by Glenn MacIntyre
Dr. Phipps nodded at his receptionist, “Good morning, Doris.”
She smiled and handed him a yellow patient folder. “Helen Osborne. She’s in the examination room.”
Dr. Phipps knocked politely and opened the door. “Good day, Helen. What seems to be the issue today?”
She straightened in the examination chair. “Hello Doctor. My eyesight has always been good. Nothing more than reading glasses for small print, you know?”
He quickly scanned the pages of her file. “Yes, your last exam showed your eyes are fine.”
She leaned towards him, as though she was going to share a secret. “Then why do I see these rainbow circles of light? Just at the edge of my vision. The lights swirl and change shape all the time.” She became serious. “Is it glaucoma, Doctor?”
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” He dimmed the room lights. “I’m going to dilate your eyes so I can check them with the ophthalmoscope—the little machine with the bright light—it lets me look inside of your eyes. You’ll be light-sensitive for a few hours afterward.”
“I’ve had it done before,” she said.
Dr. Phipps added the dilating drops to her eyes and began to turn in his roller chair to get the ophthalmoscope. As he was in the process of turning, he glanced at Mrs. Osborne. In the near darkness of the examining room, he could see tiny flashes of multi-colored light emanating from her eyes.
“What in the world! Helen!” he exclaimed.
Turning back to his patient, he gently opened one eye wider with his thumb and forefinger. The coloured lights suddenly became overwhelmingly brilliant, enveloping him. The dark oval of her pupil expanded to fill his entire field of vision. He had a momentary feeling of being swept over a raging waterfall, into a bright-blue filament that twisted and changed shape. It was as if he was inside a lightning bolt. Viscerally, he could feel himself accelerating. He began to make out shapes on the sides of the filament, long stretches of darkness that were interspersed with intervals of brightness. He watched as stars exploded and collapsed into black holes. He caught glimpses of bizarre structures, of fantastic creatures, some hideous and others beautiful beyond belief. It was as if the entire universe, all of space and time, had collapsed into the filament. He knew he was accelerating towards a place where something ancient and terrible waited for him. A dark shape that was beginning to take a horrible form. He screamed in terror.
* * *
Helen Osborne did not know how long she had been in the small room. She believed she had been put into quarantine because of the episode with Dr. Phipps. The poor man had had an attack or seizure of some sort when he looked into her eyes. She hoped that whoever was in charge had told her husband Henry where she was. She sorely missed Henry.
The room was spartan, containing only a toilet and sink. She was sitting on a single bed. There were no sheets or blankets. The young guard outside, Private Greene, his face red with vestiges of teenage acne, was polite but would not answer any of her questions. Twice a day, the guard was accompanied by a young dark-haired nurse in a lab coat who would take blood and urine samples. On two occasions, the guard brought strangers to visit her. They were instructed by Private Greene not to speak to Helen under any circumstances.
The first visitor was a woman, about fifty, several years younger than Helen. She and the woman were instructed to look into each other’s eyes. Helen knew, without a word being said between them, that the woman was afflicted with the same shifting colours in her eyes as herself. A bond quickly formed between them. Helen felt a sad loneliness when she left.
She did not like to think of the young airman they brought to her next. When he looked into her eyes, the result was the same as it had been for poor Dr. Phipps. Seeing his pain, Helen tried to break free from his gaze, but he forced her to continue. He stayed with her much longer than Dr. Phipps had. She tried not to remember him screaming and convulsing on the floor. The most horrible thing was his face; locked facial muscles distorted his appearance so badly he did not even look human.
One morning when she awoke, she noticed that a diamond-shaped area on her abdomen had become very hard, like the crab shells she remembered from the time they visited Henry’s brother on the coast. She told the young nurse of the development. Shortly afterwards, two male doctors she had never seen before came into her room and one of them injected her with a drug that made her very sleepy. She knew in that moment she would never see Henry again. In the grey twilight between wakefulness and sleeping, she could sense motion as the hospital gurney rolled on a smooth floor. Then darkness as the drug took its full effect. When she awoke, her hands went to the bandages on her face. They had taken her eyes. Thin wires emanated from empty eye sockets. The strange, coloured lights appeared brighter than ever before. She began to cry but there were no tears.
* * *
“Understood, fifteen minutes,” Captain Brandt said into his cell phone. Shutting off the phone, he turned to General Hawker. “Basharov’s plane has landed. He’ll be here shortly.”
