillian, I think your theory is right- you’re most likely at ground zero for…whatever comes next.”
I looked back at the vessel, finding my neck craning back as the massive lower layer of petals slid directly overhead, reminding me of riding in a submersible as a whale moves overhead. I scarcely believed it was happening, and I was certain that it was a dream or nightmare for a moment. If I pinched myself, would I wake up to that same smell of coffee this morning?
The ship slid to a silent halt, looming over the city with its massive petals hovering effortlessly aloft despite what must be fierce winds at that height. For a moment, it just sat there, letting the crowd stare and take pictures with their cameras and phones, as the entirety of city hall emptied on the stairs and streets before it, staring up in disbelief at such an awe inspiring moment. I could barely make out the mayor in the tide of humanity that poured out of the building, and had no idea what plan, if any, he might have come up with in the mere minutes of notification they must have had.
Diane and Peter began commenting on the shape and size, but honestly, I didn’t hear a word of it. They might have asked me a question, but I was running on autopilot for a good five minutes where the conscious portion of my mind simply shut down, too overwhelmed at the spectacle to even comprehend a coherent sentence. Fear gave way to amazement, which turned to joy, which turned to disbelief, which turned to paranoia, and back to fear in a vicious emotional cycle for…I’m not even sure how long.
I snapped out of it when I heard the massive popping sound. It echoed in the plaza, making everyone reflexively duck and take a step back. At first, it seemed like nothing happened, but a single tiny section of the ship close to the center changed from a dark violet to blazing white. It was just a drop of paint in a lake sized palette, but my eye locked onto the movement. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as a section of one of the petals overhead suddenly lowered, then detached altogether from the ships bilge. I have to admit that it was hard to distinguish the section at first, but it rapidly descended over the plaza.
At the same time, I looked back towards the trees to see the calm faced man rise from his position and apparently dust himself off. It was only then that I even bothered to look at his style of clothes. With a dark grey hoodie, black and white track pants and red sneakers, I was slightly appalled at the strange casualness of his choice. But then I saw him look up, and take a few deep breaths before walking towards the middle of the plaza.
I quickly looked back up, doing the math in my head instantly. Turning back to the camera, I pointed at the man. “I don’t know if you can see him, but there appears to be someone attempting to approach the expected landing point.” I frowned when Ghassan didn’t adjust his shot, but then I looked back at the tablet and Ghassan’s shot.
There were three of them, and they reflected light slightly from what looked like glowing crystalline bodies, though the shine diminished as they approached the ground. Each was a different color, almost a beacon in the dark of their vessels shadow. One, a dark purple the shade of an uncut amethyst; the second was a muted yellow, browned slightly like a gem my grandmother had brought from China; the third a deep red, almost reminding me of freshly drawn blood. I hoped, in that moment, that that comparison wouldn’t be accurate.
They were tall, taller than any human by a good three feet at least. Their spindly legs appeared to have an extra segment, with two joints that allowed the extra mass to compact like a scissor-lift while they stood on three massive clawed toes, two pointed forwards, the third extending from the back. Their feet didn’t even touch the floor of the platform, arching upwards as the toes balanced their weight perfectly. They had relatively small torsos, connecting four thin but powerful arms that also folded in on themselves with extra joints. Only one had its hands at its sides, and the zoom revealed what looked like five fingers and two thumbs, one on the top of the hand like ours, but another extending from the bottom.
But strangest of all were their heads. Smooth, almost featureless. Not spherical like helmets the astronauts used, but almost like masks that held no distinction of gender or emotion upon them.
I was instantly and brutally reminded that in almost every science fiction movie I’d ever seen, the less humanoid the alien looked, the more likely they were going to be violent and overwhelmingly powerful.
In that moment, I had no idea how to comment on what we were seeing, but the platform slowed to almost a crawl as its occupants took two steps forward. Tearing my eyes away, I turned back to see the calm faced man stopping just a few feet from the platform as it stopped, hovering only inches off the ground. From the sight of him earlier, he must have been only a little above five-and-a-half feet tall, but they towered over him as he walked towards them with no hesitation.
Diane’s voice hissed out as she finally noticed him. “Wait, who is that going to meet them?”
Peter seemed equally shocked. “Doesn’t look like any city or government official I’ve ever seen.”
