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Day Eighty-Five: The Biggest Day [MAKE-UP]

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This was written for the Worth1000.com contest – “Unmet Expectations.” The instructions were: “Write a story where a key point is something/someone/somewhere that has not lived up to its expectations.”

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Secretary of State Ernest LaFayette turned off the TV in the conference room and excused himself from the meeting. He walked calmly back to his office, removing his jacket and tie as he did so, then ran to his toilet and spent the next five minutes throwing up.

The President had called him two hours ago, utterly frantic, but LaFayette’s staff had already found out from Twitter and Facebook – an alien spacecraft had landed on the National Mall, right in the middle of the Ellipse in front of the White House. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get past the cordon that had been set up. The ground was littered with correspondents, bloggers, and photographers hoping to make names for themselves.

So far, no one knew anything. The ship looked more like a piece of modern art than anything else – it was mostly white, with colored stripes down the side, and was blocky and cubic. There didn’t seem to be any windows or doors. There were nothing that looked like guns, no shimmering shields or giant robots determined to protect the ship at any cost. It just sat there.

And it was going to be LaFayette’s job to find out what it wanted.

Someone knocked gently on the door. “Mister Secretary?” It was Amy, his assistant. “Are you okay? Do you… need anything?”

LaFayette stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. “No,” he called. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “The President is on line two.”

Quietly cursing, LaFayette washed out his mouth and spat in the sink. He inspected himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a very long time, felt as old as he looked. He smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and left the bathroom.

Amy was standing by the door, looking professionally concerned. He nodded to her, and she closed the door. LaFayette counted to ten, picked up the phone and pushed the line two button. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Ernie!” He flinched. “Ernie, we’re sending a motorcade to pick you up. Should be there in about five minutes, so get yourself together and get ready to make history!”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“There’ll be sharpshooters set up, just in case, and we’ve got some helicopters watching the skies, in case there are any more of ’em. You’ll be perfectly safe out there.” The President laughed, a short bark. “Unless they’ve got some kind of death ray we don’t know about. Then you’re screwed.”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is the ultimate diplomacy, Ernie. This is what you were meant to do!”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“I’d do it myself, but for some reason the Secret Service doesn’t like the idea of me walking up to a bunch of Martians and saying Howdy. Go figure.”

LaFayette gritted his teeth at the insinuation. “Of course, Mister President.” A new Secretary of State would require, what – a confirmation hearing? Far less valuable than a President. “I should probably go, sir,” he said. “I think the motorcade has arrived.”

He hung up. Amy handed him his jacket and tie and offered him water as he walked out the door. The motorcade was huge – he had a limo, with at least five other limousines lined up behind it. Surrounding everything were dozens of police motorcycles and military vehicles. Inside his car, Amy handed him a new shirt and a young man started working on his hair. “The world is watching, sir,” Amy said. “You should look good.”

The police had cleared the streets as best they could between the State Department building and the Ellipse, but it was still slow going. During the drive, the President called three more times, trying to remind LaFayette of the importance of this event, as if it weren’t so obvious. LaFayette’s stomach burned, and his throat hurt from trying to keep everything down while he sat in the car. Amy was busy going through paperwork, but every now and then she would glance up to see if he was okay.

They were met at The Ellipse by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also did their best to impress upon him how important this event was. A young man from the Secret Service interrupted them. “Sir,” he said, breathless. “It’s opening up!”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and they all walked together towards the crowd. LaFayette wanted to run. Run far and fast and away. He bit his lip and put his hands in his pockets as they reached the edge of the cordon and stopped.

The crowd was vast and silent as the ramp dropped down from the ship, revealing a shadowy interior. Cameras were clicking in rapid-fire, and reporters were speaking in hushed tones to the rest of the world.

A dim shape appeared inside, and a murmur went up from those who could see it. The shape soon resolved itself as it stepped into the bright autumn sunlight. It was some kind of walker, eight-legged and metallic, topped with a tinted dome. In the silence, LaFayette could hear the mechanical, electric sounds of its movements and the faintest ring of its sharp footfalls on the metal ramp. The crowd was utterly silent as they watched – even the national guardsmen around the perimeter were gaping. A moment later, a second walker joined it.

When the walkers reached the end of the ramp, they stopped, their feet digging into the sod. There was a pause that lasted just slightly too long, and people in the crowd jumped when the domes atop the walkers let out pressurized gas in a bright, loud hiss and started to open. LaFayette was surprised to realize that he was praying under his breath, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. Whatever happened next would be the defining moment for humanity. He closed his eyes tightly to clear his thoughts.

The domes released a pale blue gas when they opened. From this distance, he could make them out easily. The beings sitting inside were vaguely reptilian. Their skin was scaly – one red, the other gold – and they had large, shining eyes that squinted against the sun. They were wearing what looked like pressure suits and breathing masks, but their skin was exposed to the air. Someone nearby whispered, “My god. Lizard men.”

