by Andrew G. McCann
Just before midnight on a Saturday, a young astronomer in Puerto Rico became the first to spot the small object sputtering toward the sun. It came in past Pluto, riding a spark that moved clearly against the millions of hard, bright stars behind it. Within two hours of e-mailing his colleagues at various universities and institutions, the young astronomer became temporarily famous, his news roaring around the globe in a vast electronic exhalation. As the next few days passed, everyone but infants and the infirm became engrossed by the progress of what was now clearly an interstellar vehicle, steadily moving toward the big, blue egg called Earth.
The first messages from the visitor were transmitted soon after its bronzey, boomerang-shaped ship popped and fizzled into a steady, tight orbit around the moon.
"Greetings, Earthlings. I come in peace," the hissing voice said on every radio, TV, cellular phone, and karaoke machine in the world. "Perhaps you wonder why I can communicate with you, particularly in English?" the visitor said with a slurping sound. "Well, have you ever seen those movies where the alien learns your language by watching broadcasts that, over time, have left Earth and radiated in long waves to places beyond your galaxy? Well, this time it really happened." There was a sharp intake of breath and saliva: "Humorous, isn't it?"
The next day, a small black lozenge popped out of the creature's ship and made a rapid, arcing descent into the wispy atmosphere of the luminescent planet. Every available camera in working condition was trained on the lander as it dropped with a long, smokey tail. The visitor, guided by jet interceptors, landed on the broad expanse of Wright Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Newscasters beyond the distant chainlink fences surrounding the air field droned over the casually stunning footage: Telephoto lenses showed a jerky, humanoid figure taller and broader than a man, but with a tiny head. It stood, shimmering in the heat waves from its lander, in a padded white-and-black suit. The suit was covered with nauseating symbols that reflected no known cultural cues, hallucinatory images designed by something with a vastly different brain structure. Cameras zoomed in swervingly on its dark visage: A white tongue was partly extended like a phosphorescent half-moon against a twilight sky.
As it began walking along the tarmac toward the control tower, its double-jointed arms and legs swung stiffly, like a tele-operated scarecrow. A dozen military personnel in safe suits slowly approached the creature, gathering around it.
On the evening news, video stills released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed close-ups of the creature as it sat on a metal folding chair, against a white wall, in a classified location. It's face was like a small Balinese demon mask: ridged cheekbones, thick, extremely broad lips, a deep-blue complexion. It wore a helmet that looked more like a bejeweled turban -- or perhaps it was formed of living, pinkgold tissue. It's eyes were yellow, round, with no pupils; the lids slid together vertically in a bellows-like rhythm. The mouth was fixed in a rigid grimace, like a figure 8 on its side, with light-green fangs bared permanently. Perhaps its most disturbing feature (although the debate on alt.astrobeast.ugly.sucker was endless) was a constant hissing, sucking sound, like someone inhaling the last of a cherry shake through a big plastic straw.
"Astrobeast," as the media had dubbed the creature, was put before the journalists of the world after being interviewed by the military in a sterile chamber. The thirst for information was overwhelming, and so the government held the press conference in an aircraft hangar, with the alien standing behind a plywood lectern.
J. Quincy Publick of The New York Post-Times asked the first question: "Y'know, your English really is quite good. And you seem to have a sense of humor; many people have laughed at your comments." He paused, awaiting a sound bite.
"Funny is funny," the alien said. "I see your youth, their eyes like television screens, hollow and full of empty interactions. They crave 40 ouncers, junk food, convertibles, ever-higher expectations. What good is a stable job? It has no ethical, spiritual basis for anyone. But they don't want that; they want to be rock stars, no?" The creature turned to the reporter, fixed him with a distant look. "And how is working for a newspaper any different than operating a drill press? And what good is operating a drill press?"
The reporter, uneasy amid the stifled guffaws of his colleagues, said nothing. Yet he felt the cold hand of meaninglessness brush along his spine. And an internal silence bloomed for him at that moment, for a seed of dread had found fertile soil.
Another journalist spoke up: "Can we ask... that is, has
it been cleared... Why are you here?"
Like a blue-faced owl, the visitor's wide gaze swept the room. "Just passing through."