The words came to me, unbidden. “He’s not. He’s just some guy…”
A moment of terror came over us all I think, as a general murmur surged through the crowd, trying to discern his identity as we had. We had no idea what he was going to say or do. Our first face-to-face contact with an alien race, and we had absolutely no clue what was going to happen from here on out. I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding my breath as I saw him nod a few times. I let out a long breath, shaking with nervous tension as I realized our first impression was being entirely left to chance.
So it came as an overwhelming shock to me as he suddenly turned and pointed directly at me.
On reflex, I turned around, back towards the camera, my eyes opening wide for the world to see. Ghassan was shaking his head. Behind him, Dave was completely transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away from the monitors in the van.
Nearly thirty feet away, the crowd fell still, turning silently to look at me.
I turned back around, and looking at the assembly, pointed at myself, cradling the tablet awkwardly in my arm as I did so.
I looked around, noticing the other camera crews and field reporters for what felt like the first time. There were dozens, and half of them were pointing their cameras right at me.
I turned back to Ghassan, who was shaking his head much more emphatically. But with a smile and a shrug, I sputtered into the mic. “It would seem…we’ve been invited to join this…unidentified individual as he attempts to communicate with our…guests.”
Ghassan frowned deeply, but pulled the lock from the camera stand and disconnected the power cord from the back as I slid the tablet into an oversized pocket in my jacket. I turned back around to spot the man climbing up onto the platform, his hands clasped behind his back. Walking briskly towards the platform, we’d barely gotten twenty feet when those same camera crews I noticed all began to panic, checking their equipment all at once. I turned back to Ghassan, who flashed me a thumbs up, letting me know we were still rolling as Samantha’s voice abruptly called out to me over the earpiece. “Lillian…something’s happened. I don’t know exactly how but…” She paused, clearly confused by what she was struggling to tell me. “Your camera is the only one transmitting in the area. Our tech department says communications is being hacked and overridden by your shot. Our affiliates overseas are saying you’re all they can see on every channel.”
A chill went down my spine as I hesitated for a moment. Everyone’s eyes are on me. Literally everyone is watching this. The pressure was immense, and I suddenly felt like I was drowning. A life in the news meant being watched, but not by nearly eight billion people at once.
For what felt like an eternity, I stood motionless, considering running from the plaza and screaming at the top of my lungs. But I steeled myself, determined to not embarrass myself on such a scale, despite how reasonable that might seem. Forcing my feet to continue, I couldn’t help but examine our guests as we got closer, and discovered some startling information. While I was certainly right about their crystalline appearance, their uniformity was dispersed by more than mere surface color. I had no idea if they were their natural skins, or chitins, or armor, scales…whatever. But what stood out for me was their design.
The purple one was strangely organic looking, darkest by its toes and legs and progressively lighter as it reached higher along its body. It was subtle for the most part, but by the time you looked at its head, it was several shades lighter. Its joints were curved rather than angular, fluidly graceful in a way that reminded me of masterfully crafted glassworks or strangely artistic clay pitchers. If there was a seam anywhere on its body other than at the joints, I couldn’t see it, giving it the illusion of being one solid, continuous piece. It was soothing to look at in a strange way, and I was alarmed with how easy that thought had come.
The yellow one seemed to be almost carved from a massive stone. I could see the angles, the clear definition of beginnings and ends, the careful polished edge designed for the most eye striking impact, clearly attempting to capture and hold your attention. The light seemed to strike it perfectly from all angles, and despite the shade of its ship looming overhead, it continued to radiate a strangely calm glow from somewhere deep within. I realized how much I was projecting my own values on these beings when I felt comfortable believing it was more confident than the purple one.
The red one, however, gave me pause. This one was clearly built for efficiency. It seemed larger in the torso, but leaner in the limbs, as if it needed to move faster than the others. Its head was slightly wider, the positions of its arms slightly more focused to the front. While it was certainly the least visually pleasing than the other two, it reminded me of being entirely more practical than the others. It might have been a trick of the mind, but of the three, it was the only one to make me think of standing much, much further away for this interview.
After an eternally long minute, we reached the platform, which seemed oddly bigger now that we were right next to it. It was probably twenty feet to a side, but the aliens’ massive size distorted my sense of perception and relativity to the dimensions. I planted myself right next to the edge, Ghassan standing a few feet away for a wider shot, trying to fit all three of the aliens in a single frame. I began to raise the microphone to my lips when the strangely calm man suddenly chimed in. “Good morning. For once, I’m glad the fog hasn’t come in yet.”
