It was Sunday afternoon and I was at brunch when it happened. Naturally, you spend your life dreaming about this moment. First as a small child playing aliens and astronauts, then later you take the GI bill in the hopes of getting out with your sanity intact and a free ride for education and find out you have an aptitude for both. So then they put you in this really specialized program, where you start as a grunt again and toil away to make it up to the top as an actual operative with clearances that would make the President’s eyes widen in shock. Then, just as you’re closing in on that moment, the moment you’ve hoped for, the moment when interdimensional travel is not just a wackadoo dream thought up by graphic novelists, but with safety checks and millions of terabytes of physics worked out behind it, and you are they guy they’ve selected to be the first one out the gate (pun intended). That’s when some alien species beats you to the punch and invades your planet. And where are you? At brunch because Sophia’s mom was in town. Figures.
Around me the expected reactionary hysteria proceeded. I heard shrieks of panic and glasses shatter on the wood floor of Mortar and Pestle, our trendy new find. Looking longingly at my Alaskan King Crab Benedict, I calmly kissed Soph on the cheek, reminded her where the bug-out bag was at the apartment, and excused myself to go to the barracks. Needless to say, traffic was a nightmare.
“We made contact?” were my first words when I made it through the security checks and down to the sub-level bunker that was work sweet work.
“We did. Sent the probes in with the full package. Math, music, pictures of your mom-” That got Steve a warning look, so he moved along quickly. “… and our first go was less than awesome. They attacked us.”
“Well we did make a giant hole in their reality. It really does kinda make sense. I’ve been trying to warn you about the possible effects-”
“Listen, you may be really smart for a normal person, David-”
“I’m a physicist with a degree in molecular biology man!”
“…but you’re still one of the action guys. Leave the brainwork to the real brains,” Steve said.
“But they came to our reality and blew things up! I think the point is moot now!” I yelled.
Steve blinked. It was a first and I savored the small triumph.
“Point taken,” he conceded.
“OK so now what? We try to reach out and let them know we didn’t mean to hurt their world? That in our enthusiasm for exploration, we may have let our science get in the way of safety-”
“Watch it Dave!”
“And that we can help them overcome the devastation to-”
“No. We retaliate.” General Malloy said. “They have to know how we deal with terrorists. If we allow this attack to go unanswered, they know we are a weak planet and will come back to finish the job.”
“Yes ma’am. War on terror ma’am. We hold a hard line, and accept no exceptions. But what if we are the terrorists to them?” I replied.
The General glared at me. She was tougher than month old jerky left out to dry on the windowsill in the hot summer sun. To get to her rank in this outfit, you had to be. I understood her towing the party line. I really did. But we were also scientists and explorers. The government had to understand that, right?
“Doesn’t matter, Soldier. We opened the rift and sent the probe through to set up the infiltration as much as to give our message of peace and goodwill. No one knew what we were going to get, and we had to be prepared for all possibilities. This is the result and we’re gonna deal with the hand we’re dealt.”
She meant we were going to react with extreme prejudice. And that meant my sweet moment of exploration was scrapped for a new mission. My job as scientist was now as scout. I’d go in and learn as much and as quickly as possible to defend our planet. Of course the best defense is a good offense, at least that’s what they say. Plus, you know that what’s good for football must work for interdimensional planetary warfare, right?
I wouldn’t be going in alone. To help we set up a whole slew probes; these would be more of the stealth variety. These little stealth spheres would do everything from taking soil samples to scanning radio waves. Once they did they would send their information back through the rift. On our side, whole warehouses were set up full of computers dedicated to sucking up information and interpreting information about their social hierarchy, government, and defenses. Why bother sending a human at all you ask? Well for one, I had fought for it long and hard. Mostly I think the higher-ups wanted to see what reaction the aliens would have to our species invading their space. I was their guinea pig, and I would go willingly just to have the chance to see another world, even if it was moments before they killed me. Even if it was moments before we destroyed that alien place.
In the hours that lead up to my crossing the rift, I was reminded time and again by serious soldiers with more bars than me that none of the exorbitant money being spent was for cultural growth or attempting to get to know a whole other living planet. My duty was to find the fastest way to strike them and have a decisive victory (the most deaths possible) to ensure the rest of their planet accepted defeat. I nodded and took notes, but mentally I counted down the seconds to crossover.
Finally all the systems were checked and double checked, the stars were aligned and I was wearing my lucky underwear. There was nothing left to do but push the proverbial green button and send in the probes. And then the clown.