“Very good, Captain.” Hawker responded, enjoying being away from the conference room and feeling the warmth of the springtime sun on his skin. He took a deep drag on his cigarette. “The credibility of the intel?”
“Highly credible.” The Captain waited for the thunder of fighter jets taking off to subside. “The source is within his own SETI team.” Brandt answered.
Hawker crushed the cigarette butt under his heel. “Let’s see how this plays out. I don’t want us to reveal our hand right away.”
A few minutes later, a black military car pulled up. Dimi Basharov’s bulky frame emerged from the rear seat. “You must be General Hawker,” he said in a thick Slavic accent. “I would like to question the urgency of my required appearance at this committee. It made for some personal inconveniences, yes?”
General Hawker extended a hand. “Welcome, Mr. Basharov, to Delta Bravo Air Force Base. Apologies for the short notice. This is my attaché, Captain Brandt.”
As they entered the conference room, a female voice called out “Dimi!” Dr. Shaylen Woodward strode across the floor and tightly hugged Basharov.
He unwound himself from the hug. “You look good, Shaylen. Winning the Nobel prize has agreed with you,” Basharov smiled. “You look Hollywood. Does the expression make sense?”
“I will take it as a compliment,” she said and kissed his cheek.
Basharov took his chair and looked around the room. “For those here who do not know, I invested heavily in Dr. Woodward’s Project Galileo quantum teleportation project. The government loves public-private partnerships, yes? And Shaylen won the Nobel prize.”
General Hawker nodded. “I was indeed aware that you financially supported Project Galileo, sir. Naturally, Dr. Woodward represents quantum physics on the committee. Now for the remainder of the committee: starting on my right, Dr. Rosiak, physics, Dr. Singh, medicine, Dr. Bankes, genetics.” Hawker motioned to each in turn. Basharov politely nodded as each person was introduced. “Father Exner comes next,” Hawker said. “He obviously represents the religious community on this committee.”
“You have a dark jacket on Father, but wouldn’t you be more dramatic in a cassock with rosary beads?” Basharov said dryly.
“You’re out of step with the times, Mr. Basharov,” Father Exner replied in good humour.
“And of course, Dr. Trembley, exobiology,” Hawker said.
Basharov eyed Trembley critically. “I finally get to meet my opponent in the flesh. I hope that none of those things that you say about me on the internet are personal.”
“Nothing personal, Mr. Basharov,” Trembley answered, trying to hide his disdain for the man. Basharov’s wealth was tainted by the stench of brutality and corruption. The money he spent on searching for extraterrestrial life was nothing with his immense wealth. Trembley despised that Basharov took needed resources in equipment and people away from legitimate scientific SETI research.
General Hawker cleared his throat to signal the start of the meeting. “As chairman of this committee, it is my responsibility to deliver a recommendation to the leader of this nation on a course of action for this crisis. You were brought here to contribute to this recommendation and your input is invaluable. To date, all we have had is argument. While consensus on a course of action might not be possible, it must be strived for.” As brilliant as the assembled individuals were, the committee had made no progress in its previous deliberations, he thought.
“For the benefit of Mr. Basharov, I would like to recite the facts as we are aware of them. Approximately seven months ago, individuals from every nation on Earth became afflicted with a condition known as unknown visual anomaly, or UVA.” He paused for a moment, waiting for comment but there was none.
“After ruling out all other possible causes, it was determined the UVA was communication from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, or AETC.” Several individuals around the table nodded in agreement.
“I prefer calling them the Elders,” Trembley jumped in. “Because that is what they are. Their civilization is ancient compared to Earth’s.”
While the interruption was mildly irritating, Hawker was more patient with Trembley than the others. The young man, who looked more like he should be a student in high school than a university professor, had produced seminal scientific papers on the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Not a possibility, but a certainty now, the General reminded himself.
“The military loves its acronyms, doesn’t it?” Dr. Woodward mocked, seizing the opportunity. “If we have just the right acronym the problem is solved.” She had a reputation for slicing into ribbons anyone with a lesser intellect than hers. She clearly had decided the General was one of those. “Your committee took me away from delivering important lectures on magnons to my grad classes. You do know about the spin wave of a magnetically ordered system, don’t you, General?”
General Hawker looked at her with a mixture of contempt and pity. “Dr. Woodward, I haven’t a clue about magnons. Let’s not get into a pissing contest. I would like to continue.”