Another reporter: "Well, where are you from?"
The questions now began piling up. "Any more of your kind?" "Yes, but not here." "Do you have any Space Wisdom or something for us?" "Perhaps."
The vast room fell silent.
"But ask yourselves this: Would you know it? For aren't all of you like participants in an enormous telephonic conference call, each in his windowless cubicle, trying to describe some outside reality? All those voices traveling over simple, twisted copper wires, while the air beyond your habitats remains forever undisturbed by a pure, natural voice."
"You mean, like the story of the Elephant and the Blind Men?" called out one journalist.
"Yes, but this is an elephant with nine dimensions."
An Air Force lieutenant strode toward the lectern and raised his hands. "OK, ladies and gentleman, we've got time for one more question."
Sam Donaldson was quickest off the mark: "What will you do now that you're free?"
"I'm not free yet," it said.
The journalists shuffled out, oddly subdued despite being part of a historic news conference. "More like Astrobummer," one reporter mumbled as he walked out.
It was only 11 hours later that J. Quincy, who never filed his story, decided to disappear. And so he left, forever from the life that he had known and forever from this story. He was only the first.
Months passed. Astrobeast moved from nation to nation, holding press conferences, answering the media's hungry questions, and visiting privately with eager politicians, intellectuals, and artists. Always his comments left in their wake an uneasiness and despondency, and a cult of despair arose spontaneously in various cities around the globe. Some governments banned him, but his words and stories were compiled and distributed exponentially via photocopies and the Internet. One favorite: "Even in the interactions with your computers you crave only Doom."
It was on a Saturday that the Dyings began. People of all cultures already had stopped breeding, as relationships broke apart and individuals withdrew more and more into themselves. Reprint sales for Sartre and Camus and Plath and Strieber skyrocketed, while others just turned to drugs and alcohol. The alien's autobiography remained at No. 1. Astrobeast had been reading from his book, "Entropy is All," in a vast auditorium outside Moscow: "...For your globe is literally exposed from every angle -- indeed, from hyperspatial and interdimensional angles that you are not aware of. 'Entropy is the final taker,' my race says. Be glad for that, as something unlooked for could destroy you at any moment, in any place. Thus, there is no protection from the forces of ennervation and degradation. Know and accept that your defenses, whether military or philosophical, are the equivalent of brandishing a kitchen match at an oncoming thermo-nuclear warhead." His tiny eyes took in the assembly. "I will add that there are those who have blamed me for the troubles you face in many locales. But I say, you only act upon what is already deep inside you."
At the end of the reading, the people filed out, frightened. And the killings, of others or themselves, began; like a forest fire leaping from tree to tree, crowns exploding, trunks falling, it spread unchecked.
Twelve days later, somewhere way out in the Oort Cloud's left field, a behemoth appeared, a ship blacker than black and quieter than a poisoned desert. The One Who Pilots sat in the shadows of the Chair of Command; his long, gray forelimb reached up and out and tapped the side of his charcoal-red quickhelmet, sending a telepathic quickclone to the creature his people called The Locator, but whom he privately thought of as The Eater of Minds.
"Is it complete?" asked The One's mental agent.
"Yessss," said The Eater. "They did little damage to the planet before the end, and now there are only a few left. Final cleansing will be easy."
"We will enter planetary orbit within 15 minutes. Please vacate the system before then." The One paused. "We ask again, formally: Do you require payment?"
"No, I am quite, quite full. I found a tap root here, a veritable artery of the will; I won't need to feed again for some time," said The Eater. "So there is no need for the robotic interface. We are partners, and I would like to speak to you directly to express my solidarity and comradeship."
"No," said The One. "We will contact you in the usual way regarding any further expansion needs we may have." The One Who Pilots rapidly unlinked from his quickhelmet, but not before destroying his electronic simulacrum that had interfaced with the beast.
Moments later, a small ship shot away from the moon's orbit, away from Earth and straight out of the galactic plane. Trailing a fang-shaped nuclear flame, Astrobeast's ship soon merged with the cold, bright stars. *
(Story copyright © 1994 by Andrew G. McCann, and based on an illustration copyright © 1994 by Romeo Esparrago.)
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