I’d like to say it was like the movies with all sorts of shiny futuristic equipment, but this is the government. They manage to make everything look like a place accountants go to when they’re in trouble, but with more wires.
In the small closet-sized room surrounded with cameras I stood in my spacesuit that was waterproof, stronger and more flexible than Kevlar, and full of monitors for me and my environment. I waited, tense and sweating.
It started as a pinpoint of light. Slowly it spread, like a sunrise, or a smile. A horizontal tear in reality that opened into another what-could have been. I looked at the camera, gave a thumbs up for posterity and took a step towards my destiny.
Wait!” came Steve’s tinned voice over the speakers.
“Dammit Steve! I was ready!” I yelled.
“I know man, it was beautiful, but there was a blip.” apologized Steve.
“A blip? We have the taxpayers’ full funding of highly specialized equipment here, and you say we have a blip? Dude!”
“Yeah, yeah, I could give you the details or I can fix it.”
“Oh, by all means fix the blip, Steve. I’ll just sit here and contemplate greatness.”
“You really are a pain in the ass man.” he replied.
“Noted. For posterity I might add.” I said. It was only a minute or two where I listened to my heart pound in my ears and the sound of my breathing through the suit, mind racing and full of adrenaline with nowhere to place it when his voice came back and caused me to nearly jump out of my skin.
“Ok David. You’re good. Any famous last words? It’ll be in history books and all.”
“Don’t do drugs, kids,” and through the rift I went. Then things got weird.
You know when you have dreams where time is meaningless, but you sense eons have passed? Then you wake to look at the clock, and you’ve only been asleep for 15 minutes? That’s what traveling through the rift felt like, only with the agonizing absence of sense of self. It was horrifying and terrible, but nothing compared to the pain of being slammed back into my body and consciousness a million years and a nanosecond later.
I toppled on my side and threw my arm up to protect myself from the too bright light glaring into the back of my skull through my eyeballs. Slowly my pupils adjusted enough for me to tell I was surrounded by hulking metal bodies. Whether they were the aliens or the ships that carried them, what the landscape looked like, whether this was a central hub or wilderness… I had no time to register any of this information. As my senses recoiled from the assault of light I was given a fresh wave in noise.
The metal bodies screeched forward to surround me and began to scream.
“You Nazi! You know nothing about what you are saying!”
“I will come to your home and shit on your doorstep for having those ideals!”
“If you don’t turn around and head back the way you came, I will bore a hole in your head and skullfuck your brain. That’s the real mindfuck, asswipe!
I curled up initially overwhelmed by the screaming. Then I came to the realization they were yelling at me in English. In fact, all they were doing was yelling. The giant machines made no move to attack, only detain me. From their closed in ranks, I guessed their goal was to force me back through the rift. My eyes finally adjusting, I could see destruction behind them. It looked like the devastation of a highly technological land.
It was hard with the lights shining in my face, but I had seen the television footage from home, and the next thing I realized was that these were not the same beings that invaded Earth. So I finally rose to my knees and spoke up. It wasn’t loud, but I gave it a shot.
“Hello. I’m David. I am here to learn about your people.”
And all went quiet. After a pause, the lights dimmed, and one leaned in to reply.
“No, David. You have destroyed us. We were a civilization of telepathy and telekinesis. Since we had no secrets, which meant there was a collective mind. You would think individuality might be eradicated, but instead it revered and treated like the precious gift it was- to retain a sense of self. We were unique because of what made us different.
“Well that’s…nifty.” I said.
“Yes, it was. But in our world our thoughts became creations. You destroyed us when you sent those weapons in.”
“We didn’t send anything but probes. You know those spheres? They were meant to collect information.”
“But David, they also carried information. We took in that information as we do with all knowledge of our kind. We absorbed your world. All your thoughts are trained on violence and alienating one another. If something is different is feared and eradicated. We could not… compartmentalize that much loneliness, fear, and loathing. Many of us went insane as our thoughts reflected yours. Our beautiful homes were destroyed. Our world was destroyed, your people only had to ruin our entire civilization by thinking the way they do.
“But… we only wanted to protect ourselves.” I thought as I felt their minds, angry and vengeful begin to tear into mine. What they had tried to do a moment earlier with words, they continue in earnest; they funneled our planet’s worst evils as one concentrated burst into my mind. I felt our rage mirrored back to me in alien despair. There was nothing my lone brain could do against that corrosive onslaught. My sanity was excoriated one layer of humanity after another and I sank back to the ground screaming.
“You are terrorists,” the voice said. “All you protect is terror.”
– Written for Priceless Pennies, Artwork by Ed Koh