Woodward’s crooked smile said she believed she had won the point.
Hawker continued. “There is no known medical condition that would cause the UVA. The UVA appears to pose no health issues for the afflicted, aside from anxiety stemming from the shifting lights at the edge of their vision. When an ocular examination is undertaken by a non-afflicted person, the examiner undergoes a transformational event-—entering the filament as it has come to be known—that leads to psychosis, and in some cases, permanent catatonia.” Hawker took a deep breath as he recalled Lieutenant Morris’ test. Morris had volunteered to take anti-psychotic drugs to counteract the terror of the filament and had lasted much longer than the others. The young lieutenant, married and father to twin blonde-haired girls, was now strapped to a hospital bed and sedated, perhaps permanently. His face was frozen into a grin of grotesque terror.
“We know about the filament from descriptions given by individuals who were only in contact with a UVA afflicted person for a few seconds,” Dr. Bankes commented. “It was part of the testing program.”
“You have kept a number of these UVA afflicted people for testing, yes?” Basharov asked.
A shadow of guilt flickered across Dr. Banke’s face. “Yes, fourteen of them are being held here on the base, under good conditions, I assure you.”
“Prisoners are always said to be held under good conditions,” Basharov grumbled. “Still, they are prisoners.”
“Thank you for the additional information, gentlemen,” General Hawker said. He was grateful for the interruption while he tried to dispel the image of Morris’ distorted face. “When an ocular examination is undertaken by another afflicted person, there is no apparent reaction in either individual. Some nations, not this one, have blinded afflicted persons to see if the UVA would disappear. It did not, according to intelligence reports.”
“Of course, not this country. We are all boy scouts and girl guides,” Dimi Basharov said in his thick Slavic accent. “Other countries are always the bad actors.”
Hawker glared at Basharov, the former Russian oligarch, now a naturalized citizen, who for fifteen years had spent one-hundred million dollars per year searching for extraterrestrial life.
Hawker chose to ignore his comment. “The scientific consensus is that an extraterrestrial civilization is contacting Earth through the UVA. The intent of the UVA must be determined and addressed by this committee.”
“To quote Carl Sagan: somewhere, something incredible is waiting to happen,” said Tremblay.
“I would add to the sentiment expressed by Dr. Trembley,” echoed Father Exner. “The idea of life elsewhere has been considered by the church for quite some time. We consider that God may have created other life forms beyond man. If I could quote the Bible—” A heavy sigh erupted from Dr. Woodward. Father Exner glanced at her but seemed unfazed. “I know some of you do not believe, which is fine. The Bible says in John 14:2, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions; if not I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you.’ Some have interpreted this as referring to extraterrestrial civilizations.” The priest smiled, evidently happy with his contribution, his bright blue eyes set into the pale wrinkled face of an old man.
“What a bunch of—” Dr. Woodward began.
“Enough!” General Hawker slammed his palm on the desk. “We do not have time for this.” The inclusion of a priest on the committee had not been Hawker’s choice. The direction had come from high up the political ladder. His concern had always been that it might lead to the discord of science versus religion, which was now occurring. For the committee to make forward progress, the science versus religion debate would have to be squelched.
The committee room became silent. The hum from the air conditioner suddenly sounded deafening. “Dr. Tremblay, perhaps you could give us an overview on the Fermi Paradox, otherwise known as the Great Silence? It may provide the committee with a starting point for a more fulsome discussion.”
“Of course, General. After all, I am the theoretical exobiologist of the group. Exobiologist now, I guess.” He looked around the table. “There have been many suggestions as to why, when the cosmos should be teeming with life, that we have not heard from another technologically advanced civilization. One theory I will call the anthill and the highway. Are ants capable of understanding the technology and intentions of beings travelling on a highway next to them? Perhaps not.”
Basharov waved a thick finger at Trembley. “So, one of these highway travelers had to take a pee, and when they did, they noticed our little ant hill called Earth by the side of the highway, yes? This reminds me of a Mother Goose story.”
Trembley, who had witnessed the rhinoceros mentality of Basharov from his on-line rantings, ignored the barb. “The analogy simply illustrates the effect that large technological differences may have on the ability to perceive other civilizations,” Trembley said.
“Perhaps,” Basharov grunted.