The aliens looked around at the crowd, and then at each other. LaFayette took another deep breath. This was it. He thought about the times he had met dictators and madmen, sat down with them to negotiate peace – or at least some kind of armed stability. They had been the worst of humanity, the kind of people that would bring shame to the world. And he had been better than they. He would still be better than they.

Ernest LaFayette straightened his jacket, brushed off the cuffs, and stepped forward to meet the aliens.

He stopped in front of them and craned his neck to look up. He didn’t flinch when the insectile walkers hissed and slowly lowered themselves to meet him. There was a moment, where human first met alien, when everyone held their breath.

“My name,” he said, in a level, clear voice, “is Ernest LaFayette.” He spoke slowly and clearly, with his arms at his sides. “I would like to welcome you in peace to the planet Earth.”

The red alien’s eyes widened, and it turned to the gold one. It spoke to the other, and their voices sounded musical, like deep flutes. The red alien turned back to LaFayette and, in a clear voice, trilled, “Earth?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. LaFayette kept his expression neutral, but everyone could hear the excitement in his voice when he replied. “Yes, he said. “Welcome to Earth.”

There was a moment of utter stillness.

The red alien looked around at the crowd and the monuments and the city. It looked LaFayette up and down, and then trilled something to its partner. The gold alien responded, and they conversed in their melodic tongue. Then the red alien looked down at LaFayette and said, “Thought it would be bigger.”

Its walker lifted quickly, turned around, and walked back up the ramp with quick, sharp steps. The gold alien watched it, and then turned to the bewildered LaFayatte. “Apologies,” it said, in the same deep, flutelike voice. “It has been a very long trip.” A small patch of scales on its forehead fluttered and changed hue for a moment, and then it, too, stood up in its walker and returned to the ship.

The ramp was pulled back up, and within a few minutes, the ship lifted silently off the ground. With the world’s eyes upon him, Ernest LaFayette watched the aliens turn around and leave.

Day One Hundred and Twelve: The Earth Died Screaming

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The piece I wrote as a make-up for Day 84 – The End – annoyed me so much that I had to re-do it right away rather than wait until the end of October. The problem was basically this: It read like a history lesson, and history lessons are, by and large, boring. The only way to make people interested in history is to show events through the eyes of someone who experienced them. That’s why so many people love Lord of the Rings, but only the hard-core nerds love The Silmarillion. So I ripped it apart and did it again. I hope it’s better. This story was also submitted to the Worth1000.com contest, “The End,” so if you like it – and you’re a Worthian – go give it a vote!

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My memory has been fading. I don’t remember my childhood anymore. The name of the first girl I kissed. The street where I grew up. I want to remember, I strain and push and try, but the noise of all the other voices – the screaming and the begging – it’s all too much.

There is one thing I do remember, however. Vividly. We all remember, and it will probably be the last thing to go.

We remember the invasion.

I was arguing with my fiancée Joanne in our apartment in St. Louis. Something about plates for the wedding. Or cakes. Or something, I can’t remember, but we were arguing. And then the sky went dark, as something indescribably huge blocked out the sun. It wasn’t an eclipse. It didn’t have that kind of slow majesty to it. It was something else, something we wouldn’t fully understand until it was far too late.

It was a ship. A spaceship. An honest-to-god alien vessel, bigger than the planet itself, which had come to visit the Earth with unknown intentions. In the first few hours of its arrival, the TV news was devouring itself, trying to get information on the ship. Politicians came out and gave speeches, they interviewed every scientist who would talk to them, and flashed every amateur cell phone video that was sent to them. All they knew was what we knew too: It was big.

Its arrival caused chaos everywhere. Joanne left me in tears to go to her parents’ home in Nebraska. I tried to get her to stay with me, but she wouldn’t have it. “Family is everything,” she’d always said. I guess I just wasn’t family enough yet.

All around the city, people were going mad. Breaking windows, stealing televisions, as though there would be anything to watch after this. Cars were jacked and joyridden, and people stole jewelry by the armful. To look pretty for the little green men, I supposed. I wanted to laugh at myself for not joining in – here was the end of the world and I was still worried about being arrested. As though this would turn out to be some big mistake and the police would show up and tell me, “An alien invasion is no excuse for stealing an XBox, son.”

I called my mother in Fenton, just to see if she was okay. She told me to be careful. “There are a lot of crazy people out there, Charles,” she said. “I saw on TV that New York City is burning.”

“St. Louis isn’t New York, mom,” I told her.

“And there have been earthquakes happening everywhere, because of the gravity.”

I wanted to laugh. “Mom, that thing’s gravity can’t be…” I had to pause while the building trembled.

“Still, you mustn’t –“

The phone cut out. My apartment was completely disconnected as the cable service died. No TV, no phone, no internet, all in one terrible moment. I paced around the apartment for an hour, aimless and blind. There was no news, no updates, and for the first time in my adult life I felt truly alone.

Out on the street, people were running through the city. They were crying. They were laughing. They were drunk and sober and horny. I sat in my window and watched them until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the roof.