The casual nature of his tone confused me briefly, but I pressed on. “Lillian Chuang with-“
He waved his hand dismissively. “Yes yes, I know who you are Ms. Chuang. And Mr. Sherif there as well.” He raised a hand, beckoning us both closer. “Come on, we don’t have all day. I’m sure you have a lot of questions for these three.”
I sputtered briefly. “Well…frankly, yes.” I took a few steps forward but stopped short of the platform itself. “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
He chuckled, crossing an arm over his chest and bowing slightly. “Please, call me Robért.” He smiled as he rose. “It’s not my real name, but I’ll respond to it, so please use it anyways.” Without even giving me time to note the oddness of his request, he waved us even closer. “Come on, get on board. We’ll take all day at this rate. Mr. Sherif, you as well please.”
I looked back at Ghassan, who shrugged, taking one hand off the camera to tap his ear. I nodded and said in the mic. “I’m a little concerned about our safety, as I’m sure you’ll understand.”
He nodded. “Perfectly reasonable. But if they wanted us dead, I’m pretty sure they would have killed us by now.” My stomach lurched as his smile widened a bit. “Truth be told, I get the feeling they’re rather eager to proceed.”
Samantha’s voice chirped in again, full of concern but also confidence. “I think he’s right Lillian. Might as well humor them.”
I let out a long breath, then took the step up onto the platform. I felt a slight ripple across my skin, but other than that, nothing strange. It was actually warmer on the platform that it had been off of it, and I was left confused for a moment once again. As Ghassan stepped up behind me, he grunted slightly, then gave me a strange look. “What the…”
Robért took a step closer to us with an outstretched hand, and I took it as he began to talk excitedly while shaking my hand. “It’s a sealed environment in here, with a translucent, semi-permeable membrane extending the entire length from the ship to here, allowing us and only us to board.” He reached over to Ghassan with the same hand, shaking it firmly as if greeting a fellow colleague for the first time, but rolled his eyes and shrugged as he did so. “Well, us and a sample of atmosphere for it to store and reproduce. What you felt was a slight temperature change based on our preferred climatology.” He released his grip, took two steps closer to the aliens and clapped his hands. “So we’ve got a long trip ahead of us, but everything should be alright.” He smiled wide again, then appeared to brace himself. “One round the world trip, all expenses paid…well, we’ll be on the move quite a bit. Are you ready?”
I stared at him, mind racing with the incomprehensible nature and overwhelming speed of it all. “Ready for what? Where are you going?”
“Oh, it’s not just me.” He pointed his index and middle fingers on both hands at Ghassan and I. “The three of us are taking a bit of a ride.”
The platform suddenly began rising, and I had to shift my weight to accommodate for the motion. Ghassan wobbled slightly, but was otherwise undisturbed by it. Our hosts simply looked upwards at their vessel, not speaking.
Instead, it was out unexpected interpreter that took control of the situation. Robért laughed aloud briefly at our shocked expressions. “The exact details of our flight plan will be sent out in a few hours to alert all the governments to clear out the airspace in between, but we’ll basically be making sure that every single person on Earth has a nice long look at the giant alien spaceship floating around.” He shrugged nonchalantly, as if it made perfect sense. “You know, actual full disclosure and all that jazz. Can’t deny a global event if everyone’s seen it firsthand.”
The sheer incredulity and implausibility of the idea was swept aside for the moment as I realized that it -did- make an incredible amount of sense. I shook my head, attempting to dive deeper into this rapidly expanding mystery that was being presented to me. “How do you know all of this? Their plans, the timing of their equipment...their motivation! They haven’t said a single word!”
He scratched the back of his head casually, grimacing slightly. “Ah, sorry, you’ll have to excuse them. They have no vocal cords, nor mouths to imitate our languages.” He shrugged, smiling again and then holding his arms wide open and bowing slightly. “Feel free to ask them questions though, as I’ll translate for them.”
I blinked, stunned for a second. “Wait, if they can’t speak…how are you communicating with them?”