“The von Neumann theory about a self-replicating mechanical space probe can be quickly dispensed with. The UVA interfaces with our human biology in a manner we don’t understand, but it is not a machine technology. At least not as we think of machines.”
Dr. Singh tapped the end of his pen lightly on the table. “There is an idea I have been mulling over,” Dr. Singh interjected. “The argument against self-replicating probes was that they would replicate exponentially until they exceeded available planetary resources. I believe it was Sagan who said that any civilization who found a von Neumann probe would destroy it.”
Dr. Singh sat back in his chair. “What if the UVA individuals are the von Neumann probes? Or they can be turned into probes? There is not the risk of exponential growth that Sagan was concerned about, and they can obviously operate in the planetary environment and understand native technology.”
“A better Mother Goose story”, Basharov said roughly. “But still a story.”
General Hawker turned to Dr. Singh. “If your theory is true, does the logic of the destruction of the probes still hold? What assurances are there that if the UVA afflicted individuals were destroyed, the Elders would not simply replace them? What nation could justify killing millions of its own citizens?” He shook his head.
“It is only an idea, General. Not even a theory,” Dr. Singh answered defensively.
“I think Dr. Singh’s idea brings us to the third theory, known as the Great Filter,” Trembley began. “The reason the cosmos is quiet is that there is a Great Filter which destroys planetary civilizations.”
“And how does it do that, Dr. Trembley?” Dr. Woodward asked sarcastically.
“Pick your poison.” Trembley answered. “Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, asteroid strike, nuclear war, climate change, global pandemic, just to name a few. Planetary civilizations rise, only to fall.” He poured himself a glass of water and gulped a mouthful. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “There is another possibility. An Elder race may view any competing world as hostile and destroy it.”
Father Exner fidgeted with his hands. “Are you saying the Elder race will destroy us? We don’t know that. Their motivations for contacting Earth are only conjecture at this point. Isn’t peaceful coexistence equally as likely a possibility as destruction?”
“We know almost nothing at all,” Woodward sighed.
Father Exner went on. “If I can continue holding the floor, my other question is: how did they discover Earth? Was it from broadcasting radio and TV signals for decades, or the H-bomb surface tests done in the last century? Why now?”
“An astute question. I believe there is only a remote chance the Elders randomly discovered Earth,” Trembley patiently answered the priest. “Yes, we have been broadcasting signals. Yes, in the past we have conducted explosions of hydrogen warheads. As impressive as those technologies were to us, these are lost in the cataclysmic din of the cosmos.”
* * *
The changes to Helen Osborne were now complete. Her skin had been completely replaced with armoured hide. A forked tongue flicked in and out from a hole that had been her mouth. Sensing the atmosphere, her tongue told her the great change to the world had not yet arrived, but she knew it would come very soon. The new senses bestowed upon her were far better than the senses she had as a human. The great joy of being able to see again! The joy of returned sight was only surpassed by the great purpose that the Elders had given to her. Of her previous life, she remembered nothing.
* * *
“I suspect it was something that happened recently on Earth,” Trembley went on. Mutterings of dissent filled the room. “Let me explain, please. I understand your reservation. Communication with other worlds has been founded on one great premise: the speed of light limitation. Communication with other planetary civilizations has been assumed to take hundreds of years. This time lag was a buffer between worlds—a safety net if you will. It is my belief the Elders have overcome this barrier.”
“Perhaps you have something, Dr. Trembley,” Dr. Singh said. “Although my friend here, Dr. Rosiak, is turning purple at your suggestion of overturning perhaps the most fundamental tenet of physics.”
Deciding the timing was now right, General Hawker nodded to his attaché. Captain Brandt looked squarely at Dimi Basharov. “Should I or would you—” he began.
Basharov waved a meaty hand in the air. “Ya sure, I will speak. I know why I have been brought here. It makes no difference now,” he said quietly. “My SETI team discovered a signal almost seven years ago. Right where you would expect it—the water hole—the quietest part of the electromagnetic spectrum and best for interstellar communication. It took AI four years to decipher the first packet of information. But you see, the signal was self-teaching. The second packet of information took less than six months. The third just over a week. The signal was a set of instructions to build a device. Once we understood its purpose, the next challenge was to make it appear it had arisen organically from research here on Earth.”
Several of the committee members mouths fell open in disbelief. “Such mad recklessness!” Trembley said angrily. “You built a device using extraterrestrial technology. You alone made that decision. Who the hell are you to decide? You risked the world so you could benefit yourself!” The other committee members chimed in with similar outrage.