The ship filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Lights traced paths across its dark surface in amber and blue, great straight lines and slow curves that seemed to go on forever. I wondered what we all wondered, once we took the time to think about it. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want from us? The movies and TV shows I grew up on gave me two options: they wanted to invite us into their great galactic federation, or they wanted to invade and take over. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that humans were important enough for either.

My question was answered the next morning. With the probes.

I woke at 6:00 AM. The streets were dead. There were cars on fire and garbage everywhere, and people lying on the sidewalks. I chose to believe they had passed out. The ground rumbled under my feet as soon as I stepped outside, and I dove against a building for cover. Masonry fell from the roof, missing me by inches. When the quake was over, I thought I heard drums, of all things. I followed their sound as far as I could.

Tower Grove Park was full of people. Tents, lean-tos, people wrapped in blankets and parkas and big blue plastic tarps. There were people cooking and playing, staying together through the long night and trying to keep spirits up. When I ambled into the park, a guy in a beat-up business suit greeted me. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Feel free to camp out wherever you like, and if you have any food we’d all appreciate it.” He shook my hand and then hugged me. Then he jogged away to somewhere else, and I never saw him again.

The park was a party. A celebration. People were drumming by the dozens, dancing and spinning across the grass. There were groups telling stories to each other, reading and singing songs to each other and to the ship. If you ignored the sky, it was a festival. The smell of food filled the air, from dark, spicy chili to hamburgers and hot dogs. Not everyone was afraid, it seemed.

I didn’t join in the dance circles or the drum tribes or the poetry readings that were going on all around us. I gravitated towards others, huddling by their fire with the look of people whose entire world has been dismantled in front of them. I sat shoulder to shoulder with an older Mexican lady and we stared at the fire. We didn’t talk at first. Then she told me about her son, who was living in Los Angeles and wanted to become a teacher. I told her about Joanne and how we were planning to spend our honeymoon in Las Vegas and never leave the hotel. For a moment, I almost forgot what was hanging above us.

Then the screaming started.

The probes swarmed towards the park in the hundreds, great jellyfish made of plastic and steel. They had blinding white lights that swept the crowd, and whip-thin tentacles that trailed in the air behind them. As soon as they appeared, people panicked into the darkness. Most of them were caught immediately. What happened to those who were caught – what would happen to all of us – is the most vivid memory of all.

The probe would ensnare a person, lifting and immobilizing them in the air. Then it would slice away the top of their skull and, in one swift movement, scoop out the still-living brain. The body would then drop to the ground and the brain would be put into a fluid-filled sac that hung below the probe. Soon, each one was carrying five or six human brains dangling pendulously below its body. Some of them, having reached their limit, would glide off away from the crowd, only to be replaced by another.

I didn’t see the probe that got me. The Mexican lady prayed and ran as my arms and legs were pinned by unbreakable cables. I opened my mouth–

That’s where my memory ends. There is a blackness there, a period of infinite time in which I sensed nothing. I thought nothing and knew nothing. How those things kept us alive is something I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know for sure is that I would rather be dead now. Any death, any hell would be better than this, and I know the billions of others on this ship would agree with me.

The great, amnesiac blackness ended with awareness. First I knew myself, and then I knew the others. All the others. The noise was deafening, billions of voices full of fear and confusion. In an instant, I knew where I was and what I was. What we all were.

The brains of humanity had been networked. We had been connected together into a huge organic processor aboard the ship, and what the ship knew, we knew. We knew so much, right then, that it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing.

The Earth, hanging perfectly still in space. The mother ship disgorged thousands of smaller ships, harvesters. Some began to spray the surface with a compound that reduced any organic life to a slurry of amino acids, which was scooped up and brought back to the ship. Other vessels collected water and ice, drained the oceans and rivers and lakes, broke up the glaciers and then returned with their prizes. Some large ships brought back mountains, hewn from their roots. They tore up the continental shelves to get at what lay underneath and siphoned off the sluggish, red-hot magma that lay just under the paper-thin surface of the Earth. The process took… days? Months? Years? There was no way for us to tell in in there. In time, though, everything else was gone, leaving only a white-hot spinning iron core surrounded by the detritus of the operation.

Special ships were dispatched. They hovered by the core and primed their great engines before laying down drag hooks in order to slow it down. Slowly, slowly, for the first time in billions of years, the Earth stopped turning. The ships clamped down on the core and dragged it into the main vessel to be melted down and used as raw material.

And that was it. Where once there was a planet teeming with life and intelligence there was now a field of debris that would orbit the sun for as long as the sun shined. Another traveler here might wonder what had been there, but they would never know. Far off, the moon drifted away into other realms of the solar system, having been deemed less useful than its mother planet. Perhaps another world would take it in.

An order shot through our network, and the ship turned. Our sun swept through the ship’s field of view, and then there were nothing but the stars we thought we knew.  Humanity howled in grief and pain, and another order brought us to heel. We turned away from our sun, our home, and started to move to the next world, an impossible distance away.