He tapped the side of his head as we rose past the top of city hall. “A form of telepathy. It’s like a real-time conversation, but there’s a lot of information to take in per second. Less of what we think of as words, more like…concepts and feelings jumbled into one. It’s getting easier over time though. Turns out, a few of us are natural receptors, and they can read our minds fairly easily.” He pointed to my head with a finger. “But we can’t all listen. We’re not tuned to the right frequency, so to say.”
The possibilities and implications raced through my mind. Sheer willpower and momentum forced me to continue with a question that managed to filter through without pause. “How long have you been in contact with them?”
He blinked, taking a step closer to them. “About three hours. That’s when their vessel reached transmission range.” He looked up, and stared at the belly of the strange flower hovering nearly silently above us. “Hmm…bigger than I thought.”
Diane’s voice hissed in my ear. “Lillian, can you find out who they are or what they want?”
I nodded to the camera and turned to face the three of them as I saw the top of the Transamerica Pyramid at eye level. “Can we ask what the name of their species is?”
The three of them swiveled their heads down as one to focus directly on me, before turning in perfect unison to face our interpreter. For his part, he simply sighed and shook his head. “I understand your desire to classify and clarify…but you have to realize that is one of, if not the most, irrelevant questions you could have asked.”
I heard Ghassan scoff and even Peter grumble at that, but I was determined not to yield under the pressure. “Why do you say that?”
Robért looked squarely at the camera, and with an intense glare, continued. “It is irrelevant because whatever we decide to call them, they will not call themselves. Their language is different from ours on a fundamental level, and therefore, their true name is incomprehensible to the vast majority of us all.” He shifted his weight and folded his arms behind his back. “Similarly, the next most common question ‘why are they here’, is also irrelevant. They are here because they want something. It’s obvious if you just took a step away from your own perspective. Further than that, the third question you probably have ‘what do they want’, is also irrelevant.”
I cut him off with a wave of my hand as the wind suddenly kicked in all around us. It was unprofessional, but I had the feeling if I hadn’t he would have ranted for a long time. Diane’s sucked in a breath between clenched teeth even as I asked. “What is a relevant question then?”
He smiled wide. “Easy. ‘What’s changed’?”
I blinked several times, utterly lost with his line of thinking. I looked back at the camera, and Ghassan’s jaw was just hanging open.
Without warning, the three beside us raised their shoulders and dropped them repeatedly in quick succession, briefly turning a shade of light green before returning to normal and looking up again. I briefly looked up and saw there was less than a third of the distance between our platform and the vessel before turning back to the interpreter and shaking my head in confusion. “What was that?”
“They were laughing, Ms. Chuang.” He shrugged again, rolling his eyes as he adjusted his glasses with one hand. “A lot has happened in the three hours we’ve been talking, but that was my first question. ‘What’s changed?’ It told them that I had accepted they weren’t a figment of my imagination, that we were going to work together long-term, and that they wanted something from us or our planet but was willing to work out the finer details later. What I wanted to know was what took them so long to finally contact us.”
I blinked again, nearly screamed against the wind so I could be heard by the microphone. “What do you mean?”
The howl of the wind died away, and the air tasted a bit thick. But we paid it little attention as he nodded at me. “Think about it. Their vessel hit no satellites or air traffic on the way in. It disrupted such little cloud cover as to barely affect the weather patterns over the ocean, and they immediately made contact with us.” He pointed up. “We’ve been transmitting information about ourselves into the depths of space for decades. How long have they been listening to us?”
I was shaking my head an awful lot, but it seemed to help me focus on questions I really wanted answers, so I didn’t pay it much attention as I did it again. “Are you a scientist, Mr. Robért?”
He laughed again, shaking his head dismissively. “No. Actually, I’m between jobs at the moment. I just tend to overthink things a bit.” I couldn’t decide if he was being modest, lying or truthful. He was already going out of his way to tell us a fake name, how could I be sure he wasn’t some oddly eccentric physicist or an extremely well versed foreign diplomat? He seemed to see my hesitation and smirked. “No. Really. Totally unemployed.”
There was a brief green haze at the edge of my vision as I looked beyond Robért and the aliens to find all of us edging into the bowels of the alien ship. I spun around slowly, as did Ghassan and Robért. The interior was mostly hollow, and bizarrely devoid of any instruments, panels or even doors or windows. The mild green hue of the walls gave no indication of direction, encircling us entirely and throwing off my normally good sense of direction.