“Tell me please, if you know of any other scientific advances that were not pursued because of risk. Bah! You forget about the atomic engineers at Los Alamos taking bets on whether the first A-bomb would ignite the atmosphere. You are hypocrites. Phonies!” Basharov threw his pen down and angrily sat back in his chair, folding his arms. “We did not respond to the signal. Even if we had, it would have taken over three hundred years for the message to be received by the other world. They gave the Earth a beautiful gift. The instructions were for constructing a time crystal.”
Dr. Woodward looked at Basharov as if she had just witnessed him murder someone. “The time crystal is the engine of the quantum teleportation experiment and allowed the first entangled matter—a few thousand carbon dioxide molecules—-to be teleported from Earth to Armstrong Lunar Colony eighteen months ago. The time crystal allows the magnons to establish equilibrium between space and time. Good God, Dimi! Are you saying this was—alien technology?”
“Ya, Shaylen. Not from Earth, but do countries not buy and sell and steal technology from each other every day? You already know the answer to my question, yes?”
“There is an important thing I must correct,” Basharov looked intently at Trembley. “Dr. Trembley, you said I did this to benefit myself. Nyet, nyet! I could not spend all my wealth in a hundred lifetimes. More wealth is meaningless to me.” He glanced around the room. “I will tell you something you don’t want to hear. The Earth is dying because of man’s limitations. This is not a great philosophical statement. It is a fact. Our ingenuity for solving problems has been eclipsed by our ingenuity for creating new ones, unsolvable ones. Mankind, even with its marvelous machines, is doomed. Every generation born now is poorer than the one before it. It is the beginning of a vortex. Anyone with eyes and ears knows the truth.” There were murmurings from several of the committee members. “Please, don’t serve me up bull crap about the noble spirit of man ultimately triumphing. This is a myth, a fable for children. So, knowing all this, I scanned the stars, hoping that another civilization might have already solved the problems confounding mankind. And that is indeed what I found.”
* * *
Private Greene sat at a metal desk in the middle of a long concrete hallway, guarding the rooms which held Helen Osborne and the others. Suddenly, a great splintering sound punctured the silence and echoed down the hallway as the doors of the rooms exploded into shards of broken wood and metal. The terrified young private quickly hid under his desk. He looked up in time to see terrible forms with dark shells emerge from the rooms. To his horror, they walked on four legs, and moved in a scuttling motion down the hallway as they made their way towards the exit.
* * *
The committee members watched in disbelief. A monitor in the committee room showed the mottled dark shells of the former detainees. They had formed a circle at the end of one of the base runways.
Trembley rose out of his chair and shook his fist at Basharov. “You don’t get it, do you? The civilization that sent the signal you found is the Great Filter. They are why the universe is silent. The Elders long ago overcame the limitation of the speed of light. They wanted to find those civilizations who were smart enough and aggressive enough to one day confront them. They constructed beacons in the cosmos which transmitted signals at light speed. Signals that contained information on how to construct a limited quantum teleportation device.” He glared at Basharov, his face red with rage. “You fool! The device was a trip wire. Once it was deployed, it told them we were here. My God!”
Dimi Basharov’s face became ashen. “I, I—”
General Hawker rose to his feet. “If what you are saying is true, then what can we do?”
“Nothing,” Trembley answered, slowly shaking his head. “Nothing at all.”
Father Exner put his head down, clasped his hands together and began to quietly pray.
“What’s that horrible high-pitched sound?” Captain Brandt began, while putting his hands to his ears to protect them. “It—”
* * *
Helen Osborne slowly made her way across the barren landscape of the dry ocean floor; the Elders had boiled away the great oceans of Earth. She was one of many caretakers, who were instructed to eradicate the remaining pockets of life that stubbornly clung to existence. She paused. Savage winds of sulphuric acid tore at her armoured hide. With the new senses given to her by the Elders, she searched the sterile granitic ground, the poisonous atmosphere shimmering from the hellish temperatures. Seeing no signs of life, she moved on.
Glenn MacIntyre: I enjoy all things weird. I am an engineer in renewable energy and also a part-time engineering instructor at a local college. I am blessed with my wife Lana and four adult children. Our lives are centered around our five grandchildren. Any writing skills I may have I attribute to the 7 of 40 writing group.