Robért let loose a small cry and clapped, drawing me back to him. “So this is what it’s like to be inside a piece of grass. Interesting.” He looked up to our hosts, who simply nodded at him once.
Before I could do or say anything, there was a flash of light and the green faded away entirely. I gasped in horror as the entire floor suddenly became transparent, giving me a startling view of San Francisco from directly above, like some extremely low-orbit satellite. Ghassan cursed loudly, taking several steps back before bumping into a wall that didn’t seem like it was there anymore.
I laughed, despite myself. It was certainly a view I never expected to have. I looked up at Robért, who smiled at me. “Glad you listened to me now, I’ll bet.”
A single drop of blood emerged from under his nose and I gasped in surprise. He must have seen my reaction, because he tapped his nose with a finger and recoiled slightly in surprise. “Damn. Well that’s quick…oh well, the surgery will fix that.”
The aliens began walking, turning to their left and striding single file further into the ship. Robért gestured with his neck for us to follow, and after a brief moment, the three of us walked quickly to follow them. Although their legs probably gave them a walking speed far faster than anything we could do, I was given the distinct impression that they seemed to be walking slowly so that we wouldn’t get lost. I shook off the confusion. “Robért, why is your nose bleeding? What is this surgery you’re talking about?”
He shook his head, frowning. “Well, to be perfectly blunt, I’m dying.” He blinked, briefly pausing. “The strain of maintaining communications with them is causing my cells to burn out quickly. As it stands, I would only be able to keep talking with them for another two hours before I dropped to the floor from internal bleeding and cellular decay.”
The aliens suddenly turned, and we jogged lightly to keep up, turning after them a few seconds later. “This surgery will restore my cell structure and stabilize a critical chemical balance that will prevent further damage.” We entered an equally massive hallway, but there was a visible partition in the wall about fifty feet to our right. “I would be more hesitant about this surgery but…well there aren’t many people capable of communicating with them right now.”
He snapped his fingers. “Actually, while I’m under the knife as it were, can you do me a favor and get notification to the Governor of Texas to place a temporary hold on all executions for the next few days? He’s holding an inmate on death row that we’re going to need released eventually.”
I found my legs tiring but I pushed on to keep pace with the conversation. “What do you mean? We need a convicted felon to continue communicating with them? How many people can talk with these aliens?”
The partition slid downward into the floor, and the aliens stepped inside. Robért shook his head as he chuckled and grimaced darkly. “Right now, there are seven people in the entire world capable of communicating with them, and if you want multiple options, it’s best not to kill one of the five that can speak.” He growled slightly, dismayed. “Trust the odds of genetics to have one be an infant and another be born mute.”
We turned the corner into a large, nearly empty room, finding the aliens towering above a large console behind a wall, their hands hovering as incomprehensible symbols flashed at breathtaking speeds on a holographic display in front of their heads. I gasped again as I noticed a new feature on their faces- eyes. Seven of them had opened, three on either side of their heads and another in the center where a human nose would be. All glowed in a slightly bluish hue and appeared to be studying mountains of data with each passing second. I managed to keep my mind focused on the question at hand. “Where did those eyes come from?”
Robért laughed, walking towards an empty chamber at the far side of the room. Without missing a step, we watched as a portion of the floor rose and expanding, creating two small ends atop a cylinder. The ends spread until they were as wide as the base, then stretched at the base until it reached the floor again. Ghassan couldn’t keep quite any more, letting out a gasp of awe. “What in the world…”
Robért calmly turned around, taking a seat on the cylinder. “It was too bright on Earth for them to keep their eyes open, but they don’t really need them to see too much.” The back of the cylinder rapidly shot out as he began to lay down, and the base detached from the floor, turning into a strange hovering couch. Three large holes silently appeared in the ceiling, dropping two large blue crystals to either side of the room and a third, smaller orange one directly above him.
A clear thin wall emerged from the ceiling, quickly sealing off the chamber Robért was in from us. We could only watch on as the blue crystals began to slowly spin around the room. Above him, the orange crystal glowed brightly, spinning in place as a low pitched hum of energy began to build in the air. As Ghassan and I looked on, watching Robért close his eyes as if he was going to take a quick nap. “Don’t worry so much, you two. Things are just going to get a whole lot stranger from here.”